Learning to teach by reflecting on your teaching

How do we learn to teach?

We begin as novices to teaching in the sense that we have not taught before. But even then, we are not total novices as we have all experienced being taught. From these experiences we will have more or less tacit conceptions of how to teach. For example, we might remember being told ‘stuff’ in secondary school, and so we basically think that teaching is telling students things that they are meant to remember. We may never have articulated this conception, but this is what we think teaching involves.

Some of us may have also been told how to teach as preparation or training before we have a go ourselves. For example, a mentor might have explained how they teach, or we might have attended a workshop or a course about teaching. The problem is that this ‘training’ may not help us learn to teach. The way I teach is based on my conception of how to teach, but I can be ‘taught’ things about teaching that leave my personal conception unchanged. For example, if my tacit conception is that teaching is telling, then being told to have a student centred approach, or reading theories about student-centred teaching, may have little impact on this tacit conception as it has never been articulated and examined. After being ‘taught’ about student-centred teaching I may even say that I think teaching involves a student-centred approach, but I will teach based on my personal conception that teaching is telling. Student-centred teaching is merely my espoused theory, but my theory in practice, the theory that dictates how I actually teach, is that teaching is telling.

So, the process of learning to teach is about developing your conception of teaching, refining it and making it more sophisticated. Putting this in other words, learning to teach involves refining your theory in practice, or your personal theory. Your personal theory or your conception of teaching is not an abstract theory divorced from practice. It is a practical theory about the practice of teaching: what you do and why, how you do it and when.

So how do you refine your personal conception of teaching?

  1. Make the conception explicit rather than tacit. What do you do when you teach? What do you personally think is involved in teaching? It is only once you have articulated this conception that you can examine, challenge and refine it.
  2. Reflect on the conception. This means examining what reasons you have for thinking this is a good conception of teaching, clarifying and elaborating what you mean, examining examples that illustrate your conception, as well as possible counter-examples that might challenge it, and applying the conception in practice and evaluating the results.
  3. Some of this reflection may be private and ‘in your own head’ or ‘in your own writing’. Some of the reflection might be social where everyone shares their conceptions and together with others you clarify, challenge and refine the conceptions. Some of the reflection may also involve reading the literature, which is a useful way to clarify, justify and name what you already do, and useful for challenging your conception and suggesting alternatives. But you need to use the literature to extend, challenge and refine your own conception of teaching. The literature considered apart from your personal conception of teaching is abstract and inert.
  4. As a result of this reflection you will have a refined conception of teaching: it will be clearer, better justified and elaborated, for instance. Sometimes you will have added to or tweaked your earlier conception, for example, by adding some new strategies for encouraging discussion. But sometimes through reflection you realise your earlier conception was totally inadequate, and so you abandon it and adopt a transformed conception instead. For example, you might realise that teaching as telling ignores whether learning occurs because it only about the teacher, and you realise that such a limited conception of teaching must be abandoned for one that explains the relationship between what the teacher does, and the impact on the learner.
  5. Refining your conception of teaching through reflection cannot be done for you or done to you. You have to ‘experience’ that your own conception is limited, unclear, poorly justified or inadequate, and you have to adopt a new personal conception. Otherwise all that will have changed is your espoused theory, and the actual conception that you teach from will remain the same.
  6. Once you have explicitly changed your personal conception of teaching, you need to put this into practice. You need to try it out hypothetically in imagined situations, and in actual practice, then evaluate and refine it further.
  7. Eventually you will automatise this explicit conception. You will use it again and again so that it becomes automatically how you teach (like learning to drive – once you practice for long enough, you don’t have to consciously think about what you are doing, you just do it).
  8. Then you can start the cycle of reflection again and make the new conception explicit so that you can reflect on it and refine it further.

Some background and related reading:

Rando, W.C. & Menges, R.J. (1991). How Practice is Shaped by Personal Theories, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 45, 7-14.

Kane, R., Sandretto, S. & Heath, C. (2002). Telling Half the Story: A Critical Review of Research on the Teaching Beliefs and Practices of University Academics, Review of Educational Research, 72(2), 177–228.

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Korthagen, F., & Kessels, J. (1999). Linking Theory and Practice: Changing the Pedagogy of Teacher Education, Educational Researcher, 28(4), 4-17.

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About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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