Teachers Thinking About Their Practice Research Paper

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Research on teaching practice and how teachers think about their practice has existed for decades. One pervasive reason for our interest in teachers’ thoughts is that thoughts are intertwined with practice, so if we want to better understand practice, we need to also understand the thoughts that guide practice. Thinking is not the same as acting, but teachers’ thoughts interact with their actions every day in both large and small ways, influencing their ability to grow and improve their practice over time and influencing their responses to new policies, new curricula, and new ideas about practice as they arise.

Teacher thinking is certainly relevant to teacher learning. No one can learn if they are not intellectually engaged with the topic being studied, and many investigators now believe that teachers can learn a great deal more from their own experiences in the classroom if they take time to reflect upon those experiences (Grimmet & Erickson, 1988; Schbn, 1983). Indeed, reflection has become widely valued and is now encouraged in teacher education classes and included in assessments such as those used by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. These programs and assessments require teachers or prospective teachers to reflect publicly, through journal entries or essays, about particular teaching experiences. The belief is that making these thoughts visible fosters more learning.

Teacher thinking is also relevant to the ability to implement new curricula, assessments, or other policies. Even when teachers are following heavily scripted programs and curricula, they make numerous ongoing adjustments to their lessons based on their own judgments and thoughts about how their lessons are working and what students are learning. Teachers do not, then, implement curricula or other instructional devices exactly as they have been prescribed.

At the same time, efforts to influence teachers’ thinking have been relatively unsuccessful. Beginning with the scientific movement in education in the early 1900s and extending through the mastery learning movement in the 1960s, education experts have offered prescriptions to teachers about how to plan and design instruction. These prescriptions tend to emphasize a rational approach to planning that begins with curriculum content, moves to goals and objectives, and continues linearly to resources, materials, instructional strategies, learning activities, and so forth. Many of these prescriptions are based on either no evidence or very thin evidence. Teacher education programs continue to prescribe specific approaches to planning, believing that some are better than others, even though we now have evidence that experienced teachers rarely use these strategies in their own planning. Findings such as these add another reason to care about how teachers think about their practice.

Much of our interest in teacher thinking flows from a perception that teachers are not thinking about their practice in the way their critics think they should. Critics want to see different practices, and they assume the reason they don’t is because teachers either are not thinking hard enough or are not thinking correctly. So along with articles about how teachers do think about their practice, we find studies of how they should think about their practice and some discussions about why there is a disparity between their thoughts and their critics’ thoughts about practice.

Below I describe three specific lines of research on teacher thinking, each taking a slightly different approach to the issue. First, there is a body of largely descriptive research that focuses on how teachers approach specific thought processes such as planning, evaluating, or making in-the-moment decisions. For the most part, these studies do not address questions about the quality of reasoning or ‘Tightness” of teachers’ thoughts, but instead simply describe these thoughts and thought processes. These studies are reviewed in the section entitled “Teachers’ Thought Processes.” The second group of studies seeks to under-stand how the job of teaching itself influences teachers’ thinking. The general focus of these studies is how teachers are affected by their chosen occupation, how they adapt to it, and how their thoughts are influenced by it. The section called “How Practice Shapes Thought” reviews some of this literature. Researchers in the third group of studies are more interested in the possibility of change. These researchers seek to understand both how teachers’ thoughts arise in response to the work itself and how these thoughts affect the quality of teaching practice. For these authors, the question of interest is not merely how do teachers think, nor merely how do circumstances influence thinking, but how does teacher thinking affect the quality of teaching practice. These authors tend to focus on how teachers design practices that can accommodate the realities of classroom life. This line of work is examined in the third section entitled “How Thought Shapes Practices.”

None of these sections presents an exhaustive rendering of the literature, but instead describes a few major contributions that give a flavor for the field as a whole.

Teachers’ Thought Processes

The first line of research seeks to learn more about how teachers engage in planning and strategic decision making. This work emerged in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, and is very well summarized in a handful of substantial literature reviews written in the 1980s (Clark, 1983; Clark & Peterson, 1986; Shavelson, 1983; Shavelson & Stern, 1981). This research-paper concentrates largely on these other reviews.

Interest in teacher thought processes arose, at least in part, as an antidote to another body of research, frequently called process-product research, that aimed to define effective teaching in terms of discrete skills that could be identified and taught in teacher education programs. The 1960s was a period of great interest in precise descriptions of teaching and in finding relationships between specific teaching acts and student learning. Much of this work assumed that knowledge of these teaching acts could eventually be directly taught to teachers (examples of articles suggesting such an assumption include Rosenshine & Furst, 1971, and Sandefur, 1970). As emphasis on teaching skills increased, a counter-movement surfaced arguing that teaching could not be reduced to skills alone. Researchers who pursued questions about teachers’ thought processes argued that teaching necessarily required judgment and thought. Their studies aimed to reveal that thought occurred and to reveal the nature of the thought processes and of the thoughts themselves.

The research methods employed in these studies are remarkably diverse, ranging from naturalistic observations and interviews to laboratory projects in which teachers are asked to think aloud as they work, view films and describe what they saw or thought, examine artifacts of classroom lessons or student work and to critique them, sort cards and engage with other devices. Shavelson, Webb, and Burstein (1986) provided an excellent review of the various methods that have been used in this body of research and a good critique of their strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of method, the goal is nearly always to reveal the contents of thoughts that are otherwise hidden from view.

This work is typically reviewed according to the type of thinking involved; that is, there is a body of literature on teacher planning, another on in-the-moment or interactive thinking, another on post hoc evaluations of events, and so forth. Researchers have found that teachers’ plans focus on the sequence of events that will occur more than on the content that will be taught or what students should learn as a result of the lesson (Clark & Yinger, 1987). This approach is quite different from the kind of rational planning that is sometimes advocated. Rather than beginning with a learning goal, teachers tend to begin with an activity and then envision how that activity might unfold. They think about where students will be located and what they will be able to see, what materials will be available and how they will be distributed, and how the conversation will be organized. Lesson plans look more like scripts for a play than a deduction from goals and objectives. These scripts and images of lessons have a great deal of influence over teachers’ actual teaching, and teachers rarely deviate from their scripts even when they see explicit evidence that the script is not working as they had envisioned it (Clark & Lampert, 1986; Shavelson, 1983).

With respect to interactive decision making, we have two seemingly contradictory findings. On one hand, we find that teachers rely heavily on routines in their practice. Routines can increase predictability, help students know what to expect and what to do, and reduce the number of things teachers need to attend to and the number of interactive decisions they need to make (Hargreaves, 1979). Yet despite teachers’ heavy reliance on predictable routines, they still need to make numerous in-the-moment decisions. Clark and Peterson (1986) found five studies that examined the number of interactive decisions teachers made and all five concluded that teachers made more than one decision per minute. These decisions occur even after teachers have devised plans that lay out the script and orchestration of the lesson and even when they are building lessons on a structure of established operating systems and routines.

These ad hoc decisions are made in response to specific events such as an unexpected student question or comment, a complication during a transition in a lesson, missing or faulty materials, or when teachers see evidence that the lesson is not going as planned. When making specific decisions, teachers rarely consider alternative courses of action, and when they do, they don’t consider very many alternatives. Once teachers are engaged in their lessons, roughly 40%-50% of all teachers’ thoughts during instruction have to do with students—what they are learning or what they are doing. Goals and content comprised only 5% or less of all thoughts, and instructional procedures comprised 20%-30% of their thoughts.

Concurrent with their routines and interactive decisions, teachers are also continuously monitoring the entire class. Even while listening to one student’s response to a question, a teacher may be simultaneously noticing that another student has become distracted by a fly and that two others are beginning to whisper. Kounin (1970) used the term withitness to refer to teachers’ ability to be continuously aware of what all students are doing. Even very small deviations from the plan are likely to trigger corrective responses from teachers.

Some researchers have also looked for general principles that guide teachers’ actions. For example, teachers frequently use a principle of compensation when making decisions (Clark & Peterson, 1986). Using this principle, teachers give extra attention to students who are shy or students who are less able. There is also evidence that teachers subscribe to a principle of suppressing their own emotions. A great deal of their effort goes into controlling themselves and their own emotions, so that they can maintain a particular persona and a particular classroom climate.

Most of this research has been essentially descriptive. That is, studies frequently demonstrate that thought occurred but rarely evaluate the quality of that thought. In fact, Berliner (1990) criticized the lack of attention to thoughts or thought processes that had some known value. He suggested that the work needed a criterion of effectiveness that would allow researchers to ascertain the value of different thoughts and thought processes. Without a criterion of effectiveness, no recommendations can follow for how to improve teaching. But I suspect that researchers at this time had no interest in improving teaching practice but instead were interested in affirming its complexity and value. Many of the practices they found could have been critiqued on normative grounds, even without a criterion of effectiveness, but they were not. For instance, teachers’ tendency to build plans around events and activities rather than around learning goals could have been construed as evidence of flawed planning, but no such normative judgment was made. Similarly, teachers’ inability to deviate from their plans when lessons aren’t working could have been construed as evidence that teachers lack flexibility or the ability to think in situ, but again no such evaluative judgments were made. Instead, researchers’ interpretations of this body of work showed us that teachers are thoughtful professionals, not merely skilled laborers, and that teaching is work that requires professional judgment, not merely training in skills.

In the 1990s, research on teacher thinking shifted focus toward articulating the knowledge that teachers need to carry out their work. Again, the shift was motivated by a rejection of the notion that teaching could be defined entirely as a set of behavioral skills and a concomitant desire to highlight the intellectual demands of teaching. The need to pay more attention to the content of teaching and to the contents of teachers’ knowledge was raised by Shulman (1986a, 1986b, 1987) and was followed by a number of efforts to identify categories and types of knowledge that would or could be useful in teaching (e.g., edited volumes by Reynolds, 1990, and Kennedy, 1991). Much of this work was speculative, however, and evidence for the relevance of particular bodies of knowledge tended to be limited to case studies of individual teachers. Some particularly influential studies that examined the role of knowledge in practice were Carpenter, Fennema, Peterson, Chiang, and Loef (1989); Leinhardt (1987); Ma (1999); and Stein, Baxter, and Leinhardt (1990).

The first effort to move beyond description toward a theory of teacher thinking did not occur until the late 1990s when Schoenfeld (1998) began what may be the most ambitious research program regarding how teachers’ thoughts and knowledge shape their practice. Schoenfeld’s goal is to go beyond description and develop models of teacher reasoning that articulate the beliefs, goals, knowledge, images, and so forth that teachers carry with them and that can account for specific interactive decisions that they make. A central feature of his model is that particular thought sequences, beliefs, ideas, and so forth, are brought into play by “triggering events” that provoke the teacher’s need to draw on these elements and to generate a new idea. Shoenfeld’s work is also unique because the teachers whose thought processes he models are not ordinary teachers but instead are extraordinary teachers, people whose practices look more like the kind reformers and visionaries wish to see more often.

This body of work has given us a great deal of knowledge about both the content and character of teachers’ thoughts. It is distinctive in its largely descriptive orientation and its moral stance toward teachers. Virtually all authors publishing in this area subscribe to the position that teaching is not a line of work that can be reduced to a set of skills or that can be prescribed from afar; instead, it should be viewed as professional work that requires thought, judgment, and knowledge. It is this normative stance, more than a theoretical stance, that has given this work its distinctive appearance, and it is perhaps also the reason the work has not yielded any patterns of causal relationship between teachers’ thoughts and their actions.

How Practice Shapes Thought

The first line of research has revealed very little about how teachers’ thoughts influence their practice; this second line of research has revealed a great deal about how teachers’ practices have influenced their thoughts. This line of research focuses on the unique nature of teaching as a profession and seeks to understand how the features of this work influence teachers’ thoughts and actions. Whereas the first line of work was based in psychology, this one is based in sociology. And whereas the first consisted of dozens of small-scale studies, this line consists of just a handful of large studies, each of which comes to us in book-length, rather than journal article-length form.

This line of work is also the oldest of the three reviewed here; it dates back to 1932, when Willard Waller published Sociology of Teaching (Waller, 1932/1961). Waller focused especially on the teachers’ status, both within the classroom and in the broader community, where, he said, teachers stood on such tall pedestals that it was difficult for them to have normal friendly relations with others adults. Within the school, Waller saw the teacher’s authority as the central issue of classroom life. He believed that school subject matter was so tedious that teachers had to find ways to force students to learn it. He saw students as continually resisting teacher domination. Because students never fully ceded authority to the teacher, authority relationships in the classroom were inherently unstable and the balance could be upset at any moment. Waller argued that all leadership is tenuous in this way and that it easily arouses hostility. In the case of teachers, Waller thought the constant struggle to subordinate students ultimately took a toll on teachers. Subordinates—in this case students—can create problems even when they give only a small part of their own energy to the encounter. It is easy for them to challenge the teachers’ authority. On the other hand, domination—in this case the teacher’s—can be maintained only when the dominant personality gives its entire energy to the relationship. This difference in relative investment of energy means that it is easy for students to exhaust teachers. In classrooms, teachers try to dominate by laying down rules, but students continually diminish teachers’ authority by stripping rules of their meaning, either laughing them off or overconforming to the letter of the rules but not to their spirit. Enforcement can be draining when there is a large number of students to control. Waller argued that this continuous pressure was a central aspect of teachers’ work and that contending with it eventually affected the teachers’ entire personality.

Between good teaching and bad there is a great difference where students are concerned, but none in this, that its most pronounced effect is upon the teacher. Teaching does something to those who teach. (Waller, 1932/1961, p. 375, emphasis added)

Waller thought that the constant pressure from students forced teachers to become rigid and inflexible. Teachers are continually confronting the childish ways of their students yet are expected to always and unwaveringly represent adult norms. They must continuously defend their own authority and maintain their own dignity against student mischief, pranks, and outright challenges to their authority. In so doing, teachers forego all tendencies toward spontaneity, human responsiveness, and adaptability. Most significantly, Waller also saw a gradual deadening of the intellect as teachers grew into their profession. Tasks such as grading, which depends on fixed standards of performance, can discourage intellectual growth; similarly the sense of being continuously evaluated by others, both within and outside the classroom, can discourage inventive thinking. For Waller, then, the experience of teaching itself had a substantial influence on teachers’ approach to their work, discouraging flexible thinking and intellectual engagement and encouraging rigid rule-following behavior.

Another influential study, Philip Jackson’s Life in Classrooms (Jackson, 1968/1990), aimed mainly to describe classroom life, not to describe its effects on teachers. Yet in doing so, Jackson also showed us a great deal about how teachers think about their work. Jackson described three dominant features of classroom life: crowds, praise, and power. The presence of a crowd meant that both students and teachers were constantly being interrupted in their work and that students usually had to wait to be called on or wait to get help. Praise and power refer to teachers being in charge and evaluating students constantly, often out loud so other students are aware of the teacher’s selective praise. Teachers also control what happens to students through their grouping and instructional practices, their disciplinary practices, and their grading practices. In this sense, they have great power.

When Jackson interviewed teachers, he learned that teachers often had a difficult time discerning whether their students were paying attention or not and whether they were learning or not. Teachers watched for clues such as raised hands, alert facial expressions, and the like and considered these immediate signals to be far more informative than formal tests of achievement. These ambiguities of teaching, combined with problems of crowding and interruptions, made teaching a difficult and complicated process. Jackson speculated that the job of teaching requires that teachers be able to tolerate an “enormous amount of ambiguity, unpredictability, and occasional chaos” (p. 149).

Yet, while Jackson could see the difficulties of teaching through teachers’ eyes, he was nonetheless critical of teachers’ nonanalytic approach to their work. He characterized teachers’ language and thought as conceptually simple and lacking in technical vocabulary, in contrast to the kind of specialized vocabularies that characterize other professions. He argued that they not only avoided complex ideas but actually shunned them. Jackson chastised teachers for their reliance on intuition rather than reason when interpreting classroom events and for their simple and uncomplicated interpretation of causality, in which discrete  causes yield discrete events. For instance, when seeking the reason for a complex phenomenon, teachers typically sought single sources (e.g., the parents didn’t care or the student was lazy) rather than complex patterns of events. When easy solutions were not available, teachers seemed willing to accept events without question and without further probing. And when referring to potentially complex concepts such as motivation or intellectual development, teachers tended to use narrow working definitions that glossed over the nuances of these concepts. There was an immediate social and physical reality evident in teachers’ language and at the same time an acceptance of classroom life as inevitable and unalterable. About teachers’ habits of thought, Jackson says,

It is easy, of course, to make fun of such oversimplifications, but the complexity underlying most classroom events is so great that the teacher’s search for a quick resolution of this complexity is understandable, perhaps even forgivable. (1968/1990, p. 144)

Shortly after Jackson’s examination of classroom life was published, another major treatise on teaching, Daniel Lortie’s Schoolteacher, appeared (Lortie, 1975). Lortie was interested in teaching as a profession, and he wanted to see how the work itself hindered or enhanced the professionalization of teaching. One central feature of teaching he noticed, for instance, was that it is “career-less.” That is, experienced teachers do essentially the same job that novices do, and their salaries are not substantially different. Moreover, standardized salary schedules mean that extra effort or initiative is rarely rewarded. And novices are introduced to the work virtually unaided. They enter their practice just a few months after being students themselves and are left entirely to their own devices to fashion a practice.

Lortie believed these features of the work led to a particular set of attitudes among teachers. The ease of entry into teaching means that teachers needed little commitment to the field. The egg crate structure of schools means that teachers have very little shared knowledge or experiences. Learning to teach is a private, sink-or-swim affair. Teachers’ isolation leads them to adopt an attitude of individualism in which they are reluctant to work with other adults and trust only their own judgments and experiences. Indeed, most of the negative events in their lives consist of interferences from outside the classroom, thus furthering their desire to be autonomous. Moreover, the work itself is ambiguous, as Jackson had also noted, and teachers often don’t understand the relationship between their own actions and their students’ learning. This ambiguity, Lortie believed, adds a tendency to focus on the moment.

These circumstances of teachers’ work, Lortie argued, lead to three important attitudes. One is “presentism,” a tendency to focus on immediate situations more than on long-term goals. Another is “conservatism,” a tendency to focus on narrow goals that are easily achievable, and to rely on tried-and-true solutions to their problems, rather than to experiment with new ideas. The third is “individualism,” a tendency to define their own private criteria for success and to prefer to work in isolation.

All three of these authors showed us a variety of ways in which the task of teaching influences teachers themselves. Teachers must work in isolation and maintain control over a large number of students, who in turn must learn to subordinate their own needs to those of the group. Teachers who can’t discern how students are responding to their instruction can’t know whether progress is being made. Both Waller and Jackson argued that these circumstances discourage deep analysis and ultimately deplete teachers intellectually. Lortie added that these circumstances encourage teachers to take on only the most narrow educational goals and the most predictable instructional routines. All three authors also suggested that these effects on teachers are inevitable. Though none of them directly addressed questions about how we might try to improve teachers’ practices or improve their reasoning about their practices, all implied that such improvements are unlikely to be found, for the practices we see are a direct response to the character of the work itself.

How Thought Shapes Practices

The third line of research combines elements of the first two. It acknowledges that the circumstances of teaching influence the way teachers approach their work but seeks to learn more about how teachers reason about their circumstances and devise practices that can accommodate those circumstances. With an eye toward eventually improving teaching practices, these studies are often interested in understanding why teaching practices are not more progressive, or not more intellectually rigorous, than they are and whether there are strategies we have overlooked that might help teachers raise their practices to a new level. They try to trace a path from the circumstances of teaching through teachers’ thoughts, and ultimately to teachers’ practices, in the hope that understanding this path may ultimately yield ideas about how to help teachers find ways to improve their practices while also accommodating the realities of their situations.

One example of this work is Walter Doyle’s program of research on classroom ecology and academic tasks. Doyle began, as others had, by identifying aspects of classroom life that influenced teachers (Doyle, 1979). He identified five important features of classroom life: multidimensionality, simultaneity, immediacy, unpredictability, and history. Both teachers and students must accommodate these realities, and they do so in different ways. Students, for instance, try to reduce unpredictability by negotiating with teachers about rules and standards. Teachers also try to simplify by creating routines and operating procedures within which academic work will occur.

These observations are similar to those made by Lortie and Jackson, but Doyle went beyond them to examine the effect of the situation on the quality of teaching practice itself. Determining which academic tasks students will work on is one important decision that teachers make. Doyle argued that academic tasks provide a bridge between the student and the content. These tasks determine the content students will learn and the kind of intellectual work they will engage in with that content (Doyle, 1983). Academic tasks may require students to memorize something (say, the Gettysburg address), practice a procedure (such as subtraction with borrowing), gain an understanding of a concept (such as gravity), or express their own thoughts through an essay or poem. Academic tasks are central to student learning.

Academic tasks are also central to reform, for most reformers want academic tasks to be more intellectually demanding and to draw on more rigorous content. But Doyle argued that such tasks are not very suitable to classroom life (Doyle, 1986). He pointed out, for instance, that familiar, routine tasks go smoothly whereas novel tasks are slower, require more explanation, and engender more errors and more incompletions. To make these complicated tasks more palatable to students, teachers tend to break them into smaller pieces and to present them as work tasks rather than intellectual tasks. The alteration makes the work fit better into the classroom but also converts the task into a procedure that can be devoid of content. Ironically, the tasks that best accommodate classroom life are those that render meaning most vulnerable. For Doyle, the secret to improving teaching is to find a way for teachers to manage their students while also presenting them with more complex academic tasks.

Cuban’s history of teaching practices, How Teachers Taught (Cuban, 1984), also seeks to learn more about how the circumstances of teaching influence practice itself. The premise for this study is that classroom practices have tended to be relatively uniform, both across time and across contexts. Cuban argued that the central reform dilemma, which has occupied reformers for many decades, is how to move teaching practices from teacher-centered to student-centered. He noted that the dominant approach to teaching has always been teacher-centered. But, he argued, it is also clear that some changes have occurred, so any plausible explanation of this history must be able to account both for the broad resistance to change and for the occasions when change has occurred. Over time, Cuban believes, there has been a gradual adoption of more child-centered approaches to teaching and that classrooms in the 1960s were friendlier than they had been a century earlier. Certainly the depictions of teaching that Waller provided in 1932 are different from those made decades later by other researchers.

So, Cuban asked, If teacher-centered practice is the default, when and under what circumstances are student-centered practices adopted, and what kinds of student-centered practices are adopted versus rejected? His study is essentially a history of the failures of progressive movements to change teaching practices. But he used that history to evaluate alternative hypotheses about the conditions of schooling that might account for both resistance and occasional changes. For instance, the structure of schooling cannot be entirely responsible for the resistance to change because it cannot explain why changes do occasionally occur. After considering a number of hypotheses, Cuban settled on something called “situationally-constrained choice,” by which he meant that both organizational constraints and teacher culture shape the practices and beliefs of teachers, but not to the point where they are entirely immutable; teachers’ beliefs can and do sometimes change.

Another study that emphasized the ways in which teaching practices accommodate the circumstances of teaching is Kennedy’s Inside Teaching (Kennedy, 2005). Like Cuban, Kennedy began with the acknowledgement that reformers have tried on numerous occasions over the past decades to alter the character and quality of teaching practices in American schools but that, for the most part, they have been unable to do so. She was particularly interested in reforms that aim to increase attention to complex subject matter, increase intellectual engagement in the classroom, and expand participation to a wider swath of the student body. She noted that such reforms have largely been unsuccessful. Instead of asking why teachers are not doing what reformers wished for, Kennedy asked why they are doing what they are doing. So she began her analysis by examining the concerns that govern teachers’ decisions as they engage in their practice. She identified six overarching areas of concern: (1) identifying learning outcomes, (2) fostering student learning, (3) increasing student willingness to participate, (4) maintaining lesson momentum, (5) establishing the classroom as a community, and (6) satisfying their own personal needs. While teachers thought about most of these issues most of the time, they frequently encountered conflicts among them. If, for instance, a stu-dent becomes confused and needs to clarify some arcane point, the teacher may find that her interest in fostering this student’s learning conflicts with her interest in maintaining lesson momentum. Conversely, if an enthusiastic student speaks out continually and interrupts other students, even if all remarks are substantively relevant to the lesson, the teacher may find that encouraging this student’s willingness to participate conflicts with establishing a community in the classroom.

Kennedy found that teachers make decisions that involve more than one of these areas of concern simultaneously, sometimes trading one against another and sometimes choosing an action because it simultaneously satisfies multiple areas of concern. As Cuban did, Kennedy evaluated a handful of competing hypotheses that had been put forward to account for teachers’ inability to engage in more rigorous and intellectually engaging practices:

  • Teachers need more knowledge and instructional strategies.
  • Teachers’ personality traits or dispositions impede reform.
  • Teachers’ beliefs conflict with those of reformers, and they base their practices on their beliefs.
  • The circumstances of teaching itself hinder reforms.
  • Reform goals are not realistic.

Kennedy found some evidence for each of these hypotheses, but ultimately argued that the most compelling explanation is that the reforms themselves are too ambitious and do not acknowledge the realities of classroom life. Reformers, she suggested, think about only one or two of the concerns that teachers think about. They may attend only to the content being taught or only to students’ intellectual engagement and do not offer teachers any help in addressing these concerns while also addressing teachers’ other concerns, such as maintaining lesson momentum and meeting their own personal needs.

This third group of studies offers a more evaluative look at teachers’ thoughts, focusing explicitly on the types of practices that result from those thoughts and comparing those practices to the practices that reformers seek. These researchers examined the relationship between teachers’ thinking and their practices, but emphasized the ways in which the practices teachers devise are ultimately designed to accommodate the circumstances they encounter.

Discussion

Research on teacher thinking has not only helped us understand teachers’ thoughts but helped us understand the kinds of events that teachers are trying to control. We see from these studies that teachers are trying to simultaneously establish and maintain classroom norms, respond to unwilling students, organize materials and events so that learning may occur, and converse with students about substantively abstract ideas while also conversing with them about rules and procedures. We also find that they have a difficult time ascertaining what their students are thinking or whether students understand important concepts. They work at their task in virtual isolation and have no opportunities to step away from their work long enough to recover their composure or gather their thoughts when confronting a problem.

It should not be surprising, then, to learn that teachers’ plans look less like task analyses of content and instructional goals and more like envisioned sequences of events. In their visions, teachers imagine how all aspects of the lesson will work together—the discipline, the resources, the social networks, the routines and operating procedures, the needs of the more difficult students, and the needs of the more ambitious students. Nor should it be surprising to learn that teachers rely heavily on routines and standard operating procedures, nor that they still, even after students have learned all the routines, need to make interactive decisions more often than once per minute. Nor should it be surprising that their primary concern is maintaining lesson momentum and not losing any individual students as the group moves through the day’s activities.

The task teachers set out for themselves is not the one reformers set for teachers. Teachers do not begin the day thinking about fascinating new ways to approach particular substantive ideas. Instead, they begin by thinking about how to get two dozen restless youngsters to cooperate on a set of activities that will be roughly educative but not so engaging that students will become overly excited (Kennedy, 2005). The task is to find a path through the curriculum that can be taken by a large group of people traveling in tandem, many of whom are not particularly interested in whether they arrive at the destination or not.

Observers who look at the classroom with a cold eye see problems of domination and subordination, of crowds and power, and of students testing the limits of rules, negotiating their workloads, and goading their friends. Those who look at the classroom with the eyes of idealists are disappointed by the difference between reality and their own visions of enthusiastic students pursuing rigorous substantive ideas—visions that don’t address the question of how teachers create such classrooms while accommodating the real circumstances they face. This dilemma presents the next set of questions researchers must address.

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