In the mid-1970s a new body of research began to emerge that worked to describe teachers’ thoughts, judgments and decisions as the cognitive processes that shaped their behaviors (Calderhead, 1996, Clark and Peterson, 1986; Dann, 1990). As a consequence of this, a surge of interest in the area of teacher belief systems has appeared (Pajares, 1992). This research “has helped to identify the nature and complexity of the teacher’s work , and helped to provide ways of thinking about the processes of change and support” (Calderhead, 1996, p.721).
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Researchers found that teaching could not be characterized simply as behaviors that were linked to thinking done before and during the activity but rather that the thought process of teaching included a much wider and richer mental context. As Shavelson and Stern (1981, p.479) explained, research on teacher cognition made “the basic assumption that teachers’ thoughts, judgments, and decisions guide their teaching behavior”.
Kagan (1990, p. 420) noted that teacher cognition is somewhat ambiguous, because researchers invoke the term to refer to different products, including “teachers’ interactive thoughts during instruction; thought during lesson planning, implicit beliefs about students, classrooms and learning; reflections about their own teaching performance; automized routines and activities that form their instructional repertoire; and self-awareness of procedures they use to solve classrooms problems”.
Currently, there is increasing recognition that the beliefs individuals hold are the best indicators of the decisions they make during the course of everyday life (Bandura, 1986). Pajares (1992, p. 307) argues that the investigation of teachers’ beliefs "should be a focus of educational research and can inform educational practice in ways that prevailing research agendas have not and cannot". Educational researchers trying to understand the nature of teaching and learning in classrooms have usefully exploited this focus on belief systems. The research of Jakubowski and Tobin (1991) suggests that teachers’ metaphors and beliefs not only influence what teachers do in the classroom, but that changes in these same metaphors and beliefs can result in changes in their practices.
A belief can be defined as a representation of the information someone holds about an object, or a “person’s understanding of himself and his environment” (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975, p.131). This object can “be a person, a group of people, an institution, a behavior, a policy, an event, etc., and the associated attribute may be any object, trait, property, quality, characteristic, outcome, or event” (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975, p.12). While Rokeach (1972) defined a belief as “any simple proposition, conscious or unconscious, inferred from what a person says or does, capable of being preceded by the phrase ‘I believe that…’” (p.113), Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) defined a belief system as a hierarchy of beliefs according to the strength about a particular object.
Researchers exploring teachers’
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