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On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching

by Gary D. Fenstermacher & Virginia Richardson - 2005

This article examines the notion of quality teaching, exploring its conceptual, empirical and normative properties. We begin by analyzing the concept of teaching, separating it into its task sense (what teachers try to do) and its achievement sense (the student learning that teachers foster). The analysis suggests that any determination of quality in teaching must account for both the worthiness of the activity (good teaching) as well as the realization of intended outcomes (successful teaching). Good teaching is not the same as successful teaching, nor does one logically entail the other. For teaching to be both good and successful, it must be conjoined with factors well beyond the range of control of the classroom teacher. The analysis of the concept of teaching is then used to explore three programs of research on teaching: process-product, cognitive science, and constructivist. The article concludes with an analysis of the policy implications of this explication of quality teaching.

This article examines the notion of quality teaching, exploring its conceptual, empirical and normative properties. We begin by analyzing the concept of teaching, separating it into its task sense (what teachers try to do) and its achievement sense (the student learning that teachers foster). The analysis suggests that any determination of quality in teaching must account for both the worthiness of the activity (good teaching) as well as the realization of intended outcomes (successful teaching). Good teaching is not the same as successful teaching, nor does one logically entail the other. For teaching to be both good and successful, it must be conjoined with factors well beyond the range of control of the classroom teacher. The analysis of the concept of teaching is then used to explore three programs of research on teaching: process-product, cognitive science, and constructivist. The article concludes with an analysis of the policy implications of this explication of quality teaching.

What is quality teaching? Would we recognize it if we saw it? These modest questions hold a host of complexities. Recall the hero in Robert Pirsigs Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, 1974), who is driven insane from pursuit of an answer to the question, What is quality? Unable to find solace in Western conceptions of quality, he eventually turns to the millennia-old Tao Te Ching, which speaks of quality in these terms: Meet it and you do not see its face/Follow it and you do not see its back. Given the elusive and contested nature of quality, is there any sure way to tease out the characteristics and properties of quality teaching? A simple answer is that there must be, for so many of us appear to be deeply engaged in doing it. Yet one wonders whether, if in the doing of it, we are not more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who remarked that though he may not be able to define pornography he knows it when he sees it. Perhaps we cannot define quality teaching, but we know it when we see it.

Recognizing something as an exemplar, as a well-crafted or superbly performed instance, almost always calls for discernmentkeen insight and good judgment as the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines discernment. What constitutes the keen insight and good judgment needed to pick out instances of quality teaching? Can we unpack the conceptual subtleties and nuances of quality teaching so that we can proceed in consistent and systematic ways to identify and foster it, or are we required instead to acknowledge its elusive nature and depend on some sort of cultivated intuition to reveal quality teaching?1 To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, can we see the face and the back of teacher quality? That is the question that sustains and guides this inquiry.

We begin with an examination of the concept of teaching, paying particular attention to distinguishing between good teaching and successful teaching. This analysis is followed by a review of three programs of research on teaching. The first program is based on product-process research; the second, on cognitive science; the third, on constructivist learning theory. The prior concept analysis is used to explore how each program constructs and elaborates notions of teaching. This review also serves as a means to appraise the value and applicability of the prior analysis of teaching. The review of the research programs is followed by the third and final section, which capitalizes on both the concept analysis and the research review to propose some approaches to fostering and appraising quality teaching.


It would be odd, would it not, to embark on a search for a superb example of a thing if we had no idea of the thing itself? Thus before trying to identify the characteristics of quality teaching, it would be well to be clear about what is meant by just plain teaching. Some years ago, one of us (Fenstermacher, 1986) suggested what appears to be a reasonably serviceable notion for getting at what is basic to the activity of teaching:

1. There is a person, T, who possesses some

2. content, C, and who

3. intends to convey or impart C to

4. a person, S, who initially lacks C, such that

5. T and S engage in a relationship for the purpose of Ss acquiring C.2

This definition of teaching does not stipulate that the student learns anything as a result of what the teacher does. It requires only that T have the intent to convey C to S, and that T and S are in a relationship whose purpose is to accomplish this intention. The student need not acquire the content for the teacher to be said to be engaged in the activity of teaching. Thus the analysis leaves unresolved two possible senses of teaching. They are what Gilbert Ryle (1949) called the task and achievement senses of a term. If we understand teaching in its task sense, then the teacher need only try to bring about learning on the part of the student to be said to be teaching (the position reflected in the analysis above). If, on the other hand, teaching is taken in its achievement sense, then the student must learn what the teacher is presenting for the teacher to be said to be teaching. This requirement would add a new line to the definition above:

6. S acquires C to some acceptable or appropriate level.

Task and achievement senses are found in many different words in languages throughout the world. In English, for example, one can hunt (task) for something, and find it (achievement). One can race (task) and perhaps even win (achievement). One might try ones hand at selling (task), leading to someone buying (achievement). In each of these cases, the task words are different from the achievement words (hunt/find, race/win, sell/buy) so that the ambiguity of the language is not very apparent here. But note that the term sell might mean that a sales person tries to sell cars or actually does sell cars. If I tell another that I sell cars, I am clearly implying that this is something I try to do, and, unless I am quite new to the work, I am also saying that I have actually sold some cars.

Teaching has a close conceptual affinity to selling insofar as both are ambiguous with respect to task and achievement. It seems, in the case of selling, that we do not always have to make a sale to be selling, yet, over some period of time, we have to make some sales to say that we are engaged in selling cars. So, too, is the case of teaching. We frequently employ the term in its task sense, wherein we refer to activities engaged in with the intent to bring about learning, yet such learning does not always occur. However, at some point we must give up saying that we are involved in teaching (in the task sense) if no learning ever follows from our actions (the achievement sense). What is that point where it is no longer acceptable to say we are teaching when no learning follows from our efforts?

We do not have a formula for answering that question but suspect that any useful answer will include context as a strong factor3. We raise the point not to pursue it here but to demonstrate how intimate the link is between teaching and learning. How easy it is to come to believe that because we cannot teach forever without someone learning, it then follows that we cannot be teaching at all if no learning occurs whenever we do so. This point seems simple enough, and perhaps because of its simplicity it is enormously beguiling. We slide from understanding that to teach in the task sense requires some acknowledgment of the achievement sense, to concluding that one can be teaching only when the students are learning. Or, more accurately, one can be teaching well only when the students are learning.

This last claim brings us back to the matter of quality. Quality teaching could be understood as teaching that produces learning. In other words, there can indeed be a task sense of teaching, but any assertion that such teaching is quality teaching depends on students learning what the teacher is teaching. To keep these ideas clearly sorted, we label this sense of teaching successful teaching. Successful teaching is teaching understood exclusively in its achievement sense. This said, the question is whether successful teaching is what we mean by quality teaching.


Suppose it were so, that successful teaching is what is meant by quality teaching. Now consider teaching schoolchildren how to kill with a single blow to the head, to loot without being apprehended, or to cheat without being caught. The children learn these lessons quickly and completely. The teaching appears to be very successful. But shall we call this quality teaching? Perhaps. It seems more likely that we would withhold the quality mark from this kind of teaching. Consider a different twist: Suppose the content is appropriate, as in the case of teaching the causes of WWII or how to calculate the mass of an electron. Surely if the teacher succeeds with this content, it is quality teaching. But suppose the teacher beats the children into attention, or drugs them so they are docile, or tempts them by dispensing illicit favors for top performers? Again we see that teaching may be successful, in the sense that all the students learn what is taught, but we withhold a judgment of quality because we are sure the methods used are improper, perhaps even immoral.

These examples show that there should be something more to a judgment of quality teaching than simple learning. Quality teaching, it appears, is about more than whether something is taught. It is also about how it is taught. Not only must the content be appropriate, proper, and aimed at some worthy purpose, the methods employed have to be morally defensible and grounded in shared conceptions of reasonableness. To sharpen the contrast with successful teaching, we will call teaching that accords with high standards for subject matter content and methods of practice good teaching. Good teaching is teaching that comports with morally defensible and rationally sound principles of instructional practice. Successful teaching is teaching that yields the intended learning. Thus teaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.

The distinction between successful and good teaching leads naturally to the question of whether quality teaching might be some combination of good and successful teaching. Certainly there is a strong temptation to draw this conclusion, but the argument is fraught with complexities. To fully appreciate this point, we must briefly take up the concept of learning.


The standard cases of teaching and learning require at least two persons, one who teaches and one who learns. For the sake of argument, consider that these activities are quite distinct, that teaching is an endeavor of one kind, performed by a person (T), while learning is an endeavor of a different kind, performed by a person other than the one teaching (S). Now ask what must be the case if the student is not only to engage the tasks of learning but also to succeed at them (note that there is also a task and achievement sense to learning). While there are any number of answers to this question, offered by learning theorists, sociologists, economists, political leaders, school administrators, and teachers unions, to name a few, we propose the following:

1. Willingness and effort by the learner

2. A social surround supportive of teaching and learning

3. Opportunity to teach and learn

4. Good teaching

Note that good teaching is but one of four ingredients in this mix. The others are that the learner desires to learn and expends the necessary effort to do so; that the social surround of family, community, and peer culture support and assist in learning; and that there are sufficient facilities, time and resources (opportunities) to accomplish the learning that is sought. The point of introducing this list is to clarify that learning, if it is to be both good and successful, calls on a cluster of conditions, only one of which pertains to the nature of the teaching received by the learner.

Just as teaching requires effort, competence, and forms of support, so does learning. There is a tendency among some U.S. educational theorists to think of learning in terms of a Lockean tabula rasa, a blank slate wherein the teacher simply writes the content to be learned on the blank slate of the mind contained within a passive, receptive student. If we presuppose a blank, receptive mind, encased within a compliant and passive learner, then we need travel only a very short logical distance to infer that teaching produces learning, and hence that what teachers do determines whether students learn. In the passive recipient view, it makes some sense to think of successful teaching arising solely from the actions of a teacher. That is, learning on the part of the student is indeed a direct result of actions by a teacher. Yet we all know that learners are not passive receptors of information directed at them. Learning does not arise solely on the basis of teacher activity. Assuming that the formulation offered above has merit, then it follows that success at learning requires a combination of circumstances well beyond the actions of a teacher.

What follows from this analysis, in our view, is that the expression quality teaching calls for not only certain teaching practices but also a set of contextual characteristics supportive of student learning. Quality teaching is what we are most likely to obtain when there is willingness and effort on the part of the learner, a supportive social surround, ample opportunity to learn, and good practices employed by the teacher. This point is sufficiently provocative to merit further exploration.


Quality teaching, we argue here, consists of both good and successful teaching. By good teaching we mean that the content taught accords with disciplinary standards of adequacy and completeness, and that the methods employed are age appropriate, morally defensible, and undertaken with the intention of enhancing the learners competence with respect to the content studied (a separate section on the notion of good teaching is just ahead). By successful teaching we mean that the learner actually acquires, to some reasonable and acceptable level of proficiency, what the teacher is engaged in teaching. As we have noted, however, learning is more likely to occur when good teaching is joined with the other three conditions (willingness and effort, social surround, and opportunity). Thus for the teacher to be successfulthat is, to bring about learningand do so in a manner that accords with standards for good teaching, the additional three conditions for learning should be in place. When they are, then all conditions for quality teaching have been met.

There is currently a considerable policy focus on quality teaching, much of it rooted in the presumption that the improvement of teaching is a key element in improving student learning. We believe that this policy focus rests on a naive conception of the relationship between teaching and learning. This conception treats the relationship as a straightforwardly causal connection, such that if it could be perfected, it could then be sustained under almost any conditions, including poverty, vast linguistic, racial, or cultural differences, and massive differences in the opportunity factors of time, facilities, and resources. Our analysis suggests that this presumption of simple causality is more than naive; it is wrong. Only one factor in the four critical factors for learning goes directly to the activities of the teacher, and this factor is whether or not these activities constitute good teaching. As such, the teacher may be viewed as having a kind of limited liability for the success or failure of the learner to acquire the content taught. Assuming that our analysis is correct, policy initiatives addressing quality teaching could address any or all of the four factors for learning. Improving the quality of what the teacher does is only a part of improving student learning. It is, however, a most important part, one that deserves further scrutiny, which we shall give it momentarily.


In addressing the definition of quality teaching, we began by setting out a conception of teaching wherein one who knows some content engages in a relationship with one who does not, for the purpose of conveying the content from the one to the other. This view of teaching resolves the ambiguity of the term teaching with respect to task and achievement by opting for the task sense of the term. As such, teaching can be said to be taking place even though no learning follows. In cases where learning is required for teaching, then it is the achievement rather than the task sense of teaching that is operative. When teaching in the task sense is done well, we called it good teaching. When teaching results in learning, we called it successful teaching.

We pointed out that not all instances of good teaching are successful, nor are all instances of successful teaching good teaching. Indeed, considerations of successful teaching took us into the domain of learning, where it became apparent that successful learning (in the context of schooling) requires more than teaching of a certain kind. Learning also requires willingness and effort on the part of the learner, a supportive social surround, and opportunity to learn through the provision of time, facilities, and resources. These features of learning add greatly to the probability that teaching will be successful. When teaching is both successful and good, we can speak of quality teaching.

This analysis pinpoints aspects of teaching that are often ignored when addressing matters of quality teaching. Quality teaching is often presumed to be simply successful teaching, wherein the learner learns what the teacher teaches. Yet we have seen that when successful teaching is disconnected from good teaching, the results are seldom favorable for either the student or the subject matter under study. When quality teaching is understood as an integration of both good and successful teaching, it quickly becomes apparent that more than good teaching is required to realize the goal of quality in teaching.

The analysis developed in this first section permits us to isolate and focus attention on what is reasonable to expect of a teacher as well as what is required to hold a teacher responsible and accountable for success with learners. It also makes clear that the notion of good teaching is carrying a good deal of freight in the larger argument. As such it deserves closer attention than it has had thus far. Our task over the next several pages is to parse the idea of good teaching to reveal its critical elements.


As a way of gaining purchase on the properties of good teaching, consider this thought experiment. Imagine a school classroom with two large one-way glass panels, one on each side of the classroom. You are seated behind one of the glass panels, along with several colleagues who are considered experts in the appraisal of classroom teaching. You join them in observing an eighth grade world history lesson, on the topic of the Roman conquest. On the opposite wall, behind the other one-way glass, an operator sits in an elaborate control room, where she controls all the students, who are actually robots programmed with the capacity for speech, facial gestures, and arm and hand movement. While they look just like typical eighth grade children, these robots have no neural or cognitive capacity of their own. They cannot learn anything, in any usual sense of learn. Neither you nor any of your fellow experts know that the students are robots.

The teacher is a fellow human being, fully certified, including National Board Certification, with 15 years of middle school experience. Like you, she does not know her students are superb replicas of 13- and 14-year-old humans. Her lesson on the Roman conquest lasts for 47 minutes, during which the operator in the control room has the robots smiling, frowning, raising hands with questions, offering answers to questions the teacher asks, and even one case of disciplining one of the students for launching a paper wad using a fat rubber band. The operator does this by having different robots make preprogrammed comments or ask previously programmed questions. The operator chooses from a vast repertoire of available gestures, speech acts, and bodily movements, while computers manage the activities of other students who are not being specifically managed by the operator.

At the conclusion of the lesson, you are breathless. What a performance! Your colleagues murmur assent. If they were holding scorecards, they would hold high their 9.9 s and 10 s. Indeed, if this had been videotaped, it would certainly qualify this teacher for a Teacher of the Year Award. The subject matter was beautifully wrought, pitched right at the capacities of these students, as indicated by their enthusiasm and their responses to the teachers superbly framed questions. You leave the room renewed, unaware that after the last of your colleagues departs, the operator turns off all the robots, who are now in exactly the same state as before the lesson. There are no brain cells to be altered, no synapses to fire. No learning could take place, and no learning did.

The next day you and the other expert pedagogues are informed of the truth, that the students were really robots. What have you to say now about the quality of the teachers performance? Does it occur to you that the teachers instruction the day before is now less remarkable and less deserving of praise? If you and your colleagues had indeed given all 10s for the teachers performance, would you now wish to withdraw these high marks? These questions are intended to prompt consideration of our sense of what makes up good teaching.

There seems little doubt that the judgments rendered by you and your colleagues are likely to be affected by the robot responses selected by the operator. Suppose the operator had the robots respond differently, appearing to be bored, asking impertinent questions, and generally indicating a desire to be anywhere but in that classroom. You and your colleagues are likely to base part of your assessment of the teacher on how the students react to the teacher, providing higher marks to the teacher if the students are fully engaged with her, and lower marks if the students appear to be running strongly against her. We take this circumstance to indicate that our judgments of the worth or merit of teaching are learner sensitive but not learning dependent.


An everyday view of what makes teaching good rests, to some extent, on how students react to what the teacher does. We are aware that certain kinds of behaviors and actions by students are indicative of their substantive engagement in what the teacher is doing, and when we observe these behaviors we note that the students are with the teacher: They are engaged, motivated, following, excited, connected, and the many other words we have for describing the ways students participate in lessons. We do not, however, generally wait to assess what the students have learned to decide whether good teaching has occurred (as the thought experiment makes clear). We do not generally believe that the learner must learn what is taught for the teacher to be well and properly engaged in his or her craft.

Still, the issue of learning remains a question. Recall an early section of this article wherein we asked how long a salesperson could go without selling any cars before people stopped saying that he sells cars for a living, or how long a teacher could go without students actually learning before we stopped calling what they are doing teaching children. This concern is the basis for introducing the distinction between learner-sensitive pedagogy and learning-dependent pedagogy. Good teaching is learner sensitive, while successful teaching is learning dependent.

This distinction between learner sensitive and learning dependent permits the incorporation of considerations of the learner into conceptions of good teaching. As a result, the constituents of good teaching attend to how students respond to teaching practices, and whether or not these responses are productive of learning. To see how the learner is taken into consideration, we turn directly to the elements of good teaching.


We have, to this point, separated the occurrence of learning from that of teaching, arguing that teaching and learning are properly understood as independent phenomena, related to one another in quite complex ways. We also noted that not all learning is worthy of our approval and support; we seek learning that is useful, productive, and uplifting, not base, evil, or harmful. Nor is any kind of teaching worthy of our support; we seek teaching methods that are rational and moral, not offensive and mean-spirited. These considerations prompted us to conclude that judgments of goodness in teaching are grounded in various conceptions of methods employed to convey content of particular kinds. This conclusion must now be expanded so that we might better understand the elements of good teaching.

We group the various methods of teaching into three categories of practice, referring to each as an element of good teaching. Two are derived from the work of Thomas Green (1971), and the third is of our own construction (although not at all unique to us, as will be apparent in a moment). The two from Green are the logical and the psychological acts of teaching.4 The logical acts include such activities as defining, demonstrating, explaining, correcting, and interpreting. The psychological acts encompass such things as motivating, encouraging, rewarding, punishing, planning and evaluating. To these two task categories we add a third, the moral acts of teaching, wherein the teacher both exhibits and fosters such moral traits as honesty, courage, tolerance, compassion, respect, and fairness.5

Each of these categories of activities has standards of adequacy, indicating whether they are performed poorly or expertly. The basis for these standards is very revealing about the nature of quality in teaching. The logical acts are generally appraised by standards internal to them. There is, for example, an extensive literature in the philosophy of science on the nature of explanation, especially on the criteria for a good explanation (among the criteria often proposed are completeness, coherence, and truthfulness). The psychological acts, in contrast, are generally appraised relative to the persons comprising the relationship. For example, whether an activity by the teacher is encouragement or not depends on whether the person the teacher sought to encourage was indeed encouraged. The moral acts are more akin to the logical acts, in that their standards of appraisal tend to be internal. Consider honesty as an example; what it means to be honest is generated more by analysis and argument than by the perceptions of those with whom one is being honest.

Quite a few teaching activities are compounds of these three elements. Consider the act of evaluating a students progress. There are internal standards for good evaluation (logical criteria). There are also considerations of whether an evaluation is just or compassionate (moral criteria). Finally, there are considerations of whether an evaluation will be accepted by the person evaluated and whether it will be of value to the person as feedback for improvement (psychological criteria). Lesson planning is another complex domain, where the teacher seeks to render a body of knowledge with fidelity to the discipline from which it is taken (logical criteria), while adapting and representing this knowledge so that it can be accessed and analyzed by minds that are not yet acquainted with it (psychological criteria). Moral criteria often enter into this deliberation, as when a teacher decides to exercise the courage required to introduce the controversies that rage within such domains as sexual conduct, religious doctrine, and national politics.

A quite robust conception of teaching can be constructed with these three elements of logical, psychological, and moral. Indeed, a substantive and powerful conception of good teaching can be formulated using these categories. Good teaching occurs when each of these activities meets or exceeds the standards of adequacy that attach to each category of activity. These standards, in turn, are sensitive to both internal and external criteria, to criteria that pertain solely to the phenomenon itself (internal) as well as criteria that pertain to how the phenomenon is received by and responded to by others (external). As such, how the students respond to the activities of teaching is very much a part of good teaching, but whether or not the students actually learn the material taught is not. To repeat ourselves, perhaps to excess, good teaching is learner-sensitive while successful teaching is learning-dependent.

It is this mix of internal and external criteria for the logical, psychological, and moral activities of teaching that permits the expert observers in the thought experiment described above to feel comfortable judging the merits of teaching without having firm evidence of whether or not the students learned. Indeed evidence of actual learning typically does not figure into the determination of worth or goodness of teaching. The reasoning of the observer proceeds something like the following: I observe that the logical, psychological, and moral activities of teaching are being carried out in a manner highly responsive to the standards of adequacy for each category; I further observe that nearly all the students are consistently responding to the teacher in a manner that signals their interest, engagement, and understanding; I also observe a high level of personal comfort and task orientation in this classroom; as a result I conclude that this teacher is easily meeting and very likely exceeding accepted standards for good teaching and that if the students are not in fact learning the material being taught, there is something else at work here aside from the goodness of the teaching.

It is perhaps here more than at any other point in this article that a reader might in exasperation ask, Why do the authors not just give up and default to learning as the condition for good teaching? It would be so much more simple if they did so? Yes, it would indeed be much more simple. It would also, for reasons we hope we have made clear, be an error. No conceptual or empirical analysis known to us supports such a position. Moreover, collapsing notions of teaching and learning into one another in such a manner yields frightening consequences, not the least of which is that the caretakers of schooling (primarily public officials, but also parents, citizens, community organizations, and agencies of social welfare) are relieved of attending to learner willingness and effort, to the nature of the social surround, and to opportunitya relief that then permits the caretakers to place the full burden for student learning upon the shoulders of the teachers. In so doing, the caretakers burdens are greatly relieved, for it is far less costly to address issues of teacher training and development than to address the other conditions for successful learning.

The more justified course, in our view, is to acknowledge the complexity of the teaching-learning relationship, analyze its characteristics carefully and authentically, and build a robust conception of these characteristics that permit constructive advancements in our understanding and wise policies for enhancing the proficiency and effectiveness of teachers and students. The conceptual part of such an effort has engaged us since the start of this paper. It alone is not sufficient to reveal what we know about good and successfulqualityteaching. There is also a body of scientific theory and empirical research that illuminates notions of quality teaching. It is to this work that we now turn.


From the late 1960s, research on teaching has become a strong and useful component of educational research. Research on teaching has been conducted within very different theoretical programs that embody varying conceptions of the roles of the teacher and students, good teaching, the valued outcomes of teaching, the nature of teacher change, and the methodologies for conducting research. The research conducted in each program is designed to define and describe the nature of teaching as well as indicate what constitutes quality teaching. However, because of the different ways of viewing teaching, the task and achievement conceptions of teaching and the relationships between them vary considerably across these approaches.

There are a number of different ways of classifying the research on teaching approaches. Schuell (1996), for example, worked with three paradigms of learning in his chapter that describes the research on classroom teaching and learning: behaviorist derived, cognitive, and social. Shulman (1986) described five programs of research: Process-Product Research, Time and Learning, Pupil Cognition and the Mediation of Teaching, Classroom Ecology, and Teacher Cognition and Decision-Making. However, none of these schemas is all-inclusive with fully distinct categories; nor are they completely satisfactory to those conducting the research. In addition, each category can be broken down further. For example, Corno (1979) described quality instructional elements for four different models of learning within just one of Shulmans programsTime and Learning.

We have selected three research programs to describe in terms of the conceptions of successful teaching (student effort, surround, opportunity, and good teaching), good teaching (logical, psychological, and moral acts), and their interrelationships. These are meant to be illustrations of relevant work rather than a conceptual framework for the entire field of research on teaching. The three programs are Teaching as Transmission, Teaching as Cognition, and Teaching as Facilitation. Organizing and examining the three programs in this way provides an opportunity to test the efficacy of the ideas developed in this paper concerning the nature of teaching and judgments of its quality.


The process-product approach to research on teaching reached its height in the United States during the mid 1970s. The purpose was to identify effective generic teaching behaviors that could then be used for teacher education and evaluation. Developed during a more positivist, behaviorist era in educational research, this linear model suggests that an effective teacher uses certain instructional behaviors to transmit knowledge and skills to students. The process of identifying these behaviors engaged researchers in categorizing a sample of teachers as effective or less effective on the basis of their students scores on standardized tests. These teachers were also observed using an instrument with primarily low-inference behavioral measures.6 The behaviors of the less effective teachers were then compared, statistically, with those of the effective teachers (for a thorough summary of this research, see Brophy & Good, 1986). This led to the identification of such instructional constructs as direct instruction, time on task, and Academic Learning Time (Fisher et al., 1980).

In this conception, the teacher holds knowledge and transmits this knowledge and skills to students. The student receives the knowledge that the teacher provides, hopefully being able to reproduce it in the same form sometime later. An important element of this approach is an instructional sequence in which the material is presented to students, who are then provided with practice in using the new knowledge or skills. Classroom organization and management are also essential to engaging students in the material.

Successful Teaching

Student achievement was used as a means of identifying the more or less effective teachers within a sample. While the research interest focused on the nature of good teaching, successful teaching was the initial identifier. Considerable effort went into developing methods of examining gains in achievement scores, and controlling for incoming scores. There was also extensive discussion of whether to define effective teaching based on class mean gains or individual gains (Burstein, 1980). Student effort and willingness to learn was considered, in part, the teachers responsibility through establishing a classroom environment that would provide incentives to motivate students to learn. Eventually, surround was considered important in this model, but was considered, narrowly, as the classroom context factors of grade level, subject matter, and nature of student population. The importance of opportunity to learn was established in this research as student time on task became an outcome almost as critical to the program as student achievement.

Good Teaching

While student achievement was used as a means of identifying the more and less effective teachers within a sample, it was the identification of effective teaching behaviors that became the foundation of conceptions of good teaching. Thus, good teaching could be observed in the enactment, for example, of the direct instructional model of teaching (Rosenshine, 1979).

Most of the critical constructs that were examined were psychological elements. These involved teacher actions that motivated students to stay on task, managed their behavior, and evaluated progress. These also included such constructs as the emotional climate of the classroom (Soar & Soar, 1979). When this program was used in specific subject matter areas, some logical elements also came into play. For example, Good and Notion (1979) conducted process-product studies within mathematics instruction, and identified elements of demonstration and practice as being effective teaching behaviors. Moral elements were not a consideration in this program.

Relationship Between Successful Teaching and Good Teaching

The process-product program is learning dependent in the sense that effective teachers were identified on the basis of their students achievement. Thus, it brings together the achievement and task senses of teaching. The initial identification of effective teachers with their students achievement was used to develop a description of good teaching through effective classroom behaviors. It is important to point out, however, that it was never assumed that student achievement scores could be used to determine whether an individual teacher is effective. This approach to identification was meant to be used solely as a statistical probability endeavor with a large sample of teachers and students. It would not be valid for use with one teacher.

However, a construct did emerge that was meant to bridge the task and achievement senses of teaching, and this was called student engagement. This learner-sensitive construct focused on the student and was designed as a measure that was strongly affected by good teaching, and had a significant probability of leading to student achievement and thereby successful teaching.

Lest we think that this type of research has been completely replaced with a newer form, Floden (2001) has made a strong argument that much of the process/product approach to classroom research on teaching is still with us. He calls it the effects of teaching model that involves the search for causally relevant connections between teaching and student achievement. He suggests that this model is operating today, even within the constructivist frame (see below). Thus, as we move to the more contemporary approaches to thinking about teaching and conducting research, it is best to realize the legacy of this approach.


As educational research joined the cognitive revolution in the 1970s, the view of teaching and instruction began to change. With an initial focus on learning, instructional activities focused on teaching students strategies (Weinstein & Mayer, 1986) such as scaffolding student learning and other activities that acknowledged the cognitive processes involved in building knowledge and skills (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). In 1974, a Research on Teaching planning conference funded by the National Institute of Education divided the field into 10 areas. One of those was a panel on Teaching as Information Processing (National Institute of Education, 1975) chaired by Lee Shulman. This panel proposed the application of cognitive psychology to the study of classrooms and teaching. The initial work in this area focused on teacher planning, interactive decision-making, and judgments (Borko & Niles, 1987; Clark & Peterson, 1986; Shavelson & Stern, 1981). It suggested that teachers make many decisions in the course of one day and that these decisions are similar to those employed by executives (Berliner, 1983). This research also produced information on planning that suggested that experienced teachers do not use the Tyler model of teacher planning that was often taught in preservice teacher education (Yinger, 1980). The Tyler (1950) model suggests a linear process of planning that begins with behavioral objectives, moves to determining alternative approaches to fulfilling the objectives, and culminates in selecting among them.

This research led to a view of teachers as similar to highly paid executives who make many decisions based on a multitude of variables (Berliner, 1983). It suggests that teachers operate automatically within well-established routines and make decisions at the point when something unacceptable occurs during the routines. They first observe a cue, then decide whether a cue is within tolerance and whether immediate action is necessary; if action is deemed necessary, they determine what action is appropriate and whether to store the information regarding this particular decision. These steps all precede a deliberate and unplanned change in routine.

Successful Teaching

There is very little emphasis in this approach on successful teaching. The focus was on the teacher as a thinking professional and how to represent these cognitive processes. It was assumed that good teaching leads to student learning. Context could vary, as could the nature of the student population in a given teachers classroom from year to year. Part of the responsibility of the teacher, however, is to adjust his or her teaching to meet the needs and backgrounds that the students bring with them to class.

Good Teaching

Good teaching in this approach is encapsulated in the notion of expertise. The expert teacher employs cognitive strategies and approaches quite different from the novice. In fact, Berliner (1994) posits five stages in the development of expertise, a progression that leads to excellence. Reaching these stages involves a combination of acquisition of knowledge about classrooms, strategies, experiential cases; the development of cognitive skills related to recognition of underlying meaning in classroom cues; a sense of personal agency; and eventually an intuitive sensing of appropriate responses, in nonanalytic and nondeliberative ways that leads to a fluid performance. Berliner points out that while experience is a necessary condition in developing expertise, it is not sufficient. Many highly experienced teachers do not reach the fifth or highest level.

The classroom envisioned in this approach was still relatively teacher centered, where teachers are responsible for teaching students strategies for learning content and developing skills. The psychological elements of teaching played a strong role in good teaching. For example, knowledge about students and the use of this knowledge in instruction is an important element of this approach to teaching. This requires that teachers keep track of individual student progress, listen and observe carefully during instruction, and ask questions that reveal this knowledge.

The logical elements became more prominent in this programs conception of good teaching. It was at this point that the teaching of subject matter became of greater importance in research on teaching. In 1974, Lee Shulman (1974) proposed that we could move ahead in research on teaching only if we focused on the practice of teaching within specific domains. He suggested that subjects themselves are different and therefore require different acts of teaching. The field began to develop research on teaching programs within the specific subject matter areas such as reading, mathematics and science. The concept of good teaching then enveloped the cognitive ability to transform subject matter for students through pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1987). This required a teacher with strong foundational knowledge in the subject matter to be taught, a notion that began to enter the conception of the expert teacher.

The moral elements were less emphasized in the initial work, although they began to play a part later on. There were two sources for the moral work. One was the consideration of the moral dimensions of teaching (Goodlad, Soder, & Sirotnik, 1990; Tom, 1984), and the other was the development of the ethic of caring as played out in teaching (Noddings, 1984, 1992). The sense of caring did slip into the discussions of excellence in teaching every once in a while. For example, Berliner (1992) suggested that the expert teachers in his sample have the following sense of obligation toward their students: A responsible teacher owes students the opportunity to obtain the knowledge and skill needed to succeed in life, and an effective teacher owes students civility and consideration (p. 246).

The Relationship Between Successful Teaching and Good Teaching

In all of this work, there was an assumption that expertise (a form of good teaching) would lead to student learning. Many of the teachers who were studied as experts were selected, in part, on the basis of their students learning (Carter et al., 1988). However, student learning was not as critical a feature in this research program as it was in the process-product work.


Constructivism is a descriptive theory of learning that suggests that students develop meaning as their prior knowledge interacts with new or different knowledge they encounter in the classroom from such sources as the teacher, textbooks, and peers. Most constructivists would agree that the transmission approach described above promotes neither the interaction between prior knowledge and new knowledge nor the conversations that are necessary for internalizing knowledge and developing deep understanding. The new knowledge acquired from traditional teaching may not be well integrated with other knowledge held by the student. Thus, knowledge gained from traditional schooling is often brought forth for school-like activities such as exams, and ignored at other times. The goal of constructivist teaching is deep understanding of the subject on the part of the student (Cohen, McLaughlin, & Talbert, 1993).

The view of instruction in this conception suggests a student-centered teacher who arranges the classroom around tasks that bring students into contact with knowledge, ideas, and skills. The tasks are designed to permit the students to bring forth their knowledge of the phenomenon being studied, to question certain assumptions they may hold, and to adjust their beliefs and develop new understandings. An important element of the teachers role is to realize that individual students may approach a topic in quite unique ways, to learn how individual students understand the topic, and to work with the students in adding to or reconstructing their understandings. This view of constructivist teaching includes a way of thinking and a set of core beliefs on the part of the teacher, and knowledge of a set of alternative actions that relate to these beliefs, although this latter requirement is not explored, heavily, in this research.

Successful Teaching

There is a strong sense of what students should be doing in classrooms and learning about subject matter. Individual students should be surfacing their background knowledge and beliefs, questioning them, adding new knowledge, and restructuring their understanding of the phenomena under study. This process should yield students who continue to question their assumptions and who seek to broaden and deepen their understanding of their experiential world. Students themselves have a strong role to play in this form of teaching. They are actively engaged in the construction of meaning, working with peers in the social construction of meaning (Cobb, 1986). The teacher provides some elements of the opportunity to learn, the materials, and so on, but the students themselves must be willing and eager to pursue activities that lead to understanding. The larger social surround has not yet been examined in depth in this program of research, although some scholars (Delpit, 1988; Lee, 1999) have raised concerns about its appropriateness to teaching certain populations of students.

Good Teaching

The sense of meritorious teaching in the constructivist research program is dramatically different from the views implicit in the process-product and cognitive programs. At this time, most of the research focuses on descriptions of the constructivist teacher (see, e.g., the various chapters in Wood, Nelson, & Warfield, 2001), rather than on good or effective constructivist teaching. Excellence in teaching means being constructivist. This view requires that a teacher think in a constructivist manner, hold beliefs aligned with constructivist philosophy, and act in ways consistent with such beliefs and thinking. It is not possible to be a constructivist teacher unless all of these occur (see, e.g., Ball, 1990, in mathematics teaching; Richardson, 1990, in teaching reading). Thus, we have not come across any research that describes effective and less effective constructivist teaching. Although there are many case studies that describe exemplary constructivist teaching, these are not contrasted with non-exemplary cases. Instead, they are often compared with traditional teachers (Wilson & Wineburg, 1993).

The logical and psychological elements of teaching are fairly well developed in the constructivist program. There is considerable emphasis on the logical elements, as the study of teaching within the content areas has been of primary concern in constructivist studies. There is a strong belief, leading from the late 1970s and the work at the Center for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University, that research on generic teaching does not lead us very far (see Leinhardt, 2001). Thus, there are constructivist teaching literatures in many separate fields such as reading (Barr, 2001), writing (Freedman, 1994), and history (Wilson & Wineburg, 1993); mathematics (Cobb, Wood, Yackel, & McNeal, 1992); and science (Mitchell, 1992).

Moral elements in teaching receive considerable attention in this literature. In a constructivist classroom, students and teachers, together, co-construct meaning and understanding. This requires that explicit attention be paid to the social relationships in the classroom. From initial work on constructivism and teaching, a strong respect for the learner was expressed. The notion of giving students reason became an important stance in constructivist teaching. We first heard this term from Jean Bamberger, Eleanor Duckworth and Magdelene Lampert (1981) as they explained the need to assume that student answers, while they may seem incorrect, usually make sense within the set of assumptions being employed by the students. The teacher is to assume that the student is being reasonable, and to determine the nature of those assumptions. Close listening to students, and careful feedback in dialogue is an essential teaching element, as is working with students to create a civil atmosphere as they respond to each other and contribute to the conversation. As described by Ball and Wilson (1996), the moral is an essential dimension of almost all that the teacher does in the classroom.

Relationship Between Successful Teaching and Good Teaching

The constructivist program is very clear about the obligation for a good teacher to be learner-sensitive. An essential element of good teaching is the teachers understanding and assessment of individual student construction of meaning. This approach requires student agency as well. That is, the student becomes responsible for his or her learning and that of the fellow students. But this responsibility becomes accepted by the student, in part, because of the environment that the teacher builds in the classroom. Thus, good teaching in this program includes not only the traditional acts or behaviors of teaching (logical, psychological, moral) as investigated in the process-product work, but also asks teachers to establish an environment that allows students to develop willingness to and responsibility for learning.

However, successful teaching has not been pursued extensively in this research program.7 Of interest is the depth of understanding gained by an individual student; and it is assumed this may look quite different from student to student. There is an assumption that students in constructivist classrooms will do well on standardized tests; but such conceptions of outcomes are not a part of the research designs that describe constructivist classrooms. Thus, while the concept of quality teaching in this program is heavily learner-sensitive, it is not particularly learning-dependent.


We described these three research programs in ways that make evident their consideration of quality teaching. We point out how they vary in attending to characteristics of good teaching and successful teaching, and how they also vary in attention to the critical elements of good teaching. The cognitive program, for example, gives extensive consideration to the logical and less to the moral; the constructivist program attends more to the psychological and the moral but does not ignore the logical; the process-product program is profoundly psychological, with far less attention to the logical and almost no consideration of the moral. The three programs also differ in whether they respond primarily to the learner (learner sensitive) or to the outcomes of learning (learning dependent). Process-product research, for example, is highly learning dependent, while constructivist research is highly learner sensitive.

Our review makes clear that the different research programs have, as one might expect, different takes on what counts as good or successful teaching. Scholars who have devoted lifetimes of study to teaching in schools differ on what is critical to the doing of teaching and on what one looks at to assess whether it is being done well or poorly. Do these differences imply that we are prevented from gaining a uniform, definitive grasp on the nature of teaching and the criteria for its quality?

So long as we are clear and careful about what we are engaged in when making assertions about what teaching is and how it is appraised, we can tolerateperhaps even celebratediversity in conception and evaluation. No matter which research program one studies, there are considerations, in some form, of the elements of teaching. No matter which program, there are considerations of the learner as person and social entity, on the one hand, and of learning as the outcome of the teacher-learner relationship, on the other. The vital insight is that when making a judgment of quality, one is always engaged in an interpretationin a selection of one set of factors or indices over another, in attention to some dimensions of the phenomenon over other possible dimensions, in desiring and valuing some features of the task or the achievement more than other features.

Given the interpretive character of the appraisal of quality, what implications follow for policy? A consideration of this question takes us to the third and last section of this article.


The purpose of this section is to inquire into just what is being assessed when it is claimed that one is assessing the quality of teaching. We pursue this point by returning to the distinction drawn between teaching and learning, and recalling the four conditions for learning: learner willingness and effort, supportive social surround, opportunity to teach and learn, and good teaching practices. Many paragraphs back it was noted that teaching is both responsive to and enabled by the first three conditions. Let us follow that line of thought a bit longer.

A good teacher would find it exceedingly difficult to be a successful teacher without the other three conditions in place. Hence a good teacher (one whose practices meet or exceed standards of excellence for the logical, psychological, and moral elements of teaching) is unlikely to be judged a quality teacher absent the right conditions, even though the practices employed by that teacher are meritorious on their own terms.8 We believe that what follows from this view is that quality teaching must be assessed multi-dimensionally, along four axes, if you will, each representing one of the conditions of learning. A judgment about the quality of teaching should be grounded on all four of the conditions for learning.

If the elements of good teaching can be described and analyzed independent of learning, how then can we justify the assertion that judgments of quality must be set in the context of all four conditions for learning? The assertion is not based solely on the fact that we defined quality teaching as teaching that is both good and successful. There is more than definitional sleight-of-hand taking place here. It is also that the appropriate practices, those serving as evidence of good teaching, may not be actionable in deficient contexts. That is, it may not always be possible to act proficiently on the elements of good teaching in cases where learner effort, surround, and opportunity are weak or highly deficient. There are, as any teacher of more than a few years will inform you, interactions between the context for teaching and the practices of the teacher. One aspect of these interactions is that a person may be a good teacher in one context and a mediocre one in different context with virtually no variation in basic pedagogical form from one context to the other.

There is a flipside to this last contention: Good teaching is not only enabled by the conditions for learning; it is also responsive to them. The good teacher adjusts the elements of teaching on the basis of what is at hand in the way of students, surround, and resources. Indeed the research programs previously described can be viewed as efforts to guide and direct teachers in how to modify practice based on the nature of students, parents, school resources, and so forth. The cognitive and constructivist programs are particularly sensitive to the nature of the student, and the constructivist program is also sensitive to the nature of the larger social surround. The quality of teaching, how good and how successful it is, will dependsometimes to a small and other times to a considerable extenton how well the teacher adapts his or her instruction to the context at hand.

This responsiveness does not, in our view, extend to expectations of heroism on the part of the teacher. We caution against presuming that really good teachers ought to be able to overcome all obstacles and impediments, adjusting their practice as if such adjustments could somehow compensate for ill-prepared and unready students, or for impoverished facilities and an absence of resources, or a social surround that devalues school and what might be acquired there. While heroes are always much to be admired, it would be poor policy in any social institution, whether the military, criminal justice, or education, to predicate ones conceptions of quality and the means for appraising it on the heroes that occasionally present themselves.

Good teaching, then, while constituted by elements that cohere in the person of the teacher, is enabled by nurturing conditions and is also responsive to these same conditions. Good teaching may be thought of as symbiotic with types of learners, nature of the surround, and opportunities to teach and learn. As such, its appraisal could be undertaken in two different ways. The first is an appraisal independent of learning outcomes, wherein one examines the activities of the teacher to determine how well they conform to standards of practice in the three elements of teaching (in the manner of the thought experiment described earlier). The assessment in this case is sensitive to the learners being taught, but not dependent on learning taking place. An assessment of this type requires a more developed understanding of the logical and moral elements of teaching than is currently possessed, although the research programs cited above have made some progress on many aspects of the three elements (but, not surprisingly, the psychological element is probably the most well developed).

The second approach to the appraisal of teaching attends to teaching that is both good and successful, and calls for a much broader effort than is the case for good teaching. Inasmuch as successful teaching is learning-dependent, it is necessary to know whether learning actually occurred, and to what level of competence or proficiency. It is also necessary to know something about the state of the learners, the character of the social surround, and the availability and extent of opportunity.

There is, finally, a useful policy implication in this framework for quality teaching. It is the possibility that teaching could be made better by attending more to the other conditions (learner, surround, opportunity) and less to teachers themselves. We are not recommending this course (although it has a measure of appeal for us), but only suggesting that it is a possible course of action, and in some instances, might be a preferred course. It indicates that there are policy alternatives for improving teaching, and that attending specifically to the practices of classroom teachers is not the sole approach to obtaining quality teaching. There are perhaps far more occasions than we realize where a significant improvement in teaching could be realized by altering the contextual variables for that teaching. Indeed, from a policy perspective, there may be limits to just how good we can make teaching, given the vast numbers of persons involved, the nature of the social systems they occupy, and how we select, train, and compensate a nations teachers. It may be that if further increments in learning are to be realized, we must turn to other factors affecting the equation, such as surround and opportunity.9 Perhaps finding means of assessing these two factors will reveal more to aid in the improvement of learning than is revealed by assessing the activities of teachers.

We end this article in a place different from where we began, for we have given definition and specificity to the notion of quality, contra the Tao Te Ching and Pirsigs interpretation of it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In so doing, we are defying an ancient and honorable code. Yet that code has not stopped others from asserting that they know quality teaching when they see it, they know how to determine whether it occurring or not, and they know this across schools, districts, states, and nations. Many such claims lack not only a good understanding of teaching but also a humility for the challenge of appraising anything so complex as the nature and consequences of human relationships, particularly between adults and children in the otherwise unworldly setting of the schools of the early 21st century. Our hope is that by defying the Tao we will foster a measure of humility about the complexity of the task, while making a little better any well-intentioned efforts to judge the work of teachers. Even so, it is well to remember Pirsigs (1974) conception of quality: People differ about Quality, not because Quality is different, but because people are different in terms of experience (p. 250).

This article is a revision of a paper initially prepared for the Board of International Comparative Studies, National Academy of Science, Washington, DC. The authors acknowledge the support of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, as well as the helpful criticism offered by the anonymous reviewers and the editors of TCR.


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GARY D. FENSTERMACHER is professor of educational foundations at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His primary scholarly interests are in the philosophy of teaching and teaching policy. His more recent work includes the fourth edition of Approaches to Teaching (coauthored with Jonas Soltis).

VIRGINIA RICHARDSON is a professor of education in the School of Education, University of Michigan. Her academic interests include research on teaching, teacher education, and professional development. She edited the fourth edition of the Handbook of Research on Teaching, and, with Peggy Placier, wrote the chapter in the Handbook on teacher change.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 1, 2005, p. 186-213
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11694, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:13:40 PM

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    University of Michigan

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