Teachers as learners

by Louise Stoll, Jan McKay and David Kember, and M. Cochrane-Smith and S. Lytle

This page summarises ideas from three classic articles about teacher learning. As you read, you could consider how these ideas might impact on school professional development programmes.

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The influences on teacher learning

From: Stoll, L. (1999, January). "Realising our potential: Building capacity for lasting improvement." Keynote presentation to the Twelfth International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement. San Antonio, Texas.

This summary highlights eight features which can impact on the effectiveness of teacher learning.

Life and career experience

Teachers are influenced by what goes on in their lives, both on a daily basis and over time. Their priorities and lives are therefore important. Each teacher also experiences their own individual career pattern that influences their desire and readiness to engage in improvement activities.


Individuals’ perceptions and actions about changing and developing their teaching are highly influenced by what they believe, as well as by their knowledge. For example, some people believe that ability is inherited – you either have it or not – and, therefore, some children are unable to learn. Thoughts are also influenced by prior experience. For example, a teacher may resist learning a new government-promoted reading technique because she believes that teaching reading using this method does not work, based on 25 years of successful experience using a different method.

Emotional well-being

Daniel Goleman (1996) has argued that emotional intelligence influences students’ self-concepts and motivation. But teaching is also full of emotions. A school’s readiness for change is influenced by teachers’ psychological state. Neglecting interpersonal and psychological processes leads teachers to behave defensively to protect themselves from innovations that might expose their inadequacies, whereas valuing individuals as people and valuing their contributions enhances teachers’ self-esteem and builds trust.


Another influence is the detailed and deep knowledge a teacher has on general pedagogy and pedagogical content, as well as their subject discipline(s). This incorporates knowledge about each students’ strengths, weaknesses, home background, cultural experiences, and learning styles. It also includes teachers’ understanding of how their “deep knowledge” interacts with the classroom context; and a self-awareness, that enables them to be conscious of their own thoughts, feelings, intentions and behaviours, and of other’s values.


As Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman (1998) note, “Like the queen on a chessboard, the teacher with the most moves has the most options and the greatest degree of influence.” Individual teachers are influenced by the extent of their repertoire of teaching strategies and their ability to experiment with their own practice, by working through a learning cycle of: activity, reflection and evaluation, extracting meaning from this review, and planning how to use the learning in future. In particular, when teachers plan for students’ learning, their “bag of tricks” includes tasks and processes to promote active learning, collaborative learning, learner responsibility and learning about learning, and skills related to handling relationships.

Motivation to learn

Motivation is the starting point for learning. For a busy and often overworked teacher to devote effort to change and new learning, there has to be a good reason for the change: some sort of catalyst or urgency – a sense that “what I’m doing doesn’t seem to be working”. Also, faced with a new teaching strategy, the teacher needs to know it is practical and useful - “relevant to me in my classroom with these students”.

Confidence that (s)he can make a real difference

Without confidence in the likelihood of being successful, motivation is insufficient. In a study of Scottish schools the writer was involved in, carried out by the Institute of Education in London and the University of Strathclyde, virtually no teachers in one secondary school agreed that a survey statement, “Teachers in this school believe that all students can be successful,” reflected their school’s current situation. There was a deeply held belief by individuals that whatever they did could make little difference because of the students’ deprived social circumstances and students’ and parents’ low aspirations. Confident teachers believe that what they do can and does make a significant difference to their students’ progress and development at school and lives beyond school.

Sense of interdependence

Teaching has been described as the second most private activity, and yet the majority of humans are social animals with a need for connections, relationships, and social support. While many teachers may express individuality and choose, at times, to work and learn alone, some also see the potential within groups, and know they are their work benefit from collaboration.


Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (1998, April). Teacher talk that makes a difference. Educational Leadership, 55 (7), 30-34.

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Learning, 24(6), 49-50.

Stoll, L. (1999, January). Realising our potential: Building capacity for lasting improvement. Keynote presentation to the Twelfth International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement. San Antonio, Texas.

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The purposes for teacher learning

From: McKay, Jan and Kember, David. (1997). Spoon feeding leads to regurgitation: A better diet can result in more digestible learning outcomes. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(1), 55-67.

This article suggests that, depending on teachers’ purposes for learning, they will undertake either an efficiency approach (surface learning) or a more long-term approach that will lead to modifying practice and underlying values (deep learning).

Surface learning

Making changes to practice depends upon teachers learning something new, improving on something they already do or being helped to think differently about an aspect of practice. McKay and Kember (1997) have categorised teacher learning through professional development into two types. The first, surface learning, is concerned with implementing actions to make change with minimal effort. It is an efficiency approach.

One example might be where a teacher chooses to go to a two-hour course on questioning skills to improve the way they communicate with students. Another example might be where the same teacher informally asks a colleague for some ideas that will help to address issues they have with communication (Piggot-Irvine, 1998).

Deep learning

The second level, deep learning, focuses on gaining understandings, in substantial and long-term ways, which modify both practice and underlying values. It is an action research approach to professional development (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988). An example might be where a teacher gathers data to determine what currently happens with the ways they communicate with students, then implements several strategies to bring about change, and evaluates how effective these have been. In all phases of this process the teacher reflects on actions and their outcomes.

This element of reflection is crucial in the action research process and is typified by teachers who, as a matter of course, are conscious of what they are doing, why they are doing it – and ask themselves questions about the actions that they take and the decisions that they make.

Achieving deep learning which leads to change through action research involves discrete processes, like information gathering and reflection which need to be taught and modelled by another expert. Teachers who use these processes in an on-going way have often undertaken further learning at tertiary level, or are mentored in their own schools by other teachers who have undergone special training.


Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (1988). The Action Research Planner, (3rd ed). Geelong: Deakin University.

McKay & Kember. (1997). Spoon feeding leads to regurgitation: A better diet can result in more digestible learning outcomes. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(1), 55-67.

Piggot-Irvine, E. (1998) How “deep” do you go in appraisal? Good Teacher, Term 4.

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Three conceptions of teacher learning

From: Cochrane-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, (24), 249-305.

This summary examines the idea that there are very different conceptions of what teacher learning is. The authors explore three categories of “knowledge” in teacher learning: knowledge-for-practice; knowledge-in-practice; knowledge-of-practice.

Cochrane-Smith and Lytle point out that over the last 20 years teacher learning has become one of the most important concerns of the educational establishment; that it has been more or less assumed that teachers who know more teach better. This “simple” idea, they say, has governed multiple efforts to improve education in the area of policy, research, and practice by focusing on what teachers know or need to know. Here, they describe and critically reflect on three categories of what it means to know as a teacher.

Teacher learning, conception 1: Knowledge for practice

One of the most prevalent conceptions of teacher learning, this first conception hinges on the idea that knowing more (for example, more subject matter, more educational theory, more pedagogy, more instructional strategies) leads more or less directly to more effective practice. The idea here is that competent practice reflects the state-of-the-art; that is, highly skilled teachers have deep knowledge of their content areas and of the most effective teaching strategies for creating learning opportunities for students.

Implicit in the knowledge-for-practice conception is the assumption that teachers play a central role in educational change by virtue of their state-of-the-art knowledge through teacher preparation and continuing professional development.

Teacher learning, conception 2: Knowledge in practice

This conception puts the emphasis for teacher knowledge on knowledge in action. What very competent teachers know is expressed in the artistry of practice, in teachers’ reflections on practice, in teachers’ practical inquiries, and/or in teachers’ narrative accounts of practice. A basic assumption in the conception is that, to a great extent, teaching is an uncertain and spontaneous craft which develops in response to everyday classroom situations. Here the knowledge that teachers need to teach well is embedded in the practice of exemplary teachers.

Implicit in the knowledge-in-practice conception is an image of teaching as a wise action in the midst of uncertain and changing situations.

Teacher learning, conception 3: Knowledge of practice

From this perspective, both knowledge generation and knowledge use are regarded as inherently problematic. That is, basic questions about knowledge and teaching – what it means to generate knowledge, who generates it, what counts as knowledge and to whom, and how knowledge is used and evaluated in particular contexts – are always open to discussion.

In this third conception, knowledge-of-practice turns on the assumption that the knowledge teachers need to teach well emanates from systematic inquiries about teaching, learning and learners, subject matter and curriculum, and schools and schooling. Here both knowers and knowledge are also connected to larger political and social agendas.


Cochrane-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, (24), 249-305.

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