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Cultural Beliefs about Knowledge

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist
Cultural Beliefs about Knowledge

In international schools we have an incredibly diverse population of students. Even small schools can have 40 or 50 nationalities represented among their student body. We all aim to meet the diverse needs of our students, but it can be difficult to find reliable information that can help us support students from varying cultural backgrounds.
Many of the familiar stereotypes mask what is actually a much more complex reality. For example, we often hear that Asian students outperform students from many other cultures in mathematics. When we investigate these results more closely, however, it turns out that although Asian students do routinely outperform US students, for example, on assessments of computational skills and routine problem-solving, US students typically do better than their Asian counterparts on more open-ended tasks or tasks requiring more creativity.
Even this more finely-grained information is only of limited use to us, however, unless we can probe a bit into some of the underlying reasons for these differences.
A group of researchers in the US hypothesized that at least some of this difference in performance might be due to differing beliefs about knowledge and learning prevalent among various cultural groups. The link they postulated between knowledge-related beliefs and academic performance was via study strategies. They posited that beliefs would affect study strategies and that these in turn would affect achievement.
Student beliefs in the following areas were investigated: (a) speed, ranging from the belief that knowledge can be gained quickly to the belief that the process of learning is gradual and requires effort; (b) structure, ranging from the belief that knowledge consists mostly of isolated facts to the belief that knowledge is integrated, complex, conceptual and sometimes ambiguous; (c) construction, ranging from the belief that knowledge is certain and passively received to the belief that knowledge is constantly evolving and that individuals must construct their own version of it; (d) success, ranging from the belief that the ability to learn is innate to the belief that learners can acquire study skills, and that learning requires effort, and; (e) truth, ranging from the belief that objective truth can be attained by scientists to the belief that there are seldom single right answers and all facts should be open to question.
The following study strategies related to technique, motivation and self-regulation were investigated: (I) low anxiety, (II) positive attitude, (III) concentration, (IV) information processing, (V) high motivation, (VI) selecting main ideas, (VII) self-testing, (VIII) study aids and (IX) time management.
So what were the results of the study?
Of the knowledge-related beliefs investigated, two turned out to be significantly different for the two cultural groups: on speed, European Americans believed more strongly that learning takes time than did Asian Americans. On structure, European Americans believed more strongly that knowledge is organized as a complex network of concepts.
With regard to study strategies, the two cultural groups differed in three important areas. First, low anxiety: European Americans were better able to control their anxiety about school. Second, selecting main ideas: European Americans were better able to select main ideas. Third, information processing: European Americans were better able to select appropriate information-processing strategies. The study also found some other differences between these two cultural groups, as well as uncovering some differences between male and female students.
The key finding, however, was that statistical analyses indicated that particular beliefs about knowledge did indeed tend to translate into particular approaches to learning. For example, speed predicted low anxiety: the more students believed that learning is a gradual process, the less anxious they were about learning.
Further, these differences in approach to learning also translated into different levels of achievement. In a business studies course where much of the assessment consisted of relatively open-ended tasks involving critical thinking, the European American students, who believed that knowledge was complex and takes time to acquire, outperformed their Asian American counterparts.
In conclusion, what does this mean for our classrooms?
As the researchers themselves point out, there is a logical link between knowledge-related beliefs and study strategies. A student who believes knowledge to be complex and integrated is much more likely to employ information processing strategies that lead to making connections with prior knowledge. A student who believes that learning is a quick process is less likely to take the time to sort out main ideas.
Though the results of a single study such as this should be interpreted with caution, it seems reasonable to at least pose a few questions: Would the results have been the same if the study had focused on a Mathematics or Science course, particularly one that emphasized computation and the application of formulas? What about other subjects? Would the results be different if students were taught particular study strategies, in particular if during instruction the students were asked to consider the purpose of the strategies in a way which made the underlying beliefs about knowledge explicit?
Considering the amount of other research available suggesting that a link does exist between beliefs about learning and approaches to learning, I think it is well worth taking the time in class to help students consider the purposes of learning, the strategies they employ to learn, and the way these are linked.
It is the link between belief and action which can help us make our beliefs explicit so they can be reexamined.
The study: Schommer-Aikins, M. and Easter, M. (2008) “Epistemological Beliefs’ Contributions to Study Strategies of Asian Americans and European Americans”. Journal of Educational Psychology 100:4, 920-929.
This article was first published in TIE's December 2009 issue.

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