Here are the rules for teaching

The other day I had a brief but frank discussion with one of the preservice teachers in our primary education program. She is a student in the final year of the program, and is committed to additional practicum service/internship in a local state (public) school. She was telling me about her experiences at her practicum school and complaining about the stark differences between what they were requiring her to do, and what we (across the education program, her initial teacher education) had been preparing her to do.

On her practicum, she is being directed to teach using a particular set of strategies, presented in a particular order, in every lesson. This prescription gives her little scope to differentiate; to work with students who have different prior knowledge, different interests, learn at different paces, or have different needs. She struggles to engage students who she describes as particularly “bright” (pick knowledge and skills up quickly, know and understand ideas without articulating them, are focused, and ready to learn) and students who are behind (need more time to learn new ideas and skills, or have trouble integrating new ideas with old ones, lose focus quickly, or are unprepared for the activity). Every lesson is planned for the students in the middle, who pick things up with a little bit of practice, and can play the school game sufficiently well. Some parts of her lessons are scripted. Regardless of the subject or topic she is teaching, she is expected to use the same strategies over and over again. The prescription isn’t just about what and how to teach, but also how to manage student interactions and behaviours, and even how the class desks must be laid out! The entire scheme is justified, she said, on the basis that it is “research-based.”

My description of this situation raises all the issues I ranted against in this series of posts, an example of inappropriate application of evidence to justify prescription.

Our education program prepares preservice teachers to make decisions as they plan and prepare to teach, and as they are teaching, and to use judgment as they reflect on their students’ learning and their own experience. To enable this we critically explore and discuss educational, psychological, sociological, and pedagogical theories. Unfortunately for my student, as a pre-service teacher she is being given little scope to practice her decision-making.

Teachers progress through several stages as they grow from a novice towards expertise (Berliner, 2004). Most of our graduating teachers are novices. And that’s okay. 

While pedagogical strategies and subject matter knowledge are taught (and assumably, learned) in pre-service teacher education, some researchers have theorised that just as in any domain, or for any skill, teachers improve the quality of their teaching through regular reflection on new and changing experience. Expertise is specific to a domain, to particular contexts within a domain and is developed over hundreds of thousands of hours of practice (Berliner, 2004). In a review of several international studies, Berliner arrived at the conclusion that it takes five to seven years to acquire proficiency as a teacher “if one works hard at it” (2004, p. 201).

Berliner (1994) has adapted the five-stage heuristic theory for expertise development proposed by Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986) to the context of teaching. Berliner’s description of the five stages of teacher expertise development presents an opportunity for teachers to reflect on and improve their skills and practices, in general and in particular domains.

A teacher in the first stage of development has limited classroom teaching experience, but extensive practical knowledge about subject matter and pedagogy. Without sufficient contextual knowledge, novice teachers tend to apply algorithmic rules regarding teaching and learning without considering the context, and to do so inflexibly, conforming to those procedures and policies they have learned without question.

In their first years of teaching, experience helps teachers to build some conditional and strategic knowledge about when to follow or break the rules they have learned about both teaching and learning. Berliner describes these teachers as “advanced beginners.” Advanced beginners are consolidating their content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and developing their contextual knowledge, and in doing so, integrating their knowledge in these domains into pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), necessary for becoming a competent teacher (Gess-Newsome, 1999).

But what happens if novice teachers are not given scope to “break” the rules? If there is no room to adapt their teaching practice the many-layered contexts in which they teach, about which they’re developing valuable and nuanced contextual knowledge?

Prescribed practice such as that described by my preservice teacher constrain their capacity to test and rehearse different strategies, which means they never have a chance to improve through experience and reflection. They may never gain the opportunity to improve beyond the first or second level of expertise. There is no expertise gained from following the rules.

My experience is that each year many of our preservice teachers graduate from their program with sufficient experience in the classroom, and deep reflection on their experience, that they have developed a more nuanced understanding and contextual knowledge about the subjects that they teach, the students that they work with, and the pedagogies they use. They are already Advanced Beginners, and ready to move beyond “the rules.” But first year teachers need opportunities to test their ideas, try different strategies and tools, develop and apply new approaches, and reflect on their practice to grow their expertise as teachers, so that they can grow into the competent, proficient, and expert teachers they can be.


Berliner, D. C. (2004). Describing the behavior and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 24, 200-212.

Gess-Newsome, J. (1999). Pedagogical content knowledge: An introduction and orientation. In J. Gess-Newsome & N. Lederman (Eds.), Examining pedagogical content knowledge (pp. 3-17). The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.