National Writing Project

A Theory of Teaching

By: Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Julie Dube, Tanya N. Baker
Publication: Authors and Issues Online Conference
Date: March 2003

Summary: This short selection from Strategic Reading gives the reader a clear sense of the connection the authors make between theoretical and instructional models. The authors describe their belief that teaching and learning are two-sided, requiring effort toward the process from both teacher and student.


Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy, 6-12 by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Tanya N. Baker, and Julie Dube by permission of the publisher. pp 26-30. Copyright 2001 by Jeffery Wilhem, Tanya Baker, and Julie Dube. Published by Boynton/Cook Publishers a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier, Inc., Portsmouth, NH. All rights reserved.

Facilitator Comments: This short selection from Chapter 1 of Strategic Reading by Jeffrey Wilhelm, Tanya Baker and Julie Dube gives the reader a clear sense of the connection made by the authors between theoretical and instructional models. The authors describe their belief that teaching and learning are two-sided, requiring effort from both teacher and student.

Models of Teaching and Learning: Flowing from Theory

About a year ago, my colleague Paula Moore and I were both thinking about the issues of theoretical and instructional models. We were both interested and troubled by the well-documented problem that very little actual teaching goes on in American classrooms, particularly in language arts classrooms (Durkin 1979; Hillocks 1986; Nystrand et al. 1997; Tharp and Gallimore 1988). For example, readings are typically assigned and then quizzed. Typically, teachers provide little or no instruction or support in how to read. I had given Paula some things to read by George Hillocks, and she, in turn, had provided me with some articles by Barbara Rogoff.

In one of life's coincidences, we both came to the same conclusion on the same night: that the Vygotskian-inspired, sociocultural-based, learning-centered model that both of us were coming to adopt and espouse was so radically different from the two most dominant models of teaching and learning (teacher-centered and student-centered) that most people had never considered it. We both decided this was because our new model was two-sided and required mutual effort and responsibility on the part of learners and teachers, whereas the dominant models were one-sided and placed nearly complete responsibility for learning with the student. As a result, the two-sided model required a completely different kind of classroom and definition of teaching –one that may not look at all like what we have all experienced during our own schooling.

In one chapter Paula gave me (Rogoff, Matusov, and White 1996), the authors write, "It is difficult for people with a background in one-sided models of learning to avoid assimilating the community of learners [a two-sided model these authors espouse] to the adult-run/children-run dichotomy" (389-90).

In another quirk of fate, both Paula and I created charts to show the differences in these models, and brought them to school the next day to share with each other! The chart displayed in Figure 1.4 is a combination of the two charts, though Paula Moore must be given the majority of the credit for it (see Moore, 1997).

Because the dominant models of teaching and learning in our culture are linear, one-sided models, it's been typical to consider students responsible for learning: in the curriculum/teacher-centered model the teacher is an adult who runs the show and transmits information to students, whose job it is to "get it." In this transmission model the teacher provides an information conduit to the student, who is solely responsible for receiving and later retrieving this data. This model is referred to variously as a teacher-centered, presentational, curriculum-centered, or an industrial model of education.

Others argue that education should be "student-run." Proponents of this view often cite constructivist notions by arguing that learning is the province of learners, who must necessarily construct their own understandings. Knowledge is acquired by learners in the process of their self-initiated inquiries and personal investigations. Again, it is the student who is responsible. No one else can "do" learning for them, and their achievement of new knowledge requires active involvement and personal exploration. This progressive model is often seen in workshop types of settings in which teachers provide an environment full of opportunities and materials with which students may choose to engage. This model is often referred to as student-centered, participatory, exploratory, or natural-process learning.

An entirely different point of view is proposed by researchers, theorists, and teachers influenced by Vygotskian psychology, and to some degree by Bakhtinian notions of dialogism (Hillocks 1995; Rogoff, Matusov, and White 1996; Tharp and Gallimore 1988). Rogoff, Matusov, and White (1996) propose to call this a "community of learners" model in that, as Vygotsky suggests, it involves both active learners and more expert partners, usually adults, who will provide leadership and assistance to the less skilled learners as they engage together in a community of practice. In this model, it is the teacher who is responsible for students' learning, or their failure to learn.

Communities of practice attempt to create meaning and solve problems in a real context. Rogoff, Matusov, and White write that learning is not about "transmitting" or "acquiring" knowledge, but is about "transformation," namely about transforming the nature of one's participation in a collaborative endeavor. As the learner's participation is transformed, for example, he becomes a more active and expert member of the community of practice, often moving from observer to participant to leader of collaborative activity. But the more expert partner's participation will also be transformed as she learns about new ways to teach and new ways to participate and how to change her roles relative to the changing roles of others. Everyone is learning and working together to achieve a common purpose that will be useful beyond the world of school. Rogoff and her colleagues argue that this two-sided model is a radical departure from the other two preceding models because both assume that learning is a result and function of one-sided action:

The community of learners instructional model supersedes the pendulum entirely: it is not a compromise or a "balance" of the adult-run and children-run models. Its theoretical notion is that learning is a process of transformation of participation in which both adults and children contribute support and direction in shared endeavors. (Rogoff, Matusov, and White 1990, 389)

These authors and many others (Bleich 1998; Collins, Brown, and Newman 1992) have argued forcefully that the sociocultural context in which learning occurs, and the way in which something is learned, are necessarily a part of the learning. Therefore, students learning according to different models would learn in different situations and in different ways. This would affect how they come to understand and participate with different aspects of how information is represented and used. So, each model results in learning of a very different kind. Our ranking activity at the beginning of this chapter helped to demonstrate this.

Our goal is for students to develop a wide repertoire of reading strategies that they can independently deploy in a wide variety of situations with a wide variety of texts, and our ultimate purpose is that they use these strategies to participate democratically in their communities and cultures. We find that applying Vygotskian learning theory to our teaching is what best helps us to meet these goals.



One-Sided Models
Sociocultural Model
Historical Roots Skinner, Pavlov, Thorndike Piaget, Chomsky,Geselle, Rousseau Vygotsky, Rogoff, Bruner, Hillocks, Dewey: Child and Curriculum Experience and Education
Theoretical orientation Behaviorism Progressivism Cognitivism Coconstructivism Socioculturalism
How learning occurs Transmission of knowledge: Teaching is telling Acquisition of knowledge Transformation of participation
Implications for instruction Both teacher and student are passive; curriculum determines the sequence of timing of instruction. Students have biological limits that affect when and how they can learn; teachers must not "push" students beyond the limits. Knowledge is a "natural" product of development. All knowledge is socially and culturally constructed. What and how the student learns depends on what opportunities the teacher/parent provides. Learning is not "natural" but depends on interactions with more expert others.
Student's role "Empty vessel" Active constructor Collaborative participant
Teacher's role Transmit the curriculum Create the environment in which individual learner can develop in set stages-implies single and natural course Observe learners closely, as individuals and groups. Scaffold learning within the zone of proximal development, match individual and collective curricula to learners' needs. Create inquiry environment

Dominant instructional activities Teacher lectures; students memorize material for tests Student-selected reading; student-selected projects, discovery learning Teacher-guided participation in both small- and large-group work; recording and analyzing individual student progress; explicit assistance to reach higher levels of competence
Who is responsible if student does not progress? The student: He can't keep up with the curriculum sequence and pace of lessons or meet the demands of a prescriptive school program. The student: He has a "developmental delay," a disability, or is not "ready" for the school's program. Often, family or social conditions are at fault. The more capable others: They have not observed the learner closely, problem-solved the learner's difficulty, matched instruction to the learner, made "informed" decisions, or helped the learner "get ready."


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