Teacher beliefs in the classroom

Chandrika Muralidhar and Vikas Chandra Roy

It would probably be apt to begin an article like this with a narrative of a classroom scenario and observations made of the teaching-learning processes.

Shailaja is an upper primary science teacher and is known to be extremely motivated and meticulous by her students and her peers. Sivagami is a teacher with a richer experience of classroom processes and is a mentor to Shailaja. Sivagami, in one of her observations of Shailaja’s class, notices a few practices. Shailaja tends to focus on students sitting in the rear rows and is generally unmindful of the students in the front rows, due to which these children seem to be inattentive. Another observation was about teaching image formation when light falls on an object. Shailaja was speaking about this using a pinhole camera as an example. Her attempts to elicit responses from students relating to the properties of light were not very successful. Sivagami wondered if this stemmed from the assumption that students should remember the basic properties which have been taught in previous classes. In her observation notes she wrote of the importance of recalling and establishing an understanding of concepts especially when they are being applied. Later she had a dialogue with Shailaja and her responses were,
• Students are upto mischief in the back benches and hence need to be monitored.
• They know what image formation is. I was surprised that so few responses came in.

Shailaja is a popular teacher, but she has certain beliefs that can be questioned. Let us delve deeper into this topic.

What are teacher beliefs?
Are they related to teaching a particular subject or are they deep-rooted experiences, one time or repeated, their assumptions of students being the receivers rather than participators…? And many more, maybe. So what are teacher beliefs?

Brophy and Evertson (1981) researched and stated that teacher beliefs are among the most widely researched aspects of teacher thinking. According to them, beliefs were statements held to be true, while Nespor (1987) opined them being rooted in personal history and not easily susceptible to change. Pajares (1992) placed beliefs within a constellation of related constructs that include attitudes, expectations, values, opinions, perceptions, conceptions, and dispositions, among others, all of which exert powerful influences on behaviour. Bryan and Atwater (2002), whose views were similar to Nespor’s, also proposed that “beliefs are part of a group of constructs that describe the structure and content of a person’s thinking that are presumed to drive his/her actions.”

Research in science education has suggested a possible link between teachers’ views of scientific knowledge and their classroom practice. Teachers are known to consider the nature and role of theories in making curricular and instructional decisions (Duschl and Wright, 1989). In a particular science class, the teacher was dismayed to see that her students failed to discover photosynthesis by observing the growth of plants, very similar to a study conducted by Smith and Anderson (1984). Kass (1987) which found that three high school chemistry teachers who used the same chemistry curriculum taught very different lessons about the nature of science, as a result of differences in their understanding of the nature of chemistry.

How are teacher beliefs created or formed?
What contributes to the creation of teacher beliefs? Apart from having an opinion on teaching strategies and methods, what could be the belief towards culturally diverse classrooms and their influence on classroom practices? The formation of teacher beliefs during the teacher education programmes might be a discussion for another article. Teacher beliefs are related to the personal history of each teacher (Cohen, 2001; Cuban 1993).

Personal histories are described as teachers’ success and failure experiences as learners, the teaching models experienced as students, and their collective understandings about the world.

These personal histories influence the way in which a teacher looks at new innovations and they influence the change process accepted by teachers and determine how these elements are incorporated into teachers’ existing cognitive frameworks. For example, the use of the overhead projector and now the smart board as tools where the teacher pushes her boundaries and includes images, stories, etc., and endeavours to make classroom practices engaging. Both prospective and in-service teachers have developed their beliefs about teaching from two primary extensive experiences; namely, the years spent in the classroom as both students and teachers (Perry 1990).

Pajares’ (1992) extensive review of literature on teacher beliefs in education indicates that clusters of beliefs around a particular teaching situation form attitudes of the teachers and these attitudes ultimately turn into agendas of action in the classroom leading to pedagogical decisions. The connections among clusters of beliefs create an individual’s values that guide their life and ultimately determine behaviour (Ajzen 1985). Crawley (1990) found that the attitude toward behaviour was the greatest predictor of teachers’ intent to use inquiry-based teaching methods in their classrooms. Clark and Peterson (1985) claim that teachers and their beliefs may play a major role in science education reform since teachers’ beliefs lead to actions and these actions impact students.

Teacher beliefs are not the main priority of in-service programmes and other continuous professional development platforms. These programmes and platforms mainly focus on content knowledge and a few aspects of pedagogical content knowledge. Gess-Newsome (2003) argued that professional development programs have rarely resulted in change due to a lack of focus on “fundamental and complex beliefs about what it means to teach science.”

We leave you with a few examples of prevalent beliefs to think and ponder over as they might be harbouring inside many science teachers as well as other subject teachers –

  1. Teachers should possess sufficient content knowledge and teaching is a process of providing that knowledge.
  2. The teacher is the authority who will guide students through a predetermined sequential approach to achieve learning outcomes.
  3. Maintaining a classroom with well-established rules and regulations is the main role of a teacher.
  4. Emphasizing more on the teacher’s role, like students have potential that can be transformed into anything by the teacher, just as a lump of clay can be formed into a bowl or vase by a sculptor.

• Brickhouse, Nancy W. Teachers’ beliefs about the Nature of Science and Their relationship to Classroom Practice. Journal of Teacher Education, May-June Vol 41, No. 3, 53-62.
• Brighton, Catherine M (2003). The Effects of Middle School Teachers’ Beliefs on Classroom Practices, Journal for the Education of the Gifted. Vol. 27, No. 2, 177-206.
• Brophy, J., & Evertson, C. (1981). Student characteristics and teaching. New York: Longman.
• Bryan, L., & Atwater, M. (2002). Teacher beliefs and cultural models: A challenge for science teacher education programs. Science Education, Vol. 86, 821-839.
• Czerniak, Charlene M and Andrew T Lumpe (1996). Relationship Between Teacher Beliefs and Science Education Reform. Journal of Science Teacher Education, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 247-266.
• Duschl, R. A., & Wright, E. (1989). A case study of high school teachers’ decision-making models for planning and teaching science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 26, 467-502.
• Dignath, Charlotte, Jonathan Fink and Mareike Kunter (2002). Reading Persuasive Texts Affects Preservice Teachers’ Beliefs About Cultural Diversity in the Classroom. Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 73(2) 188-200.
• Milner, Andrea & Sondergeld, Toni & Demir, Kadir & Johnson, Carla & Czerniak, Charlene. (2012). Elementary Teachers’ Beliefs About Teaching Science and Classroom Practice: An Examination of Pre/Post NCLB Testing in Science. Journal of Science Teacher Education. Vol. 23, 111-132.
• Seung, Eulsun & Park, Soonhye & Narayan, Ratna. (2011). Exploring Elementary Pre-service Teachers’ Beliefs About Science Teaching and Learning as Revealed in Their Metaphor Writing. Journal of Science Education and Technology. Vol. 20, 703-714.
• Nespor, J. (1987). The role of beliefs in the practice of teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol.19, 317-328.
• Pajares, M. (1992). Teachers’ beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 62, 307-322.
• Prime, Glenda M and Rommel J Miranda (2006). Urban Public High School Teachers’ Beliefs about Science Learner Characteristics, Implication for Curriculum. Urban Education, Vol. 41 No. 5, 506-532.
• Smith, E. L., & Anderson, C. W. (1984). Plants as producers: A case study of elementary science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 21(7), 685-698.

Chandrika Muralidhar is a faculty member with Azim Premji University and primarily works with the communications and publications team of the university. She teaches and contributes to professional development programmes. She has been working in the space of science education, teacher capacity enhancement, curricular material development, textbook writing and as an editorial member of the university publications. She can be reached at chandrika@azimpremjifoundation.org.

Vikas Chandra Roy is a faculty member at the School of Continuing Education and University Resource Centre at Azim Premji University. He primarily engages with teacher educators, teachers, and senior functionaries through various professional development programmes across the country. He also contributes to curricular material development, textbook writing, and assessment initiatives undertaken at the university. He can be reached at vikaschandra.roy@azimpremjifoundation.org.

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