Teachers’ Beliefs about Teaching and Learning (English)

We all have our own beliefs about teaching and learning English. Sometimes these beliefs are explicit, and we can articulate them. Other times, these beliefs are more implicit. We may not be aware of them and we may not be able to articulate them, but they are still there.

Professionally, we have beliefs about many things, including our students, the effectiveness of various pedagogical practices, the nature of knowledge itself, and even our capabilities as teachers (i.e. self-efficacy).  All of these various beliefs co-exist and affect us. Our beliefs impact what we do in the classroom, and vice versa, our practices in the classroom also impact what we believe about teaching and learning. Thus, it is not simply a matter of ‘the goings on in our heads’; our beliefs impact the classroom and our students.

Because of this, in general education, teachers’ beliefs have been a subject of investigation for many decades, and in the 1990s, this became a focus in (English) language teacher education as well. On many teacher preparation programs, there is an emphasis on reflection and challenging our pre-conceived notions about teaching and learning. Sometimes this is done through teachers’ philosophy statements, keeping a teaching journal throughout a practicum, and/or a host of other ways. Much of this is to simply acknowledge that we have our own experiences and prior beliefs and these act as a filter for any new knowledge we may experience/receive. When a teacher begins teacher education they are not “empty vessels waiting to be filled with theoretical and pedagogical skills” (Freeman & Johnson, 1998, p. 401).

While there is an emphasis on challenging/acknowledging teachers’ beliefs during teacher preparation, this can often be lost as teachers progress throughout their careers. The more we teach, the more it seems our beliefs become entrenched and unchangeable, and the less we seem to focus on our beliefs. However, it is important to constantly acknowledge our pedagogical beliefs. We may use different terms when talk about them (e.g. perceptions, attitudes, philosophies etc.), but we need to be aware of what we believe in terms of teaching and learning. This is not always easy because of the implicit nature of some of our beliefs. Simply asking ourselves ‘what do I believe about ____?’, while still useful, can only go so far. This makes our colleagues, our students, their parents, the resources we use, and the professional development we engage in that much more important. They can help us to challenge our deeper implicit beliefs when we are not able to realize them.

Going forward, teachers’ beliefs will remain an important element for teachers and teacher educators. While beliefs are complex, difficult to measure, and at times ambiguous, their importance cannot be overstated!

In the comments section below, we would love to hear from you! What types of activities have you engaged in that addressed your beliefs about teaching and learning English? What self-reflective activities have you used?

References

Freeman, D. and Johnson, K. E. 1998. ‘Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education’. TESOL Quarterly, 32/3: 397–417.

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5 thoughts on “Teachers’ Beliefs about Teaching and Learning (English)”

  1. Michael,
    This is a great topic. Since I am adept at L2 (and 3 and 4 and 5?) acquisition, I definitely have a bias when it comes to effective language learning methods. I am aware of my set of beliefs. It goes something like this: every time I tackle a new language, I seek out every opportunity to practice (radio in the L2, friends who speak the L2, a place where I can use the L2 while shopping, etc.) I try to shift to THINKING in the second language. Eventually, I end up dreaming in the target language. I’m praised for my native-like accent (or lack of a ‘foreign’ one), and so I puff out my chest and think, ‘See? I know how language acquisition should be done!’

    When I got my TESL training, the prof reinforced all my biases. Immersion is the way to go! Grammar translation doesn’t work! You have to follow communicative methods!

    Mind you, my own bag of SLA tricks is quite the eclectic hodgepodge–from dogme to lexical approach and beyond. There’s a dash of TPR thrown in, and I even make space for a silent period.

    And here I am faced with 13 Chinese immigrants over the age of 60 who have been suckled on the milk of grammar-translation method from the cradle. I have wheedled, I have pled. I have threatened, I have bribed. And finally, I have caved. They are going to use what feels comfortable to them.

    I still coax, bribe, and cajole. But I also have stopped being so uptight about their love affair with grammar translation. Maybe one day I’ll have another cohort, or my class will balance out with more speakers of another L1. Until then, I have to check my bias.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      Thank you very much! I find it a very interesting topic as well! You brought up some interesting points. Teacher education and teachers’ beliefs is always somewhat troublesome. You mentioned that your program reaffirmed many of the beliefs you had, which is great! However, a lot of unease can occur when teachers’ are faced with things on their programs that go against their beliefs. What you are going through with your students sounds a bit like this. When there is incongruence, there can be tension, and this can apply to students and their beliefs as well!

  2. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your wonderful blog!
    I agree with you on this point that teachers’ beliefs will remain an important element for teachers and teacher educators. Actually, I think it is crucial to education on the whole. However, in which way, to what extent, and exactly how it affects or improves education? Anyone knows? Sometimes, exploring this issue is like reaching for something here and there but nowhere in the white fog. We know it is critical, but where it is, what it is and how it is to us are so intangible. It is great you raise the issue and write about it for sure. Thank you so much!
    May I ask one question ?
    Question: Why do you say “The more we teach, the more it seems our beliefs become entrenched and unchangeable, and the less we seem to focus on our beliefs” ? Any proof?

    Thank you very much!
    Hoping you are enjoying a wonderful day!

    1. Hi Amilie,

      Apologies for the delayed response! Thank you for your comments and questions. Your question about how research into teachers’ beliefs actually improves education is a very good one. This question was brought up in a recent special issue in the topic in the Modern Language Journal. It was noted that we now know a lot about teachers’ beliefs, and we acknowledge they are important, but we still know little about how looking at teachers’ beliefs can enhance classroom practice or they can impact student learning. These are questions that still need to be answered.

      To answer your other question about the malleability of experienced teacher beliefs, there is some evidence that suggests this. Kagan (1992) wrote a seminal review in general education and argued that teachers’ beliefs seem to change less as they teach more. However, you are right to question that statement as more recent views are starting to challenge this notion. It partially depends on what one is looking for. If we are expecting someone to completely alter their beliefs, that may not happen. However, smaller more nuanced changes may occur, and that’s perfectly alright as well!

      1. Hi Michael,
        Thank you very much for your kind reply! I absolutely agree with you: it should be kind of fine tuning or minute adjustment in teacher beliefs instead of complete transformation which might be impossible. However, it has already been very meaningful if does work.

        Your words are very enlightening to me. I will look for the articles you mentioned for further reading. Thanks for your time.

        Hoping my questions did not interrupt your busy research work. Wish you a success in your projects! Great thanks again!

        Wish you a great day!

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