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June 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 9

A Framework for Learning to Teach

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Teachers learn best by applying clear standards of practice and by engaging in active learning.

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Educational psychologist Lee Shulman (2004) illustrated the complexity of teaching by comparing the fields of teaching and medicine. He noted that teachers have classrooms of 25–35 students, whereas doctors treat only a single patient at a time. Even when working with a reading group of 6–8 students, teachers are overseeing the decoding skills, comprehension, word attack, performance, and engagement of those students while simultaneously keeping tabs on the learning of the other two dozen students in the room. "The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity," Shulman pointed out, "would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster" (p. 258). He concluded that classroom teaching "is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented" (p. 504).
Most teachers would concur. No preservice preparation program, regardless of its quality, can adequately prepare teachers for all they need to know. The complexity of the craft requires ongoing teacher learning. Indeed, learning to teach is a career-long endeavor. The most experienced teachers acknowledge, frequently with pride, that they are still perfecting their craft.
Teaching is not only extraordinarily complex work, but also essential work. The United States depends for its future well-being on an educated citizenry and a well-prepared workforce. Schools need to graduate students who can successfully navigate a complex world.
Many school factors, such as the quality of the curriculum and instructional materials, the master schedule, and the level of learning support for students requiring extra help, contribute to student learning and can help prepare students for their lives beyond school. But as many studies have shown, the single most important factor within a school's control in promoting student learning is the quality of instruction.

Good Teaching Defined

To create the conditions for improved teaching, one must first define good teaching. Many schools and districts (as well as some states and a few countries) have adopted the Framework for Teaching (Danielson, 2007) as their definition of good teaching. The framework is a research-based set of instructional components that are grounded in a constructivist view of learning and teaching and are aligned to the 10 principles of the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.
Although the framework is not the only definition of good teaching that educators can use to structure professional learning, it has been an important part of the education scene since it was first published in 1996. Teachers now widely accept it as capturing the essential components of their practice. The Framework for Teaching describes those aspects of a teacher's practice that have been demonstrated, through both empirical and theoretical studies, to promote student learning. It divides the complex work of teaching into four major domains—planning and preparation, the classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities—each of which contains five or six smaller components (see fig. 1). Each of the 22 components consists of several smaller elements, which serve to fully describe the component.
Figure 1. The Four Domains of the Framework for Teaching

Figure 1. The Four Domains of the Framework for Teaching

Domain 1: Planning and Preparation

1a: Demonstrating knowledge of content and pedagogy

1b: Demonstrating knowledge of students

1c: Setting instructional outcomes

1d: Demonstrating knowledge of resources

1e: Designing coherent instruction

1f: Designing student assessments

Domain 2: Classroom Environment

2a: Creating an environment of respect and rapport

2b: Establishing a culture for learning

2c: Managing classroom procedures

2d: Managing student behavior

2e: Organizing physical space

Domain 3: Instruction

3a: Communicating with students

3b: Using questioning and discussion techniques

3c: Engaging students in learning

3d: Using assessment in instruction

3e: Demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness

Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

4a: Reflecting on teaching

4b: Maintaining accurate records

4c: Communicating with families

4d: Participating in a professional community

4e: Growing and developing professionally

4f: Showing professionalism

Source: Adapted from Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (2nd ed., pp. 3–4), by C. Danielson, 2007, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2007 by ASCD.

<P ID="story1">How can the framework help guide ongoing teacher learning? For each component and element of the framework, specific levels of performance describe a continuum of teaching, from unsatisfactory to distinguished. (Listen to a <XREF TARGET="discussion">discussion of the four performance levels</XREF>.)
Figure 2 shows an example of the performance levels for the elements in one component: using questioning and discussion techniques. Looking at the element of student participation, for example, a teacher can clearly see what teaching practices are considered unsatisfactory (a few students dominate the discussion); basic (teacher attempts to engage all students in the discussion but with limited success); proficient (teacher successfully engages all students in the discussion); and distinguished (students themselves ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion).
Figure 2. Sample Performance Levels for Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques

A Framework for Learning to Teach-table


Performance Level

Quality of QuestionsTeacher's questions are virtually all of poor quality, with low cognitive challenge and single correct responses. They are asked in rapid succession.Teacher's questions are a combination of low and high quality, posed in rapid succession. Only some invite a thoughtful response.Most of teacher's questions are of high quality. Adequate time is provided for students to respond.Teacher's questions are of uniformly high quality, with adequate time for students to respond. Students formulate many questions.
Discussion TechniquesInteraction between teacher and students is predominantly recitation style, with the teacher mediating all questions and answers.Teacher makes some attempt to engage students in genuine discussion rather than recitation, with uneven results.Teacher creates a genuine discussion among students, stepping aside when appropriate.Students assume considerable responsibility for the success of the discussion, initiating topics and making unsolicited contributions.
Student ParticipationA few students dominate the discussion.Teacher attempts to engage all students in the discussion, but with only limited success.Teacher successfully engages all students in the discussion.Students themselves ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion.
Source: Adapted from Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (2nd ed., p. 82), by C. Danielson, 2007, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2007 by ASCD.
Any definition of good teaching rests on certain assumptions; those of the Framework for Teaching concern the active nature of student learning and the consequent need for teachers to offer lessons that enlist students' natural curiosity and drive for learning. The framework alters the conversation about teaching because, in the words of a New York educator, "Teachers begin to think in terms of what students will say and do and how students will respond as a result of decisions made by the teacher." This shift has created a demand for professional development focused on student engagement and learner-centered practice.

Active Learning

Stand-alone workshops and courses have been demonstrated to have little effect on teacher practice (Guskey, 1999). Far better results have been achieved through job-embedded approaches that incorporate professional learning activities into the daily work of teachers.
I use the term professional learning rather than professional development because the latter suggests that teacher development is something that others can arrange—that one person can do to another. In fact, learning is done by the learner through an active intellectual process that involves three essential features: self-assessment, reflection on practice, and professional conversation. As Shulman (2004) explained, Authentic and enduring learning occurs when the teacher is an active agent in the process—not passive, nor an audience, not a client or a collector. Teacher learning becomes more active through experimentation and inquiry, as well as through writing, dialogue, and questioning. Thus, the school settings in which teachers work must provide them with the opportunities and support for becoming active investigators of their own teaching. (pp. 513–514)

Opportunities for Teacher Learning

As the following school activities illustrate, educators can become "active investigators of their own teaching" through a two-pronged approach: by applying clear standards of practice and by incorporating the essential features of self-assessment, reflection on practice, and professional conversation.

Mentoring and Induction

In a well-structured induction program, trained mentors engage in professional conversation with beginning teachers about their practice. Because the Framework for Teaching enables novices to see what the components of good teaching look like, it can serve as a basis for these conversations. For example, a beginning teacher who may be struggling with managing student behavior can see what constitutes an unsatisfactory teacher response to student misbehavior as well as what the progression from unsatisfactory to basic to proficient to distinguished might look like.
Mentors bring a nonjudgmental point of view to these discussions, and novice teachers are able to reflect honestly, without fear of reprisal. Under the guidance of the mentor, a beginning teacher can explore, for example, the thinking behind the myriad decisions he or she made in designing the lesson and consider what consequences might result from making different decisions.
In these conversations, mentors question beginning teachers in ways that promote self-assessment and reflection. Questions such as, Did you depart from your plan? If so, how and why? and How did the modification improve the lesson? convey that adherence to a plan is not necessarily good; what is important is that teachers think clearly about their practice and focus their thinking on student learning. Making necessary modifications to one's practice on the spot is an important skill learned through experience.
Of course, the fundamental reflection question—particularly useful in a mentoring conversation—is, If you had a chance to teach this lesson again to the same group of students, what would you do differently? A teacher might respond, "Well, now that you mention it, I don't think the directions for the activity were clear; I'd better revise them before I do this lesson again" or, "I discovered that I should never put those two students together! They didn't concentrate on their work." Such a question conveys that regardless of how successful any lesson is, it can probably be improved.
In-depth professional conversations can have a significant effect on the practice of new teachers. A new 4th grade teacher pointed out how effective such conversations are when they focus on specific components of teaching practice: When I was a first-year teacher, I was always nervous when my principal came to observe my classroom. He always told me afterward that I was "wonderful" and that he was lucky to have me. This "feedback" was given to me many times. During my second year of teaching, we had a new principal (who had been trained in the Framework for Teaching). When she observed, she collected evidence around the components, and we discussed it in our post observation conversations. These conversations were extremely meaningful to me; however, I did often think later, "But was I wonderful?" I share this story with you because I grew leaps and bounds as a teacher with my second principal, and I have been given a confidence vote by being asked to mentor other beginners. My first principal made me feel good, but I learned nothing.
Beginning teachers are not the only ones to benefit from a well-designed and well-executed mentoring program. The mentors themselves find value in focusing their attention on teaching practices that promote high levels of student learning, and they often reconsider their own practice in the course of working with their beginning teachers. In fact, many mentors report that their own teaching has improved as a result.

Professional Development

  • Self-assessment and goal setting. Teachers engage in an annual process of self-assessment and goal setting, which is sometimes embedded in a district's teacher-evaluation system. From this they derive their individual professional development plans. For example, a teacher might determine that she had never mastered the techniques of cooperative learning and now wants to add that approach to her repertoire. Her plan would consist of a number of steps, such as reading a book or an article, attending a workshop, observing a teacher in the school who is experienced in cooperative learning, asking a colleague to observe and provide feedback on her efforts, and so on.
  • School and district professional development planning. In many schools and districts, one outcome of teachers' self-assessment and goal setting is that site and district administrators become aware of faculty professional development needs and can help coordinate offerings to address those needs. For instance, on noticing that a number of teachers cited cooperative learning as a goal, a district might decide to offer professional development classes on that topic for teachers from different schools.
  • Study groups and professional learning communities. In many schools, teacher self-assessment and goal setting lead to the creation of study groups or professional learning communities to focus on areas of interest. These groups tend to be self-directed and can be highly productive because teachers often lead their own learning, as in various professional book study groups in which teachers select the books, facilitate the meetings, and learn about both the content of the book and the process of group interaction.

Teacher Evaluation

  • Offer training on the framework. When districts use the framework for teacher evaluation, they typically recognize that they must engage their entire staff in professional development around the four domains and 22 components. This involves clarifying the meaning of the components in different contexts and noting the likely indicators of their presence in the practice of individual teachers. For example, an environment of respect and rapport (component 2a) will manifest itself differently in a 2nd grade classroom than in a high school chemistry class, although the underlying caring of the teacher toward students and the safety of the environment in terms of risk taking will be constant. Training on the components creates a common language and, even more important, a shared understanding of good teaching.
  • Institute observation procedures. Virtually all systems of teacher evaluation involve observations of classroom teaching, which can engage teachers in those activities known to promote learning, namely self-assessment, reflection on practice, and professional conversation. Following an observed lesson, both the observing teacher and the observed teacher may consider the events of the lesson in light of the components of the framework and the levels of performance (unsatisfactory, basic, proficient, and distinguished) and highlight their interpretation of the lesson on an observation form. During a postobservation conference, such documents can serve as the foundation for rich conversations about the lesson and about how the teacher might have strengthened it.
  • Collect artifacts. Many school districts appreciate that much of the important work of teaching occurs beyond the classroom walls, in communicating with families, for example, or collaborating with colleagues. To include such aspects of teaching in a system of teacher evaluation, teachers must assemble evidence of their practice in these areas for discussion with their supervisor. Such a portfolio might include a class newsletter, the handout for back-to-school night, information about a field trip, or details on a new science program.

Teacher Recruitment and Hiring

Teacher recruitment and hiring is an often-overlooked opportunity to promote teacher learning. Indeed, it is usually regarded as a purely administrative function. However, when teachers participate in different parts of the process, the new hires enter an environment in which they have already earned the acceptance of their colleagues. In addition, to effectively question candidates about their skills and expertise, those colleagues will have had to think deeply about the qualities of teaching they most value.
<P ID="story2">The Framework for Teaching offers guidance for educators in examining candidates' practice. Interview questions can explore a teacher's skill in any of the 22 components. A question such as, How do you stay abreast of the subjects you teach and of the current research on how best to teach them? offers evidence of a teacher's skill in knowledge of content and pedagogy, a component in the planning and preparation domain. A question such as, How do you establish and implement important classroom routines and procedures? invites teaching candidates to offer evidence of their skill in a component in the classroom environment domain. (Listen to some insights into <XREF TARGET="framework">how schools can start using the Framework</XREF>.)

A Trustworthy Guide

Using the Framework for Teaching, schools and districts can incorporate self-assessment, reflection on practice, and professional conversation in a variety of professional development activities. An elementary principal and National Board–certified teacher from Illinois summarized it well when he referred to the framework as "the mirror I hold up to my practice." For him, "The framework has continued to be my core resource for engaging in ongoing collegial, reflective dialogue that has directly influenced my journey to continuously improve student learning."
<P ID="discussion">Listen to excerpts from Charlotte Danielson's ASCD Annual Conference presentation, "Twelve Years and Still Talking" in which she discusses the four performance levels.
<XREF TARGET="story1">Return to article</XREF>
<P ID="framework"> … and how schools can start using the framework.

Danielson, C. (2007). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Guskey, T. (1999). Evaluating professional development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Shulman, L. S. (2004). The wisdom of practice: Essays on teaching, learning, and learning to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

End Notes

1 The Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) is a consortium of state education agencies and national education organizations dedicated to reforming teacher preparation programs, licensing, and ongoing professional development.

Charlotte Danielson is an internationally-recognized expert in the area of teacher effectiveness and founder of the Danielson Group. She has taught at all levels, from kindergarten through college, and has served as an administrator, a curriculum director, and a staff developer.

In her book, Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching, she introduced The Danielson Framework, as it has come to be called, a widely used instructional framework intended to promote clear and meaningful conversations about effective teaching practices.

As an educational consultant, Danielson has focused on teacher quality and evaluation, curriculum planning, performance assessment, and professional development with hundreds of school districts, universities, and state departments of education.

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