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An instrument to elicit teachers' beliefs and assumptions



Teachers' beliefs influence the acceptance and uptake of new approaches, techniques, and activities, and therefore play an important part in teacher development. Consequently, trainers running teacher education courses should consider encouraging participants to think about their personal beliefs and theories about teaching before providing input. This article proposes the use of an instrument designed to elicit teachers' beliefs based on Kelly's (1969) theory of personal constructs, using an adapted version of his repertory grid technique.
344 ELT Journal Volume 57/4 October 2003 ©Oxford University Press
An instrument to elicit teachers’
beliefs and assumptions
Helen Donaghue
Teachers’ beliefs influence the acceptance and uptake of new approaches,
techniques, and activities, and therefore play an important part in teacher
development. Consequently, trainers running teacher education courses should
consider encouraging participants to think about their personal beliefs and
theories about teaching before providing input. This article proposes the use of
an instrument designed to elicit teachers’ beliefs based on Kelly’s (1969) theory
of personal constructs, using an adapted version of his repertory grid technique.
How teachers’ It is generally agreed that teachers’ personal theories, beliefs, and
beliefs can influence assumptions need to be uncovered before development can occur,
development enabling critical reflection and then change. Beliefs about teaching,
learners, or a teacher’s role, for example, guide teachers in their practice,
and are derived from sources such as experience and personality.
As an example of how beliefs can influence development, Lamb (1993:
75) describes following up an in-service course by interviewing
participants of the course one year later. He describes this as a ‘sobering
experience’ because he found participants feeling ‘confused and
frustrated’. This, he believes, is caused firstly by ‘inability to apply the
new ideas within the existing parameters of syllabus, examinations, and
other practical constraints’ but also by
mental parameters within which [participants] conceptualized the
teaching and learning process, and which had determined how they
had interpreted the ideas during and after the course.
(ibid.: 71, original emphasis)
This experience demonstrates the importance of teacher beliefs, and
their influence on the acceptance and uptake of new approaches and
techniques. Participants on a teacher development course who are
simply presented with a string of activities will be unable to assimilate
them unless they already have exactly the same beliefs and assumptions
as the trainer, which is highly unlikely.
It seems that there is often a great di¤erence in teacher development
between input (from the trainer/expert), uptake (elements which
participants find interesting and consider transferable to classrooms, i.e.
which match their own theory), and output (what is actually
implemented in the participants’ classes). Attending an IATEFL
conference, for example, which typically consists of a series of one-o¤
workshops or presentations, may be interesting (and this is of great value
in increasing interest and motivation in teaching) but it would be
illuminating to study how many of the ideas presented in the sessions
are actually transferred into practice. Firstly, context di¤erence will be
responsible for filtering much of the input. Secondly, participants must
understand the theory behind activities and techniques. Lastly,
participants must allow new ideas to be assimilated into their personal
theory, and to have the creativity and adaptability to transfer new
knowledge into teaching practice.
All this points to the importance of beginning a development or training
course with awareness-raising activities in order to bring participants’
theories and underlying principles out into the open, to challenge them
or incorporate them into the course content, and to facilitate change.
This can help to maintain a cycle of reflection throughout the course. It is
also important to be aware that participants may become temporarily
destabilized as their beliefs and assumptions are challenged and
changed, and may need time and support to re-establish confidence.
The diªculty of The diªculty in eliciting beliefs lies in the fact that personal theories
eliciting beliefs may be subconscious; teachers may be unable to articulate them. Also
related to this is the issue of self-image; subconsciously or consciously,
teachers may wish to promote a particular image of themselves.
Furthermore, there is often a di¤erence between espoused theory (theory
claimed by a participant) and theory in action (what a participant actually
does in the classroom). Faced with these diªculties, how can teacher
beliefs be elicited?
Roberts (1998: 310–11) suggests a visualization activity which aims to
elicit personal theories of teaching and learning. In this activity
participants consider the roles of teachers and learners, and then think of
and discuss metaphors. Roberts gives the example metaphor of ‘The
teacher’s a judge’ and ‘The pupils are on trial’. However, the
e¤ectiveness of this activity must be questioned. In-service course
participants are often experienced, sophisticated, and well read, and may
have been on other similar in-service courses. It is very unlikely that they
would give a response like ‘the teacher’s a judge’. Responses such as
‘facilitator’, ‘guide’, and ‘informer’, which are prevalent in EFL literature,
are more likely. Secondly, teacher and learner roles are much discussed
in the literature (and indeed in teacher education courses), so genuine
personal theory is unlikely to be elicited from such an activity —
participants may give the responses they think are expected of them.
Similar activities such as eliciting answers to ‘Try to agree on five
important characteristics of good/bad teaching’ (Do¤ 1988: 122) are
often used at the beginning of courses but, again, they are familiar, and
so may produce formulaic or insincere—and thus inaccurate—results.
Edge (1992) suggests an interesting process of co-operative development
which helps teachers see themselves clearly through discussion with
others, but this process works best over time, and is therefore not
suitable for a short teacher education course.
Eliciting teachers’ beliefs and assumptions 345
This article suggests an activity based on a repertory grid technique
(RGT) activity (details below), which can be used at the beginning of a
course, based loosely on Kelly’s (1969) personal construct theory.
Personal construct Kelly viewed man as a scientist who tries to make sense of the universe,
theory himself, and the situations he encounters. He makes hypotheses, tests
them, and then forms personal constructs. The constructs are his
theories and beliefs, his way of organizing and making sense of the
world, and they will change and be adapted with experience. For an
excellent explanation of the construct theory see Fransella and Bannister
(1977). Kelly’s personal construct theory seems to mirror the reflective
teaching process of forming ideas and beliefs based on experience,
reflecting on them, and perhaps changing or adapting either beliefs
and/or practice. Pope and Keen discuss how personal construct theory
can develop teaching:
individuals, students and teachers alike, [need] to be adaptive,
personally viable and self-directive. Such self-direction or self-
organisation can only come about if the individual makes an e¤ort to
explore his viewpoints, purposes, means for obtaining ends and keeps
these under constant review.
(Pope and Keen 1981: 118)
Kelly devised the Repertory Grid Technique as an instrument to elicit
personal construct systems, so it seems appropriate to use the same
technique to elicit participants’ theories and beliefs, or personal
construct systems, about teaching. The grid can be seen as a reflective
device to raise self-awareness, and to encourage understanding of other
course participants’ perspectives. Pope and Keen use the metaphor of a
mirror to describe RGT:
… we argue that [RGT] is best used as a psychological ‘mirror’ which
should help the individual, rather than the investigator, to understand
his world.
(Pope and Keen 1981: 155)
Kelly viewed constructs as bi-polar arguing that we never aªrm anything
without denying something else, e.g. ‘nice-nasty’, ‘here-there’, ‘past-
future’, ‘odd-even’. The RGT requires subjects to decide, from three
given elements, a way in which two of the elements are alike and the
third is di¤erent. For example, when comparing three di¤erent people
known to a subject (the ‘elements’, e.g. ‘mother’, ‘self’, ‘friend’)
constructs such as ‘sensitive to people’s feelings/insensitive’, or
‘impatient/stops to think’, may be elicited. The construct is recorded on a
grid, and the subject proceeds to the next triad. The resulting grid is a
personal construct record which can then be analysed and compared
with other grids. See Appendix for an example of a completed grid.
The instrument The RGT instrument below has been changed and developed. Firstly, two
Development versions were piloted with a group of EFL teachers in a language school
in the UK. These versions dealt with two aspects of teaching: classroom
management and teaching in general. The trials were purely
experimental, and had the following purposes:
346 Helen Donaghue
πTo see if teachers responded well to the activity: to find out if they found
it useful, and were able to produce constructs.
πTo see if teachers understood and accepted the personal construct theory
behind the activity.
πTo find out if instructions for the activity were clear and easy to
πTo explain and demonstrate the activity to other trainers and find out if
they were interested in including it on development courses.
The conclusions were that the teachers responded well to the activity:
they especially enjoyed the novelty and challenge of it, and found the
theory and process interesting. The instructions were clear, and teachers
completed the activity successfully. Lastly, the trainers were enthusiastic
about including a similar activity on their courses.
One illuminating factor to come out of the trials was that teachers found
abstract ideas very diªcult to compare. In the RGT’s original use (clinical
psychology), the elements Kelly used were people known to the
respondents (e.g. mother, father) so I decided that using the participants
themselves, and teachers known to them as elements, would be more
appropriate, and easier for participants to compare than aspects of
teaching. (See Appendix for the list of final elements.) One criticism
came from a trainer who objected to the element ‘a teacher you consider
ine¤ective’, but this is vital, as both positive and negative elements must
be included for meaningful comparison (and it is naive to pretend that
ine¤ective teachers do not exist).
Piloting From July to September 2000, the RGT instrument was piloted with
English teachers from various European countries who came to the UK
to do a two-week development course in teaching methodology. There
were five groups of 5–8 participants over the summer, and three trainers.
Participants did the RGT activity in their first session, with each RGT
activity producing many constructs (see Appendix for examples of
elicited constructs) and much discussion between pairs and in plenary.
Below is an explanation of how to do the activity, and then a discussion of
its e¤ectiveness.
Activity procedure πTrainers introduce the activity, explain the concept of personal
constructs, and explain the aim of the activity: to elicit teachers’ beliefs
and assumptions about teaching.
πParticipants are divided into pairs. Each pair receives one set of cards.
Each card has an element of the grid on it. Pairs go through the cards,
and each participant writes the name of a person who corresponds to the
element on each card. Participant A writes the name of the person at the
top of the card, and participant B writes it at the bottom, e.g.
Judit Zsolt
A teacher you learnt well with A student who learns English easily
Fernando Ana
Eliciting teachers’ beliefs and assumptions 347
Thus, when finished, each pair will have a set of cards with people known
to them to compare in the activity. (It is important, for reasons of
confidentiality, that pairs do not come from the same teaching context,
and therefore will not know the people written on their partner’s card. If
this is unavoidable, then participants should be instructed to simply
think of a corresponding person, and not to write their name on the
πCards are shuºed, and each participant is given a grid. (See Appendix.)
πPairs choose three cards at random, and then, individually, think of a way
in which two of their three people are similar, and one is di¤erent. They
record this on their grid, writing the way the two are similar (the
construct) in the ‘construct’ column, ticking the two elements which are
similar, and putting a cross in the column of the element which is
di¤erent. (See Appendix for an example of a completed grid.)
πPairs then compare their constructs, which usually generates discussion.
πPairs then return the cards to the pile, shuºe them, choose three
more at random, and repeat the procedure. (Pairs can reject triads if
they find them too diªcult to compare, and simply shuºe and choose
πAfter approximately six turns, a plenary group feedback is conducted,
with participants comparing constructs.
The activity should take about 45 minutes.
Results Participants on the two-week development course were invited to answer
an end-of-course questionnaire which included a question asking
participants to evaluate the RGT activity:
Did this activity help you reflect on your attitude and beliefs about
Of the 23 questionnaire respondents, 19 (83%) said Yes, and 4 (17%) said
No. Of the respondents who responded positively, some commented
further on beliefs and attitudes, for example:
It helped me a lot to think about my attitude and about the main
approaches to teaching.
It helped me to realise that the more open-minded you are the better
teacher you may become. It’s not diªcult to have an opinion about
others, but it is quite diªcult to be critical about ourselves. The activity
on ‘personal teaching constructs’ helped me to see myself through
others, by comparing my own constructs to the other teachers. Even if
the activity done in class [RGT] hadn’t been useful to anything else—
which is not true—it would have been a way to make me see myself
through the others.
Of the four respondents who said the RGT activity was not helpful, three
commented further. Respondent 1 seemed not to understand the aim of
the activity, which is not to change beliefs or attitudes but to uncover and
voice them:
348 Helen Donaghue
It didn’t change my principles, my attitude to teaching. Everything
remained the same.
Interestingly, respondent 4, who said that the activity was helpful, made
a similar comment:
I think my beliefs remained the same.
Both participants had the same trainer, so it is possible that the trainer
did not explain the purpose of the activity properly. Respondent 22
thought that the activity was unnecessary:
I always reflect on my own about teaching. Everything was already
We must accept that some course participants will feel like this,
especially if they have a clear awareness of their own beliefs and attitudes
about teaching. There may also be participants who resist exploring their
attitudes and beliefs, and who therefore will not be receptive to the RGT
activity (or indeed to a reflective approach).
Respondent 20 commented:
I didn’t understand what I had to do afterwards. I can’t see a practical
point reflecting on my students or colleagues. They won’t be better or
The second part of this comment perhaps indicates that the respondent
has not understood the aim of the activity, but this is diªcult to interpret.
However, her first comment is significant, and reflects a concern shared
by respondent 17:
The activity was useful but I’m not sure how I can use the result of the
This point is crucial: what do we do with the constructs after they have
been elicited? The three trainers who piloted the activity used them in
di¤erent ways. One trainer discussed the grid’s value as an introductory
activity, saying that it gave the group interesting information about the
participants, and provided a novel starting point for the course, as well as
introducing the reflective element of the course. All trainers reported that
the constructs generated discussion through comparison, and started
participants thinking about their teaching. One trainer asked the group
to sort their constructs into negative and positive, which also generated
discussion as some constructs (she gave the example of ‘strict’) were
controversial. Trainers tried to recall constructs during the course. For
example, in a session about classroom management, the trainer selected
constructs she considered relevant to the topic, and asked participants to
rank them in order of importance to management. One trainer suggested
that the activity had limited use on a two-week development course, and
that it might perhaps be more interesting to use on a longer or pre-
service course, where constructs from the beginning or end of course
could be compared.
Most significantly, however, all trainers agreed that the constructs were
best used as a prompt for reflection. In order to use the constructs
Eliciting teachers’ beliefs and assumptions 349
e¤ectively participants need time to think about them, so they were asked
to comment on their constructs in a learning log which the trainer read
and responded to. This encouraged participants to fully reflect on the
constructs and their teaching beliefs and practice. Trainers reported that,
in fact, the log entries were often much more interesting than the
activity, because they could see that participants had developed and
expanded on the constructs.
Conclusion In conclusion, the RGT activity was successful in that most course
participants found that it informed them about their personal constructs
as related to teaching. Participants enjoyed comparing and discussing
constructs, and trainers found that the activity provided useful insights
into participants’ teaching beliefs, and acted as a catalyst to thought and
reflection at the beginning of the course. Trainers also found that it
introduced and encouraged the notion of reflective thinking which
underpinned the course. However, it is important to realize that the
activity is in its infancy, and needs to be piloted on other and di¤erent
types of courses, and hopefully then adapted and improved.
Revised version received August 2002
350 Helen Donaghue
Do¤, A. 1988. Teach English. A Training Course for
Teachers: Teacher’s Workbook.Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Edge, J. 1992. Cooperative Development. Harlow:
Fransella, F. and D. Bannister. 1977. A Manual for
Repertory Grid Technique. London: Academic Press.
Kelly, G. A. 1969. Clinical Psychology and
Personality: the Selected Papers of George Kelly. (ed.
B. Maher). New York: Wiley.
Lamb, M. 1993. ‘The consequences of INSET’.
ELT Journal 49/1: 72–80.
Pope, M. and T. Keen. 1981. Personal Construct
Psychology and Education. London: Academic
Roberts, J. 1998. Language Teacher Education.
London: Arnold.
The author
Helen Donaghue is an EFL teacher at Sharjah
Women’s College, UAE. She has an MSc in
Applied Linguistics from Edinburgh University,
and is interested in teacher education, discourse
analysis, and EAP.
RGT activity grid
Quiet ✓✗ ✓
Sociable ✓✗
Open ✗✓ ✓
Creative ✓✗
Independent ✓✗ ✓
Too accepting ✗✓ ✓
Doesn’t listen ✓✓
Strict ✓✗
Superficial ✓✓
Unmotivated ✓✓ ✗
Eliciting teachers’ beliefs and assumptions 351
A colleague you con-
sider a good teacher
A colleague you
consider ine¤ective
A teacher you learned
well with
A teacher you didn’t
learn well with
Your present self as a
Your ideal self as a
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Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers
  • G A Kelly
Kelly, G. A. 1969. Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers of George Kelly. (ed. B. Maher). New York: Wiley.
A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers
  • F Fransella
  • D Bannister
Fransella, F. and D. Bannister. 1977. A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique. London: Academic Press. Kelly, G. A. 1969. Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers of George Kelly. (ed. B. Maher). New York: Wiley.
Cooperative Development. Harlow: Longman
  • J Edge
Edge, J. 1992. Cooperative Development. Harlow: Longman.
Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers of
  • F Fransella
  • D Bannister
Fransella, F. and D. Bannister. 1977. A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique. London: Academic Press. Kelly, G. A. 1969. Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers of George Kelly. (ed. B. Maher). New York: Wiley.