Mind Games & Teacher Beliefs
A teacher’s beliefs about the nature of knowledge, her subject area, herself as a learner, and about how kids learn are among the many types of beliefs teachers possess about their vocation. Researchers have repeatedly found strong relationships between teachers’ educational beliefs and their actions including planning, instructional decisions, and classroom practices (see Pajares, 1992).
In her in-depth case study on the influence of a teacher’s stance of wonder, curiosity, and exploration on student engagement and learning, MacKenzie (2001) collaborated with a seventh-grade science teacher in a suburban middle school. The researcher spent many hours as a participant-observer in Ms. Moran’s classroom taking field notes, recording audio and video, examining Ms. Moran’s teaching materials, and conducting interviews. The data collected over the research period was analyzed by the researcher in collaboration with Ms. Moran.
In the first weeks of the study Ms. Moran was reported to have employed a “procedural” stance. She selected this stance with the intention of guiding students towards adopting the habits of mind, social interactions, and procedures expected in a science classroom. An example of procedural discourse used was, “Okay, now I want you to get your lab books out and label the top of the page” (MacKenzie, 2001, p. 145). After procedures became habitual, Ms. Moran was reported to have changed her stance.
An Inquiry Stance & Methodology
“Mind games” (a termed coined by Ms. Moran) were “inquiry activities centering on hypothetical situations posed by Ms. Moran at least once during each instructional unit.”
The major operation Ms. Moran employed in delivering the Mind Game to students was a series of questions. The language used by Ms. Moran during these questions reflected a stance toward her teaching and students’ learning conveying puzzlement, uncertainty, wonder, and possibilities. Through the language of “what if,” “might,” “what would the world be like,” or “why or will it eventually disappear,” Ms. Moran was trying to convey her major goals and her primary image of what science was to the students. (p. 145)
The goals of employing Mind Games were various however; those focused upon enhancing social interactions were primary. They included
- Getting the students to argue (debate) with one another (when arguing was appropriate),
- Arranging the environment to be conducive to group work, and
- Encouraging students to count on each other as resources.
As the school year progressed, the number of statements or questions posed by students to each other dramatically increased to the point that Ms. Moran’s role became one of moderator and subject-matter expert. She also acted as “a catalyst in igniting the students’ imaginations, as a praiser, or as a devil’s advocate.” According to the researcher, all of the roles Ms. Moran inhabited during Mind Games helped her reach the goals of “maximizing students use of creative and critical thinking skills” (p. 149). Another important outcome of using an “inquiry stance” was Ms. Moran’s ongoing enthusiasm about teaching. Accordingly, MacKenzie (2001) stated, “The improvisational nature of Mind Games was a source of enrichment for the teacher” (p. 151). See Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) for a detailed dissertation on employing an inquiry stance.
Points to Ponder
- Learning is like …
- Teaching is like …
- Kids are like …
In her thought-provoking text, “Teaching in Mind,” Judy Yero interrogates the profound influence of teachers’ beliefs on student learning (see the author’s website for summary). Yero (2002) asserts the metaphors a teacher uses when describing his or her work unveil deeply held beliefs.
For example, a teacher who responds to the prompt “Teaching is like…” with “tending to a garden” may envision their students as blossoming flowers who only need a little TLC to thrive. Yet upon deeper examination, consider the life-sustaining role of the gardener (i.e., the students can’t survive without my attention) and the implications of considering a student as a seed (i.e., dormant aka not alive until the teacher tends to it).
This simple example should be motivation enough to get us pondering our metaphors as a way to illuminate what we believe about students, teaching, and Schooling. Analyzing our metaphors is one exercise among many we can undertake to better understand how our beliefs impact the ways we approach teaching and learning with students.
I am a student of students. I spend my days reading, writing, and contemplating about teaching and learning; in particular, about teachers-as-learners. Research on teachers is encyclopedic–covering many areas such as pedagogy, philosophy, dispositions, and cognition. I find much of this research problematic because its conducted by researchers ON and ABOUT teachers instead of with them, and because it fails to help all of us students of students bridge the gap between research and practice. In other words, it does not answer our most important question: How does research finding X about teachers influence student learning? Frankly, if educational research does not attempt to answer that key question then it is indeed “purely academic” and of little value to teachers, and of even less value to our children.
In my future posts, including this one, I will present reviews of empirical research studies that take-up teachers as the main subject AND report findings that may assist us in mapping and bridging the gaps between our ways of being and knowing, and those of our students. GG