Challenging Teachers’ Belief Systems
By Erica Cervini
Kim Beswick realised from an early age how teachers’ belief systems can influence their expectations of students. This awareness has guided Professor Beswick’s teaching and research.
Kim Beswick’s teacher once accused of her cheating because she didn’t think that a student from her background could have used such sophisticated language in an essay. Professor Beswick, now head of the School of Education at the University of NSW, explained the words she used to her teacher.
Professor Beswick grew up in north-west Tasmania, which has one of the lowest university participation rates in the country. She won a scholarship to a boarding school where the incident above happened. She also had to convince her teachers at her new school that she was capable of doing advanced science.
This story reflects Professor Beswick’s awareness from an early age of how teachers’ belief systems influence their expectations of and aspirations for students. In particular, she is interested in how maths teachers’ beliefs influence their practice. This fascination started to take shape after the head of maths at a far north-western Tasmanian school, where Professor Beswick first taught maths, wanted to show her the list of her year nine students who struggled with maths and those who were coping.
“And I said, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that. I’ll work it out’.”
Professor Beswick told the class that she knew that half the students were level three and the other half level two, but not the names of the students in each of the groups. She asked the students not to tell her which level they believed they had been allocated to. Professor Beswick also told them that she was going to teach them as if they were all level three students.
“So, I did that using the (maths) tests that the head of maths wrote,” she says. “And there were only two at the end of the year who didn’t make that level three.”
Professor Beswick maintains that all too often students get “classified by their maths teachers rather than taught”. However, if teachers believe that all students can learn maths and reinforce this belief among their students, then students can have a positive experience of studying maths. This is especially the case if teachers also convey the message that difficulties students may have with maths is a chance for teachers and students to work together and for teachers to reflect on their own teaching.
Professor Beswick says teachers can hold all kinds of beliefs that influence how they see students. She currently has a PhD student who is examining the stereotypes pre-service teachers have about students and their families who are from low socio-economic backgrounds. Her student is also getting the pre-service teachers to confront the value judgements they make.
“(Some) honestly thought that these parents don’t love their children because they send them to school without breakfast,” Professor Beswick says.
The PhD student challenged the pre-service teachers about their value judgements and “got some really big shifts”.
“And she (the student) is writing this up as narratives, which are just wonderful stories”, Professor Beswick explains. “And I found myself just about crying when I read them. They are so powerful.”
Professor Beswick also likes to tell stories to highlight her research. She still loves teaching, but has stayed in universities to do research that can have an impact.
“Hopefully I can reach more teachers and more students as a result of trying to work with teachers and do research and have influence that way,” Professor Beswick explains. “So that’s why I’m still in academia. It’s just trying to make more of an impact, but I still miss the interaction with kids.”
Google Scholar shows that Professor Beswick’s research is having an impact. Many of her peer-reviewed outputs have been cited over 100 times. In particular, a 2015 article on teachers’ beliefs about school mathematics and their relationship to practice has been cited 272 times, while another has been cited 248 times.
Professor Beswick has written more than 110 journal articles and has also penned book chapters and books with colleagues. She was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship for 2014 to 2019 and has won many other grants. She is currently part of a research group working on a project, “Building the Evidence Base for Improved STEM Learning – Principals as STEM Leaders”, which is funded by the Federal Department of Education and Skills and Employment.
Professor Beswick wasn’t always interested in maths. It was not until year 11 when she had a maths teacher who gave her great insights into the subject’s principles that she grew to love it.
“And, in fact, I remember the actual lesson where I decided that maths was a rush,” Professor Beswick explains. “It was when he was explaining the concept of limits as an entry in an introductory calculus lesson. And I just thought that was beautiful and amazing, just fantastic.”