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Three views of teaching
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 2

Teaching as knowing what to do: the interpretivist view

Teachers, like everyone else, are involved in interpreting their worlds. They interpret their subject matter, their classroom context, and the people operating in it. As Freeman (1996: 98) notes,

Classrooms and students are not just settings for implementing ideas; they are frameworks of interpretation that teachers use for knowing: knowing when and how to act and react, what information to present or explain and how, when to respond or correct individual students, how to assess and reformulate what they have just taught […]

Within this interpretivist view, the "It depends" statements offer evidence of the highly complex, interpretative knowledge that teachers bring to bear on their work. For example, all teachers learn very early in their careers that teaching and learning have a seasonal rhythm. Thus, in North American classrooms, September is different from December and January, especially just before and after holidays, March is different from June, and so on. In a similar vein, 8:30 A. M. is different from lunch time, which is different from 2:45 P.M., which is different from an evening class. Although this seasonality has been trivialised as common sense, it is integral to how teachers plan, conduct lessons, and manage various groups of learners.
Such seasonal knowledge emerged in a study on how students and teachers came to understand content in a second language classroom. In particular, a high school French teacher was talking to a student who had "soured" the lesson. Her comments displayed seasonal knowledge as a means of interpreting, and accounting for, the boy's actions when she asked him, "What class do you have before this?" And when told, she said: "That's right, you guys have gym. Well, no wonder your energy's all over the place."
Knowing how to teach does not simply consist in behavioural knowledge of how to go about doing things in the classroom; it involves a cognitive dimension that links thought with activity, focusing on the context-embedded, interpretive process of knowing what to do. This know-how is learnt over time. The kind of teaching that ignores any one of these three components-behaviour, cognition, and interpretation-is lamentably limited and shortsighted.


· Apple, M. (1985). Education and Power. New York: Routledge.
· Apple, M., and S. Jungck. (1990). You don't have to be a teacher to teach this unit: Teaching, technology and gender in the classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 27, 227-254.
· Clark, C., and P. Peterson. (1986). Teachers' thought processes. In M. Wittrock (ed.). Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
· Freedman, S., J. Jackson and K. Boles. (1983). Teaching: An imperilled "profession." In L. Shulman and G. Sykes (eds.), Handbook of Teaching and Policy. New York: Longman.
· Freeman, D. (1996). Redefining research and what teachers know. In Bailey, M. K. and D. Nunan (eds.). Voices From the Language Classroom. Australia: CUP.
· Lightfoot, S. L. (1983a). The lives of teachers. In L. Shulman and G. Sykes (eds.),Handbook of Teaching and Policy. New York: Longman.
· Liston, D. and K. Zeichner. (1990). Teacher Education and the Social Conditions of Schooling. New York: Routledge.
· Long, M. (1980). Inside the "black box": Methodological issues in research on Language teaching and learning. Language Learning, 30, 1, 1-42.
· Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teachers' Workplace: The Social Organisation of Schools. New York: Longman.
· Rowe, M. B. (1974). Wait-time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic, and fate control: Part one-Wait-time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 11, 81-94.
· Tobin, K. G. (1987). The role of wait-time in higher cognitive learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 69-95.


Dimitrios Thansoulas studied English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland University and is currently finishing the second year of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University. His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education.


Dimitrios can be contacted at:

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