Do Teachers’ Beliefs Really Matter?

I’ve spent many years promoting research on language teachers’ beliefs, so the above question may come as a surprise, especially given that beliefs are such an established area of inquiry. But it is precisely because the status of beliefs as an important focus for research on teaching is no longer contested that this question is timely.  I am concerned that generally as a field we have become complacent, and much of the research on language teachers’ beliefs I read today is rather superficial.

Let’s start from the basic issue of purpose. How can research which seeks to understand language teachers’ beliefs be justified? Twenty years ago simply invoking ‘belief’ was sufficient justification because research of that kind was a novelty. Today this is no longer the case; the argument that we must study teachers’ beliefs about a particular topic because there is a ‘gap’ in research knowledge is no longer sufficient – there needs be some stronger theoretical and/or practical rationale for the work. Much recent work I have examined, though, lacks a strong sense of purpose. The study of beliefs is often motivated by researchers’ interest in a particular topic (whether the participating teachers are interested in it does not always seem to matter) and the purpose of the research is to analyse teachers’ stated beliefs on that topic. Why documenting teachers’ beliefs in this way is important is never fully explored beyond the need for ‘more research’.

Some studies go further by comparing what teachers say (stated, professed or espoused beliefs) with what they do. Typically, stated beliefs are first elicited then compared to what happens in a (normally small) number of observed lessons. Why such comparisons are of relevance or value, though, often remains undiscussed. Such studies often conclude (quite predictably) that teachers’ stated beliefs are not congruent with their observed practices. Again, why is this important and how does an awareness of this gap take the field of language teaching forward? For example, it could be argued that making teachers awareness of mismatches between stated beliefs and actual practices can stimulate reflection that enhances professional development (e.g. Farrell & Ives 2015).

In addition to a lost sense of purpose, research on language teachers’ beliefs remains methodologically unsophisticated. Questionnaires continue to be the dominant mechanism for accessing teachers’ beliefs, despite recurring warnings over the years about the limitations of this approach. The fact that the questionnaires used are often not well-designed simply exacerbates these limitations. It is well-established that beliefs elicited via short decontextualized Likert-scale items will often reflect what respondents feel is ideal, expected, or socially-desirable. And it should not be at all surprising that the beliefs elicited in this manner are not congruent with what teachers do in the classroom. In fact, the lack of congruence is so predictable that (in the absence of a clear justification) the value of such comparisons needs to be severely questioned.

The final point I want to make here relates to the manner in which the relationship between teachers’ beliefs and their classroom practices has been conventionally viewed. When we separate the two – first studying beliefs, then comparing these to practices – an unnatural separation is created. Through this separation, the complex, networked (i.e. beliefs as systems), situated and social nature of beliefs is grossly over-simplified. Much more natural is an approach which sees beliefs as one way of making sense of what teachers do, and from this perspective it is situated professional practice that should be the entry point, not belief. The attention beliefs have received over the years has perhaps created the mistaken impression they are what matters most.

Beliefs, of course, do matter and understanding teachers’ beliefs and the role they play in what teachers do and how they learn and develop will continue to be important areas of research. However, to avoid the stagnation that arises when an area of inquiry becomes a taken-for-granted bandwagon, we need to be much more committed to justifying why studying teachers’ beliefs is necessary, how the results of such work can be used to support education, and engaging critically with the conceptual and methodological developments which are redefining the nature of language teacher cognition research (the collection of articles in The Modern Language Journal 99/3 is an excellent starting point here).

If you are interested in contemporary perspectives on teachers’ beliefs I would also recommend Fives, H., & Gill, M. G. (Eds.). (2014). International handbook of research on teachers’ beliefs. London: Routledge.

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4 Responses to Do Teachers’ Beliefs Really Matter?

  1. Thanks Simon, for making a number of important points. In particular, thanks for reiterating that questionnaire studies alone can do little to provide data that will help better understanding of how beliefs and behaviours are related, and/or data to illuminate effective practices and processes for supporting teacher change.

  2. Adil Filali says:

    Understanding teachers’ beliefs can be conceived of as a powerful incentive for boosting the teaching career.

  3. Iraís says:

    Thank you for this post. I agree that studies on beliefs have not answered properly the so what question. This is especially relevant to me since I am currently carrying out a study on teachers’ and students’ beliefs on academic writing in L2. I’ve been worried about the points you make for a while and now I am more worried! but I am wondering how you feel about narrative studies on beliefs. On the other hand, I think that another problem with the studies on beliefs is that there is no follow up, there’s an identification of beliefs but there doesn’t seem to be actions to help teachers reflect on or become aware of them.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks everyone for the comments so far. Iraís asked about narrative studies. While they have more potential to capture the complex situated and social nature of beliefs and how they relate to action, concerns about purpose must still be addressed. So what is the rationale for studying beliefs about academic writing? What concrete purpose might some research play in supporting the educational process? Iraís , if you want to share your current answers to these questions we can comment further.

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