Justifying Language Teacher Cognition Research

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?

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5 Responses to Justifying Language Teacher Cognition Research

  1. Nguyen Thi Thu Trang says:

    Thank you Professor Simon Borg for your stimulating entry on justification of teacher cognition research.

    I would like to add another reason for teacher cognition research. That is:
    – to discover whether there is a match or mismatch between teacher cognition and teacher practices and what factors (contextual or individual) are associated with that fact. This discovery serves as a starting point for developing teacher empowering mechanism in which teachers’ potentials can be fully executed.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks for this further example. Yes, teacher cognition research can provide the basis of initiatives to support teacher professional development, especially where a gap is perceived between existing practices/cognitions and what is considered desirable from a policy or pedagogical perspective. Studies of mismatches between cognitions and practices, though, often lack a clear rationale of this kind – studying the comparison itself is seen as the end, which is what I am arguing existing in my comments above.

  2. Kamel Babouche says:

    Hi Simon and thank you for your valuable works.

    Another two possible factors may influence the way teachers “cognate”:

    – the circumstances that led them to embrace the career – by vocation or by necessity- . Attitudes, thinking and emotions probably differ among these two categories. It would be interesting to try and understand why some teachers develop creatively and constantly feel ‘pedagogical anxiety’, while others soon fall into classroom routines.

    – examining the way teachers make use – or not – of L1 to improve L2 may inform on teachers’ cognitions.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Kamel for sharing your ideas about other perspectives from which teacher cognition could be studied. The topics you highlight are interesting; what I would also want to see (and that is the purpose of the above blog) is a justification for studying such issues. So, for example, why would it be interesting to ‘to try and understand why some teachers develop creatively and constantly feel ‘pedagogical anxiety’, while others soon fall into classroom routines’? I think it is quite easy to find a concrete rationale to support such inquiry and what I am encouraging researchers to do is to be more explicit about the impact that teacher cognition work can have on language education policy and practice.

  3. Mark Wyatt says:

    Dear Simon,

    Thank you for an interesting post. Several other justifications for studying teacher cognition occur to me, and I outline them below.

    1. To understand how organizations work, e.g. in terms of leadership, communication
    2. To understand whether different aspects of the curriculum are aligned, e.g. assessment policy and teaching policy
    3. To question broad cultural assumptions, e.g. regarding conditions in BANA contexts and the use of CLT-influenced pedagogy
    4. To question whether educational policy, e.g. the banning of L1 use in classrooms in many contexts, needs re-examining

    I have discussed these issues in two articles published in the last year:

    Imran, S. & Wyatt, M. (2015). Pakistani university English teachers’ cognitions and classroom practices regarding their use of the learners’ first languages. Asian EFL Journal, 17(1), 138-179. http://asian-efl-journal.com/8758/quarterly-journal/2015/03/volume-17-issue-1-march-2015-quarterly-journal/

    Walsh, R. & Wyatt, M. (2014). Contextual factors, methodological principles and teacher cognition. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(4), 693-718. http://www.ssllt.amu.edu.pl/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=34:vol-4-no-1-march-2014&catid=4:volumes&Itemid=3

    Best wishes,


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