Dissonance between teachers’ beliefs and practice … and what that might cause

I was reading an edited collection over the weekend (Teachers Learning: Professional Development and Education, McLaughlin, 2012) and a connected pair of papers particularly struck a chord. Authored by Darlene Opfer and David Pedder, they discuss observations arising from the large-scale State of the Nation review of teacher CPD, and in which they explore teachers’ likelihood of change as a consequence of their orientation to learning. In particular, whether dissonance between teachers’ values and beliefs, and their experience and practice acts to stimulate or repress the need to undertake professional learning. This was precipitated by the observation that, though we know quite well now those features associated with effective professional development, we still find occasions where even when those features are present, some people don’t learn, yet at other times, in absence of those features some people still learn.

An appropriate place to start might be to explain what Opfer and Pedder mean by ‘professional learning orientation’:

We consider ‘orientations’ to be an integrated set of attitudes, beliefs and practices as well as the alignment of oneself and one’s ideas to circumstances and context. That is, learning orientations are heavily context dependent.

Opfer, Pedder & Lavicza (2011)

They go on from there to discuss some of the shortcomings of the different models which have previously been used to conceptualise professional learning. They suggest that instead of the process being linear in the way that some models describe, it is much more complex and that the changes which result may be reinforcing of, related to or reciprocal of one another. In other words, that changes in beliefs or practices occur reciprocally.

The contention is that teachers’ willingness to learn is influenced by dissonance between what they value or believe, and the evidence they encounter from their experience or practice. For example, a teacher observes a colleague practising a particular pedagogical approach successfully, one which is at odds with the way they would usually approach the same circumstances. Does that conflict cause them to reevaluate their beliefs and delve more deeply into the potential that new knowledge might offer, or does the gap seem too large and cause the teacher to reject the new knowledge as being inappropriate to their situation? This is where the teacher’s orientation to learning comes into play.

The authors used a dual-scale survey, where a particular proposition related to practice was provided, then respondees were invited to both state the extent to which they identified that within their own practice, and the extent to which they felt it was important to them (indicative of their values). Four dimensions of teachers’ learning orientations were identified:

  • Internal orientation – “I try out new things based on what I see happening in my classroom”
  • External orientation – “I use what I learn from colleagues and elsewhere to improve my practice”
  • Collaborative orientation – “I learn better when working with other colleagues, observing each other and feeding back.”
  • Research orientation – “I bring what I learn from research reports into my practice”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was more common for people to indicate an ‘internal’ orientation, with ‘external’ orientation fairly close behind. Rather disappointingly, but again unsurprisingly, distinctly less common was ‘research’ orientation.

The research team then undertook a cluster analysis which identified five different groups of teachers, each with similar practice scores, which were termed:

  • Engaged learners – high levels of engagement in all four teacher learning dimensions. (Scores for all factors were above or well above the sample average)
  • Infrequent learners – lowest values and practice scores and highest values-practice gaps for all four learning orientations.
  • Moderate learners – close to the sample average for for research, collaborative and external orientations [and suggestive of being representative on teachers in England], but well below sample average for internal orientation
  • Individual explorers – high practice and values scores for both internal and external orientation. They combine exploratory and reflective approaches to learning.
  • Solitary classroom learners – highest value and practice scores for internal orientation. Their predominant mode of learning tends to be alone with their pupils in the privacy of the classroom.

The findings indicated further that the most significant gaps between practice and beliefs occur for the research and collaborative orientations. Levels of research orientation are particularly low for three of the five clusters and a collaboration orientation tends to be low across for all five clusters. Collaboration and attending to research are activities associated with effective professional learning, so these findings give some cause for concern. Unfortunately the scope of the study did not extend to exploring some of the reasons why the research and collaboration values are lower than one might hope.

As a friend  (with a self-confessed internal orientation) with whom I was discussing this remarked, ‘but how can this be useful?’ As the authors noted, from a school perspective, if you know what the profile of your staff is, in terms of their orientations, you might be better placed to make targeted provision which addresses their needs. As an individual, once you are aware of your orientation(s) and the type of learner you are, then you might consider how or whether there might be value in challenging your predisposition.

Naturally this set me wondering how this might map across onto my own research. I wonder how a teacher claiming Twitter supports their professional learning might be classified? Might they be more likely to have an external orientation, perhaps also more collaborative? Or looking at things the other way around, are ‘engaged learners’ (or individual explorers?) more likely to use Twitter as one of the ways in which they learn? I’m not yet sure how or if this research might be helpful in informing my own study, however, when I return to Research Question 4 on my original proposal which asks ‘What attitudes and dispositions do teachers need, to use Twitter for their professional learning?’ I’m minded to think that learning orientations might provide one perspective. But might I then be losing ontological coherence? Aaargh!

Opfer, D., & Pedder, D. (2013). Teacher change and changing teachers via professional development. In C. McLaughlin (Ed.), Teachers learning: Professional development and education (pp. 93-117) Cambridge University Press.
Opfer, D., & Pedder, D. (2013). Values practice dissonance in teachers’ professional learning orientations. In C. McLaughlin (Ed.), Teachers learning: Professional development and education (pp. 119-142) Cambridge University Press.
Opfer, V. D., Pedder, D. G., & Lavicza, Z. (2011). The role of teachers’ orientation to learning in professional development and change: A national study of teachers in England. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(2), 443-453. Chicago
Storey, A., Banks, F., Cooper, D., Cunningham, P., Ebbutt, D., Fox, A., … & Wolfenden, F. (2008). Schools and continuing professional development (CPD) in England-State of the Nation research project (T34718): Qualitative Research Summary.


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