teacher thinking and teacher doing


November 11, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

Although I’m not in favor of dichotomies, and also bearing in mind that I don’t think this is going to be one, I will isolate cognition from behaviour to try to make a point here.

First things first, my claim is that (and nothing groundbreaking about it):

Cognitive change and behavioural change don’t necessarily imply one another.

In other words, changing the way you do something may not change the way you think about it. Conversely, changing how you think about something doesn’t necessarily change how you do it.

Among teachers, a common example could be:

I think teaching with authentic materials and student-generated content is more enjoyable and conducive to learning.

I do, however, teach with coursebooks most of the time, to fulfill curricular demands.

That difference being clearer now, the question is: In teacher training and development which area of change is given more importance?

Granted that the ideal answer is both. But that is not always the case in practice.

Taking a look at some best-selling TEFL courses, we can see an instructional approach that is driven more towards the reproduction of techniques than of sense-making of why we actually teach this or that way. Being able to do/perform/deliver something is more important than the ability to reflect on it.

But even in more advanced courses, like an MA for example, the usual criteria against which teachers are measured are based on the competencies they can display, commonly in the form of can do statements. Again focusing on behaviour.

Of course these courses expect and encourage teachers to engage in reflective practice, and of course without cognitive work no-one would ever pass any course. However, since it’s incredibly more difficult to evaluate thinking (in fact, I’m not sure if it’s even possible), the focus on doing is justifiable. The outcome may be a bit iffy though, since it’s pretty easy to cheat, i.e. to do what you’re expected to do instead of what you believe to be the best thing to do.

There is no doubt reflective practice has been given increasing importance in teacher education in general, for example with action research and personal journals gaining more validity in research methods. In TEFL training as well; see for example the following criteria from the Cambridge CELTA.

Assignment 2.4 Lessons from the classroom

The design of the assignment to include:

  • candidates’ identification of their own teaching strengths and development needs
  • reflections on their own teaching
  • reflections on the implications for their own teaching from the observations of experienced ELT professionals and colleagues on the course

(Cambridge English: CELTA Syllabus and Assessment Guidelines 3rd edition, 2011)


Whereas it is believed self-reflection enhances teacher learning, trainers and trainees may have different perceptions of its affordance. As can be seen in the Cambridge CELTA specification above, the notion of ‘reflection’ serves both as mediational means for teacher learning and as an assessment tool to pass the course. Therefore, whereas trainers may wish to develop trainee’s independent reasoning, trainees themselves may be more concerned about passing the course and base their responses on what they judge to be the trainer’s favorite way of thinking. The opposite can also happen, that is, with the trainer focusing primarily on ticking boxes while the trainee is looking for a personalized form of mentorship.


Moving on to less prescriptive developmental opportunities, like in-service CPD, peer observation, etc; it is still visible the prominence given to doing. It is important to understand that the same behaviour coming from two teachers don’t emerge from the same cognition. So when attempting to change a certain common behaviour displayed across staff, it is important to understand that the people involved might be displaying the same behaviour for different reasons. And as complicatedly, when trying to motivate a new mindset among teachers, we need to be prepared to different behavioral changes.

In sum, expecting a linear relation between behaviour and cognition is plain wrong!

On the part of the teacher, as an individual working within certain social, cultural and political boundaries, there is the potentially worrisome risk of facing discrepancies between one’s beliefs and actions.

In other words [after the wordiness of  the previous sentence]: The bigger the gap between thinking and doing, the bigger the dissatisfaction.

Personally, I’ve made decreasing the gap between what I believe and what I do one of the main goals of my professional development as a teacher. But I would say that in order to do that well I needed to dedicate considerable time talking to myself and to others about how I think, my beliefs and values about teaching and learning, etc. I needed to expose myself in order to develop (e.g. through blogging and conferencing); only by being exposed could I be criticised, and in turn able to co-construct my teaching self in a less isolated manner.

Also, I needed to increase my awareness, when teaching, of when my thinking and doing were contradictory. And when aware of that, as a consequence, I needed to make a decision of whether I would consciously do the ‘wrong’ thing.

It seems that this is where most frustrations come from; when you know you can do better, sometimes you even know how, but you simply don’t (for example when your paycheck is so lame that you have little motivation to be a great teacher) .

Back to developmental opportunities, I totally acknowledge the value of giving teachers practical ideas they can immediately use in the classroom, something I’ve always given and taken. But not to be forgotten is the creation of those opportunities which make one think and rethink; and appreciate those ideas that disturb. The question now is how to better create those opportunities and how to evaluate whether they make a difference or not.


10 thoughts on “teacher thinking and teacher doing

  1. Mike says:

    Awesome that you are reflecting on this. IMO people will do what they want to do. In school we fear kids into doing, regurgitating info, or pretending to think as we want them to. The trick is in pulling the genius out of them. Through question, dissonance, and challenge we must help them find their own way. Their own truth- which may be different than the truth you wanted them to find. Just as your pay check will never motivate you (High or low), grades will never motivate students to truly want to grow as humans as thinkers as contributors.
    How to evaluate in a schooling sense? That is for the adults not for the students. How to evaluate if they are going where you want them to go? That is for you.
    The questions you ask, the feedback you offer so students can find their own way- that is for the students. The grade you put down on a piece of paper- that is for the game of school.

    • Well said, Mike.
      I like the pay check/grades analogy. Everyone will react differently to grades, won’t they? That reminded me of when I was about 15, and in my school we needed a minimum total of 24 points out of 40 to pass each subject in the academic year, so a couple of times I got 18 in the first half of the year, and then guess what? I wouldn’t be bothered to keep on studying hard, and then would get just enough to pass, 6, which means two 3 scores out of 10 in two exams. In the end, I “knew” very well what went on in the first semester and only about 30-40% of the second. Other students, of course, did well all year long, others didn’t. To be honest, grading and evaluation were the least relevant factor in our success or failure.

  2. Kathy says:

    Thanks for bringing up the topic of thinking/doing! I don’t think I will ever completely match my idealized view in the classroom. No matter what, I can always find something that could maybe have been more effective, if only I’d known! That learning can loop back and affect my idealized view. So, my thinking is always changing based on what really happens, and what really happens is never the same thing from lesson to lesson. It never ends …

    We’re about to make some changes in our program (new requirements from those on high) and I’m fearing a widening of the gap. But working toward closing that gap is an opportunity for my development … Thanks for the frame shift!

    • Hi Kathy
      I think someone who truly reflects on their work will never completely close the gap between the ideal and the real. Like you said, it’s a feedback loop. In teaching, unlike videogames, there isn’t a final level you can complete. We can take this never-ending trying to become a better teacher against our institutional constraints as a burden/struggle, or as part of the job, which would mean trying to play within the rules yet finding space for creativity and joy. A bit like football/soccer, the rules are pretty clear and have been the same for decades, nonetheless we are still surprised by how amazing some players can be.

  3. Rose Bard says:

    I am following you blog with much interest since I have discovered it and trying to catch up with your blogposts… but it seems like I will need my all summer vacation to do that. Anyway, your post points out why it has been so difficult and frustrating for me in the past couple of years – the gap between the way I think with what I am doing. More or less, the reflection time extends more than I can afford in such circunstances and my frustration just increases and I am striving to find the in-between balance. I found also interesting how you put the fact of exposuring ourselves can help. That is what I am trying to do also. I have always been afraid to write about my classroom experience and ideas, eventhough I have extensively participated in online communities of art and developed my painting skills, among other skills through those communities. Your post totally makes sense to me. Tks.

    • Wow, thank you very much for your kind words. I’m happy to know that sometimes the archive gets read, the downside of blogging is that it seems so ephemeral, but you won’t need to go back much, my earlier blogposts are pretty rubbish.

      Yes, Rose, you mentioned something I forgot to say in the main post. That “over-reflection” can happen and that at least in my experience it’s not that great when it does, mainly because, as you said, we seem to find an area of improvement in every single thing we look at. It’s true that there will always be stuff to improve, but if we’re over-reflecting we might just get too dissatisfied and not have the right kind of motivation to change where it matters. See my response to Kathy below where I talk about constraints.

      I’ve just read your first blogpost and really liked it. Keep it up!

  4. Tony Gurr says:


    Great bit of reflection on your part – so happy you did this type of post.

    I’ve often said that many of our teacher learning opportunities (both pre- and in-service) are more about creating “doers” – rather than “thinkers” (even better – “thinking doers”). As you say “more towards the reproduction of techniques than of sense-making of why we actually teach this or that way”.

    While it’s true that we need to “do” stuff with what we know, good teaching (really good teaching) is also about how we improve what we do with what we know (and learn) – and we really have to look at how the gap between “thinking” and “doing” impacts student learning. However, sometimes the gap you mention (between thinking and doing) is not the real problem – the gap between what we “say” we do and what we actually “do” is the real killer. This is especially the case when institutions pay lip-service to an “idea” – and teachers have to do business in institutions like this.

    Over the years, I have met a large number of institutions and teachers who claim to “believe” in this approach or that method – but when we take a closer look at how they actually “do” business, there is a huge gap. When we dig a little deeper, and look into how these institutions and teachers “learned” the stuff they “believe” in, we see it is often the product of “surface learning” itself – an idea from this book, an approach they heard about at a conference, something they heard from so-and-so lecturer (one committed “constructivist” told me she had learned her craft from her undergrad ELT professor – from a series of lectures – but still kept her students in rows and handed out endless exercises photocopied from grammar books). If our own learning is driven by such surface approaches, the conseqences on “practice” are pretty self-evident.

    We often hear that the teacher learning opportunities we create for teachers have to be “practical” (things a teacher can take into the classroom on Monday morning) or “entertaining” (otherwise they might not want to come to a given “event”) and “bite-sized” (easily-digestible or manageable) – if these are the “design principles” for teacher learning opportunities, no wonder we are having trouble. The problem is, of course, whether these criteria have been produced by what we think teachers “want” or “need” – or what they actually want or need.


    • Tony,
      This is great! I’ll use bits of your comment in an upcoming talk, if you don’t mind, I’ll attribute don’t worry 🙂

      Yeah, don’t even get me started on the what businesses say and do. I’ve seen for example schools in Brazil advertising “We use the Lexical Approach”, which (come on!) it’s clearly unreal, no-one can offer a whole course (3-4 years) just using the lexical approach, and even if they can, I bet it’s not a very good one.

      There are many similarities though between: learner-centered approach, client-centered therapy, and customer-oriented business. I’m yet to write a proper something about it.

      Regarding your last sentence – we/they “want” or “need” – I think one thing feeds back the other, it’s a reproduction system that works mainly for economic and economical purposes. A bit like, ‘With only this little you’ll pay me to qualify you, and with only this little I’ll equip you to teach, you can go to China and find work’. A bit tongue in cheek, but there’s some truth in it.

      • Tony Gurr says:

        Cheers Willy,

        Feel “free”…there was no pun intended there (if you are, like me, a movie buff) 😉

        …and, don’t get me started on the one-shot “miracle workshop” idea…or the co-opting of institutional PD programmes by publishers 😉 The suggestion that TEACHers can LEARN…from a “big name” that flies in for an hour (on a book or PR tour)…drives me up the bloody wall!

        But, what’s worse is when publishers hire so-called “local talent” (at pay rates that would embarrass McDondald’s) to “flog their wares”…with a “laugh n’ giggle session”!

        Have we really sunk so low?

        Time to “take back” our LEARNing….

        Keep up the good fight, my man!


  5. Nathan Price says:

    Willy, I just stumbled on your site and I really like what I’ve read so far. I agree with your idea that we need to get out more, share ideas more and go to conferences more often. Teaching can be a solitary affair, where one locks themselves inside their classroom and never exposes themselves to other forms and methods of teaching.

    One practice that has helped align what I believe with what I do is evaluating each lesson after I teach. I have a dedicated space on my lesson plans for evaluations. If fill this in after class lets out, I can often find discrepancies between the belief / doing dichotomy. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget to do this (ha, one example of paying lip service to something and not doing it), but honestly, I feel this has been the most effective way of helping me improve.

    Video taping myself has also been an eye-opener. The first time I watched one of my teaching videos, I was very surprised to see a person who looked like me but who taught nothing like how I believed I was teaching. Now I video tape my classes a couple times a semester to make sure my beliefs about how I teach and the reality match up.

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