A better way to think about and discuss course planning

When we design courses or papers at a University we often start by deciding who is going to teach, what they going to teach, and the mode of teaching. For example, I might decide to teach topic x and y, using lectures with associated tutorials. This is a default way of thinking about course design and teaching, often based on how we administer teaching or assign EFTS funds.

But this way of thinking constrains us and limits what is possible. We think and talk about what we will teach, what we will cover, and what students will know, but this automatically frames teaching in a teacher-centred way based on what we will do, and in a knowledge-centred way about what students will know. We think about learning solely in terms of the knowledge we will cover, and we are blinded to the other things that students might learn.

If I think about teaching in this default way, then I assume that teaching is about covering knowledge, and I cannot make sense of students learning skills, values or ways of being. For example, I take it for granted that I will cover topic x and y in my lectures and tutorials, but this leaves no room for students to learn broader communication skills or learn to be critical and reflective. Even if topic x is communication, if I think about teaching as covering this topic, then I end up telling my students about communication, rather than enabling my students to be good communicators.

I don’t mean to imply that all university teachers think about teaching in this way, just that it is a tendency, a common discourse, that is problematic. We need to resist this way of thinking, and discuss course design in a different way if we want to revise or reinvigorate our courses and get better results for our students.

Here is a better way of thinking about course design, influenced by the idea of seeking constructive or instructional alignment.

Start designing your course by deciding what you want your students to learn, and in particular, prioritise the broader and deeper objectives. What skills and conceptual understandings will your students get from the course? What values or dispositions will they develop?

Second, work out the structure of the course that will enable students to develop these broad learning objectives. You are better to first structure the course based on what students will do rather than what the teacher will do. For example, what will the students do in the course so they have a deep conceptual understanding of communication, and so they learn to be good communicators? They will need multiple opportunities to do tasks where they can practice their communication, get feedback, reflect on the nature of communication, and then tackle more sophisticated communication tasks. Yes, they will also need to listen to some lectures to understand some of the theories about communication, but if we want our students to develop broad skills and understandings, then the backbone of the course needs to be the communication tasks completed by the students, not what the lecturers cover.

Third, work out the assessment structure. How will you know that students have learned the skills, understandings and ways of being that you aim to cultivate? Set assessment tasks that guide students to develop these learning objectives, and which will allow you to judge how successful they are in developing them. You are assessing the broad skills and fundamental understandings, rather than the details of the content that you have covered. And, these need not be formal, graded assessments, but they can be informal opportunities for you and your students to assess their performance.

Only then do you decide the specific topics that you will ‘cover’. These will be the areas of knowledge students need in order to develop the core skills and understandings. You need not cover everything, only the fundamental concepts and principles, with some details to illustrate.

So in summary, we need to change the way we think and talk about course design. We should give up thinking and talking about what we will cover, and instead think and talk about what students will learn and what they will do to learn this.

Posted in Planning teaching

Writing my teaching philosophy: abstract claims and concrete illustrations

Sometimes a teaching philosophy is too abstract: “I believe in a student-centred approach and I adopt this in all my teaching. I attempt to create a safe space so learners can blossom.” These can be important claims about you and your teaching, but without concrete illustrations they can mean virtually anything, and so they are almost meaningless.

A strong teaching philosophy is a blend of the abstract and the concrete. It makes clear claims about your teaching, but it also illustrates these up with concrete examples and evidence: “I take a student-centred approach in all my classes. For example, I begin every lesson by asking my students what questions they have, and I reorganise my prepared lesson to make sure I address these questions.”

Constructing a teaching philosophy requires a lot of preparatory thinking and writing, where you first try to figure out what you do in your teaching and why you do it, and then you write it in a form that will make sense to a reader. You can start with an abstract claim about how you teach, and then find examples of this to illustrate. Alternatively you can start with an example of something important in your teaching, and then work out what abstract claim this illustrates. You then work backwards and forwards between abstract claims and examples, each time refining and adding to your understanding of your teaching philosophy. You might elaborate or refine your abstract claim, or add some justification, because your examples helped you to see your claim was broader or more specific than you first thought. Or, you might elaborate your examples, and find more evidence, based on the refined abstract claim you made about your teaching. When you are clear about what you want to say, you might combine your concrete and abstract ideas into one paragraph for your teaching philosophy.

Here is an example of my thinking process as I write my teaching philosophy, moving from the concrete to the abstract and back again:

1. Concrete: One example of something important in my teaching

I give students time to ask questions or to say something. I ask a question and then count to 10 in my head before moving on so I ensure they have enough time.

2. Abstract: What claim does the example illustrate?

I allow my students thinking time so they can make sense of the material I am teaching.

3. Concrete: Give further examples of this abstract claim

I deliberately ask questions that require thinking (eg. what is an example of that?) and also deliberately give students enough time to think of an answer.

4. Abstract: Refine my abstract claim by considering why I do this

Learning requires thinking. Students must engage with the material, otherwise it is only memorisation. So, I need to give my students opportunities to engage with the material, and also encourage them to think about the material. I want them to clarify, give examples, apply the material to their own situation, ask and answer questions, give reasons…

5. Concrete: Refine my examples and consider any evidence I might have

I also encourage thinking by using think-pair-share where I ask students to think on their own or to write down their ideas, then share it with another student, and finally share it with the whole class. Another example is using asynchronous discussion boards where I ask my students to present their reflections, and to respond to the feedback of others. Because this is asynchronous, the task has thinking time built into it. My students often say that my courses really make them think.

6. Turn this into a paragraph

Deep learning requires thinking so students can construct their own understanding. Otherwise it is merely memorisation. So, to encourage deep learning, I build in lots of thinking time in my classes. For example, I ask questions that require thinking, such as ‘What is an example of that? And then I wait 5-10 seconds so students have time to think of their own responses. I also encourage thinking by having paired-sharing where students share their ideas with another student. This is safer and easier than talking to the whole class, but it still encourages think-talk (ie. thinking via talking). Another method is to have individual students write down their ideas, or think-write (ie. thinking via writing). Even if students don’t say anything to the whole class, I know they are engaged at thinking via their paired sharing or writing. My students commonly say “I’ve never had to think so much!”

Posted in Evaluating Teaching, Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement

Getting to know your students

In another blog I argued that we need to know our students if we are to teach well, because teaching is about who you know, not just what you know. But, every time we start a new course we have a new group of students. How do we get to know them before the course?

One of my colleagues, Fi Graham from the Rehabilitation Teaching and Research Unit in Wellington, uses an excellent survey to get to know her students (the ‘Student profile questions’ which are linked to this blog). I interviewed Fi to find out how and why she uses these questions.


Fi teaches a course to around 30 health professionals, with a range of areas of expertise, and who are studying part-time while working. She emails the Student Profile Questions to her students before her course starts, and she asks them to send her their answers before she meets them. The answers provided by her students tell her:

  • What they already know
  • What they want to know
  • The importance they place on the different learning outcomes for the course
  • How familiar they are with the technology used in the course
  • How familiar and how interested they are in the different topics covered in the course

She then uses their answers in a variety of ways:

  1. Asking the questions is a good way of quickly building relationships in a course. By asking these questions Fi is saying to her students “I’m starting this course by listening to you. I’m interested in you.” This creates an ethos in the course that is a firm foundation for learning. As a result students are more likely to feel understood and respected as individuals, more likely to be motivated and inspired by the lecturer who took the time to get to know them a little, and they are more likely to invest more in the course.
  2. The questions offer a simple way for students to engage in the course, which takes very little time. Right from the start Fi is saying to them, “This course is for you, and I will provide you with ways to engage.” (She also offer a range of alternative ways for students to engage so they can choose which are useful for them and which are not)
  3. The answers help her to know her students as individuals, but also to know the cohort of students as a whole. For example, in any year Fi can find out which students are interested in which topics. However, one year she also found out that the whole class is more tech savvy than she assumed, and less anxious about the technical aspects of distance learning, and she found out that there was a surprising amount of interest in learning background skills like finding information and writing.
  4. Fi uses the answers from her students to explain the course objectives and the various learning tasks and why these are important, and this helps to motivate students. For example, she might say: “Many of you said the ability to communicate was one of your most important learning goals, well, one way this course will develop your communication skills is through the International Classification of Functioning framework, so that’s why we spend a lot of time on this.” Or she might say: “The essay in this course requires critical thinking skills. This was another thing that many in the class said they were interested in. So the essay is one of the places where you will get a chance to practice and refine your critical thinking skills.”
  5. This teaching method is in ‘instructional alignment’ with all of Fi’s course learning objectives. It sets a foundation for good learning in general, and it allows her to show her students the importance of any particular learning objective. For example, it shows that Fi values her students and builds a learning relationship with them, which is a useful foundation for learning any of the learning objectives in the course. And, if one of the learning objectives is to learn about x, the lecturer can use the student answers about their interests to show why learning x is important, and this is useful to motivate and help them to learn x.
  6. Fi uses the answers to ‘tweak’ the current course. For example, one year the survey indicated that there was lots of initial interest about teamwork, so Fi changed her plan for guest speakers and invited extra speakers for the course who could talk about team work.
  7. The student survey also provides useful feedback about what students want and need, which can also inform overall curriculum design for a Department, and for Departmental reviews and reports . The Department can use the answers to judge if they are hitting the mark for their students, or if they need to offer something different. For example, if it turns out that most of your students are interested in learning about x, and the Department doesn’t offer anything about x, the Department can add this into either the current course or into a follow up course. On the other hand, it is useful evidence for a Department to show that they are hitting the mark for their students with the content and design of their courses.
Posted in Learning to teach, Students

Refining my reflections

Here is an example of my reflective thought process from rough reflections to more and more clear, elaborated and insightful reflections. This process normally happens very quickly, but I have deliberately slowed it down to show you how I think through what I write. I will divide it up into stages from the initial rough reflection through to a polished, reflective piece of writing, and I will explain each stage of my reflective process.

1. Initial rough idea: Just putting my idea down on paper (without worrying about spelling, grammar, etc.).

“Relationship is crucial for good teahicng”

2. What needs clarification or elaboration: What do I mean by…?

‘Relationship’, ‘crucial’, ‘teaching’ and ‘good teaching’ all need clarification. They are fairly vague and I haven’t said what I mean by them

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning”

3. Where can my statement use more examples: What is an example of…?

This is still pretty abstract and I am not sure what I am referring to. I need to make this concrete as well.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed.”

4. Where does this need reasons? Why do I think …?

I also realised that I have not given any reason why someone should believe what I am saying (or even why I think this is correct), so I need to add reasons as well.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed. This sort of relationship will make the student feel cared for, and if they feel cared for they can engage better in their learning.”

5. Where can my statement use more examples: What is an example of…?

My idea is getting more and more sophisticated as I reflect on what I mean. But now my reasons are too abstract and it needs an example to illustrate what I mean.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed. This sort of relationship will make the student feel cared for, and if they feel cared for they can engage better in their learning. For example, if John feels like the teacher cares about him and cares that he is doing well, then John will be willing to do tasks that he may ignore if the teacher did not care, and he may be willing to take risks and try out ideas that he might be unwilling to try out if he thought the teacher did not care about him. And if John does these things he is likely to learn more.”

6. What further questions could I address to enhance my reflection? Another question this raises is…

What do I mean by supportive? Supportive of what? Of whom? What exactly is being supported? Who or what is doing the supporting?

What does it mean to improve student learning? What does it mean for Tim to get better at learning? He understands more quickly? Is it a speed thing? He understands more deeply? Is it about depth of understanding?

Do I have any evidence that being cared for leads to better learning?

(and lastly – double checking spelling, grammar and whether it makes sense to a reader)

Posted in Reflection and improvement

Mentoring teachers

One of my roles is to mentor other teachers and enable them to improve and enhance their teaching. How do I mentor another teacher (the mentee)? When I reflected on this I realised I went through roughly ten steps. My actual process of mentoring tends to be a bit messier and less linear than what I present, but these simple steps help me to understand what I do.

  1. First meeting. I first meet with the mentee to gauge where they are at in relation to teaching: How do they feel about teaching and about themselves as a teacher? How confident are they? What do they think they are doing well and what can be improved? What are they concerned about and what are they interested in? and, finally, What do they want from the mentoring relationship?
  2. Assist the mentee to move to a space where they can tackle improvement and enhancement. Some mentees aren’t ready for mentoring because they are in an unsuitable frame of mind, so the next three steps are about how I help them take a different perspective about their teaching.
  3. Reassure and build confidence. If a mentee lacks confidence or doesn’t feel efficacious as a teacher, then they will find it difficult, if not impossible to improve. So, my first step is to create a foundation of “I’m OK as a teacher” so that my mentee is able to undertake improvement. This requires them to see their teaching difficulties as opportunities for learning, not as indicators that they are bad teachers.
    • Normalise the struggle in teaching. I point out that all teachers struggle with their teaching. These problems and issues don’t make them a ‘bad’ teacher, they are an inevitable and essential part of being a teacher.
    • Difficulties are necessary for learning to teach. I emphasise that we learn to teach in a University by trying something, noticing problems and difficulties, and then improving and enhancing what we do. Thus any problems the mentee may be facing are just one step on the journey to learning to be a teacher.
    • All teaching is a learning process. I also point out that teaching is always a learning process. For example, all teachers have to learn how to teach the particular students they are faced with. No matter how good a teacher is, they will face students who do not respond to the methods they normally use, and who expect something different from what the teacher expects. All teachers have to learn to deal with this challenge every time they teach.
  4. Invite them to take an enhancement attitude to their teaching. I invite my mentee to see their teaching as a process of improvement and development. All teachers, no matter how novice or how experienced, can develop, improve and enhance their teaching. When we take an ‘enhancement attitude’, we look at evaluation evidence like student evaluation questionnaires as an indicator of what worked and what didn’t work for students, and so as an indicator of how we might improve student learning. Thus I encourage my mentee to see that evaluation evidence is not about them, but about the impact of their teaching on their students. I want my mentee to see the evidence we gather about the impact of their teaching as information they can use to improve, rather than seeing the evidence as implying a judgment about them being a good or a bad teacher.
  5. Identify something to enhance, work on, or inquire into. I assist my mentees to find something that we can focus on that will motivate them to improve and enhance their teaching. This will likely be something about teaching that they are interested in, concerned about, or which they want to improve or enhance. Relating to them as if they are ‘broken’ or ‘bad teachers’ will not inspire them to improve, so we need to assist them to identify some inspiring result they want to achieve.
  6. Gather evidence about the impact of their teaching on their students, for example:
    • Observe their teaching
    • Read evaluation data from student questionnaires or other student feedback
    • Talk with my mentee about how they teach and what they do
    • Read their course documents and assessments
    • Talk with their students
  7. Judge what might be changed to improve or enhance student learning.
    • We first hypothesise about what might be ‘blocking’ or ‘restricting’ student learning. For example, the evaluation questionnaires may indicate that the students think the mentee is ineffective as a teacher. But after talking with students and watching a lecture, we might realise that the underlying issue is actually that the mentee is speaking too quietly for students, and there are too many slides in their powerpoint presentation so students don’t have enough time to understand anything, and the result is that students don’t follow what the mentee is saying.
    • Then, we hypothesise about what might enhance the teaching to deal with the ‘blocks’ or ‘restrictions’. For example, my mentee could use a microphone or get some voice projection lessons, and they might cut down the number of slides in their presentation so they focus on the fundamentals without distracting students with irrelevant details (which can instead go into further readings).
    • If we are not sure about what might be blocking or restricting learning then we need to gather more evidence. For example, after discussing the mentee’s teaching, and reading student questionnaires, it might be obvious that students are not engaged, but we don’t yet know why. So, we go back to step six and talk with students to find out why they are not engaged.
  8. Action plan. I assist my mentee to design what they will do differently in their teaching, and how they will evaluate whether these changes have enhanced student learning.
  9. Action. They make the changes in their teaching!
  10. Evaluation and feedback: We finish by considering what they did and what happened as a result, including what they observed and any other evaluation evidence they gathered, and we use this to judge if the changes worked. If the changes worked, I congratulate them and assist them to refine and embed the changes so they become part of their normal teaching practice. If the changes had no impact, then we go back to step 6.
Posted in Learning to teach, Mentoring

How does learning happen?

At some stage in my life I learned to tie my own shoe laces and to write an essay; I learned the difference between an artery and a vein, and I learned how photosynthesis works; I learned to do algebra, and to dance; I learned to taste the difference between a pinot gris and a Chardonnay, and I learned to be a critical thinker.

How did I learn these different things?

There are a variety of theories that isolate and explain the mechanisms by which we learn. Here is a short and incomplete summary of a selection of learning theories (and some useful distinctions related to these theories).

Note the subtle similarities and differences between some of the theories. Also note that some of these theories might apply only to particular kinds of learning outcomes and not others, or to one context but not another, and some are less plausible than others. And, as a final caveat, note that the theories are explained in very different ways by different people, so don’t take my short simplification as the final word about these theories.


Transmission learning: We learn by having ‘knowledge’ passed directly to us, perhaps by reading it or being told it by someone else. It is common to think learning happens via transmission, but it is a fairly implausible theory for anything but the most simple learning. Maybe I learned the definition of ‘alive’ by being told it, but I certainly didn’t learn to dance by being told how. And I didn’t really learn the definition of ‘alive’ until I had at least applied it to a few different cases to test I understood.

Constructivism: We learn by doing something with what we are told, shown or experience. Learning is not passive as the transmission learning implies, but active. There can be no learning from direct transmission until students construct an understanding of what they are hearing/seeing, or fit the new idea in their cognitive schema. I don’t learn the definition of the word ‘alive’ until I assimilate it into my already existing knowledge, and apply the term to all the other things I already know: dogs are alive, rocks are not. Thus learning is something I do by constructing my understanding, not something done to me.

Deep and surface knowledge: Sometimes we distinguish between different kinds of knowledge or understanding gained from different types of learning. Mere transmission is often associated with surface knowledge, where the learner might be able to parrot back what they were told, but they can’t apply it or use this knowledge. Another way to think of this is as ‘fragile knowledge’ – the knowledge you remember for long enough to write down in the exam, and then it evaporates. On the other hand, once I construct the knowledge for myself, I could be said to have deep knowledge, or to understand.

Additive vs. Transformative learning: If learning is the result of my active construction, then there are two ways I can construct what I learn. I can add a new piece of knowledge into my existing framework, fitting it with what I already know (Piaget calls this assimilation). For example, I already know many things about NZ and I can just add in the latest population figures. On the other hand, I can learn by transforming my entire framework of knowledge. For example, imagine the first time you realise that not only are there the numbers 1-5 but also half and quarter. You cannot merely add this new knowledge into what you already knew, but you have to change your whole conception of numbers (Piaget calls this accommodation). Now we cannot even imagine what it was like to have the simple view of numbers which only recognised whole numbers and not fractions. We learn by transforming our understanding, by transforming the framework which we use to make sense of all of our information.

Cognitive dissonance: Transformative learning often requires some sort of challenge. To transform our cognitive frameworks we must first encounter a problem that causes us cognitive dissonance – we can’t make sense of this new information or this new experience by using our old cognitive framework. So, we experience confusion because of the dissonance between what we thought we knew and what we are now confronted with. This means that moving though some sort of cognitive doubt or discomfort is necessary for transformative learning. We start with stasis in our old conceptions, then we are confronted by something problematic, and we transform our old conception to something new. Many might call this confusion, but I prefer to call it puzzlement as confusion is a negative problem to avoid, while puzzlement is a positive problem to embrace. (Piaget)

Inquiry learning: We learn as the result of a personal inquiry process. We have a question, or a problem or issue we want to resolve (some sort of personal cognitive dissonance), and learning happens as we resolve this. For example, if I am merely told that photosynthesis is how plants get their energy, I don’t really learn anything – at best it is fragile knowledge. However, I will learn photosynthesis at a deeper level if I first wonder about how plants get their energy (they must get it somewhere, but they can’t eat like animals), and then I read about photosynthesis. If I then continue to pursue my question and wonder how photosynthesis is different from eating, and whether it is like eating sunlight, then I will get even deeper learning. So, the implication of this theory is that we should help our students to identify problems that they experience as live questions that they want to resolve. Then when we tell them new knowledge, or they read about our topic, they will answer their questions and learn in a deeper way than they would by merely being told something. (Dewey)

Experiential learning: We learn by doing. More precisely, we learn by doing something mentally or physically, then experiencing the consequences, reflecting on these consequences, and then doing something different as a result. For example, I learned what is hot by touching burning objects, experiencing the pain, then mentally recording ‘fire’ as hot and so not to be touched, and my actions are dictated by this experiential learning from that point onwards. (Dewey)

Behaviourism: We learn by having our behaviour reinforced. If we do something and good things follow we learn to do this, and if we do something else and bad things follow we learn to avoid this. It is the carrot and stick view of learning. For example, if I get a gold star when I help someone else, I learn to help others. But if I get sent to sit by the flag pole because I swore, I learn to avoid swearing.

Social learning: Social interaction is necessary for learning. We learn by participating in a social environment with particular social behaviours (e.g. asking each other particular kinds of prompt questions like ‘why do you think that?’), and then internalising this social discourse (so I start to ask myself ‘why do I think this?). We learn by taking a social interaction like giving feedback, and making it an internal cognitive process. (Vygotsky)

Self-efficacy: We learn by developing confidence in our ability. When we doubt our ability to learn something or to do something we are blocked from learning this. As we develop confidence in learning something or doing something, we are more able to do it and to do it well.

Feedback and improving: We learn a skill like writing or solving equations or dancing by first attempting and failing, then getting feedback, adjusting and improving, getting more feedback, and so on, until we have mastered the skill. The feedback can be direct feedback from the world – if I fall over when I try to turn in a particular way, then I will do it differently next time – or it can be feedback from someone like a teacher who can tell you what you are doing well and what needs refining.

Practice to be an expert: As well as the cycle of feedback and improving we also learn by practicing a skill. We start practicing as a novice when it requires a lot of mental energy (think of your concentration when you first learned to drive a car), then with further practice you become competent (you pass the test) and with further practice you automatise the skill and become an expert where you no longer have to devote conscious mental energy to doing the skilled activity (driving while having a conversation with someone in the car).

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Posted in Learning, Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement