Trends In Teaching Research Paper

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Research on teaching came into its own as a field of study beginning in the early 1970s when large-scale research on teaching studies attempted to tie teacher behaviors to student achievement. In these studies, teachers who were identified as more or less effective on the basis of their students’ scores in achievement tests were observed and their behaviors recorded. Correlational data analysis identified differences in behaviors between the more and less effective teachers. This information, much of it leading to the concept of time on task, was used for purposes of teacher evaluation, teacher education, and staff development.

Concerns about the nature of the product measures (reading and mathematics multiple choice achievement tests), research methodology, and potential context effects eventually led to the development of different approaches to studying classrooms. Disciplinary frameworks other than educational psychology were applied in the research. These disciplines included anthropology, socio-linguistics, and sociology. Research employing qualitative methodology and case-study approaches began to be published in the major journals. Also, the cognitive revolution turned the attention of researchers away from teacher behaviors toward teachers’ thought processes as they plan, implement their lessons, and reflect on their practices. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, this movement to teacher cognition affected all aspects of research on teaching, including the conception of the effective teacher and the research methodologies used to explore teaching.

During this period of time, an even more significant social theory trend was strongly influencing the nature of research on teaching: the movement from modern to postmodern thinking. Between the previous edition of the Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd edn.) (Wittrock 1986) and the present one, the field has experienced a time of turbulence similar to that in other fields. Postmodernism raises questions that jar the very foundations of our understanding of research. These questions concern the nature of knowledge, who owns it, who produces it, and how it should be used. The dissonance between modern and post- modern ways of thinking are evident in the trends described below, and visible in the current edition of the Handbook of Research on Teaching (4th edn.) (Richardson in press). The conflicts go beyond the old qualitative–quantitative methodology controversy as described in the 1986 Handbook. They now focus on the very nature of research and knowledge and the uses of research in the improvement of practice.

1. A Vision Of Teaching

During the 1980s, the vision of teaching changed from that of a teacher standing in front of the class and transmitting information and skills to students to one of the teacher as facilitator of learning. The newer conception of teaching originates from constructivist learning or meaning-making theory that suggests that individuals create their own new understandings based upon the interaction of what they already know and believe, and the ideas with which they come into contact. The teacher facilitates student learning by creating environments, tasks and dialogues in which students access their prior knowledge, consider alternative premises, and alter and add to their existing understandings with information and ways of thinking that are introduced to them by the teacher and other experts, readings, other students, and their own research. Current classrooms have students with diverse backgrounds. Since each student has unique background knowledge and experiences, the teacher is compelled to keep track of individual differences, and to adjust lessons on the basis of this knowledge.

Within this conception, teaching requires complex thought and decision making in situations of uncertainty with diverse student bodies and variable contexts. Notions of the complexity of teaching and the variability of the context work together to help promote the view of the teacher as a thinking, decision-making, reflective, and autonomous professional. Since teaching is complex and contexts vary, teachers themselves need to make decisions and reflect on their situations and teaching in order to act in appropriate ways.

Current research on teaching reflects this change in the conception of the teacher, as will be highlighted in the sections below that reflect the current trends in the field.

2. Teacher Change

As the conception of teaching changed from transmission to facilitation, the question of how teachers themselves could be encouraged to change their ways of thinking and approaches to teaching became paramount in the research, policy, and practice literatures. Since the various subject-matter standards, such as the national mathematics standards for students, called for a very different approach to teaching, research and practice began to focus on processes of teacher change. The anticipated changes in teachers and teaching were thought to entail more than the acquisition of a new teaching method, but involved changes in beliefs and practices around the nature of teaching. This form of change, itself, required the development of conceptions of teacher change, and research on processes that would be effective in helping teachers develop these newer teaching roles.

The newer research on teacher change contests the view that teachers are recalcitrant and do not change. The recalcitrant label stems from a view of change in which individuals or groups outside the classroom mandate or suggest the changes that teachers should make. In fact, research suggests that teachers voluntarily change all the time. They reorganize their classrooms, try different activities and texts, change the order of topics in the curriculum, attempt different interpersonal skills, and so on. When teachers experiment with new activities in the classroom, the new practices are assessed on the basis of whether they ‘work.’ When these activities work, it means that they engage the students, do not violate the teacher’s particular need for control, and help the teachers respond to system-determined demands such as high test scores. If they do work, they are internalized and absorbed into the teacher’s repertoire of activities.

This new understanding of naturalistic teacher change has led to a considerable number of studies of processes that would help teachers change their beliefs about learning, the nature of teaching, and the role of the learning environment in student development. These studies often focus on particular subject-matter areas such as mathematics, science, English, and social studies since the learning and teaching standards are usually developed around these subjects. The most productive research-based approach to staff development suggests a long-term effort in which teachers are engaged in inquiry into their own often tacit beliefs and practices. This process is enhanced through dialogue, particularly with those who understand practice and the particular context in which the teacher is working. A certain trust level is important within the community since it is important for the participants to accept and talk about practices that do not seem to work, and to accept responsibility for them. Thus, the development of a discourse community is productive in beginning this process of change.

Research on teacher learning that examines changes in knowledge and beliefs as well as practices has led to the development of a number of different conceptions and forms of teacher knowledge and belief.

3. The Nature Of Knowledge In Teaching

As the focus of attention in research on teaching shifted from teacher behaviors to teacher cognition, beliefs and knowledge have become the two most important factors in the explanations of teacher practices and in considerations of teacher change. In the traditional philosophical literature, knowledge requires a ‘truth condition’ that suggests that a proposition is agreed upon as being true by a group of people. Propositional knowledge has epistemic standing, that is, there is some evidence to back up the claim. By contrast, beliefs do not require a truth condition. They have also been found to be powerful in their effects on teaching practices.

However, within research on teaching, the differentiation between beliefs and knowledge is not strongly evident. Many in the field define knowledge as that which is held in the teachers’ heads, with or without a truth condition. This psychological view of knowledge has led to the identification of and research on a number of different forms of knowledge. Two forms of knowledge that have been studied extensively are practical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Practical knowledge differs from formal knowledge in that formal or warranted knowledge is much more closely related to the philosophical conception of knowledge. Formal knowledge may be found in textbooks and research articles; whereas practical knowledge may be found in teachers’ heads and in their actions and focus on their own classroom contexts. Pedagogical content knowledge, on the other hand, combines formal and practical knowledge.

Beliefs, defined as propositions that are accepted as true by the individual holding the beliefs, are of interest in research on teaching in the investigation of the ways in which beliefs may affect teaching practices. Most current studies of teacher beliefs are conducted within the hermeneutic tradition (that is, they focus on how the individual teacher makes sense of the environment in which s/he is operating). These studies suggest a complex relationship between teachers’ beliefs and actions. In most current research-based conceptions, the perceived relationship between beliefs and actions is interactive. Beliefs are thought to drive actions; however, experiences and reflection on action may lead to changes in and/or additions to beliefs.

Beliefs are seen as important in teaching and teacher education in several ways. The first suggests that students of teaching bring powerful beliefs into their teacher education classes. These beliefs must be attended to by both the student teacher and the teacher educator if the student teacher is to move beyond the images of teaching acquired as a student. An additional and related way is instruction that focuses directly on beliefs. As Tom Green (1971) suggested, one goal of teaching is to help students form belief systems that consist of a large proportion of beliefs based on evidence and reason. Thus, the investigation of beliefs in the teacher education classroom should involve their rejection, alteration, or transformation into knowledge with warrant and evidence attached. Without attention to beliefs, transformational changes in teaching practices have a low probability of success.

Practical knowledge is an account of how a teacher knows or understands a classroom situation. Practical knowledge is gained through experience, is often tacit, and is contextual or local. This form of knowledge is not, however, synonymous with beliefs because it is thought of as embodied within the whole person, not just in the mind. Embodied knowledge is more than cognitive and relates to the ways in which people physically interact with the environment. It is this knowledge that may be used in an improvisational manner in the classroom. This conception of knowledge as practical does not separate the knower from the known, is personalized, idiosyncratic, contextual, and emerges during action.

Pedagogical content knowledge refers to a way of knowing the subject matter that allows it to be taught. It is grounded in the disciplines but adds an understanding of how to transform formal knowledge of the disciplines into the enacted curriculum within a teaching context. This knowledge combines that of the subject matter itself with knowing how students learn the content, students’ preconceptions that may get in the way of learning, and representations of the knowledge in the form of metaphors, examples, demonstrations, etc., that allow it to be transformed into material that the students may learn. Inquiry into teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge has been active since 1985. This research suggests that teacher education students’ formal knowledge of the disciplines is fairly weak, and that formal teacher education programs are a weak contributor to the formation of pedagogical content knowledge. However, there is strong evidence that those becoming teachers benefit from the courses that emphasize pedagogical knowledge as compared with those who enter teaching with subject matter background, but no pedagogical education.

4. Areas Of Interest In Research On Teaching

The shift from teacher behavior to cognition and from the transmitter to facilitator models of teaching has brought forward a number of areas that are of particular interest in research on teaching.

4.1 Constructivist Teaching

Constructivism is a descriptive theory of learning, and most constructivists would agree that the traditional approach to teaching—the transmission model— promotes neither the interaction between prior and new knowledge nor the conversations that are necessary for internalization and deep understanding. The information acquired from traditional teaching, if acquired at all, is usually not well integrated with other knowledge and beliefs held by the students.

While these are common understandings, there are also considerable disagreements. Further, and more importantly in this context, there is not a direct relationship between the theory of learning and the practice of teaching. Constructivism is a theory of individual learning. While constructivist learning theory may speak closely to a tutoring situation, it does not direct teaching practice within a ‘normal’ classroom. Thus, considerable research attention focuses on the constructivist classroom. Some of the questions that are being addressed are as follows: (a) what is the place of formal knowledge in a constructivist classroom, and how it should be introduced, and (b) at what point during instruction does it make sense to ‘tell’ students formal knowledge and/or answers to questions? These issues are being worked out within the different subject matters, and evidence indicates that constructivist classrooms vary depending upon the subject matter.

4.2 Teaching To Individual Differences

Constructivist learning theory suggests that the background knowledge, beliefs, and understandings that students bring to the classroom strongly affect what they learn within the classroom. Given this frame, and the current attempts to integrate students with differing cultural and language backgrounds as well as learning styles and abilities, suggests that attention to the backgrounds of students is critical in the teaching process.

Research on differences in the ways teachers approach girls and boys in the classroom has a longstanding tradition in research on teaching. There is no doubt that teachers, by and large, treat girls differently to boys and that teachers are not aware of doing so. Examples are the questions asked of boy versus girl students. They are often qualitatively different, and the intellectual follow-up on answers is often different and usually more thorough for boys than girls. However, it is also the case that girls act differently than boys in classrooms, and the effort continues to be made to understand teachers’ different behaviors as a reaction both to the differences in classroom behavior of boys and girls and the social forces that may drive these different behaviors.

Multicultural education has received considerable attention in research on teaching as schools and classrooms continue to be more integrated. Further, it is also the case in many countries that the teaching population itself is dominated disproportionately by teachers of the majority culture. Knowledge and understanding of different cultures and ways of approaching the tasks of teaching and learning thus becomes imperative for teachers. Of particular importance in this area is the development of the concepts of culturally relevant learning and teaching. Based on research of successful teachers of African-American students, this concept suggests that knowledge of the culture and community of the students is brought into these classrooms and guides elements of classroom action such as the discipline system.

4.3 Moral Development

For years, research has focused on student achievement in the basic skills of reading and mathematics. More recently, other subject-matter areas such as science, writing, and geography have been included in this research. It is also the case, however, that teachers may have a strong influence on the moral development of students. Current research in this area is investigating the moral dimensions of classroom life, and indicates that the moral life of the classroom is robust and powerful. Teachers, however, are often unaware of the nature and/or consequence of their actions in relation to the moral development of their students. Further research is needed to examine the effects of these the moral dimensions on students, and will undoubtedly affect the ways in which teachers approach this important aspect of classroom life.

5. Methodology

The methodology for research on teaching has shifted dramatically from quantitative to qualitative. Case studies are proliferating, particularly in studies of teacher change that focus not just on documenting the fact that the teachers changed, but also on building a theory of the change process. While quantitative methodology is still being used in large-scale studies of educational reform, most studies that examine the teacher learning and change processes are qualitative in nature. Qualitative methodology, however, is not monolithic. There are many different approaches, and Robert Donmoyer (in press) in a chapter in the Handbook of Research on Teaching (4th edn.) has differentiated among them in relation to five different purposes for conducting the research. These purposes range from ‘truth’ seeking to the praxis social change purpose. Other trends that are found in research on teaching are outlined below.

5.1 Teacher Research And Self-Study

Teacher research refers to a form in which the teacher conducts research on or inquires into his her own practices. Self-study is the same process used by teacher educators. This trend is a part of the action research movement that suggests that practitioners are in the best position to inquire into their own practices for purposes of solving problems in the contexts in which they reside and understand. The purpose of teacher research and self-study is primarily the improvement of the teacher/teacher educator’s teaching practice. However, there is some debate about this, as a number of scholars suggest that research conducted by teachers is not only useful for the teacher-researcher but of interest to others. There are also questions about the nature of the research that is conducted, e.g., do teacher research and self-study warrant different methods and procedures to research that leads to formal knowledge?

5.2 Narrative Research

Narrative research stems from the sense that narrative is a mode of thinking—an expression of cultures’ storehouse of knowledge (Bruner 1986). It is argued that teachers’ knowledge and understanding of school and classroom practice is stored in narrative and discourse about practice is often in narrative form. The aim of narrative research is to capture school and classroom practice and tell others about it in such a way as to conform to this natural mode of thinking. As described by Gudsmundsdottir (in press): ‘narrative approach moves research on school practice as a field out of the constraints that educational psychology has placed upon our community and enables us to move where we belong—into the realm of human sciences as conceptualized by Dilthey.’ The inquiry focuses on mediated action, and it is qualitative and interpretive in nature. As a relatively new approach in research on teaching, it has its strong advocates and detractors. It also means different things to different people. However, the attempt to develop a research methodology of practice will keep it in the limelight for some time.

5.3 Studies Of Teacher Change

A classical experimental design relies heavily on a linear process that involves the prespecification of the treatment and the desired outcomes. Many current change processes—particularly inquiry-oriented staff-development programs—are not of this nature. They are collaborative with the practitioners, and the process moves along a path marked by constant inquiry and reflection. It is questionable whether the use of a control group adds to our understanding of teacher change. Since so many current change processes are fairly individualized without stipulated goals for changes in practice, the question that remains is whether the teachers in the control and treatment group changed. Since we are operating in a model of change that suggests that teachers change all the time, we would assume that even the control teachers would be changing as well.

Thus, in examining teacher change in depth, the questions of significance, validity, and worth must be addressed. The set of questions are as follows: was there change in teaching practice? can this change be attributed to the change process being examined? is the effected change desirable? This calls for a rethinking of research designs that, for example, leads to the ability to tie observed changes in practices to the substance of the conversations that took place in the staff-development process.


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