Why teachers teach the way they do

Please note: this post was co-authored by Steve Smith, with input from  Dylan Vinales



This post is the first in a series of articles in which we explore teacher’s beliefs, conceptions, images of learning and attitudes vis-a-vis teaching. In other words, what teacher education theorists and researchers refer to as ‘teacher cognition’.

An insight in the way language teacher cognition ‘works’ is of interest to any L2 educator and administrator who values self- and other-professional development. This series of posts will draw on the core literature on teacher cognition in an attempt to enhance language teachers’ understanding of why they teach the way they do.

Beliefs, conceptions about and attitudes to language teaching and learning

There are many reasons why we teach the way we do. The most prominent ones refer to the way we were taught and learnt languages (Borg, 2003). It is mainly our language learning ‘biographies’ – as researchers call our history as L2 learners – that shape our beliefs. Some of our beliefs are so strong and so deeply embedded in our cognition that, as we will argue below, even years of pre-service and in-service teacher education will not be able to alter them. Educational researchers refer to them as ‘central’ or ‘core’ beliefs. Others, the ‘peripheral’ ones, are more amenable to change, but still require quite a lot of conditioning in order to be modified.

Previous images of learning that we have acquired throughout our L2-acquisition experience seem to have a huge bearing on our beliefs about and attitudes to language teaching. Calderhead and Robson (1991) define these images as “general metaphors for thinking about teaching; overall concepts of a lesson; memorized snapshots of particular experiences; conceptions of a subject; ideas about how students learn”. These images act as models of action (Johnson, 1994), triggering automatic responses to the various contexts teachers face on a daily basis. It appears from research that teacher training courses do not discard previous images of learning, especially those that last only a few weeks (e.g. CELTA).

What teacher training courses do is – at best – enhance teachers’ intellectual knowledge about and grasp of pedagogy and their repertoire of techniques, i.e. declarative knowledge (MacDonald et al, 2001). However, their ‘automatic’ teaching behaviour will be still determined by their previous images of learning for as long as it takes for the teacher to automatize the newly acquired pedagogy – a process that may take several years and, in many cases, may never happen. 

Hence, ‘experienced teachers’ does NOT necessarily equate with ‘expert teachers’ !

So, for example, a student-teacher trained in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) but previously taught in a Grammar-Translation setting throughout her history as an L2 learner might have clear knowledge of how a CLT teacher should teach and may be able to plan a lesson using the framework their trainers modelled on her training; however, in her classroom practice when responding ‘automatically’ to a situation, especially if under stress, the images of learning embedded in her cognition will take over (a widely documented scenario in teacher cognition research).

If after her teacher training the same teacher carries on teaching in settings where CLT is explicitly encouraged by the course, CPD is CLT orientated, textbooks and teaching materials are CLT based and colleagues espouse and implement CLT in their classrooms, one can foresee how this teacher may eventually automatize CLT practices. However, if in her post-training years she teaches in contexts where instructional approaches are not aligned with CLT and/or alongside more experienced colleagues who embrace other methods, she might evolve differently.

The existence of the dichotomy between teacher declarative and procedural (or practical) knowledge is evidenced by a number of studies which report how numerous language instructors’ perception of the approach they use in the classroom differs greatly from their students and/or observers’. For instance, Ng and Farrell (2003) found that teachers who said they believed one should minimize explicit error correction in lessons actually corrected a lot. Loewen and Ellis (2004) identified similar behaviours in their informants. Hawkey (2003) found that teachers and learners’ perception of the way they taught did not match in many respects.

All of the above brings into question the value of much of the professional development practice taking place in schools around the world, as it lacks the momentum, support, resources and long-term planning required to succeed. Not to mention the fact that it often lacks an educational rationale strong enough for teachers to buy into it.

The above also suggests that self-reflection, whether carried out by the teacher alone or in dyads or triads may not necessarily per se results in much enhancement in terms of procedural knowledge. For self-reflection to pay dividends, it must not only generate change at an intellectual level (e.g. I see this is not working, I should try this out); the change must result in classroom implementation which is sustained long enough for it to be automatized. In 25 years of experience we have rarely seen this happen successfully. Have you?

Yet, scores of blog posts and articles are shared on a daily basis on social media strongly encouraging teachers to self-reflect but never, to our knowledge, discuss the most important ‘bit’: how we get from the outcome of the self-reflection to actual change (intended as long-lasting practical change in classroom behaviour not in teachers’ heads). Moreover, how can we be sure that teachers do have the cognitive ‘tools’ to self-reflect effectively?

Steve and I are strong believers in self-reflection as a teaching competence enhancer,  yet there are a series of serious obstacles in the way of productive self-reflection that one has to consider:

(1) can we be truly objective and honest with ourselves? – After all we have a vested interest in appearing good in our own eyes (a question of self-preservation);

(2) do we fully trust/value the professional judgement of the person who gives us feedback? Are they credible? Do they walk the talk? Are you going to listen to a very teacher-centred Head of Languages telling you to do more oral group-work? Or to a rigid, autocratic and closed-minded member of the Senior Leadership Team advocating growth mindset?  And if we actually do listen to peer feedback, what are the chances of us investing a lot of time and effort processing and acting on it?

(3) one has to have sufficient levels of cognition about language teaching pedagogy to be able to evaluate one’s teaching;

(4) one has to have the time and the ability to be able to research and process any relevant research – when it is available. It must be noted that reading pedagogic literature/research may create declarative knowledge but it does not follow that it will result in deep learning. And even if it will, for that learning to give rise to procedural knowledg it will take a lot of effort and time – often more than the average teacher can afford.

(5) for self-reflection based professional development to succeed, teachers must invest a lot of cognitive effort in the process. For instance, our blogging has definitely impacted our teaching practice and, indirectly, that of those around us; and research shows that producing coursework on a given area of pedagogy does enhance the chance of professional development impacting practice (Borg, 2003). However, this is not always easy in busy state schools were teachers are overloaded with teaching and marking.

(6) last, but not least. One has to have high levels of motivation and resilience to consistently carry out self-reflection and to learn from it. How many snowed-under secondary school language teachers actually have that?

The ineffectiveness of much professional development practice in bringing about substantive change in teacher cognition and behaviour is often due to the fact that much CPD does not explicitly aim at creating teaching procedural knowledge. Procedural knowledge, in order to be acquired, requires lots of modelling, extensive practice with lots of initial support which is gradually phased out and, most importantly, intentionality (the desire to change). Schools’ professional development courses usually fall short of doing this. And, to make things worse, they divide teachers’ attention by setting too many objectives failing to recognize how cognitively overloaded full-time classroom practitioners already are in their professional and personal lives. As the old saying goes, he who chases two rabbits catches none.

Furthermore, the colleagues you work with will be an important surrounding variable, too, as teacher competence is very much socially constructed. Much of our professional development will be dependent on that. Motivated, knowledgeable, inspiring, supportive and empathetic line-managers and colleagues will have a major impact on one’s professional development. Hence, the idea of having self-reflecting triads of teachers is a great idea, at least on paper. However, especially in the light of what we said before about the imperviousness to change of previous images of learning, the gap between declarative and procedural knowledge, and that between perceived and actual practice, the implementation of such approaches must be carefully thought out. For instance, it is all very well to tell teachers ‘ choose who  you want to work with’; however, one might choose someone one gets along with, not necessarily someone who might provide a productive cognitive challenge and new information and ideas which may propel them further professionally.

Concluding remarks

This post serves as an introduction to a series of articles on teacher cognition. It  has highilighted some crucial issues in teacher education: the existence of core beliefs and behaviours acquired during our learning biographies which, as research shows, may be impervious to change and require several years of training and teaching practice in order to be altered. This has huge implication for in-service professional development. The most important one is that for CPD to work it must aim at developing teacher procedural knowledge (i.e. automatised behaviours) not simply intellectual knowledge about teaching. This entails that in-house professional development programmes must narrow their focus; aim at extensive rather than intensive practice; provide teachers with sufficient quality time to self-reflect, share and try out new teaching strategies. Finally, and most crucially, they must recognize that the proceduralization of behaviour takes a long time and requires tons of scaffolding from various angles and sources. Consequently, they must device a well thought-out long-term support system and clever ways to keep up teachers’ motivation to grow professionally.

The next installment- Teacher beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and misperceptions vis-à-vis grammar teaching

In the next installment of the ‘why teachers teach the way they do’ series we will focus on why teachers teach grammar the way they do. We will present and discuss some research findings which paint a worrying picture as to how much pre-service teachers actually know about grammar and grammar pedagogy. We will also map out how teacher cognition in the realm of TLA (teacher language awareness) and TMA (teacher metalinguistic awareness) actually changes from the pre-service training to the novice and expert stage.

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com

5 thoughts on “Why teachers teach the way they do

  1. Hi,
    Can you post the references you used here in a comment? I am interested in doing further reading but some of the names are quite common and I can’t find the right papers.

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