Three views of teaching
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
Teaching as doing: the behavioural view
Generally speaking, teaching is seen as doing-as
behaviours and actions which supposedly lead to learning.
According to Rosenholtz (1989), teaching is mainly instructional
(my emphasis). However, in the current state of education,
especially in the United States, teaching is to a great extent
custodial. Teaching is doing, and "doing" entails
taking care of learners (Freedman, Jackson, and Boles, 1983;
Lightfoot, 1983a). For some (Apple, 1985; Liston and Zeichner,
1990), this behavioural view is resultant in 'de-skilling'
(Freeman, 1996), as it breaks teaching down into routinised
activities leading to intensification in teachers' work lives
when their jobs become like the repetitive performance of
routine tasks (Apple and Jungck, 1990).
The domain of educational inquiry which investigates this
view of teaching-as-doing comes under the paradigm of process-product
research. This kind of research seeks to relate what teachers
do in class, in other words, the processes they use, with
what students do, or learn, as products of lessons. Within
this view, teaching resides in the generalised patterns of
activity and behaviour derived from what teachers and learners
do in the classroom. Thus, teaching becomes a still-life of
behaviours (Freeman, 1996), detached from both the world in
which it is embedded, and the person who does it.
As far as language teaching is concerned, much classroom-based
research adopts a process-product view, which tries to relate
teacher behaviours to outcomes in student learning (Long,
1980). Studies of wait time, which examine how long teachers
wait after asking a question before calling on a student to
reply, provide a good example of this type of research. What
the findings attest to is that when the wait time goes beyond
the teacher's usual "gut" reaction time, students'
answers improve in content and complexity (Rowe, 1974; Tobin,
Nevertheless, the behavioural view of teaching tends to codify
complex processes, ignoring the role that teachers and learners,
as thinking people, play. For example, to study wait time,
one might ask: Why does the teacher choose to ask that particular
question? Why does he or she call on that student?
When teaching is viewed as doing things, it can easily be
divorced from the teacher who does it. It is explained in
terms which are behavioural, impersonal, and beyond the contexts
in which it occurs. Since this view leaves us wondering as
to whether it is sufficient to speak of teaching simply as
doing, we should consider the cognitive dimension of teaching
Teaching as thinking and doing: the cognitive
When teaching is viewed from a cognitive
perspective, it can include the crucial cognitive and affective
elements which accompany, and shape, the behaviours and actions
of teachers and learners. Besides, if teaching has a cognitive
component, it is quite reasonable to ask, What is it that
teachers know? How is that knowledge organised, and how does
it inform their actions? (Freeman, 1996)
Such questions have motivated the domain of educational inquiry
known as teacher-cognition research. To understand how teachers
cope with the complexities of their work, those who align
themselves with this type of research hold a view that takes
account not only of what teachers are doing, but also of what
they are thinking about as they do it. This view places teachers'
perceptions-their reasoning, beliefs, and intentions-at the
centre of any research account.
Recent research on lesson planning provides an example of
this cognitive orientation to teaching. When teachers are
trained to plan lessons, they are introduced to the notion
of objectives, of content-specification, and of blending that
content with appropriate activities. In the late 1970s, some
interesting findings emerged. In twenty-two different studies,
researchers examined how teachers actually planned lessons,
in order to expose the complex interaction between planning
and execution. More specifically, this research investigated
the relationship between what teachers had thought about ahead
of time for the lesson (their pre-active decisions), and what
they were thinking about as they taught it (their interactive
decisions). Inter alia, what emerged from the study was that
teachers tended to plan lessons as ways of doing things for
given groups of students rather than to meet particular objectives
(Clark and Peterson, 1986: 260-268). Teaching is not simply
an activity bridging thought and action; it is usually intricately
rooted in a particular context. That is why, when asked about
aspects of their work, some teachers often use the disclaimer,
From a behavioural perspective, these "It depends"
responses can be said to be reflections of the imprecise nature
of what teachers know. The highest forms of knowledge are,
within that perspective, abstract, acontextual generalisations,
such as grammatical knowledge or methodological procedures.
When teaching is seen as a cognitive activity, these "It
depends" statements offer evidence of the individual
and subjective nature of what teachers think about in their
instructional work. To account for these "It depends"
understandings on which classroom practice is premised, we
need a view of teaching that is founded in the operation of
thinking and acting in context.
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