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TEACHER BELIEFS AND BELIEF REPORTS: WHY THE

DIFFERENCE REALLY MATTERS
Alfredo Gaete
Presented at EDULEARN13, Barcelona, July 1-3, 2013

Abstract
The concept of belief has become one of the most important concepts in contemporary education. No
wonder, since people’s beliefs are normally taken to be highly influential upon their behavior and,
consequently, the last two or three decades have witnessed a wealth of studies concerned with
identifying what teachers, student teachers, and teacher educators believe about a wide variety of
issues. Most of these studies assume that it is relatively unproblematic to determine what subjects
believe in virtue of what they say they believe. On this understanding, the procedures and instruments
used to identify beliefs are based upon belief reports: interviews, Likert-type scales, questionnaires,
etc. In this work I argue that the assumption in question is mistaken and, therefore, we better reinterpret recent educational research on beliefs as revealing information not necessarily about the
beliefs of teachers and other educational agents but about the stories they tell about what they
believe. I also suggest some alternative procedures for identifying beliefs that are not based upon
belief reports. My point is that if we are interested in what educational agents really believe rather than
in what they claim to believe, these alternative procedures seem far more appropriate or, in fact, valid.
Keywords: Beliefs, teacher beliefs, belief reports.

1

INTRODUCTION

The concept of belief has become one of the most important concepts in
contemporary education (see [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7]). There is nothing surprising
about this. After all, people’s beliefs are normally taken to be highly influential upon
their behavior. What the teacher does to teach, what the student does and is ready to
learn, what the teacher educator talks about during her lecture, her very giving of a
lecture rather than her doing of something else – all this depends, to some extent, on
what these people believe about such things as teaching, learning, knowledge, the
subject-matter in question, one’s own and others’ personal efficacy, the goals of
education, and a myriad of other issues. Consequently, the last three decades have
witnessed a wealth of studies concerned with identifying beliefs like these.
Now in most of these studies it is assumed, often implicitly, that it is relatively
unproblematic for one to get to know what a person believes by means of asking her
to tell one what she believes. In words of Alexander and Docky [1], who have made
this assumption explicit: “[W]e assumed that the responses that participants shared
would be accurate reflections of their thoughts and views” (p. 416). On this
understanding, the procedures and instruments that the great majority of the studies
use to identify beliefs are based upon different sorts of belief reports: interviews,
Likert-type scales, questionnaires, and so on (see e.g., [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13],
[14], [15], [16], [17], [18]). In this work I argue that the assumption in question is
mistaken; more specifically, that under certain conditions – which commonly obtain in
educational research – to ask people to say what their beliefs are is not the best way
to know what they actually believe. Even though this strategy might work, there are, I
contend, many (relevant) contexts in which it is a particularly feeble procedure. I also
suggest where to look in order to find alternative procedures.

namely. furthermore. We are talking . that most people lie about such subjects as one’s own sexuality and. for instance. whereas the other takes it to be a minor one? And what exactly do they mean by ‘poverty’ and ‘obstacle’? Are they even talking about the same phenomena? Is the researcher? Consider. for example. that certain subject matters are rather difficult to talk about and many people are not quite good at providing accurate verbalizations of their thoughts. what they believe about teaching and learning are exactly as unreliable as those of their sexual doings and undoings. If we are going to get serious about detecting people’s beliefs. Still. these two kinds of dishonesty are just two of several factors that make people’s avowals a defective source of information. we need to do better than this – and as I see it we must get serious. consistency criteria. also. Some beliefs require several conversations to be clearly expressed. those who are not sincere to themselves continue to pass undetected. their best attempt to an answer may be a pale reflex of what they really believe. but in too many others it just will not. I say ‘inevitably’ in order to immediately discard any reply to the effect that test makers are very careful in designing the items so as to avoid misinterpretation. not only Lewontin but many others were quite worried about the quality of scholarship of the study and. If you ask them in a questionnaire. For someone forgot to tell these researchers what they should have already known. some implement measures to detect liars. Reasonably. about the scientific status of evolutionary theory. or even die for it? Or is it that one respondent takes poverty to be a major obstacle. and some require more than mere conversation. say. questionnaires are inevitably ambiguous. or about the concept of knowledge. Take. or act upon it. Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin [19] declared that “it is frightening to think that social science is in the hands of professionals who are so deaf to human nuance that they believe that people do not lie to themselves about the most freighted aspects of their own lives” (p. no matter how many efforts are made to achieve precision the level of ambiguity skyrockets when one has to talk about such things as teaching or knowledge or the goals of education. what is more important. Acknowledging part of this story. what they believe. What motivated this remark was a study about sexual practices in the United States. A longer interview might fare well in some cases.2 GETTING SERIOUS In 1995. or even in a brief interview. especially in the context of a Likert scale and the like. of social science. For on top of the fact that natural languages are inexorably ambiguous. if not all. when she says that she agrees that poverty is a major obstacle for learning? How exactly does this belief differ from the belief expressed by those who mark the ‘strongly agree’ option? Is it a difference in the degree of certainty or in the likelihood one would hold it. for example. say. the fact that the items of most. 184). those who are sincere may be lying to themselves anyway. in which the authors used a questionnaire in order to get (scientific) knowledge of people’s sexual life. But even if these measures succeeded. Not that people’s reports of. they may and do have reasons to hide their thoughts to others and to themselves. What does a teacher really mean. So there are too many ways in which the standard strategy of asking for belief reports can go wrong. Moreover.

but somehow it continues to exert a great influence among educational psychologists and other researchers concerned with educational studies. with using quantitative methods. why the standard strategy has been so widespread. This old way of understanding science is fortunately outdated among most philosophers of science and many scientists. 79). “although fewer scientists. quick. It is the temptation of conflating good science. nor should rapidity make us prefer a faulty calculator over an abacus. it is not convenient in terms of accurateness – and this is everything we need to reject it as a scientific procedure (for detecting beliefs of the sort in question). I would like to mention a couple of circumstances that make it tempting not to get serious – and. we would not trade a thermometer for a stone. and easy to apply. Not very good reasons. at least in part. tend to accept and even demand the use of questionnaires. “a scientific theory has no place in it for terms which cannot appear among the data or the results of calculations” (p. This turns us to the other temptation I want to mention. as Harding [20] suggested two decades ago. Being serious or scientific does not necessarily involve being numerical. to use Ryle’s [21] way of putting it. And we are talking about the accurateness and the reputation of education and social science in general. and social scientists who model their work on the natural sciences are as openly enthusiastic about positivism than was the case forty and more years ago. Likert-type scales. We are talking about thousands of studies whose recollections of data miss the point. Perhaps this is so because. that questionnaires. . e. I live in this world and can understand that researchers usually do not have all of the resources they would need. Likert scales. nobody has been able to answer back in any satisfactory fashion. so far as I know. 3 TWO MOTIVATIONS FOR NOT GETTING SERIOUS Before I suggest some alternative ways to detect beliefs. especially because solid arguments have been advanced against the alleged primacy of the quantity ever since at least the second half of the past century (see. namely. possessed by the idea that any serious scientific endeavour must include at some point the consideration of numbers. therefore. [21]) and. One is a pragmatic reason. and the like are relatively cheap. even if the latter is cheaper. No matter how convenient the request of a verbal report may be in terms of costs and velocity. or being serious. some researchers. What it does involve is being careful in the procedures we follow to collect information.. of course: if we wanted to measure temperature. At any rate. philosophers.about one of the chief research fields in education nowadays. But so far as I can see this should lead us to rethink certain public policies rather than to do bad science. most of these people still happily embrace fundamental assumptions of positivism” (p. that can explain. It would be otiose to deploy here an attack against this idea. and other instruments that provide us with quantifiable information. 82). We stick to them either because of wishful thinking or because we have no more money or because we want immediate results or because of a combination of reasons of this sort. So it would be really great if they worked.g. For positivism inherited from early modern scientists and philosophers the view that.

But is it that they change their mind or simply that they say different . My point is that if we are interested in what educational agents believe (rather than what they claim to believe) then alternative procedures like the ones I have hinted at seem far more appropriate.g. In other words. For example. [23]).).g. emotional reactions. But the thing is that this is exactly what we may need if we are interested in knowing what teachers believe about their students. Some recent studies have incorporated observational procedures. It is by so doing that they can see what someone believes or wants or hopes or fears (etc. 5 FINAL REMARKS I hope that my criticism of the standard strategy to ‘measure’ beliefs is not understood as intending to deny that we can learn something about current educational research on beliefs. There is indeed much to learn about such stories. or at least to keep them under control. whether or not they acknowledge that they act that way. they focus on how they say it and also on the way they act or tend to act.4 THE SEARCH FOR ALTERNATIVE PROCEDURES Where to look. Social anthropologists learned the lesson too. what is in question is the validity of the instruments or procedures we use and. produced precisely because these two thinkers made it quite difficult to keep thinking that our talk about what we believe is always representative of what we really believe (see. or about a wide variety of other issues. e. and put their chips on observation – normally either participant observation or ethnography (or both). they observe people’s actions. but many post-Freudian psychotherapists working outside the psychoanalytic framework have developed and used different ways of accessing people’s mental states by doing something else than merely analyzing what they say about such states. is that more efforts should be made to capture people in the very process of expressing their beliefs through their doings. for alternatives to the standard strategy? Not in places so far away from education.) even if the person herself cannot. but they still hinge too much on interviews (see. In this arena. A study tells us that on a certain issue students tend to change their mind from one month to the other. partly because the former involve a good deal of behaviour observation (voice tones. bodily postures. [22]. Right.. But we better re-interpret it as revealing information not necessarily about the beliefs of teachers and other educational agents. [27]. You need to invest in wellqualified observers who may spend a whole year making observations. All in all. of the conclusions we draw. True. none of which will be translated into numbers. [28]).. Both psychology after Freud and anthropology after Malinowski offer some options. My suggestion. e. then. consequently. etc. I myself am not very fond of psychoanalytic methods. It is just as serious as that. [26]. however. an action is usually worth a thousand words. the strategy is neither cheap nor rapid nor quantitative. So they decided to renounce questionnaires. but about the stories they tell about what they believe. facial expressions. or about their practices and ultimate goals. There is no doubt that a series of deep conversations can be more telling of a person’s beliefs than a battery of questionnaires.

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