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Vital Behaviors of Education

When Donald Deshler became involved in the field of education, he had no experience with teaching and had never taken a single course in education. His career began with his teaching in an Eskimo village in Alaska that was desperate for teachers. The village was so desperate that if someone’s spouse was certified in education, he or she could also teach. Since Deshler’s spouse was certified, he started teaching too.

The prospect of teaching and helping students learn excited Deshler. “It didn’t take long for my wagon to come to a screeching halt, and I came to realize I was totally overmatched by the students I was working with,” Deshler said. “They became very frustrated because I didn’t know how to meet their needs.”

Deshler began his quest as a professional to figure out better ways to teach those who struggle. Later Deshler obtained a PhD in special education and became the director of the Center for Research on Learning at Kansas University (KUCRL), a position he held for 36 years.

Recently Deshler came to the McKay School and shared some of the knowledge he has gained in his lifetime of experience. He gave two presentations: “Building a Culture of Scholarship” and “Adolescent Literacy.”

“Building a Culture of Scholarship”

"A lot of focus is placed on outcomes in education," Deshler said. However, more important than the outcomes are the vital behaviors that lead to them. In order to develop a culture of scholarship, educators should investigate vital behaviors.

One example of a vital behavior is to develop and nurture a culture of scholarship. The culture of schools, universities, and centers should promote learning and growth.

“You are never going to be successful as a center at meeting your objectives if you don’t think of ways to create a synergy and a place, a culture, where people value coming and value working and want to pour their whole heart and soul into it,” Deshler said.

Building this culture is critical, but doing so is rarely addressed in meetings. However, when Deshler directed the KUCRL, meetings ended five minutes early so that the person conducting the meeting could invite participants to evaluate how the meeting had gone. The following questions were typical: “How did we do?” “Did everyone feel you had a chance to express what you had to say?” “Did you feel listened to?” and “What do we need to do better as a team?”

“The tendency can be to put some of these things aside,” Deshler said. “People will think, ‘We don’t have time to have the five-minute discussion. We have to use the full time to do the work.’ We ended up factoring out that five minutes several times because we were panicked and we felt we could compromise on our culture. The moment we did, we were hurting ourselves in the long run.”

While Deshler says this is not an automatic solution for everyone, it is a possible way to collaborate on building and maintaining culture.

Deshler shared some questions that each education system can ask to evaluate culture:

  • Do we have a culture of encouragement?
  • Is there a shared sense of purpose?
  • Do we each have a deep commitment to improving our craft?
  • How transparent is our work?
  • Is there a culture of individual and group accountability?
  • What characterizes our interactions with each other?

“Adolescent Literacy”

Education has changed considerably between Deshler’s first day teaching in an Eskimo village and teaching today. “Because the demands in our world are changing so dramatically, so must our instruction,” Deshler said.

Deshler emphasized the importance of believing students can succeed. He shared a letter he received from a girl named Jennifer. She was frustrated by her learning problems and her feelings that she was less intelligent than her younger sister. Deshler pointed out the importance of belief in oneself when it comes to learning.

“Learning is first and foremost an emotional, visceral, affective experience before it is a cognitive one,” Deshler said.

Having mentioned it in his previous lecture, Deshler again emphasized the importance of focusing on vital behaviors. “There is a lot to do, and on the surface most of the things are good things that we have to do,” Deshler said. “The issue isn’t whether it’s good or not. The issue is whether it is vital.”

Deshler recommended and expanded on five vital behaviors in his lecture:

  1. Plan in light of the students themselves and their demands.
  2. Demonstrate strong beliefs.
  3. Use high-leverage instruction.
  4. Clarify staff and parent roles.
  5. Use and build capacity.

Putting God First

Deshler currently serves as a member of the Sixth Quorum of the Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he lectured on BYU campus, students and faculty had the opportunity to hear gospel truths sprinkled into a noted scholar’s lectures.

One example Deshler shared is the importance of keeping the Sabbath day holy. When he was beginning his graduate program, Deshler felt overwhelmed with all of the things he had to do. His wife turned to him one day and said part of the reason he felt so stressed was because he was violating the principle of keeping the Sabbath day holy. Deshler realized his wife was right, and he stopped working on Sundays.

“I can tell you now after graduate school and 41 years in higher education—the Lord makes up the difference,” Deshler said.

February 25, 2016

Writer: Lindsey Williams

Contact: Cynthia Glad (801)422-1922