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Archived Content from Conference Held in May 2011 

Building on our Strengths:
Second International Conference on Language Teacher Education


Summary of Presentation:
"Towards Linking Teacher Knowledge And Student Learning"

Karen E. Johnson, The Pennsylvania State University & Donald Freeman, Center for Teacher Education,
Training, and Research School for International Training · May 18, 2001

The link we ascribe between what teachers know and what, through their teaching, their students come to know and be able to do is arguably the most fundamental relationship in education. This basic equation that relates teaching to learning lies at the heart of how schools have come to be organized as well as how they should be reformed. The constant retooling of school structures and curricula over the last two centuries (e.g. Tyack and Cuban, 1995) has sought to improve the core relationship. Accompanying these on-going cycles of reform in the public arena, policy-makers have sought to manage the relationship through attention to the quality of teachers as evidenced by the current panacea of mandated teacher testing. Similarly in the area of teacher education, professional development has focused increasingly on the 'results' that teachers are to achieve in student learning through the prescribed interventions (c.f. NFIE 1996).

Perhaps because these regulatory moves have been largely ineffective in the long run, the processes of teacher learning have been taken as a critical variable in educational improvement. Thus there has been increasing attention as well as resources put towards the induction of new teachers through mentoring and other support programs. Likewise the efficacy of professional development programs has come under more scrutiny (NCTAF 1996). All of these concerns rest, however, on basic assumptions about how teacher learning relates to student learning.

This paper examines this central relationship between teacher learning and student learning and argues for the need to make visible how professional development that focuses for teachers on thinking carefully about teaching can shape in complex ways what and how students learn. To make our case, we begin by framing the ways in which teacher learning has been related to student learning over the past five decades. Moving from a process-product view that posits a quasi-causal relationship (Dunkin & Biddle 1974), to a cognitive view that argues for a relationship of decisonmaking and influence (Shavelson & Stern 1981), we examine how this central linkage has been recast to better account for the complexities of both teaching and learning. We then move to a socio-cultural view, based in activity theory (Cole, Engestrom, and Vasquez 1997), to suggest how 'tools' can connect the activity of teacher learning, in teacher education professional development, with student learning in classrooms. After Vygotsky (1981) and other sociocultural theorists (Engestrom, Miettinen, & Punamaki 1999; Wertsch 1991; Leont'ev 1981), we have defined tools, both as physical and conceptual. They can range from materials and ways of organizing classroom activities to ways of thinking about what goes on in those activities. Often, in fact, as the extended analysis in this paper will show, it is the conceptual tool that changes the definition and use of the physical tool, thus reshaping classroom activity.

To illustrate this conceptualization, we draw from research underway in the Teacher Knowledge Project, based at the Center for Teacher Education, Training, and Research at the School for International Training (www.sit.edu/tkp). The Teacher Knowledge Project provides reflective professional development for elementary and secondary schoolteachers (P-12) both locally in Windham County and throughout the state of Vermont. Recently, the Project has begun to work nationally, beginning with the San Francisco Unified School District, as well. The core activity of the Project offers seminars in inquiry, mentoring, and new teacher support in which participating teachers hone their abilities to describe and analyze aspects of student learning in their classrooms using a Deweyan framework of reflective description and analysis of classroom practices.

To examine how these reflective practices influence participants' teaching and their students' learning, the Project has evolved a conceptual framework which looks at the practices of both teachers and students through the sociocultural lens mentioned above in terms of the tools that are used to mediate and connect both teachers' and students' learning. In this paper, we use the framework to elaborate, through an extended discussion, how one tool shifts in its use in the work of one high school French teacher in the Project.

In closing, the paper outlines a group of principles based on the conceptual work in the Project. We believe that these principles can serve as in the design and evaluation of pre-service and in-service teacher education activities and programs, as well as in further research in this important area.



Cole, M., Y. Engestrom, and O. Vasquez. (eds). 1997. Mind, culture, and activity: Seminal papers from the laboratory of comparative human cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dunkin, M. and Biddle, B. (1974) The study of teaching. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Engestrom, Y., R. Miettinen, and R-L Punamaki. (eds). 1999. Perspectives on activity theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF). 1996. 'What matters most': Teaching for America's future. Washington DC: Author.

National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE), 1996. Teachers take charge of their learning: Transforming professional development for student success. Washington DC: Author.

Shavelson, R. J. and Stern, P. 1981. "Research on teachers pedagogical judgments, decisions, and behavior." Review of Educational Research, 51, 455 498.

Tyack, D. and L. Cuban. 1995. Tinkering towards utopia: Perspectives on public school reform. Cambridge MA:Harvard University Press.

Leont'ev, A. N. 1981. "The problem of activity in psychology." In J.V. Wertsch (ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1981. "The genesis of higher mental functions." In J.V. Wertsch (ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Wertsch, J.V. 1991. Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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