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What contribution can research into conceptions of learning and teaching make to future developments in teacher education?

Christine Ditchfield

This is one of a set of papers and work in progress written by research postgraduates (MPhil and PhD) at Lancaster University's Department of Educational Research. The papers are primarily offered as examples of work that others at similar stages of their research careers can refer to and engage with



The growing problem of teacher shortage in the British education system means that an increasing number of adults will be encouraged to train for the profession. If these new teachers are to contribute to the raising of educational standards within our schools, they will need the skills to enable children to learn effectively. Entwistle suggests that 'our approaches to teaching reflect previous experience of learning' (Entwistle 1988 pg 4) and several studies of student teachers' pedagogies (e.g. Powell 1992, Hollingsworth 1989 and Calderhead and Robson, 1991) have supported this view. New trainee teachers will thus embark on courses leading to qualified teacher status (QTS) with varied perceptions of their classroom role, perceptions which have evolved from their own reflections of their experiences of teaching and learning. At the same time these ideas are exposed to modification and challenge as students engage in 'learning about learning'. Such learning opportunities will occur both through their academic work on the psychology of learning as well as through their observations of, and reflections upon, their own and others' teaching and learning both in Higher Education (HE) and on school placement.

Higher Education students' perceptions of teaching and learning and their effect on learning outcomes have been the focus of much recent research. This paper sets out to identify a diverse set of research literature which might inform further study of the perceptions of learning and teaching which trainee teachers develop as they progress through their courses. The focus will be on learning in the cognitive domain and will take the form of a review that will be used to formulate questions for further study. This paper draws on the research literature in the general areas of teaching and learning and includes those which focus on:

Kelly (1955) proposed his 'personal construct theory' to explain how humans develop differing interpretations of the world around them. According to his theory, people act as scientists in trying to understand phenomena by building up idiosyncratic sets of 'personal constructs' based on their analysis of their experiences.

Kelly's ideas were mainly concerned with interpersonal behaviour but it is possible to extend his theory to the way that people construct a wide range of personal meanings of their world. For example, Entwistle (1988) argues that people's meaning of abstract concepts such as 'justice', 'learning' and 'education' are unlikely to be identical since they are built up from an individual's own experience of instances of that phenomenon. He uses the term 'conception' to make the distinction between an individual's personal meaning and the formally defined 'concept' of a phenomenon. He concludes that:

'With people from the same culture, there is usually enough overlap in meaning to allow communication of the idea, but also sufficient differences in personal interpretation to be a source of disagreement'. (Entwistle 1988, pg 127)

The term 'conception' will be used throughout the paper and is a word which is often not defined in research papers. I will work with Pratt's definition:

'Conceptions are specific meanings attached to phenomena which then mediate our responses to situations involving those phenomena. We form conceptions of virtually every aspect of our perceived world, and in so doing, use those abstract representations to delimit something from, and relate it to, other aspects of our world. In effect, we view the world through the lenses of our conceptions, interpreting and acting in accordance with our understanding of the world.' (Pratt 1992 quoted in Kember 1997 pg 256)

The variation in conceptions between different individuals has been the focus of research in several fields including ideas about scientific phenomenon (e.g. Brook & Driver, 1984) and social science concepts (e.g. Furnham, 1988). Perry (1970) investigated the development of students' conceptions of 'knowledge' as they progressed through HE and identified a progression of epistemological levels from simple 'dualistic thinking', where student's believe that the teacher has 'the right answer', to 'relativistic reasoning', which expands student's awareness of the complexity of knowledge itself and appreciate the importance of making a personal commitment. Entwistle et al (2000) describe this progression as:

'a nested hierarchy of categories, indicating that the more sophisticated conceptions emerge out of the earlier ones, while retaining certain elements of them.' (Entwistle et al 2000 pg 6)

They represent this progression in thinking diagrammatically:

The epistemological level of student teachers will influence their conceptions of 'learning' which in turn will influence how they approach their own learning. It is to this area of the research literature that I now turn.

Much of the research into learning until the late 1970s used experimental science methodologies to investigate learning and thus presented what Entwistle terms an 'external view' of the learner whose learning was thus judged from the researcher's perspective (quoted in Marton and Booth, 1997 pg 15). Pioneering using qualitative research methods by Marton and Säljö at the end of the 70s (e.g. Marton and Säljö, 1976) into students' approaches to learning led to the development of research methodologies which began to transcend the person-world dualism (Marton and Booth, 1997). In this research and the body of research that has developed internationally since then, the dividing line between 'outer' and 'inner' worlds of the learner disappears. Marton terms the set of beliefs underpinning this approach to researching learning 'constitutionalism' explaining that:

'The world is not constructed by the learner, nor is it imposed upon her; it is constituted as an internal relation between them. There is only one world but it is a world that we experience, a world in which we live, a world that is ours. ...We are all different, and we do experience the world differently because our experience is always partial.' (Marton and Booth, 1997, pg 13 emphasis in the original)

The unit of focus in these studies is 'the way of experiencing something'. That is, researchers seek to identify the variation in the way individuals experience teaching and learning within real contexts 'from the inside'. It is an approach, which acknowledges that in any act of learning and teaching, prior experiences, perceptions, approaches and outcomes are simultaneously present within teacher and learner (Marton and Booth, 1997). This holistic approach presents a challenge for me since in order to structure this paper, it will be necessary to examine some of these as separate entities even though they do not exist in this way within the learning context. To facilitate this, the next two sections of the paper focus separately on 'teaching' and 'learning'. The subsequent section examines specific work related to the ideas of student teachers while the final section suggests ideas for further research and development in the field of initial teacher education and continuing professional development.


Much of the literature on learning in HE makes the broad distinction between conceptions of learning which are 'reproducing' as opposed to 'transforming'. These descriptions have their genesis in the early work of the Gothenburg research group (e.g. Marton and Säljö (1976) and Svensson, 1977). Marton and Säljö researched the ways in which students approached reading an academic text and used the terms 'deep' and 'surface' approaches to learning to capture the differences they found. With a surface approach, the learner focuses on what Marton calls 'the sign' (the text itself) whereas the learners with deep approaches focus on that which is signified (the meaning of the text). In other words, deep approaches are related to grasping the author's message (transforming approaches) whereas surface approaches missed the message but collected details or facts (reproducing approaches). Similar approaches were identified in independent work in Britain (Entwistle, 1979) and Australia (Biggs 1979) using different research methodologies and served to establish the use of 'deep' and 'surface' learning as descriptions of approaches to study.

Marton talks about the correlation between the 'how' and the 'what' of learning (Marton and Booth 1997, pg 33). For example, if a student perceives the 'what' as being about developing an understanding of an author's arguments because their view of knowledge is within a relativist framework (as in Perry's categories referred to on page 4*) then they will adopt a 'deep approach' (the how) to the learning task. This simple correlation is challenged by some studies which demonstrate that students may adopt different strategies depending on external constraints such as time and assessment systems.(Marton et al, 1997)

Säljö (1979) carried out an interview study into the perceptions of the 'what' of learning in a group of adults. He asked them what learning meant to them and identified five qualitatively different conceptions of learning as follows:

  1. A quantitative increase in knowledge
  2. Memorising
  3. The acquisition, for subsequent utilisation, of facts, methods, etc.
  4. The abstraction of meaning
  5. An interpretative process aimed at understanding reality

Säljö used the process of phenomenography to identify the categories. Marton describes the process by which categories arise through phenomenography as follows:

'The description we reach is a description of variation, a description on the collective level, and in that sense individual voices are not heard. Moreover, it is stripped description in which the structure and essential meaning of the differing ways of experiencing the phenomenon are retained, while the specific flavours, the scents, and the colours of the worlds of the individuals have been abandoned.' (Marton and Booth 1997 pg 114)

Richardson (2000) points out that several authors have noted the similarity between phenomenography and grounded theory although Trigwell (2000) asserts that the hierarchical nature of the categories make the phenomenographic approach distinctive.

This methodological approach can be contrasted with that employed by Biggs and Collis (1982) who developed their analytical categories prior to empirical study using cognitive development theory. Their taxonomy called the 'Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome' (SOLO) was used as the analytical tool which had five levels ranging from incompetence to expertise in a hierarchical order based on the structural organisation of the field of knowledge which was being investigated. Biggs and Collis were unaware of Marton's work when they developed this taxonomy (see Entwistle, 1988 pg 102) but despite the methodological differences, Biggs (1979) concluded that the Marton and Säljö (1976) levels of outcome were almost the same as his first four SOLO-levels (quoted in van Rossum 1984 pg 75).

Säljö's later study (1982) demonstrated the relationship between the students' approaches to learning, their purposes in reading and their conceptions of knowledge. His study was based on only six case studies but Van Rossum and Schenk (1984) later corroborated his work using a much larger sample of students. Their study demonstrated that students who used deep approaches were far more likely to describe their learning conceptions in terms of 'transforming' conceptions, that is Säljö's categories 4 and 5, while the surface learners were almost entirely associated with 'reproducing' conceptions (Säljö's categories 1,2 and 3).

Van Rossum and Schenk (1984, pg 82) pose questions about the origins of these conceptions about learning and conclude that students' upbringing and previous educational situations are plausible sources of influence. Likewise, Entwistle et al quote several studies which suggest that student teachers' lay theories about teaching and learning are established before individual's begin to train for the profession. (Entwistle et al, 2000 pg 8 ).

Perry (1970) suggested that it was higher education itself that brought about changes in students' conceptions of knowledge in his study. However his research was carried out in early times prior to mass HE and in an elite American institution. Evidence for changes to conceptions of learning in some students through HE study comes from a five year longitudinal study with Open University students in Britain (Marton et al, 1993). Their categories mirrored those developed by Säljö (1979) with the addition of another category as follows:

A Increasing one's knowledge
B Memorising and reproducing
C Applying
D Understanding
E Seeing something in a different way
F Changing as a person

Marton identifies the first three categories as 'reproducing' conceptions and the latter three as 'seeking meaning conceptions' (equivalent to my use of 'transforming' in this paper). He relates this to approaches to learning as follows:

'This is directly analogous to the difference between surface and deep approaches to learning: the former focusing on the tasks themselves and the latter going beyond the tasks to what the tasks signify' (Marton et al, 1993 pg 38 emphasis in the original).

Again the sample was small and atypical of HE students and not all students appeared to change conceptions. Work in non-Western countries has also highlighted dangers of generalising results without regard to culture and context in this research field. For example, Marton et al (1992) shed light on the relationship between memorisation and understanding for Chinese HE students in his description of the explanations Chinese teacher educators used to talk about their learning approaches. Many in his study explained how they used 'memorisation' as a way of deepening understanding which has quite different meaning to that of the 'reproducing' conceptions in the early Gothenburg work (e.g. Säljö, 1979 and 1982). Even in Western cultures, students on courses with less academic focus might exhibit rather different conceptions of learning (Eklund-Myrskog, 1997 & 1998 quoted in Richardson, 2000 pg 40).

Boulton-Lewis et al (1996) looked at the learning conceptions of adult learners who were teachers from a variety of educational institutions from primary to HE and who had enrolled on an in-service Bachelor of Education course in an Australian university. The research group worked with the hypothesis that

'One would assume that (the teacher learners) would be better informed about learning than tertiary students in other disciplines and that they would have organised their knowledge into an overarching structure that they could apply selectively to different aspects of learning and teaching.' (Boulton-Lewis et al 1996 pg 89)

Their research did not support this hypothesis however. They used the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis, 1982) and found the most dominant belief about learning within the group of 40 teachers entailed the acquisition of facts, data and information with few responses referring to understanding. Boulton Lewis et al suggest that this rather limited view of learning (equivalent to the 'reproducing' descriptors employed by Marton) resulted from

'years of being responsible for the learning of others, in institutions where fairly rigid curricula and examination requirements are influential.' (Boulton Lewis et al, 1996)

Säljö (1982) comes to similar conclusions about the surface approach to learning which he proposes is not a 'malfunction per se' but in fact 'a rational way of proceeding' if this is the dominant culture of an educational establishment. Viewing surface learners as holding 'absolutist views of knowledge', he quotes Douglas (1971) to suggest a wider cultural phenomenon:

'Absolutist (nonsituational and noncontextual) thought is not the product of some mad scientist. Absolutist thought is a fundamental part of Western thought'. (Douglas, 1971 quoted on pg 198 of Säljö, 1982)

Work with lecturers in HE institutions (Prosser et al, 1994) found that the categories they identified with regard to into approaches to teaching had elements in common with those recognized for students' approaches to their learning described in this section. It is this aspect of the literature which is the focus of the next section of this paper.


In the early 90s there was a flurry of research into university academics' thinking about teaching. In his comparison of thirteen independent studies, Kember (1997) revealed a high degree of commonality with regard to the descriptive categories of conceptions of teaching in these studies. From his analysis of this research, Kember created a framework based on the relationships between teacher, students and the content of learning which ranged from what he termed the 'teacher-centred/content-oriented pole' to the 'student-centred/learning-oriented pole' (Kember 1997 pg 259). Kember identified five dimensions which he used to locate five different conceptions of teaching. His matrix is reproduced below:

Kember (1997) suggests that the different categories of conceptions of teaching should be:

'Regarded as an ordered set of qualitatively differing conceptions. When change does occur, lecturers seem to move from one belief to another and do not retain all elements of previous beliefs.' (Kember 1997 pg 263)

Kember's notion of conceptual change about teaching by HE teachers is of a continuum which he represents as follows:

Entwistle et al (2000) map similar categories of approaches to teaching onto Perry's epistemological categories to show the relationship between development trends in thinking and conceptions of teaching (see Fig 3).

Figure 3 Developmental trends in thinking and conceptions of teaching (Entwistle et al, 2000, pg 7)

Research into HE teachers' conceptions of teaching is described as 'theoretically unsophisticated' in a recent publication by Bennett et al (2000) who argue that such studies:

'have been limited to descriptions of the espoused theories of small samples of lecturers, on the assumption that teaching practices are underpinned by such conceptions.' (Bennett et al, 2000, Pg 34).

Calderhead highlights some of the conceptual complexity hinted at by Bennett et al in his review of the extensive school-based literature describing the implicit personal theories that underpin teachers' practice (Calderhead, 1996). For example, he identifies five research areas into teacher beliefs that he suggests may be significant in the way in which they conceptualise teaching.

Both Pajares (1992) and Calderhead (1996) identify problems of terminology in the literature on teacher cognitions and practice. Pajares argues that the linguistic confusion centres on the distinction between 'beliefs' and 'knowledge'. Citing Clandin and Connolly's (1987) attempt to distinguish between the two terms in the literature on teachers' narratives of their practice, he concludes:

'In all cases, it was difficult to pinpoint where knowledge ended and belief began' (Pajares, 1992 pg 309)

Kember (1997) also reports difficulties with comparing terms in compiling his literature review but felt that where researchers used the term 'beliefs' their meaning seemed to be largely synonymous with Pratt's definition of 'conceptions' (see pg 3*). This is not Entwistle et al's interpretation however; they distinguish between 'emotionally charged beliefs' and 'consciously constructed conceptions' (Entwistle et al, 2000 pg 10). He differentiates between 'belief' and 'conceptions' very helpfully by suggesting that it is possible to consciously review a conception and consider its implications whereas 'beliefs' operate at a less conscious level and are often driven by emotion (Entwistle et al 2000, pg 20). The influence of the affective domain is one of the features Nespor (1987) uses in distinguishing between teacher beliefs and knowledge. Pajares synthesises Nespor's arguments on these differences as follows:

'belief systems are by their very nature disputable, more inflexible, and less dynamic than knowledge systems. One likes to think that reason and evidence advance knowledge and that informed scholarship develops: beliefs are basically unchanging, and, when they change, it is not argument or reason that alters them but rather a 'conversion or gestalt shift....And yet, for all their idiosyncrasies, he concludes that beliefs are far more influential than knowledge in determining how individuals organise and define problems and are stronger predictors of behaviour.' (Pajares 1992 pg 311)

The debate about the interconnection between conceptions and beliefs has something in common with Kuhn's (1962) process of paradigm change during scientific revolutions and the arguments about whether knowledge is value-free. Pajares (1992) argues that since beliefs and concepts are central to a 'conception' and filter new information before knowledge is acquired, it is reasonable to replace the word 'conception' with 'belief'. This is not how Calderhead interprets the issue and his literature review is divided into research about knowledge and research about beliefs. He identifies six categories of working knowledge of teachers that have generated their own fields of literature as follows:

Subject knowledge;
Craft knowledge
Personal practical knowledge
Case knowledge
Theoretical knowledge
Metaphors and images

The final category of 'metaphors and images' has received some attention in the literature and needs some explanation. Teachers and student teachers frequently use metaphors and images in talking about their work and thus provide another mechanism to assist them to think about and develop their practice (e.g. Munby 1986).

Calderhead draws attention to the fact that research in all the knowledge areas has demonstrated that much teacher knowledge is implicit or tacit, derived from experience rather than from any conceptual framework. The question is, how much has this personally derived 'knowledge' been filtered through the beliefs the teacher holds? The literature on categories of school teachers' beliefs about teaching and learning mirror many of the findings in the HE teaching and learning literature described earlier (e.g. Kember, 1997, Trigwell and Prosser, 1994 &1997). They have been found to hold varying beliefs from transmission models to pupil-centred models that affect the kinds of approaches to teaching they adopt (Calderhead, 1996 pg 719-720). Like their fellow students on non-QTS courses in HE, many student teachers are likely to hold transmission models of learning when they first enter training and the implications of these conceptions are studied in the next section.

Researching Student Teacher Conceptions and Beliefs

Research findings suggest that educational beliefs of pre-service teachers play a pivotal role in their acquisition of knowledge and subsequent teaching behaviour (e.g. Calderhead and Robson, 1991). Posner et al (1982) point out why addressing these preconceptions is so much more important in teaching than in any other profession. They draw attention to the fact that, unlike their contemporaries in other disciplines such as law or medicine, student teachers have had many years to hone well-developed theories and beliefs about their future profession while they themselves were pupils. In fact, many studies have shown that beliefs about teaching are well established by the time a student begins their initial training for teaching (e.g. Pajares, 1992 pg 322). Schutz (1970) uses the metaphor of 'strangers in a foreign country' to compare the initiation of students in other professions with that of student teachers. At first the confidence of a stranger's thinking is shaken by finding their surroundings different than expected and they have to redefine their conceptions. Student teachers on the other hand are 'insiders', less likely to have their preconceptions challenged by the familiar environment of a classroom. At the same time their beliefs and conceptions are much more deeply rooted and developed than their opposites in other professions. Nisbett and Ross (1980) suggest that the earlier a belief is incorporated into a person's belief structure, the more difficult it is to alter since such beliefs affect perception and strongly influence the processing of new information. Thus with time, early beliefs become more and more robust, resulting in what they call 'the perseverance phenomena of theory maintenance' (Nisbett and Ross, 1980)

Pajares describes Ginsburg and Newman's (1985) worry about the part that student familiarity and theory maintenance played in reproducing outdated practice since:

'Most students who chose education as a career have had a positive identification with teaching and this leads to continuity of conventional practice and reaffirmation, rather than challenge, of the past'. (Pajares, 1992 pg 323)

Pajares points to the unsettling findings in Brookhert and Freeman's (1992) review of the ideas of student teachers suggesting that the majority viewed teaching as a process of transmitting knowledge and dispensing information. Other research suggested that they also emphasised and overvalued the affective variables and undervalued the cognitive/academic variables (Weinstein, 1988).

The complexity of teachers' conceptions and beliefs about teaching and learning is exposed in recent research by Entwistle et al (2000). Working with student teachers on a one-year postgraduate course for primary teaching, they investigated both the students' ideas about 'good teaching' and the origins of these ideas. They analysed their data by separating students' beliefs, images and conceptions in order to highlight the qualitative differences in responses. The majority of conceptions held by younger students on the course were less fully developed than the older students who had more experience to draw on, a finding reported earlier by Powell (1992). Entwistle et al (2000) provide details of one particularly well articulated conceptualisation presented as a mind-map by a student which they claim 'accords with much of the writing in the literature of the different forms of knowledge that a teacher has to acquire'. This student rejected what she saw as the false dichotomy between 'education as inculcation' and 'education as drawing out' which was displayed by the academic readings about teaching she had been required to study. Her conception of teaching involved taking the best out of the differing ideas about good teaching and then seeking to integrate them, bringing out apparently paradoxical combinations such as 'the teacher who is 'the benign dictator' who encourages reciprocity' (Entwistle et al, 2000 pg 16)

This integration of conceptions makes the continuum of conceptions of teaching presented by Kember (fig 2) look rather elementary. Drawing on their empirical study, Entwistle et al (2000) proposed a hierarchy of how teachers think about teaching which accepts that different kinds of knowledge; cognitive, personal and emotional, all contribute to conceptions of teaching. They propose that the hierarchy leads from:

'Unexamined beliefs, to reliance on a single guiding metaphor or an undeveloped conception, and on to conceptions at increasing levels of coherence, complexity and sophistication.' (Entwistle et al, 2000 pg 20)

The group summarise the contributions of affective and cognitive knowledge and their integration with personal experience and how awareness of good teaching is expanded as teachers develop their practice in diagrammatic form as follows:

Fig 3 Beliefs, images, conceptions and expanded awareness of teaching.

(from Entwistle et al 2000 pg 23)

Entwistle et al point out that in their cohort of students:

'reliance on a guiding metaphor or image provided greater clarity in thinking about teaching than beliefs but such an image would be too simple to match the complexity of everyday teaching.'

(Entwistle et al, 2000, pg 23)

The diagram shows the complexity of the interactions that result in sophisticated conceptions of teaching. The integration of experience, beliefs, images and knowledge provide an 'expanded awareness of learning and teaching' which means that the teacher is 'alert to classroom events' which provide the effective 'teachable moments' observed in research in schools (Woods and Jeffrey, 1996). The McAlpine et al (1999) study into exemplary university teachers found that almost two-thirds of changes to teaching method and content were unplanned and resulted from a teacher seizing an opportunity during teaching.

Creating the expanded awareness of teaching and learning is a primal goal of ITT courses but given the many studies which identify the 'resistance-to-change' nature of adult beliefs and conceptions (e.g. Nisbett and Ross, 1980, Nespor, 1987), and the arguments visited earlier in this paper that beliefs have huge influence on a teacher's practice, are current strategies within ITTadequate? Exposing student teachers to the evidence based knowledge systems about good practice in teaching and learning could well have little effect if their beliefs and images do not undergo any change. As Trigwell and Prosser put it:

'Focussing on teaching strategies (for example, activity based strategies) is unlikely to be successful without an ongoing focus on the intentions which are associated with the strategy' (Trigwell and Prosser 1996 pg 77)

Many writers (e.g. Pajares 1992, Hollingsworth, 1989, Calderhead and Robson, 1991) argue for development work in initial teacher training so that student teachers are given opportunities to expose their beliefs and conceptions and strategies are developed which enable such ideas to be challenged and modified in the light of evidence. Similar views have been expressed by Freeman (1991 quoted in Calderhead 1996 pg 721) with regard to staff development activities of practising teachers. A contrasting view is presented by Guskey (1986) who argued that changes in belief followed, rather than preceded, changes in practice if teachers' were provided with ideas that they saw to be successful. Richardson (1995, quoted in Calderhead, 1996 pg 721) suggests a compromise since in the process of change, there is a constant interaction between beliefs and practice and thus development may be initiated by a change in either beliefs or practice.

The interaction between beliefs, knowledge and practice in teaching is evident in some of the case studies of students recorded in Hollingsworth's (1989) longitudinal study of preservice teachers at Berkeley. The study demonstrated the strong influence conceptions held prior to the course which:

'served as filters for processing program content and making sense of classroom contexts' (Hollingsworth, 1989 pg 169).

However it did demonstrate that pre-course conceptions could be changed. Further, working in classrooms with mentor teachers with different viewpoints to themselves set up cognitive dissonance, which added extra value to their development. In fact Hollingworth asserts that where students were 'matched' to mentors who shared their ideas or the ideas of the course, knowledge growth was impaired. This seemed to be because such pairings encouraged modeling of the teacher behaviour, 'limiting the depth of the preservice teacher's processing of information and change of beliefs' (Hollingsworth, 1989 pg 186).

Hollingsworth's study was undertaken in a department where constructivist approaches to learning were embedded in course philosophy. Such approaches encourage learners to make their own conceptions explicit and give them access to different explanatory frameworks to challenge their thinking, thus creating cognitive dissonance. This approach to learning has been the focus of a number of research projects in Britain which were aimed at improving the teaching and learning of school science. (For example, the Science Processes and Concepts Exploration (SPACE) project (eg SPACE 1990) and the Children's Learning in Science (CLIS) project (e.g. Brook and Driver, 1984).) It is also a strategy that has been adopted in a number of studies of college students which have aimed at changing their conceptions of phenomena. For instance, Tynjala (1997) compared two groups of educational psychology students who were being taught about learning and development. One group had been taught by traditional lecturing methods and the other by using constructivist approaches. Based on the final assignments the groups produced, Tynjala concludes that similar proportions of students in both groups appeared to change their ideas about the learning process, however, the constructivist group emphasised the role of critical thinking and active learning more than the traditionally taught group.

Posner et al (1982) demonstrated the difficulties students had in changing their conceptions about science, many resisting changing their existing ideas even when challenged by anomalies and conflicting logic. Piaget (1985) used the terms 'assimilation' and 'accommodation' to describe how a person deals with new phenomena. He defined assimilation as the process whereby new information is incorporated into existing beliefs and accommodation as that which occurs when assimilation is not possible because the new phenomenon will not 'fit' and thus a restructuring or replacement of existing conceptions is required. Wubbles argues that for most students:

'a radical restructuring of the conceptions and related teaching skills may be necessary' (Wubbles, 1992 pg 140),

suggesting that the sorts of strategies used by science educators to induce conceptual change are applicable to changing conceptions about teaching and learning among trainee teachers.

Pajares (1992) identifies a number of conditions which must exist before students undertake any radical rethinking of their ideas. In order to find the anomalies in their new experiences uncomfortable enough to undergo such a change:

  1. They must understand that the new information presents an anomaly.
  2. They must believe that the information should be reconciled with existing beliefs.
  3. They must want to reduce the inconsistencies among the beliefs.
  4. Efforts at assimilation must be perceived as unsuccessful. (Pajares, 1992)

Many teacher educators would argue that they provide such anomalies and use teaching approaches which assist students in reflecting and changing their ideas but the evidence suggests otherwise (e.g. Calderhead and Robson, 1991, Entwistle et al, 2000). Such is the stability of these conceptions, students are not undertaking the radical restructuring teacher educators would aspire for them. Wubbels suggests two reasons for this. Firstly, drawing on cognitive psychology, he points out that cognitions that direct action (which are primarily procedural knowledge) are far more difficult to change than declarative knowledge. Secondly, drawing on psychotherapy work, he infers that student teachers' conceptions of teaching and learning cannot be influenced by the logical language usually applied in teacher education programmes. He argues that what he calls students' 'world images' are mainly a function of the right brain and thus are not accessible through the logical left brain language of their courses. He suggests that when these world images are approached by left hemisphere language, the student might feel:

'Invited to engage in a process of rationalising their images rather than changing them: In this way the left hemisphere could act as a guardian to keep the right hemisphere images unchanged.' (Wubbels, 1992 pg 139)

Wubbels offers two approaches to tackling inappropriate conceptions about teaching and learning which he calls 'Left and Right Hemisphere Strategies' and which are based on his analysis of the problem described above. His left hemisphere approaches are largely based on constructivist approaches described on page *. That said he makes an additional criterion for how students might judge material which challenges their thinking. In addition to the new idea being plausible and logical, he suggests that student teachers will also add the condition of 'fruitful' before they are willing to accommodate alternative ideas. By this he means, whether the new ideas will support the student teachers' intentions in the classroom which is the point made by Trigwell and Prosser quoted on pg 23*). Wubbels gives the example of the student who believes good teaching means 'good explaining' in 'an orderly classroom'. They may accept a new way of teaching which addresses children's misconceptions about a science concept described by their science education teacher as plausible and logical. Such an approach is liable to include group work and practical activity. However, for a student new to teaching, using this approach may appear to be 'unfruitful' since their conceptions about an orderly classroom are unlikely to be maintained and pupil learning outcomes may not be those desired when this approach is adopted initially.

Research within initial teacher education which examines the use of images and metaphors to access student conceptions (e.g. Calderhead and Robson, 1991, Entwistle et al, 2000 and Bullough 1991) suggests that such approaches hold some promise. Bullough argues that use of metaphor may provide an alternative mechanism for trainee teachers to reflect on and develop their practice 'as they confront the realities of classroom teaching' (Bullough, 1991 pg 44).

Existing research into the beliefs of student teachers provides a guide to teacher educators about the future development of their programmes. However there is very little research about how these beliefs change and which strategies best assist the development of ideas about effective teaching and learning. What clues can educational researchers and teacher educators extract from existing work? The final section addresses this question.

Addressing the Conceptions of Teaching and Learning of Student Teachers

The importance of context when discussing beliefs or conceptions of teaching and learning has been identified by many researchers (e.g. Marton et al, 1997 Trigwell and Prosser, 1999 and Pajares, 1992). As Pajares points out:

'The context-specific nature of beliefs and their connections to other beliefs that make them especially difficult to infer and measure. It is this same feature that often makes them appear more inconsistent than they perhaps are.' (Pajares, 1992 pg 319)

Phenomenography has been used extensively in research into conceptions of teaching and learning in HE and provides an approach to addressing this methodological problem. It is a technique used as a means of extracting conceptions within a specific teaching context and then stripping them down and decontextualising them to identify broad categories.

However, Pajares (1992) is also quite clear that the methodology used in research into teacher belief systems requires careful consideration. He argues that:

'If reasonable inferences are to be made about beliefs, then teacher's verbal expressions, pre-dispositions to action and teaching behaviours must all be included in assessments about beliefs. Not to do so calls into question the validity of the findings and the value of the study.' (Pajares, 1992 pg**)

Many of the phenomenographic studies described in this paper (e.g. Prosser et al 1994, Marton et al, 1993) have focussed entirely on 'teachers verbal expressions and predispositions' and not on an examination of their 'behaviours'. Although not all the studies into conceptions of teaching in HE reviewed by Kember (1997) used phenomenography, interviewing was the method of data collection used in all the studies (in one study a questionnaire was devised in addition to interview data).

The research design of the Entwistle et al (2000) work uses several data collecting methods including interviews, mind-mapping, questionnaires and open-ended written responses to provide a richer picture of the complexity and interaction of knowledge and belief in student teachers' understanding of learning and teaching. Despite this variety in methods of data collection, Entwistle's work did not access what the student's actually did in the classroom; one of Pajares (1992) tests for addressing validity when making inferences about teacher beliefs. Another limitation on the Entwistle study was that the student teachers were asked about their views of 'good teaching in primary schools', a very broad context given the diversity of schools, the large number of subjects in the primary curriculum, not to mention the wide age range. This contrasts with the very specific questioning approach of Trigwell and Prosser (e.g. 1996 and 1999) where teachers are asked to talk about teaching and learning in a very specific context for example, a Year 1 undergraduate group within their own institution.

Recent work by the Teacher Models Group at Berkley (Schoenfeld, 1998) looks at very specific instances of HE teachers' practice to test out a theoretical model of 'teaching in context' which:

'describes, at a level of mechanism, the ways in which the teacher's goals, beliefs, and knowledge interact, resulting in the teacher's moment-to-moment decision-making and actions'. (Schoenfeld, 1998 pg 1)

The model provides a holistic perspective, which the group suggests, will provide an analytical tool for examining the complexity of the interactions between beliefs, knowledge and practice.

One of the uses for the teaching in context model might be to trace the evolution from novice to expert teacher. Recent longitudinal studies into student teacher development which examine both beliefs and action are rather scarce. A study by Calderhead and Shorrock (1997) provides an interesting glimpse of the changes in two groups of student teachers. In one group, students are followed as they move through a one-year primary PGCE course and first year of teaching. In the other group, the students travel the two years of articled teacher experience. The study reveals much about changes in individual's thinking about the processes of teaching and about themselves as teachers but the researchers found ideas about children's learning difficult to elicit:

'Typically, learning seemed to be perceived as unproblematic, at least early in the course. Student teachers generally believed that children learned through activity. If teachers created the appropriate environment, presented interesting activities and children were involved, then children, it was believed would automatically learn. This was a fairly persistent belief..... It was only in the case of a few students that they were able to talk about learning in much more specific terms, identifying the difficulties experienced by particular children, or becoming aware of the learning involved in a specific area of the curriculum and recognising appropriate teaching strategies that they might adopt.' (Calderhead and Shorrock, 1997)

Major changes to the ITT curriculum in England have been introduced since many of the studies reported above were carried out (DfEE circular 4/98). The most recent research about student teacher conceptions of learning quoted in this paper by Entwistle et al (2000) was carried out with students in a Scottish HEI that was not subject to the same curriculum requirements. What is evident from the research quoted in this paper is that both learning and teaching are problematic and that teachers' conceptions play a big part in how learners learn. Fenstermacher (1979) predicted that teacher beliefs would be the single most important construct in educational research. Much of the research quoted in this paper provides support for such a view, however, it has also identified pitfalls for the would-be researcher of the future. Investigating the influence of teachers' and student teachers' declared beliefs about learning and teaching is one tip of a large conceptual iceberg. If research is to provide pointers to the development of practice in teacher education then it needs to set beliefs within the wider context of teacher action within the classroom. Some of the most recent research quoted in this paper (eg Scheonfeld, 1998 and Entwistle et al, 2000) has begun to address such complexity.

C.Ditchfield 2001


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 23 December 2002