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Preservice teacher epistemic beliefs and cultures.

Abstract

In recent years there has been a growing interest in examining learners' epistemological beliefs and its relationship with their ways of learning. In this study we revealed significant differences in the epistemological beliefs between pre-service teachers from the United States and China participating in a computer-mediated intercultural writing project. Also, data suggested that differences in beliefs of knowledge and learning had influenced the learning process and outcomes of the online interaction between the American and Chinese participants.

Introduction

As we observe the ways in which we are currently living, working, and learning, we undoubtedly see the interconnectedness of our world. Advances in technologies have especially accelerated the development of interdependence and interconnectedness between people and institutions around the world. Consequently, there is a growing demand for individuals who have the ability to understand and communicate effectively with people in other countries or from different cultures (Taylor, 1994). Consequently, within educational settings an increasing number of classrooms from around the world are coming together to collaborate on joint projects and activities that are facilitated through telecommunications technology (e.g. iEARN). These cross-cultural, transnational initiatives provide students with the opportunity to learn, share, work, and communicate with people from diverse backgrounds and different perspectives. Therefore it is anticipated that these experiences will foster participating students in becoming globally conscious and interculturally competent persons.

Research studies regarding computer-mediated intercultural projects have emphasized descriptive reports which mainly state the objectives of the project, illustrate processes of operationalizing the project using technology, and/or identify factors that may have influenced the successful or unsuccessful implementation of such a project (Kubow & Crawford, 2001; Lu, Diggs, & Wedman, 2004). Hence, these reports serve more as "how to" guides for others. Unfortunately, with the exception of a handful of studies (e.g. Belz, 2002; Cifuentes & Shih, 2001; Merryfield, 2003; O'Dowd, 2003), very few researchers have attempted to study what is it that the students have actually learned or gained from the intercultural experience and even fewer have gone on to examine the students' learning process during their participation in such projects. Furthermore, almost no research has explored students' preconceived attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions, which may have a significant influence on the processes and outcomes of online intercultural collaborations. More specifically, what causes learners to approach intercultural experiences differently? An assumption is that personal epistemology; beliefs about knowledge, how knowing occurs, and how knowledge is constructed (Hofer, 2004), plays a crucial role in learners' behavior and performances during intercultural collaborations. In other words, a learners' approach to intercultural collaborations may be contingent upon his or her beliefs about the world in that beliefs may influence an individuals' decisions and actions regarding issues of what, when, and how to behave.

According to Schraw & Olafson (2002), teachers' epistemological worldviews influence the ways that they make important instructional decisions related to the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. Schraw & Olafson describes epistemological worldviews as the collective beliefs about the nature and acquisition of knowledge, in which there are three kinds; realist, contextualist, and relativist. A teacher with a realist worldview assumes that knowledge is acquired through experts and learning is a passive act. In terms of a contextualist worldview, teachers see themselves as facilitators, as learners collaboratively construct shared understanding. As for the third worldview, relativist, teachers view learners as independently and uniquely creating their own knowledge base and in order to support them, they create an environment that facilitates learning. Although Schraw & Olafson indicated that teachers' beliefs might not predict their behavior, it would be interesting to know the beliefs and worldviews of pre-service teachers, whether they influence their behaviors in learning, and how past and current experiences might shape or change them.

Background

The project established intercultural writing opportunities between prospective teachers studying in the College of Education at the University of Missouri--Columbia (UMC) with prospective teachers in China. Through use of computers and the Internet, we aimed to build a partnership with Chinese undergraduate students who were studying to become middle or high school English teachers. Participants were provided with opportunities to learn with and from people possessing multiple perspectives and to also construct shared meaning by corresponding on issues related to literature and culture.

The purpose of the study was to examine the participants' epistemological beliefs and explore how differences in their beliefs about of knowledge and learning may have influenced the process and outcomes of the intercultural writing project. Thus, the following questions guided this study: (1) what kinds of epistemological beliefs are reported by the participating students as measured by the Epistemic Beliefs Inventory (EBI)?; (2) to what extent do variables such as cultural ethnicity (e.g. American and Chinese), sex, travel experiences, and exposure to different perspectives and/or people from different cultures relate to pre-service teachers' epistemological beliefs?; and (3) how can the differences in epistemic beliefs explain the progress and outcomes of the project?

In the beginning of the project the students were paired with a partner from the other culture. The students were then assigned the same reading materials emphasizing literature from both cultures (i.e. American and Chinese) and required to write and exchange their interpretations, reflections, and comments to one another. We expected the American students to serve as language mentors to their Chinese counterparts as they reviewed their writings and provided feedback, while the Chinese students would be cultural consultants to the Americans on Chinese culture and customs. This not only exposed the American students to different cultural perspectives but also provided them with the experience of assisting people who are learning English as a foreign language (EFL). As EFL learners, the Chinese students had the opportunity to practice and enhance their English skills while, at the same time, share with and learn from people in another country about their culture and ways of life.

This intercultural writing project was embedded into the existing course curriculum at UMC so that it did not become a separate, add-on activity; however, students participating from the Chinese school did so on a voluntary basis. The project spanned throughout the school semester (approximately 4 months), in which the students engaged in the following activities:

1. Getting to know you exchange: initially students introduced themselves and explained a little bit about their daily life.

2. A more intensive exchange: as part of the genre studies in memoir, each student created his/her own memoir as a result of a series of activities that included; reading young adult memoirs, analyzing how the author's brought characters to life, telling stories about their own childhood, families, and siblings, and examining some examples of memoirs written by professional authors. Through exchanging memoirs, the students were able to get to know their partner on an in-depth, personal level, which encouraged an interest in each other as well as their life experiences.

3. Reading, critiquing and commenting on cross-cultural literary texts: the instructors collaboratively chose three texts that would cause the most intercultural communication. One was a Chinese poem (translated for American students) written by a famous poet--Li Bai. The others were non-fiction accounts of Chinese life in the countryside, written by Peter Hessler, a local author who has written much about China. Each student dyad decided which literary work they would like to read and discuss with each other on. Discussions between the students included sharing personal interpretations, raising and responding to questions, and commenting on each other's messages.

All communication was conducted through Shadow, a web-based and secure learning community platform in which users are provided with user ids and passwords and once inside the system they are able to correspond through online threaded discussions boards and file exchanges.

Method

A total of 39 undergraduate students enrolled in the 2005 Winter Semester Ed 334 Middle School Language Arts II course and the Ed 340 Teaching English/Language Arts I offered by the College of Education at the university in the United States participated in this project. They were primarily Caucasian Midwesterners; four were African Americans and two were Asian Americans. Also, a total of 38 Chinese students majoring in English Education at an eastern provincial Normal University of Science and Technology in China were the intercultural counterparts to the American students in the project. Overall, sixty-three students (31 Chinese, 32 Americans) completed (response rate was 94 percent) the questionnaire and were the only ones included in the analysis. Respondents were traditional aged (19 to 22 years old), mostly female (73 percent) college students either in their junior or senior year.

Following two and a half months of correspondence with their partners, data was collected from the American students a week before the end of the semester during their class time and the Chinese students were asked to fill out an online version of the questionnaire which was sent to them via email. The students completed the revised Epistemic Belief Inventory (EBI), a five-point Likert scale (1 indicates strongly disagree, 5 indicates strongly agree) instrument developed by Schraw, Benedixen, & Dunkle (2002) that measured the five epistemic beliefs described by Schommer (1990). The EBI was translated into Chinese for the students in China. In addition, demographic and background data were collected, including sex, ethnicity, travel experiences, and language learning experiences. Also, the students were given a series of open-ended questions that asked them to describe: how the cross-cultural learning experience impacted them (either positively or negatively), how the experience influenced them as a prospective (language arts) teacher, what they thought was the most exciting or interesting thing that happened during the interactions with their partner, what they learned most from this partnership, what they thought their partner learned most from the partnership, whether the experience had met their expectations and what changes should be made to improve the project.

Frequency and descriptive statistics were calculated to check for data normality, as well as, means, standard deviations, and all relevant characteristics of data. Prior to analysis, responses to a total of 5 items in the 28-item EBI were reverse keyed. Reliability for the five subscale factors (e.g. simple knowledge, certain knowledge, omniscient authority, innate ability, and quick learning) that Schraw, Bendixen, and Dunkle (2002) identified in their study was calculated using Cronbach's alpha and mean inter-item correlation for subscales with smaller number (less than ten) of items (Pallant, 2001). As recommended by Briggs & Check (1986), mean inter-item correlation between .2 and .4 is considered optimal. Of the five subscale factors, only the omniscient authority subscale items (4 items) did not fall within an acceptable range (Cronbach's alpha was .05, correlation coefficient was .01) to deem reliable, while the items in the other four subscales; simple knowledge (7 items), certain knowledge (6 items), innate ability (6 items), and quick learning (3 items) (Cronbach's alpha was equal to .71, .68, .59, .47 and correlation coefficient was equal to .26, .20, .20, .26, respectively) had acceptable values and therefore were used in this study. Individual t-tests were performed to determine whether differences on the four EBI subscale factor scores were related to cultural background (e.g. American and Chinese), gender, and prior travel experience. All statistical analyses were performed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS 12.0) and an alpha level of .05 was considered as statistically significant.

Written responses to each of the open-ended questions were listed and then categorized into several groups based on their thematic content. The results together with the statistical results were used to understand better the students' beliefs about knowledge and learning.

Results

The mean score and standard deviation of the simple knowledge, innate ability, and quick learning epistemic belief factors for the Chinese pre-service teachers (mean was equal to 23.42, 17.03, 7.77 and standard deviation was equal to 3.17, 2.99, 1.75, respectively) was higher than those of the American pre-service teachers (mean was equal to 18.16, 14.59, 5.25 and standard deviation was equal to 3.72, 3.64, 1.57, respectively) while for the certain knowledge epistemic belief factor, the Americans scored higher (mean was equal to 16.22 and standard deviation was equal to 3.20) than the Chinese (mean was equal to 13.16 and standard deviation was equal to 3.21). Independent samples t-test revealed significant differences between the group means, the t-values (61) equaled -6.04, -2.90, -6.05, 3.79, therefore the p-values were less than .001, .01, .001, and .001 respectively, in two-tailed tests.

This indicates that compared to the American pre-service teachers, the Chinese pre-service teachers tend to view knowledge as isolated, unambiguous bits, that learning either occurs quickly or not at all, and an individual's intelligence is a fixed entity. These findings support previous research in cross-cultural comparisons of learning processes in which it was found that Asian students most often perceive memorization as equivalent to understanding and learning (Dahlin & Regmi, 2000; Pratt, 1992). Chinese students strive to get high scores and good grades by accumulating facts and passing high stakes exams as educational excellence is associated with the opportunity for a better life and future success (Lewin, Hui, Little, & Zheng, 1994). As a result, Chinese students may equate the ability to acquire knowledge with how well they perform on examinations rather than how much understanding and meaning they are able to create from learning experiences. Additionally, Nelson (1995) and Yum (1988) indicate that Chinese education is based upon the principles of Confucianism, a teacher-centered pedagogy in which learning moves from teacher to student and the questioning of authority figures (teachers) rarely occurs. According to Perry (1970), an individual's schooling shapes their epistemological beliefs, hence, the educational background of the Chinese students may have influenced the way they viewed knowledge and learning. In other words, sociocultural factors may account for the differences in the epistemological beliefs between the American and Chinese pre-service teachers. These findings are similar with a study conducted by Chan and Elliott (2000) regarding the epistemological beliefs of Hong Kong teacher education students, in which they found that the students strongly believed that unambiguous and certain knowledge is handed down by authority.

In analyzing the effect of sex and travel abroad experience on epistemic belief factors, independent t-tests showed only statistically significant difference between participants who had traveled or lived abroad before (mean was equal to 18.42 and standard deviation was equal to 5.27) with participants who had not in their beliefs about simple knowledge (mean was equal to 21.29 and standard deviation was equal to 3.95, t-value (61) equaled -2.13, therefore the p-value was less than .05) as the magnitude of the difference in the means was moderate (eta squared was equal to .07). As expected, this suggests that pre-service teachers who did not have any travel abroad experience were more likely to believe in simple knowledge more than pre-service teachers who had traveled abroad before. This is consistent with our assumptions that the more people are exposed to unfamiliar and different people and environments, the more the opportunity they have in realizing knowledge as highly interrelated concepts.

Turning to the qualitative data collected from the written open-ended questions, analysis of the responses revealed two major themes in regards to the effect of epistemological beliefs: (a). Learning from but not with each other. In general the students expressed that from this experience they learned more about each other's culture, to appreciate other cultures and literatures, and to understand the perspectives of others. However, few were able to go beyond learning from each other to constructing shared meaning or creating their own understanding. Thus data suggested that both the American and Chinese pre-service teachers' epistemological worldviews are not yet at the sophisticated level of contextualist or relativist. (b). Discrepancy in level of commitment. A majority of the American students were disappointed at the frequency and/or amount of exchange from their Chinese partners. An explanation for this may be because the project was embedded into the American students' curriculum as they were given a store for their participation, while it was not the case for the Chinese students. However, this extends our understanding of the impact of sociocultural factors, as we propose that even if Chinese students see the value of extracurricular learning experiences, their motivation to gain the most from these opportunities is still limited compared to achieving educational excellence. Needless to say, this may hold true for students everywhere.

Lastly, comments on the impact of this opportunity to correspond with people from another culture and that speak a different language were generally positive. One participant stated that he could foresee how technology could be used in his future classroom. Similarly, another participant said that for her students to learn more about other people and cultures she would consider them having electronic pen pals. As for communicating with EFL learners, several American students thought that although language can create barriers between people, it is a barrier, however, in which can be easily overcome. One commented that although he saw "a lot of flaws that are easy to make with language", he also realized that "one does not have to be a master of the language to express great thoughts" and through the discussions with someone that was living a different lifestyle, he was able to "look at some things in my life and delved a litter deeper". Also, several other participants had simply enjoyed sharing thoughts about the literature and the different literary works with people that have different perspectives. Thus the participants had benefited in various aspects and in various ways.

Conclusion

This study suggests that factors such as culture and travel experience contributed to the differences in epistemological beliefs of the participating American and Chinese pre-service teachers. Further, the differences in the epistemological beliefs among participants may have affected the ways in which they learned with their intercultural counterparts in terms of discussion content and level of commitment. Overall, the pre-service teachers indicated that the intercultural writing project had a positive effect on them. In particular, by interacting with their counterparts they encountered differences and discovered diversity, which stimulated their growth and change both academically and personally. Further research will be conducted in which the limitations from this current study will be addressed, as the researchers aim to study specifically how learners with different epistemological beliefs benefit from cross-cultural experiences and if it, at all, reshapes their epistemologies.

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Wei-Hsin Lu, University of Missouri--Columbia, USA

Carol Gilles, University of Missouri--Columbia, USA

Yanlian Zhang, Hebei Normal University of Science & Technology, China

Lu, MEd, is a doctoral student in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies. Gilles, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Learning, Teaching and Curriculum. Zhang, MA, is Associate Professor of Foreign Languages.
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Author:Zhang, Yanlian
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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