The Effect of Perceived Learner Advantages on Teachers' Beliefs about Critical-Thinking Activities

Article excerpt

Teacher educators have shown burgeoning interest in teachers' beliefs about learning and teaching (Calderhead, 1996; Fenstermacher, 1994; Nespor, 1987; Pajares, 1992; Richardson, 1994, 1996; Smylie, 1988). These beliefs have been found to exert considerable influence on how teachers structure classroom activities and interact with learners (Anning, 1988; Calderhead, 1996; Nespor, 1987; Richardson, 1996). A subset of this work has focused on beliefs about critical thinking (CT): "cognitive skills and strategies that increase the likelihood of a desired outcome.., thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal-directed--the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions" (Halpern, 2002, p. 6; see also Torff, 2003; Brown & Campione, 1990; Browne & Keeley, 2001; Ennis, 1987; Henderson, 2001; Kuhn, 1999; O'Tuel & Bullard, 1993; Perkins, 1992; Perkins, Jay, & Tishman, 1993; Pogrow, 1990,1994; Raths, Wasserman, Jonas, & Rothstein, 1986; Resnick, 1987). Instruction that emphasizes CT ("high-CT activities") has been described as an approach to teaching that differs from direct instruction ("low-CT activities").

Theory and research on teachers' beliefs about high-CT and low-CT activities has focused on, among other things, the relationship between such beliefs and teachers' perceptions of learners as "high-advantage" or "low-advantage" (i.e., differing in academic track, level of achievement, or socioeconomic status) (Torff, 2003; Oakes, 1990; Page, 1990; Pogrow, 1990, 1994; Raudenbush, Rowan, & Cheong, 1993; Zohar, Degani, & Vaakin, 2001; Zohar & Dori, 2003). According to a frequently cited assertion about teachers' beliefs, low-advantage learners often receive limited access to high-CT activities in schools because teachers purportedly believe that low-CT activities are more appropriate than high-CT ones for low-advantage learners (Pogrow, 1990, 1994; Raudenbush et al., 1993; Zohar & Dori, 2003; Zohar et al., 2001). Such an "advantage effect" may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to this line of reasoning: high-advantage learners receive high-CT instruction that results in high-level academic performance that, in turn, makes still more high-CT lessons likely; but low-advantage learners receive few high-CT lessons, making them less likely to develop sufficiently strong academic skills to be deemed ready for high-CT instruction in subsequent lessons. This issue seems pressing given that contemporary testing practices increasingly emphasize CT skills (e.g., writing essays, designing science experiments) (Yeh, 2001).

In the first study on this issue, Raudenbush et al. (1993) examined the relationship between academic track and emphasis on high-CT activities in a study in which 303 secondary teachers identified their instructional goals for high-track and low-track classes and completed specially designed scales that assessed teachers' emphasis on high-CT activities in these classes. Results of regression analyses indicated that instructional objectives and use of high-CT activities differed across academic tracks. Teachers were more likely to focus on high-CT activities in high-track classes than low-track ones, especially in math and science. Attempts to analyze teachers' beliefs about low-CT activities were unsuccessful due to low reliabilities produced by the researchers' low-CT scales, making analyses comparing beliefs about high-CT and low-CT activities impossible. Based on the data for high-CT activities, however, the researchers concluded that differentiation of instruction based on academic track (i.e., an advantage effect) was deeply institutionalized in schools, with lower-track learners receiving comparatively little high-CT instruction.

Zohar et al. (2001) obtained similar results in a study of 40 Israeli secondary teachers. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in which teachers discussed their instructional goals for learners identified by the researchers as low-achieving or high-achieving. …