Issues in Educational Research, 4(1), 1994, 49-60.

Teaching for understanding: Whose agenda is being served?

Helen Wildy and John Wallace
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
Much commentary on classroom practice in recent years has criticised teachers' emphasis on direct instruction over teaching for deep understanding. These criticisms have been the driving force behind curriculum reforms which emphasise more constructivist approaches to teaching. In this paper we re-examine some of our own assumptions about "good" teaching by exploring the classroom practices of an experienced physics teacher. This teacher did not fit the mould of the constructivist teacher and yet there was much to suggest that he was meeting the needs of the students in his class. Observation of this teacher in his Year 11 classroom suggests an alternative framework for examining his work. Revealing the structure of the discipline and ensuring university entrance for his students are his predominant considerations. Success comes through the establishment of a bond of trust between teacher and students. This "good" teacher interprets and adapts the curriculum to accommodate his students' needs because he understands, accepts and shares their goals.


Much commentary on classroom practice in recent years has criticised teachers' use of direct instruction because of its focus on content rather than deep understanding. These criticisms have been the driving force behind recent curriculum reforms in science education, for example, which emphasise more constructivist approaches to teaching. The constructivist theory asserts that the only tools available to the knower are the senses: only through seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting does an individual interact with the environment and build a picture of the world. Learning is promoted as a cooperative process through which students make meaning of their experiences by interacting with other people. Teachers adopting a constructivist approach use problem solving as a learning strategy: individuals' understanding of the world is challenged and what is already known is examined. Learning occurs as students try to make sense of what is taught by trying to fit it with their own experience. To do this, though, teachers need to have a clear idea of what students already know and understand so that they can engage students in activities that help them construct new meanings (von Glasersfeld, 1992). From a constructivist perspective, then, science is not the search for truth; it is a process that helps make sense of the world. Teaching science, from this perspective, becomes more like the science that scientists do - it is an active social process of making sense of experiences, a hands-on, minds-on experience (Lorsbach & Tobin, 1992).

The Western Australian physics syllabus

The influence of these developments in understanding the way students learn is evident in reforms to the Year 11 and 12 high school physics syllabus in the State of Western Australia. The aim was to humanise physics and to provide a broader base to physics by increasing its social relevance (Western Australian Secondary Education Authority, 1992). The former emphasis on routine numerical exercises was to be replaced with problem solving, qualitative explanation and an emphasis on communication; disembodied theory was to be replaced with practical applications of physics and more experimental work; references to unfamiliar contexts were to be replaced with contexts that were relevant to students' everyday experiences. Instead of expecting students to be relatively passive recipients of physics knowledge independent of context, the new program was designed to build actively on students' previous experience.

The changed emphases of this new approach required new teaching strategies. Strategies such as practical and field work, discrepant events, concept mapping, journal writing, oral reporting, peer pairing, and small group and whole class discussions were introduced to teachers through inservice, supported by appropriate teaching materials (Wildy & Wallace, 1992).

The study

These constructivist ideas about "good" teaching formed the frame of reference we took with us when we visited a Year 11 class in which the new syllabus was to be implemented. As we had done previously (Wildy & Wallace, 1993), we aimed to find out how an experienced teacher would adapt his teaching to incorporate the teaching and assessment strategies promoted in the new syllabus. We selected Mr Ward, an experienced teacher with a strong physics background.

During the second semester of 1993 we visited Mr Ward in his classroom, observing his lessons, talking with his students about their experiences during the lessons, and having lengthy conversations with him before and after each lesson. We also conducted formal interviews with Mr Ward and with members of his class. Field notes of classroom observations and conversations, together with transcriptions of the taped interviews, formed the data for analysis by the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss. 1967).

We expected that the new syllabus, incorporating new assumptions about physics knowledge and how it is acquired, would challenge Mr Ward's beliefs about what he knew and could do well, because of our previous work with other physics teachers (Wildy & Wallace, 1992). We also understood that the process of becoming a constructivist science teacher would involve the teacher in reconstructing his own knowledge of science and science teaching (Louder & Wallace, in press). However, we were not prepared for what we found when we went into Mr Ward's classroom.

A vignette: Mr Ward's Year 11 physics class

Mr Ward began teaching the new topic for the semester by distributing a program headed:

Unit: Movement and Electricity
Area Of Study: Movement
Context: On Your Own Two Feet

He explained the program in terms of the time allocated for each section and the sets of exercises to be completed, expressing the concern that there would be "not a lot of flexibility". Next he distributed a Student Outcomes sheet to each student, stating that "this is what you have to be able to achieve, in other words what you'll be tested on". He pointed out some of the differences between this course and the "old course" in terms of organisation and then gave some indications of where they might save some time. He passed around a third sheet headed International System of Units (SI) and, by way of introduction, told the class "I assume you know all this". As he explained the tables of Unit, Symbol, and Quantity and Prefix, Symbol and Meaning, he reassured the students that "the tables booklets you're given in the TEE[1] contain these prefixes so you don't have to learn them".

In the first 10 minutes of the first lesson on the topic he had made explicit the time frame and clarified the content required for successful completion of the topic. He had also begun to make clear what might and might not be expected of this topic in the external examination at the end of Year 12. He had also begun to talk about "exam etiquette". On the board he worked a numerical example based on the International System of Units and then continued working through each of a prepared set of questions. Fiona asked whether it was better to write the answer as (1 x 102)3 m3 or as 106 m3. Mr Ward explained at some length the need for "creating the correct impression":

The question is: What is a polite impression to create? What do you write to impress the examiner? How do you use the terminology to let the examiner know what sort of student you are? He will want to know: Is this an A student? It's about creating the correct impression. No, it's definitely not polite to leave your answer as (1 x 102)3 m3 rather than 106 m3.
Posing each question and answering it as he went, Mr Ward proceeded through the set of numerical exercises. When he came to: "Express 0.002 A without the use of prefixes" he cautioned the class to "watch out for dirty tricks from the examiner" and explained that "of course this one doesn't have to be changed at all".

When the sheet of exercises was finished several students noted "We've finished a sheet - in one lesson!" Mr Ward laughed with them as he distributed another sheet of exercises; this one was titled Use of Scientific Notation. Again, Mr Ward worked through the examples with the class. He helped them "lock" their calculators into scientific notation by identifying the various buttons to be pushed on the different models of calculators used in the class. At the end of the lesson, Mr Ward explained:

The students don't necessarily want to study physics to do physics but to get into university... They're interested not as much in physics as in their TEE aggregate. So everything that happens in class must bear directly on that. Anything else is seen as a wasteful digression. We are all here to get good TEE results.
Mr Ward began the second lesson of the topic by referring to a sheet headed Uncertainty In Measurement saying:
I want to revisit the issue of uncertainty in a more sophisticated way than we do in our chemistry classes. We need to be more precise in physics, [The examiners] expect you to be able to work out errors.
He proceeded to perform calculations to illustrate the difference between 2.0000 g and 2 g, He told his class that "in the old course we used to spend a lot of time doing detailed analyses of errors". By way of justifying having spent class time doing just that, he explained: "We don't have to do this any more but we'll believe it when we see the [new] exam papers they set next year." So in the meantime he was being cautious, shielding the students from the possibility that he may have been misled. He did this by showing students how to calculate percentage error, and the difference between absolute and relative error, even though such a quantitative approach to the concept was not in the new syllabus. He continued to explain the conventions in the use of significant figures. Students were clearly interested, asking many questions and generating their own examples for Mr Ward to work on the board. After some time he stopped the calculations, saying "If I had more time - which I haven't - I'd show you how all this really worked." And he resumed to a worksheet, talking through the questions with the students calling out answers In returning to the prepared worksheet Mr Ward drew attention to what is worth spending time on, and what is not: only if it is explicitly "in the course" can he justify taking class time.

As he made explicit the boundaries of the new syllabus, he referred to the data collected in the previous week's practical activity:

We spent time on Friday doing mathematical manipulations of data we collected on Thursday. Now you could be asked to do this. But you are expected to be able to interpret the graphs rather than just manipulate the data. So we need to look at the velocity-time graphs and the acceleration-time graphs.
During the previous week the class engaged in a practical activity designed to generate velocity and acceleration from distance-time data. The lesson took place in the playing field; students sprinted on a 100 m track and were timed at 10 m intervals. Despite having the data collected from students' own sprints, Mr Ward resumed to the sheet of Typical Graphs of Uniform Motion and explained that "in this course we are really only concerned with situations of uniform velocity and acceleration". When Rebecca said: "I don't understand these graphs - I mean how to use them or just what they mean", Mr Ward reassured her:
You need to be able to recognise them. You can commit them to memory unless you're one of those mathematical types who immediately converts a set of conditions into a graphical form. Don't worry too much for now though. We'll spend the next two lessons applying them.
Using a complex velocity-time graph drawn spontaneously on the board, he explained why the slope of the line on a velocity-time graph gives acceleration and the area under the curve gives displacement. He did this first using general terms, v1, t1, t2, t3 etc. Although students were listening attentively, it was not clear to Mr Ward how much they understood. However, when Mary asked "Why did you put the line in there?" it became apparent that a more concrete example was needed. Mr Ward took out a tennis ball, "My standard prop for this topic". With illustrations of throwing the ball in the air, Mr Ward explained positive and negative velocity, going forwards and backwards and positive and negative acceleration. Then he returned to his graph on the board, replacing the general terms with numbers, and continued to calculate displacement and acceleration for the various sections of the graph.

We watched the teaching strategies Mr Ward used in his classroom. His most common mode of teaching was to talk to the class. He did not ask questions. However, he willingly and patiently answered all questions from students, with equal respect, as though even the most illusive concepts would eventually be understood by all students given sufficient time and explanations. And the students frequently asked questions. There was no planned interaction between students. However, they did talk to each other as they carried out tasks while Mr Ward was talking. Apart from practical activities, there was only one lesson style that deviated from this: it was what Mr Ward called the workshop. He described this type of lesson to us as:

giving the students plenty of opportunities to come to grips with the ideas. I need to give them time to play around with the ideas through the problems. There are exercises from [the text] that are good and I have lots of sheets of my own that are useful, too.
This is how he explained it to his class:
I'm tired of doing all the work while you're sitting listening or chattering. I've got a couple of sheets for you to do. You can ask your neighbour for help or me. You can use any bit of help you want. I'm collecting them at the end of the period. It's a way for me to find out how well you're going. We've got a test coming up in a couple of weeks time so I need to know if you are getting ready for it.
Immediately the students started to work, mostly on their own, through the sheet of problems headed Rectilinear Motion Test, checking answers with each other as they went. When Jane asked Mr Ward for help, he stood by her and explained how to do the problem, giving the solution without discussion or engagement, and then continued talking in his normal level of voice. Another student, Susan, complained: "Don't tell us, Mr Ward. If you tell us all the time, how can we learn?"

Mr Ward's frame of reference

This was the question we also asked. What we were seeing in Mr Ward's Year 11 physics class did not look very much like the constructivist approach to teaching being promoted in the new physics course. It looked very much like the type of science teaching that for many years has been the subject of severe criticism: an emphasis on coverage over understanding, teaching to the examination, whole class instruction, failure to take account of students' prior knowledge, development of algorithmic knowledge and skills, isolated theory and unfamiliar contexts. We were puzzled to know how Mr Ward interpreted the aims and philosophy of the new course assuming that what we were seeing was his way of putting them into practice. So we asked him how he thought his teaching differed this year. His explanations and descriptions revealed quite a different set of assumptions and goals from the ones we brought with us.

He explained how he had experimented initially with a more context based approach.

At the beginning of the year I did things differently but I didn't feel comfortable with them... When I tried to be totally context based the structure of the subject disappeared. I felt uncomfortable with not knowing where we were going so in the end I moved back to a more structured approach but emphasising the context. I found it much better simply to emphasise the context more but still retain the structure.
He identified a number of compelling reasons for "extending what (he) was already doing" rather than making significant changes to his teaching strategies. Most importantly, he wanted to convey to his students the understanding of, and feeling for, physics as a discipline. He was concerned that students "learn to live within the discipline" with its structure of recognised and established protocols and conventions, Without these the structure of the discipline "disappears". Further, he did not believe that students, alone, could find and shape the structures: it was his responsibility to construct the framework" of the discipline for the students.

Without the conventions of the discipline, too, "the context approach degenerates quickly into a version of discovery learning... [where] it took an awful long time to discover an awfully small amount". At the beginning of the year, Mr Ward had used photography as the context to study Sight and Light. This had caused problems,

You soon got lost in the complexity of photography. The principles of Light came three or four days after we started so we had spent all that time talking about things some of the students understood because they had some background in photography and others didn't. The end result was none of them was particularly good at the basic ideas of Light.
The consequence was that students started to develop "very negative attitudes towards physics" because "they expected to get 80s and 90s for tests and when they got 30s they were freaking out". Students' reaction was to change subjects in greater numbers than Mr Ward had previously encountered.
Well, we certainly lost a couple of students who said: 'That's enough for me; I'm going.' At that stage they could change subjects. That doesn't usually happen, In the past you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of students you lost during a Year 11 physics course. In the previous 10 years you'd lose one or two a year at the most. And here we were losing three or four in the first term.
Another reason why Mr Ward "didn't feel comfortable" with the constructivist strategies of the new syllabus was that they took time away from doing "the work as set down" in the syllabus. As he saw it
there is far too much in the course for the students to reach the level of competence they feel confident with in the time available ... to do things well rather than merely adequately... to work over areas to get confident, so they feel confident and I feel confident that they've really grasped the idea.
The main consideration for Mr Ward in his teaching is to prepare his students for entry to university study. He understands that his responsibilities are to introduce his students to the discipline of physics and "to get them through" the Tertiary Entrance Examination.


We have described the frame within which Mr Ward operates. He is an experienced and successful physics teacher in a school where large numbers of students continue on to study at university level. His own physics content knowledge is extensive in breadth and depth. His pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986, 1987) is strong; he is confident in a set of teaching strategies that work for him. Confronted with a major syllabus change, he experimented with a contextual approach to teaching physics which involved a number of constructivist strategies. He did not feel comfortable, neither did some of his students: they failed to learn the basic physics concepts, lost confidence and left the course. To Mr Ward this was enough evidence to convince him to revert to his former well practised and highly successful strategies.

Mr Ward's routines and rituals have worked well in the past. He makes clear to students the boundaries of the content to be covered by identifying what is, and is not, in the course. At times he makes explicit the boundaries of subject matter as, for example, he tells his class "this isn't in the new course" or "you could be asked to do this". At other times, he makes the distinction more subtly by stating "we don't have time to go into that". By attending closely to the time schedule he is able to ensure all content is covered; it prevents him from "playing around with his teaching", from engaging in classroom activities that might be viewed as "wasteful digressions". When he talks about "giving the correct impression", Mr Ward is teaching his students examination etiquette. More importantly, though, he is instructing them in the conventions and protocols of physics as a discipline.

Another of his routines is to coach his students in examination techniques; he spends considerable time developing their confidence in assessment strategies such as comprehension exercises and oral presentations. Mr Ward recognises that sometimes it is necessary for students to take short cuts; for example, he encourages some of his class to "commit these graphs to memory". In carrying out and making explicit these rituals and routines he also acknowledges that, although physics knowledge is important for his students, it is mainly so because of its role in attaining the required examination score for university entrance.

Mr Ward establishes and maintains the students' trust in him by understanding and accepting their goals. In reverting to his former teaching strategies he regains the students' trust that he will guide them along the path to success. Maintaining trust is a critical ingredient in the unwritten but nonetheless powerful agreement the teacher makes, not only with his students but also with their parents and the school community. He must ensure that his students "get through". He understands his role in helping students to do sufficiently well in the subject to guarantee success in their terms - and ultimately in his own terms.

For their part, students accept teacher talk, examination coaching, algorithms, and lack of contact with the real world experience in their physics lessons. This is the image of teaching with which they are familiar and comfortable. Mr Ward is viewed as a good teacher and it is evident from his relationship with his students that he has their confidence. That confidence was shattered when he experimented with his teaching at the start of the year. He had attempted to use strategies that did not fit with his students' beliefs about what constituted good teaching. By talking about the routines and rituals he uses, Mr Ward steadily rebuilds his credibility; he shows his students that he knows what they expect. He regains their trust that he will help them all achieve their goals. This is the deal that is struck, implicitly, between Mr Ward and his class.

What we discovered in Mr Ward's classroom has caused us to rethink some of our own beliefs about the need for teaching for deep understanding in the context of the existing external examination structure. The shared expectations of Mr Ward and his students have cast the notion of teaching for understanding in quite a different light. Connecting physics with the real world is not as important, for these students and their parents, as gaining the TEE score necessary for entry to their preferred university course. There is little dispute between Mr Ward and his students when there is a choice between spending time on developing understanding or on practising the skills of the discipline and enhancing examination performance. It is part of their common agreement.

It is hard to be critical of Mr Ward for his decision to "move back to a more structured approach", one in which he "knew where we were going". Munby and Russell (1993) coined the term "authority of experience", derived from Schon's epistemology of experience, to describe the authority based on listening to and trusting one's own experience as an authoritative source of knowledge about teaching. Mr Ward has confidence, from the authority of his 20 years experience, to reject teaching strategies that did not work for him or his students.

Another lesson we were taught by Mr Ward was about the importance of inducting students into the discipline of physics. We presume his use of formal language, protocols and conventions was his way of defining and structuring the discipline for his students. Martin (1990), too, would agree with Mr Ward that science cannot be understood "in your own words"; it has a special use of language to interpret the world in its own words (p.113). Others such as Costa (1993) argue that school science, as a rite of passage, brings students together into a scientific community. It is a social mechanism that gives order and structure to "inherently untidy experience" (White, 1989, p.191).

Our experience in Mr Ward's physics classroom has caused us to re-examine our own preconceptions about constructivism. Why should students try to conceptualise when most of the time they are expected to be passively involved in finding solutions that are already known? Why should students make this knowledge theirs when they are provided with ready-made results to preconstituted knowledge? Students opt for ready made solutions rather than making their own meaning precisely because they know a lot about the school system and the type of knowledge that it promotes (Larochelle & Desautels, 1992). We are arguing that the teacher in our study, too, knows a great deal about the school system and the type of knowledge it promotes. In the light of the pressures on students to attain high scores in their Tertiary Entrance Examination, we have begun to understand why Mr Ward chose to continue his customary teaching strategies.

We entered the research situation with a constructivist view of "good" teaching. We set out to explore a teacher's attempts to adapt his teaching to incorporate an emphasis on understanding, inquiry and process. What we overlooked was the social context of the learning. We had failed to consider the social forces influencing students' responses to what is taught and how it is taught. Equally, we had overlooked the impact of those forces on the teacher. A much wider range of factors needs to be considered, including students' motives and classroom contextual factors, particularly the task, authority and evaluation structures, which influence the way students respond to teaching strategies. Others, such as Kruglanski (1989) and Pintrich, Marx and Boyle (1993) have explained why teachers like Mr Ward do not readily adopt constructivist teaching strategies. Kruglanski (1989) has argued that time constraints, emphasis on the completion of work within an allocated time period, and instructions that stress the need for clear and definite answers, all typical features of science classrooms, lead students to less cognitive engagement. These are some of the aspects of classroom context that encourage students to "get it done, not think it through" (Pintrich, Marx & Boyle, 1993, p.181).

We described our experience of a "discrepant event" in which our beliefs and assumptions were challenged in a Year 11 physics class. We have come to understand that the success of Mr Ward's teaching lies not simply in the students' quest to understand physics concepts but in the establishment of a bond of trust between him and his students. We understand that this "good" teacher interprets and adapts the curriculum to accommodate his students' needs because he understands, accepts and shares their goals.


[1] The Tertiary Entrance Examination (TEE) is a public external examination which students sit at the end of Year 12. Entry to university is based on an aggregate score from the best 4 or 5 subjects. For the physics examination, students are supplied with a book of tables containing essential physics formula and conversion charts.


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Western Australian Secondary Education Authority (1992). Physics (Year 11) syllabus. Perth: SEA.

Wildy, H. & Wallace, J. (1992). Post-compulsory physics implementation. Perth, Key Centre for School Science and Mathematics, Curtin University of Technology.

Wildy, H. & Wallace, J. (1993). Teaching as learning: Experimenting with the teaching of physics. In J. Wallace & W. Louden (Eds.), Leaders among the learners (pp.91-108). Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Education Centre Inc.

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Authors: Helen Wildy is an education consultant to the Education Department of Western Australia, the Science and Mathematics Education Centre of Curtin University of Technology and schools and school districts in Western Australia. Her research interests lie in school reform and school leadership. She is currently completing a PhD at The University of Western Australia.

John Wallace is a Senior Lecturer with the Science and Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University of Technology. His major research interests are related to the culture of schooling, school leadership, school organisation and the formation of teachers' knowledge. He has a PhD from the University of Toronto.

Please cite as: Wildy, H. & Wallace, J. (1994). Teaching for understanding: Whose agenda is being served? Issues In Educational Research, 4(1), 49-60.

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