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How We Think: A Theory of Goal-Oriented Decision-Making and its Educational Application

reviewed by Scott Thompson - July 06, 2012

coverTitle: How We Think: A Theory of Goal-Oriented Decision-Making and its Educational Application
Author(s): Alan H. Schoenfeld
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415878659, Pages: 264, Year: 2010
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In How We Think: A Theory of Goal-Oriented Decision-Making and its Educational Applications, Alan Schoenfeld elaborates a theoretical model for in-the-moment decisions made by teachers in the act of teaching. Teachers of course make dozens upon dozens of decisions in class, and these decisions have a shaping influence on the teaching and learning that take place. The author illustrates the applicability of the model to other goal-oriented activities and professions, such as the practice of medicine, but for the purposes of this book his primary interest is in the model’s application to instructional practice.

The book is organized into three sections.  Part I introduces the theoretical model, which posits that decisions made about which goals to pursue and how to pursue them during goal-oriented activities, such as teaching, are based on the current resources, conscious or unconscious aims, and orientations (beliefs, values, biases, and dispositions) that the decision maker brings to the activity.  Schoenfeld’s model accounts not only for “big” decisions that influence the direction of the lesson as a whole, but also the little ones, such as the teacher’s responses to specific questions or comments along the way.  Furthermore, as unexpected events invariably arise during goal-oriented activities, the model also seeks to account for non-routine as well as routine decisions.   

Part II, arguably the heart of the book, provides detailed descriptions and close analyses of three different teachers teaching math lessons (Schoenfeld is a mathematician as well as an educational scholar).  These analyses illustrate the theoretical model in action. The first is a student teacher teaching Algebra I in an urban public high school. The chapter includes a complete transcript of what was said by the teacher and by the students during the class, discussions of the teacher’s lesson plan, goals, orientations, and resources – his degree of familiarity with the content and what pedagogical tools were readily accessible.  Schoenfeld goes on to provide a top-level description of the class, as well as a detailed analysis.  

Emerging from this analysis was a problematic moment in the class that illustrates the applicability of the model.  This new teacher relied heavily on a questioning sequence called Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE), in which the teacher initiates the sequence by posing a question, which leads to student response, which is then evaluated by the teacher in a way that advances the lesson. This approach worked well in moving the students through the lesson until he reached a concept where the student responses did not correspond with the teacher’s expectations.  Confusion ensued.  After using the IRE sequence to convey the concept in another way that still failed, the teacher slumped and appeared to be out of resources.  What puzzled the author and the team that worked with him on analyzing the videotaped lesson is that the teacher understood the concept and could have just explained it.  

The analysis revealed that the teacher’s orientation was the crux of the problem: he was committed to the IRE sequence as a way to clarify or elaborate on what students had to say, but this orientation did not allow for him to jump in with an explanation when the students didn’t provide him with a response he could work with.  As Schoenfeld summarizes, “Objectively speaking, Nelson [the teacher] wasn’t out of things to try. But subjectively, given his orientation, he was” (p. 85).

Part II of the book continues with two equally detailed descriptions of experienced teachers – Jim Minstrell and Deborah Ball -- carrying out nontraditional lessons.  This section of the book culminates in a fascinating comparison of the two teachers.  On the surface – without the benefit of theory-informed analysis – the two lessons look very different in terms of the students (high school versus 3rd grade), content (determining “best number” to represent data collection versus reflections on a meeting held the previous day), and classroom dynamics (tightly controlled discussion taught near the beginning of the school year versus an approach that gives students considerable freedom to explore within a set of norms that have been established with the class over several months.)

“At the same time,” Schoenfeld points out, “Ball and Minstrell are known for having developed a particular kind of instruction—instruction that focuses on developing meaning and understanding, and in which classroom discussions are highly interactive” (p. 155) Schoenfeld notes that these similar instructional approaches were developed independently. “Yes the two share certain epistemological assumptions – and those assumptions have pedagogical consequences. Both work to ‘surface’ students’ ideas, and to have those ideas serve as the base for reasoned classroom discourse.  It is a truly fascinating outcome that the models of their teaching bypass the surface differences between them and point to deep and underlying similarities in their classroom actions and decisions” (pp. 155-56).

Part III of the book begins with an analysis of a consultation between the author and his doctor, illustrating the application of the model not only beyond the teaching of mathematics but to a different profession altogether.  The final chapter, entitled “Taking Stock, Applications, and Next Steps,” includes the following observation: “Why would one bother testing this kind of theory?  There are at least two reasons: (1) the approach gives rise to some useful applications; and (2) there are some lovely new theoretical arenas to explore, to build on what has already been done” (p. 185). And as the author brings out elsewhere, “thinking through models . . . is a way of improving one’s ideas” (p. 48).

This is not the sort of book that a struggling teacher, grasping for directly applicable tools or guidance, is likely to seek.  It nevertheless constitutes an important scholarly contribution to our understanding of a key determinant to the quality of what takes place in the complex activity known as teaching and learning.

In How We Think, Schoenfeld homes in on a facet of instructional practice that is central and yet invisible. The results are illuminating.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 06, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16820, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:02:11 AM

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About the Author
  • Scott Thompson
    Panasonic Foundation
    E-mail Author
    SCOTT THOMPSON is Assistant Executive Director of the Panasonic Foundation, a corporate philanthropy devoted to the systemic improvement of public education in the United States, and the Editor of Strategies, an issues series by the Panasonic Foundation in cooperation with the American Association of School Administrators and University Council for Educational Administration. Thompson, who started his career as a high school English teacher, is author of Leading From the Eye of the Storm (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2005), a book that illuminates the inner work of leading school systems through the complexities of full-scale, sustainable improvement. Prior to joining the staff of Panasonic Foundation in 1996, Thompson was Director of Dissemination and Project Development at the Institute for Responsive Education and Editor of New Schools, New Communities.
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