Why Are Beliefs About Education Hard to Change?

gearThe beliefs that teachers and school leaders hold about education are arguably instrumental to their practice. These include beliefs about the purpose of education, beliefs about how people learn, beliefs about the nature of their subject (e.g. math wars) and beliefs about learners (debate to what extent learning outcomes are genetically determined: nature vs nurture debate).  In our activities, we often rush to strengthen educators’ knowledge and skills.  But shouldn’t we focus more on changing their beliefs? One reason is that changing our beliefs is hard and difficult to measure.

Why are beliefs so hard to change? Psychology might provide us with some answers.

According to Kahneman, we are prone to overconfidence. When making judgements, we rely on information that comes to mind, neglect what we don’t know and construct a coherent story in which our judgement makes sense.  90% of car drivers think they are better than average.  I don’t know of any similar research for teachers, but I’m pretty sure more than 50% thinks that they’re better than average.  Add to this the fact that uncertainty is not socially acceptable for a “professional”.

Secondly, we tend to surround ourselves with people who confirm our beliefs, gradually locking ourselves into ‘echo chambers’.  According to Yochai Benkler in his book “The Wealth of Networks”, individuals with shared interests are far more likely to find each other or converge around a source of information online than offline. Social media enable members of such groups to strengthen each other’s beliefs, by shutting out contradictory information and to take collective action.  Even people with fringe beliefs are likely to find like-minded souls online and see their views reinforced. In these ways can establish themselves and persist long after outsiders deem them debunked: see, for example, online communities devoted to the idea that the government is spraying “chemtrails” from high-flying aircraft or that evidence suggesting that vaccines cause autism is being suppressed.

Technology companies play an active role in constructing such echo chambers. In 2011, Eli Pariser, an internet activist, warned for a “filter bubble”. He worried that Google’s search algorithms, which offer users personalised results according to what the system knows of their preferences and surfing behaviour, would prevent people from accessing countervailing views. Facebook subsequently became a much better—or worse—example. Its algorithms are designed to populate people’s news feeds with content similar to material they previously “liked”.

Another explanation may lie in a general a loss of trust in institutions and distrust of experts.  The Economist recently ran a briefing on the emerging post-truth politics, in which the value of evidence seems to diminish in favour of so-called “authentic” politicians, who “tell it how it is” (ie, say what people feel). Teachers may trust their own experience more than published research, for example on learning styles, ability grouping or using grades.  One reason for this within the education field is that education experts often contradict each other,also because of the difficulty to generalise many findings across contexts and cultures.

Education is one of those domains on which everyone holds an opinion.  For most people, these opinions are based on their own experience and intuition about “what feels right” or “what ought to be true”.  Many feel that teaching boils down to common sense.  These opinions attract a lot of attention. An example is the regular stream of opinion articles lamenting the ‘crisis in education’, the fact that ‘education has not evolved for 100 years’ and that ‘it doesn’t equip our children with 21st century skills.’  Moreover, education seems to be particularly prone to ‘fads’ (one computer or tablet per learner, standardised testing, small class sizes), which often come from the burning desire to ‘fix education. Coming up with a ‘magic bullet’ is easier than changing the oil tanker that an education system is.

Context plays a role as well.  Research in Singapore showed that teachers pointed to contextual constraints to account for the inconsistency between their espoused beliefs and the teacher-centric teaching practice. Teachers may feel the pressure to cover the curriculum and get learners ready for examinations.  Parents may resist relatively new approaches like inclusivity and heterogeneous grouping and threaten to move their children to another school. Ongoing research in Free State, South Africa, shows no relation between teachers’ preference for a surface versus deep learning focus of teaching and learning outcomes, likely as a result of contextual factors. There might be, in other words, be a gap between the ideal world of educational research and real world of cash-strapped education systems.

Should professional development of teachers and school leaders focus on changing those beliefs?

The main argument to focus on beliefs is that sustainable changes in teaching practice are only likely to occur when teachers support the underlying rationale.  However, beliefs are not static. People do change their beliefs. But often gradually, not as a result of one workshop. Good insight in recognising and dealing with resistance, ways how change occurs, effective feedback and adoption of innovations should be important elements in the repertoire of every education advisor.

Mike Hulme’s book on climate change provides some useful recipes from complexity science:

Rather than aiming to find one global solution, a variety of approaches catering to different world views, ideas about governance, science etc. stands a better chance at curbing climate change.  Climate change derives from various other problems, such as population growth, unsustainable energy, endemic poverty, food security, deforestation, biodiversity loss…  Rather than framing climate change as a mega-problem, requiring a mega-solution, Hulme argues that disentangling the issue, moving climate change to the background, is more likely to yield effect.

Using a variety of strategies (testimonies, research findings, inspiring stories of change) for a variety of beliefs and sensitivities for changing them.  Research indicates that the perspectives of administrators and teachers can differ significantly on this point. Administrators tend to perceive nationally normed standardised assessments, whereas teachers grant more validity to classroom observations (Guskey, 2007).

In a trajectory that aims at changing teachers’ beliefs, a possible succession of steps is:

  • Making existing beliefs explicit
  • Creating conditions in which existing beliefs can be questioned
  • Presenting the conflict between their old and new beliefs as challenging rather than threatening
  • Providing teachers with the necessary time to reflect on their beliefs, reconcile the new beliefs with their existing knowledge framework and teaching context.

Another point of attention is that we should take care to back up what we introduce in training activities with decent research findings and theoretical underpinnings, and discuss these and their implications with educators.  In doing this, we must help educators understand how to cope with the complexities of classroom life and how to apply theory and new findings in real classrooms where the relationship between theory and practice is complex and where numerous constraints and pressures influence teacher thinking.

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