Big Assumptions

“All the leadership courses taught at all the finest business schools in the world are completely worthless. Unless, that is, you are reflective about how the lessons taught in those classes can change how you think, how you feel and how you act” writes Daniel Dobrygowski in a recent Forbes’ article about leadership. My first reactions focused on  the pedagogical implications of that claim. How can I incorporate reflection and reflective practice in the courses I teach? But I soon realized the article applies more to teacher development.

“At its heart, self-reflection requires that you question your assumptions and your habits and ask whether they are useful in dealing with the world around you… In order to truly improve as a [teacher] you must do the hard work of questioning some of your most deeply held assumptions and beliefs…”


Dobrygowski references Gianpietro Petriglieri’s (associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a premier international business school) work related to what he calls Big Assumptions (BAs). BAs are beliefs that are implicit in one’s thinking. They lead to success, but only up to a point. In order to advance, BAs must be questioned, but “… the fact that this Big Assumption may have led to your success makes it very difficult to move beyond it” (Dobrygowski). Here’s how the process works.

The first step is to recognize the assumption. Teachers make lots of them. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Good teachers are born, not made.
  • Assignments must be graded to motivate students to complete them.
  • Lecture is an effective instructional strategy in my discipline.
  • Active learning means less content is covered and learned.
  • Students know how to study, or, students should already know how to study.
  • Students who do not participate in discussion are unprepared.

Is there a BA limiting your teaching effectiveness?

To engage in meaningful reflection, the focus and scope must be fairly narrow. Deal with one issue to facilitate deep thinking.

Actively look for evidence that runs counter to the assumption. Stephen Brookfield recommends four perspectives when reflecting on instructional practice:

  • Autobiographical
  • Other learners
  • Colleagues
  • Scholarship

Think about your recent and not-so-recent experiences as a learner.  How have prior learning successes and failures shaped your big assumption(s) about learning? View your course materials from the student perspective. Seek anonymous feedback from students. Discuss with your colleagues. Ask a trusted friend or mentor to review your policies and materials.  Meet with faculty developers to discuss and explore the BA. Conclude, or begin, with readings from the teaching and learning literature.  The evidence you gather can “challenge your own assumptions. All these efforts help to increase your ability to examine your own thoughts and actions, to question them and put them in context. More briefly, this helps you to practice your self- awareness” (Dobrygowski).

Test your assumptions. This is the hardest part. It requires a willingness to discover that a closely held belief is limiting your teaching effectiveness. That realization should necessitate change and changing how we teach is hard.  It can be downright scary. Use what you learned from the counter-evidence gathering to select one strategy or policy. Design an experiment to systematically test the modification. Plan the implementation and assessment with as much care as you would invest in discipline-based research.

Don’t go it alone. Working with a colleague, mentor, or faculty developer enhances accountability. An outsider’s perspective decreases the chance of returning to the comfort and safety of the BA. Ask a peer to observe your classroom before and after. Gather data. Test again.  Evaluate and reflect some more.

“An active process of self-reflection helps us to understand that we are making an assumption in the first place and then what to do about it…[We need] to recognize that [our] view of the world and own behaviour may not be entirely accurate” (Dobrygowski).  In order to grow as teachers, we have to identify and examine our deeply seated Big Assumption(s) because “it is what we know already that often prevents us from learning” (Claude Bernard, 19th century French physiologist).

Want to read more? These articles are a good place to start. 

Brookfield, S. 1998. Critically Reflective Practice. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 18(4); 197-205.

Loughran, J.J. 2002. Effective Reflective Practice: In Search of Meaning in Learning about Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(1): 33-43.



About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on April 6, 2016, in Learning, Professional Development, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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