The beliefs that drive teaching

Padma M. Sarangapani

Primatologists David Premack and Ann James Premack* note that what makes humans unique in the animal world is firstly culture and secondly the inter-generational transmission of culture through pedagogy. Or put simply, what makes humans unique is the fact that adults teach children the language and the ideas and practices that are valued in their society. Part of this learning takes place because children imitate adults. But “[p]edagogy differs from other forms of social learning in that not only does the novice imitate the model, but the model also observes the novice’s performance, judges it against a set of normative standards and intervenes in an intentional way in order to help bring the novice’s performance into line with these standards.” To be able to do this, both the pedagogue and the novice must be able to attribute mental states to one another, and to understand each other’s behaviour in terms of these states: in other words, they must have a ‘theory of mind’.

This ability to attribute mental states, interpret and modify behaviour is innate and tacit. Over this, cultural and folk theories develop which constitute and guide the process of teaching. Bruner, in his piece on folk pedagogies, talks about the types of beliefs that are involved in this: beliefs about aims of education, beliefs about the process of learning, about the nature of knowledge and beliefs about the nature of children. In my study of learning and teaching in an Indian village, I found that to a very large extent, the beliefs that were guiding teachers were largely drawn from Indian cultural traditions. These pedagogical theories that are held, which are formed as folk theories, cultural theories or learnt theories, not only guide the process of pedagogy, but also serve as the basis of interpreting work and situations, and forming new practices. They serve as the referent for valuing various actions and deciding what is significant and what is not. This ‘cognitive’ turn in pedagogy has decisively shifted the way in which we think about professional preparation of teachers.

Traditionally teacher preparation focussed on the skills and practices that are visible when teachers do their teaching. Regarded as competencies or skills, competency frameworks were used to guide teacher preparation and to appraise teacher’s work. Most of these competencies focussed on what teachers ‘do’ or ‘should be doing’. For example, “Is able to interact with students with warmth and respect” or “is able to organize and conduct group work”. The cognitive turn would require us to think about the kinds of beliefs that prospective teachers hold and which form the basis of their competencies and actions. For example, beliefs about students and their educability would directly affect their interactions with students and whether they are warm and respectful. Similarly their ideas about how learning takes place, and the role of social interaction in the learning process would directly shape their approach and use of group work in learning. Understanding of the nature of the subject matter to be taught, how children learn and why they make the mistakes they make will lead to the formation of the practices that could support learning.

Thus contemporary approaches to teacher preparation focus a lot on nurturing and developing the beliefs and understanding of prospective teachers, in addition to, and even prior to their entry into the classroom and working with children. This is also the reason why we have begun to speak of the period of preparation as ‘education’ rather than as ‘training’, and also why this practice needs to be supported with learning in institutions of higher education, and not only in, or even primarily in, schools. A combination of sources and resources need to be employed for the formation of this knowledge. Because not only do teachers have to build up their framework of understanding, but it needs to become ‘embodied’ and the basis of their reflexes, habits and intuitions. When you are in a classroom, you aren’t ‘thinking and applying’ what you know to situations. You are constantly developing and responding to the situations that unfold and so you need to be ‘thinking on your feet’. So these beliefs and ideas about education, knowledge, children, learning, all need to be understood and internalized.

Particularly in the Indian context, there is a lot of ‘re-formation’ of ideas that needs to take place, because most of us who come into the profession have been taught and have learnt through rote learning, and often in situations in which knowledge was treated as a commodity to be remembered for examinations rather than understood and used in life. Teacher education programmes therefore need to work extensively and deeply in order to enable prospective teachers to ‘re-form’ their ideas and beliefs.

At the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, we have just completed designing a new teacher preparation programme which we will be offering from next year. In this programme we have included several courses in which student-teachers study subject matter and students’ learning in depth. They reflect on the nature of knowledge and its structure and formation in relation to the school subjects; they learn the history of Indian education and its shifting and developing aims; they understand the nature of social marginalization and disabilities; and they understand the nature of the school as an institution as well as innovations in education in the past, in relation to what has worked and what has not. Alongside these areas of knowledge, they also develop their practice and understanding of themselves as professionals, by working in schools and with children.

*David Premack and Ann James Premack (1994). Why animals have neither culture nor history. In Companion Encyclopedia of anthropology: humanity, culture and social life. Tim Ingold (Editor). Routledge.

Padma M. Sarangapani is Professor of Education and Chairperson of the Centre for Education, Innovation and Action Research, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be reached at

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