3. Designing learning for teachers

Designing teacher learning is like any other form of learning design.

Teacher educators may hope teachers will learn knowledge and skills specific to teaching, but teachers learn just like any other human.  Teacher learning should therefore be designed in accord with what we know about learning more generally.

Teacher learning might helpfully be thought to include all three views of learning articulated in the last century: behavioural, cognitive and sociocultural.  Medical educators have moved from seeing learning in behavioural terms (focusing on practice, feedback, and small chunks of learning) via cognitive learning (drawing on prior knowledge, actively constructing answers) to social construction (learning in groups (Wilkinson and Irby, 1998)).  Teacher learning can be seen as incorporating features of all three.  For example, teaching is both a cognitive skill, in which teachers draw on and develop their knowledge structures, and an improvisational activity, reflected in teachers’ choices of behaviour in social contexts (Livingston and Borko, 1989).  Teachers need to be able both to make good decisions – a cognitive skill – and to act effectively on those decisions (McDonald, Kazemi and Kavanagh, 2013).  Teacher education must therefore attend to:

  • Teachers’ knowledge structures: the basis for making instructional decisions
  • Teachers’ behaviours: techniques for putting those decisions into practice
  • Teachers’ contexts and environments: teachers’ ability to act and decide in ways which suit the school, class and moment

Teacher educators need to draw upon and build all three of these areas: good teacher education will integrate and create consciousness in all three domains.

  • Teacher educators should look to develop teachers’ thinking, actions and ability to act in social contexts.

3.1 Be domain and context specific

Learning is more likely to stick, and be used, if it fits teachers’ contexts.

Learning transfers from one context to another reluctantly, if at all.  Knowledge and expertise is domain specific: expertise requires knowledge and skill in a field, it is not a general skill (Bailin et al., 1999; Perkins and Salomon, 1989).  New learning is intimately linked to the context in which it is learned (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989): transfer is not impossible, but it is very unlikely without cues to transfer (see, for example, Gick and Holyoak, 1980).  Doctors cannot transfer expertise in one procedure to a similar procedure, or skill gained in one hospital to another hospital (Kirkman, 2013).  Conversely, students learn more when their teachers keep teaching the same subject and grade (Kini and Podolsky, 2016).  Developing techniques in isolation from teaching and from the subject discipline divorces teachers’ thinking from student learning and makes it hard to integrate what has been learned into the lesson (Coffey et al., 2011).  Likewise, general content knowledge, and knowledge focused on courses teachers do not teach seems to have no impact on student learning (Garet et al., 2016).

  • Any teacher learning must therefore be as specific as possible to the context in which it will be used: to the subject, topic and year group; to the location; and to superficial features of the teacher’s practice and behaviour in the classroom.
  • Longer-term, teacher educators will wish to promote transfer and reduce specificity, for example, asking teachers to demonstrate the same skill in different contexts: this should be introduced carefully and intentionally once teachers have strong foundations in the practices they are learning.

3.2 Treat novices and experts differently

Novices learn differently from experts: what helps an expert differs from what helps a novice.

Novices think and act differently to experts.  Experts display something which appears to be intuition, but reflects extensive experience, allowing them to see and think differently (Berliner 1988; Klein, 1998; Westerman, 1991).  This is because experts have intricate, organised knowledge structures committed to memory, which allow them to approach problems differently to novices and solve problems more quickly and accurately.  Novices have to work towards the desired solution, experts have the desired solution committed to memory as a procedure – and have to make fewer steps to get there (Larkin et al., 1980).  Experts think and decide fluently, having converted existing academic knowledge into a more useful and efficient knowledge based on the cases they have experienced (Schmidt and Rikers, 2007); they do not rely on analytic rules but on the patterns they perceive based on their experiences (Eva, 2005).  Since experts and novices think in different ways, learning for them must be designed differently.

Differing knowledge and skill means novices and experts learn in different ways.  Novices benefit from seeing models and worked examples, they may require extensive support; experts benefit from more open problems and can be distracted by the support novices require (Sweller et al., 2003; see also Deans for Impact, 2017).  Experts are better able to learn from experience, identifying what matters most and gaining new insights (Sternberg and Horvath, 1995).  There is no clear line at which a teacher switches from being a novice to being an expert: attempts to distinguish such transition points in other fields have proved challenging (Kyun, Kalyuga and Sweller, 2013) and have sometimes identified intermediate stages between being a novice and an expert with their own characteristics (Schmidt and Rikers, 2007).  Nonetheless, the bigger danger is in treating novices as experts: designing training for novices, such as focusing initial training on a handful of techniques, seems to help trainees, and their students, significantly (TNTP, 2014); novices need time to learn, the chance to learn routines and simple techniques to follow (Berliner, 1988).

Novices need clearly guided instruction to acquire knowledge and skills.  This includes the careful choice of the models they experience and supported reflection to identify critical points.


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Brown J., Collins, A., Duguid, P. (1989) Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher 18(1) 32-42.

Coffey, J., Hammer, D., Levin, D. and Grant, T. (2011). The missing disciplinary substance of formative assessment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(10), pp.1109-1136.

Deans for Impact (2017) Building Blocks. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

Eva, K. (2005). What every teacher needs to know about clinical reasoning. Medical Education, 39(1), pp.98-106.

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J. B., Walters, K., Parkinson, J., Smith, T. M., Song, M., Garrett, R., Yang, R., & Borman, G. D. (2016). Focusing on mathematical knowledge: The impact of content-intensive teacher professional development (NCEE 2016-4010). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

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Harry leads our Fellows course. He is a former English and history teacher and has taught internationally. He has been head of careers, history and professional development in schools and has trained teachers for Teach First, Teach for Sweden and Teach First Denmark. He has recently published Ticked Off: Checklists for Students, Teachers and School Leaders.

Harry Fletcher-Wood

Associate Dean, Institute for Teaching