* Teacher Cognition


What do teachers actually think they’re doing when they teach? Teacher cognition is a hot topic these days, and it seems to be ushering in a new area of interesting study. My attention to this was re-awakened by a thread on an MA discussion forum devoted to Teacher Education which I moderate. My thanks to Louise Ingham and Theodora Koutoukis for their contributions to what follows.

Teacher cognition research investigates the thought processes of teachers, and thus represents a shift in focus away from searching for better ways to train teachers and towards trying to understand how teachers learn to teach by examining their self-awareness and reflections on what they do. As Louise points out, way back in 1988 Lave commented “There is a growing sense that language teacher education programs have failed to prepare teachers for the realities of the classroom. As a result, efforts are being made to transform teaching through a focus on situated teacher cognition and practice”.

Professor Simon Borg is a leading figure in the resurgance of interest in teacher cognition. In an article which can be accessed from his web page, Borg says that:

“Teacher cognition research is concerned with understanding what teachers think, know and believe. Its primary concern, therefore, lies with the unobservable dimension of teaching – teachers’ mental lives”.

Borg suggests that key questions addressed in teacher cognition research include the following:

• what do teachers have cognitions about?
• how do these cognitions develop?
• how do they interact with teacher learning?
• how do they interact with classroom practice?

Borg summarises what is generally accepted today about the nature of teacher cognition and its relationship to what teachers do:

* teachers’ cognitions can be powerfully influenced by their own experiences as learners;
* these cognitions influence what and how teachers learn during teacher education;
* they act as a filter through which teachers interpret new information and experience;
* they may outweigh the effects of teacher education in influencing what teachers do in the classroom;
* they can be deep-rooted and resistant to change;
* they can exert a persistent long-term influence on teachers’ instructional practices;
* they are, at the same time, not always reflected in what teachers do in the classroom.
* they interact bi-directionally with experience (i.e. beliefs influence practices but practices can also lead to changes in beliefs).

What is most noteworthy about all this is the first claim that “teachers’ cognitions can be powerfully influenced by their own experiences as learners”. This is the central plank in Borg’s on-going investigation of teacher cognition and deserves our close attention. Related to this is the claim that teacher cognition is formed over a 12 year period which Lortie (1975) describes as the ‘apprenticeship of observation’, where future teachers as students at primary and secondary school observe their own teachers and form beliefs about what a good teacher should be. The suggestion that we as teachers are in some way haunted by our educational history, that our conscious, well-articulated “beliefs” about how to teach might be at odds with sub-conscious, residual memories and feelings about “good” and “bad” teaching and teachers, is very powerful indeed.

Borg claims that it was not until the mid-1990s that the study of L2 teacher cognition was established as an important area of activity. He says: “Freeman & Richards (1996) can be seen as a key early publication which highlighted the value of understanding language teaching by examining the mental side of teachers’ work; the same year also saw the publication of Woods (1996), a book length study of teacher cognition; while this text was not as influential as that previously mentioned, by having ‘teacher cognition’ in its title it did bring this term to the wider attention of L2 researchers.
From the mid-1990s onwards there was a rapid and steady increase in the volume of research examining various aspects of what L2 teachers know, believe and think and of the relationships of these constructs to what teachers do. Borg (2003) reviewed 64 such studies while Borg (2006) examined close to 200 (though studies of L1 education contexts were also included in the latter review); at least 30 more had appeared by late 2008”.

Among Borg’s (2003) summary of findings about teacher education, I think these are particularly interesting:

“1. The notions of variable outcomes and individual developmental pathways seem central to an understanding of the impact of teacher education on language teacher cognition. Individual trainees make sense of and are affected by training programmes in different and unique ways.
2. The distinction between behavioural change and cognitive change during or as a result of teacher education, and of the relationships between the two, is key to continuing research on this topic. …Behavioural change does not imply cognitive change, and the latter …. does not guarantee changes in behaviour either”.

Borg here emphasises the importance for teacher training of probing how trainee teachers think, of how they mentally represent the good teacher they want to be. Thus, a training programme which concentrates on behaviour, on classroom methodology, on, if you like, a bag of tricks, is unlikely to affect change.

As for teacher cognition in general, here are a few points that Borg makes:

“1. Decision-making is the most researched aspect of language teacher cognition. Studies have approached this issue from various perspectives … More research, though, into the less immediate factors behind language teachers’ decisions – e.g., prior learning and professional experience − is required. Such work, drawing on notions such as personal practical knowledge, would contribute to a more holistic understanding of language teachers’ practices and cognitions.
3. …In some of the studies above, little reference is made to the contextual factors which may have facilitated or hindered the kinds of decisions teachers were able to make. … . In particular, the extent to which teachers have to follow a set curriculum (as in the studies of Hong Kong teachers) or are free to develop their own courses (as in the studies by Bailey and Woods, for example) seems to be crucial in understanding the decisions language teachers make.
6. Most current research highlights the idiosyncratic nature of language teachers’ cognitions and practices. While continued attention to the study of individual cases will remain central to this field, the search for patterns of cognitions and patterns amongst groups of teachers working in similar contexts is another direction for further research.
7. None of the research reviewed here attempts to explore relationships between cognitions, practices, and learning outcomes. The lack of attention to learning has probably been a reaction to the process-product models of research on effective teaching which dominated the literature for many years; in these studies, learning outcomes were all that mattered, and the teachers’ active role in shaping what happened in the classroom was ignored. Now that teacher cognition research is well established, though, it is time to consider how what language teachers think, know, and do, relates to learning”.

Again, Borg is interested in exploring the mental life of teachers and emphasising the need to understand what lies behind teaching practice.

Well, I’ve done no more than scratch the surface. Louise recommends the following powerpoint presentation by Borg as an easy introduction to all this, the focus here being on teaching young learners.


One of the slides gives these characteristics of a good teacher, taken from data got from teacher trainers:

• creative
• sense of humour
• flexible
• ‘actor’ type
• motivating
• enthusiastic
• communicate freely
• radiate positive feeling

Interestingly, but only anecdotally, none of the teachers I’ve been talking to agrees with this list.


Borg, S. CV. http://www.education.leeds.ac.uk/people/academic/borg/
Borg, S. (2003) Teacher cognition in language teaching: a review of research on what language teachers think, know, believe, and do. Language Teaching, 36 (1), pp. 81-109.
Borg, S. (2006) Teacher cognition and language education: research and practice. London: Continuum.
Borg, S. (2011) Language Teacher Education. In: Simpson, J. The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge. p.215-227.
Freeman, D. and Richards, J.C. (eds.) (1996) Teacher Learning in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, L A. (2005) Teachers and content area reading: Attitudes, beliefs and change. Teacher and Teacher Education, 2, 403-414
Hobbs, V. (2007) A brief look at the current goals and outcomes of short-term ELT teacher education. Research Notes 19, 7-11.
Lave, J. (1988) Cognition in practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lortie, D. (1975) Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
Richards, C.J. (1998) Beyond Training. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Shavelson, R. J. & Stern, P. (1981) Research on teachers’ pedagogical thoughts, judgments, decisions and behaviour. Review of Educational Research 51 (4): 455 – 498.

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