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Doubting Schoolwork: Exploring an Emerging Concept

by Chen Schechter - 2006

Doubt has been increasingly perceived as a means of introducing education renewal, particularly within the context of dramatic social change and uncertainty. Nevertheless, little inquiry has been conducted with regard to the doubting process and the principalís role that influences its effectiveness. This lack of conceptualization is particularly serious in light of the growing number of planned educational restructuring efforts that have rarely demonstrated positive outcomes in student achievements. This article explores the doubting process as an emerging concept in school reform. After introducing the concept of doubt and its importance in educational reform, the article exemplifies a secondary school principal who doubted core pedagogical practices. It is argued that inducing doubt, as a means of fostering productive school change, is contingent both on a paradigmatic shift in the principalís role and on continual consideration of schoolís social, cultural, and political context. Finally, suggestions for future research are presented.


In light of current social change and uncertainty, the educational system as a key social institution is undergoing a turbulent period that requires all stakeholders to cast doubt upon deeply rooted school practices. Doubt and critical examination have been perceived as essential, sometimes as panacea, to solve schools’ problems. Put differently, there is no doubt that doubt is a critical factor in any organization’s development. Still, the way in which doubt is presented and initiated—the doubting process—is important as well. Separating the content of doubt from the procedures that facilitate ethical and productive use of doubt encourages practitioners to use the first “in a vacuum of abstraction and the other to follow inadequate recipes or lore” (Willower, 1994, p. 471). Thus, the doubting process is clearly important at a time when there are increasing questions about efficacy of schooling, particularly public schooling.

Reflecting on the important process of doubt may enhance our understanding of how doubt about current practices is induced in schools and how such a process might affect the implementation of educational reforms. With this said, the current study aims to explore the principal’s role in doubting school practices in light of social, cultural, and political conditions that may influence the productive use of doubt. This research focus is especially important in light of restructuring efforts (e.g., site-based management) that have not demonstrated positive effects on students’ achievements (Murphy & Beck, 1995) and the apparent failure of school communities to adequately implement change and sustain it in daily school life (Fullan, 1995; Giles & Hargreaves, 2004).

In this article, doubt is defined as an inquiry into routine and habitual perceptions and assumptions that are generally conceived as appropriate within some social system of values and beliefs. The doubting process, however, is defined as the ethical and productive inducement of doubt in light of the versatile, dynamic, and contextual conditions of an organization, which, then, contributes to its effective use.

Because this article is an exploration of the doubting process, it provides an explanation of the concept of doubt and its importance to school communities, particularly with regard to educational reforms. This is followed by a case of a secondary public school principal who doubted core pedagogical practices. The article then discusses the principal’s role in inducing doubt productively. Finally, possible future research is suggested.


The seeds of doubt, which emerged from the thoughts of Pyrrhon (generally accepted as the father of skepticism) and his pupil Timon, have been dealt with extensively by Aenesidemus and Agrippa, but doubt evolved into its current literary form in the work of the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher Sextus Empericus (Haezrachi, 1966). According to its original meaning, as presented in Sextus Empericus’s writings, a skeptic is one who inquires and searches. Only later was the skeptic identified as one who also doubts (Parush, 1974). The roots of the words doubt and skepticism come from ancient Greek and mean to look beyond, to search, to inquire. Webster defines doubt “as the condition of being uncertain or unsettled in one’s opinion or belief as to the reality or truth of something” (Chandler, 1987, p. 139).

Doubt and skepticism call for a human spirit that continually searches; thus, their tacit assumption relies on an obligation to fight dogmatism. Put differently, Bradley (1925) asserted that doubt aims at “finding bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct” (p. xiv). The principle of doubt is to present an opposite perspective for every given opinion. Therefore, the purpose of doubt is to reach absolute cognitive freedom from the confinement of already-existing opinions. Doubt illuminates how every entity can be perceived differently by another person, or even by us, at different points in time. However, contrasting an opinion with its opposite can result in a Sophist’s and mechanistic’s rhetorical interplay, as articulated in the writings of Sextus Empericus, Montaigne, and Bayle. Sextus Empericus himself, in his book Pyrrhoneion Hypotyposeon, argued against this misuse of doubt as a dialectic device, which deviated from its original purpose: to help humans reach what he called the Highest (ultimate) Good (Haezrachi, 1966).

Doubt calls for every opinion and every statement to be scrutinized and analyzed. Doubt requires continual inquiry into the deeply rooted constructs of every perspective. Peirce, one of the founders of American pragmatism, argued that the condition of believing could become so routine and habitual that the human mind suffers a slow death unless intrigued by questions and inquiry that cause a sense of discomfort and disorder. Whereas the modernist intellectuals (e.g., Adams) observed that doubt may be debilitating, causing disruption, nihilism, and an assault on authority, Peirce viewed doubt as liberating. In other words, communal inquiry, which doubts the self-validating system of beliefs, fosters growth within civilization rather than decline. Beliefs should be continually exposed to perplexities of doubt in order to explore falsifiability of ideas. Peirce encouraged people to doubt knowledge not for the purpose of reaching “the ultimate truth,” but rather for the purpose of successive approximation toward communal agreement of the truth, which reduces error and grounds knowledge in valid information (Peirce, 1955).

Doubt invites new insights and possibilities in contrast to the modernist rhetoric that is used by individuals to analytically defend and sustain their positions (Issacs, 1993). Put differently, there is a need for permanent doubt that is not geared toward eliminating one opinion or the other as a result of internal contradiction, but for the value of a never-ending skepticism. Thus, although we make progress, our skepticism forever creates new forms of unexamined knowledge, which is the ultimate philosophical doubt in action. With this said, doubt is the underlying force for further inquiry, which is never satisfied with the results obtained (Haezrachi, 1966).

The importance of doubt in a democratic society, and especially in the educational system, is illuminated in Dewey’s theory of moral inquiry. Dewey insisted on viewing social problems as moral problems and vice versa. If moral problems are social by nature, participating in the development of moral values becomes a central part of life within the collective. Each citizen contributes to the living embroidery, the texture we create through an ongoing collective critical examination of our social issues (Gouinlock, 1992). Considering all social issues as potentially moral leads Dewey to argue that all relevant facts are potentially moral as well. Consequently, all facts are subject to moral inquiry and doubt (Eddy, 1988). As a result, Dewey (1909) regarded the skill of doubt, when supported by scientific inquiry and democratic deliberation, as an honorable moral objective in any organization because it facilitates the growth of individuals as social beings. Thus, doubting the organization’s ongoing practices increases the burden and responsibilities of all its stakeholders; yet, at the same time, it evokes the organization’s tremendous potential for individual and communal growth.

The doubting process, as a leverage for communal growth and organizational change, requires an unfreezing phase, thus a felt need for change (Lewin, 1949). This important unfreezing phase recognizes the tendencies of human beings and organizations to maintain a steady state, homeostasis, and equilibrium (Schein, 1992). In this regard, educators “must be sufficiently dissatisfied with the present state of affairs... or they have no reason to endure the losses and challenges of change” (Evans, 1996, p. 57). Subsequently, an unfreezing phase mandates its interrelated process of unlearning (Hedberg, 1981), or knowledge depreciation (Argote & Epple, 1990). Unlearning opens a path for new learning to occur as it discards knowledge stored in organizational memory.

Chandler (1987) made a distinction between small, case-specific doubt and large, generic doubt. Case-specific doubt attaches itself “to this and that concrete conviction and cause[s] us all to waver in our confidence that we know a particular thing in a clear certainty ... [thus, case specific doubt is] modest in its epistemic consequences” (p. 139). In this case, doubt explores methodological faults or logical contradictions in various arguments. Doubt takes place within unquestionable logical laws and an already-existing methodological system. In contrast, generic doubt provokes more radical and far-reaching epistemological questions, calling for fundamental inquiry into “the prospect of any kind of trustworthy knowledge whatsoever” (p. 139). More specifically, the effect of the doubting process in organizational practices can be measured by examining its impact, from case-specific doubt to generic doubt, on (1) shared mental models of organizational members regarding goals, desired actions, historical events, tacit assumptions, causal maps, and strategies, and (2) behavioral outcomes, such as changes in organizational standard operating procedures, routines, and performance.

In the educational realm, teachers need the opportunity to discuss and consider the reasons for doubt. Mitchell and Sackney (1998) acknowledged that framing through discussion and reflection is different from merely receiving external (e.g., principal, superintendent) doubt, which seldom provides an opportunity to develop understanding. Consequently, an imposition of external doubt diminishes internal motivation to contribute to and participate in possible school reforms. This in turn increases resistance to change, and as a result, reform initiatives in schools rarely progress successfully from their conceptualization phase to their practical implementation.

Furthermore, when administrators doubt ongoing school practices in a unilateral way, they prevent teachers from being continual learners and strengthen their debilitating dependency on higher formal figures in school. This idea is clearly heard in the words of Marris:

When those who have power to manipulate [doubt] act as if they have only to explain, and when their explanations are not at once accepted, shrug off opposition as ignorance or prejudice, they express a profound contempt for the meaning of lives other than their own. For the reformers have already assimilated these [doubts] and worked out a reformulation which makes sense to them [after an extensive period of learning]. If they deny others the chance to do the same [in a safe environment], they treat them as puppets dangling by the threads of their own conceptions. (Fullan & Miles, 1992, p. 749)

When doubting emerges only from higher levels in the organizational hierarchy, it may confound members’ sense of control, thus increasing their tendency to withdraw from active participation in the ongoing organizational functions (Hirschorn, 1997). Members tend to hide behind their formal organizational roles, feeling indifferent toward further organizational initiatives. As a result of imposing doubt from higher levels in the organizational hierarchy, members become dependent on their superiors, developing a passivity stance that shortens their time perspective (Fox, 1999). Therefore, when doubt is directed and unilaterally imposed on educators by the principal and other high-level administrators, it may deny opportunities to develop internal understanding.

The ethical and productive inducement of doubt requires consideration of the versatile, dynamic, and contextual conditions found in each school. In other words, the doubting process may be better explored through the unique social, political, and cultural conditions that influence its effective use in school communities. This will be reflected in a case of a principal who doubted his school core pedagogical practices.


The following case is a part of an extensive research that explores the communal deliberative process of secondary school principals (Schechter, 2001, 2002b). For this particular study, a purposeful selection of an inquiry case was implemented to intensely exemplify the phenomena under study (Patton, 1990). Thus, throughout the inquiry period of one academic year, a case study strategy (Stake, 1994) was employed to explore the principal’s role in doubting school practices in light of social, political, and cultural conditions that may have influenced its productive use.

To collect data, I conducted observations while taking the observational stance of the peripheral-member-researcher (Adler & Adler, 1994). As the study proceeded, I established an insider identity (although still not being a core member of the school). In other words, sitting with administrators in the principal’s office permitted an outsider-within identity, which facilitated an exploration of various perspectives raised by administrators. More specifically, I observed eight communal deliberative sessions (on average, 1 1/2 hours in length), which took place at the principal’s office. All deliberative sessions were taped, transcribed, and supplemented by field notes.

In addition, after each deliberative session, separate interviews were conducted with the principal and other participants in the deliberative sessions in order to explore and validate perspectives that surfaced during this process. In other words, I took back my tentative assumptions to participating administrators, thus reconstructing the deliberative process through mutual reflection. In particular, after each deliberative process (usually after a week), separate interviews (on average, three individual interviews) were conducted with the principal and deliberation participants (1 hour in length). All interviews were taped and transcribed. In both the observations and interviews, anonymity was ensured and pseudo names were assigned.

Data collection and analysis occurred simultaneously as an ongoing process throughout the inquiry (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1994). The analysis process discovered, expanded, and verified, through systematic data collection and analysis, the phenomenon under study (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In particular, the analysis was performed in two phases: (1) vertical analysis, in which participants’ voices were analyzed separately, and (2) comparative horizontal analysis to find common themes, contrast patterns, and illuminate differences (Miles & Huberman, 1994). This analysis process illuminated several themes that reflected the principal’s role and the school’s conditions related to the doubting process. This inductive process involved “identifying patterns in the data: recurring ideas, ... perspectives, and descriptions that depict[ed] the social world [I was] studying” (Rossman & Rallis, 1998, p. 179). Thus, generating themes was an inductive process, grounded in the various perspectives articulated by administrators.

To evaluate the soundness of the study, a member check with the principal and administrators was conducted. In doing so, I refined the descriptive data and the tentative themes in light of the participants’ reactions, thus putting the participants’ perspectives at the center of the study (Guba & Lincoln, 1981). The member-check process was an important technique for establishing credibility (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) because it confirmed the grounded knowledge in the descriptive and analytical levels. In addition, using multiple data sources and both observations and interviews as data collection methods was critical for data trustworthiness (Lather, 1986). In this way, the triangulation process provides the researcher, research participants, and readers with multiple entry points to evaluate the research data.



For years, this north Tel Aviv public school has been considered the “Harvard” of Israeli secondary schools. The school is proud of its many graduates who are now renowned writers, artists, actors, educators, scientists, doctors, and public figures in various fields of life. Not surprisingly, it is currently considered the most attractive secondary school in the entire Tel Aviv district. The school vicinity itself cannot be underestimated as a powerful magnet for students. The school is located in one of the country’s most affluent neighborhoods and is surrounded by upscale stores, boutiques, and bohemian coffee shops.

Structurally, it is divided into two learning centers—junior high and high school—with nearly 2,000 pupils, more than 50 classes, and nearly 200 teachers and employees. It houses classes for weaker students, along with academic (university-level) classes in which students study simultaneously for their matriculation examinations and university degree. Furthermore, the current school vision advocates providing students the very best education possible and instilling in them humanistic and cultural values. The school aims to nurture intellectual and inquiring students who are well equipped to face the modern world. Graduates are expected to take leading roles in Israeli society and embrace values of equality, democracy, and Jewish heritage.

Although the principal was lacking in pedagogical background because he was not nurtured in the educational system, the current reality of Israeli society triggered his decision to enter the unknown and complex educational system. “I could not be apathetic to the constant decline of cultural morals and values in our society.” Continuing to accept this current situation, he added, would result in the total destruction of Israeli society. Therefore, entering the educational system was perceived by the principal as a societal mission, and thus an attempt to positively influence the nation’s future.

The principal’s emphasis was on new pedagogical innovations rather than administrative or physical changes in the school. More specifically, he aspired for a dramatic shift in the students’ learning process, believing that students needed to be much more active participants in the learning process to extract their potential. “The most important thing, in my opinion,” he contended, “is to convince the students that by taking an active role in the learning process, they can reach higher grounds by themselves.” As a result, the principal doubted the ongoing pedagogical practices while introducing the notion of the independent learner. Thus, the entire school organization should gradually come to be centered on the major theme of the independent learner, which encourages students to choose and investigate topics that are of great interest to them. This new proactive approach aims to acknowledge students’ diverse interests and to provide them with a wide range of learning possibilities.


Content of Doubt

The north Tel Aviv school principal doubted the current passive learning role of students that, in his opinion, does not acknowledge or encourage students’ diverse interests. The principal argued that “from the day we are born and from the moment we communicate with our environment, we stop being independent learners and become social animals.” Although recognizing the school’s obligation to prepare students for successful integration into their society, the principal also aspired to encourage students to develop their capabilities without any suppression. “They need to fly as high as they can and express their intelligence. I will provide them with learning tools, but they have to reach their full potential by themselves.” He expressed his point of view not only when deliberating with administrators but also when discussing the idea of the independent learner with students (told both at the communal deliberative process and at the interview). According to the principal, he was once asked by a student, “Do you mean that we need to develop our own thinking abilities, and the only advantages you have on us are your life experience and your height?” The principal answered, “Yes, you are absolutely right.”

Both school administrators and the Ministry of Education urged the principal to establish a more "realistic" goal for the independent learner notion. In response, he argued that deliberators, especially those at the administrative level, must adopt a long-range vision for their school. “We must imagine how our school will and should operate three to six years ahead. Leaders must think into the distant future.” Not only did he accuse his colleagues of having a short-range perspective to school practices, but he also attributed the same approach to the Ministry of Education. Therefore, he was trapped in the middle, trying to convince both upper educational levels (the Ministry of Education) and lower educational levels (school administrators) “to look towards the horizon, instead of just trying to overcome another day in school life.”

Doubting traditional ways of teaching and learning (e.g., lecture as a method of transferring information; unified curriculum for all students) while embracing a long-range perspective puts tremendous mental and emotional demands on all school personnel. In this regard, the content of doubt, as articulated by the principal, provoked radical and far-reaching epistemological questions, calling for fundamental inquiry into the nature of knowledge. The content of the doubting process at the school, with its effect on students, teachers, and administrators alike, requires a cognitive shift in perspective regarding schoolwork, a shift that demands high mental capabilities (Kegan, 1994).

Pedagogical Legitimate

Participating in the doubting process were senior administrators who have been serving the school for more than 20 years in various school functions. Put simply, most administrators were older than the principal and possessed extensive pedagogical experience. As a result, they perceived themselves as having the upper hand in pedagogical knowledge, considering the principal, who had only just entered his second year in office, as a rookie regarding such issues. An experienced administrator acknowledged, “We have been working in this school for 25 years and we have the upper hand in terms of pedagogy. He is a pupil.” Administrators acknowledged the principal’s sincere concern for the quality of teaching and learning. However, when the principal questioned well-rooted pedagogical assumptions, administrators and educators would point to the principal’s lack of pedagogical legitimacy.

During the deliberative process, the principal openly acknowledged his lack of pedagogical knowledge. “Compared to you,” he confessed, “I am a novice in the world of education. I learned about educational pedagogy here, in school.” The principal also acknowledged the different cognitive frameworks that he held in comparison with the frameworks traditionally accepted by school personnel. He was aware that as an outsider with different ways of thinking, many administrators perceived him as an intruder, a rookie with no pedagogical knowledge. “They are right,” responded the principal. “I am a rookie in terms of pedagogical knowledge.” At the same time, he pointed out his greatest asset to the current school system: “the ability to think differently.”

Said in another way, considering himself an "alien" to the educational system, the principal pointed out his added value to the school’s functions as he opened a window for school personnel to alter their traditional ways of thinking. “I know that we come to the deliberative process from completely different worlds, and I want to convince them to take, or at least to consider, different viewpoints.” In other words, as a newcomer to the educational system in general, and to the school in particular, the principal faced what he referred to as “traditional ways of thinking.” Nonetheless, although lacking any pedagogical preparation, the principal considered his ability to think differently concerning schoolwork to be his main asset.

Einav, assigned by the principal to lead the independent learner experiment, proposed that being open to acknowledging multiple and new perspectives was the greatest asset that anyone new to the educational system could have.

Imagine to yourself that every morning you eat a piece of bread. This is what people in your society do and exactly what your ancestors have always done. Suddenly, a foreigner comes and wants a hamburger for breakfast. It suddenly opens your eyes to see other ways and to know that you can choose.

Being able to “see the other side of the moon,” as articulated by Einav, was considered by several administrators to be the principal’s added value to their school system.

Practically, one of the immediate obstacles encountered when the principal asked administrators whether they can teach differently in light of his notion of the independent learner was the urgent need for additional teaching hours (teachers who could stay in school beyond their regular time). In the communal deliberative process, the principal insisted that administrators should be more creative and think differently despite the compulsions and constraints that existed. “No one said that a school needs to work only from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. [teachers’ working hours in Israel]. We can extend it until 4 p.m. These obstacles emerge from traditional ways of thinking. We are bound by these frameworks and they must be changed.”

In response, both Ilana (assistant principal) and Rose (dean of students) urged the principal not to give up his new ideas but to be more connected to the practical reality that existed and to the technical difficulties of daily school practice. They also argued that the principal should be careful not to set goals that were unrealistic because it would land him in unpleasant situations. This was reflected in Rose’s comment: “There are practical obstacles that an outsider cannot be aware off. He [the principal] needs to experience and learn these obstacles, and at the same time abstain from unequivocal statements like, ‘nothing is impossible if we change our minds.’"

Cognitive-Emotional Continuum

The principal aspired to a cognitive-oriented process rather than an emotional-oriented one when doubting school practices. He argued that presenting emotional distress is unproductive and should be stated differently. Put simply, emotional distress should be stated in a way that would allow administrators to constructively respond to their colleagues’ doubts and, consequently, make progress. To illustrate, the principal refused to hear of emotional difficulties related to the ways that students learned, unless they were stated rationally or at least accompanied by constructive, rational solutions.

Ilana: I am distressed about how students learn in this school. I feel bad about it.

Principal: I strongly reject this statement. You need to present your thoughts in a way that will benefit the school.

As the data show, according to the principal, articulating doubt as an emotional difficulty is a waste of time because it brings no new positive ideas. This was reflected in his comment: “When someone engages in emotional criticism without providing any constructive solutions, I cannot accept it.... What can I do with this kind of criticism? Nothing.” Hence, both emotional criticism of school practices and lack of positive, cognitive suggestions for improvement were regarded by the principal as being nonconstructive and therefore a waste of administrators’ precious time.

Abstract Rhetoric

When considering the conceptual doubt and possible change proposed by the principal, the Sisyphus myth metaphor was most prominent and continually reflected on during the communal process: “You need to roll the stone uphill, and you will never reach the mountain peak. You can never rest because there are always more mountains to conquer.” According to the principal, if administrators could never reach the top of the mountain, they could never reach a static end result. Hence, the infinite motion-process becomes the center of education. Perceiving a never-ending process of pursuing higher goals and achievements characterized the principal’s rhetoric when doubting the core pedagogical practices at the school in light of his notion of the independent learner.

Furthermore, a positive tension between current reality and the vision was vital for continual school improvement, as argued by the principal: Administrators should look ahead and create a positive tension between the reality in school and the vision being pursued. This tension cannot be eliminated because as we race towards the horizon and try to reach it, it will distance itself even further. As long as we improve ourselves, the horizon will be perceived as further and further away.

It might be the case in which the principal was not aware that school administrators perceived this "positive" gap tension quite differently. Ilana argued that “sometimes he is not willing to see the gap between the vision and the current reality.” Thus, this tension, communicated in abstract and amorphous rhetoric, was regarded by administrators as threatening, causing frustration and emotional tension.

A Turbulent and Uncertain State of Mind

The principal was fully aware that his doubt caused uncertainty regarding the school’s core pedagogical practices. “As long as we proceed with this independent learner notion, uncertainty and frustration will surface in each and every one of us,” he contended during the communal process. During an interview, the principal illuminated a more fundamental distinction concerning the uncertainty state: “Administrators need to learn how to deal with uncertainty as it is a normal state in our society.” The principal perceived the ever-changing environment as a threat to many administrators because they were not accustomed to it.

Administrators were actually between a rock and a hard place, resenting the state of uncertainty on the one hand, and working under a principal who embraced uncertainty in the school’s core practices on the other. In an early interview, the principal stated,

In the modern world, educators must escape the notion of constancy and permanence in educational practices. Teachers need to take risks and feel comfortable when breaking away from the predictable and expected educational path. In the modern world you cannot simply float with the stream according to the original plan. You have to break out of the box into different directions, especially during successful times. This is the normal environment and I feel very comfortable with it.

Thus, decades of similar successful pedagogical perspectives in light of current turbulent environment, according to the principal, illustrated the need to “rock the boat.”

The principal wanted to expose all administrators to this "modern" state of mind by continually posing questions, such as “How can we teach otherwise?” More bluntly, the principal embraced paradox and raised provocative questions when doubting core pedagogical practices in his office. The principal asked his administrative personnel, “What is the difference between an external school [one that only prepares for the matriculation exams] and our school? You know that an external school dictates the information into the students’ minds much better than we do. So what makes us a better place for students?” Only 2 years into his role as a school principal, he served as the sole "creator" of doubt, inducing turbulence in the organizational culture. Although he could have imposed his ideas on administrators through his authoritative role in the school, he preferred to serve as the provocateur, posing questions to root his doubt in the existing school practices. The principal viewed the questions he had raised as a positive trigger for communal thinking and, consequently, for communal responsibility. In other words, by posing these questions, he aspired to facilitate a communal dialogue from which a most beneficial form of school growth would emerge.

A Proactive Approach

The principal doubted not only the well-established pedagogical practices of teachers but also the essence of administrative work and communication patterns when deliberating on issues of school change. Rose, the dean of students, tried to bring about a process in which, at some point, the principal would impose his will and say, “Look, in spite of what you have said, this is my decision. I am aware that we do not agree, but I am the boss and this is what I want.” Unlike most administrators, the principal deliberately did not impose his ideas. When asked by administrators to identify the essence of the independent learner, he responded immediately, “I want you to tell me how you see the idea of this learning strategy. You have to present your own ideas when we deliberate in this office.” In this regard, administrators were expected to publicly present their opinions, concerns, and comments during the deliberative process regarding the doubt presented by the principal.

Although the principal expected administrators to be active and provide constructive suggestions for the notion of the independent learner, he was faced with what he called “a wall of silence.” Thus, quite often he had to solicit administrators’ opinions by asking each one of them to share his or her thoughts. When asked to respond to this phenomenon, he took a big breath and admitted that sometimes he was desperate in these situations. I do not know what to think concerning this issue. I really want them to express their views. I try to explain them that they do not have the right not to express their views, whatever they might be. They chose to be part of a school administration. Therefore, I suggest that they share their constructive opinions and take a stand regarding the issues under deliberation, such as the current independent learner idea. If they do not have principles, or do not fight over them in our discussions, they are not fit to take part in our deliberative process.

The principal rejected the passive approach of most administrators and considered it as “the kiss of death” to every organization. “Be active and enjoy your success, be an innovator” was his constant phrase when encountering passivity among administrators. Being active and taking joint responsibility, according to the principal, had to replace the “neutrality-passivity” approach projected by many administrators.

In a similar fashion, the principal rejected the current situation in which the school personnel in general, and school administrators in particular, are simply mediators between the Ministry of Education’s agenda and the students. “We must become initiators, not mediators,” he argued. The principal considered the school as a framework where learning materials are decided upon and constructed, thus rejecting the metaphor of school as a rubber seal of the Ministry of Education.

Toward Implementation

Administrators were confused and uncertain when entering the implementation phase. They used to run away from taking responsibility, as pointed out by the principal: “Administrators call me because they are uncertain of the end results, and therefore do not want to take any responsibility.” The principal argued that administrators were far from knowing how to implement the notion of the independent learner, and therefore, learning throughout the process, despite future uncertainties, was a must. In contrast, Ilana (assistant principal) contended that when shifting to the implementation phase, the independent learner was merely a pretense because it had neither a definite end result nor valid tools to measure its beneficial value for the students. “We are not working correctly. We have to decide what the outcome will be and work accordingly. This is a hasty implementation of the experiment, as we do not know its consequences.” Rose (dean of students) added that the current uncertainty in the implementation phase was a result of an unclear definition of the independent learner concept and the lack of a clear, unequivocal end.

The doubting process resulted in a conceptual adoption of the independent learner idea. However, when shifting to its practical implementation toward the end of the school year, fierce resistance from both administrators and teachers was observed, putting the implementation phase on hold. In other words, as a result of doubting core teaching practices, the independent learner was supported in the abstract, but practical difficulties were encountered when shifting to its implementation phase.


The intention in presenting the case is to provide a basis for inquiry into questions relating to doubt and the doubting process in the context of school reform. The case illuminates the important role of the principal in a productive doubting process and, consequently, in an effective school change. In particular, this north Tel Aviv school principal served as the school’s provocateur, instilling doubt unidirectionally. Could the questions posed by the principal to school administrators (e.g., “Do we want to sow the seeds of change in our school?”) enhance their level of receptivity to inquire into traditional frameworks of thinking and acting? Could these questions, as a mode for provoking open reflection, result in feelings of distrust and frustration, causing administrators to take a neutral-passive stance toward the doubting process initiated by the principal? Principals may concentrate on posing core questions rather than imposing predetermined solutions (DuFour, 1999). However, as the north Tel Aviv school principal encountered, posing questions can be productive only after protecting faculty members’ doubts and encouraging free inquiry (Willower, 1994). Administrators need to inquire into and understand the local culture of their schools prior to questioning existing norms and practices. Thus, sufficient consideration of the particular school value structure and local culture is needed (Corbett, Firestone, & Rossman, 1987).

We are used to perceiving educational change as constructed and articulated by a principal (or other external forces, such as superintendents and the Department of Education) who imposes doubt and introduces an already-developed plan. In this regard, the “Galilean shift” in the new leader’s role, as proposed by Kofman and Senge (1993), advocates a shift from viewing the leader’s role as being the center around which all organizational participants revolve (“Immediately after I had composed a solution to the problem of which I was satisfied, I distributed it to my faculty”) to viewing the leader’s role in the broader perspective of a designer, a steward, and a facilitator (Senge, 1990). The principal is a key player in fostering a reflective-inquiry process into daily school practices. As such, the principal can engage the faculty in a doubting process, serving as the group facilitator who explains the process and moderates the discussion (Schechter, 2002a).

Doubting traditional ways of thinking in schools could involve tremendous risks for every principal. On the one hand, doubting can energize and direct toward continual renewal, but on the other hand, if the information casts doubt upon core practices, “it [might] be experienced as threatening and disruptive” (Gryskiewicz, 1999, p. 23). To overcome this possible impediment, principals need to encourage their entire faculty to “look into the mirror” and collectively reflect on their school’s current image. To do so, the kaleidoscope (a mixture of dynamic images and perspectives) metaphor (Genelot, 1994) attributed to the principal’s role can serve as leverage. The principal’s role is to integrate practitioners’ various doubts concerning school practices as a means of constructing a collective learning process and, consequently, a shared group meaning.

The principal doubted the school’s traditional practices during his second year in office, and most administrators had been at the school for many years. The distinct difference in years of service at the school could hinder administrators’ motivation to unlearn (Ancona & Nadler, 1989) and consequently to consider new ideas. Thus, time is a crucial factor in learning the complex school networks, in inquiring into the tacit, usually implicit, school mental models, and in gaining support for future initiatives.

Furthermore, perceiving this secondary school principal as lacking professional legitimacy may hinder a productive use of doubt. The principal’s tremendous effort to learn was highly respected by his colleagues. However, when trying to problematize well-rooted pedagogical-administrative structures in the school (e.g., teachers and students as independent learners), administrators immediately noted the principal’s lack of pedagogical legitimacy. The professional legitimacy of a school principal is a status conferred upon the principal by practitioners, not something that is given automatically when assuming a principalship position in schools. Professional legitimacy is tightly linked to practitioners’ expectations regarding the expertise and knowledge of the principal (Beaulieu, Roy, & Pasquero, 2002). Through continuous interactions between the principal and other stakeholders in the sociocultural/political environment of school, legitimacy is determined and conferred. That is, any attempt by a principal to cast doubt on well-rooted pedagogical patterns in school, when educators perceive him or her to lack professional knowledge and, therefore, legitimacy, is likely to be countered with suspicion and distrust (Schechter, 2001).

Inducing doubt seldom has a productive impact when directed toward abstract and implicit ideas (Waugh & Punch, 1987). Hence, principals should doubt their schools’ rooted practices while balancing between the conceptual and the practical, the abstract and the concrete-measurable, because practitioners of a school community are ultimately the core agents in implementing innovative school initiatives. Arguing that “endlessly, you need to roll the stone uphill [doubt current practices], and you will never reach the mountain peak because there are always more mountains to conquer,” commonly heard from the principal, may threaten and intimidate practitioners who aspire for more concrete and measurable criteria when evaluating their work. These philosophical rationales to doubt, in light of day-to-day immediacies, can overwhelm practitioners.

Facilitating doubt in tacit assumptions of schoolwork without past experience in accommodating different and even conflicting mental models “resembles asking a first grade pupil to write the entire alphabet at the end of the first week of school” (Schechter, 2001, p. 487). In other words, doubt can overwhelm practitioners and raise their suspicion when it does not have its prior practical seeds in schoolwork. A productive use of doubt, then, is based on and nurtured by the gradually evolving practical experiences of educators in encountering doubt. Positive shared memory from doubting past schoolwork facilitates an openness and readiness to doubt (Schechter, Sykes, & Rosenfeld, 2004). Similarly, without shared memory of encountering anomalies, differences, and discrepancies from which faculty can draw conclusions, one would be reluctant to doubt (Louis, 1994).

The principal perceived the school’s tremendous success as a prime time to “rock the boat.” Times of success often lead to actions that preserve the status quo and avoid risk-taking. Success tends to induce overconfidence in routines that proved to be successful in the past, and strengthens the homogeneity of the organization. Success also maintains the same historical operating procedures and the same personnel, which inhibits doubt and experimentation (Sitkin, 1996). In contrast, change in behavior is more likely to occur when performance is below the sought-after goal, generally perceived as failure. “Whereas a successful formula fosters little or no impetus to alter existing routines and policies, the experience of failure produces a learning readiness that is difficult to produce without a felt need for corrective action” (p. 548). Schools tend to change ongoing practices after being confronted with a crisis situation (Miller & Friesen, 1984). Both actual failure and possible failure can produce learning readiness as a means for correcting actions. Therefore, enhancing practitioners’ perceived need to doubt in light of pedagogical successes, as was the case at this north Tel Aviv school, would be increasingly difficult. It is harder to convince educators to doubt their ongoing practices when the current ones are quite successful.

In light of its continual success and increasing attractiveness in the entire Tel Aviv district, the current passive learning stance of students, as a pedagogical concern, did not threaten the north Tel Aviv school’s status. The school could easily sustain its excellent reputation without inducing doubt and uncertainty in rooted pedagogical practices. Put differently, as long as school graduates continued to become renowned public figures in various fields of life and the school sustained its unique reputation, enhancing school administrators’ perceived need to doubt would be increasingly difficult. Perhaps senior school administrators tried to secure the status quo because no competition was in sight, and a predictable and certain school success could be envisioned for the future. However, the principal, as a newcomer to the school system, continually perceived the school’s success as a prime opportunity for doubt and, consequently, for change. In other words, the principal perceived the school’s success as indicating a promising time in which to stimulate turbulence and consequently “rock the boat.”

The principal rejected any emotional response, arguing that it did not contribute constructive ideas to the doubting process. According to Dewey, when principals doubt school practices, they cannot rely solely on intellectual judgment. Rather, it also requires “personal responsiveness ... an emotional reaction” (1909, p. 52). Doubting school practices based solely on rational arguments, while rejecting any attempt to expose emotional impulses, can be viewed as an act of reductionism. Dewey emphasized the need for personal sensitivity to the interests of others, which consequently facilitates appropriate cognitive judgment. He also viewed the emotional reaction as the source of an ethical way of being: ‘Just as the material of knowledge is supplied through the senses, so the material of ethical knowledge is supplied by emotional responsiveness” (p. 52). Dewey (1922) did not view emotional reaction as an unimportant accompanying factor in pursuing rationality, but as a necessity for widening intelligence. “To check the influence of hate there must be sympathy, while to rationalize sympathy there are needed emotions of curiosity” (p. 196). Attempting to reconcile false dualism, or traditionally opposed forces, Dewey integrated both intellect and emotion as necessary forces for a productive use of doubt.

Conceptual changes, as proposed by the principal, were generally welcomed by administrators. However, when it became necessary to proceed toward the implementation phase, firm rejections were raised. We could speculate that when practical implementation came into play, the old and well-ingrained ideas of daily school practice, as perceived by school administrators, surfaced. Perceived differently, it might be a case in which a novice principal was committed to a new vision without being aware of the internal complexities involved in working at a school. As a consequence, administrators quite frequently rejected the practical implementation of the independent learner as not applicable to the current school curriculum.


Doubt can be seen as a noun or a verb. As a noun, it represents a personal or organizational condition. A phrase, such as “the school is full of doubt,” might communicate a widespread lack of commitment or concern. As a verb, doubt can represent a stimulus for reflection and action. When a school principal urges educators to doubt, he or she is encouraging them to reflect on their daily actions and the rationales for these actions. Needless to say, “such a request might be productive if the overall climate makes doubting safe” (Schechter, 2001, p. 487). The question, rather, becomes whether and how to build an open, transparent, and trusting climate in light of the aggressive pursuit of doubt.

A productive use of doubt is essential when considering a new proposal for school reform. This doubting process fosters practitioners’ modification of mental models and clarifies their intrinsic motivation to the need for change. Facilitating a productive doubting process is essential if we aspire to meaningful and successful reforms that foster continual growth within students and practitioners alike, instead of the external imposition and great profusion of “new fads” (frameworks, slogans, buzzwords) for change that restrict any possibility of personal and collective growth.

Doubting is more difficult if teachers feel that they do not participate in daily school decisions on a regular basis. In contrast, when educators perceive, through their past practical experiences, that they have input and that their opinions are taken into consideration in the school’s decision processes, they are likely to be more receptive to doubting the existing structure of schoolwork (Collins & Waugh, 1998). Moreover, collaborative collegial practices stimulate raising questions by teachers concerning ongoing practices, thus fostering pedagogical innovations (Grimmet & Crehan, 1992). Put simply, teachers with a high level of past and present participation in communal, collaborative decision-making processes would consider the need to critically evaluate their school’s ongoing practices more favorably than teachers who do not take an active part in these collective processes (Collins & Waugh; see also Geijsel, Sleegers, Van Den Berg, & Kelchtermans, 2001; Punch & McAtee, 1979).

Effective change can be facilitated when the school faculty, through a safe, collective endeavor, is able to doubt ongoing schoolwork productively. To do so, collective learning mechanisms serve as a fulcrum on which doubt can stand. This safe collective endeavor can create a “holding environment” (Heifetz, 1994) that contains the anxiety and stress generated by doubt. “It provides a mechanism within which uncertainty can be contained ... through an on-going process of [collective] learning” (Friedman, 1997, p. 367). This “practice field” (Schon, 1983, 1987) creates conditions for practitioners in which they can openly and safely experiment and doubt. Perceiving the importance of space and time for teachers to collectively doubt their practices illuminates the social nature of doubt. Hence, a productive doubting process in this competitive and uncertain environment requires transforming the traditional school structure (e.g., division of labor) into a more of a network structure based on webs of professional engagements.

This may be well and good, but can teachers productively doubt in this uncertain environment in which quick and measurable/tangible improvements greatly influence district and school administrators’ decision making? In a competitive environment, can administrators provide the necessary safety network for teachers to make mistakes, which is an inherent stage in any learning-doubting process? Can teachers doubt their tacit assumptions at a time of increased accountability and standardized reforms? At this turbulent time, can teachers perceive doubt as a collective, relational process? Thus, can we move from Descartes’s “I think [doubt], therefore I am” to “we doubt, therefore we learn”?

In light of the above, it appears valuable to consider the importance of a doubting process in initiating a successful planned educational change. Hence, future inquiry can explore the impact of gender, age and seniority as they relate to the doubting process. What is the impact of school size on this process? What is the role of the district and the community when inducing doubt? How do different leadership styles influence this process? What is the relationship between school context, the content of doubt, and the principal’s leadership style? What are the influences of rapid external changes and job insecurity in fostering doubt in school communities? How and at what cost can the principal set up a constructive crisis (Pitt, 1990) that productively evokes practitioners’ perceived need to doubt their current practices?

Furthermore, separating the content of doubt from the doubting process resembles the “separation of values from valuation” (Willower, 1994, p. 471). The relation between doubt and the doubting process, especially in light of core school practices, becomes an ethical question. Doubt in school administration may be the perception of discrepancy or dissonance between one’s values and what one observes happening in schools. Both doubt and values apply inquiry to making judgments about what should be done. Therefore, doubt should be further explained in relation to values and social justice.

As reflected at this north Tel Aviv secondary school, trying to separate doubt from the conditions that influence its productive use should be perceived as an act of reductionism, oversimplifying the multiple array of colors cast off when doubting school functions. Principals need to consider doubt in light of its impact on both individual mindscapes concerning school working patterns and the collective memory in each particular school. This consideration is essential because doubting an ongoing school practice “challenges more than the way we do things around here; [it] also threatens who we are around here” (Corbett et al., 1987, p. 56). Therefore, principals would do well to consider the importance of inducing doubt more efficiently in school life, because “doing things right [will] help practitioners do the right thing” (Willower, 1994, p. 482). Principals, senior administrators, and researchers would be wise to be knowledgeable about the principal’s role and the underlying school conditions that greatly influence a productive use of doubt in the context of educational reform.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 12, 2006, p. 2474-2496
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12850, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 8:58:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Chen Schechter
    University of Haifa, Israel
    E-mail Author
    CHEN SCHECHTER is at the department of educational administration and policy, school of education, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel. His research areas include organizational learning, educational policy, educational change, educational leadership, and system thinking.
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