PERG PhD Dissertations:
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, results from flurries of standardized exams (particularly in 4th and 8th grade mathematics and science) reached the attention of ever-.-growing numbers of Americans with an alarming message: our children are not even close to keeping up with those in China, Japan, and Korea. As a step towards improving American classrooms, cross-.-cultural education researchers began to investigate differences in classroom structure, curricular content and focus, and attitudes and beliefs of students towards learning. Inspired American teachers tried to capitalize on these observed differences by making their classrooms look (for example) “more Japanese” and frequently met with failure. Researchers have used the differences in student beliefs as a justification for this failure: “Japanese students believe different things about what classroom learning should look like than American students do. If you teach American students in a way that clashes with their beliefs about learning, it’s no surprise that the students don’t buy in to it and the lesson doesn’t succeed!” This response has been invaluable, in that it has discouraged teachers from haphazardly trying to change their classrooms so as to resemble more successful ones. At the same time, this message, in addition to the methods, analyses, and discussions surrounding the observations of student beliefs in general, have treated beliefs as being something determined by the culture in which the student grows up in, and as being stable and robust.
Based upon research findings in cognitive science about the fluidity of student beliefs, we hypothesized that the treatment of student beliefs as being stable may be overly simplistic and ineffective at describing certain classroom phenomena that would be of interest to the cross-.-cultural education research field. We felt such phenomena could be instructional to American educators, and that a failure to understand such phenomena would imply a failure to learn from these classrooms. We hypothesized that, were we to introduce reformed physics curriculum from America to students in Japan, we would observe context-.-dependency in how students approached the material. Furthermore, we hypothesized that this curriculum, which was motivated by the assumption that students have multiple ways of approaching knowing and learning, would be productive in the Japanese classroom. Either of these results would go against the tacit assumption of the cross-.-cultural education research field that students have a stable belief about how learning should take place, and would cast doubt on such a framework.
Curriculum developed and tested at the University of Maryland was translated into Japanese and implemented in the spring semester of 2011 at Tokyo Gakugei University. Based upon available literature on the education system in Japan, we hypothesized that students would be entering the college classroom having had three years of cramming for entrance exams in high school and would likely think of physics as something to be learned from authority, by listening to lectures and taking notes. We also hypothesized that many of these students would maintain intellectual resources developed from primary school experiences of working in groups to draw upon their own ideas and experiences to construct knowledge on Hull 3 their own. We chose curriculum intended to get students to act more like they had in primary school than they had in high school, and we hypothesized that although such curriculum would be surprising to the students, they would nevertheless not find it difficult to shift in their beliefs about learning physics to an attitude that “physics can be personally understood and one’s own experiences are important in constructing relevant knowledge.”
For six months, I observed student reactions via various means including semi-.- structured student interviews, video recordings of the classes, and asking the course instructors about their perceptions of how students were responding. This study has found that, indeed, although most students did enter the class with beliefs about physics and expectations about how to learn it, that they had no difficulty adapting to this style of learning that violated those beliefs. One reason for the ease of this adaptation given by students is that they had experienced something similar to this learning style in primary school. To summarize, we found:
Whereas the current perspective on student beliefs used by the cross-.-cultural education research community would have predicted that a curriculum incompatible with student beliefs about learning would have been a struggle, this was not what happened. This dissertation thus stands as a call to the community to reconsider the concept of a cultural script, and more generally of the fluidity of student beliefs. This is relevant not only for cross-.-cultural education researchers, but also for teachers reluctant to introduce a curriculum that goes against student beliefs of how learning should take place.
Thesis in PDF format.