on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 12
Part 1: Debates on Definitions and Nature of Beliefs and Knowledge
Belief, as a term, has been defined in a variety of different ways in the literature and used interchangeably with a variety of other terms including attitudes, values, judgments, opinions, ideology, perceptions, conceptions, conceptual systems, dispositions, implicit theories, explicit theories, internal mental processes, action strategies, rules of practice and perspectives (Pajares, 1992). However, according to Pajares, the confusion focuses on the distinction between beliefs and knowledge. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify the differences between beliefs and knowledge.
Abelson (1979) defined beliefs in terms of people manipulating knowledge for a particular purpose or under a necessary circumstance. According to Brown and Cooney (1982), beliefs are dispositions to action and major determinants of behavior. Rokeach (1972) defined beliefs as “any simple proposition, conscious or unconscious, inferred from what a person says or does, capable of being preceded by the phrase ‘I believe that’” (p. 113). Rokeach discussed three kinds of beliefs: descriptive or existential beliefs, evaluative beliefs and prescriptive or exhortatory beliefs. In descriptive beliefs, the object of belief is described as true or false, correct or incorrect (e.g., I believe that the sun rises in the east). In evaluative beliefs, beliefs can be stated as good or bad (e.g., I believe this ice cream is good). In prescriptive or exhortatory beliefs, a certain action or a situation is advocated as desirable or undesirable (e.g., I believe it is desirable that children should obey their parents).
Rokeach (1972) suggested that all beliefs have three components: a cognitive component, an affective component and a behavioral component. A cognitive component represents a person’s knowledge about what is true or false, desirable or undesirable. An affective component of the belief is capable of arousing affect of varying intensity centering on the object of the belief, taking a positive or negative position in an argument. A behavioral component of the belief leads to action when it is activated. According to Rokeach, the nature of belief is somewhat similar to the structure of an atom in terms of the ways in which beliefs are organized. Rokeach claims that some of the beliefs (core beliefs) are more central, more connected to others (peripheral), and more resistant to change.
Moreover, Ackermann (1972) examined beliefs in four different categories as behavioral beliefs, unconscious beliefs, conscious beliefs, and rational beliefs. Behavioral beliefs are not distinguished simply because of fixed behavioral patterns that anyone holding a certain belief will exhibit. Rather unconscious beliefs long-standing beliefs that can influence behavior over a long period of time, but resist recognition by the agent. Unlike behavioral beliefs, unconscious beliefs cannot be interpreted from behaviors. Behavioral beliefs, by contrast, will be thought of as non-conscious rather than unconscious. Behavioral beliefs are important in human action where the agent encounters no difficulty, so that his beliefs do not require scrutiny at the consciousness level. Conscious beliefs are any beliefs a person has explicitly formulated and is aware of. Rational beliefs are defined as a philosophical idealization of actual belief structures.
Based upon a literature review of beliefs, Pajares (1992) defined belief as an “individual’s judgment of the truth or falsity of a proposition, a judgment that can only be inferred from a collective understanding of what human beings say, intend, and do” (p. 316). Anthropologists, social psychologists, and philosophers have agreed upon a commonly accepted definition of beliefs; “beliefs are thought of as psychologically held understandings, premises, or propositions about the world that are felt to be true” (Richardson, 1996, p.103). In educational settings, Haney et al. (2003) defined beliefs as “one’s convictions, philosophy, tenets, or opinions about teaching and learning” (p. 367).
Knowledge is another concept widely discussed in the literature. The definition of knowledge as a term can be traced back to the time of Socrates. Plato suggested that knowledge has three components: beliefs, truth, and justification (Woolfolk-Hoy & Murphy, 2001). In the traditional philosophical literature, knowledge depends on a “truth condition” that is being agreed upon in a community of people (Richardson, 1996). Based upon this definition, knowledge is a belief that meets two conditions: (a) the truth of what is believed and (b) the justification someone has for believing it (Woolfolk-Hoy & Murphy). Alexander, Schallert, and Hare stated that beliefs are a category of knowledge and define knowledge as “encompasses all that a person knows or believes to be true, whether or not it is verified as true in some sort of objective or external way” (as cited in Woolfolk-Hoy & Murphy, p. 146).
A number of scholars have made the distinction between knowledge and beliefs. As Pajares (1992) stated, the problem is associated with the difficulty of finding the border where knowledge ends and beliefs begin. Table 1 summarizes the differences between beliefs and knowledge as discussed in the literature.
Table 1: The differences between beliefs and knowledge based on the literature
Refer to suppositions, commitments, and ideologies
Refers to factual propositions and the understandings that inform skillful action
Do not require a truth condition
Must satisfy “truth condition”
Based on evaluation judgment
Based on objective fact
Cannot be evaluated
Can be evaluated or judged
Episodically-stored material influenced
by personal experiences or cultural
and institutional sources
Stored in semantic networks
According to Calderhead (1996), beliefs generally refer to “suppositions, commitments, and ideologies while knowledge refers to factual propositions and the understandings that inform skillful action” (p. 715). Richardson (1996) distinguished knowledge from beliefs based on the notion of “truth condition.” In her definition, knowledge must satisfy the “truth condition” or have some evidence but beliefs do not require a “truth condition.” Ernest (1989) proposed a distinction between knowledge and beliefs by identifying a case in which two teachers may have similar knowledge, but one can teach mathematics with a problem-solving orientation, while the other has a more didactic approach because of different beliefs they hold.
Nespor (1987) suggested that four features of beliefs: (1) existential presumption, (2) alternativity, (3) affective and evaluative loading and (4) episodic structure can be used to distinguish knowledge from beliefs. First, Pajares (1992) defined existential presumptions as “the incontrovertible, personal truths everyone holds” (p. 309). They are deeply personal and formed by chance, an experience, or an event. For example, a teacher may have beliefs about student “ability,” “maturity,” or “laziness” which are labels for entities about the students, rather than descriptive terms. Second, beliefs sometimes refer to “alternative worlds” or “alternative realities” which are different from reality (Nespor; Pajares). Third, belief systems depend on affective and evaluative components more than knowledge systems. Nespor suggested that feelings, moods, and subjective evaluation based on personal preferences may significantly influence one’s belief system. Unlike knowledge systems, belief systems do not require general consensus regarding the validity and acceptability of beliefs. Individual beliefs do not even require internal consistency in the belief system. Finally, Nespor differentiated these two terms based on episodic structure. A knowledge system is stored in semantic networks whereas belief systems consist of episodically-stored material influenced by personal experiences or cultural and institutional sources. In summary, Pajares synthesized the findings of research on beliefs in the literature as follows:
- Beliefs are formed early and tend to be self-perpetuated, tend to be persistent against the contradiction caused by time, experience, reason and schooling.
- Epistemological beliefs play a key role in knowledge interpretation and cognitive monitoring.
- Belief substructures, such as educational beliefs, must be understood in terms of their connections not only to each other but also to other, perhaps more central, beliefs in the system.
- By their nature and origin, some beliefs are more incontrovertible than others.
- The earlier a belief is incorporated into the belief structure, the more difficult it is to change.
- Belief change during adulthood is a relatively rare phenomenon.
- People’s beliefs strongly affect their behavior.
- Beliefs cannot be directly observed or measured but must be inferred from what people say, intend, and do.
- Beliefs about teaching are well established by the time a student attends college.
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