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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

Art and Science of Teaching / The Inner World of Teaching

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All educators are keenly aware of the fact that what teachers do in the classroom has a strong relationship with student achievement. However, far fewer are aware of the fact that how teachers think in the classroom also has such a relationship. This relationship is indirect: What teachers think affects how they behave, and their behavior directly affects student achievement.
The relationship between the inner world of a teacher's thoughts and emotions and the outer world of a teacher's behavior has been recognized for years—in research on teacher expectations (Weinstein, 2002); teacher beliefs about collective efficacy (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2004); and teacher and student perceptions of self-efficacy (Dweck, 2000).

How the Inner World Works

Four generalizations about the inner world help explain its effect on behavior. First, people typically operate from well-rehearsed scripts that serve specific purposes. Consider a middle school science teacher who's presenting information to students about the cell membrane. The teacher is executing her "presenting information script," which helps students understand new content. This is one of many scripts she'll use throughout a lesson. Others include taking attendance, answering students' questions, wrapping up a lesson, and transitioning between activities.
Second, a teacher will continue with his or her current script unless some event interrupts the flow of that script. The teacher presenting her information script will continue to do so until, for example, a group of students in the back of the classroom turns away and begins to talk in hushed tones.
Third, the manner in which the teacher interprets an interruption dictates his or her behavior from that point on. For example, if the teacher interprets the students' turning away as a sign of disrespect, she may admonish the students for not paying attention. However, if she interprets the interruption as students being so interested in the topic that they began to discuss it among themselves, she will react quite differently.
Fourth, people have a built-in bias to interpret events negatively. This is quite possibly a legacy from our ancestors thousands of years ago who were well served by remembering—and learning from—negative experiences they had with predators (Seligman, 1993). Although this may have helped our ancestors survive, the tendency can make the modern teacher prone to interpret questionable student behavior negatively.
For example, assume that the teacher presenting the information about the cell membrane has had an experience in the past with students who disengaged from one of her lessons. When she asked those students to reengage, they refused, and the incident escalated out of control. On the basis of this negative experience, the teacher will tend to interpret any similar event as a threat and behave accordingly.

So What's a Teacher to Do?

  • How am I interpreting this event?
  • Will this interpretation lead to a positive outcome?
  • If not, what's a more useful interpretation?
Let's reconsider the teacher whose presentation has been interrupted by a group of students talking in the back of the room. The first question makes the teacher aware of her current interpretation, which is that students are clearly being disrespectful and trying to disrupt the class.
The next two questions help the teacher consider and implement more positive interpretations. The second question may spur the teacher on to realize that nothing very positive is likely to come from her current interpretation. She's already becoming angry with the students and may soon overreact. With this realization, the teacher considers the third question: What's a more useful interpretation? In response, the teacher takes a moment to reflect on the fact that she has no real evidence that the students are intentionally being disrespectful or even that they're not engaged. She decides to take a different approach: She will assume that, at worst, the students are simply distracted temporarily, and she will try to bring them back into the whole-class activity without being confrontational.

A Powerful Strategy

At its core, this strategy makes teachers aware that they operate in an inner world of interpretations that might or might not be accurate. Moreover, negative interpretations typically lead to negative outcomes, even when those interpretations are accurate. Most important, teachers always have the option of controlling and reframing their interpretations of student behavior to bring about the most positive outcomes available.

Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Hoy, A. (2004). Collective efficacy beliefs: Theoretical developments, empirical evidence, and future directions. Educational Researcher, 33(3), 3–13.

Marzano, R. J., & Marzano, J. S. (2010). The inner game of teaching. In R. J. Marzano (Ed.), On excellence in teaching (pp. 345–367). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Seligman, M. E. (1993). What you can change and what you can't. New York: Fawcett.

Weinstein, R. S. (2002). Reaching higher: The power of expectations in schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Robert Marzano is the CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Centennial, CO, which provides research-based, partner-centered support for educators and education agencies—with the goal of helping teachers improve educational practice.

As strategic advisor, Robert brings over 50 years of experience in action-based education research, professional development, and curriculum design to Marzano Research. He has expertise in standards-based assessment, cognition, school leadership, and competency-based education, among a host of areas.

He is the author of 30 books, 150 articles and chapters in books, and 100 sets of curriculum materials for teachers and students in grades K–12.

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