Education and Beliefs

by Maite Galan and Tim Maguire


          The power of beliefs in the classroom is well illustrated by the story of a group of children who were tested and found to be average learners. The group was then subdivided into two random subgroups. One subgroup had a teacher who was told that the pupils he was taking were “gifted”. The teacher of the other subgroup was told that his pupils were “slow learners”. The assessment of the two groups at the end of the year showed that the majority of the group which had been arbitrarily named as “gifted” obtained higher scores than they had previously, while the majority of the supposed “slow learners” scored lower then they had before. One conclusion we can draw from this experiment is that the majority of children in the two subgroups conformed to the beliefs their teachers had about them, not to their real capabilities. This is a startling example of the power of the educator’s beliefs to enable or disable their students because the educator’s belief became the student’s reality.


In the Middle Ages seafarers believed  the world to be flat so they navigated along the coastlines, fearful of coming to a sudden precipice and falling off the earth. Astronomic observations gradually convinced some that this was not so, despite the opposition of religious believers. For many of us our beliefs are so ingrained, so part of us, that we confuse belief with reality.


In his book “Changing Belief Systems”, Robert Dilts uses Neuro-linguistic Programming to throw some light on the confusion between beliefs and reality by defining beliefs as generalisations. More exactly, according to Dilts they are generalisations about the connection between different experiences. For example you are going to work one morning when suddenly a black cat crosses your path. You think it a little unusual but carry on to work where, unusually, you have the most awful day. This double sequence of events, seeing a black cat in the morning and having an awful day at work only has to happen to most of us three times and we’ll start believing that there is a causal relationship between the two events. From then on we’ll begin to expect to have a bad day at work if a black cat suddenly crosses our path on the way there because we have generalised the relationship between the two experiences into a reality when in fact it is a coincidence. The important point is that it is we ourselves who forge the connection between the two experiences. It is a mental construct. That is the nature of belief - we construct it in our minds. (The positive angle, of course, is that we can also learn to deconstruct, or change, it.)


 Another striking example of the power of belief to alter our lives is the so-called placebo effect. Dilts looked into the research on placebos done in the USA where every new drug has to be tested against a placebo. He concluded that more than a third of the time placebos had the same effect as the drug being tested. This means that in over thirty-three percent of cases belief in the placebos effected a cure equivalent to the available chemical stimulant. This may not be so surprising if we reflect that vaccination works by eliciting the body’s own defence system and that, possibly, belief has the same immunological effect. However we explain it, the placebo effect remains a powerful example of the capacity of our beliefs to transform our lives. We can turn the placebo effect to our advantage simply by expecting students to learn well. Those who swallow the pill of our expectations will learn more than English; they will learn the benefits of constructing positive beliefs.


In his book Dilts goes further and offers a framework which enables us to explore the way in which we construct beliefs. The model of organisation he proposes distinguishes 5 different levels : Environment - Behaviour - Capabilities - Beliefs - Identity. For example if a child is having problems with spelling, the teacher might talk about the problem from any one of the 5 viewpoints:

Environment: “You don’t spell well because you can’t concentrate in this noisy atmosphere.”

Behaviour:   “You don’t put effort into concentrating so you misspell.”

Capabilities: “You’ll have to develop better spelling strategies.”

Beliefs:         “Spelling is not as important as creative writing.”

Identity:        “You are a poor student.”


The impact on the student of an isolated analysis will range widely depending on the level chosen, from the Environmental : “I can’t spell because of the surrounding  noise.” to the Identification: “I am not intelligent”.


Dilts invites us to view beliefs not as an isolated occurrence but as one level of the system. For example, the connection between Belief, Capabilities and Behaviour is that the function of beliefs is to activate capabilities and behaviours. The student above is encouraged to improve his spelling strategies and make an effort to spell correctly by his belief that in this way he will be better able to express himself creatively. If you can give the learner a strategy for attaining the new capability, such as Dilts’ insight that good spellers visualise words, then you will help the learning process even more. In the same way enhancing a learner’s Environment through supportive feedback will also underpin his chances of believing long enough in himself to allow change to take place, despite temporary failures. Belief is a construct and can be analysed as part of a system. It affects and is influenced by the other levels of the system. It is  not to be confused with reality,


Let’s apply this distinction between beliefs and reality to different educational circumstances. 


Student perceptions on science teaching


Jon Pedersen of East Carolina University and Julie Thomas of Texas Tech University used schoolchildren’s drawings to investigate their perceptions of science teaching. The study used a Draw-A-Science-Teacher Checklist, each item on the checklist representing a stereotypic characteristic. The characteristics are derived from reviews of literature relating to students' images of scientists.


The research indicated that when asked  to draw a science teacher in a classroom the pictures drawn represented children listening or watching while the teacher gave directions or lectured at an overhead projector. The researchers found that even as early as the second grade, students had a distinct view of the teaching of science. This view correlated to a traditional model of teaching and learning that focuses on the teacher rather than the student.


As an example, illustrations included a model with labels and the teacher is pointing to parts of the model asking questions. According to the researchers the children that participated in the study appeared to like science, but clearly believed that it was like a package which you unwrapped according to the teachers’ instructions since that was how they experienced it. The pictures drawn by the students present a window to the ways in which their beliefs about science are constructed. The key point here is that pupils will react to science according to the beliefs they have about it. These beliefs in turn were constructed through a certain teaching style which probably communicated unintentionally the ideas that science comes in readymade packs.


The two authors also used the drawing technique with pre-service elementary teachers to find out their perceptions of classroom experiences. In these illustrations children are usually seated in desks but sometimes there are only desks – and other times there are no students and no desks. The authors voice an ironical concern about whether or not children need to be present for a science teacher to teach. One possible implication is that these pre-service teachers are only superficially aware of the communication process involved in teaching science and perceive teaching as an exposition of content. However unintentional, the message that their future pupils will receive is that science is a list of facts given to you by a teacher.


The drawing technique used by Pedersen & Thomas stemmed from work by the psychologist Nespor who suggested that beliefs resided in episodic memory and were derived from personal experience. Nespor says that episodic memory enables you not only to recall the memory, but also to remember something about the setting in which the remembered information was learned. The nature of episodic memory is pervasive and complex. It covers the ability of a person to travel back in time, to re-experience remembered events. In this way, episodic memory links experience of the past, present and future. These critical experiences  influence and frame how you learn and how you use what is learned. Beliefs are important because they are rooted in the subconscious episodic memory which sets limitations to our learning. Conversely, consciously probing our belief system is an enabling process in which we can extend the limits of our learning capacities. Instead of using our beliefs to incapacitate ourselves or students, we can use them positively to capacitate them.


Social Myths in education


Of course not all the beliefs in education start and end in classrooms. Teachers’, parents’ and schoolchildren’s beliefs are influenced by social myths usually spread by the mass media. Harbison Pool, Professor of Educational Leadership in the Department of Leadership, Technology and Human Development at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia, debunks some of these educational “facts” in the USA.


He cites the belief that there is an existing and growing weakness of American schools, teachers, and students, especially in comparison to their counterparts in industrialized Europe and Asia. He cites a provocative book, “The Manufactured Crisis” by Berliner and Biddle who give counter arguments, backed by research, to that claim saying :

(a) there has, indeed, been no real decline in student achievement,

(b) intelligence test scores are actually up,

(c) teacher education has improved,

(d) there is no undersupply of scientists and engineers,

(e) private schools are not really better than public schools.


Despite this good news, Pool invites us to balance the positive view of Berliner and Biddle by attending to the convincing data and experiences of just how devastating the situation is in many poor, inner-city, segregated schools as portrayed in another book, “Savage Inequalities” by Kozol).


Another American educational myth is that American schools are burdened by bureaucracy and that many dollars that should have been spent on classrooms have been squandered on administrators. The public perception is that more than half of the people surveyed believe that nearly 20% of school budgets is so allocated.  As it turns out, in a Californian study, less than 5% of school budgets are actually spent on district and central office administration. Clearly, some serious re-education is in order.


Among the first impediments to positive change which teachers must challenge is the seemingly ever-present argument advanced by many that "they-won't-let-me". Usually this reasoning is nothing more than an excuse or rationalization for inaction and maintaining the more comfortable, if unpromising, status quo. (Who are “they” anyway?)


By debunking some of the more popular, sacred cow beliefs, Pool’s intention is not to attack belief itself but rather to ask questions about what we accept in blind faith. He is drawing attention to the way we think. We will always have a tendency to build sacred cow beliefs because this is the way we interact with the world. However we can avoid the pitfall of thinking that what we believe is the ultimate truth, not worth investigating by seeking evidence.


A different type of modern belief  we often have is a tendency to confuse scientific research with reality and thus we accept psychological and philosophical theories as educational reality. Once again they are constructs, not to be confused with reality. They are models of reality built up to give a cogent explanation of how things work. However since beliefs about teaching and learning strongly affect behaviour as a teacher, it is important to continually reflect on what you believe and why you believe what you believe about learning. 

Theoretical models influence educational beliefs

Two of the psychological models in education most referred to nowadays are behaviourism and constructivism. Behaviourism claimed to be a scientific approach to learning and studied the external, measurable, demonstrations of the process. For the Behaviourist school, whose main exponent was Skinner, learning was the result of conditioning observable through particular forms of behaviour. In extreme cases Behaviourists generalised the processes of learning in rats to apply to human learning, in turn defined as stimulus-response conditioning. One of the problems with behaviourist psychology was that there was no place given to processing between the stimulus and the response, thus the thinking power of the brain was made equivalent to the knee jerk.


One of the alternative approaches to behaviouristic psychology, specifically within the study of language acquisition, is cognitive psychology. This model, and recent linguistic studies, challenge the fundamental values that underpin the scientific approach to education and therefore behaviourism as a scientific learning theory.


Cognitive psychologists are concerned with how the mind works, about the nature of knowledge and how knowledge is acquired, rather than on the tangible behaviour of the human being. Thus, if asked the question, "How do we come to know what we know?", cognitive psychologists  would answer, "Knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner". This deceptively simple answer is explained  through the various theories of constructivism. Cognitive psychologists challenge the fundamental premise of scientific belief applied to education, the belief that the only way we can know something is if it can be observed and empirically proved.


Beliefs and educational research


We have referred to different research into beliefs and you may have exercised a willing suspension of disbelief while reading this far. However, research itself demands belief and some research in education is itself the subject  to doubt.

On Thursday may 28th, 1998, the New Times L.A. ran a cover story on the famous educational theorist and USC professor Stephen Krashen. The journalist, Jill Stewart, called the article “KrashenBurn”.  The subject is California’s bilingual education programme which, following Krashen, teaches immigrant children for up to seven years in their native Spanish, before they learn English. The object of this is to achieve the children’s literacy in English.


Christine Rossell, a Massachusetts researcher who has conducted an analysis of these studies, says California has built its multi-billion-dollar bilingual education industry on a dream. Rossell found that only 72 of the studies of bilingual education that exist used scientifically accepted methods, such as control groups and random selection. Of this research Rossell found only a handful of studies showed modestly positive results when teaching English using bilingual "transition" methods. More importantly,  not a single study exists showing that the method is better than simply teaching immigrant children intensive English from day one.


"The idea that one should withhold English from a child so that he can gain his          skills first in the language of his parents, and that this will translate into becoming literate more quickly in English, is simply not how it works," Rossell asserts. "You do not teach someone five years of skateboarding when you want them to learn to surf, even if skateboarding helps a little with things like balance and fitness. But that is what California is doing with Mexican-American children. When I tell researchers in Europe that in America we are teaching children Spanish first to move them into English later, they act like I'm joking."


Krashen critics point to another less savoury fact. Until California began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into bilingual education, Krashen had embraced

"structured immersion" English language training for children -- quite the opposite to bilingual education. Rossell says Krashen did a sudden turn-about in his beliefs just when the financial bonanza - now more than $500 million a year for bilingual education - began pouring in to school districts.


Another obscure point is that the schools reap tremendous benefits from refusing to graduate immigrant children from Spanish to English classes. Every student who is "transitioned" means the school loses its special bilingual funding, based upon headcounts. Teacher motivation to do better is in jeopardy too through the system because bilingual teachers are paid a $5,000 bonus per year only if they keep their students in Spanish, not English.


The final irony comes from what Krashen sensibly recommends in his latest book for educators who want to learn Spanish in order to be bilingual teachers : immersion language training in a foreign country. He recommends immersion for people who really want to teach a second language but no immersion for the children taught by those teachers.


Krashen’s internal contradictions will have to be answered by him However, his proposals are certainly counter-intuitive. Does that make them less believable?  Research itself, one of the most reliable ways we have for building up our models of reality, is debatable and contradictory as we have seen in the different proposals of Krashen and Rosell. Paradoxically, however, our only certainty is that if debate comes to a standstill we can be sure that our beliefs will be less adapted to our needs.


The final choice of beliefs rests with the educator. Of the two teachers in the story at the beginning of this article which teacher would you prefer to be : the one who expected and got poor results; or the one who believed that the students were capable and thus enabled them?



 Maite Galán has a degree in Philology. She works as a language teacher in a high school and has 25 years teaching experience in Spain and France. She is a consultant for McGill University, Canada, in reading material foreign for language students.

Website:  E-mail:


Tom Maguire has a BA (English), M-ès-Lettres (French) and Philology degree (Spain). He has 27 years experience in TEFL in France and Spain. At present he teaches EFL in a Spanish State high school near Barcelona. He is interested in using Neuro-linguistic Programming (Nlp) to enhance Learning to Learn strategies. He is a Master Practitioner in Nlp and manages a listserv for those interested in NLP in Education. Website:



(Originally published in IDEAS, March 2001, Galicia, Spain.) (ISSN: 1139-9163)