Michael P. Clough, Iowa State University

Craig A Berg, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee





Learning and effective teaching are both complicated acts. However, teachers and key stakeholders appear not to recognize those complexities and their significance for practice. Fueling this perception, recommendations from isolated research findings often neglect the complexities in learning and teaching and when implemented in classrooms have little or no effect. Consequently, education research is generally ignored, and the resulting research-practice gap raises issues regarding the utility of university-based teacher education. However, the strength of education research resides in the synergy resulting from its integration into a unifying system that guides, but does not determine, decision-making. This paper proposes a Visual Framework to help beginning and experienced teachers come to understand crucial teacher decisions and how those decisions interact to affect student learning. The proposed Visual Framework has significant utility in the design of science methods courses, science teacher education programs, effective student teacher supervision experiences, and professional development workshops.




Learning and effective teaching are both highly complex acts. Leinhardt and Greeno (1986, p. 75) write that, “the task of teaching occurs in a relatively ill-structured, dynamic environment.” Classroom conditions change in unpredictable ways, and information arises during the act of teaching that by necessity must inform performance as it occurs. Reflecting these complexities, classroom teachers make hundreds of non-trivial decisions each day working with children (Good and Brophy, 1994; Jackson, 1990, MacKay and Marland, 1978). However, the general public, policy makers, and even many teachers appear not to recognize these complexities. This is evident in widely held beliefs such as: 1) command of subject matter is sufficient for effective teaching; 2) effective pedagogical practices develop naturally through teaching experience; 3) teaching is simply a matter of personal style; and 4) teaching is essentially the passing of information from teacher to students. These beliefs manifest themselves in shallow traditional and alternative teacher licensure programs, back-to-basics fads, high stakes testing that reflects trivial knowledge, and simplistic business-model approaches to education.

Apparently teacher educators and teachers have poorly communicated the intricacies of effective teaching to key stakeholders. Fullan (1996) argued that one of the main reasons that teachers seem to be constantly defending themselves from external critics is that they cannot explain themselves adequately. He writes that:

Critics are increasingly using clear language and specific examples in their charges, while educators are responding with philosophical rationales (e.g. we are engaged in active learning). Abstract responses to specific complaints are not credible.  …What does it mean to say that educators cannot explain themselves adequately? Perhaps teachers do not fully understand what they are doing, or perhaps they are simply unable to articulate it. (p. 423)

The capacious and enduring research-practice gap in teaching reflects complex tensions and dilemmas (Anderson, 2002; Windschitl, 2002) within and between conceptual, pedagogical, cultural and political realms. However, this alone is an insufficient explanation as tensions and dilemmas exist in many fields where the disparity between research and practice is less pronounced. To make matters worse, oftentimes, the most vocal critics of education research are teachers themselves!  That large numbers of teachers don’t see the value of education research raises questions regarding what goes on in teacher education program. Perhaps as Berliner (1985) suggests, because teacher educators come from the ranks of teaching they:

“. . . see themselves as practical people, hired from or strongly identified with the world of practice. They believe in experience and apprenticeship as the major ways of learning to teach. This commitment has resulted in timidity about reading, critiquing, or using the scientific literature about teaching.” (p. 130)

Clough (2003) argues that the utility of education research is either muted or insignificant for understanding learning and teaching, unless it is collected into a coherent whole—into a research-based framework (RBF) for teaching science. He writes:

The research-practice gap exists to a large extent because, beginning in their teacher preparation programs, teachers quickly find that recommendations from isolated research findings have little or no effect in their classrooms. The linear thinking of elementary and secondary preservice science teacher education students is illustrated in their believing that the value of multiple behaviors and strategies is that if one doesn’t work, then they have others to try (Clough and Olson, 2003; Olson, In Press). (p. 16)


The fault for this general dissatisfaction with education research lies to some extent with education researchers and teacher educators who neglect to make clear that the complexities of teaching are not reflected in isolated research findings or even isolated lines of research. While research is often done in authentic classroom settings, when presented in the literature it is frequently disconnected from other research, thus not reflecting the complex interactions that are ever present in classrooms.

Teacher Decisions

What are some of the non-trivial decisions that teachers need to understand, how do these decisions interact with one another, and how can teachers be helped to understand these decisions and their complexities? Understandably, foremost in teachers’ minds is having something for students to do, preferably a task that students find interesting and will complete with little resistance. The very real need to have something for students to do often interferes with teachers thinking about the goals they have for students and how people learn. Duschl and Gitomer (1997, p. 65) noted that teachers see teaching as “dominated by tasks and activities rather than conceptual structures and scientific reasoning.” However, while teachers may focus on tasks and activities, in making those decisions they have also tacitly, and often unknowingly, made decisions regarding the developmental appropriateness of content (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000) and materials (Olson & Clough, 2001). Decisions regarding what science content to teach and tasks and materials that will help students make desired meaning are interrelated and should be thoughtfully made in light of desired goals for students and how people learn.

Ensuring that students’ classroom experiences are aligned with how people learn and desired goals also demands that teachers explicitly consider decisions regarding teaching models and strategies. Teaching models that reflect how students learn and promote desired goals include, but are not limited to, the learning cycle (Karplus, 1977; Schneider and Renner, 1980), the generative learning model (Osborne and Freyberg, 1985), the 5-E model (Bybee, 1997), search, solve, create, and share (Pizzini et al., 1989), and the science writing heuristic (Keys et al., 1999). Teaching strategies like Predict-observe-explain (POE), think-pair-share (TPS), and HRASE (Penick, Crow & Bonnstetter, 1996) should be chosen in concert with other teacher decisions for optimal impact on student learning. However, even if content, tasks, materials, teaching models and strategies are wisely chosen, desired ends are severely curtailed or thwarted without appropriate teacher interaction with students.

While interesting and developmentally appropriate content, tasks, and materials spark students’ curiosity and set a stage for learning, what teachers do during those tasks is crucial. Effective teaching is a highly interactive activity, but too often teachers have only vague ideas about how to create and maintain that kind of environment (Gallimore & Tharp, 1990). Several research-based teacher behaviors implemented in concert are needed to establish meaningful interactive environments to help students make desired connections. The questions teachers ask, the wait I & II they provide, the non-verbal behaviors they exhibit, and how they respond to students’ ideas together have an enormous impact on classroom environment, determining what students think, and helping students make desired connections (Clough 2002 & 2003, Southerland, Kittleson, Settlage, & Lanier, 2005). Yet teachers are largely unaware of their personal behaviors while teaching and the impact they have on students. For instance, teachers can, and often unknowingly do, convey the message that they do not value students’ ideas in a number of ways―by the kinds of questions they ask, the little time they provide students to think and formulate answers, their unintentional negative body language, ignoring unwanted student responses, and only acknowledging or using desired answers.

All the above teacher decisions interact with one another to create the learning environment. Moreover, teacher decision-making should reflect an incessant feedback loop—that is, content, tasks, materials, models and strategies, along with critical teacher behaviors and interaction patters are selected to move students forward while also assessing their thinking so that more-informed decisions may be made. However, Duschl and Gitomer (1997) note that teachers are rarely prepared to use student information in guiding and revising instructional decision making.

Figure 1 provides an overarching visual representation to help preservice and inservice science teachers conceptualize these many teacher decisions, and understand their importance and interactions. First generated by Clough and Berg in 1988, the Visual Framework has since undergone several iterations (Clough, 1992; Clough and Berg, 1995; Clough and Kauffman, 1999; Clough, 2003) leading to what is presented here. The Visual Framework makes explicit the crucial and incessant role of assessment in teacher decision-making. While the Visual Framework certainly does not capture all that goes into learning and teaching, it must be seen in its purpose of assisting novice and experienced teachers to make sense of the complex decisions they often unknowingly make moment to moment in the classroom.

Figure 1  Visual Framework Illustrating Teacher Decision-Making and Their Interactions


       Student Goals



                 consistent with




                                                Student Actions



                                    selected to promote             informs decisions regarding














selected to understand          informs decisions regarding





                  The Learner

Student’s Thinking

Student’s Self-efficacy

Student’s Prior Knowledge

Student’s Developmental Differences

Student’s Zone of Proximal Development









Understandably, attention immediately is drawn to the broad categories. However, of greater importance are the arrows conveying the importance of teacher decisions and their interactions. The overarching intent of the Visual Framework is to illustrate that all teacher decisions regarding science content, tasks, activities, materials, models, strategies, and teacher behaviors should be made in light of desired goals for students and how students learn. Clough (2003) provides extensive elaboration of each broad category, teacher decision-making, and the interaction among those teacher decisions.

Utility of the Visual Framework

Illustrating how pedagogical research best informs practice when it comes as a coherent package


All beginning teachers and many experienced teachers struggle to understand how all the decisions displayed in the Visual Framework coalesce to define the educational process. Attention is easily drawn to the more discernible polar extremes of more obvious decisions, rather than to subtlety, interaction and complexity. The problem is magnified with novices who, lacking automated routines for many teaching tasks, quickly find their working memory overwhelmed. In wrestling with the complexities of learning and teaching and the cognitive overload that often results, teachers’ thinking becomes piecemeal and black-or-white in nature. Teachers tend to view suggested ideas as either “working” or “not working,” and often fail to see how the success of a changed practice depends upon the simultaneous effective use of myriad other practices. Many experienced teachers face the same problem but for different reasons.

The following example illustrates the complex and subtle interplay of decisions and teaching practices. Beginning and experienced teachers often complain that students rarely become engaged in discussions. Several research-based teacher behaviors implemented in concert are needed to establish meaningful interactive environments. Teachers who improve their questioning are often frustrated when student interaction does not immediately increase. While questions set an academic mood, they alone do not encourage students to ponder and respond. Even effective questioning and appropriate wait-time are often insufficient for enticing many students to “risk” responding.

Answering a teacher’s questions, particularly in front of peers, can be a terribly intimidating experience for many students. An intellectually safe environment must be promoted, in part by exhibiting a number of encouraging non-verbal behaviors alongside appropriate questions and wait-time. Body language and how long a teacher waits for an answer communicates how open a teacher is to student responses.  Teachers who genuinely want student interaction will appropriately incorporate encouraging and expectant non-verbal behaviors such as smiling, proper eye-contact with students all around the classroom, movement around the room and among students, leaning forward when students are speaking, raising eyebrows to show interest, inviting hand-gestures  (Bavelas et al., 1995; Roth, 2001), positioning themselves to be at similar physical levels as students, and wait-time I and II (Rowe, 1974a & 1974b).

However, even more is required for promoting and maintaining student interaction. Carefully listening to students and sensitively responding to what they say is imperative for creating an intellectually safe environment that encourages students to bare their thinking. Rather than immediately evaluating student responses, teachers should encourage interaction by acknowledging student ideas, writing students’ ideas on the board, using student ideas as a focus for further instruction, asking students to elaborate, and asking for the implications of proposed ideas. This does not mean that all student answers are accepted as correct. Instead, by using student ideas for further thinking and discussion, the focus of the discussion moves from a sole concern for right answers to reasoning and justification for ideas (correct or incorrect), and in the process, students often find errors in substance and logic that lead them to revise their own thinking.

Clough (2003) refers to the synergy that results from effective questioning, positive non-verbals, listening, wait-time, and responding that further engages students as the central core of effective teaching practices. The importance of these behaviors is that they are the essential “tools” teachers always have at that their disposal for understanding students’ thinking, promoting student understanding of content, and advancing student learning. Moreover, it emphasizes that teaching is, above all else, an activity centered on human interaction that requires simultaneous attention to several crucial teacher behaviors.

But even if when a teacher’s interaction pattern reflects all the above, student discussion may be muted if the science content chosen is not developmentally appropriate, if the task is not somewhat meaningful, if needed experiences were not previously available for students to draw from, if helpful concrete materials are not available during the discussion, and/or if materials are developmentally inappropriate.

The crux of the matter is that “practical suggestions from research, when implemented in isolation, often result in effects that are either muted or non-existent” (Clough & Kauffman, 1999, p. 532.). The power of what we know about teaching and learning is in the synergy that results when research findings are collected into a coherent whole. The Visual Framework in figure 1 illustrates how many decisions must be made in concert to achieve desired ends, and that particular pedagogical research findings must be integrated and judged alongside other pedagogical decisions.

Illustrating how perceived contradictions and dilemmas in education research may be resolved

Teachers often complain that disparate education research findings appear to provide an array of seemingly conflicting implications for practice. This is nicely illustrated in a conversation that Bruce Joyce recounts having with Herbert Thelan regarding discomfort and learning. He writes:

At the University of Chicago, 30 years ago, I ended a conversation with Herbert Thelen by borrowing a copy of his Education and the Human Quest (1960); I spent much of the night reading the book. The next day we had a chance to talk again. Among the powerful ideas Thelen had generated, one left me most stimulated and uncomfortable—significant learning is frequently accompanied or impelled by discomfort. Sometimes he put it pungently: "The learner does not learn unless he does not know how to respond" (Thelen, 1960, p. 61).  . . . Thelen challenges the effects of the "norms of comfort and accommodation" (p. 80) that exist in so many classrooms and that mitigate against the argumentation and difficult, uncomfortable tasks that characterize effective instruction as he sees it. . . . My first reaction was confusion. Thelen's ideas appeared to conflict with what I had been taught regarding learners as fragile egos that had to be protected by a supportive environment, so that they would in fact feel comfortable enough to stretch out into the world. How can the learner be made comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time? I asked Thelen that question, and he only smiled and replied, "That is a puzzling situation you will have to think about." (Joyce & Weil, 1996, pp. 386-387)


This is indeed a puzzling situation, but one that illustrates well the complexities in teaching, the inadequacies of education research when considered separately, and the power of it when brought together into a coherent whole. A solution to this apparent contradiction is reflected in Sanford’s (1987) noting that exemplary teachers employ elaborate instructional devices, what she refers to as “safety nets” to encourage and support students through their discomfort associated with higher-level thinking tasks. Hence, an understanding of research associated with comfort, discomfort, and learning calls for teachers to create a warm and supportive classroom atmosphere where students feel safe in taking intellectual risks. At the same time, however, the academic expectations should push students toward cognitive discomfort associated with being near their proximal level of development where a student cannot alone comprehend an idea, but with appropriate assistance from a teacher or peer, the concept may be understood (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). Jones et al. (1998, p. 968) write that “These more capable peers assist development in the zone by prompting, modeling, explaining, asking leading questions, discussing ideas, providing encouragement, and keeping the attention centered on the learning context.”

Contradictions and dilemmas are part of any complex activity such as teaching. The Visual Framework illustrates that effective teacher decision-making must weigh many factors including desired student goals, how people learn, and the interaction among pedagogical practices. In doing so, perceived inconsistencies in education research findings can often be resolved.

Planning Lessons

Teachers’ lesson planning decisions are made sometimes with deliberate thought and sometimes haphazardly. Personal beliefs, the adopted textbook, colleagues and the institutional setting are major factors in planning and carrying out lessons.  The consistent findings from studies of science teaching practices reveal a generally inadequate consideration of how people learn (Bransford et al., 2000) and classroom practices that fail to engage children in meaningful learning (Weiss, et al., 2003). Sadly, What Goodlad (1983) wrote nearly twenty years ago would fit verbatim in any contemporary science education reform document:

One would expect the teaching of social studies and science in schools to provide ample opportunities for the development of reasoning: deriving concepts from related events, testing in a new situation hypotheses derived from examining other circumstances, drawing conclusions from an array of data, and so on. Teachers listed those skills and more as intended learnings. We observed little of the activities that their lists implied, and teachers' tests reflected quite different priorities—mainly the recall of information.  The topics that come to mind as representing the natural and social sciences appear to be of great human interest. But on the way to the classroom they are apparently transformed and homogenized into something of limited appeal. (Alfred North Whitehead's words on the uselessness of inert knowledge come to mind.) (p. 468)


When planning lessons, teachers often struggle when asked to express how they decide what science content within a discipline is worth teaching. Rationales are post-hoc and rarely reflect deep thinking about the structure of the discipline, how students learn, and other important factors. Too often the selected textbook defines the course scope, sequence, and depth implying that a textbook's inclusion of information, in part, legitimizes teaching that content (Weiss, 1993; Weiss et al., 2003). Textbooks also exert a significant influence on how content is taught—from the sequence of material to the manner in which it is presented (Weiss, et al., 2003).

            The Visual Framework reminds teachers that deciding what content to teach in a lesson, as well as decisions regarding tasks, activities and materials should reflect how people learn and promote desired student goals. Using the Visual Framework as an organizer for planning lessons emphasizes the need to coordinate one’s thoughts and decisions through careful consideration of all parts of the framework, to use educational research as a filter, and to consider the synergistic and compounding relationships between parts of the framework. The Visual Framework is helpful for keeping in mind key decisions in planning and preparing to teach lessons and units, and that the crucial role of the teacher is foremost in that thinking.

Emphasizing the Crucial Role of the Teacher

Effective teaching promotes a highly interactive environment. While interesting and developmentally appropriate content, tasks, activities and materials spark students’ curiosity and set a stage for learning, what teachers do during a lesson is crucial. Teachers exert the greatest influence in the classroom through the way they mentally engage students in a lesson. However, the overwhelming layered complexities of learning and teaching often cloud the value of important findings regarding the teacher’s role in creating powerful learning experiences for children. Too often teachers ignore or downplay their own behaviors and interaction patterns and how those significantly influence the education experience (Olson et al., 2004). Whether or not a teacher is consciously aware of their classroom behavior, they develop quite consistent interaction patterns that change surprisingly little from one classroom context to another. Understanding the learner and promoting desired goals depends a great deal on how teachers interact with students (Shymansky & Penick, 1981; Tobin and Garnett, 1988; Weiss et al., 2003). The Visual Framework illustrates that a teacher’s behaviors and the resulting interaction pattern will interact with other decisions and significantly influence the teaching and learning process.

Guiding Self-Reflection On and In Action

The Visual Framework may also serve a useful role for assessing and improving one’s own practice. The Visual Framework helps make explicit many important decisions teachers must consider in planning and conducting effective lessons. Making these decisions explicit is important for understanding why a lesson went well and providing a basis for trouble-shooting when things don’t work (Schon, 1983, pp. 60-61). Greater work, concentration and responsibility are demanded of teachers moving from common didactic practices to more interactive ones (Cohen, 1988), and the Visual Framework helps teachers identify at what they must work harder, on what they must concentrate, and what precisely are the larger pedagogical responsibilities demanded. In doing so, the Visual Framework presents a natural mechanism for self-reflection—both on action and in action. Reflection on-action entails analyzing practice after teaching a lesson. For instance, when reviewing audio and videotapes of practice, the Visual Framework helps teachers see events and complex interactions that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Reflection in-action, during the act of teaching, is extremely difficult because it requires a teacher to quickly process both what they are doing and what students are doing and immediately use both in making pedagogical decisions. Schon (1983, p. 164) refers to a practitioner’s ability to both shape a situation while taking in information that will influence further decision-making as “double vision” and this depends on “certain relatively constant elements brought to a situation otherwise in flux.” For instance, as noted earlier in this paper, lack of student participation in a class discussion may be due to a multitude of factors that include, but are not limited to, the following:

·        Content that is beyond students’ development level

·        Lack of concrete materials or inappropriate materials that confuse students

·        Poorly asked teacher questions

·        Inappropriate wait-time I and/or II

·        Passive teacher non-verbal behaviors

·        Inappropriate teacher responses to previous student comments

·        Students needing more time to process information.

Keeping the Visual Framework in mind during the act of teaching can help teachers keep in mind the multiple factors they should consider when making pedagogical decisions in action. For instance, in the above example if a teacher has good reason to think students need more time to process information, then implementing a think-pair-share strategy might be the appropriate decision to make.

            Accurate and effective reflection in-action requires that teachers understand how multiple factors coalesce to define the education process. Inherent in this is an incessant feedback loop—activities, materials, and even content, along with critical teacher behaviors and strategies are selected to move students forward while also assessing their thinking so that more-informed decisions are made that repeat the cycle. The Visual Framework has utility in helping address a crucial problem noted by Duschl and Gitomer (1997) that teachers are rarely prepared to use student information in guiding and revising instructional decision making. This requires much effort, time, and experience, but from rich reflection-on-action episodes come more meaningful and productive action plans for improvement that, in time, make for better reflection-in-action. The “small wins” (Wieck, 1983; Rhatigan & Schuh, 2003) that follow can be placed within the overarching Visual Framework and, over time, are more likely to accumulate in a way that makes effective teaching a reality.

Helping Teachers Explain Themselves

Even the most well educated and determined teachers will face a number of institutional constraints during their teaching career.  These institutional constraints may simply be a lack of support for particular practices, but may entail formidable barriers or fierce attacks by certain stakeholders. Early in this paper we quoted Fullan (1996) who argued that teachers seem to be constantly defending themselves, in part, because they cannot explain themselves adequately. Echoing this same perspective, Windschitl (2002), in addressing the political dilemmas teachers face in moving from didactic to highly interactive practices, writes, “Without conceptual grounding, reform-minded teachers can generate neither coherent instructional strategies nor arguments to advance their aspirations past conservative gatekeepers in the school community” (p. 160). Some potential constraints that teachers face are:

·        Colleagues and administrators who attempt to mold new teachers into archaic practices.

·        Students who see current views of learning/teaching as foreign and resist such practices.

·        Parents who challenge a science teacher's classroom practices.

·        Archaic curriculum.

·        Required assessment practices that reflect archaic curricula, and views of learning.


Teachers cannot avoid the necessity of persuasively communicating the complexities of learning and teaching to others. Science teachers unable to articulate such a framework are open to many attacks for which they will have no convincing defense. This increases the likelihood they will return to archaic practices. The Visual Framework is useful in helping teachers understand the complexities of learning and teaching and frame their responses to stakeholders who are questioning their practices. That so many prospective and experienced teachers can at best only vaguely communicate the complex nature of learning and teaching degrades public confidence in schools, adds to the perception that teaching is not quite a profession, calls into question the utility of education research, and rightfully leads to a skeptical view toward teacher education.

Structuring Science Methods Courses and Programs

The Visual Framework plays a central role in our respective secondary science teacher education programs. Early in the program emphasis is primarily placed on understanding the persistent problems in science education and understanding how people learn. This provides a basis for developing a list of goals for students that has much in common with those appearing in Table 1. The chasm existing between the desired and actual state of science teaching exists for many reasons, but is due at least in part to the abstract nature of many student goals listed in Table 1. In making sense of education research, planning lessons, and reflecting in and on-action, teachers must have more concrete descriptors of student activity in mind. The importance of this is illustrated in the difficulties prospective and experienced science teachers often have when attempting to articulate what students ought to be observed doing that would be consistent with the goals advocated in Table 1.


Table 1. Common Science Education Goals for Students


Students will:


       1.  Demonstrate deep robust understanding of fundamental science concepts rather than covering many insignificant/isolated facts.


       2.  Use critical thinking skills.


       3.  Convey an accurate understanding of the nature(s) of science.


       4.  Identify and solve problems effectively.


       5.  Use communication and cooperative skills effectively.


       6.  Actively participate in working towards solutions to local, national, and global problems.


       7.  Be creative and curious.


       8.  Set goals, make decisions, and self-evaluate.


       9.  Convey a positive attitude about science.


     10.   Access, retrieve, and use the existing body of scientific knowledge in the process of investigating phenomena.


     11.   Convey self-confidence and a positive self-image.


     12.   Demonstrate an awareness of the importance of science in many careers.


      At least two very important insights emerge from articulating student actions consistent with each goal. First, student actions for various science education goals have much in common, making apparent the interconnectedness of student goals. This is critical in persuading teachers that promoting deep understanding of science content is linked to promoting other goals as well. That is, a deep understanding of fundamental science ideas requires attention to other science education goals such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, the nature of science and others that are often slighted. The overlap in student actions is also a blessing because promoting multiple goals does not require disparate pedagogical approaches.

      Second, a clear vision of congruent student actions raises practical questions regarding how to engage students in the complex cognitive tasks described by those actions. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks which way she should go, and is told, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” The Visual Framework makes clear that understanding the learner and having a clear vision of science education goals and congruent student actions are necessary for making effective decisions regarding:

·        What content to teach

·        What tasks and activities to implement

·        What materials to use

·        What teaching models and strategies to consider

·        What teacher behaviors and interaction pattern to exhibit

While student actions may serve as one important means to assess students’ progress, their role for teacher decision-making is more important. That is, at all times noting what students are (and are not) doing and saying, and what this conveys about the learner, provides cues that ought to immediately inform teacher decision-making. Again, the Visual Framework makes apparent that effective teacher decisions requires what Schon refers to as “double vision” ― attending to both the learner and desired ends in making pedagogical decisions.

            From this a more clear and relevant role for education research emerges. Much of the difficulty in making sense of education research lies in a failure to consider how it is or is not relevant to particular desired ends and how people learn. A vision of desired goals for students and an understanding of how people learn are both needed for selecting and making sense out of the vast educational literature. Different views of learning and/or different desired outcomes may call for different or more complex orchestration of practices. Without guidance regarding both the goals of education and how students learn, little basis exists to make sense of education research and to inform classroom practice. We use the Visual Framework as a focal point throughout our science education courses to introduce and revisit the complexities inherent in learning and effective teaching, and to provide organization to this complex and often chaotic environment. For example, the following are some ways we use the Visual Framework in our respective science teacher education programs:

  • Process all methods activities using the Visual Framework. When modeling effective and ineffective practices we explicitly draw students’ attention to the layered complexities of teaching represented in the Visual Framework.
  • Link readings to the components of the Visual Framework. For instance, readings regarding questioning, wait-time and non-verbal behaviors are linked to understanding the learner and promoting desired goals.
  • Have students use the Visual Framework to plan and critique lesson plans.
  • Have students use the Visual Framework to analyze videotape of experienced teachers and understand and gain insight into their decisions in-action.
  • Have students use the Visual Framework to analyze the layered complexities in their own classroom teaching practices.


Cooperating teachers sometimes struggle to clearly identify and communicate a student teacher’s shortcomings and how improvement is to be accomplished. Too often student teaching and accompanying supervision experiences are poorly linked to what students learned in their preservice program. The Visual Framework can be useful in guiding cooperating teachers’ and university supervisors’ coaching of student teachers to address these and other issues that occur during student teaching. For example, when student teachers face the inevitable classroom management issues and other instructional struggles, they often seek to blame the learner or seek quick fixes such as entertaining activities. Cooperating teachers and university supervisors can use the Visual Framework to pose questions that remind a student teacher to consider decisions made in the lesson that may account for undesirable student behaviors and lesson outcomes.

For instance, students’ lack of engagement and resulting management issues may partly result from cognitive challenges in a lesson being too far above or below students’ development level.  Or perhaps the cognitive challenges do not permit entry points for the variety of developmental levels existing among the many students in the class. What strategies (e.g. predict-observe-explain or think-pair-share) did the student teacher utilize to encourage all students to be mentally engaged? During periods of wait-time I and II, what non-verbal behaviors did the student teacher exhibit to maintain student engagement? When students are well behaved, what goals were promoted and what did the student teacher consciously do to promote those goals? How well did the student teacher probe students thinking and use that knowledge to promote desired understandings? All teachers, but particularly novices, must always be on guard not to equate quiet and compliant students with good teaching (Slater, 2003; Stofflett & Stefanon, 1996). Directing student teachers’ thoughts and reflections to the Visual Framework is an extension of efforts in the teacher education program to develop habits of thought and reflection on key decisions necessary for effective teaching.

Avoiding Fads in Education

            Disconnected research, as well as perceived and real conflicting implications for practice from isolated research findings, sends practitioners the message that anything goes when teaching. Effective use of the Visual Framework helps elicit conflicting beliefs, address contradictory recommendations from research, and reconsider research-based recommendations that “don’t work” in isolation. In making sense of learning and teaching, the Visual Framework helps classroom teachers and teacher educators identify early, and thus be less susceptible to, education fads (Slavin, 1989) and reforms that Cuban (1990) writes “return again, again and again” (p. 11). Keeping in mind enduring science education goals, how students learn, and the coherence of effective pedagogy provides a means to assess the latest “innovation” for its merits, and stay the proper course during recurring waves of ill-conceived school reform.


            Effective teaching is not simply a matter of subject matter content knowledge, personal style and experience, nor can it be codified into a list of “What Works”as put forth by Marzano et al. (2000). The research-practice gap exists to a large extent because, beginning in their teacher preparation programs, teachers quickly find that recommendations from isolated research findings have little or no meaningful effect in their classrooms. For example, the positive effects of the well-supported learning cycle approach can easily be negated by myriad variables including, but not limited to, the selection of developmentally inappropriate content, materials that interfere in learning, and/or teacher behaviors that do not encourage students to express their ideas and make the desired connections.

            The Visual Framework in Figure 1 is useful for making apparent and managing the layers of complexity that exist in learning and teaching. The Visual Framework is not intended to comprehensively address all that is required for effective teaching and learning. Even if such a framework could be created, it would be far too complex for organizing reflection prior to, during and after teaching. The Visual Framework serves as a useful and comprehensible starting point for discussions and reflections of teaching. The Visual Framework illustrates that the strength of education research resides in the synergy resulting from the integration of disparate research findings into a unifying system. Without some organizing framework, the enormous complexities of learning and effective teaching can easily overwhelm educators. Darling-Hammond (1996) writes that teachers and administrators have difficulty creating both learning-centered and learner-centered environments because in emphasizing subject matter content, they lose cite of students, and in emphasizing learners they lose cite of curriculum goals and the teacher’s’ critical role. Anderson (2002) reminds us that technical, political and cultural obstacles and dilemmas make the implementation of inquiry activities far more difficult than simply finding good activities and materials. Fullan (2001) captures the disjointed thinking often observed in classroom practice when he writes:

it is possible to change “on the surface” by endorsing certain goals, using specific materials, and even imitating the behavior without specifically understanding the principles and rationale of the change. Moreover, with reference to beliefs, it is possible to value and even be articulate about the goals of the change without understanding their implications for practices. (pp. 42-43, italics in original)


            Some may dismiss the Visual Framework, believing it reflects a bygone era of technical rationality in professional knowledge (Schon, 1983). The current academic climate in education research demands one to be almost apologetic when suggesting that at least some rational causal relationships exist in teaching. In the first chapter of the most recent Handbook of Research On Teaching (Richardson, 2001), Floden (2001, p. 14) writes, “Successful attempts to find causal connections refute the radical critics who deny the possibility of causal understandings in the human sciences.” However, the following eight chapters in Part 1 of the Handbook take up that radical and unproductive perspective and “leave readers thinking that researchers, practitioners, and policymakers should abandon hopes for research on teaching that can lead to improvements in education” (Floden, 2001, p. 13). Advocates of such an extreme view may choose to interpret the Visual Framework as mechanical and rigid. Use of the Visual Framework does not deny that effective teacher decision-making involves more than pure rationality. However, the constants that professional practitioners in any field, including teaching, bring to reflection-in-action include the overarching ideas that help make sense of complex situations (Schon, 1983, p. 270). Research, teacher education, and teaching have all benefited immensely from the recognition that cause-effect relationships alone betray the complexities of teaching and learning. However, learning to teach, reflection-on-action, and reflection-in-action can be promoted with an overarching framework to guide, not determine, what in the final sense, is the art of teaching.

            We are using the Visual Framework to challenge simplistic notions of learning and teaching, and narrow the research-practice gap. Using the Visual Framework to promote effective teacher decision-making is a moderate position between prevalent unproductive extremes. It recognizes the fallacy of teacher training and invariant cause-effect relationships in teaching, while maintaining that learning and characteristics of effective teaching are not as much a mystery as radical critics of rationality claim. This approach also recognizes the importance of personal experience while being keenly aware of its limitations (Kindsvetter, et al., 1989). It eschews using research findings as prescriptions for practice, what Fenstermacher (1983) calls “structural elaboration,” in favor of decision-making or “personal elaboration.” The proposed Visual Framework has significant utility in teaching, the design of science methods courses, science teacher education programs, effective student teacher supervision experiences, and professional development workshops.


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