Dr. Judith M. Newman


Language Arts, 1987, 64(7): 727-737

Learning to Teach by
Uncovering Our Assumptions

Judith M. Newman

One day Lee, a sixth grader, was struggling with some comprehension questions from his reader when he came to me for help. It was the kind of question where the students had to read between the lines and devise their own answers. I told Lee there was information on page 42 which might help him. A few minutes later he was back complaining he could not find the answer on that page. I sent him away telling him to take a closer look. A short time later he turned to Melissa, a student in his reading group, and exclaimed, "Melissa, let me see your reader to see if the answer is on your page 42!"

Mary MacDonald (1986), a teacher in one of my graduate classes, wrote this brief, amusing story at my prompting. I had asked the teachers to keep an eye on what was going on in their classrooms and to bring to class a couple of short descriptions of incidents which caught their attention. I saw the stories as a tool for conducting research on ourselves. These "critical incidents," as we came to refer to them, offered us a way of exploring our assumptions about language, about learning, and about teaching.

Although she knew it held an important lesson for her, Mary had a difficult time, at first, deciding precisely what the story helped her understand. After some discussion she was able to see how she'd inadvertently reinforced Lee's expectation that the meaning was indeed in the book by telling him to take a closer look at the page. Now she was able to consider what she might have done to help him discover that reading is an interpretive activity.

Our analysis of this incident, and many others like it, made us aware of the following:

Everything we do in the classroom is founded on a set of assumptions about learning and teaching, about knowledge, and about what counts as legitimate reading and writing. That is, each of us operates on the basis of what Chris Argyris (1976) calls our "action theories. "

Our beliefs about learning and teaching are largely tacit. We operate a good deal of the time from an intuitive sense of what is going on without actively reflecting on what our intentions might be and what our actions could be saying to students.

Our beliefs about learning and teaching can only be uncovered by engaging in systematic self-critical analysis of our current instructional practices.

We began using critical incidents as a way of finding out more about our current beliefs and about the assumptions underlying what we were doing in the classroom. We collected and shared stories which contributed to our understanding about language and learning and about our role as teachers. Sometimes the incidents confirmed what we believed; more often, however, we were forced to reappraise our assumptions. What these critical incidents often revealed, was a surprising gap between what we said we believed about learning and teaching (our "espoused" beliefs) and what our actions were conveying.

In the beginning, I didn't seem to have many stories from my own current teaching and I was bothered by that. Then, quite unexpectedly, I was inundated with stories. One night that week, finding myself unable to sleep, I jotted a number of incidents in a notebook.

It was at that point I realized something useful: the incidents which help us change as teachers aren't big events—they're the small, everyday, ongoing occurrences. I wrote:

I can see our learning opportunities come from comments made in passing, from a statement overheard, from something a student might write in a journal, from something we might read either because it confirms our experiences or because we disagree and have to consider what we believe instead, or because it opens possibilities we haven't thought about before.

I also realized the learning remains hidden unless we have some reason for making it explicit. Writing the stories down was important. It forced us to explain the situation to ourselves. Engaging in this kind of analysis alone wasn't easy. We needed to ask one another questions such as

why was an incident memorable?
what made it significant?
what did we learn from it?
how might we have dealt with that situation differently?

in order to see the point of the story and to talk about the underlying assumptions.

Learning about Learning and Teaching

Let me share an incident so you can see how I began exploring my own assumptions about learning and teaching. I was reading Sondra Perl and Nancy Wilson's last chapter in Through Teacher's Eyes (1986). In that chapter they summarize what they learned from their study of writing in a single school in upper New York State. One notion which struck a chord was their concept of "teaching as enabling." They made me think about how difficult it is to find a balance between "imposing judgement and allowing for students' spontaneity, between controlling students' actions and offering free rein."

That described perfectly what I was then experiencing with one of my classes. Early in the fall, I'd received an invitation to write a book about the "politics of language instruction." I had extended the invitation to the teachers and suggested we work on a collaborative effort but, while no one said anything specific about the invitation, the body language was definitely saying "No Way'." I let the invitation stand until, finally, one student was actually brave enough to write me a mail message letting me know she didn't want to be involved. Her message forced me to look at my intentions for those teachers, at what I was trying to accomplish with them, and at this particular "assignment" as they perceived it to be.

A number of them, I was sure, were feeling themselves on a very short rein. However, as I reconsidered my intentions, I realized I didn't want to abandon the book just yet. I felt the teachers were ready to try writing for an unknown public audience in order to experience how publication makes explicit the need for such writing conventions as spelling, grammar, punctuation, and text organization. (This wasn't, by the way, our first writing effort—we had already completed a number of short pieces and had compiled two class collections.) I thought about whether I was imposing my agenda on them, taking away ownership, limiting their choices, or whether I was putting them in a situation which would help them grow. I decided to let the task stand, realizing that time would tell If the teachers were able to find their way into some writing, I would have facilitated their exploration; if they simply compiled, if they wrote to placate me (and their writing would show that—it would have little vitality), then I'd have imposed my intentions and I'd have to deal with it later on.

Frank Smith (1981) discusses the problem of students' interpretation of teachers' intentions in his article "Demonstrations, Engagement and Sensitivity" He argues students are learning all the time but that what they could be learning may not be what we think we're teaching. My story is about just such a clash of interpretations. On the one hand, I thought I was extending an open invitation: "write about a teaching or learning incident that seems important to you and we'll see how the stories come together." The teachers, on the other hand, heard me saying "write on this topic." Not only that, I was making them feel extremely vulnerable because none of them had ever written anything for publication before. It took quite a while for the teachers to believe I was really just inviting them to explore; that it didn't matter whether we actually produced a publication, only that we wrote with that intention in mind. This incident helped me consider the kind of invitations I was extending to my students and how they might not be perceived as I was intending them.

Mary Jane Cadegan (1986), an elementary resource teacher, relates an incident with one of her students which helped her see the gap between her intentions and the student's perception of the situation.

Seven-year-old Jason began writing very long pieces which were remarkable for their strong voice, sophisticated language, and touches of humor. Jason was quite willing to revise for meaning and to insert sentence markers. He was also quite willing to circle words he recognized as misspelled. Unfortunately, this resulted in a page awash in circles because Jason knew the invented spellings he was using were not conventional. When faced with the prospect of making a "good" copy from the lengthy revised and edited version, he was overwhelmed. After laboring through two experiences, he turned 10 me one day and announced, "I think I'll start to write shorter stories." "Why?" I asked him. "Because I can't stand writing all this stuff again. It's too hard."

As she worked her way through this incident, Mary Jane was able to look at some of her assumptions about making what she called "a good copy." A part of her resource room activity involves having students reread their writing for any unconventional spelling. She would then help them with the conventional form, but in order to draw their attention to the conventional spelling of these words, she felt it was important for them to copy the corrected writing. What Jason helped her see was that, at least for him, her insistence on recopying his stories was leading him to choose to take fewer risks as a writer. She had to ask herself what was more important for his writing development at that point in time. She decided to support his growth as a storyteller rather than force attention to spelling. She did the recopying for several weeks, only drawing Jason back to that aspect of writing when she saw indications of his increased spelling proficiency.

A Learner-Centered Classroom

Since the uncovering of our assumptions often reveals a contradiction or imbalance within us as teachers, this revelation is usually a prompt toward not only new understanding but also toward change on our parts. A direction in which many teachers are currently changing is a way of teaching alternative to a traditional teacher-centered approach. Uncovering our assumptions through critical incidents can help us understand the nature of this learner-centered alternative and how to practice it.

Trying to be what Douglas Barnes (1976) calls an "interpretive" teacher is not easy. Few of us have any experience with other than "transmission" teaching where much of what the teacher does is based on three assumptions: the meaning of things in the world is immutable and independent of observer and circumstances, reality consists of discrete elements or building blocks which exist independently of one another, and reality as a whole can be known by understanding each of its constituent elements. However, Barnes' notion of teaching as "interpretation" presents a quite different view. From an interpretive perspective, reality is inseparable from the individuals who construct it, the meaning of a situation is determined by the situation itself, and knowledge is an artifact of our continuous encounters with the world. From an interpretive stance the educational focus is on learning and on ways of creating contexts which allow learners to make sense of the world collaboratively.

For example, Susan Settle (1986), a second grade teacher, explored a situation which helped her see her interpretive role more clearly. She told the following story:

One particular child, Carrie, had been reading her story called "Mom's New Vase." It caught my attention immediately because it was one of the best stories she'd written to that point. She had included several new elements in her story creating an interesting opening and plot. However, it wasn't until she made a suggestion to another child that I discovered something else she had done. She had told Shawn that he could change some of the "said" words to make his Story more interesting. I saw, then, she had done exactly that herself. Later, I asked Carrie how she had decided to use such a variety of words. She explained that she had referred to the chart posted in the classroom. Chart? It took me a moment to realize she was referring to a chart I had started a week or so before. The children and I had been reading about trade between countries. One child had asked what the word "coaxed" meant. Matt had responded that it was a word used like "said" and we then carried on with our discussion about trade. At the end of the day I had listed "said" and "coaxed" in a chart titled "Words Used in Dialogue" and posted it, thinking I'd use it later when I had the opportunity to "teach" about dialogue. Then I'd promptly forgotten it.

Writing about the incident helped Susan realize that, instead of delivering "lessons" in a formal structured way, responding to her students' queries let her offer information that was directly relevant for what they were doing. What surprised her was the fact that a passing comment and a titled chart could have such an impact on what the students learned. Without further assistance from her, in fact without her even being aware of it, the students engaged in what could be called a "vocabulary lesson." The original lesson had been only incidental. What Susan began to realize was that she didn't have to be teaching from the front of the classroom at all times. She could, instead, lead from behind.

Like Susan Settle, Wayne Serebrin (1986) learned about the resourcefulness of his students and their ability to solve their own problems with just a hint of support from him. He describes a brief encounter with Kristen, a seven-year-old first grader who liked to write about her guinea pigs, Olga and Boris.

... on this day her writing was not coming easily. Kristen wanted to "make a funny story about Olga and Boris" but was having trouble getting started. She squirmed uneasily in her seat. Shrugging her shoulders, she looked up at me from her heavily-erased page. "Well," I ventured, "how would one of your favorite authors make Olga and Boris seem funny?" For a brief moment she puzzled over the "help" I had offered. Then, with a confident "I know," she stood up and pushed past me on her way to the book corner. She emerged clutching a well-worn copy of one of James Marshall's George and Marsha stories. I was no longer needed. I returned to the table where I had been writing and watched her.

This incident helped Wayne discover the importance of a timely question. Rather than launching into a dissertation on how to write comedy, his question put Kristen in touch with a favorite author who could show her how to do what she was trying to do. Notice he didn't suggest a particular book or author; instead, in response to her difficulty he merely asked her to think about how one of her favorite authors might create such a situation. The rest he left to Kristen.

These are just some of the powerful insights to interpretive teaching which critical incidents can provide. A number of other incidents yield a more extensive and systematic listing of some of the key characteristics or traits of a learner-centered approach to teaching.

Leading from Behind

This question of what kind of support we should be offering is a crucial one. A comment made by a teacher recently made me think about the issue once again myself. I had just read an article by Allan Neilsen (in press), "Critical Thinking and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act," in which he discusses a problem many teachers have with their changing role. He points out that

One of the most disturbing interpretations of learner-centered education is the one which sees any action on the part of the teacher as interference with the student's right to be independent and to determine her own destiny. When accepted uncritically, this notion can cause teachers to feel sufficiently guilty or at least sufficiently uncertain about their role that they become paralyzed into inaction. They not only "back off" for fear of being interventionist, in effect they often back right out of the classroom.

Neilsen's comments about the role of the teacher in a learner-centered environment came immediately to mind when Christine described something occurring in her classroom. She explained how her first graders were doing quite a bit of writing—writing in journals, sending mail, and so on—but she was bothered that they weren't actually writing in the writing center. The children would go to the writing center, take out the markers, crayons, and paper and draw like crazy, but they weren't doing much writing there. I suggested she remove the blank paper and substitute lined paper instead.! predicted the invitation extended by lined paper would be different from blank paper. "But I didn't think I was allowed to do that," she said.

Here was precisely the problem Neilsen is addressing: the belief that learner-centered teaching means "hands off." I explained that I believe teachers have an important role in the classroom, most aptly described by Montessori (1948), I think, when she deals with "the prepared environment." She's arguing that teachers have a responsibility for creating a context which offers as many of the desired opportunities as possible; that means building in as many subtle constraints as we can so students are guided by the obvious aspects of the situation.

Take the example of the lined paper. Lined paper, unlike blank paper, says "Write on me!" I'm certain many of the children will create and not draw on lined paper if it's offered.! realize I may be removing some aspect of student choice with my paper selection. If I want to reinstate it, I can create a drawing center with materials which obviously invite art efforts. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to set up situations that make invitations as clearly as possible. If the invitation is misinterpreted, then I need to play around with the situation to see in what ways I can influence how the children use it. What keeps this "experimenting" from completely removing the element of choice for the learner is that I haven't said the children can't draw in the writing center; what I've done is increase the probability they'll write instead. If that doesn't work, I'd experiment with other ways of making the invitation stronger. I might place photocopies of wordless picture books on the table so the children could compose their own text for the stories; I could also offer shape books (small blank notebooks, again with lined paper—perhaps with occasional blank pages for drawing—and a cover of some sort, cut into different shapes: hearts, squares, Christmas trees, houses, and so on). My point is, it's perfectly legitimate to set up the environment so that specific invitations are being extended.

Sustaining Learning

I've thought about my role as teacher a great deal in the last year. I'm beginning to understand how extending invitations or creating a prepared environment is only a start. We also have to think about how to sustain engagement, how to support students' struggles, how to celebrate their accomplishments, as well as to help them examine their strategies more closely. During a recent workshop with some junior and senior high school teachers I had some useful insights about how I do all of these. The focus of the day was on writing and reading for learning. I'd offered the teachers a difficult text passage to work with, something none of them knew anything about. I'd asked them to read the passage quickly, trying simply to get a feeling for what it was about, and then had them jot gist statements on a small piece of paper. Next, they collaboratively identified what they saw as the elements of the argument. As we went along it became apparent to me, not through anything specific anyone said, that what I was doing as a teacher was quite different from how they perceived their role. They saw themselves concerned primarily with content while I was more interested in initiating and sustaining processes. I was using material with a definite content (in this case about the growth of soot particles in wood stoves), but what I was trying to help these teachers discover was what reading and learning strategies they themselves used and to explore how writing could actually enhance their handling of difficult material. While apparently a rather loose learning structure, what became obvious to me was how much of the situation I was maneuvering to sustain them at the task and to help them talk about what' they were finding out both about content and about their writing and reading strategies. I was helped to see how I was constantly evaluating what they were doing and saying, how I was sustaining their engagement in the activity by asking a focusing question, making a procedural suggestion, or offering a bit of background information to help them out.

Responding to something a teacher wrote in a journal let me clarify further what I think sustaining engagement entails. Adrice commented on the difficulty she was having trying to be an interpretive teacher. She wrote that she was never sure about how much direction to offer. In my reply I commented:

What I'm seeing more clearly in my own teaching is that I give a lot of direction, I take responsibility for setting things in motion, for doing enough preparation so that the jumpoff invitation will catch as many students as possible. I monitor their reactions, try to follow what's going on so I can help them over hurdles, work to keep them interested, involved, and in touch with their own investigations, and attempt to bring closure by helping them reflect on what they've been finding out, both about content and the tactics they used.

I assume considerable responsibility for initiating experiences and provide a great deal of direction during class. However, the "control" I exert is procedural. I rarely talk about content myself, although I build in loads of opportunities for the teachers to read and discuss material on a range of issues. They become familiar with what major researchers in the field have to say and have considered how these ideas might be implemented in the classroom. I don't tell them what to know or believe; that part of the enterprise is their responsibility.

I try, with everything I do, to leave students enough room to make sense for themselves; yet at the same time, nudge them toward a collaborative interpretation. I don't refrain from "telling" when I'm asked a direct question, or when I think I have something to contribute to a discussion. I also share my musings about class happenings so the teachers can reflect on how I'm teaching them and how they might take on a similar role themselves. As I wrote in one journal:

Even though I play a prominent role in what's going' on, I would argue that we have an interpretive," "transactional" context going because I'm not expecting you to come up with my meaning—I'm pushing you to sort out your own. I admit I'm attempting to structure the experience so that you may come to value the things I value—the point is, however, I can't ensure you'll end up knowing or believing what I know or believe; that's impossible.

Making Meaning

Gordon Wells (1986) succinctly describes the problem of students constructing meaning. He argues:

Meaning making in conversation should be a collaborative activity. But where there is a considerable disparity between the participants in their mental models and their linguistic resources, the more mature participant has to make adjustments in order to make collaboration possible. Unfortunately, teachers often forget how different from their child's is their own model of the world. ... Their goal is, rightly, that children should come to see the world from a similarly mature perspective but, in the way that they engage in conversation, they fail to recognize that their perspective cannot be transmitted directly but must be constructed by children for themselves, through a process of building on what they already know and gradually elaborating the framework within which they know it (p.89).

This is the perennial problem I face as a teacher. How do I set up a context so there is a gradual movement toward a consensus of interpretation that approximates what I and some of my colleagues currently understand, How do I let teachers in on what I believe without giving it the weight of authority? Row do I help them explore the contradictions between the beliefs underlying what they do in such a way that they can deal with the discomfort of having to change some of those beliefs? And all of this at the same time as we're trying to make sense of a complex body of research information; trying to make connections between what prominent researchers believe and what we are trying to do as teachers. My problem is the same as other classroom teachers. How do we create a learning context that supports what we want our students to explore in such a way that they are able to create a meaning of their own which comes close to that of the larger interpretive community?

Surrender and Acceptance

Then there's the problem of what to do when everything I try seems to have little impact. Not long ago I was brought face-to-face with the issue of who really controls learning.

I recall the time we were writing "learning stories" and everyone was struggling to get a handle on revising. The others were trying to capture some striking personal incident. But not David. In fact, he'd described an interesting learning experience in a recent journal but saw no connection between what he'd written there and what we were trying to write just now. I mentioned his journal to him when he contended he had no learning stories to tell. Next class he had a piece with him but he'd done little with it beyond what he'd written in his journal. The conference began with him thrusting his paper at me. I slid it back toward him, asking him to describe the point of what he'd written. He recounted the story. I asked him what ii was he wanted his readers to understand. He seemed perplexed and didn't answer. I attempted a different tack; how had he tried crafting his piece of writing? Had he worked at making it amusing or serious? He couldn't say. Well, perhaps he might want to think about the point of the story and how he was trying to relate it. "But it's finished," he contended. "Doesn't feel like it," I commented. "But I'm not going to work on it any more," he said.

I had expected that a teacher who enrolled in a graduate course would be prepared to be a participant. I was thrown by David behaving like a reluctant ten or twelve year old, refusing every invitation. There were many times that year when I had to fight the temptation to explode at him. Instead, I tried being supportive, encouraging, and helpful, but in the end he had to decide whether to engage or not. He chose not to. I ask myself if I could have done anything differently. Was there some way I could have drawn him in? I tried a variety of tactics—I shuffled groups to no avail, I tried to help him freewrite, to conference with other students, but his participation was always half-hearted.

I came to appreciate that no matter how much I might want to teach, the students control what they learn. Although I have a responsibility for setting up inviting situations, in the end they determine just what risks they're willing to take. If they reject my invitations I have to dream up new ones, but ultimately the decision to learn is theirs, not mine. I had to accept that David had made his decision.

Teaching as "Research"

Glenda Bissex (1986), in her exploration of teaching as research, attempts to dispel some assumptions about the meaning of "research" and how it relates to classroom teachers. She points out that a teacher-researcher is an observer, a questioner, a learner. Teacher-researchers focus on what is happening at hand; they try to understand the ongoing events of their classrooms: I wonder how much students think about reading outside of class? Teacher-researchers question their educational assumptions; they're continually trying to make sense of their students' interpretation of the tasks and activities they set them: I wonder if children really have to learn to read before they can begin writing? Problems become questions to investigate; new ways of teaching become opportunities for learning: what would happen if I shared my writing with my students? Teacher-researchers are learners; they don't make a separation between those who "know" and those who "do"; they begin to trust their own ability to find out.

What Bissex doesn't mention is the role of "surprise" in uncovering our assumptions. It seems to me the switch into "researcher" occurs at those moments when the unexpected occurs, when things haven't gone as we thought they should, or when our predictions are disconfirmed and we're forced to see a familiar situation with new eyes. It's generally when I'm unsettled about something that's happened, and reflect on it, that I become aware of another critical incident. The trick is to become adept at noticing those moments and doing something about them. June McConaghy (1986), in her discussion of research as a way of knowing, offers one useful technique for capturing a few such incidents. She suggests we keep a running daily log or journal in which to record brief sketches of the stories as well as our thoughts about what these incidents might reveal. Take the following excerpt from one teacher's journal:

When I sat down and examined what my actions were really doing, I was very upset. I took a long and hard look at what my original goals were and how I could achieve them more effectively. The problem was with the hidden messages which I did not intend to send.

How does a teacher allow students to make their own choices about their learning and still have an accurate view of their literacy development? I find the first step is to have more trust and faith in them. ... My problem is that most of my controlling is very low key and at times unconscious on my part.

This is what scares me the most. It is much easier to correct or change things which are obvious and out in the open. If the problem lies in the hidden messages, that takes a great deal more thought. The biggest problem lies in the fact that you must be aware of the problem before you can begin to deal with it.

I have found that reading and writing have helped me go beyond, or should I say, beneath the surface of my beliefs and actions. Sometimes the picture which is exposed is not one I'm comfortable with. ... In essence, the journals and the readings are acting like a camera—a camera with double capabilities: it takes photos as well as X-rays helping me see beneath the surface of what I do.

Rebecca has definitely become a teacher-researcher. She's become an observer and a questioner. She has a much clearer picture of what she believes both about literacy and about herself as a learner. She's now examining not only her classroom practices but also the beliefs which underlie those practices.

Changing what we do in the classroom in any meaningful way involves changing attitudes and beliefs, but before we can change our attitudes and beliefs we have to know what they are. The only route I know to uncovering our instructional assumptions is to delve beneath the surface of what we are currently doing. Critical incidents offer us one powerful way of doing just that.


Argyris, Chris. Increasing Leadership Effectiveness. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1976.

Barnes, Douglas. From Communication to Curriculum. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1976.

Bissex, Glenda. "On Becoming Teacher Experts: What's a Teacher-Researcher?" Language Arts, 63 (1986):482-484.

Cadegan, Mary Jane. "I Can't Stand Writing All This Stuff Again." Language Arts, 63 (1986): 533-534.

MacDonald, Mary. "Looking For Answers." Language Arts, 63 (1986): 436-437.

McConaghy, June. "On Becoming Teacher Experts: Research as a Way of Knowing." Language Arts, 63 (1986): 724-728.

Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of :he Child. Adyar, Madras India: Kalakshetra Publications, 1948.

Neilsen, Allan. "Critical Thinking and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act." In J. Harste & R. Carey (Eds.). Critical Thinking, NCTE Yearbook, in press.

PerI, Sondra, & Nancy Wilson. Through Teachers' Eyes. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986.

Serebrin, Wayne. "A Writer and an Author Collaborate." Language Arts, 63 (1986): 281-283.

Settle, Susan. "Leading from Behind." Language Arts, 63 (1986):660-661.

Smith, Frank. "Demonstrations, Engagement and Sensitivity." Language Arts, 58 (1981): 103-112.

Wells, Gordon. The Meaning Makers. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986.

This article was published in Language Arts, 1987, 64(7): 727-737.