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The typical image of a classroom is misleading. Classrooms are not neat, orderly places with a teacher standing in front of about 25 students listening to what the teacher is saying or working on a well-deﬁned task. Even in quiet, well-behaved classrooms, this image fails to capture the complex, multifaceted nature of classroom teaching and learning.
Classroom life is an active, dynamic, and social experience. Cognitive, cultural, social, aﬀective, emotional, motivational, and curricular issues occur simultaneously. Teachers and students work together in a rich psychological soup, the ingredients of which often are not apparent to a casual observer. Friends, strangers, adversaries, and dating partners (current, future, and imagined) ﬁnd themselves together for long periods of time. Many agendas are operating in addition to learning the desired curriculum.
Teaching and learning in a classroom occur on many levels at the same time. Although cognitive and curricular factors typically receive the most attention, learning and understanding do not occur in isolation. Nor is cognition the only process inﬂuencing what students learn. It is impossible for students to acquire subject-matter knowledge without simultaneously acquiring or reaﬃrming a variety of non-cognitive outcomes associated with his or her prior knowledge, aﬀective predispositions, and the instructional experience within which the learning occurs.
A student does not merely learn facts about World War II, for example. He or she also learns whether the study of history is enjoyable or boring. Attitudes about Europeans, Russians, Italians, Japanese, and Americans are acquired or reaﬃrmed, as are the extent to which certain individuals can be trusted and the horrors (or glory) of war. Students also discover whether he or she is a good student with good ideas and the ability to learn history (or school subjects in general). These outcomes are all part of what students learn, whether or not these issues are an explicit part of the lesson. Contrary to popular belief, it is impossible to present a lesson in such a way that only cognitive information is acquired.
In their attempt to understand and explain teaching and learning, researchers commonly distinguish among cognitive, aﬀective, social, communicative, and curricular factors. Distinctions also are made between the external world of the classroom (the environment) and the internal world of the student (their mental processes, prior experiences, and present interpretations). Students, however, do not engage in this type of analysis as they encounter all of these things simultaneously. The above distinctions mean little if anything to them, as they seek to make sense of what they are experiencing and learning (Nuthall 1999). Thus, it is helpful to consider teaching and learning from the perspectives of both external analysis and the internal experience of students.
1. Classroom Characteristics
A variety of classroom characteristics have been suggested in the research literature (Shuell 1996). Several of these were identiﬁed in the preceding paragraphs, including the reality that many things occur simultaneously on diﬀerent levels. Other characteristics include the following.
(a) Immediacy. Things happen at a rapid, come-and-go pace with little time for reﬂection.
(b) Unpredictability. Given the many factors that operate during social interactions in a classroom, it is diﬃcult if not impossible to predict how a particular activity will play out, and unexpected turns of events are common.
(c) Publicness. Classrooms are public places with most events witnessed by a large portion of the class. Most students are aware of how the teacher treats or reacts to a particular student and how other students react to one another and the teacher.
(d) History. Any group that remains together for a period of time develops a history of common experiences, norms, and routines that inﬂuence the way they perceive and relate to one another. History is a characteristic of all interpersonal relationships, and it is an important determiner of how people relate to one another as relationships mature. The group history of a class is an important aspect of classroom teaching and learning.
(e) Academic goals. Every classroom strives to achieve certain academic goals. Some of these goals are explicit while others are implicit. Although these goals diﬀer considerably among classrooms, every classroom has academic goals that students are expected to achieve. The way in which these goals play out, however, is inﬂuenced by diﬀering perceptions among students and between teachers on the nature of academic tasks and the respective role of teacher and students.
(f ) Social norms. Social norms exist in every classroom. These norms dictate appropriate behaviors for teacher–student and student–student interactions in that classroom. ‘Appropriate’ does not necessarily refer to any particular set of outside guidelines. For instance, the social norms of a particular classroom may permit students to talk back to the teacher or to use profanity.
(g) Student characteristics. Students diﬀer in many ways. The unique combination of student characteristics in a particular classroom helps deﬁne how the teaching–learning process plays out in that classroom. Students’ prior knowledge, prior experiences, aﬀective predispositions (attitudes), and values, as well as the range of characteristics that exist in a particular classroom, are important factors inﬂuencing classroom life.
(h) Philosophy of education. Some philosophy of education and/or theory of student learning is inherent in every classroom (this reality is discussed at greater length in the next section). Classroom participants (including the teacher and principal) often are not aware of the particular theory on which their activities are based. In a few cases, however, a group of people will work to establish a school or classroom based on a particular theoretical or philosophical perspective, e.g., student centered, back to basics, and case-based learning, to name only a few.
2. Inherent Philosophy/Theory Of Education
No two classrooms are the same. There is considerable variation in the social organization, group norms, and speciﬁc activities that occur in a particular classroom. There are many reasons for these diﬀerences, but one important reason is that the factors identiﬁed in the preceding section are held together and orchestrated by diﬀerent philosophies, beliefs, and theories of education.
Every classroom is based on some theory of teaching and learning. The types of learning activities, instructional practices, and assessment procedures diﬀer, depending on the particular theory being followed. This theoretical foundation usually is implicit, however, and the participants are not aware that their activities and interactions reﬂect a particular philosophy of education. Some of these philosophical diﬀerences have endured for centuries, and the debate will undoubtedly continue, for they represent fundamental diﬀerences in how people view humankind. For example, the ‘factory model’ of schooling that dominated education in the United States and parts of Europe for many years is based on production and management procedures proven successful during the industrial revolution. This perspective on teaching and learning stands in sharp contrast to the voices of Thoreau, Dewey, and others who advocate discovery, social reform, and freedom as the appropriate means of education (Shuell 1993).
Thus, depending on the theory operating in the classroom, students may engage in memorizing factual information or engage in activities designed to produce meaningful learning. These diﬀerent philosophies are evident in the many metaphors used to characterize teaching and learning, e.g., ‘ship captain,’ ‘midwife,’ and ‘learning community.’ Diﬀerent models of teaching serve as organizational structures for classroom activities and procedures (Joyce et al. 1992).
These diﬀerent conceptions of teaching and learning inﬂuence both the research that is conducted and the practices, procedures, and activities that are implemented in the classroom (Shuell 1996, Nuthall 1997). One conception may need a relatively simple theory to explain what occurs in a classroom and to establish appropriate practices and activities, e.g., having students rehearse factual information so they are able to reproduce it on demand. Another conception may require a fairly complex theory to accomplish the same purpose, e.g., having students explain to one another the implications of the material they are studying.
Several diﬀerent perspectives on classroom teaching and learning are clearly evident in the current literature. Each perspective typically employs diﬀerent theoretical models of learning and assesses students using diﬀerent criteria and diﬀerent types of assessment instruments. Four common ones are discussed below (more detailed discussions are available in Shuell (1996), Nuthall (1997), and see Learning Theories and Educational Paradigms).
2.1 Behavioral Perspectives
Although behavioral conceptions of teaching and learning are not popular in the current education literature, many classrooms are still based on these traditional theories. In these classrooms, the curriculum generally consists of factual information and methods for solving well-deﬁned problems. Learning occurs, according to this perspective, as a result of reinforced practice of predeﬁned material for the purpose of reproducing this information or skill when needed. These classrooms can be recognized from activities that stress factual information (often isolated from other information), repetition (in one form or another), and correct answers.
2.2 Cognitive Constructivist Perspectives
Cognitive constructivist conceptions of teaching and learning focus on students understanding the material being studied rather than on the acquisition of factual information and skills; that is, on mental processes rather than behavior. Knowledge is not seen as a commodity passed from teacher or textbook to students’ minds. Rather, this perspective believes that students construct their own understandings as they seek to make sense of the material and the classroom experiences in which it is embedded. Learning is seen as the creation and reorganization of students’ conceptual structures (knowledge) as a result of cognitive processing. These classrooms can be recognized by students engaged in sense-making activities and authentic (real-life) learning tasks.
2.3 Sociocultural And Community-Focused Perspectives
Sociocultural perspectives see teaching and learning as a social rather than cognitive activity. Based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) and anthropologists such as Jean Lave (Lave 1988, Lave and Wenger 1991) and Barbara Rogoﬀ (Rogoﬀ 1990, Rogoﬀ et al. 1996), this perspective believes that focusing on individual learners is a mistake, in sharp contrast with behavioral and cognitive views. Acquiring culturally relevant knowledge is a process in which the learner becomes a member of a community of practice or community of learners (Brown and Campione 1996, Rogoﬀ et al. 1996). An apprenticeship model of teaching and learning is often employed (Shuell 1996). Classrooms representing this perspective are recognizable by students working on group projects with individual students working on interrelated subtasks. The ability of individuals to work together in negotiating solutions to problems and conceptual understandings is stressed, with the teacher supporting and helping students, as appropriate, to accomplish these goals.
2.4 Linguistic Perspective
The linguistic perspective is similar to the sociocultural perspective in that language is seen as a cultural artifact. It diﬀers from sociocultural views, however, in that language is seen as playing a far more central role in shaping the social interactions that occur in the classroom. As language communities, classrooms develop their own forms of communication. The negotiations that occur as part of this process create opportunities to learn and give birth to the knowledge and meanings that comprise the curriculum. Narratives and stories, rather than cognitive schemata or social participation, are seen as the primary way in which students ‘process, come to understand, and remember experiences’ (Nuthall 1997, p. 713). Classrooms based on this perspective can be recognized by the instructional use of student–student and teacher– student discussions in which students explain and negotiate the meaning of the topics being studied.
3. Instructional Experiences In The Classroom
Within the complex social environment of the classroom, teachers and students engage in a variety of activities as they work together to accomplish tasks with academic, social, and personal consequences. Schools and their classrooms, of course, are organized in many diﬀerent ways. The classroom community may be one that focuses on intellectual activities and in which the members generally enjoy one another’s company. Or the community, not necessarily by design, may focus primarily on social relationships (positive or negative) and personal agendas. Whatever the environment, it sets the stage for the teaching and learning that occur in the classroom.
Classroom teaching and learning, however, are not the unidirectional process they often are thought to be. The teacher’s philosophical and theoretical beliefs clearly aﬀect what happens in the classroom, but the teacher is not the only one in the classroom determining what occurs. Students, as well as teachers, hold personal theories of learning and teaching that inﬂuence the instructional tone of the classroom. A teacher may believe, for example, that learning results from problem solving and critical thinking and provides activities consistent with this belief. The students, however, may believe (perhaps encouraged by parents and previous classroom experiences) that learning is a process in which information is remembered (memorized) well enough to be reproduced in a test. (The opposite scenario, of course, is just as plausible.) Thus, the instructional process that actually transpires in the classroom must either be negotiated among the participants or dictated by the teacher. In either case, social as well as intellectual consequences are involved.
Given the complexities that exist in classrooms, not all students in the same classroom learn the same thing. Even when students engage in the same activities, they learn diﬀerent things in diﬀerent ways, and they learn more than they are taught (Nuthall 1999).
4. The Ideal Classroom?
Some people hold a myth that there is a single best way to organize and run a classroom. There are many ways in which classrooms can be compared, but in order to judge one classroom as being better than another, agreement must exist on the criteria used to determine ‘best,’ i.e., best for what? Given the diversity of perspectives and philosophies discussed above, it is not surprising that diﬀerent people insist on diﬀerent criteria.
An eﬀective classroom is one that achieves its goals. When schools or classrooms have diﬀerent goals, comparisons regarding which set of outcomes is ‘best’ becomes a philosophical discussion. Diﬀerences in desired outcomes can occur even when the curriculum appears to be the same, e.g., a particular school or teacher may implement the same formal curriculum (either intentionally or unintentionally) by having students learn factual knowledge or by en-gaging them in critical thinking. Diﬀerent assessment practices and procedures can also result in diﬀerent interpretations of the formal curriculum.
Diﬀerent instructional methods are appropriate for accomplishing diﬀerent goals. Educational research and theory can be of assistance in identifying appropriate classroom activities, once desired outcomes are identiﬁed. The latter, however, is largely a philosophical issue. Regardless of the goals and curricula pursued, there is greater likelihood those goals will be attained if the teacher and students consider them to be important and adopt them as their own personal goals. Goals and tasks imposed on someone by others usually are pursued with little enthusiasm.
Classroom teaching and learning is a complex, multilayered, and social experience. Many things happen at the same time, and the students and teacher must interpret and process these events with considerable rapidity. Teaching is not a one-way transmission of information, for students inﬂuence the process as much as the teacher. The teacher plays an extremely important role in establishing a meaningful classroom environment for students, but in the ﬁnal analysis, it is the social and psychological activities and responses of each student that determines what he or she learns.
The way in which each student perceives, interprets, processes, and understands classroom activities—not what the teacher does—is the single most important factor in determining the educational outcomes acquired by that student. Teachers and outside observers must be careful when making inferences from observations of student performance (either formal or informal). The students’ perceptions, interpretations, and understandings may be very diﬀerent from what they appear to an external observer. A student’s performance on an assessment instrument, for example, may reﬂect something rather diﬀerent from the teacher’s interpretation, for there are many ways for a student to answer questions and solve problems.
Given the complexity that exists in classrooms, diﬀerent theoretical perspectives and philosophies of education are common. These diﬀerent perspectives add richness to our understanding of classroom teaching and learning, but they belie a belief in an ideal classroom experience appropriate for all students. Fundamentally diﬀerent philosophical beliefs about education and human existence lead to fundamentally diﬀerent criteria for both the curriculum and classroom practices. Some of these diﬀerences have existed for centuries, and the debate is likely to continue. Nevertheless, our understanding of the dynamics and complexity of classroom teaching and learning has grown considerably in recent years.
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