Teachers’ Beliefs Affect Whether Students Meet Learning Standards

When legislators make education policy, the decision-making process sometimes leaves out a surprising group of stakeholders – teachers. For decades, teachers have complained that policies too often ignore their expertise, and there may be another problem with excluding them: even the clearest standards and best instructional strategies won’t help students if teachers don’t believe in them. Teachers’ beliefs about learning affect what they do in the classroom, including whether they use policies and guidelines like learning standards, according to Helenrose Fives and Michelle Buehl. The authors reviewed research on whether and why teachers implement educational policies in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Teachers, like all people, have many different kinds of beliefs about their work, and some of those beliefs are more central to how teachers approach their students than others, point out Fives and Buehl. Their review found that three types of beliefs are particularly important to teachers’ practices: beliefs about the best ways to teach, the nature of knowledge, and the malleability of intelligence. To show how those beliefs affect whether teachers follow policy guidelines, Fives and Buehl highlight the example of an expectation found in two sets of learning standards, the Common Core State Standards and the Framework for K-12 Science Education.

In literacy, math, and science, students are expected to be able to use evidence in order to support their arguments and to be able to critique others’ work in a constructive way. One common approach for building those abilities is a strategy called dialogic teaching, in which teachers and students converse about a topic, with each sharing ideas and using evidence to support their answers and no one having a single “correct” answer. Dialogic teaching involves a lot of back-and-forth dialogue and reflection. Teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning affect how likely they are to embrace and succeed at a strategy like dialogic teaching, and therefore how likely their students are to succeed in achieving the standard.

Some educators believe that classrooms should be what researchers call teacher-centered, meaning that teachers are focused on imparting information directly to students. Other teachers take a student-centered approach, which views teachers as facilitators who help students construct their understanding. The latter approach lends itself more to dialogic instruction, because it focuses on collaboration and reflection, and sees teachers and students as “co-inquirers,” searching for and finding answers together.

Teachers also vary in whether they believe that all students can learn. Teachers with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is unchangeable, whereas those with a growth mindset believe that everyone can learn more and become smarter. Studies show that teachers with a fixed mindset provide students will less support and fewer engaging learning opportunities. (Interestingly, the fixed mindset is more common among teachers who are older and more experienced.) Some teachers also hold low expectations for students from certain backgrounds. But the dialogic teaching approach requires teachers to believe that all of their students can learn and evolve when they engage in self-reflection and self-correction.

Teachers are also more likely to engage in dialogic teaching if they believe knowledge is always evolving. To help students use evidence and form arguments, Fives and Buehl write that teachers need to “shift from concern with ‘textbook correctness’ that relies on appeals to authority for justifying knowledge, to emphasizing experimentation and argumentation.” In other words, they need to be open to the idea that even experts’ knowledge changes over time. If they don’t believe that, they could discourage students from seeking and using new evidence. One study found that teachers who believed that science is “an unchanging collection of isolated facts” reported that they would not be inclined to inform students about new scientific discoveries that were not directly related to the school’s curriculum.

The dialogic teaching example is just one of many ways that teacher beliefs might impact whether teachers accept and use learning standards and other policies. Fives and Buehl recommend that professional development should provide the time and scaffolding to help teachers analyze their own beliefs and come to understand the philosophy behind new standards. But the implications of their article go far beyond that. Research on the importance of teacher beliefs could inform teacher training programs and hiring processes. It also suggests that it isn’t sufficient for policymakers to focus on providing rewards and sanctions based on how well teachers implement policies – a common practice in recent years. Teachers’ motivations to use, or not use, the recommended approaches go much deeper.

Access the original article by Fives and Buehl in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.