Teachers’ Pedagogical Thinking – What Is It About?

Kansanen, P. (1995).

In C. Stensmo & L. Isberg (Red.), Omsorg och engagemang (pp. 32-45). Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet.


Teacher thinking has rapidly grown into the greatest individual theme in research on teaching and teacher education. After the overview made by Clark and Peterson (1986), this field of research has become differentiated into many subfields and subthemes with various viewpoints and approaches. It seems that American educational psychology has changed its name; all the old concepts and research themes are now found in the field of teacher thinking. The new approach means a completely new perspective on the problems of teaching and teacher education. It is very difficult to speak with the established terminology e.g. with the terms of intelligence, motivation, attitudes, aptitudes and abilities.

It is easy to notice that this change belongs to a broader development in all human sciences. In Kuhnian terms, we may certainly speak of a change of paradigm. We may also see this in the discussion that has been going on in the Educational Researcher, focusing on the differences and similarities in quantitative and qualitative research methods. Quite generally, the research approaches are divided into three different categories. The names of these vary but let us call them the hermeneutic, empiric and critical approaches with many variations (cf. Guba 1990). As usual development brings about a great deal of changes that shift the focus of research policy and possibilities to get money for research projects. As always, there are many misunderstandings and open propaganda without further evidence of the criticism of the older alternatives (cf. Gage 1989, Gage & Needels 1989). In any case, going through the most important journals indicates that this paradigm change has already been realized. The journals are full of action research, interviews, ethnographies, participating observation, interpretative conclusions and many kinds of introspection.

From the perspective of educational psychology and research on teaching (didactics), it is naturally a question of the cognitive approach. With cognitive psychology, the emphasis in these areas has shifted to the problems of thinking with its various forms. Naturally, the role of learning has become central again, but in the field of teaching and teacher education the focus is on teacher thinking and reflection. What we here in the Nordic countries and in Germany call didactics appears in the USA as problems of teacher thinking and as learning. The models of teaching have been research paradigms (Mitzel, Dunkin & Biddle, Shulman) and the viewpoint of the teachers and their work has not been as common as in European didactics (Joyce, Weil & Showers, Anderson & Burns).

The most usual themes deal with such questions that lead to teacher’s conceptions, meanings, intentions, goals and aims. And because the only way into the teacher’s mind is by asking him/her about these things, many kinds of questioning techniques have become popular. Usually the research object is cognitive by nature, and quite often it is in some way related to the other popular area concerning knowledge. Content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, curricular knowledge (Shulman 1987) and their many variations are in the focus of research. In the area of research on teaching, the old process-product paradigm has been totally rejected and replaced by a cognitive-mediative paradigm. But the basic problem remains, intentions and conceptions must be questioned. As of yet, we have no possibilities of going into the teacher’s mind.


One particular point of view is to question how teachers move in their thinking from the descriptive to the normative (Kansanen 1993). This is a very broad perspective but, however, it opens a research line that is totally different from the cognitive mode of questioning. The idea is that when the teacher makes a decision, it is no more a descriptive consideration, but instead it becomes normative at the very moment the decision is made. The teacher may have a thoroughly systematic thinking-basis for his/her decision, but in practice a teacher’s work is constant decision making. There s/he must take stands and evaluate all the time what s/he is doing. It may be unconscious, too, but nevertheless it is normative on some basis. A further interesting question is whose ideas the teacher is realizing during the teaching process.

Why call decision-making pedagogical thinking? In any case, thinking in a pedagogical context is such an extensive area that it must be restricted in some way. It is self-evident that pedagogical thinking means teachers’ thinking when working in the instructional process; it does not mean e.g. teachers’ economic thinking. The pedagogical context is so wide that it is not possible to have all of it in focus at the same time. The particular theme in this context may vary; it may be whatever topic that is interesting from a research point of view. It is important that when the teacher is working s/he cannot avoid thinking, reflecting, pondering or contemplating his/her decisions in some way. What is happening in this process, or how the decisions are made, and especially how they are justified, is of particular interest to us. From the content point of view, this idea offers any number of research aspects. Every aspect of pedagogical content has its own features and is important in its own way, but what is common when the teacher is working with his/her questions is the background thinking or what kind of justification s/he is using.

The next question is how to get to know this kind of teacher thinking. The questioning does not differ from other research on teacher thinking, in principle. There are, however, different kinds of situations and some of these may be more suitable for questioning than others. From the beginning it was clear that there are many alternative ways to approach a teacher’s thinking. Experience taught us quite soon that usual interviews or stimulated recall situations were difficult. At the same time, a very useful research finding appeared revealing that teachers very seldom spoke about justifications or went beyond the action level. They carefully described what they had done, and when asked more questions, they thoughtfully produced more details of this description. Why-questions showed that they had not thought about the things from that point of view.

It became clear that teachers do not use the same terminology as researchers, and the teachers’ answers must be interpreted in the context of their own thinking and not through the language of the research and the researchers. The early results suggested that teachers do not have a theoretical side that guides their work. A closer look at this problem showed, however, that the way of explicating ideas during this interview interaction or questioning in general may be different than the respective language of the researchers, and it may contain much theoretical background-thinking in its own right (Kansanen 1981).

Gary Fenstermacher (1994) analyzes thoroughly the nature of knowledge in teacher research and he takes up the many sides of knowledge as a concept and as an application in the research into teaching. What we are looking for, however, is not this kind of justification but decisions that are partly made based on this knowledge, mainly with normative premises consisting of the values, aims and goals behind the practical solutions. In this way the teacher’s attention is also directed towards the curriculum, where the value basis of teaching is to be found. It is impossible for the teacher to break the boundaries of the curriculum; his/her work always takes place in the context of the curriculum. In his recent article, Fritz Oser (1994) said quite exactly what we try to stress with pedagogical thinking and with its normativity:

“…I believe that any single teaching act undertaken in the classroom or in any teaching setting has a moral core. The unit of analysis is the decision a teacher makes to help students learn, communicate, share, reflect, evaluate, and so forth. Teaching responsibility is a moral motivation concerning any concrete teaching act.” (Oser 1994, 59)

It is our conception that the very point of decision-making turns the descriptive thinking towards the normative side; and in addition to the knowledge basis, many other factors have an influence on this process. Richard Shavelson emphasized this same point, asking in his article (1973): “What is the basic teaching skill?”. His answer to this question was decision-making, and especially decision-making during the actual teaching process. It shows the important and central role of decision-making in the teaching process, though the moral point of view was not the essential idea in his text.

In our model of teachers’ pedagogical thinking when analyzing the aspect of purposiveness, the two-sided background concerning values in the instructional process was brought out (Kansanen 1993, 56-59). The deontological aspect and the teleological aspect, that is in everyday language purposes and consequences, were combined in spite of the fact that both of them had an important independent place in the model. Oser has analyzed this relationship further quite extensively and he uses the expressions “responsible” and “effective teaching” in this respect (Oser 1994). He builds a hierarchy describing this relationship using four levels: the interpretative, additive, complementary and correlational or regulative. He also shows with examples how this hierarchy functions with increasing mutuality and better knowledge, as we proceed from the first level to the higher ones. He looks at this totality and claims that “…a theory of professional responsibility must explain why (according to the regulative model) and how effectiveness and morality influence each other and can be taken into consideration at the same time.” (Oser 1994, 64).

The basic idea in our model of a teacher’s pedagogical thinking is just this point, namely combining the deontological aspect with the teleological aspect with the intent of paying attention to the teacher’s conscious understanding of the totality of the instructional process. However, there may be different degrees of this consciousness (Kansanen 1993, 56-59). It seems that Oser has analyzed this aspect further and presents in his four levels of responsibility a total of 10 different conceptual forms in the context of professional morality (Oser 1994, 69-108). They run from the positivistic view to the discourse view and, as said, in a hierarchical order.

Purposiveness in the teacher’s pedagogical thinking is supposed to indicate how deeply the teacher has become acquainted with the purposes, aims and goals given in the curriculum. However, mere knowledge of these value aspects is not enough; they must be accepted and finally internalized if they are to be used as a moral background in the teacher’s thinking. This means commitment and loyalty to the curriculum and to those who have power over the curriculum; and it is thus, at the same time, a threat to the autonomy in a teacher’s work. This short analysis is aimed to show that the critical aspect is of utmost importance in the pedagogical thinking, so that the teacher does not loose his individuality and personal approach in the instructional process. Commitment brings the idea quite close to Oser’s dimensions of the teacher’s ethos model (Oser 1991, 201-202), where responsibility is explained with the equilibrium between justice, care and truthfulness. The viewpoint in Oser’s consideration, however, is professional morality. We try to analyze these aspects using pedagogical language wherever it is possible.


The idea of how teachers reflect during their work is an old one and, especially in the German pedagogical literature, this theme is examined quite a lot. The German Didaktik is characterized by theoretical viewpoints concerning the ethical aspect in the educational process, where the teacher is in a central position. This also comes out in the making of the curriculum, where the philosophical background with value problems is carefully thought about. The essential core of education is philosophical thinking, that in the pedagogical context is called didactical thinking, didaktisches Denken. This theme also has a long tradition in the Finnish educational literature. There are, however, great difficulties to translate this term into English; and that is why it is called pedagogical thinking rather than didactical thinking. In school pedagogy the meaning of both terms is quite the same, but when writing in German we would prefer using didaktisches Denken.

In spite of a large repertoire of possible research methods to find out what teachers think, it was difficult to determine how to explore a teacher’s mind, particularly in this context. In principle, any theme can bring out how teachers justify their decisions. Our interest, however, was not to analyze the content side of this thinking, when for example punishing, grading or selecting pupils for groupwork would have been suitable for this purpose. It is rather the system and organization of the teacher’s theoretical thinking that is of interest for us. Quite soon we noticed that teachers did not provide any justifications if not especially asked for. That created a very awkward problem because we did not want to influence or give any hints about what we were striving for with our questions. If the teachers were asked about using punishments and then were asked why they were doing as they did, they would give answers that would be relevant to the content and situation. But the answers very little about their theoretical justifications concerning the value system behind their decisions.

We came to the conclusion that we must somehow ask what teachers think about teaching and about the instructional process in general, but in such a practical context that justification would seem to be natural. That is why the idea of using as empirically-based guidelines, advice and recipes given by supervisors during the student-teaching program seemed an appropriate method to extract just this kind of decision-making. It was very easy to extend this method to ordinary teachers and student teachers (Jyrhämä 1994). The starting point was a text by Hilbert Meyer (1980, 27-55) and research conducted in the context of teaching receptology – Rezeptologie (Mitzschke, Rijpkema, Wierdsma & Winter 1984; Alfs, Wagener, Wierdsma & Wilbers 1985).

It is interesting to note that the supervisors first said that they did not give direct advice or recipes, but our empirical studies have shown quite clearly that it is very common to give recipes and it is equally clear that the student-teachers ask for them. We must emphasize that the recipes as such are not important, but the idea that we can get into teachers’ head with the help of recipes is important. Knowing which kinds of recipes the supervisors are using opens the way to the background of these recipes and they offer the content basis of questions and discussion where the justification and implicit theories can take place. This idea can be transformed to the context of schoolteachers, students and pupils and in that way we hope to gain knowledge of a teacher’s pedagogical thinking and of the value-basis in decision making in the instructional process in general.

For the time being we have gathered over 500 hundred recipes from the German educational literature and have used them in questionnaires of these. During the first phase of the project it is our intention to analyze these recipes and get further categories that may serve as a basic body of content that we may use in our deep interviews. We have also, through direct questions, asked what kind of advice or recipes has given during the supervising process. We want to examine their analyses to determine how the answers provided in the questionnaires match with those categories we obtained in the interviews. We also have material from German teachers (Oldenburg) for an international comparison. In the second phase of the project we concentrate on the teacher’s pedagogical thinking where the purposiveness with its justification is focused on.

Advice and recipes are naturally not the only way to get to know how teachers think and make decisions. Calderhead and Robson (1991) applied the concept of “image” when they asked student-teachers what kind of knowledge they had of teaching and learning at the beginning of their studies. It seems that Calderhead and Robson used the term “image” as help in their interviews and to support its use they also mentioned the affective component with particular feelings and attitudes (1991, 3). They claimed that the concept of image was useful in describing knowledge about teaching and in “…synthesizing quite large amounts of knowledge about teachers, children, teaching methods and so on” (1991, 7).

Carter and Gonzalez use another method, namely the idea of well remembered events. With that they mean “an incident or episode a teacher observes or experiences in school situation and considers, for his own reasons, especially salient or memorable” (1993, 223). The writers postulate that, through such events, it is possible to gain insight into a teacher’s knowledge and as a means to this they analyze how teachers interpret the events they choose as important. With the analyses of two student-teachers’ interviews, the conclusion was that “well remembered events are a useful strategy for gaining access to student teacher’s classroom knowledge” (1993, 231). It is easy to agree with the writers, the well remembered events are wide enough as a theme; and their content focuses on the general aspects of teaching so that the questions about the justifications behind their motives are quite easy to determine.

A third example is taken from a study made by Jim Mitchell (1994). In spite of using a seemingly narrow teaching skill, “questioning” as an interview focus, he succeeded in getting to know the more general aspects of a teacher’s implicit theory. Even though the concrete results indicated that “each teacher’s implicit theory in relation to questioning is a unique, idiosyncratic, dynamic, incomplete and relatively general representation of the teacher’s views on this skill at a particular point of time” (1994, 82) it is very easy to notice how the questions serve as a means to obtain information about a teacher’s thinking in general. The teachers’ statements could have been classified as “aims, beliefs, goals, expectations, values, conceptions, images, metaphors, rules, principles, and models of practice” (1994, 71) as Mitchell comments when referring to the previous literature on teachers’ implicit theories. The same may be seen in the text by Marland and Osborne (1990, 96), where they refer to such elements of teachers’ theories of action as beliefs, goals, conceptions, images, metaphors, rules, principles and dilemmas. All of these have also been used in earlier reports.


Decision-making is generally selecting between different alternatives. The selecting itself is conscious, but the level of consciousness may differ from clearly motivated decisions to almost unconscious selection. It is common to present behind this selection process some kind of personal belief system, as Kindsvatter, Wilen and Ishler (1992, 1-19) express it. This personal belief system may also be conscious or unconscious, or more generally partly conscious. Kindsvatter, Wilen and Ishler divide the system into two bases, the intuitive and the rational. Our thinking follows these same lines. The details of this system, however, may be interpreted in many ways. The personal belief system is thought to be behind the decisions; many times it is thought to be hierarchical by nature. The intuitive bases and rational bases may be independent from each other; however, some kind of interaction is more plausible. The intuitive means one’s own experiences; it may be founded on personal needs or tradition.

Rational bases include pedagogical principles, research findings, scholarly contributions and examined practice. It may quite easily be widened to a more detailed structure where there is interaction between the bases, and the reasons given consist of common elements from both the intuitive and rational bases.

Some examples show the nature of these justifications. If we take authority as a possible base for giving reasons for decision-making, we can easily count numerous indications of authority. If the teacher bases his/her decision on some kind of authority, it may be intuitive or rational or both. There may be many categories of authority, but it is essential that the teacher openly believes and does as his/her authority implies. This authority may be a colleague or some background group (teachers’ association, teacher-parents association, etc.), some university professor or a priest. It may be some administrative department or the Board of Education. Some model or ideal may serve as an authority. Further, a textbook or a school of thinking, an ideology or some other normative system may function as an authoritative basis in decision-making. On the other hand, the analysis of this decision-making may be based on content categories or classifications in various disciplines as education, psychology, sociology or epistemology. It is important to produce a system with concepts that reflect teachers’ ways of looking at instructional matters in appropriate and coherent terms. What is difficult is to find an insider viewpoint into a teacher’s thinking, the language of research; and the researcher is but an intermediate stage.

A popular way to describe the various aspects in a teacher’s implicit theory or personal belief system is to look at it from various levels. Although it is questionable whether the different aspects or factors really build a hierarchy or are in a hierarchical relation to each other, it is in any case a clear way to analyze them.

Pedagogical level thinking

Figure 1. Pedagogical level thinking

In figure 1 the pedagogical level thinking is presented. In describing this quite common way of looking at the relation between the various factors, the idea of Eckard König (1975, 26-31) is utilized. König speaks of object theories and metatheories. Object theories examine practice on the action level and one may build models and totalities of the phenomenon in question. In principle, it is possible to build many kinds of object theories depending on the aspect under consideration. Important, however, is that these possible object theories may in turn be examined and a potential totality, metatheory, may be built on these. König calls an object theory a theory of educational practice, and a metatheory, a theory of education, a discipline.This idea is also applied by Erhard Guhl and Ernst H. Ott (1985, 25-31) and they use Paul Heimann’s didactic theory (Berliner Didaktik) as a starting point when considering the instructional content. The instructional process is the basic level that is here called the action level, according to their terminology. On the action level the instructional process proceeds in cycles following each other and consisting of preinteraction, interaction and postinteraction. A structural analysis is done on the first thinking level, where the concepts developed are analyzed and their mutual relationship is established. The second thinking level builds the frames for a potential metatheory, where the object theories are combined or analyzed with the intention to build a new and more abstract totality (cf. Kansanen 1993).Jukka Husu (in press) has developed this idea by using the classical didactic triangle, in addition to the basic elements of the model. His main interest is the teacher’s professional development. In this context he uses the apparent hierarchical way of analyzing the relations in the instructional process that he presents as a teaching-studying-learning process, according to the terminology used here (Kansanen 1993, 54-56).

Teachers' pedagogical mind set (Husu)

Figure 2. Teachers’ pedagogical mind set (Husu)

Husu calls the action level a practical perspective; its position is of first order in this model and it is descriptive by nature. Going further in the model leads to the epistemological perspective, where the activity is informative by nature. The level of third order is the ethical perspective, where justification comes into question. At the same time – during a long period – deconstruction is taking place, which means that the teacher may gradually free him/herself from his/her concrete thinking; “role over person” changes to a position where “person over role” becomes predominant. In this phase, the teacher’s professional development has already gone quite far.

The important message in these figures is that they direct our attention to the complexity of the instructional process, with its possible levels and perspectives. It is really difficult to try to define some concepts and to do research with the help of these. This may be possible on the action level, where the examination is concrete and the situation specific. Quite soon the whole system will be analyzed when we move to more abstract levels of thinking; and then we need conceptions of understanding of the whole totality of the instructional process with all the theoretical assumptions behind it. In any case, we need some way and thus a method to enter the teacher’s mind and the selection of this method will be quite decisive as regards the results we get from the studies. Activity means something; in a teacher’s pedagogical thinking we try to find out, by means of justifications, what the meaning of this activity is.



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