Teachers' beliefs and practices: a dynamic and complex relationship

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Linnaeus University]On: 11 October 2014, At: 18:50Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Teachers' beliefs and practices: adynamic and complex relationshipHongying Zheng aa Sichuan Normal University , Sichuan , People's Republic of ChinaPublished online: 06 Aug 2013.

    To cite this article: Hongying Zheng (2013) Teachers' beliefs and practices: a dynamicand complex relationship, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 41:3, 331-343, DOI:10.1080/1359866X.2013.809051

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  • Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 2013Vol. 41, No. 3, 331343, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1359866X.2013.809051

    Teachers beliefs and practices: a dynamic and complex relationship

    Hongying Zheng*

    Sichuan Normal University, Sichuan, Peoples Republic of China

    (Received 13 November 2012; final version received 2 March 2013)

    Research on teachers beliefs has provided useful insights into understanding processesof teaching. However, no research has explored teachers beliefs as a system nor haveresearchers investigated the substance of interactions between teachers beliefs, prac-tices and context. Therefore, the author adopts complexity theory to explore the featuresof the teachers belief system and how interactions between different components ofthe teachers belief system contribute to complex features of their beliefs. The authorillustrates this application by using a case study example of a language teacher in aChinese secondary school. The study used the methods of semi-structured interviews,observations and stimulated recall interviews. It revealed the co-existence of differenttypes of beliefs. The interaction of these beliefs determined the relationship between theteachers beliefs and practice. Moreover, the practices of token adoption and eclecticapproach were noted as the non-linear features of the teachers belief system at the timeof curriculum reform.

    Keywords: complexity theory; dialectic relationship; dynamic interaction; teachersbeliefs

    Research of teachers beliefs

    Exploring what teachers think, know and believe has been the focus of many educa-tional research endeavours with the development of cognitivism since the 1970s. In thelast 20 years, substantial evidence has indicated that teachers beliefs are complex,dynamic, contextualised and systematic (Borg, 2006, p. 272). Studies revealingteachers beliefs to be complex focus on the exploration of teachers beliefs in a range ofareas, such as pedagogical content (Andrews, 2001, 2003; Breen, Hird, Milton, Oliver, &Thwaite, 2001; Gatbonton, 1999; Johnston & Goettsch, 2000), prior learning experience(Farrell, 1999; Golombek, 1998; Hayes, 2005), teaching practices (Basturkmen, Loewen, &Ellis, 2004; Borg, 1999; Burns, 1992; Johnson, 1992; Richards & Lockhart, 1996; Woods,1996), learning process (MacDonald, Badger, & White, 2001; Peacock, 2001; Schulz,2001) and so on. Referring to the dynamic nature of teachers beliefs, some studies havefocused on cognitive development by comparing inexperienced and experienced teach-ers (Mok, 1994; Nunan, 1992; Tsui, 2003). Some have investigated how pre-service andin-service teacher training programmes contribute to the dynamics of teachers beliefs(Freeman, 1993). Others have examined teachers beliefs from an ecological perspective,claiming that the dynamic interactions between teachers and other participants contributeto the holistic exploration of pedagogical reality (Tudor, 2001, p. 9). Such reality mayoften seem confusing, contradictory, and, at times, rather trivial (p. 10).

    *Email: zhenghy@sicnu.edu.cn

    2013 Australian Teacher Education Association

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  • 332 H. Zheng

    As far as belief systems are concerned, there is considerable agreement that a beliefsystem consists of substructures of beliefs, which are not necessarily logically struc-tured (Richardson, 2003). The existence of conflicting, even contrasting beliefs makesit even more complex (Bryan, 2003). Some researchers have argued that the belief sys-tems consist of primary and derivative beliefs, central and peripheral beliefs (Brownlee,Boulton-Lewis, & Purdie, 2002; Green, 1971). Thompson (1992) highlighted two key fea-tures of beliefs: that they can be held with varying degrees of conviction and that they arenon-consensual. These statements indicate that teachers beliefs may demonstrate quali-tative differences, the interaction of which may lead to the emergence of new aspects ofthe relationship between beliefs and practice. The beliefs in a system never appear fullyindependent, which, consequently, argues for research to focus on teachers beliefs as aninterrelated system.

    However, hardly any research has explored the qualitative differences between dif-ferent elements of teachers beliefs. Moreover, research so far has not investigated thesubstance of the interaction between different elements of teachers beliefs in relation totheir practice and contexts. As revealed by Borg (2006), of all the characteristics of beliefs,the least understood is the manner in which teachers beliefs function as a system. Hethus suggested that further research needs to be carried out on how the different ele-ments in teachers cognitive systems interact and which of these elements, for example,are core and which are peripheral (p. 272). In this research context, my study is designedto approach the relationship between teachers beliefs, practice and contexts through com-plexity theory that directly addresses the complex, dynamic, systematic and contextualisedfeatures.

    Complexity theory in understanding teachers belief systems

    Complexity theory, which relates to chaos theory, originated in different disciplines, includ-ing biology, physics and mathematics, in the mid-twentieth century (Feryok, 2010). Theword complexity does not mean the same in relation to the theory as it does in everydaylanguage. It means edge of chaos (Lewin, 1999), which refers to the point between mech-anistic predictability and complete unpredictability (Bak, 1996). In other words, althoughsystems are filled with turmoil and confusion, they still have the maximum potential toadapt, learn and develop. The word system refers to a set of things so related as toform a unity or organic whole. Complex systems consist of different types of element oragent, which connect and interact in different and changing ways. These elements or agentsmay themselves be complex systems, which are coupled and tend to be non-linear. It thusemphasises the dynamic interaction between different components of systems, which aimsto explain how the interacting parts of a complex system give rise to the systems col-lective behaviour and how such a system simultaneously interacts with its environment(Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008, p. 1). Moreover, it looks at the world in ways whichbreak with simple cause-and-effect models, linear predictability and a dissection approachto understanding phenomena. Instead, it emphasises non-linearity, unpredictability, mutual-adaptation, co-evolution, dynamic interaction and self-organisation for organisational life.It has been applied to examine cognitive development (Smith & Thelen, 1993; Thelen &Smith, 1994), second language development (de Bot, Lowie, & Verspoor, 2007; Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2002; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008; van Lier, 1998, 2004) and so on.Central to these applications is the idea that complexity theory studies systems producedby a set of components that interact in particular ways to produce some overall state or format a particular point in time (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008, p. 26).

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  • Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 333

    Hence, stressing holism, interconnectedness, and unpredictability, complexity theoryprovides a powerful challenge to conventional approaches to research on teacher beliefs,and, in a way, more accurately represents the diversity of teachers mental lives, themeaning of which is constructed in the examination of interactions between and amongthe components of teachers beliefs, practice and contexts.

    The study

    In 2001, the Chinese government launched the National English Curriculum Standardsfor Nine-Year Compulsory Education and Senior High School Education (the NECS).The NECS aims to promote the concept of quality education for each and every stu-dent (Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 2). For the first time in Chinese educationalhistory, the NECS has promoted a paradigm shift from a traditional teacher-dominated,knowledge-based transmission mode of teaching to a more learner-centred, experience-based, problem-solving mode of teaching. However, shifts in educational orientation in thecurriculum do not necessarily induce changes in teachers beliefs and practice. The aware-ness of cognitive dissonance in practice may lead to changes in beliefs and/or practice.For an individuals belief system, a flexible system may be fostered by reflection on thecognitive dissonance in practice. Therefore, in order to promote language teachers adap-tation to the NECS, it is important to understand how the interactions between differentcomponents of language teachers belief system contribute to the complex features of theteachers belief system.

    Research questions

    In the study, I regard EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers beliefs as a complexsystem, within which the teachers beliefs about EFL teaching and learning, classroompractice and contexts are sets of interacting components, while at the same time being com-plex systems themselves. In the context of curriculum reform in China, the changes in EFLteachers belief systems involve complex interactive dynamics between these componentsin the teachers belief system. Taking into consideration the diversity of EFL teachersbeliefs, and the filtering effect of teachers beliefs in all aspects of EFL teaching, my studyinvestigated the following two research questions:

    (1) What are the distinguishing features of the Chinese secondary school EFL teachersbeliefs in the context of curriculum reform?

    (2) How do the interactions between language teachers beliefs and practices contributeto the complex features of the teachers belief system?

    Sampling

    In order to explore the features of language teachers belief system in great detail, I con-ducted a case study on six Chinese EFL teachers. The participant teachers were selected onthe basis of representativeness in relation to the research questions: (1) they were all experi-enced teachers, with more than three years teaching experience; (2) they were teachers withrelatively homogeneous current teaching situations, for example, they were all teachingstate secondary school students aged from 13 to 15.

    In order to maintain anonymity and confidentiality, I used pseudonyms for all theparticipant teachers and all data collected during the study were kept, and will remain,

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  • 334 H. Zheng

    confidential. Moreover, the consent form was designed to ensure that no pressure wasapplied to the teachers as they had the freedom to decline involvement in the study. In orderto conform to ethical guidelines, the participants were also informed of the general aims,the procedures, the benefits and potential harm of the study to the participant teachers.

    Given the limitation of the space of the paper, I draw on the case of one teacher, whomI have called Li, as an illustrative example. Li worked in a junior high school in Chengdu,Sichuan province in China. It is a state school under the administration of the Ministry ofEducation and EFL teachers in this school are required to follow the NECS as the generalguidance for teaching, the fact of which makes Li no exception from the other five teach-ers in terms of contextual background. Li has worked in this school for 12 years since hergraduation from a university that trains primary and secondary teachers. Her school headteacher recommended her to me as a participant teacher in my study because of her indus-trious work and her success in helping students achieve high scores in exams. Moreover,she was chosen as an example because I had elicited rich data from her as she was eager toshare her beliefs with me.

    Data collection

    Interviews, classroom observation and stimulated recall interviews were adopted as theways to elicit data. Semi-structured interviews were conducted before classroom observa-tions in order to elicit the teachers professed beliefs about EFL teaching and learning.After the semi-structured interviews, I conducted classroom observations to ascertain theextent to which the teachers classroom practice was affected by their beliefs. In order toachieve authenticity of the data, I conducted classroom observations on naturally occur-ring teaching for each teacher in their teaching of one unit, which usually covered eight tonine sessions. In order to explore how the teachers put their ideas into practice and howtheir professed beliefs related to their practice,...

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