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Teacher Beliefs

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

In 1975 Dan Lortie coined the term apprenticeship of observation to describe the phenomenon that the majority of teachers teach very similarly to their own teachers:

Teaching is unusual in that those who decide to enter it have had exceptional opportunity to observe members of the occupation at work; unlike most occupations today, the activities of teachers are not shielded from youngsters. Teachers-to-be underestimate the difficulties involved, but this supports the contention that those planning to teach form definite ideas about the nature of the role (p. 65).

Lortie contends many beliefs teachers hold about teaching originate from personal experiences as students. Some beliefs may derive from other personal experiences such as family traditions and values, social encounters, community participation, popular culture, teacher preparation, observing teachers, professional development, and scholarly literature.

Inasmuch as they originate from personal experience, beliefs are similar to attitudes and knowledge. Much scholarly debate attempts to determine just how beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge differ. In a 1992 article, M. Frank Pajares echoed Lortie's findings and described the difficulty in distinguishing attitudes from beliefs in the ways researchers have defined and studied them. Likewise, Patricia Alexander has described the challenges in deciphering what knowledge and beliefs have in common and how they are distinct. What is undisputed is beliefs have a motivational component and play a role in driving behavior.

Teachers' beliefs exist on many levels from global to personal and serve as overarching frameworks for understanding and engaging with the world. They can be thought of as guiding principles teachers' hold to be true that serve as lenses through which new experiences can be understood. Teachers' beliefs may be formed without evidence and sometimes in the face of contradictory evidence. They are a part of teachers' identities. Beliefs, and their influence, tend to be unexamined by teachers because many are implicit, unarticulated, or unconscious. The literature suggests failing to examine beliefs can have negative consequences as they guide practice and priorities, determined what is ignored, influence decision making, and shape what types of interactions are valued.

KINDS OF BELIEFS TEACHERS HOLD

Fundamentally, teachers' beliefs shape their professional practice. However, the study of teachers' beliefs has been tricky because of the multi-dimensionality of beliefs and the traditional boundaries drawn in educational psychology and teacher education about which beliefs constitute a relevant subset. For example, though teachers' beliefs as parents or as members of a religious group matter, much of the literature has focused on the beliefs most directly related to classroom practice. These beliefs can be

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organized into categories, each of which operates on a different level ranging from societal to personal. Figure 1 presents these categories as an inverted pyramid with the most global beliefs located at the top and filtering down toward to the most local beliefs teachers have about who they are. Placing teachers' beliefs about themselves as the most local should not, however, suggest they are of lesser importance or that they do not impact other beliefs. In fact, change in teachers' beliefs, at any level, can create a ripple effect throughout the teachers' entire system of beliefs.

Table 1 describes each category of belief along with a working definition synthesizing the related literature and a list of scholars whose work is directly related to that category. The categories are: schooling and education, epistemology, learning, teaching and teachers, academic content, students, and themselves.

BELIEFS ABOUT SCHOOLING, EPISTEMOLOGY, LEARNING, AND TEACHING

At the most global level, teachers hold beliefs about the purpose of schooling. For some teachers, these beliefs are rooted in a holistic perspective wherein the purpose of education is to help all children reach their full potential in every facet of their lives. Other teachers' beliefs, however, are rooted in more essentialist models that position schools as places in which students acquire knowledge critical to becoming productive members of society. Still others believe schooling should envision a new society, help students become lifelong learners, or enhance the students' individuality.

Beliefs about the role of education can filter down and impact teachers' epistemological beliefs. These include “beliefs about the nature of knowledge and the processes of knowing” (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p. 117). They include beliefs about what criteria should be used to determine the validity and value of different types of knowledge. When identifying their epistemological orientation, teachers must ask themselves: Is knowledge singular or multiple? Must all knowledge be consistent or is there room for contradiction? And, who can be the source of knowledge: the teacher, society as a collective, or some singular, external authority?

Just as these epistemological beliefs are shaped by beliefs about the role of schooling, teachers' beliefs about learning are influenced by their epistemological beliefs. Beliefs about learning include those related to how people learn and what it means to have learned (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997). For example, teachers who have essentialist views of education are likely to believe that only certain kinds of knowledge are valid. They, therefore, are likely to focus their efforts on having students learn those kinds knowledge. Similarly, epistemological beliefs impact teachers' understandings of what it means to teach and how teaching is best accomplished. For example, teachers who believe authority figures (e.g., teachers, doctors, scientists) are the only real sources of knowledge may adopt a more behavio-rist perspective about learning. They are also likely to enact transmissionist instructional techniques, such as direct instruction, founded on the notions that teachers know and students learn when teachers give them knowledge.

Alternatively, teachers who believe the self can be a valid source of knowing are likely to structure their classrooms in ways that emphasize students' contribution to the learning process. Furthermore, these teachers tend to believe that teachers and students know and learn together and that learning happens best through dialogue and shared interaction. Discussion and discovery learning pedagogies were founded in the belief that individuals and groups can create meaningful understandings.

TEACHERS' BELIEFS ABOUT ACADEMIC CONTENT, STUDENT POPULATIONS, AND THEMSELVES

Global beliefs have local impact on teachers' beliefs about the content they teach, their students, and themselves as teachers. Susan Stodolsky and colleagues argue teachers' beliefs about academic content, particularly with regard to status, stability, sequence, and scope, shape their practice. These beliefs inform the concepts teachers emphasize, the way they order and organize material, the student understandings and misunderstandings they anticipate, and their instructional and assessment decisions.

Table 1Table 1ILLUSTRATION BY GGS INFORMATION SERVICES. CENGAGE LEARNING, GALE.

Even more local than beliefs about content are teachers' beliefs about their students. These beliefs include what it means to be a student, how students should relate to teachers, and the impact of student differences on classroom practice and culture. Scholars such as Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, and Johnmarshall Reeve assert that in order for students to assume responsibility for their own learning they must feel autonomous, competent, and connected to their classmates and teachers. Underlying their theories is the assumption that in order to be self-determined, students must to have these fundamental needs met. However, their research suggests teachers' beliefs about their own need to be in control may be in conflict with students' needs.

Likewise, teachers' beliefs about whether their students need relationships with them may be in conflict with what the literature says students actually need. Robert Pianta argues that all students need to experience close relationships with their teachers. However, the literature (see Davis, 2003) suggests that teachers may regard this need as varying with students' development or social group. Similarly, the work of Jere Brophy and Mary McCaslin (McCaslin has also published under the name Mary Rohrkemper) investigates teachers' definitions of and interactions with problem students. When teachers believe the source of behavior problems is a lack of competence as opposed to an attempt to usurp control in the class, they tend to respond with more caring and are more likely to help those students achieve competence. Other researchers have explored the causes of behavior understood by teachers to be disruptive. For example, Molly Blackburn writes about the experience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students who are perceived as disruptive but who in actuality may be expressing malcontent with an irrelevant curriculum. More generally, Jacqueline Irvine's work highlights that teachers' beliefs about the way students should behave at school may prevent them from recognizing and appropriately responding to student behavior that critiques marginalizing curriculum. Irvine introduced the concept of cultural synchronization to describe how teachers' beliefs about certain student groups may be in conflict with the actual motives, values, and needs of those students. Clashes between teachers' and students' beliefs may have negative instructional and interpersonal consequences.

At the most local level, teachers hold beliefs about themselves—who they are in relation to curriculum, colleagues, and students; perceived strengths and weaknesses; values; self-efficacy; and matters about which they feel responsible. These beliefs may be domain specific; teachers may hold beliefs about who they are as instructors that are different from their beliefs about themselves as classroom managers or content experts. These beliefs may be hierarchically organized such that a teacher may believe they are experts in their fields, they are strong instructors, but they struggle with classroom management. Because teachers may weigh these domains differently (i.e., placing the most value on being a strong instructor), when asked if they are good teachers, they may respond based on a global perception that they are. Finally, beliefs may not necessarily be calibrated with actual behaviors. In her study of pre-service teachers, Carol Weinstein documented how novice teachers are likely to be unrealistically optimistic regarding their ability to manage classroom tasks.

Finally, it is important to note the majority of the literature on teachers' beliefs has been based predominantly on studies of white, middle class, female teachers (Woolfolk Hoy, Davis, & Pape, 2006). In “The Silenced Dialogue,” Lisa Delpit reinforces the notion that teachers from underrepresented or marginalized populations may hold different beliefs about teaching minority students and, therefore, view themselves and their tasks very differently. One African American principal in Delpit's study expressed her experience of being ill-represented in the literature and of her majority colleagues using this literature to ignore her perspective. The principal was quoted as saying: “If you try to suggest that's not quite the way it is, they get defensive, then you get defensive, then they'll start reciting research. I try to give them my experiences, to explain … they don't really hear me” (Delpit, 1995, p. 22). Delpit argues alternative, and perhaps transformative, perspectives of minority teachers are not represented in the research base and deserve to be voiced.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TEACHERS' BELIEFS

In the 1960s, Robert Rosenthal (b. 1933) began examining expectancy beliefs and self-fulfilling prophecies— research that has remained robust into the early 2000s. When teachers expect students to perform (i.e., high or low), they behave in differential ways that bring about the expected performance. In Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectations and Pupil's Intellectual Development (1968), Rosenthal and Jacobsen documented how teachers' beliefs about student ability can be subtly manipulated such that teachers believe some students to be more able than their peers and how their beliefs about student ability affect students' actual achievement. Rosenthal's research was extended to understand systemic differences in the way teachers approach students from lower economic standing (Alvidrez & Weinstein, 1999), students in urban settings (Causey, Thomas, & Armento, 2000), and special education students (Soodak, Podell, & Lehman, 1998).

Measuring the power of teachers' beliefs about student intelligence became important. In 1973 W. Burleigh Seaver conducted a naturalistic experiment to examine the effects of teachers' expectations of students' performance given the performance of a high or low achieving sibling in their class in a previous year. Underlying this study was the assumption that teachers expect siblings to perform similarly given their shared family context and/or genetic makeup. Using school records, and controlling for the younger siblings' actual intelligence, older siblings were classified as either high or low performers and younger siblings' performances when they had the same or different teacher were examined. “When the older sibling had performed at a high level, the expectancy group [i.e., having the same teacher] scored better than the control; when the older sibling had performed poorly, the expectancy group scored lower than the control group” (p. 337). The average size of the effects was .30 on a grade equivalency score, approximately the achievement that happens across one-third of an academic year.

Self-fulfilling prophecies, such as those about student ability, operate through two forms of messages teachers send to students: the explicit (i.e., what is consciously said) and implicit (i.e., what is unconsciously said). In 1973 Rosenthal “derived four major types of teacher behaviors that appear to be associated with [teacher] expectancy effects. These are (1) climate—is the teacher warm and encouraging to the pupil? (2) feedback—does the teacher offer evaluative comments on the pupil's ongoing performance? (3) input— how much does the teacher try to teach the child? (4) output—how many opportunities does the teacher give the child to respond?” (Hall et al., 2001, p. 163).

Teachers' beliefs are a form of subjective reality: What they believe is real and true. Their beliefs guide their decision-making, behavior, and interactions with students and, in turn, create an objective reality in the classroom, what students experience as real and true. Teachers' beliefs shape their planning and curricular decisions, in effect determining what should be taught and what path instruction should follow. Moreover, their beliefs are not always a reflection of accepted notions in the field. In a 1998 study of teachers' and students' understandings of knowledge (from prior experience and formal instruction in school) and beliefs, Patricia Alexander and colleagues found teachers and students recognize beliefs and knowledge may not overlap:

Our students and teachers in both Singapore and the United States suggest that there are those objective dimensions of one's understanding (i.e., knowledge) that are factual in nature and learned in school but of limited importance or value. In contrast, there are those personal tenets (i.e., beliefs) that may be unproven or even questioned in schools and society, but which are nonetheless true and which serve as the guiding forces in one's life. (p. 114)

These findings suggest teachers may hold beliefs that are in conflict with their physical and social realities; but that, nonetheless, inform their practice. Moreover, these findings suggest that teachers cannot assume an understanding of another person's (i.e. another teacher or their students) decision-making even when they share a knowledge base. Teachers need to dig deeper to try to uncover the beliefs, the personal tenets that drive their own, their colleagues', and their students' behavior.

HOW TEACHERS' BELIEFS OPERATE

Essentially beliefs function in a way similar to a lens on a magnifying glass. They clarify and guide interpretation of what may be ambiguous or unfocused. Generally, teachers interpret ambiguous situations in ways that are consistent with their beliefs. Beliefs also serve as a foundation for setting goals and standards by framing what is viewed in detail and focusing teachers' attention and energy. Similarly, they delimit what is peripheral, determining what teachers do not see, emphasize, or examine. Because beliefs help teachers to make sense of what they experience in the classroom, they create meaning for teachers. Moreover, they prepare teachers to experience certain emotions by mapping pleasant feelings onto some experiences (i.e., success or failure) and unpleasant feelings onto others.

Debate continues about the extent to which teachers' beliefs and their identity as teachers are the same. The literature on teachers' beliefs suggests teachers may simultaneously hold beliefs that are inconsistent, in conflict, and even contradictory and still see themselves as a teacher. Fred Korthagen posits teachers are likely to be the most effective when their beliefs are aligned with each other and with the field.

That beliefs are intimately tied with teachers' sense of self (be it their personal identities or their teaching identities) is consistent across the literature, and, for this reason, beliefs tend to be resistant to change. In the face of information that challenges their beliefs, such as policy inducement to reform, to modify/include new populations of students, or to innovate with new technologies, teachers tend to feel threatened (Fecho, 2001; Gregoire, 2003). This reaction constitutes a fundamental challenge and, at times the paradox, of practicing and pre-service teacher education. The problem is to figure out how can teachers be encouraged to approach research in education, professional development, and policy reform with open minds.

HOW TEACHERS' BELIEFS CHANGE

There is an inherent tension in the field of teacher beliefs between the call for teachers to habitually confront and revise their beliefs and the need for teachers to identify and preserve beliefs that serve them well. On one hand, at some point teachers inevitably have some maladaptive beliefs because the nature of childhood, the demands of society, and the curriculum change. On the other hand, there is an assumption in the literature, particularly with regard to beliefs about diverse students and best practice, that teachers' beliefs are bad and need to be changed. The danger of this thinking is that in order to protect their sense of self as good persons and as effective and altruistic teachers, teachers may defensively hold on to beliefs that do not serve their students. What appears to be a dichotomy here need not be. What teachers need to be encouraged to do is honestly face their beliefs in their entirety, evaluating which beliefs serve them, their content, and their students and which do not.

The question is what teachers should do when they confront beliefs that do not work anymore. The malleability, or persistence, of beliefs and ways to bring about belief change are highly debated issues. In general, the more beliefs are tied to a teacher's sense of self, the more they will resist change. Literature in the field of teacher education often suggests that the ideal conditions for belief change include: 1) bringing pre-existing beliefs to consciousness, 2) creating conditions in which pre-existing beliefs break down, 3) helping teachers to judge the conflict as challenging rather than threatening (Gregoire, 2003), and 4) providing teachers with the necessary time to reflect on their beliefs and reconcile them with the field and their current teaching context (Davis, 2006).

Mere awareness of beliefs may not be motivating enough to create change. Nearly all theories of conceptual change would argue that there needs to be some cognitive dissonance by which teachers see their beliefs do not work given serving a specific student population, teaching a specific concept, or enacting desired outcomes. Dissonance challenges teachers by forcing them to face failures, however small. When studying adaptive teaching Lyn Corno and colleagues (Corno & Snow, 1985; Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988) describe how adaptive teachers face dissonance and learn from it. Corno contends adaptive teaching involves monitoring which students are struggling and identifying the sources of the struggle. She argues that failures can have meaning and can transform teaching. In some cases, student failure can point to beliefs teachers have that are holding students back. Can teachers reframe failure to help themselves grow professionally? By thinking of students' struggles as “functional failures” (Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988; p. 303) teachers can modify what they are doing to help their students learn and, in doing so, help themselves to work more effectively with all students and their subject matter. What makes this so hard, according to Michelle Gregoire Gill, is helping teachers learn to interpret failure (or educational reform) as a challenge and an opportunity for growth rather than as a threat.

Perhaps the most challenging parts for administrators and teacher educators are building in the time and providing teachers with the tools necessary to engage in productive reflection (Davis, 2006). Elizabeth Davis describes the ways reflection on beliefs can go awry and makes three recommendations. First, teachers should be encouraged to move beyond describing what they see and experience and to analyzing what is happening in their classrooms. Second, teachers should be encouraged to think about problems from an alternate perspective, particularly their students'. Third, to put an end to dichotomous thinking, teachers should be encouraged to integrate what may feel like competing tensions and create space for new solutions. Fundamentally, doing so entails a shift from either-or to both-and thinking. In other words, instead of teachers feeling like they have to choose between following their beliefs or participating in reform, when reform is important, teachers should seek ways to align their beliefs with the reform.

IMPLICATIONS FOR CLASSROOM TEACHERS

If there are three clear messages throughout the literature on teachers' beliefs, they are, first and foremost, that teachers' beliefs have profound impact on classroom life; that the beliefs that impact students are layered, multi-dimensional, sometimes implicit, and difficult to change; and that teachers who fail to examine their beliefs may bring about unanticipated consequences in the classroom. Without intending to, teachers may set aside valuable curriculum, overlook or marginalize students who need them, misinterpret students' motives or behavior, and limit their potential as professionals. Conversely, teachers who are willing to explore their beliefs, and how their beliefs relate to practice and the professional knowledge base, can capitalize on the beliefs they hold to promote students' intellectual growth, autonomy and reciprocity, and equity in their classrooms. Moreover, they create spaces for their own growth as they identify and revise beliefs that do not serve them, their students, or their schools.

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