I am currently at the University of Aarhus teaching a PhD course on language teacher cognition research and our discussions there stimulated this month’s blog. For those new to this topic, teacher cognition research studies the unobservable dimensions of teaching and teacher learning – constructs such as beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, thinking, decision-making and emotion – and how these relate to the process of becoming, being and developing as a teacher. A short article introducing this field of research is available here and a detailed bibliography here.
One fundamental question teacher cognition research needs to address clearly is ‘why is it important to understand what teachers know, believe, think and feel?’ Today it is not enough to study, for example, teacher beliefs, for their own sake – a more concrete reason is needed. And for this reason I am critical (see Borg 2015) of papers which increasingly describe teacher cognition without any ulterior purpose or sense of how such insights might be of value. It can often be, though, difficult to provide a convincing answer to the ‘why’ question above, so let’s consider some examples.
In Zheng & Borg (2014) we examined teachers’ cognitions and practices in relation to task-based learning and teaching (TBLT). It was easy to justify this study because TBLT was a central idea in the English curriculum in China and teachers’ interpretations of it had clear implications for their implementation of the curriculum.
One of the participants on the Aarhus PhD course is studying teachers’ beliefs and practices in relation to differentiation. Again, justifying this study is straightforward because official curriculum documents for the teaching of German in Denmark specify that differentiation is expected of all teachers; understanding how teachers interpret and implement this idea, then, is very relevant to making sense of how they follow curricular guidelines.
So where an idea is central to policy but teachers’ understandings of it are unstudied, it is easy to justify making it the focus of teacher cognition research.
One of my PhD students in Norway (see Hestetræet 2012) is studying teachers’ beliefs and practices about vocabulary teaching. In this case the justification lies in three intersecting factors: an abundant theoretical and methodological literature on L2 vocabulary teaching, the status of vocabulary teaching as a fundamental aspect of L2 classrooms, and the general absence of research which has examined how teachers teach vocabulary and the beliefs that underpin their instructional choices. These are the same arguments that underpinned my early research on teacher cognition and grammar and my more recent work on learner autonomy.
So, if we are able to argue that an issue (a) is characterised by a large literature (b) is a fundamental activity in L2 teaching and (c) has not been studied from a teacher cognition perspective, a case can be made for examining teachers’ beliefs, knowledge, thinking or feelings in relation to this issue.
A third case where teacher cognition research can be justified is where teachers’ practices are not aligned with what is expected or considered optimal. For example, if it is observed that in L2 classrooms very little oral interaction takes place in the target language, then examining teacher cognition about target language use by teachers and students could provide insight into current classroom practices.
Teacher cognition research is also important in the context of teacher education and professional development. In teacher education, examining student teachers’ prior knowledge and beliefs can inform the design and delivery of pre-service courses; in professional development contexts, teacher cognition research allows us to understand if and how knowledge and beliefs change – i.e. what kind of impact professional development is having (see for example Borg 2011).
So there are different ways in which language teacher cognition research can be justified:
- to understand to what extent and how policy (or an innovation) is being interpreted and implemented;
- to examine widely discussed aspects of L2 teaching about which teachers’ cognitions remain under-studied;
- to make sense of gaps between current teacher practices and what is considered optimal or desirable;
- to establish a baseline of prior cognitions which can inform the subsequent design of teacher education courses;
- to evaluate the ongoing and summative impact of professional development.
Many studies of teacher cognition are not justified using such arguments. Sometimes they limit themselves to the ‘gap’ argument – ‘we know little about teachers’ cognitions about X’ (without establishing why X is an important issue) – or the contextual argument – ‘teacher cognition about X has not been studied in my country’ – but neither of these alone suffice to build a convincing case.
If you are doing research on language teacher cognition, what is the justification for your study? What other convincing kinds of justification can we add to the list above?