Learning Paths






Paper given at the British Council 18th National Conference for Teachers of English

Palermo, 18-20 March 1999


I would like to start this paper with a few words by Marcel Proust:

The only true  voyage of discovery is not to go to new places, but to have other eyes.

I have chosen these words to start with because I think that they capture the spirit of what you are going to read. We are not going to discover new theories or explore unusual approaches. Instead, we will just look at what we actually do and see and hear every day in our classrooms - but with a different eye.

I am going to discuss teachers' and students' beliefs and attitudes. Let me tell you first what prompted me to investigate this topic. There were two main sets of reasons. The first has to do with problems of a more "public" nature. The second refers to more "personal" matters.

My first reason to study beliefs and attitudes is linked with the pressures we all feel about changes in school curriculum. To use an old metaphor, a curriculum is like an iceberg:




“overt” curriculum








“covert” curriculum















These days we talk a lot about objectives, subjects, timetables, syllabuses, standards and technologies. These are all important issues, but they seem to me like the tip of the iceberg, what we can see and hear and talk about: the "overt" part of a curriculum. But what we do not see is just as important, and perhaps more: it is the hidden or "covert" curriculum, and this is made up of what people - teachers, students, parents, administrators - bring to it, in terms of their beliefs, attitudes, expectations, motivations. It seems to me that this "submerged" curriculum is largely unknown, rarely spoken about, and very often underestimated.

I said that my second reason to study beliefs and attitudes is of a more "personal" nature. For many years I have been trying to focus my attention on learners and learning. First there were study skills. Then came learning strategies, and today there is a lot of interest in such issues as learning styles, learner autonomy and learner training. And yet … and yet, all through these years, I've felt that the more we try to understand how people learn, the more we need to understand how they think and feel. To use the iceberg metaphor once again, strategies and techniques are important, but below the surface lie issues which are perhaps even more important - what people believe in, and how this affects the way they feel and what they decide to do.


The nature of beliefs

But why are beliefs so important? To answer this question, I think we have to discuss, first, what beliefs are, and then how they work.

A dictionary definition may be a good starting point.


belief   n  1 [ U ]  the feeling that something is definitely true or definitely exists

2 [ C ] an idea that you believe to be true, especially one that forms part of a system of ideas


If we take the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, for example, we find that a belief is the feeling that something is definitely true or definitely exists - so we talk about a belief in God, or we say that a story is beyond belief. Also, a belief is an idea that you believe to be true, especially one that forms part of a system of ideas - so we talk about religious or political beliefs.

To focus more closely on teaching and learning, let us consider how Jack Richards once defined teachers' beliefs Richards 1994b):


the informational attitudes, values, theories and assumptions about teaching and learning which teachers build up over time and bring with them to the classroom


I think the same definition could apply equally well to learners' beliefs. After all, when we go into a classroom, whether we are teachers or students, we immediately activate a series of ideas about what language is and how it works, how it should be taught and learned, what it means to be a teacher or a student, and so on. Of course, these ideas are the result of our own experience, first as students, and then as teachers. They are also the result of our personality, the educational theories we've been exposed to, our cultural background, and many many other sources.

Now, what is interesting about the nature of beliefs is that they are certainly knowledge stored in our  minds, but a particular type of knowledge. Remember the dictionary definition of belief: the feeling that something is true, or an idea which is considered true - that does not necessarily imply that the idea is actually true. In other words, the ideas we hold about language, about teaching and about learning range from conventionally accepted facts to things we accept on a very personal basis. It is as if our ideas were arranged on a continuum: at one extreme we have knowledge - things we know, things which have been proved true or are generally accepted as true. For instance, I know that Jupiter has sixteen moons. I know that the English verb system is said to have two aspects: the continuous aspect and the perfect aspect. I don't just believe these things - I know them. However, as soon as we move out of such accepted ideas, things immediately start to get blurred. I do not know how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, but I assume that they had developed quite efficient techniques to do it. If a student cannot follow my lesson for more than five minutes, I may assume that he has a very short concentration span, but that's only an assumption - I do not know  for sure. At the other extreme of this continuum we have beliefs, things we personally hold to be true, although others may disagree about them. For example, I believe that all men are created equal. I believe in developing learner autonomy. I believe that students need both practice in language use and reflection on language as a system. I believe that it is better to create a context and a purpose to set up a writing task. I believe all these things, but you may disagree with me, or perhaps agree with some reservation - you may say: Yes, but …(1).

So the beliefs that we all have about language, teaching and learning make up a very complex, and very personal, system of ideas: what I consider to be true may in fact be my own personal philosophy, my own implicit theory. Students, and, generally speaking, people, hold a variety of what have been called "folk wisdom", naive theories, popular images, mental representations, and even stereotypes and myths (2) - and these may or may not match my own beliefs as a teacher. A student may think that as a teacher I am the source of all knowledge, and so expects me to choose what should be learned and how it should be learned … but I may have a different image of myself as a teacher, I may feel uneasy about the role which that student believes I should play in the classroom.

To give you an example, consider what a 17-year old student from a high school wrote about his problems with English (this is translated from Italian):


Besides, English has no pronunciation rules, and you often need to rely on spelling to write words. This seems to me quite stupid for a language, which should have precise rules for pronunciation too.


Notice that "should": this student obviously has very definite ideas about what languages should look like and how they should work.

Another student from the same school wrote:


My difficulties are caused mainly by the fact that I haven't got a flair for languages.


For this student, language aptitude is essential and unchangeable: you are either born with it or born without it - and this has obvious consequences for your self-concept as a language learner.


Levels of beliefs

The whole issue of beliefs is made even more intriguing by the fact that we are not always aware of our own ideas, and by the fact that we do not live in a desert, and our ideas can or must be shared with the people around us. Look at this picture (cf. Luft 1969; Richards 1994a):








This is an image of my complete self, the total sum of my beliefs. As you can see, I am far from being a simple creature! There are at least four areas within my self.

First, there is my open self: these are the things that I know about myself, and that others know as well. For example, I know that I tend to be systematic, sequential, rather analytical in what I do; this often shows in the tasks that I set. People (both students and colleagues) notice this, they have occasionally told me about it, so it's a very "public" feature of my approach to teaching.

Then there is my secret self: things that I know about myself, but that others do not know, because I cannot disclose them, or maybe I do not want to. Now, I am not going to tell you anything about me here, otherwise my secret self would no longer be secret! Let me give you a very impersonal example instead. Suppose that you do not feel very comfortable with computers, you do not really like the idea of working with them. You are aware of this, but you are not prepared to let your colleagues know - maybe because you do not want to be judged, or feel cut off from the group, or raise problems with them.

Both my open self and my secret self lie above the line of my awareness. But let us look at what happens below this line. Below this line lie facts, ideas, beliefs that I am not aware of. However, this does not mean that others cannot see them either. There is an area - my blind self - which refers to things that I cannot see but others can. This is not unusual, if you think about it. For example, I may talk a lot in the classroom and thus reduce the time available for students to talk. I may not realise this; on top of that, I may also think that by providing a lot of input I am giving the class a lot of opportunities to listen to English. My students, however, may be very much aware of this; they may resent it, or get bored or frustrated, but it is as if I were blind to their reactions - it is that blind self I do not have access to.

Finally, there is the darkest area - my hidden self. That is made up of beliefs that neither myself nor others are aware of. To give you an example, I think everyone of us has had the chance of teaching a group of students who soon develop feelings of trust, understanding, and mutual support. We like that class, the class likes us, and yet nobody can really explain why this is so. The good feelings are just there - but the reasons behind them remain hidden, deep below our awareness.

So, in a way, beliefs are not a strictly individual issue: rather, they are an essential link between our own self and the people around us. And that leads us to consider how they work, what their function is.


Beliefs, attitudes, decisions, actions

Beliefs work as a sort of filter between us and the world: it's a filter through which we give meaning to the world.







To use another metaphor, beliefs are like a lens which we use to interpret, or rather, to re-interpret, what happens around us. This means that the same event can be viewed in entirely different terms by different people holding different sets of beliefs. So, in the classroom, what we think and what our students think about language, about teaching and about learning acts as a filter in the process of giving meaning to what we say and what we do.

 However, this is just the first step in explaining how beliefs work. Look at this pyramid:







By means of our belief system, we perceive and re-interpret experiences. But these perceptions and interpretations are not neutral: they usually evoke feelings and reactions, like or dislike, acceptance or rejection. These feelings often go together with some kind of judgement or evaluation: we may agree or disagree, we may approve or disapprove - and this leads us to shape our own personal attitudes to people and things. And, as we know, attitudes then affect our intentions and decisions and, ultimately, our actions. If we take a closer look at this pyramid, we shall see that actions - what we and our students actually do in the classroom, what can be seen happening under our eyes - are just the tip of the iceberg. Below this lie decisions that we make both before and during our lessons. And these decisions, in turn, are affected by our attitudes and, basically, by our beliefs (Ridley 1997:21).

Now, how does all this actually work in the classroom?


An example: beliefs behind a reading task

Imagine that we are using a textbook. To select a task from our textbook, we make a series of decisions, using our belief filter. Then we present the task to the students - here again, the way we do this is affected by how we re-interpret the task, that is, how we use our filter again. Of course, the students will use their own belief filter to re-interpret the task, and this will influence the way the task is actually carried out.  Finally, there is the task outcome - the product, in terms of language and in terms of the quality of the experience. This task outcome is evaluated by us, on one hand, and by the students, on the other, each using their own belief filters.







Imagine that we are using a textbook. To select a task from our textbook, we make a series of decisions, using our belief filter. Then we present the task to the students - here again, the way we do this is affected by how we re-interpret the task, that is, how we use our filter again. Of course, the students will use their own belief filter to re-interpret the task, and this will influence the way the task is actually carried out.  Finally, there is the task outcome - the product, in terms of language and in terms of the quality of the experience. This task outcome is evaluated by us, on one hand, and by the students, on the other, each using their own belief filters.

I would like to give you a practical example of this by referring to a reading task (from Elsworth et al. 1997):


(magazine article with pictures)


Exercise 1: Before you read, look at the pictures, the captions and the headline. What do you think:

1. Who are the people in the pictures?

2. What has happened?


Exercise 2: QUICK READING Read the article quickly and check your ideas from Exercise 1.


Exercise 3: READING FOR DETAIL Answer the questions.

(a series of comprehension questions)



READING Before you start to read a text, look at the pictures and the title and think about what the text is about.


As you can see, this is a fairly straightforward reading task. Basically, what we have here is a text - a magazine article - and three short exercises. Exercise 1 is a pre-reading activity: Before you read, look at the pictures, the captions and the headline. What do you think: Who are the people and what has happened? The other two exercises are labelled "Reading". Exercise 2 (Quick reading) asks students to read the article quickly and check their ideas from Exercise 1. Exercise 3 (Reading for detail) is a list of comprehension questions. In addition to the exercises, there is a box headed "Learning Tip", which says: Before you start to read a text, look at the pictures and the title and think about what the text is about.

I would like to show that, in order to carry out an apparently simple task like this, both we and our students need to behave in certain ways. This implies making a series of decisions. Decisions, in turn, are affected by our respective beliefs about reading and about learning in general.

To start with, notice that Exercise 1 asks students not to do something: not to throw themselves immediately into the text,  to hold themselves back from doing this and to proceed by steps, first looking at selected parts of the text - the pictures, the captions, the headline. Now, to do this, to refrain from starting to read the text from the first line and continuing till you reach the end, implies an attitude which I do not think you can always take for granted in students. To approach a text in a selective way you need a sort of "suspension of disbelief": you need to believe that it is useful to stop and think, to put off the impulse of diving into the text right from the start. Also, you need to believe that you can approach a text by choosing a strategy before starting to read, and then use that strategy for a while, until you feel the need for a different one. And to do this, you need to tolerate ambiguity, to control the anxiety which you may feel along this process. Do we and our students share these beliefs and attitudes?

Exercise 1 also asks students for their own thoughts about the people and the events: What do you think …? Just think for a moment of how strange this request could sound to a person who thinks that all you have to do to understand a text is to sort of let it flow from the page, through your eyes, into your mind. If we make an apparently simple request like What do you think …?, we must believe that what the text offers you is just as important as what you can bring to the text. The readers' knowledge is recognised as essential for comprehension as the words printed on the page. We are invited to recall how a magazine article is organised, what the typical conventions of the genre are, and what we generally know about messages in bottles.

If you do Exercise 1, you will inevitably make inferences, try to make predictions and build hypotheses. This not blind guessing, of course - it is taking reasonable risks, calculated risks - something which some people find very hard to do. Then comes Exercise 2, "Quick reading". The belief behind this exercise is that your hypotheses must be put to the test by checking them against the actual text. Notice that what the exercise implies is a change in strategy. The reader is asked to be flexible and approach the text once again, but in a different way. Now it is quick reading - the belief is that to check your ideas you do not need to understand every single word. But to do this you have to believe that it is possible and valuable to skim a text and get the essential information.

Finally, we have Exercise 3, "Reading for detail". Change of purpose, change of strategy again - this time is intensive reading to find and understand details. In the original version of this exercise there were seven questions, focussing on seven different items of information. Why seven, and why these items and not others? The textbook author evidently believes that at this stage, at this language level, students need guidance, they need to be told what is worth focussing on, they need a reading purpose chosen for them. Do we, as teachers, share this belief with the author?

It would seem that we have reached the end of this reading task. But have we really? There is still the "Learning Tip" box. It is a gentle reminder of the reading strategies that students have just used. It is not an exercise, but a piece of reflective work: think about the strategies you have been using, discuss them, try to remember them for the future. Now, what shall we do with this box? If we ignore it, or forget about it, it may be because we believe that students do not benefit from this kind of tips or advice. Maybe we are not so convinced that it pays to spend time talking with students about how they have carried out a task.

On the other hand, we may believe that it is important to focus on the process, and not just on the product. We may believe that a task can include an element of reflection - some time left aside to think about what has been done. But there again, you see, we may have different beliefs about when this box could be used and how. We may be more inclined towards a sort of deductive approach: first you draw students' attention to the "Learning Tip", and then you provide an opportunity for them to use the tip in a task. Or we may be more inclined towards a sort of inductive approach: first you let students experience the task and the strategies that come with it, and then you ask students to come back to the "Learning Tip" and talk about it in the light of their experience.

To sum up, we have seen that even behind a simple reading task like this lies a whole range of beliefs and attitudes. These beliefs and attitudes will affect our decisions, and therefore our actions in the classroom. At the same time, our students' beliefs will affect their interpretation of the task, their involvement in it, and, ultimately, what they will actually do with it. So, to complete the task successfully, both teacher and students need to share, among other things, these beliefs and attitudes - or, at least, the teacher needs to believe in the principles behind the task and the students need to be willing to experiment with the same principles. The question then becomes: are we aware of our own beliefs? Are they the same as the ones endorsed by our textbook? Are we aware of our students' beliefs? How far do we and our students share beliefs and attitudes, and how far are they in conflict? (3)


Tools to explore beliefs and attitudes

This leads me to the final part of my paper, where I shall try to consider how we can discover beliefs and attitudes.

Do you remember my pyramid? Beliefs lie at the very bottom, so obviously we cannot see them, we must find other ways to get to the secret chamber, the Pharaoh's treasure. There are basically two ways we can discover this treasure: by asking people - and by observing people.




First, we can simply ask people, or rather, let them talk, give them the time to write or say things, listen to them - give ourselves and our students opportunities to gain insights into thoughts and feelings. We can do this through questionnaires, rating scales, interviews, surveys, (self)-reports, diaries, logs, journals … (4) . Then, if at all possible, we can share views and ideas - through discussion and comparison. This is what helps us to reconsider our beliefs and attitudes and maybe decide to challenge or change them.

Look at this questionnaire on reading, which I have used with both colleagues and students - in different formats, of course.


Below are beliefs that some people have about reading. Read each statement and then decide if you (1) strongly agree, (2) agree, (3) neither agree nor disagree, (4) disagree, (5) strongly disagree. There are no right or wrong answers. We are simply going to compare our opinions.

[  ]  1. Reading is a passive process: a text must be "absorbed" by the reader.

[  ]  2. Reading is mainly a visual activity: our eyes must identify letter by letter, word by word.

[  ]  3. There isn't one single way of reading a text: there are various ways according to the circumstances.

[  ]  4. We decide how to read a text by checking what kind of text it is and why we want to read it.

[  ]  5. How efficient a reader is depends basically on innate abilities, over which we have no control.

[  ]  6. Text comprehension depends on the reader's previous knowledge.

[  ]  7. Text comprehension requires that you understand every single word in it.

[  ]  8. If you don't want to lose your concentration, you should start reading a text from the beginning and then carry on, line after line, without stopping until you reach the end.

[  ]  9. It is possible to choose a strategy for reading a text in advance and then keep that strategy under control while you read.


You will see that basically, this questionnaire asks you to say whether you agree or disagree with some statements. These statements reflect the beliefs on reading and learning which we have just discussed. For example, Number 2: Reading is mainly a visual activity: our eyes must identify letter by letter, word by word. Or Number 6: Text comprehension depends on the reader's previous knowledge. Notice that the beliefs and attitudes towards these statements cannot be taken for granted - in other words, you cannot see them in black and white terms - and of course, this is what prompts comparison and discussion.

Another interesting way of eliciting beliefs and attitudes is asking people to complete statements as they wish. I've found that a particularly nice way of doing this is to provide a statement and let people complete it either as a description or as a metaphor. For example:




Descriptions or metaphors?



Learning English

                                      is like …



Teaching English 

                                      is like …


                                           in the sense that ...


and students are linked

                                           like …




Notice that if you give a choice, you are catering for different learning styles: a description will appeal more to analytical, systematic, convergent people; a metaphor or an analogy will appeal more to global, intuitive, divergent people. In my experience so far, many colleagues, teachers of different subjects, if given a choice, will choose the description - and maybe this goes a long way towards explaining our own thinking styles as teachers! However, I think that metaphors are a much richer source of insight - you can start from the metaphor and discuss it, and then all sorts of thoughts and feelings usually come out of it (5).

For instance, I once asked some colleagues, teachers of different subjects, to complete this statement: "Learning styles and teaching styles are linked in the sense that … or like …". A group wrote. "… in the sense that one can affect the other" - that is a fairly interesting idea - but they also wrote, "Learning styles and teaching styles are linked like parents and children", which I think is a much more intriguing idea. Another group wrote: "Learning styles and teaching styles are linked in the sense that teaching styles should take learning styles into consideration" - but also: "Learning styles and teaching styles are linked like a predator and its prey" … can you imagine the assumptions behind this?.

Let me give you another example. This time the statement to complete was: "Activating strategies in students is like …". The same group wrote, "… is like doing the midwife's job", and another group wrote, "… is like supplying a torch in a dark storeroom". And to complete the statement, "A learning strategy is like …", one group wrote, " A learning strategy is like climbing a ladder, step by step", while another one wrote, " A learning strategy is like storming a fortress". It is surprising how many violent metaphors seems to spring to our minds when we think of students and our job with them!

This is the first way to discover beliefs in ourselves and others. However, we know that not all beliefs are available for inspection. You will remember that there is my secret self, things  I am aware of but do not want to disclose; there is my blind self, things I am not aware of but others are; and also my hidden self, things both I and others are not aware of. So if we really want to probe into our own beliefs and attitudes, we cannot rely just on what we say and make inferences - we also need to observe what we do and confirm or reject those inferences.

So the second way to explore beliefs is observation and self-observation - and, of course, comparison and discussion of what we have observed. By looking at our actions, at what we actually do before and during lessons, we can infer a lot of things: we can go back to our decisions, then back to our attitudes, and finally get at our beliefs - and maybe decide to challenge or change them.

Look at this observation checklist:







* Do we do the task parts in the same order as in our textbook?

* Do we skip over part(s) of the task? Which one(s)?

* Do we do other things? (e.g. add, cut or change)?

* How much time do we devote to the various parts?

* Do we linger over some and hurry with others?

* How much time do we allow students, at each stage of the task, to work individually, in pairs or groups?

* When and where do we ask students to do the task? In class or at home? As a whole lesson or as part of a lesson? Before or after other things? As a main activity or as a "filler"?






As you can see, this checklist is made up of a series of questions which we can ask ourselves, or get someone to ask us, about what we actually do with a task. What we do with a task, the decisions we make and then carry out with students, is a possible key to our beliefs. We are not always aware of the decisions we make - rather, we often make decisions as a matter of routine - so it is just this decision-making which needs to be brought to the surface.

The checklist includes a number of questions - but it also includes a blank column on the right, headed "Why?", where we are invited to explain the reasons for our answers. Questions explore the different decisions involved in selecting and managing a task. For example, if we look back at the reading task I introduced earlier, we might ask ourselves: How much time to we devote to Exercise 1, the pre-reading task? Do we allow students enough time to gather ideas? What do we do then with these ideas? Do we ask students to share them? If so, how? As a class, or in pairs or groups? And why do we decide to manage the task in this particular way? You can see that from our answers we can at least catch a glimpse of our beliefs and attitudes about the issues we have been discussing. 

The same could be done with the "Learning Tip" box. Do we use it, or do we ignore it? Why? If we use it, do we do it before, during or after the actual reading task? Do we simply ask students to read it, do we discuss it, or do we do something else? Once again, our answers will throw some light on what we believe about learner awareness, learning strategies and the ways to promote them in the classroom (6).



I hope I have been able to show that teachers' and students' beliefs and attitudes are important because they lie at the heart of what people do. To change a curriculum and ignore them is like adding a few other floors to a building without checking its foundations. I believe  that the more aware we become of how these foundations look like, the better we will be able to manage any process of change.

I started with Proust and would like to finish with a quotation from T.S.Eliot´s Four Quartets. We have not discovered new lands, we have not travelled to unfamiliar territories, but maybe we can now come back to our daily routine and see it in a different light:


We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.



1. On teachers´ “beliefs”, “assumptions” and “knowledge”, see Woods 1996, Chapter 7; see also Richards 1996 and Golombek 1998. Back to text

2. For examples of different terms used to refer to beliefs, see, e.g. Wenden 1991:52; Richards 1994b:6; Holec 1996:95; Doly 1997:20; Riley 1997:9. Back to text

3. On the need to become aware of this possible gap, see Nunan 1995 and Grangeat 1997:162. Back to text

4. For questionnaires focusing specifically on learners´ belies, see Horwitz 1987, Victori-Lockhart 1995 and Cotterall (http://www.vuw.ac.nz/lals). Back to text

5. On the use on metaphors to elicit beliefs and attitudes on language learning, see Krasnik 1986 and Thornbury 1991. Back to text

6. On the role of learners´ beliefs in the use of strategies, see Palmer and Goetz 1988. For examples of structured activities to increase learners´ awareness of their own beliefs, see Wenden 1986 and Wenden 1991. Back to text



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