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Mind Games & Teacher Beliefs

April 9, 2010

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).

Research Summary

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

  1. Learning is like …
  2. Teaching is like …
  3. 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.


Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle. S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press.

MacKenzie, A. H. (2001). The role of teacher stance when infusing inquiry questioning into middle school science classrooms. School Science and Mathematics, 101(3), 143-153.

Pajares, M. F. (1992). Teachers’ beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, 62(3), 307-332.

Yero, J. L. (2002). Teaching in mind: How teacher thinking shapes education. Hamilton, MT: MindFlight Publishing.

[Author’s Note]

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

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2010 10:41 pm

    I think the deep connection between teachers’ beliefs and their practices is why education reform cannot be something done to teachers. Education reform must be done BY teachers. When “reformers” develop a new curriculum, the curriculum passes through the teachers who will implement said curriculum based on their beliefs. This is why reformers must continually get teachers to connect their goals for students and their beliefs about teaching and learning to reform efforts. Even more importantly, teachers must carefully identify their goals and beliefs concerning learning and reflect on how the activities in their classroom promote or do not promote those goals and beliefs. For example, I might say I want my students to connect science ideas to their everyday life, but if I never explicitly ask students to make those connections, I am merely wishing in one hand….

    • April 10, 2010 6:22 pm

      and… ? in the other… Frankly, I cannot think of an instance, in education or otherwise, where workers enjoy being told how to do their jobs by other folks who don’t do said jobs. Reformers will never “get” teachers to do anything. Those teachers who voluntarily (albeit begrudgingly) pursue goals set by others, do so with disdain and heartache. We know who bares the outcome(s) of feeling so miserable about one’s work–the kids (and the teachers’ families of course). That is misery doubled and redoubled.

      Your point is clear and I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for commenting on this post. GG

  2. April 10, 2010 1:23 pm

    You’ve got me thinking and reflecting on how my own metaphors for student learning play out in my classroom. If I value student autonomy and independence, do my practices find congruence with those goals? I reflect often, sometimes thinking it’s a curse but mostly considering it a gift. I appreciate your goal to examine research about teachers and how they critically impact student learning.

    • April 10, 2010 6:12 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to comment Joan.

      I’m quite keen on using metaphors as a window into our values & beliefs. I can trace my history as an educator through my metaphors.

      I recall my first years as a Student Affairs professional, I used a journey metaphor (for myself and my students as fellow-travelers). Teaching community college leadership classes I adopted the metaphor of a sherpa (popular to those who adopt the servant leadership model proposed by Robert Greenleaf). My first couple years teaching ed psych to preservice teachers, I saw my work through a metaphor of a laboratory (me being the nutty professor-like scientist modeling & encouraging fearlessness to experiment with radical and innovative teaching and learning methods).

      Currently my metaphor for teaching and learning is under interrogation. I’m drawn to ecosystem/ecological metaphors through which every member of the learning community is essential to the ecosystem thriving, yet I don’t believe this captures all of my other values like experimentation, mindfulness, support & challenge, etc.

      I believe using metaphor resonates with my (and perhaps many others’) story-teller’s inclinations. As I said in the post, I believe it is one of many ways we can attempt to understand our beliefs and the implications they have in the lives of students. Its definitely one of the most interesting and creative ways. GG

  3. April 10, 2010 5:40 pm

    Lovely, thank you. I look forward to future posts. I appreciate the previous comment too.

    I think for myself and colleagues in teaching and in the NWP where ‘inquiry as stance’ is central, the way you open up the metaphor of teacher-as-gardener is a good example of how we can surface and explore our visions about teaching and learning. Our beliefs are deeper, more complicated, and less tidy than the often superficial metaphors and images we use to express them. When we push each other to cast our beliefs into language or represent them through image in order to explore them, we often see contradictions, limits, points of affirmation and discomfort. It opens up possibilities for change at a more profound level than the simple addition of a strategy or practice of a new routine. This is how significant growth in teaching happens.

    Our reform climate sells teachers short in so many ways, and one of those ways is to discount the possibilities for growth and development. Good teachers simply ‘are’ and we should hire them; bad teachers simply ‘are’ and we should fire them. Among teachers engaging in inquiry, though, we know that we are all in a process of becoming. The question is always, becoming what?

    • May 6, 2010 3:59 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and perspective Elyse. I really appreciate the way you’ve called the question on static views of teacher development. Being always in the “process of becoming” affords us the opportunity to change our metaphors over time, rather than picking one, naming it, owning it, and perhaps loosing out on opportunities for writing a new story (i.e., developing over time). GG

  4. April 11, 2010 1:21 am

    It sounds as though Ms. Moran was using a variant of the Socratic Elenchus. Great frame, IMO.


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