One of the reasons first-year teachers struggle so much is that every situation is novel. Nearly every decision that has to be made is a new decision that teacher hasn’t had to make before, and so requires more cognitive energy. The result in many cases is cognitive overload, then cognitive burnout, and usually at least a few bad decisions and I’ll-never-do-that-again’s along the way.

(A good analogy is ordering at a restaurant: at a new restaurant you read everything on the menu, think about it, maybe even discuss it, then make your decision. At the local place you’ve been to a thousand times, you’ve already tried everything on the menu and likely know what you’ll go for without even thinking.)

Yet, along the way, teachers build up a bank of previously made decisions and learned-from mistakes from which to draw. Teaching is cyclical and kids of a certain age group generally profile the same way; good teachers remember the issues they faced last September and so can effectively plan for what might go wrong and recognize behavioral patterns and emerging issues.

It is this hard-won knowledge that makes teaching in your fourth year so much easier than your first, especially when it comes to behavioral and discipline issues.

So why then does one of the leading lights in the literature on school discipline advocate for teachers to discard these experiences when working with behaviorally challenging students? Here’s the relevant excerpt from Greene’s Lost at School:

Along these lines, I’ve begun recommending that adults strive for something that I call assumption-free livingThe minute one begins assuming that one already understands whats making it hard for a kid to meet a given expectation, one should get rid of that assumption as quickly as possible. It’s just a distraction. Plus, as you’ll soon see, it’s much more reliable to simply ask the kid.

Why? … [because] our theories are often wrong. We think they’re right, but they’re wrong a lot more often than we think they are. Again, when you’re using the ALSUP, there’s no pressure to explain anything. You’re focused solely on identifying lagging skills and unsolved problems. Second, as you know, the wording of the unsolved problem is going to translate directly into the wording we use to introduce the problem to the kid when the time comes to solve the problem together. Throwing a theory at the kid is likely to confuse the kid and make it very difficult to figure out what information you’re seeking. Many will simply say, “I don’t know” or not respond at all.

Educators want to help kids solve problems. And they have advanced knowledge of problems typical of students in their age group, as well as common ways in which those problems manifest themselves. So isn’t it a bit odd that we’re telling them not to put that specialized knowledge to work?

I think so. But I do agree with what Greene is saying. Even if we were right most of the time, it’s still a far more productive practice in the long term to let students participate actively in or even lead the problem-solving process. But as Greene says, we’re often not right, and our incorrect assumptions can bring the collaborative problem-solving process to a halt. This will be harder to accept for some than others, I think because we want to believe that the knowledge and experience we’ve gained from past disciplinary situations is actually worth something. (We’ve probably all heard educators who say things like “I’ve dealt with students like ___ before. What he needs is ____.”) Discarding all assumptions and going into every situation fresh seems to invalidate that knowledge and experience.

But it doesn’t. Teachers can still use the specialized awareness they’ve gained about what works with challenging kids; they just need to avoid making the assumption that they know exactly what’s causing those challenges.


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