Beliefs About Learning
Beliefs about learning (BLs) make up the belief system that learners have about learning anything. BLs are central to children's formal education. BLs are not domain or task specific, but general about oneself as a learner. Although researchers may have referred to BLs previously, Jin Li used the term to study European American (EA) and Chinese students' BLs systematically in the early 2000s. BLs include four broad areas: (1) one's own purposes of learning, (2) understanding of one's learning process, (3) affect associated with one's learning, and (4) social perceptions surrounding one's learning. These four areas jointly influence learners' motivation, self-regulation, and ultimately their achievement.
One's purposes pertain to the central question “why do I need to learn?” to which all learners can respond. Some learners may believe that learning is for a better job in the future; others may believe that learning enables them to understand the world. Some learners may have few purposes whereas others may have multiple purposes. Understanding of one's learning process addresses what learners believe it takes for them to learn something. This set of beliefs includes those about how one's mind works, about the steps one takes to tackle a learning task, and about more abstract approaches of planning, self-monitoring, and overcoming challenges. Affect associated with one's learning is the range of emotions and other feelings learners have about their own learning. These responses can be positive and negative. Joy, excitement, passion, interest, flow, confidence, and pride are examples of positive affects. Dread, anxiety, low self-esteem, embarrassment, shame, guilt, and jealousy are examples of negative affects. Affect is part of the belief system because learners' beliefs are linked to these affective experiences in learning situations. Finally, social perceptions surrounding one's learning concern how learners perceive social aspects in their own learning. All students have such perceptions, for example, regarding what teachers are supposed to do, how learners are supposed to relate to teachers, what good versus poor teaching is, what high versus low-achieving peers are like, how oneself relates to them, how learners view parental and school pressure for learning, and how learners understand the social resources available to themselves.
Large individual differences exist in all four areas of BLs. Few BLs are attributable only to the individual him- or herself, but are subject to developmental, social, and cultural/ethnic influences. With regard to purposes, EA preschoolers, for instance, believe that learning makes them smart because they learn concrete pieces of knowledge such as names of animals. Older children believe that learning makes them understand things, but not necessarily that it makes them smart. Middle-class students may focus on developing their personal talents; low-income students may be more concerned about changing their economic status. A given student may have one clear purpose; another may have a combination of purposes (Li, 2006; Li & Fischer, 2004). For example, a Chinese American student may have the individual purpose of studying medicine but at the same time may purposefully intend to fulfill her family's expectations.
Individual learners also vary greatly in what they think it takes for them to learn something. Young children believe that if a person wants to learn something, that person will learn it. Older children realize that desire alone may not guarantee successful learning; one needs to be exposed to the knowledge and to have the intention to learn it. Some students may not see any utility in learning things by heart; others may believe that memorization is a helpful step. Whereas older EA students may focus on thinking, active involvement, and verbal communication, Asian students may stress the so-called personal virtues of diligence, endurance of hardship, concentration, quiet contemplation, persistence, and humility (Li, 2003; Sobel, Li, & Corriveau, 2007).
How learners feel about learning in school is essential to their actual engagement in learning. Individuals' affective experiences with learning vary widely, and they are strongly shaped by their social and cultural context, particularly their home. For example, if a child's personal curiosity is allowed to flourish, that child is likely to grow up feeling that it is natural to ask questions. If a child is socialized to take pride in overcoming challenges, that child may be more inclined to persist through challenges. However, if a child is shielded from making mistakes and failing, that child may develop an aversion toward failure and be less ready to face setbacks. Or if a child is made to feel that not making great effort to learn brings shame to his or her family, that child may be willing to work harder (Li, 2002).
Individuals' perceptions of social aspects of learning can also differ largely. For example, while younger children view teachers as authority figures who must be obeyed, regardless of the teachers' quality, older children may not have such a generalized view of teachers. Instead, they judge teachers individually according to the standards teachers should display and personal qualities such as professional responsibility, integrity, and the care they give to students. Different students may also have different attitudes toward parental pressure for learning. Whereas African American students may regard parental demand as a form of caring, EA students may regard the same parental behavior as interference with their autonomy (Delpit, 1995).
Of particular significance are learners' perceptions of their high-versus low-achieving peers. Social comparison for learning is common among children of all ages. Yet, EA preschoolers are not concerned about how their self-celebratory announcement of their achievement can negatively impact their lesser achieving peers. However, older children, while seeking information about others' achievement, will try to conceal their own higher achievement to avoid negative social consequences for themselves (e.g., peer rejection). Lower achievers also conceal their achievement in order to avoid negative opinions of their lack of ability. Instead, students with similar achievement reveal their information to each other because the perceived negativity for the self is minimal. In contrast, Chinese higher achievers do not feel a need to conceal their level, and their disclosure is taken as an offer of help extended to the lower achievers. Similarly, lower achievers disclose their information to higher achievers to solicit help from them. These differences reflect diverging cultural values and norms, with EA culture emphasizing the self as unique and stable, while the Chinese culture stresses the self as in constant need of improvement (Li & Wang, 2004).
Conscious human behavior is guided by human beliefs. However, how specifically BLs guide student learning has not been well studied. Because BLs are conceptualized as the core of the student's self-view as a learner, not necessarily to a particular learning task or achievement situation, BLs are assumed to guide student learning more broadly. Available evidence suggests that the more numerous and the longer-term purposes students have, the more readily they are engaged to pursue those purposes. For example, if students believe that learning makes them understand the world, gives them good grades for college, and prepares them for a desirable career, allows them to serve their community better, and to earn respect from people, then those students are likely to be more ready to learn. If, however, students believe that school is only about getting a diploma, they may be less motivated to learn.
Similarly, if students believe that keeping an open-mind, always questioning, collecting and using a variety of study skills, paying attention to what is taught, resisting distractions, persisting through the task without giving up, and seeking help when they need it, they are more likely to learn well than students who want to get through each task as quickly and effortlessly as possible. The former students have a set of beliefs that will allow them to meet most academic challenges; the latter hold BLs that foster resignation and avoidance.
Learning without affect is boring. Unfortunately, many students pass through school with such indifference. Students learn much better when they are affectively attuned. Research shows that both positive and negative affects promote learning, depending on how these affects are organized. Self-defeating affects such as low self-esteem and learned helplessness are detrimental to learning. However, having a sense of shame or guilt for not working hard or for not taking responsibility can motivate a student to seek ways to improve. This tendency is especially true for students from cultural/ethnic backgrounds such as Asians who emphasize social accountability and self-improvement. Regardless of their cultural background, it is better for students to have both positive and negative emotions that are activated appropriately. If students have passion for learning, they will learn better. If students learn well, they should feel proud. If they behave irresponsibly, they should feel a sense of remorse and strive to improve (Li & Fischer, 2004).
Students' perceptions of teachers, peers, and parental and school demands can influence their learning emphatically. In fact, the social world has the most impact on children's BLs. If children view their high achieving peers as models to emulate, they will not reject such peers. If low-achieving students can be encouraged to seek help from their peers without the risk of being viewed as unintelligent, those students will learn much more (Li & Wang, 2004). If teachers teach with deep understanding, appropriate pedagogy, and moral embodiment, students are likely to view them as serious, responsible, and caring adult exemplars. Parental attitude toward school learning is also essential in influencing children's attitudes. If parents emphasize open-mindedness, inquiry, thinking, hard work, perseverance, concentration, and perhaps even a degree of humility, and if they act consistently, their children are likely to follow their examples and act accordingly in school.
See also:Epistemological Beliefs
Delpit, L. D. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
Li, J. (2002). Models of learning in different cultures. In J. Bempechat & J. G. Elliott (Eds.), New directions in child and adolescent development, no. 96: Achievement motivation in culture and context: Understanding children's learning experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Li, J. (2003). U.S. and Chinese cultural beliefs about learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 258–267.
Li, J. (2006). Self in learning: Chinese adolescents' goals and sense of agency. Child Development, 77, 482–501.
Li, J. & Fischer, K. W. (2004). Thoughts and emotions in American and Chinese cultural beliefs about learning. In D. Y. Dai & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Motivation, emotion, and cognition: integrative perspectives on intellectual functioning and development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Li, J. & Wang, Q. (2004). Perceptions of achievement and achieving peers in U.S. and Chinese kindergarteners. Social Development, 13, 413–436.
Sobel, D., Li, J., & Corriveau, K. (2007). “It danced around in my head and I learned it”: What children know about learning. Journal of Cognition and Development, 8, 1–25.
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