In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Teacher Beliefs and Epistemologies

  • Introduction

Education Teacher Beliefs and Epistemologies
Leila Ferguson, Joanne Lunn Brownlee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0276


Teacher beliefs are implicit and explicit suppositions held by educators which have relevance for their professional and instructional practices, interactions with students, and learning processes. They may include beliefs about students, self, learning, knowledge, and knowing. Beliefs about knowledge and knowing—teacher epistemologies—are a specific and important type of teacher belief. Teacher beliefs and epistemologies merit investigation given their influence on teaching practices and student learning, yet the form, nature, development, and propensity to change with respect to these constructs are open to question. Further, their expression in teachers’ practice is complex, not least because both the construct and content of “belief” and “epistemology” are equivocal, elaborate, and closely connected to other constructs. Much of the teacher beliefs and epistemology research has emerged from the field of educational psychology. This chapter describes five central issues related to teachers’ beliefs and epistemologies during recent decades. Similar core issues were identified in the Oxford Research Encyclopedias in Education article “Reviews of Teachers’ Beliefs.” Within each of five sections, which represent the core issues in the field, we first explore teacher beliefs in general followed by teacher epistemologies specifically. In the first section, we provide general overviews of teacher beliefs and epistemologies to introduce the reader to key texts in both fields. The second section is a review of conceptualizations of teacher beliefs and epistemologies, in which we highlight the ways in which beliefs and epistemologies are characterized. The third section explores relationships between teachers’ beliefs/epistemologies and teaching and learning practices. Measuring teachers’ beliefs and epistemologies is the focus of the fourth section, which explicates different ways in which beliefs and epistemologies have been studied. Finally, in the fifth section, we examine research and theorization about the ways in which teachers’ beliefs and epistemologies might undergo change.

General Overviews—Teachers’ Beliefs

While beliefs are propositions that are held to be true, as Fives, et al. 2019 highlights, teachers’ beliefs refer to those propositions relating to teaching practices. Teacher beliefs have been framed as suppositions such as attitudes, values, assumptions, images, intuitive screens, (pre-)conceptions, personal teaching styles, and personal history–based lay theories, which was already apparent in Clark and Peterson 1984. Interest in teacher beliefs seems to have arisen with the emergence of cognitive views of education. Early accounts of teacher beliefs such as Calderhead 1996 and Clark and Peterson 1984 focused on teacher knowledge, cognition, and beliefs. These accounts tended to focus on conceptual clarity with respect to the nature and structure of teacher beliefs. Richardson 1996 incorporated teacher attitudes and Clark and Peterson 1984 thought processes, as part of a bid to understand the link between what teachers know and how this is expressed in practice. Richardson 1996 and Raths and McAninch 2003 have a strong focus on the reciprocal role of teacher beliefs and teacher education. That is, not only does education help develop beliefs, but future teachers’ attention will be guided by their pre-existing beliefs and in that way shape the parts of teacher education that they value and attend to. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a growth in research that explores the connections between teacher beliefs and student outcomes, and the challenges associated with supporting belief change, as overviewed by Ashton 2015. An overview of the background and development of the research relating to teacher beliefs can be gained by reviewing Ashton 2015. See also the Kane, et al. 2002 account of teacher beliefs at the tertiary level. The OECD 2009 report provides an overview of international trends with respect to teachers’ beliefs about student learning and teaching, co-operation, self-efficacy, and knowledge. Newer comprehensive reviews identifying core issues in the field have been published, namely, Fives and Buehl 2012 and Fives and Gill 2015. More recently, Fives, et al. 2019 has provided an excellent meta-review of the field.

  • Ashton, Patricia T. 2015. Historical overview and theoretical perspectives of research on teachers’ beliefs. In International handbook of research on teachers’ beliefs. Edited by Helenrose Fives and Michele Gregoire Gill, 31–47. New York: Routledge.

    This chapter in the International Handbook of Research on Teachers’ Beliefs provides a framing historical narrative about research on teachers’ beliefs from its beginning until 2015, showing the role of different theoretical perspectives. Ashton’s overview shows how teachers’ beliefs and epistemologies have both been the focus of research (though not always together).

  • Calderhead, James. 1996. Teachers: Beliefs and knowledge. In Handbook of educational psychology. Edited by D. C. Berliner and R. C. Calfee, 709–725. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    This chapter reviews research into teachers’ cognitions. Calderhead argues that knowledge and beliefs are different based on four features, that is, “existential presumption, alternativity, affective and evaluate loading, and episodic structure” (p. 719). He also overviews the content of teacher beliefs as including beliefs about learners and learning, teaching, subject, learning to teach, and self and the teaching role.

  • Clark, Christopher M., and Penelope L. Peterson. 1984. Teachers’ thought processes. Occasional Paper No. 72. East Lansing: Inst. for Research on Teaching, Michigan State Univ.

    This article is an interesting historical piece, explaining the emergence of research on teacher thinking, which was motivated by attempts to understand teaching behavior. It references research on human information processing that suggested that humans behave based on “simplified models” (p. 5). A heuristic for teacher thoughts and actions is also presented where beliefs are represented as part of teachers’ thought processes.

  • Fives, Helenrose, Nicole Barnes, Candice Chiavola, et al. 2019. Reviews of teachers’ beliefs. Oxford Research Encyclopedias in Education. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In this meta-analysis, the researchers overview key research areas. A main focus is belief change, and the need to be mindful of ethical aspects in suggesting change is needed, as well as the danger of focusing on teacher beliefs in isolation, without attending to emotional and social factors or the teaching context.

  • Fives, Helenrose, and Michelle M. Buehl. 2012. Spring cleaning for the “messy” construct of teachers’ beliefs: What are they? Which have been examined? What can they tell us? In APA educational psychology handbook. Vol. 2, Individual differences and cultural and contextual factors. Edited by Karen R. Harris, Steve Graham, Tim Urdan, et al., 471–498. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    This chapter is an exhaustive review highlighting teacher beliefs’ that are addressed in the literature. The authors posit that the function of teacher beliefs is triadic in filtering, framing, and guiding practice, for example, filtering “what . . . teachers recognize as worth discussing with students” (p. 470). Teacher beliefs are represented as implicit and explicit in nature, more or less stable, activated by contextual demands, and “interwoven” (p. 476) with knowledge.

  • Fives, Helenrose, and Michele Gregoire Gill, eds. 2015. International handbook of research on teachers’ beliefs. New York: Routledge.

    This edited volume provides a comprehensive overview of research on teachers’ beliefs. It includes a review of the historical foundations and current research trends, as well as state-of-the-knowledge chapters on teachers’ beliefs about content, instruction, students, and learning. This volume is a good starting point for students and scholars wishing to orientate themselves in the broad and varied field of teachers’ beliefs.

  • Kane, Ruth, Susan Sandretto, and Chris Heath. 2002. Telling half the story: A critical review of research on the teaching beliefs and practices of university academics. Review of Educational Research 72.2: 177–228.

    DOI: 10.3102/00346543072002177

    This review overviews research on teacher beliefs at the tertiary level. Teachers in higher education may be a particularly interesting group to study given that they generally have long academic training and experience, yet often lack formal teacher education. This may make their beliefs more influential, tacit, and difficult to change. The authors also highlight the lack of behavioral data/observational studies and the shortcomings of relying on self-reported data about beliefs.

  • OECD. 2009. Creating effective teaching and learning environments: First results from TALIS.

    This is an easily accessible overview of results from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Study. Chapter 4 focuses on teaching practices and teachers’ beliefs and attitudes. It presents international trends with respect to teachers’ beliefs about student learning and teaching, co-operation, self-efficacy, and knowledge.

  • Raths, James, and Amy C. McAninch, eds. 2003. Teacher beliefs and classroom performance: The impact of teacher education. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

    This text is an early attempt to review and draw attention to the important role of teacher education in facilitating belief changes for preservice teachers. Key questions addressed by authors include whether and how preservice teachers’ beliefs should be changed by teacher educators, related ethical questions, and the role of emotions and external contextual factors in influencing teacher beliefs.

  • Richardson, Virginia. 1996. The role of attitudes and beliefs in learning to teach. In Handbook of research on teacher education. Edited by John Sikula, T. Buttery, and E. Guyton, 102–119. New York: Macmillan.

    Richardson provides an early review which has a focus on attitudes and beliefs in terms of i) the way beliefs influence incoming information for preservice teachers, and ii) how beliefs are changed through teacher education. In this way, teacher beliefs and teacher education may be reciprocally related. The chapter also details central quantitative and qualitative methods of assessing teacher beliefs.

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