Three views of teaching

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, 1987).


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 and learning.


Teaching as thinking and doing: the cognitive view


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, “It depends…”


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.


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.


Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas