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A Conception of Teaching

reviewed by Greta Morine-Dershimer - June 23, 2009

coverTitle: A Conception of Teaching
Author(s): Nathaniel L. Gage
Publisher: Springer Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0387849319, Pages: 160, Year: 2008
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N. L. Gage has been called by many the “father of research on teaching.” I think he should more aptly be called the grandfather, or even the patriarch of research on teaching, given the several generations of doctoral students, and students of Gage’s students, who have been influenced by his views on research and theory. I was never his student, except in the very real sense that all of us in the field of research on teaching have been his students over the years, learning from his writings, his speeches, and his questions and comments in meetings of the various professional groups involved in research on teaching. But I consider myself very lucky to have become his friend during the course of those many meetings and interactions.

Gage’s most important contributions to the field of research on teaching were in publicizing the research of others. He read widely and wrote about research that he found to be scientifically sound. While he considered teaching to be an art, he wanted to have research on teaching accepted as a scientific endeavor, and he continued to work to achieve that goal to the very end of his life. Over time, as new approaches to research on teaching emerged, Gage’s perception of the field changed. His changes in perception were reflected in his writing, and his writing in turn shaped further developments in the field.

A prime example of this process was Gage’s chairing of the NIE National Conference on Studies in Teaching in 1974. While his main interest was on process-product studies, he included panels on relatively new approaches like sociolinguistic studies (Cazden, 1974) and information-processing studies (Shulman, 1974). NIE funding for projects suggested by those panels fed development and led to expansion of the field. The panel on methodology (Porter, 1974) was equally influential in fueling interest in qualitative research, but Gage lamented the fact that the panel on theory development (Snow, 1974) had no discernable impact on interest in generating a theory or theories of teaching. Finally, he decided to undertake the task himself. A Conception of Teaching is the result.

Chapter 1 of A Conception of Teaching delineates the kind of theory Gage chose to develop – one that would be broadly valid and focused on classroom teaching. Chapter 2 makes the case for the value of a theory of teaching. In Chapter 3 of the posthumously published book, Gage charts the historical progression of his changes in perception, and the associated development of the field of research on teaching, providing an interesting background for his latest (and sadly, last) conception of the field. He has incorporated two important alternative features into the familiar process-product paradigm. The process category has become the process-content of teaching category, with a bi-directional arrow indicating the importance of interaction between process and content. Bi-directional arrows connect all the main categories of the model, so that interdependence rather than cause-effect assumptions dominate.

Given this new emphasis, Gage sets out to develop a generic theory of teaching, based on the Conventional-Direct-Recitation (CDR) model, reasoning that this will be most useful because of the high prevalence of CDR use over time, across age levels, and throughout many nations of the world. In Chapters 4-6 he addresses his three main variables of process, content, and students’ cognitive capability and motivation. He draws heavily on the work of other experts to identify the categories of variation. He selects Bellack’s (Bellack, Kliebard, Hyman, & Smith, 1966) categories of Structure, Solicit, Respond, and React to define the interactive teaching process variable. He deals with content in a general sense, rather than considering separate subject areas. Thus, he uses Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956) and the Anderson-Krathwohl Taxonomy (Anderson, et al., 2001) to define the content variable, with two sub-divided main categories of Knowledge (Factual, Conceptual, Procedural, and Metacognitive) and Understanding (Factual, Conceptual, Procedural, and Metacognitive). The student variable is more conflated. He notes that cognitive capabilities include both intelligence and prior knowledge, and that intelligence can be considered as multiple intelligences. Further, he indicates that motivation and perseverance are separate from capability, but impact effort and therefore learning. Despite acknowledging these various separate elements, he divides the variable of Cognitive Capability and Motivation into three simple categories of Above Average, Average, and Below Average. In Chapter 7, he explains that classroom management is not teaching, although it is an important task of teachers, and does affect student learning. He says the purpose of classroom management is to increase instructional time (engaged time, academic learning time) and decrease non-instructional time (transition time, waiting time, time off-task). Given this distinction between teaching and classroom management, his theory of teaching does not include classroom management as part of the process variable.

In the concluding Chapter 8, Gage declares that a single theory, while attractive, is not feasible for a field of study as complex as teaching. He therefore proposes a set of sub-theories, and presents a series of “covering laws” derived from prior research to illustrate the types of knowledge that might be generated based on the theory he outlines. Some covering laws related to process (briefly paraphrased here) include: Teacher structuring (providing information/giving directions) to promote student metacognitive activity leads to improved achievement; and Teacher questions during discussion lessons interrupt the flow, and lead to shorter and less complex student responses. Some covering laws related to content include: Teacher enthusiasm contributes to student motivation; and Alignment of content covered with content assessed (tested) leads to improved achievement. No covering laws are stated for Student Cognitive Capability and Motivation. The final section integrates the three variables by means of a three-dimensional rectangular solid of 72 cells (3x8x3). Each cell contains one category from each of the three variables, that is, one cell would be teacher structuring (process) of factual knowledge (content) for above average students (cognitive capability and motivation). This figure clearly reveals the complexity of information that a teacher might be considering in relation to decisions made during a lesson. But it is doubtful that any teacher could think about decisions at this level of detail.  

In his final section on “Using the Theory,” Gage indicates that the theory, in the form of his covering laws, is intended for use by teachers. He says that the “teacher will learn from experience when she should stay close to the implications of the covering laws and when to depart from them” (p. 149). However, the 72 cells of his solid figure are basically empty cells, awaiting research that may identify details of the integrated relationships they suggest. So the solid seems to suggest a way of organizing studies of teaching. Some integration of results across such studies could lead to new “covering laws,” which might then be used by teacher educators to prepare prospective teachers, and could eventually be adapted by teachers based on their individual situations. Gage does not specify how the theory might move from conception to implementation.

He is more specific about how his theory may lead to better theory. One of the arguments he offers for the value of new paradigms or models in theory development is that these can stimulate attempts at refutation, which can lead to further advances in understanding. In fact, he sees this as a potential goal or product of the theory he is advancing. “The present attempt may advance education either by surviving attempts at refutation or by stimulating the development of better theory that survives in its turn further attempts at refutation” (p. 40).

Taking his invitation to attempt refutation seriously, I cannot keep from commenting on the most problematic flaw I see in his sub-theories of process. This shows up most dramatically in the 3x8x3 solid, where process is divided into three categories of Structuring, Soliciting, and Reacting. Gage has eliminated Bellack’s category of Responding. Students do most of the responding in the solicit-respond-react cycle, and Gage sees the student role of responding as merely providing teachers with feedback. A teacher’s perception of that feedback (accuracy, thoughtfulness) shapes how the teacher reacts. So, Gage reasons, a theory of teaching should focus on the teacher reaction, not the student response. My own research (Morine-Dershimer, 1985) indicated that student responses drew the careful attention of peers in ways suggesting that student responses carried the content of the lesson more strongly than teacher structuring or teacher questions. Students attended most strongly to the comments of their higher achieving peers and the comments that received teacher praise, and this pattern of attention was strongest for the highest achievers. In effect, students believed they were learning from the responses of their peers. The Nuthall and Alton-Lee studies (Alton-Lee, Nuthall, & Patrick, 1993; Nuthall, 1999) highlighted as well the importance of student self-talk, the non-public comments to themselves during the course of classroom lessons as they reacted to the responses of their peers. While I can applaud Gage’s integration of content with process in his theory of teaching, I am bothered to see the contributions of students to interactive lessons pushed further into the background as a seemingly unimportant aspect of process. This widens the divide between teaching and learning, and I believe a theory that narrowed that divide would be more useful and accessible to teachers.

No review could fail to note the effect of Gage’s death before he had fully completed this book. The brevity of explanations, examples, and summaries, especially in the later chapters, testifies to the uncompleted nature of the work. More disturbing is the extremely poor editing of this publication. Gage was an exacting editor of his own work and he would not have been proud of the form of this presentation. There are many typos and missing words or phrases throughout, but most problematic are the number of instances where headings are printed as if they were part of the flow of text. They are identifiable as headings only because they appear as incomplete sentences. This makes the organization difficult to follow in several places. I wish that a new, corrected edition could replace this one, to honor more truly the effort Gage made in the final years of his life to provide a legacy to the field of research on teaching.

Gage labored long to leave us his final vision of the field of research on teaching, in the form of a framework for a theory of teaching. He has in effect challenged us to continue his quest to demonstrate that research on teaching is a truly scientific endeavor. What better way to honor him and his memory than to take up that challenge, by considering the ideas he offers, and continuing the conversations and arguments with him, and with each other, that proved to be so interesting and so productive during his lifetime.


Alton-Lee, A.G., Nuthall, G.A., & Patrick, J. (1993). Reframing classroom research: A lesson from

the private world of children. Harvard Educational Review, 63(1), 50-84.

Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D.R. (Eds.) (2001). A taxonomy of learning, teaching, and assessment: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Bellack, A.A., Kliebard, H.M., Hyman, R.T., & Smith, F.L. (1966). The language of the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bloom, B.S., Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: Longmans, Green.

Cazden, C. (1974). Teaching as a linguistic process in a cultural setting. (Report of Panel 5, NIE Conference on Studies in Teaching.) Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Morine-Dershimer, G. (1985). Talking, listening, and learning in elementary classrooms.

Research on Teaching Monograph Series. New York: Longman.

Nuthall, G.A. (1999). Learning how to learn: The evolution of students’ minds through the social processes and culture of the classroom. International Journal of Educational Research, 31,


Porter, A. (1974). Research methodology. (Report of Panel 9, NIE Conference on Studies in Teaching.) Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Shulman, L.S. (1974). Teaching as clinical information processing. (Report of Panel 6, NIE Conference on Studies in Teaching.) Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Snow, R. (1974) Theory development. (Report of Panel 10, NIE Conference on Studies in Teaching.) Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 23, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15673, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:23:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Greta Morine-Dershimer
    University of Virginia
    E-mail Author
    GRETA MORINE-DERSHIMER is Professor Emerita of the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. She served as Vice President of Division K, Teaching and Teacher Education, of the American Educational Research Association, and is a former Editor of Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies. Her most recent publication is Classroom Management and Classroom Discourse, in Handbook of Classroom Management (Evertson, C.M. & Weinstein, C.S., 2006). She currently volunteers for two social action projects in Charlottesville, VA aimed at improving educational opportunities for low income and minority students.
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