The Scholarship of Teaching

Ms Samantha Bolton, Dean of Studies

Schools are very different places now than they were a century ago, or even fifty or ten years ago. Friday 28 October is World Teachers Day, making it particularly appropriate to reflect upon the profession, and how the thinking which underpins it has grown and changed in recent times. Undoubtedly the revolution in technology which has characterized the twenty-first century has been fundamental to these changes. Alongside the visible differences between schools of past decades and those of 2011 sit those which are less obvious but equally significant.

The terms ‘teacher’ and ‘teaching’ are used to refer to a variety of people and behaviours ranging from skilled practitioners instructing others in a particular activity, to highly educated scholars challenging their students to think deeply and critically about issues of global significance. Clearly both types of ‘teaching’ are of value, although it could be said that the latter requires greater breadth and sophistication of thought. The scholarship of teaching, and indeed of learning, has undergone an exciting transformation which could be seen to be as revolutionary as the technology that allows students to access information and communicate with others. This transformation relates to the increased understanding of learning and what facilitates it. Essentially the work of scientists, psychologists and educators has resulted in deeper knowledge of how students learn and what effective learning behaviour looks like. The research and analysis being completed by scholars focuses on improving the understanding of learning as a process, which can be honed by addressing its cognitive and behavioural dimensions, is particularly important for teachers and students alike.

There are those among us who can remember classrooms in which students were seated according to their measured IQ scores or some other testing instrument. Those with the highest IQs were seated in a particular position and were the ones chosen to carry out certain tasks allocated by the teacher (Dweck, 2006). The inherent message was that those students were smart and consequently more worthy than their apparently less able peers. The concept of learning did not feature highly in such classrooms – a student’s fate was already determined by their performance on whichever assessment device was currently in favour. Teaching in this context was generally about the provision of information, the administration of testing and the enforcement of discipline. The notion of student engagement was often absent in such situations as was the concept that teaching and learning involved a complex relationship built upon a foundation of trust, the provision of challenge, the expectation of perseverance and the acknowledgement of difficulties. Teachers within this construct may have been experts in their particular disciplines but there was no intellectual rigour or sophisticated thought associated with the activity of learning. Thus, their scholarship was largely confined to their chosen discipline, whether it was History or Mathematics or Science or English, and rarely extended to consideration of what it meant to learn and how such a process could be fostered.

Perhaps the simplest way to summarize the change in thinking surrounding the educational scholarship of the last decade is that the focus has moved from external factors to internal ones. There is a wealth of sources outlining this approach. Arthur Costa writes about the importance of having ‘process as content’, citing in particular the need for students to ‘learn how to learn’ and of metacognition, or the capacity to think about their thinking. (2008, p.17). Educational psychologist JoAnn Deak outlines the importance of intellectual stretching, citing challenge and persistence as keys to brain development (2002) and Andrew Martin in his book, Building Classroom Success deals with the need to address fear of failure and build academic courage (Martin, 2010). The thread which unites the work of these people and countless others is the concept that cognitive function is influenced by behaviour. This link makes it imperative to engage and motivate students given that the student’s own level of application and the nature of that application is paramount.

The goal of engaging students in learning has become multifaceted, involving a suite of strategies and concepts. Research suggests that for learning to occur in its most productive form, educators need to address how students think about it. It is generally understood that those seeking to learn will be more successful if they are cognisant of the fact that learning is a process, which requires persistence, resilience and the capacity to reflect. These attributes combined, allow students to tolerate and manage failure resulting in them being willing to take the academic risks which lead to deep learning.

Research indicates that educators should allow students to witness and experience the difficulties of the learning process. Kort, Reilly and Picard (2001) suggest that it is important for teachers to model the difficulties of learning and to acknowledge that feelings of frustration, confusion and anxiety are part of the process. Students need to be able to sit with uncomfortable feelings if they are to achieve their learning potential.

It is clear from the literature that ‘learning about learning’ should be embedded within the curriculum in a systematic and thorough way. This includes creating opportunities for reflection to improve the quality of learning which occurs (VCAA, 2004). Jensen writes about the importance of having changes of tempo within a learning environment, saying that “teachers must allow students to have personal processing time after new learning for material to solidify” (1998, p.47). Thus the purpose of reflection is two-fold – it facilitates greater understanding of the learning process and allows individuals to think about how they learn best, as well as enhancing their ability to retain new material.

Internationally recognized educational scholar Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University has carried out significant research relating to student learning mindsets and how they impact on their learning (Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck, 2007).  At the basis of her work is the claim that individuals have an implicit theory of intelligence which means that they view their intelligence either as fixed or malleable. Dweck has instigated numerous studies in schools based on her ideas, revealing that those students with a malleable or growth mindset, that is a belief that their intelligence is a dynamic and expandable entity, experience greater success than those with a fixed view of their academic ability. She explains that this is because students who have the view that they can “grow their intelligence” are more inclined to take academic risks and benefit from the challenges they encounter. They are also more inclined to demonstrate the resilience necessary to persevere when faced with failure. These two attributes have been strongly linked to successful learning. A fundamental tenet of Dweck’s research is the suggestion that a growth theory of intelligence can be taught resulting in a change in a student’s learning mindset and consequently in their learning behaviours. This has significant implications for twenty-first century teachers, arming them with more tools to increase the learning capacity of their students.

Dweck’s work on mindset is given strength by the recent research focusing on the functioning of the brain. Arguably the most exciting development in the scholarship of learning to date, the notion of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to reorganize or rebuild itself through the formation of new neural pathways, appears to contradict the previously held belief that the brain is fixed with a defined capacity for learning which cannot be altered. This earlier belief meant that each student’s capacity to learn was seen as being predetermined by biology. Neuroscience has revealed that the brain is in fact quite different to this. The concept of neuroplasticity means that not only can brain function be improved by repeated activity, but that parts of the brain can rejuvenate and strengthen after some forms of injury. These ideas are the focus of Dr. Norman Doidge’s bestselling book, The Brain That Changes Itself (2008).  In this text Doidge asserts that people are able to improve their cognitive outcomes through consistent strengthening of neural pathways. Although most of the work in this area relates to brains which have been injured and has not been undertaken within an educational framework, it has enormous pedagogical implications. As a result educators have begun to write about the importance of acknowledging and articulating these links between science and learning. Professor John Geake from the University of New England prefaces his recent book, The Brain at School, with the rationale that “it is important for teachers to know about how cognitive neuroscience might inform their work” (2009). Clearly an understanding of neuroplasticity reinforces the conviction that through persistent effort intellectual progress can be made. This is an empowering notion for educators, lending a new level of importance to the action of engaging students and to the pedagogical practices implemented in classrooms.

The scholarship relating to education is continually evolving. This article has touched on some aspects of that scholarship which are of particular interest in a secondary school context. Essentially the message for teachers, parents and students is that teaching and learning is a precise and sophisticated activity which requires a persistent and critical approach. Science and educational psychology concur that significant learning gains can be made by students if they understand the process, are motivated to employ effective strategies and are able to tolerate the discomfort of intellectual struggle.


Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K.H. and Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, v78 n1 p246-263 Jan-Feb 2007

Costa, A. (2008). The School as a Home for the Mind. California: Corwin Press.

Deak, J. (2004). Girls will be Girls. New York: Hyperion.

Doidge, N. (2008). The Brain That Changes Itself. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Random House

Geake, J. (2009). The Brain at School. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Virginia: ASCD.

Kort, B., Reilly, R. and Picard, R.W. (2001). An Affective Model of Interplay Between Emotions and Learning: Reengineering Educational Pedagogy Building a Learning Companion. IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Techniques. Computer Society.

Martin, A. (2010). Building Classroom Success. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). Social, emotional and cognitive development and its relationship to learning in school Prep to Year 10. (2004). Victoria:VCAA.



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