Richard F. Gunstone and Richard T. White
Monash University, Australia

A teacher of final year high school physics is talking about her views of teaching and learning physics, in particular on her use of examples in her teaching of mechanics.

...I mean, physics is fairly remote for most [students] and I think ... you can link it to things that are happening to them .... There are things you can talk about in life all the time ... I do think that is important. Why do I think it is important? I just think in any teaching unless you can relate to it you've got a problem .... I suppose when I go to mathematics [teaching] it's different, but I think in physics, which I believe is very much based on practical kinds of things that can be quantified and can hopefully end up being systematised in some fashion, that's a fairly abstract process with a lot of students. Getting through to that point [is difficult], but if it relates to something I think they'll remember it better.

What this teacher says illustrates factors that influence teacher attitudes to classroom practice. Her teaching is shaped by what she believes about student learning ("if it relates to something I think they will remember it better"), about the nature of physics ("physics ... is very much based on practical kinds of things that can be quantified"), and how she sees these influencing what she should do in her classroom ("I think you can link it to things that are happening to them"). More significantly, it illustrates the way in which these influences on teachers' attitudes to classroom practice are often intertwined.

The teacher's statement comes from a lengthy interview conducted during a study of the views that senior high school physics teachers and first year university physics teachers in one state in Australia hold about quality learning of physics (Gunstone, Brass and Fensham, 1994). At other points, the interview showed how her views of the purpose of education influenced her attitudes to classroom practice. The high school and the university physics teachers in this study differed in their attitudes to classroom practice; their distinctive characteristics provide contrasting illustrations of the links between views of learning and teaching, nature of physics, and purpose of education. Hence each group also has distinctive attitudes to the practice of physics teaching.

The high school teachers placed high value on students designing and undertaking experiments, and on students linking the ideas of physics with personal experiences from outside the classroom. They valued pedagogies that would foster these student behaviours. At the heart of this valuing was belief in a particular view of learning - that the individual learners each construct their own understandings, and are therefore responsible for their learning. The pedagogies that these teachers claimed to see as more appropriate were derived from this view of learning. Also contributing to the valuing of laboratory and linking approaches were beliefs about the nature of physics and the purposes of education that were consistent with the approaches. These teachers expressed the purpose of their students studying physics more in terms of general education, of seeing the significance of physics for understanding the world around them, than in terms of preparation for further study of physics at university. The beliefs of these teachers about the nature of science can only be inferred, but the data from this research suggest that they saw physics as both empirical and a construction by scientists.

No inference at all was needed to determine substantial aspects of the views of the nature of physics held by the majority of the university physics teachers. Their statements showed that they saw physics as a highly logical structure, based on a set of uniformly applicable generalisations. This structure represented, for them, an obvious and powerful way of understanding natural phenomena. The purpose of teaching physics was to lay out this structure and, in the process, prepare first year university students for research in physics. The structure of physics was so important for most of the university teachers, it was the overwhelmingly dominant criterion for deciding curriculum and pedagogy. For example, for these teachers, laboratory work was of relatively low value. Any value it did have was in the extent to which students might learn skills of experimental design, not in the learning of physics concepts. Linking physics with the "real" world had no cognitive value (only some affective value). A small number of this group even argued that teachers should not begin with the real world in teaching physics as this would diminish student learning.

These two groups of physics teachers provide contrasting examples of the links between views of the nature of science, teaching and learning, and the purposes of education. For the high school teachers it appears that a view of learning was central, and that views of purposes and the nature of science were then consistent. With the majority of the university teachers it was the view of the nature of science that was central, so much so that this overrode any consideration of learning and pedagogy.

These two different examples also illustrate important issues in considering links between the beliefs considered in this chapter : the links are variable, one belief may dominate all others, and there may not always be consistency between the beliefs (see, for example, Koulaidis & Ogborn, 1995).

Just as one belief can dominate all others in shaping attitudes to classroom practice, so can the teachers' understanding of physics. In particular, if the teacher's knowledge is poor then his or her classroom practice is necessarily very limited. For example, Tabanera (1995) shows that where teachers' understanding of electricity is very poor, they do not use analogies (for they do not understand their significance themselves); they avoid laboratory work; they reject any form of student discussion; they use no examples. Their classroom practice is limited to lectures taken from texts and demonstration of solutions of standard quantitative problems. Although we do not discuss teacher understanding of physics in this chapter, it is clearly of great significance.

Other than teacher knowledge, it is teachers' views of teaching and learning, the nature of science and the purposes of education that are of prime influence in shaping their attitudes to classroom practice. Again these are intertwined and one can dominate all others. However, for convenience, we consider each of the three influences separately in the remainder of this chapter, with greatest attention being paid to views of teaching and learning. We conclude the chapter by briefly discussing some implications for teacher education.

As research in these areas often addresses science teaching generally, rather than physics specifically, we will use both "physics" and "science" as contextual descriptors as appropriate.


Formal studies of physics/science teachers' ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning have used a variety of methods, and have investigated practising teachers (at school and university) and pre-service teacher education students. These methods include interviews directly focussing on views of physics learning (e.g. the study by Gunstone, Brass and Fensham discussed above) or views of physics learning and teaching (e.g. Donald, 1993), interviews using specific instances that may or may not be seen as science teaching (e.g. Hewson, Kerby & Cook, 1995), interviews exploring the metaphors used by teachers to describe their practice (e.g. Tobin & LaMaster, 1995), detailed and long term case studies of science teachers (e.g. Brickhouse & Bodner, 1992), and questionnaires administered to larger groups (e.g. Aguirre, Haggerty & Lindner, 1990). Substantial data about teachers' views of learning and teaching have also emerged in collaborative research and development work involving teachers and researchers (e.g. Baird, Fensham, Gunstone & White, 1991; Baird & Northfield, 1992). These various approaches reveal a wide range of ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning. We illustrate this diversity of views and the ways the views affect the attitudes of teachers to classroom practice by considering two fictitious extremes, which we have created by combining features from a number of different studies.

Imagine teachers who believe that what they say in a classroom is then known, in the form it was uttered by the teacher, by every student in the classroom. That is, imagine teachers whose ideas and beliefs about learning and teaching are solely that the teacher gives and the learner receives - and that the learner receives only that which the teacher gives. Such teachers would have attitudes to and behaviours in classrooms that are extraordinarily limited: they would see the teacher's role solely in terms of organising a clear and logical exposition and ensuring that students listen. While concern with having students listen may well lead these teachers to use some demonstrations, their general approaches would be limited and didactic. And the teachers would see these limited approaches as appropriate. The approaches would be consistent with the beliefs they hold.

At the other extreme, consider teachers whose beliefs about teaching and learning are that all student learning must come from students themselves, that the teacher cannot directly tell students anything. In the language used for the first fictitious example, the teacher cannot give and the learner cannot receive. In such cases the teachers would again have attitudes to and behaviours in the classrooms that were extraordinarily limited: they would see the teacher's role solely in terms of organising resources that students have decided they need; they would not give answers to any student questions; etc. Again, such teachers would justify their classroom approaches by reference to their underlying beliefs about teaching and learning.

An obvious point from these two fictitious examples is that for both extremes the underlying beliefs about teaching and learning are indefensible. Justifiable views of teaching and learning and consequently more appropriate classroom approaches will lie between these extremes. As one of us has written elsewhere (White, 1992), the question of balance between alternatives is frequently of great importance in considering educational issues.

We began this section by listing some of the wide variety of approaches that have been used to explore teachers' ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning. One fundamental issue to emerge from all these various approaches is that teachers' actions in classrooms are based on ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning. It is true that these ideas and beliefs may be hard to justify, as in our two fictitious examples above, and that the ideas and beliefs may be implicit and not easily seen (a point to which we return in the final section of this chapter). But these ideas and beliefs do exist. In the explorations of teachers' ideas about teaching and learning it is hard to find any example of a teacher with no such views. The notion of any teachers planning and implementing approaches in their classrooms without underlying beliefs is a highly unlikely one. These beliefs may be profound, they may be sadly limited, but they are held. It is the nature of the beliefs that is of interest; their existence can be assumed.

Our description above of teachers' beliefs about teaching and learning being sometimes implicit and sometimes hard to justify clearly implies a concern with teachers recognising and evaluating their beliefs. Doing this with the intent of teachers understanding and evaluating their attitudes to and practice in classrooms raises a related issue - the beliefs of the students about learning and teaching and what are appropriate roles for learners and teachers. Students' beliefs about these are significant factors for teachers, and will strongly influence what teachers can do. As an example, we give the case of a senior high school physics teacher who, as a result of developing broader and more profound views of teaching and learning, spent considerable time in her physics class attempting to develop students' abilities and motivations to ask questions (Bakopanos, 1989). Many students were unhappy about this because the approach was at odds with their beliefs. For example, after the teacher had spent some time on this approach, one student objected, expressing a different view of appropriate behaviour: "You don't ask questions. You listen to what the teacher says and you take down notes. The teacher tells you what to do and learn. That's the way it is done". The fact that some students had beliefs of learning, teaching and appropriate roles that were at odds with the beliefs of the teacher limited what the teacher could easily achieve, even though the teacher's beliefs were informed and profound and the students' beliefs were narrow and inadequate. A number of similar cases emerged in research by Gunstone, Gray and Searle (1992). In that study, students in the final year (Grade 10) of junior high school experienced teaching approaches that led to substantial understanding of aspects of Newton's laws. This understanding was a significant advantage for those who studied physics at senior high school in the following year: the achievement in mechanics of the students involved in the research was significantly higher than their peers in the senior high school classes. However, when interviewed during their senior high school year about the mechanics teaching they had experienced in junior high school, about one quarter of the students were quite negative about the junior high school experience (e.g. "It [the teaching approach used by the researchers in junior high school] takes too much time to work. We have been brought up to sort of working quite quickly, and although we don't know what we are learning we still get through [pass exams] alright"). These negative students gradually lost the cognitive advantage that they had gained. Because their ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning were at odds with the ideas and beliefs underlying the junior high school teaching, they rejected the classroom approaches. As a consequence they did not value the understanding they had gained and did not again use the approaches that had been central to the junior high approach.

The same general problem arises when it is the students who have the informed beliefs and the teacher who has the inadequate beliefs. One instance of this is some students who had had extensive experience in science classes conducted by teachers with the perspectives of the physics teacher above, and who then found themselves with a highly didactic teacher, rather like our first fictitious example. Their reactions included comments like "Mr ... won't let us talk. If we can't talk how can we learn? All he does is give us notes and expect us to understand it". (Baird & Northfield, 1992, p85).

So, teachers' ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning are powerful influences on their attitudes to classroom practice and thus on their actual approaches to physics teaching. Students' ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning are powerful influences on their attitudes to classroom practice, and thus are a fundamental factor in shaping what it is possible for teachers to do. These two assertions about teachers and students imply the need to consider approaches to changing ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning.

Changing views of teaching and learning

In the final section of this chapter we consider approaches to changing views of trainee physics teachers. Here we give a more general comment about changing views, comments we see as applicable to both students and teachers. Greater detail about approaches can be found in accounts of our collaborative work with teachers (e.g. Baird, Fensham, Gunstone & White, 1991; Baird & Northfield, 1992).

We find particular value in the Conceptual Change Model of Posner, Strike, Hewson and Gertzog (1982) for considering possibilities for change of views of teaching and learning. The model was devised as a way of thinking about conceptual change in cognitive terms. This model argues that, for conceptual change, the individual must initially feel dissatisfied with the existing conception; then, for this existing conception to be replaced by a new conception, that new conception must be intelligible, plausible and fruitful.

Applying the same set of criteria to considerations of the views of teachers and students is helpful. If it is seen as appropriate to try to change such views, then the initial step is often to attempt to generate dissatisfaction with them. This is not easy. Teachers (and students) have views about teaching and learning that have evolved in response to their experiences. From the perspective of the teachers (or the students), the existing views are most likely to be seen as appropriate to the context in which they are functioning. While there are many aspects to "appropriate" here, assessment is usually a significant one.

Many teachers (and students) hold views of teaching and learning which they see as consistent with the way learning is assessed in their context. A case study by Wildy and Wallace (1995) illustrates this with particular clarity. If, in the extreme, the assessment of learning is the assessment of students' ability to reproduce single elements of propositional knowledge, then one can expect views that see appropriate teaching to involve no more than students having in their notebooks correct elements of propositional knowledge. Having assessment that rewards particular teaching and learning approaches is a necessary step towards fostering views that value these approaches.

Making new views of teaching and learning intelligible is relatively easy. Having the views seen as plausible is more difficult, and as fruitful even more so. Again, assessment is central - both teachers and students are right to expect that grades from physics courses will reward the ability and motivation to master the tasks undertaken in classrooms.

When considering how to change views of teaching and learning, a fifth criterion can usefully be added to the conceptual change model, that the new views of teaching and learning should be seen by the teacher as feasible (Gunstone & Northfield, 1986). The teacher has to be able to see how to cope with the demands that follow from attempting to implement the classroom consequences of the new views.


Attitudes of teachers to science and technology are the subject of another chapter in this book. Even so we consider views of science briefly here because of their links with views of classroom practice, as already outlined. We do not discuss how the view of science contained in the curriculum affects teaching, although this is clearly of major significance. (As an obvious example, consider the process - product curriculum debate in science education, the stance taken by each side of this debate about the nature of science, and the consequent impact on teachers' attitudes and approaches to classroom practice.)

In the context of a detailed discussion of links between a constructivist view of the nature of science and how and what science to teach, Carr et al. (1994) argue that

Many teachers hold the view that:


While the assertion that these are the views of "many" teachers may or may not be justified, this quote does illustrate links of views of science with attitudes to classroom practice. A teacher with this set of views will approach classroom teaching with the intended endpoint of students having clear statements of the relevant knowledge, and will approach laboratory work with the intent of students discovering relevant knowledge through observation. Equally important is that these views are quite common among students. Hence students often expect the same approaches, a point well made by Hirschbach, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry:

In our science courses, the students typically have the impression - certainly in the elementary or beginning courses - that it's a question of mastering a body of knowledge that's all been developed by their ancestors.... Particularly ... they get the impression that what matters is being right or wrong - in science above all .... I like to stress to my students that they're very much like the research scientists: that we don't know how to get the right answer; we're working in areas where we don't know what we're doing ... I think any way we can encourage our students to see that, in science, it's not so important whether you are right or wrong ... Because the truth is going to wait for you.

(Hirschbach, as quoted in Marton, Fensham & Chaiklin, 1994 (p 472)

As with views of teaching and learning, students' views of the nature of science impose a constraint on what teachers can do in classrooms.

It should not be surprising if Carr et al. (1994) are correct in the above quote in their view that "many" teachers hold the described view of science. Almost all physics (and science) teachers acquire views of the nature of science implicitly through their experiences of learning science content. The further they progress through their science learning the more likely it is that the learning expected of them will be consistent with the view described by Carr et al. Serious consideration of the nature of the discipline they are learning, of the origin and status of knowledge claims, is quite rare for university physics students.

Explicit study of the nature of science is not an automatic remedy. Gallagher (1991) describes two teachers with strong formal backgrounds in the history and philosophy of science whose general views of the nature of science and its links with the practice of school science were broadly similar with the views of other science teachers in his study, who had not had that study of the history and philosophy of science. It appears that, as with the content of physics per se, knowing the content of history and philosophy of science by itself is not enough. One also needs to understand how and why and for what purpose that knowledge interacts with pedagogy.


The last twenty or so years have seen dramatic changes in the ways one might see the purpose of education in general and the purpose of physics teaching in particular. The growth of the Science for All and Science-Technology-Society movements (e.g. Fensham, 1992), and the changing nature of students in those countries with increased school retention rates, make considerations of the purpose of physics teaching much more complex. When school physics was seen solely as the beginning of a sequence with the end point of post-graduate university research students, things were simple. Both the content of school physics courses and the pedagogy used in classrooms could be seen solely in terms of the requirements of university physics departments, and the purpose of physics teaching to be as selection into those departments. While these requirements remain, the physics teachers of many countries today also are faced with competing purposes such as scientific literacy in which physics is a component of general education. These new purposes are usually in direct conflict with the university preparation and selection purposes. This conflict has no ready resolution. An extremely helpful beginning point, however, is to be clear about the purposes implied by the physics course one is teaching and the educational context in which the course is placed. For this purpose, we find the science curriculum emphases described by Roberts (1982, 1988) to be helpful. Roberts derived these emphases from inspection of curricula and text books from the first three-quarters of this century. The emphases are messages about science that Roberts found in the documents he examined. They provide a means of considering the possible emphases that teachers can give to their physics teaching, and hence possible purposes that can underlie the approaches teachers adopt.

Although it is strongly focussed on curriculum in the U.S., the review by Bybee and DeBoar (1994) of the goals of science education and the changes in these goals over time is also helpful in considering purposes.


In this final section we consider briefly what the issues discussed in this chapter might mean for teacher education. We do this by considering together all three of the broad areas we have discussed. As we argued at the beginning of this chapter, teachers' views of teaching and learning, of the nature of science, and of the purposes of education (and, specifically, physics teaching) are intertwined.

Central to our considerations here is the notion of reflection. Prospective physics teachers need to reflect on the views they hold, and the appropriateness of these views ( Baird, Fensham, Gunstone & White, 1991). These are not issues that can be addressed with lectures that lay out some form of "acceptable" position. Beliefs are rarely changed by contrary assertion.

The beginning point for most pre-service physics teachers, and for views in all three of the broad areas we have discussed, is to help them recognise and articulate the views they currently hold. Because their existing views are often implicit rather than explicit, direct approaches such as asking "How do you learn?" are rarely helpful. These direct questions usually result in general and uninformative responses. We find that helping the articulation of these views is best approached by placing the student teachers in a genuine learning context, and then having them reflect on this specific experience in terms of their own learning and the learning of others. The value of this approach is that there is a common learning experience for the student teachers to discuss. In discussing the learning that they perceive to have occurred during this experience, the student teachers often also consider the nature of science. This is because, as they reflect on and debate learning, perceptions of the nature of the significant content to be learned in the experience are also addressed. For example, if the learning experience is based on a qualitative teaching approach, debate about the merit of qualitative approaches to physics is common. The essence of this debate is invariably whether the ability to apply the appropriate formula is a sufficient understanding of the concept to be learned. (Details of one such approach involving the concept of normal reaction are given in Gunstone, 1994; a similar approach with appropriate content is also a most helpful beginning point with practising physics teachers.) Consideration of the purposes of physics teaching arise more rarely. We find these views more helpfully addressed after considerations of teaching and learning and the nature of science. In this process, many individuals begin to recognise and articulate their views. For some, the challenges to these views that come from the responses of others start the process of reflection on and reconsideration of the views.

Others have used approaches such as personal metaphors to assist pre-service and practising science teachers to recognise and evaluate their views. Tobin, Tippins, and Gallard (1994) provide a helpful review of this work.

Once existing views have been articulated, and reflection on them begun, it is appropriate to elaborate alternative ways of conceptualising teaching and learning, including some specifics of teaching and learning approaches consistent with these alternative ways. As far as possible, this giving of an alternative should be through direct experience. Learning assertions about alternative ways is not enough; it is also important to experience examples that illustrate what is being elaborated and examples of learning via teaching that is consistent with what is being elaborated.

While change in these areas is not easy, it is certainly possible. We conclude by pointing to examples of work showing that substantial change can be achieved with both pre-service teacher education students (e.g. Gunstone, Slattery, Baird & Northfield, 1993; Hollen, Roth & Anderson, 1991)(Anderson & Mitchener, 1994, review a number of such studies), and with practising teachers (e.g. Baird & Northfield, 1992).


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SectionD1,  Teacher's attitudes about physics classroom practice  from: Connecting Research in Physics Education with Teacher Education
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