George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A closeup of a large group of teachers standing shoulder to shoulder in a room. They are all looking in the same direction with a reflective look on their faces.

It's impossible to explore how we can work more effectively together in schools without considering conflict -- an inevitable part of working together. Conflict can be challenging and destructive, or it can lead to a deeper understanding between people, and perhaps higher quality work from a team.

There are many reasons why conflict can exist within a school or a team of educators. In December, I attended a fantastic workshop at the annual Learning Forward conference on breaking through conflict. It was led by Robert Garmston (co-author of Unlocking Group Potential to Improve Schools) and Jennifer Abrams (author of Having Hard Conversations). In this workshop, the presenters offered one way of identifying where conflict originates -- in the belief systems that we each hold about the role and purpose of education. What's most problematic, says Garmston and Abrams, is when we are working from different belief systems but haven't articulated them as such, and therefore don't understand why others do what they do. These undercurrents of conflict can exist between an administration and a teaching staff and between many groups within our world of schools.

6 Belief Systems

In his book, Cognitive Coaching, Robert Garmston (with co-author Arthur Costa) identifies six predominant ideologies that influence educators' decision-making:

  1. Religious Orthodoxy: This ideology aims to teach the habits and values that will lead to that religion's realization of how life ought to be lived in accordance with that faith. Educators driven by religious orthodoxy strive to help students learn appropriate norms and morality and to conduct their lives according to these norms.
  2. Cognitive Process: Educators who are primarily aligned to this stance believe that the central role of schools is to help students learn to think, reason, and problem solve. Cognitive processors select instructional strategies that involve problem solving and inquiry.
  3. Self-Actualization: Those who believe in self-actualization believe that the purpose of teaching is to bring out the unique qualities, potentials, and creativity in each child. They value student choice and self-directed learning and are keen to provide for students' unique and multiple needs, interests, and developmental tasks.
  4. Technologist: Technologists place strong emphasis on accountability, test scores, learning specific sub-skills, and measurable learning. They might be "driven by data," and frequently use terms such as accountability, time on task, mastery, diagnosis, and prescription. This is an ideology which as been adopted by many policy-making bodies in recent decades and is associated with external assessments, high-stakes testing, and teacher performance.
  5. Academic Rationalism: Academic rationalists believe that knowledgeable adults have the wisdom and experience to know what's best for students. They often deliver teacher-centered instruction, are drawn to the Classics, and use instructional strategies such as lectures, memorization, demonstration, and drill. They evaluate students through summative exams and content mastery.
  6. Social Reconstructionism: Social reconstructionists believe that the purpose of education is to help students become good citizens who can help take care of the world. They view learners as social beings who ought to be concerned with social, political, and environmental issues. They believe that education is an instrument of change and that schools are an institution charged with the responsibility of bringing about a better future and world.

You, Your Principal, and Your Colleagues 

After reading these descriptions, go back and rank them according to your personal priorities and belief systems. Now imagine doing this activity with a group of colleagues. What do you think the results might be at your school? What stance do you think your principal holds? What do you suspect is the impact of working with people who hold different stances?

As you read these, you might have noticed how some of the conflict and tension we experience in public schools is a result of these conflicting belief systems. For example, if you are driven to be a teacher because of a belief in promoting the self-actualization of each individual child, you might feel in conflict, at times, with a principal -- or education policy -- that operates from a technologist ideology. Or perhaps you realized that you highly value cognitive processing, and yet, you often make decisions about instruction that seem more aligned to academic rationalism.

Let me be clear about one thing -- it's not "bad" for a staff to hold different ideological positions. In fact, it can benefit a school staff to hold diverse perspectives. It's just that when we're not clear about where we're all coming from, or which beliefs are determining our decision-making, conflict can arise.

I offer these descriptors to you in the hopes that they'll spur some conversations and reflection. Maybe these definitions of beliefs don't even resonate. Then I hope that this compels you to consider and define what you believe is the purpose of education -- and to also ask others that question. And, also, maybe ask that question of your students.

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Ellen's picture

I definitely believe I fall into the cognitive process category, but can really see where many of my colleagues fall. It gave insight to how different my colleagues and I are in our teaching styles. I"m hoping to share the worksheet at our next PLC to see how well we all know each other.

Milagros's picture
10th grade World Lit, PA

I'm a mix of Self-Actualization and Social Reconstruction. I currently am experiencing conflict with one of my son's teachers because she is an Academic Rational(ist). I've recently tried to mend bridges, but she again took the position basically that it is her classroom, she's done it this way for years, it's worked all this time, so basically I'm wrong, and I'm the one that needs to change my way of thinking. I was livid at first, but now I'm completely devastated that another professional would be so set in her ways that there is no opportunity whatsoever for compromise.

TchrNellie's picture

What I'm reading here is you are in conflict with your son's teacher because you don't like her way of doing things. YOu think that she is the one wrong in her way of running her class. Did it ever occur to you that you are also being rigid in thinking that your way is the only way? your style is not the only style out there. Your sons teacher shouldn't have to conform to what you think is the 'right' style to teach. It isn't up to you to dictate to your sons teacher either that her style requires change. The bridges won't 'mend' because you still think that she's the one in the wrong when she's not. You kind of being very bold in thinking that you can dictate or force a teacher to change her style when in this case you need to only be wearing your mom hat and not your teacher hat too. If you are just wearing your mom hat you wouldn't be so bold as to force her to change. You'd be annoyed and maybe think this isn't so great. But imagine if you will another parent coming in your class as a parent and clearly telling you 'I'm this way and this way is right and the only way, so you better change.' I think it would got over with you about as well as it has with your sons teacher. Something to think about...

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Milagros and Tchrnellie, I think what both of you highlight is the need for more communication and empathy between parents and teachers. Milagros, I think you are right to advocate for your child, and something helpful about this article is to help make sense of why there may be disagreements that run deep into someone's philosophy. It can help clarify that you and your child may prefer or need someone who is more in line with your own philosophy. TchrNellie, you're right that when we stay stuck in our ways it can be difficult to collaborate. It seems like in the situation here, Milagros, it might be helpful to stay focused on the needs of your child rather than the differences between you and the teacher, and advocate using the systems available to you at the school for what's best for your child.

Milagros's picture
10th grade World Lit, PA

Thanks for the feedback. Since I did not give details, it's easy for others to accuse me of being the rigid one, and yes, I can be at times. However, I DO know the details, and in this case, I was advocating for my son by offering several accommodations that help him learn better and be more successful. She said she would continue doing things her way for the reasons above, because he was old enough not to need accommodations, and because he was in an honors class and every other honors student she ever had has been successful doing things her way. I apologized for being the first parent to ever ask for help for her child, and then just did the best I could to help him the rest of the year. I wasn't dictating. I was asking as a fellow teacher that knows what life is like in the classroom, hoping that she, like me, would want to try to help every child in the classroom achieve his/her highest potential. I won't apologize for believing that we should teach to the student's learning style. With a full classroom, it can be difficult, but we do it for the kids.

Lucy Merriman's picture

Ach, I must admit, I had some real knee-jerk reactions to some of these; especially #1 and #6 I actually winced and said, "Noooo." Teachers really, really shouldn't be teaching religion, morality, ethics, OR politics--that's definitely a parent's job! Unless it's specifically an ethics or philosophy class. But honestly, not English or Science. But, perhaps talking to other teachers about why they think this is valuable--or even reasonable and not a gross overstep of boundaries--would help me get along better.

I guess I'm strongly a Cognitive Process advocate and somewhat a Self-Actualization advocate. Creativity and Curiosity! Those are the tickets! Those will help students forge their own paths with confidence in the "real world" far more than adherence to any dogma, whether it's a liberal one or a conservative one.

monkap's picture

Hello Elena, I really appreciate your spin on conflict. I had never really considered that conflict could be a good thing. Conflict is usually time consuming, and takes lots of energy and effort to resolve ( it possible). However, I appreciate you mentioning that conflict can result in higher team quality. I think this would be the case when there is a very important goal set, that all team members are dedicated to achieving. I never really thought of where conflict originates from, but I am definitely interested in reading more about Robert Garmston's ideas about the 6 beliefs. I noticed that you mention having different beliefs is not necessarily a good thing.

What do you think are some examples of situations where collaborators would benefit from having the same beliefs prioritized?

Likewise what do you think are some areas where having a group of people with different beliefs would be the most beneficial?

In truth, there will always be a spectrum of beliefs, and so teams will have to collaborate and work around their own personal values. thanks for the great post! I'm glad that I found a blog that corresponds to the worksheet I had previously found !

monkap's picture

Hello Lucy, I think that #1 and #6 are equally valid beliefs. In Canada where I teach, there are many Catholic schools meaning that in addition to content, teachers are also teaching religion, morality and ethics. In a Catholic school, students are taught to live in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic church and how they can turn every day actions, into actions that are parallel with Christ.

I also do not see anything wrong with a Social Reconstruction belief where teachers may model to students and nurture their development as moral human beings. In English class for example, teachers can educate students about the conventions of speaking and attitudes from all around the glove. Likewise in science, teachers can educate about the importance of being a Steward of our planet.

Sorry to disagree with you- but I think these ARE teachers jobs. Some children are not fortunate enough to have adult role models in their lives otherwise, to teach them about morality and ethics. I am not saying gather students must adopt a teachers point of view, but what I am saying is that teachers need to open the minds of students to the endless possibilities that there are. It's important to have students realize that someone else's wrong, may be someone else right, that a simple action like bullying, could have very strong consequences, and that something like littering on a daily basis, could have detrimental consequences on the lifespan of our Mother Earth.

Looking forward to a chat if you have time!

Lydia's picture

This is a great idea to incorporate into our next teacher's meeting to start of the year on the right food. It will be interesting to see what belief systems our team values and how we can use this knowledge to better collaborate throughout the year.

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