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Educational beliefs and the learning environment.


This paper explores the formative context within which students' beliefs develop, the nature of student beliefs, and the relationship of these beliefs to the learning environment. These 'beliefs' and 'learning environment' concepts will be clarified through the use of frameworks that identify two types of learning environments and three sets of beliefs about education that various groups of education stakeholders may hold. A recent empirical study will examine the ability of the 'beliefs' to predict positions within the 'learning environment' framework.

"Learning does not occur in a vacuum ... The classroom environment ... can have significant impacts on student learning." (APA Board of Educational Affairs, 1997)


This edition of Academic Exchange Quarterly focuses on the relationship between the classroom learning environment and aspects of students' belief systems. The call for papers stated: "Student perceptions, beliefs, motivations, and attitudes, are constantly changing. As educators.., it is our responsibility to measure these variables continuously in order to enhance the learning environment" (McCollum, 2006). This educator responsibility, as set out by McCollum, may more likely be fulfilled as conceptual frameworks that focus our thinking concerning the concepts of 'students' beliefs' and 'the learning environment' are examined. The 'concepts' will be identified through the use of frameworks put forward by Silvernail (1992a) regardingbeliefs about education, and Willower, Eidell, and Hoy (1967) regarding learning environments. A research precedent that examines the relationship between these concepts will also be considered. In this regard, Rideout's (2005) examination of the ability of the 'beliefs' frameworks to predict positions within the 'learning environment' framework will be considered. on this basis, this paper will explore the formative context within which students' beliefs develop, the nature of beliefs about education, and the relationship of these beliefs to the learning environment.

The Influence of Non-Student Stakeholders

In an examination of the formative context within which students' beliefs develop, it is necessary to identify some of the confounding variables that complicate the relationship between the learning environment and students' beliefs. There is no exclusive symbiotic relationship. Both are influenced by a wide range of contextual factors such as the media, social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others (APA Board of Educational Affairs, 1997). Additionally, the beliefs and practices of a number of educational stakeholders shape student beliefs (Haney, Czerniak, & Lumpe, 2003), and by extension, the learning environment Along with the beliefs of students, the beliefs and practices of these education stakeholders, who are 'above', 'beside', 'around', and 'within' the school may also be significant predictors of the learning environment of the classroom.

Reed (1999), Manzer (1994), and Marshall (1997) have examined the impact on learning environments of the 'above the school' influence of education policy. They suggest that the very presence of educational policy is an indication of the bureaucratic and institutional nature of the school, and that educational policy is a reflection of the institutionalized, bureaucratic beliefs about education held by policymakers in general. According to Creemers and Reezigt (1996), these influences find their way into the classroom learning environment. Bedard and Lawton's (2000) work affirmed this bureaucratic influence of policy on education during the 1980s and 1990s in Ontario, Canada.

From a 'beside the school' perspective, Barnard (1938) identified the informal authority historically resident in the larger group surrounding the formal structures of the workplace. For instance, a group such as a school community (parents, local business, local politicians) may influence the learning environment of the school. Weber (1947) identified the charismatic, traditional, and legal authority such groups used as bases for legitimizing 'right and proper' ways to conduct the affairs of organizations. With regard to 'around the school' conditions that affect the learning environment, Furlong, Babinski, and Poland (1996) and Shen (2001) reported that educators in urban areas believed that they had less opportunity to respond individually to the learning environment, specifically as it pertains to behavior issues. Shen also reported that rural teachers believed they had more power in disciplinary and instructional issues.

From 'within the school', three conditions are prominently identified in the literature as impacting the learning environment. Markham (1999) and Olivo (2003) identified the impact on the learning environment of ESL students in the classrooms. Dixon-Floyd and Johnson (1997) examined the impact of students with behavioral problems. Skiba, Peterson, and Williams (1997) focused on the impact of predominantly low socio-economic status (SES) students. In each of these cases, teachers believed that a tightly controlled, or custodial, learning environment was appropriate.

Categorizing Stakeholders' Beliefs

As suggested above, a deeper appreciation of the classroom learning environment can be gained by understanding that students' beliefs and the learning environment are influenced by other education stakeholders' beliefs and contextual influences. It becomes important, then, to explore a schema that facilitates the categorization of beliefs about education. Silvernail (1992b) identified three clearly articulated groupings of beliefs. This schema, while intended to identify teachers' beliefs, may be of assistance in the exploration of education stakeholder beliefs generally. Silvernail (1992b) set out the history (Kerlinger & Kaya, 1959; Ornstein & Hunkins, 1988; Wright, 1980) of the development of three philosophical orientations into which beliefs about education may be categorized, and presented an instrument for determining these orientations, the Educational Beliefs Questionnaire (EBQ). These philosophical orientations were evidenced by beliefs about key concepts of education (purposes of education, nature of curriculum content, methods of instruction, role of the teacher, and role of the student) that are prominent in the literature (Mitchell & Sackney, 2000; Pajares, 1992; Samuelowicz & Bain, 2001; Silvemail, 1992a; Zinn, 1991).

Stakeholders with a traditionalist orientation believe that education centers on learning a set of predetermined facts and skills, whose knowledge of and ability to perform are in the possession of an elite group. The role of the school is transmitting essential knowledge, and perpetuating the predominant culture. Drill and practice, strong authority roles for teachers and passive roles for students are valued. Stakeholders with a progressivist orientation believe that education is about the discovery of 'facts' through 'logical' inquiry, and the learning of facts and skills that are most relevant to them in their relationship to the world as they are taught to perceive it. The role of schools is to foster the intellectual process, the inquiry method of learning, teachers as facilitators, and active student involvement. Stakeholders with a romanticist orientation believe that education is about directing attention onto the child. School is a place where children are free to experience themselves and society around them by being fully involved in choosing the direction of any program or evaluation. Schools are sources of new social ideas and individual self-awareness. With teachers as guides, knowledge is created for each individual through their understanding of how current social issues relate to them.

Conceptualizing the Learning Environment

With a general understanding of how stakeholder beliefs might be categoriized, it would now be useful to identify a specific aspect of the learning environment that may be particularly responsive to beliefs of teachers, students and stakeholders. While descriptive terminology abounds in this area, the following two examples may best conceptualize recent thinking. In their research into the perspectives of teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and students concerning the learning environment, Haney, Czerniak, and Lumpe (2003) described the constructivist (which includes the components of "student negotiation, shared control, critical voice, and personal relevance", p. 1), and traditionalist ("settings where teachers transmit information to students while they sit in straight rows reading, working on worksheets, or listening to the teacher", p. 2). teaching approaches. Willower, Eidell and Hoy (1967) had previously developed a conceptual framework that facilitated the quantification of somewhat similar typifications of the learning environment. Over the past four decades Willower, Eidell and Hoy's framework has been used in over 200 studies (Hoy, 2001) to identify the learning environment, as it pertains to classroom management and pupil control, on a humanistic to custodial continuum. A brief review of learning environments, as categorized in this manner, is appropriate at this point.

The humanistic environment was evident in an educational community atmosphere present in the school, where students learned through interaction and cooperation with others. Psychology and sociology were prominent in understanding the processes of learning and behaviour. Selfdiscipline replaced strict teacher control. A democratic atmosphere led to flexibility in status and rules, interpersonal sensitivity, open communication and an increase in student selfdetermination. Custodial environments were typified by the presence of a rigid and highly controlled classroom atmosphere. Maintenance of order was most important, and order was often judged based on stereotypes such as appearance, behavior, and SES. Well-dressed, neatly groomed students who sat quietly were evidence of an orderly, well-run class. In the custodial environment, teachers understood schools to be autocratic, hierarchical organizations with the flow of power and communication downwards to students. Generally the attitude was that teachers must keep their guard up against students who are all alike, won't achieve much if not pushed, and can't really be trusted.

Research Precedent

It remains now to identify research that links the traditionalist, progressivist, and romanticist beliefs categories to the custodial and humanistic classroom environments. Rideout (2005) examined the predictive ability of three clusters of variables, demographic, experiential, and philosophical orientations (beliefs about education) in relation to these learning environments. In his study, Rideout conducted a series of Multiple Regression Analyses on the variable clusters, with the scores arising from Willower et al.'s (1967) scale regarding the learning environment as the dependent variable. These statistical analyses indicated the strength of the variable clusters with respect to explained variance, and by comparison, the most predictive variable cluster in relation to preference for a custodial or humanistic classroom environment. The participants in the study were 722 pre-service teachers (a 97% participation rate) in all three levels of the primary/junior, junior/intermediate, and intermediate/senior after-degree teacher education program at a Canadian University.

While the demographic and experience variable clusters accounted for relatively a small, but significant, degree of variance, the philosophical orientation variable cluster appeared to account for 20.7% of the variance in the scores. Rideout concluded that preference for humanistic and custodial learning environments was most accurately predicted by the philosophical orientations (beliefs about education) variable cluster. A significant limitation in the application of this research is that while Rideout demonstrated the link between beginning teachers' beliefs and their preferred learning environments, these findings have not been tested in relation to students' or other stakeholders' beliefs about education and the learning environment. Because of the similar influences, reviewed earlier, that may have shaped the beliefs of teachers and students alike, it appears reasonable to conclude that students' beliefs as well may be significant predictors of the learning environment. Further research in this area is encouraged.


This paper has identified conceptual frameworks for beliefs and for the learning environment, and a 'linking' research precedent which may further our ability as educators to meet the responsibility, as specified by McCollum (2006), of enhancing the learning environment. Haney, Czerniak, and Lumpe (2003) identified two prominent 'learning environment' manifestations of beliefs about education. Constructivism would be best facilitated in a humanistic learning environment, while traditional teaching approaches would most likely be present in a custodial learning environment. Beginning teachers enter learning environments that may be predisposed towards one or the other of these learning environments as a result of, among other things, the stakeholder and contextual influences discussed in this paper. It is important for these conceptions of learning environments to be understood by beginning teachers as they attempt to develop a more articulated understanding of life in the classroom.

One of the by-products that beginning teachers will likely face as a result of stakeholders" differing beliefs about education and a resulting wide range of outcomes expectations is conflict and stress. Bobek (2002) and Wiley (2000) identified the consequences of stress, such as high attrition and illness, that may arise from the dissonance between these differing beliefs. The reality of this stress is confirmed by the U. S. National Education Association (NEA, 2002), who attribute a high degree of teacher attrition and low job satisfaction ratings to this phenomenon. It therefore would be meaningful to identify a direction that may reduce teacher stress, facilitate the creation of suitable learning environments, and further the most effective education possible for children in the classroom. According to the literature, that direction appears to be aligned with teachers' constructivist and progressivist beliefs about education.

Haney, Czerniak, and Lumpe (2003) identified constructivism as the anchor of sound reform ideas, reporting that teachers' and administrators' professional development could successfully contribute to the development of constructivist teaching ideas., and that constructivist practices increased student achievement. Further afield, the Western Australian Department of Education and Training (2004) specified a constructivist "learning environment that [will] stimulate and challenge students to achieve optimum learning" (p. 1). This learning environment would be achieved through, among other things, the recognition that students learn in different ways, and by the taking of responsibility by students for their own learning.

Teacher education programs are key to facilitating the development of such constructivist learning environments. In closing then, the following proposed pre-service curriculum framework may encourage progressivist and constructivist learning environments. Within university faculties of education, curriculum units could be designed to enhance specific understandings of elements that ultimately shape classroom learning environments. Such units would focus on developing understandings of (a) beliefs about education (b) how these beliefs need to be grounded in research findings, sound reasoning, classroom demonstrations, and personal experiences, (c) how these beliefs interact with other stakeholders' beliefs in developing an authentic learning environments, (d) the potential conflicts that may arise between educational policy, school vision, and personal beliefs in relation to the learning environment, and (e) the resulting impact on beginning teachers and students alike of socialization trends. Beginning and experienced teachers, the school community, and students in classrooms all may benefit from the resulting authentic learning environments.


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Glenn W. Rideout, The King's University College, Canada

Glenn W. Rideout, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the King's after-degree B. Ed. program. His current research interests include teacher education and beliefs about education.
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Author:Rideout, Glenn W.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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