Nursery school teacher's control beliefs, beliefs about development and education, and educational action

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  • JOURNAL OF APPLIED DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY 17,453-473 (1996)

    Nursery School Teachers Control Beliefs, Beliefs About Development

    and Education, and Educational Action

    CHRISTIANE VANDENPLAS-HOLPER

    Universite Catholique de Louvain

    Twenty-four nursery school teachers were given Levensons (1974) questionnaire on control beliefs and rating scales referring to their belief in natures and nurtures

    contributions to the childs development. They were then involved in a semistructured play situation with children of their class, 31 to 52 months old, in a small group setting. The entire situation was videorecorded. In a structured interview, the teachers had to respond to several questions referring to development and education and the inter- view was submitted to content analysis. Finally, the teachen educational action was rated from the video recordings as to distancing and directive strategies. Internal control beliefs, a reement with natures contribution to the childs development, and the proportion o 3 references to cognitive-developmental processes predicted edu- cational action aggregated from distancing and directive strategies and explained a high percentage of variance. Internal control was the most powerful predictor.

    Childrens social cognition has been widely explored in the past 2 decades. Since the early 198Os, many studies have been published on parents and, to a lesser degree, teachers social cognition about developmental and educational pro- cesses (Goodnow, 1988; Miller, 1988; Vandenplas-Holper, 1987). The variety of theoretical frameworks and research methods used has been extensive. Knowl- edge and beliefs about developmental and educational processes, control beliefs, and educational action are some of the numerous aspects that have been investi- gated.

    The main objective of this study was to predict nursery school teachers

    This study is part of the project La relation putricultrice-enfant darts le cadre des institutions daccueil de jour pour le jeune enfant, supported by a credit aux chercheurs of the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique, Bruxelles. Nadine Bare, FranGoise Bauret, Catherine Bodart, Anne Ghysselinckx-Janssens, Joelle Goethals, Francoise Matthis, BCnCdicte Dapsens, and Jo&lle Desmet participated in various aspects of data collection and analysis, the two latter in partial fulfilment of their masters thesis. The nursery school teachers were dependable and enthusiastic participants in this study. Irving E. Sigel provided helpful comments for the final version of the article. James Day kindly improved the English style. I heartily thank all of them.

    Correspondence and requests for reprints should be sent to Christiane Vandenplas-Holper, Unite de Psychologie du Developpement Humain, Universite Catholique de Louvain, 10, Place du Cardinal Mercier, B-1348 Louvain-la Neuve, Belgium.

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  • 454 VANDENPLAS-HOLPER

    educational action in a blockbuilding situation from their control beliefs as well as their beliefs and knowledge concerning development and education. A sec- ondary aim was to provide descriptive evidence concerning some aspects of their control beliefs and beliefs on development and education. Teachers educational action was rated multidimensionnally from videorecordings made in the block- building situation. Their control beliefs were assessed from Levensons (1974) questionnaire concerning internal control, control by powerful others, and con- trol by chance. Their beliefs concerning development and education were as- sessed from their ratings concerning the nature-nurture issue and from an interview concerning the blockbuilding situation. Two variables were derived. One of them concerned the teachers knowledge referring to play. The other concerned the respective importance of cognitive-developmental and learning processes. The study adapts to teachers measures that have been used mainly with parents and tries to combine into an integrated whole different frameworks, which have been used separately by various other researchers.

    Educational action has been operationalized multidimensionally both in terms of distancing strategies, defined as educational action by which the teacher stimulates the childs cognitive abilities without proposing ready-made solutions, and in terms of directive strategies. The operalization of distancing strategies was inspired from Sigels (1986) and McGillicudy-De Lisis (1985) work and freely adapted to the blockbuilding situation used in the present study. Directive strate- gies were conceptualized, in accordance with Schaffer and Crook (1979, 1980), and Skinner (1985), as actions used to change anothers action. Their function is to orient the childs action toward a certain direction, inhibiting some actions and enhancing others.

    Numerous studies have assessed adults control beliefs and related them to various other facets of personality or behavior (Dubois, 1987). With respect to education, Bomewasser (1979) and Mielke (1979) both assessed personality variables, attitudinal variables, and variables referring to educational action. Although Mielkes study which used Levensons (1974) questionnaire on control beliefs was rather inconclusive, Bomewasser found that personality and attitudi- nal variables predicted teachers action much better than did attitudinal variables alone. Stevens (1988) found that for adult Black and White low-income mothers, internal personal control, as assessed by an abbreviated form of the Adult Nowocki-Strickland Internal-External Control Scale, predicted the mothers parental skill, measured by the total score of the Home Observation for Measure- ment of the Environment (HOME) Inventory. This instrument includes items referring to emotional and verbal responsivity of the mother, to opportunities for variety in daily stimulation, and so forth.

    Several studies have been concerned with concepts related to the nature- nurture issue. Miller, White, and Delgado (1980), for example, examined among other things how parents and nonparents attributed childrens abilities, concep- tualized within Piagets theory, to different developmental and educational

  • CONTROL AND DEVELOPMENTAL-EDUCATIONAL BELIEFS 455

    causes: parental teaching, school teaching, interaction with peers, self-discovery, and inborn knowledge. Participants had to rate the relative importance of these different causes on a 3-point scale ranging from 1 (very important) to 3 (unimpor- runt). Results showed that for all participants, self-discovery was considered as most important, inborn knowledge and interaction with peers as least important; parental and school teaching occupied an intermediate status. Mugny and Car- ugati (1985) presented several questionnaires to parents and teachers who had to express the degree of their agreement or disagreement with numerous statements referring to the nature of intelligence, developmental processes, and educational action. A biological-maturational conception of individual differences appeared as the first factor in factor analyses. Kochanska, Yarrow, Kuczynski, and Fried- man (1987) measured the degree to which mothers attributed their childrens development to parental influence, genetics, or uncontrollable factors. Mothers perceived their own input in their childs development as more important than that of biological-genetic factors. Going beyond these studies, this investigation tries to relate teachers beliefs concerning nature and nurture to their educational action.

    Relations between parental beliefs and educational action have been studied mainly by Sigel (1985, 1986) and his coworkers (e.g., McGillicuddy-De Lisi, 1982, 1985). They assessed parental beliefs about developmental and education- al processes from individual interviews submitted to content analysis. The belief variables loading on the first principal component that emerged from a principal component analysis were consistent with the view that the child actively con- structs his or her knowledge. Educational action, assessed by systematic obser- vation, was conceptualized in terms of distancing strategies in which the parents encourage the child to move cognitively away from the here and now by asking him or her to anticipate, to plan, and to choose among alternative actions. Results indicated that parental beliefs and distancing strategies were only slightly related and that various other variables, such as socioeconomic status, the family structure, and so forth, played a moderating role.

    A study of Stevens has documented positive relations between mothers knowledge concerning child development and their educational action. Stevens (in Miller, 1988, p. 276) assessed maternal beliefs about development using a scale of mothers knowledge of environmental influences on development and a scale of infant abilities. For each scale, a positive correlation was found with the HOME inventory.

    The prediction made in this study of the teachers educational action from their control beliefs and their beliefs concerning development and education was based on several hypotheses. The two main hypotheses of the study refer to the relation between control beliefs and educational action. Internal control would be the best predictor of teachers distancing strategies: The teachers who are themselves high in internal control would encourage children to be internally controlled by stimulating problem-solving behavior to a high degree. Teachers

  • 456 VANDENPLAS-HOLPER

    who perceive themselves as highly controlled by powerful others would act themselves as powerful others toward the children and impose on them numerous directives. Teachers perceived control by powerful others would thus be a pre- dictor of their directive strategies. Several other hypotheses refer to the relation between beliefs about development and education and educational action.

    With respect to the nature-nurture concepts, it was predicted that teachers agreeing that nature played an important part in the childs development would adopt a wait-and-see strategy and perform educational action at a low level.

    Based on Stevenss findings (in Miller, 1988), it was finally predicted that knowledge on play would be positively related to educational action, and partic- ularly to directive strategies.

    It was also expected that teachers expressing a high proportion of cognitive- developmental beliefs would implement their beliefs by using a rather high degree of distancing strategies because distancing strategies are conceptualized in cognitive-developmental terms. In line with the findings of Sigel and his coworkers, this relation was expected to be a moderate one.

    With respect to the secondary aim of the study concerning descriptive evi- dence, two predictions were made. First, it was expected, according to numerous studies reviewed by Dubois (1987) and Leyens (1983), that in Levensons (1974) questionnaire, the teachers would score higher on internal control beliefs than on external beliefs, referring to powerful others and chance. Second, according to the results of Miller et al. (1980) and Kochanska et al. (1987), it was also expected that teachers would agree more with nurtures contribution to the childs development than with natures contribution.

    METHOD

    Sample Twenty-four female teachers volunteered to participate in the study. They were responsible for the first class in municipal, state and Catholic nursery schools located within a range of approximately 30 km from Louvain-la-Neuve, Bel- gium. Their ages ranged from 21 to 43 years old, with a mean of 29.17 years old. The childrens ages ranged from 3 1 to 52 months old, with a mean of 44 months old. All were Belgian and middle-class, as assessed from the parents professions reported in the school files.

    The sample was selected on the basis of the proximity of the school to Louvain-la-Neuve and of agreement to participate in the study. First, the head of the school was contacted by phone or by letter and asked if he or she would allow his or her nursery school teachers and some of the children in their classes to participate in a study on childrens play. If the head of the school agreed with this request, the teachers were then visited in their schools by the two undergraduate students who collected the data. The different phases of the projected study were described to the teachers. Several children in the classes of the teachers who had

  • CONTROL AND DEVELOPMENTAL-EDUCATIONAL BELIEFS 457

    agreed to participate in the study were preselected on the basis of behavioral descriptions of easy and difficult children. 1 A letter describing the study was sent to the parents of these children. The parents were asked to sign a paper saying that they consented to their children accompanying their teacher to the research laboratory located in Louvain-la-Neuve. The final sample was selected on the basis of the school directors, the teachers and the parents informed consent.

    Procedure Teachers who had agreed to participate in the study were asked to respond to Levensons (1974) questionnaire on control beliefs and to two items tapping their beliefs with respect to natures and nurtures contribution to childrens develop- ment. Each of the teachers then came to the research laboratory with four chil- dren of her class. The children were given Duplo Lego plastic building blocks of different sizes, shapes, and colors which could be assembled into nonfigurative and figurative constructions. The teacher was asked to attend to the children as she would in the classroom. Because teachers organize occasionally small-group activities in. their classroom, this request was in line with their everyday experi- ence. The blockbuilding situation inspired from Quoirin-DeRidder (1991) lasted 20 min. It was filmed by two visible cameras and videorecorded by a splitscreen television device. Two focal children-the easy and the difficult child of each group-were recorded by the same camera for 10 min each. This recording appeared on the upper part of the screen. The other two children were not included in the study, but participated in the play situation in order to create an environment with the maximum of ecological validity. The teacher was filmed continuously by a second camera; this recording appeared on the lower part of the screen. The teachers were interviewed while watching the videorecording which had been made. The whole interview was tape recorded, transcribed, and submitted to content analysis according to a coding manual which had been written especially for the study. The content analysis of the interview constituted the source for the teachers knowledge on play and the proportion of cognitive-developmental processes-two other measures referring to the teach- ers developmental beliefs. In the absence of the teachers, the videorecordings were also rated with respect to the teachers educational action.

    Materials and Measures

    Control Beliefs. Levensons (1974) questionnaire on...