What is Teaching Practice?

It’s often when you stop and think, as I’ve done in the past few weeks, that you can stumble over the most basic question. In an effort to think more clearly about the basic elements of my teaching practice, I need to answer this question. With all my years of experience, I thought it would be easy! I’ve been teaching many years in a variety of contexts, ages, and stages, within physical, face to face places, and in digitally enabled spaces. What makes up my teaching practice?

What is teaching practice?

The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) outlines five key components or standards of teaching: commitment to students and student learning, leadership in learning communities, ongoing professional learning, professional knowledge, professional practice. The four ethical standards include care, trust, respect, and integrity. I wonder how this holistic view of professional practice connects to the art and science, and the complexity of actions, moves, and thinking that is involved in teaching? Is teaching practice limited to only those actions that relate to student learning – identifying learning outcomes, sharing content, providing learning activities, assessing learning (Paskevicius & Irvine, 2019) – OR can teaching practice be viewed beyond the act of teaching. How do the standards outlined by OCT connect to current contexts for remote, distant, online, and digitally dependent teaching practices.

As I dug a little deeper, I turned to the familiarity of high leverage teaching strategies. Do these help in defining what a teaching practice is or is not?

High leverage teaching practices derive from five key concepts, according to TeachingWorks (http://www.teachingworks.org/work-of-teaching/core-ideas). These include (rephrased from web-site):

  1. Teaching develops knowledge, skills, and abilities that are purpose driven.
  2. All students can and should learn at high levels.
  3. Teaching and learning are active sense-making processes.
  4. Teaching and learning are interactive, co-constructed and collaborative.
  5. Classroom contexts matter. Teachers manage and use contexts to support learning.

From these five core concepts come 19 high leverage teaching strategies. These do not identify ‘practice’ per se, but do outline some of the teaching moves and actions that expert and effective teachers apply. Examining these within the context of remote, distanced, and digitally enabled teaching may be a necessary step in current times. Do these strategies look the same for Kindergarten, Grade 8, or higher education contexts when teaching remotely?

What prompted this question was the re-reading of an interview with Dr. Paul Kirschner. It’s titled “Constructivist pedagogy is like a zombie that refuses to die”. In terms of media, this title grabs attention. The contrasting stance in the interview was not new, but now in the re-reading, it shifted my thinking about teaching practice.

Kirschner bemoans the fact that constructivist teaching, iterated in ‘innovative’ or ‘experiential’ teaching, won’t go away and is hindering the use of effective teaching strategies like direct instruction that expert teachers apply.

“…researcher John Hattie has shown to be unique to expert teachers. They have deep conceptual subject knowledge and an understanding of the substance should be communicated as well as a deep conceptual knowledge and skills in teaching / didactics. Good learning requires good teachers who can adapted for the students. You can’t do this by posting lessons on YouTube.” ~ Paul A. Kirschner

This rings true in current #PivotOnline teaching practices. In this time of COVID-19 and the requirements for remote and distance teaching, or learning, this is a particularly important question. What is teaching practice? How are teachers ‘practicing’ their craft when the students are socially and physically distanced from the teaching action or the teaching context? How does distance or tech/no tech impact the ability to teach?

Kirschner was asked: What distinguishes an expert teacher?

It’s important to point out that you can be an experienced teacher but still not be an expert in teaching. An expert teacher has deep conceptual knowledge of her or his subject area as well as a good didactic ability to reach out to her or his students. To achieve pedagogical expertise, it’s crucial that you have good insight into educational and learning psychology so that you know how learning takes place in the human brain. Knowledge of our cognition should be the most important part of a teacher training program.” ~ Paul A. Kirschner

The importance of knowing and having pedagogical expertise is the critical point here. It’s not because our brains are suddenly different or can process information differently because of the technologies we are using. As Kirschner emphasizes, the evolution of our brain structures haven’t changed since cave-dwelling days. We still learn in biologically primary or secondary ways. Cognitive theory reveals that short term and long term memory works the same way.

What has changed is how these tools and technologies shape our ‘becoming‘ (Ihde & Malafouris, 2019) within our culture, our world, our relationships with each other. Teaching practice, and teachers’ knowledge, includes an understanding of cognitive science and how biologically primary and secondary knowledge is taught and learned. Specifically, cognitive load theory and collective/collaborative learning (Kirschner et al., 2018), or how to provide effective instruction (Rosenshine, 2010). These are not necessarily included in all teacher education, instructional design, or how-to-teach-online crash courses.

“We also know that there is evolutionary primary and evolutionary secondary knowledge. The former is something we need to survive as a species. It has been evolutionarily ‘hardwired’ into how we think and develop. We learn this almost automatically without instruction, such as our ability to recognize our mother and communicate with each other and, thus, acquire our first language. The secondary is all cultural, such as how to read and write and use mathematics. That is something we need school and instruction for.” ~ Paul A. Kirschner

So, teaching practice in online, digitally enabled spaces needs to be taught and requires its own kind of teaching practice. This is not just about instructional design, but there is instructional design involved. It’s not just working out the pedagogy of teaching with technology, but that’s in there too. It’s going to require a shift in Faculties of Education, in teaching accreditation programs, and in teachers’ perceptions of what ‘teaching practice’ is all about. This extends into the research on TPACK as framed in this graphic:

“Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org”

There’s a ‘sweet spot’ in the centre of these elements! That’s where the magic of learning happens, and the magic of teaching practices shine!

For my teaching practice, it circles back to writings by Parker J. Palmer. My teaching practice is a reflection of everything I am and do as a teacher, since it mirrors my persona and identity, both physical and digital. As Palmer (2017) states, when I come face to face, either physically or virtually, with my students, I have command over one thing, “my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches—without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns … good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 4). This is as true in open, digital, online, and virtual spaces as it is in a physical classroom context. This teaching practice is a complex and negotiated ‘thing’.

In my experience, this practice is just that – practicing! Not perfect, not perfection, not even planned in many cases. My teaching practice consists of a multitude of micro decisions and major experiments in teaching, never getting it quite right, but learning more about what to do or not do the next time. As any Olympic athlete can attest, it’s through the practicing that the perfect can emerge.

It’s a process from catalyst to ideas, actions into reflections. That’s part of my teaching practice.

The sum total of my internal ethos, my acts of hospitality, my ways of knowing, my ways of being “teacher”, as demonstrated in how I negotiate into educational spaces, with students, using digitally enabled teaching activities, whenever and wherever appropriate, presenting learning opportunities, exploring and collaborating on assessments, all while maintaining a relationship with my students in all their humanity – this is my teaching practice.

I’ll end with this thought – in the midst of troubling times for teachers. This describes my teaching practice and my dependence on others, including my students, to help me ‘become‘ a practicing teacher.

“Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.” (Eze, 2010, p. 190-191)

I Teach Who I Am


Eze, Michael Onyebuchi (2010). Intellectual history in contemporary South Africa. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-62299-9. pp. 190–191.

Ihde, D., & Malafouris, L. (2019). Homo faber revisited: Postphenomenology and material engagement theory. Philosophy & Technology, 32(2), 195–214. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-018-0321-7

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F., & Zambrano, J. (2018). From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning13(2), 213–232. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11412-018-9277-y

Ontario College of Teachers. (2020). Standards of practice. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://www.oct.ca/public/professional-standards/standards-of-practice

Palmer, P. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Paskevicius, M., & Irvine, V. (2019). Open Education and Learning Design: Open Pedagogy in Praxis. Journal of Interactive Media in Education2019(1), 10. https://doi.org/10.5334/jime.512

Rosenshine, B. (2010). Principles of instruction. UNESCO International Academy of Education. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/Educational_Practices/EdPractices_21.pdf

Skogstad, I. (n.d.). ”Constructivist pedagogy is like a zombie that refuses to die”: An interview with Paul A. Kirschner. Retrieved April 16, 2020, from http://isakskogstad.se/constructivist-pedagogy-is-like-a-zombie-that-refuses-to-die/ 

Image attribution: Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

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1 Response to What is Teaching Practice?

  1. Denise says:

    A heartfelt article Helen
    Well done!!

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