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Teaching Research

Teacher learning in the workplace: A study of the relationship between a

novice EFL teacher's classroom practices and cognition development
Yan Kang and Xiaotang Cheng
Language Teaching Research 2014 18: 169 originally published online 21 October 2013
DOI: 10.1177/1362168813505939

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LTR18210.1177/1362168813505939Language Teaching ResearchKang and Cheng


Language Teaching Research

Teacher learning in the

2014, Vol. 18(2) 169186
The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
workplace: A study of the
DOI: 10.1177/1362168813505939
relationship between a novice

EFL teachers classroom

practices and cognition

Yan Kang
Capital Normal University, China

Xiaotang Cheng
Beijing Normal University, China

This article reports on an in-depth case study of a novice middle school EFL teachers cognition
development during the process of learning to teach in the workplace. Data was collected mainly
through classroom observations and interviews. Results indicate that the teacher exhibited
a considerable amount of change in her classroom practices, which could be attributed to a
number of interconnected factors, including teacher experience, reflection on practice and the
teaching context. In relation to the behavioral adjustments, the teachers cognition has also
changed in varying degrees. It is concluded that the development of teacher cognition is the
result of the cyclical interaction between the teachers knowledge and belief system and her
classroom practices. This study helps understand the nature and the process of teacher cognition
development in the real workplace.

Classroom practices, professional development, teacher change, teacher cognition development,
teacher learning

Corresponding author:
Xiaotang Cheng, School of Foreign Languages and Literature, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875,

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170 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

Research on teacher cognition in the 1990s and 2000s has helped capture the complexi-
ties of who teachers are, what they know and believe, and what they do in the classroom.
More recently, this line of research has been closely aligned with work in teacher educa-
tion to understand the nature and growth of teacher cognition. Clarke and Hollingsworth
(2002) contend that teacher learning can be achieved not only through evolving prac-
tices, but through teachers construction of knowledge. An all-round understanding of
teacher learning requires an inquiry into how cognition develops as teachers teach and
learn to teach within a specific sociocultural context.
This study investigates teacher learning in the real workplace where learning oppor-
tunities relate to each other and features of social settings support or constrain practices.
The purpose is to find out the relationship between teachers classroom practices and the
growth of their cognition as they learn to teach in their everyday work.

II Literature review
This section reviews the current research on novice teachers, teacher cognition and the
relationship between cognitive and behavioral changes, which provides the theoretical
basis of the present study.

1 Novice teachers and their characteristics

The term novice teacher is commonly used in the literature to refer to teachers who
have completed their pre-service teacher education and just begun teaching in an educa-
tional institution (Farrell, 2009). The first year of teaching is considered an important
stage in which teachers test their beliefs and ideas, expand their teaching strategies,
acquire practical knowledge, and formulate their professional identity.
The developmental features of novice teachers and the complications that they face have
been well documented in both general education research and research on second language
teacher education. Research has shown that novice teachers often abandon or ignore the
principles presented in teacher education programs and instead adopt familiar routines and
practices (Johnson, 1996; Richards & Pennington, 1998; Urmston & Pennington, 2008).
In a study on teachers first-year experiences, Richards and Pennington (1998) find
that teachers move away from the principles of communicative language teaching
towards the concept of language learning as a matter of learning content. They follow
their textbooks closely and adopt a teacher-centered approach in which the students
make little use of English and participate only in restricted ways. The researchers suggest
that the teaching context may have played an influential role in determining novice
teachers classroom practices.
Watzkes (2007) study finds that though beginning teachers instructional practices
may initially be considered traditional or even contradictory to their pre-service educa-
tion, a transformation of teachers knowledge is possible when they continue to learn
about teaching. Watzke points out the need to focus more intensely on the relationship
between pre-service preparation and in-service implementation of specific dimensions of

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Kang and Cheng 171

Research has indicated that teachers first-year experiences are mediated by their pre-
vious schooling experiences, the nature of the pre-service teacher education programs
from which they have graduated, and their experiences of socialization into the educa-
tional and institutional culture (Farrell, 2009). It has been found that novice teachers who
are mentored in a formal manner and/or work in a supportive collegial environment tend
to be more satisfied with their work and become more effective teachers later (Alhija &
Fresko, 2010; Farrell, 2008; Kelley, 2004).

2 Teacher cognition and cognition development

The study of teacher cognition emerged from a shift in the focus of classroom research
from teachers behaviors to their thinking and thought processes. Borg (2006) defines
teacher cognition as the complex, practically-oriented, personalized, and context-
sensitive networks of knowledge, thoughts and beliefs that language teachers draw on in
their work (p. 272). The present study adopts the term teacher cognition to cover all the
psychological constructs of teaching which teachers use as a frame of reference to under-
stand the language teaching context and to guide their classroom behaviors.
Early studies on teacher cognition development stem from researchers concern with
the effectiveness of teacher education programs in promoting teacher change. So far the
research has produced mixed results, with some reporting stability in teacher cognition
(Lamb, 1995; Peacock, 2001), some providing evidence of significant change (Cabaroglu
& Roberts, 2000; Freeman, 1993; Mattheoudakis, 2007), and others identifying different
levels of change across individuals and areas of belief and knowledge (Almarza, 1996;
Borg, 2011; Richards, Ho, & Giblin, 1996).
In addition to the variety of programs and the different research approaches, the dis-
crepant results may largely be attributed to the incongruous conceptualizations of
change. Those who argue against flexibility equate change with a radical and drastic
shift in teacher cognition whereas others acknowledge its gradual and cumulative nature
to allow varying degrees of change on a developmental continuum.
Despite the variations in intensity or rapidity, teacher cognition does change. In a
study on student teachers cognition development, Cabaroglu and Roberts (2000) iden-
tify 11 change process categories, including awareness (of a discrepancy, conflict or
coherence), confirmation (of existing beliefs), elaboration (i.e. reconstruction or deep-
ening of beliefs), addition (of new beliefs), re-ordering (i.e. rearrangement of beliefs),
relabeling (i.e. re-naming of a construct), linking up (i.e. establishment of a connection
between constructs), disagreement (i.e. rejection of existing beliefs), reversal (i.e.
adoption of opposite beliefs), pseudo-change (pretended or false change) and no
The present study follows Clarke and Hollingsworths (2002) conceptualization and
defines change as development or learning achieved by teachers as learners working
in a learning community. In line with this conceptualization, an increasing body of
research has emerged to provide supporting evidence on teachers changes during their
participation in various learning activities, including reflective teaching (Farrell, 2007;
Wyatt, 2010), individual or collaborative action research (Atay, 2008; Wyatt, 2011),
teacher study group (Boshell, 2002; Lambson, 2010), lesson study (Lee, 2008), and
informal workplace learning (Mawhinney, 2010).

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172 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

3 Behavioral change and cognitive change

Existing research on teachers cognition development has focused on issues concerning
the relationship between behavioral change and cognitive change, i.e. which aspect of
change comes first, cognitive or behavioral, and to what extent one aspect of change
leads to others. Most studies maintain that participation in professional development
programs and activities changes teachers cognition, which eventually leads to changes
in their classroom practices and the ultimate goal of improving students learning.
However, this assumption has been challenged by researchers (Fullan, 2001; Guskey,
1986). Guskey (1986) argues that cognitive change may not precede behavioral change;
instead, significant changes in beliefs and attitudes are likely to take place only after
changes in students learning outcomes are evident.
In a study on teacher change, Freeman (1993) proposes a dialectical process of cogni-
tive and behavioral change. He suggests that both levels of change should be considered
in judging teachers professional development, though each level may not necessarily
exhibit the evidence of the other. In a study of Japanese teachers changes, Lamie (2004)
finds that teachers attitudes may not be the only factor that determines whether a prac-
tice will be adopted. Lamie calls for more research to investigate other factors that may
have influenced the mechanism of the change process.
Based on a review of previous research, Clarke and Hollingsworth (2002) propose an
interconnected model of teacher growth and contend that cognitive and behavioral changes
are interconnected through the mediation of reflection and enactment. The relationship
between cognitive and behavioral change is beyond any simple description. The problem
of how they relate to and mutually build on each other warrants further investigation.

This study adopts a qualitative case study method (Yin, 2009) to investigate the relation-
ship between a novice EFL teachers classroom practices and cognition development.

1 Research questions
The research questions are as follows:

1. Do the participating teachers classroom practices change over time? If yes, how
do they change?
2. What factors lead to the changes in the teachers practices?
3. Does the teachers cognition change over time? If yes, what is the relationship
between the teachers cognition change and her changes in practices?

2 The participant
The participant of this study, Valen (pseudonym), is an English teacher from a middle
school in a city district of Beijing, who graduated from a pre-service teacher education
program with a BA degree in English education. She had been in the profession for 6
months at the outset of the study, teaching English to the seventh graders.

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Kang and Cheng 173

The major teacher learning opportunity in Valens professional life is the teaching and
research activities (jiaoyan huodong in Chinese) organized by her school or district edu-
cational administration, including collective lesson planning (lesson analysis), observa-
tion of both public and demo lessons, post-observation conferences, lectures and teaching
reform projects. Valen joined the profession in the midst of Chinas nationwide reform of
its primary and secondary education. The teaching and research activities were mainly
devoted to describing and demonstrating the underlying principles of the new curricu-
lum, a learner-centered teaching philosophy that emphasizes the learning processes that
support experiential and cooperative learning (Ministry of Education, 2001).
Valen was given a mentor on the first day of teaching. The mentor, also the head
teacher in charge of English teaching of the ninth grade, was always too busy to spend
time with Valen. The new teacher was largely left alone to deal with the challenges and
problems of teaching.
The only support Valen received was that from her colleagues teaching the same
grade. These teachers met regularly to discuss the planning and teaching of the lessons.
Though the decisions were made collectively, individual teachers were allowed to remain
flexible in their own classrooms. As all the teachers of the same grade shared one big
office in the teaching building, there were many casual discussions about teaching and
learning every day.

3 Data sources
Data in this study came primarily from interviews and classroom observations. Field
notes, the teachers lesson plans, school documents, informal talks and email messages
were also used as supplements to achieve triangulation (Patton, 2002).
The first type of data was obtained through non-participant classroom observations (Patton,
2002). Ethnographic narratives were used during observations to chronologically record all the
classroom events and important classroom occurrences, including classroom environment,
nonverbal behaviors, space of movement and students participation. Meanwhile, the observ-
ers immediate thoughts were jotted down to provide starting points for the post-observation
interviews. All the observations were videotaped with Valens consent.
Data was also obtained via semi-structured interviews (Fontana & Frey, 1994). A back-
ground interview was conducted at the beginning of the research to explore Valens learn-
ing and teaching experiences and her understanding of English learning and teaching. The
interview guide covered the following areas: (1) educational background; (2) professional
development experiences; (3) reflections on teaching; (4) conceptions about EFL learning
and teaching; (5) comments on the environment of teaching. Post-observation interviews,
which were usually conducted right after classroom observations, generally started with
Valen describing her teaching plans and commenting about teaching, followed by ques-
tions seeking her justifications of the specific practices or the observed behavioral change.
All the interviews were audio-recorded with Valens consent.

4 Data collection procedures

Data was collected in two consecutive semesters from April 2010 to December 2010,
during which Valens students progressed from the seventh grade to the eighth grade.

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174 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

There were two phases in data collection. In the first phase, Valens classroom teaching
was observed almost once a week with the purpose of establishing a list of the teachers
typical practices. Post-observation interviews were arranged to profile the cognition that
guided her practices. Valens self-reports of her own regular practices were also sought
in the interviews to triangulate with the observation data.
In the second phase, the observations and interviews were done once every two or
three weeks with a focus on comparing the teachers practices and cognition so that
changes in both areas could be identified. This observation data was triangulated with
Valens responses in the interviews and her lesson plans.
The data collection process was cyclical in nature, with each successive stage being
influenced by the analysis of the data already collected. The time division of the two
phases was determined when most of the observation data could be sorted into nearly all
the tentative categories and approximated theoretical saturation (Glaser & Strauss,
1967). However, when fresh practices emerged in later data collection that did not fit into
any category in the tentative categorization, a new category was inserted and the corre-
sponding practices were sought from the previous observation and interview data.

5 Data analysis
The data analysed in this study primarily includes 13 classroom observations (about nine
hours), nine interviews (about seven hours), five informal talks and four email messages.
All the observation and interview data was transcribed and submitted to the teacher for
confirmation. A combination of deductive and inductive approaches was used for the
analysis of both types of data (Patton, 2002).

a Observation data analysis. Four steps of analysis were administered to the observation
data. In the first step, lesson transcripts and observation narratives were transformed into
formatted tables in which teaching stages, length of time for different stages, content of
teaching and teacher/student activities were identified. Then, each teaching stage was
coded with a priori categories derived from current literature. In the second step, existing
codes were rigorously studied through repeated comparisons based on which tentative
categorization was made.
The tentative categories and subcategories were then applied in the third step to further
code the data. Revisions and modifications were made based on the coding of both the
stable and the changed practices. The final step of analysis led to the reorganization of the
categorization by which the observation coding scheme was constructed. The analysis
was completed by writing up descriptions of each category of practices and categorizing
ways of change, on the basis of which Table 1 (see section IV below) was drawn up.

b Interview data analysis. Interview data analysis started with repeated reading of the
transcripts, followed by coding of the data related to the teachers explanation of her
practices and change of practices. The coding was conducted both deductively by using
a priori categories derived from the literature and the research questions, and inductively
by identifying the concepts that formed these categories as they emerged from the data.
Then, an inductive process continued to define and redefine the initial broad categories

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Kang and Cheng

Table 1. Changes in Valens classroom practices.

Categories of change Practices observed earlier Practices observed later Ways of change
1. Teaching 1.1 Teaching vocabulary Teaching vocabulary through Combining explicit explanation and Modification
language explicit meaning explanation teaching vocabulary in context
knowledge 1.2 C
 onsolidating knowledge Using form-focused drills and More form-focused drills and Modification
exercises exercises
Adding meaningful practices Addition
Adding language production tasks Addition
2. Teaching 2.1 T
 eaching reading Sentence-by-sentence Oral text translation given up Elimination
language skills translation of the text
Explicit explanation of Guided-discovery activities Substitution
language points
3. Classroom discourse Frequent use of OK as oral More immediate and positive oral Modification
feedback feedback
4. Use of teaching materials Teaching the textbook Using multi-media materials as Addition

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supplement to textbook
5. Differentiated teaching Treating mixed-level students Differentiated homework Substitution
as the same Attention to slow learners Substitution
176 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

after new readings of the data. During the process, the ideas and concepts that were
implied in the data were recorded and later formed the content of each category, for
example, language practice and rote memory and knowledge transfer. Finally, all the
chunks of data belonging to the same category were gathered together. Through repeated
comparisons, revisions and modifications were made to validate the categories and
Three main themes emerged from the analysis: teacher cognition, changes in teacher
cognition and factors leading to behavioral change. A sample of the themes and catego-
ries is presented as follows:

Theme 1: Teacher cognition (foreign language, foreign language learning, foreign

language teaching, teacher roles, students, task choices, motivation);
Theme 2: Changes in teacher cognition (content of change, process of change);
Theme 3: Factors leading to behavioral change (teacher experience, teacher
reflection, teaching context).

Findings of this study fall into three areas: Valens behavioral changes over time, the fac-
tors leading to Valens changes in practices, and Valens changes in cognition.

1 Changes in Valens classroom practices

Data analysis has revealed a considerable amount of change in Valens classroom prac-
tices. This took place in four ways: substitution of existing practices with new ones,
addition of new practices, modification of the existing practices, and elimination of the
existing practices. These changes fall into five broad categories in terms of what Valen
did in the classroom: (1) teaching language knowledge; (2) teaching language skills; (3)
the use of classroom discourse; (4) the use of teaching materials, and (5) differentiated
teaching (or differentiation; Harmer, 2007, p. 127). The specific changes are shown in
Table 1.
At the beginning of the study, when teaching vocabulary, Valen usually spent one
class session (40 minutes) going through all the words and expressions in the glossary
of the unit, explicitly explaining the meaning and usage. Although Valen knew vocabu-
lary should be presented in context as she had learned in her pre-service education, she
still used the explicit explanation method because of the tight class schedule. In the
second semester, Valen rediscovered the value of contextualized vocabulary teaching
and tried combining the two methods. She explained that the schedule was not as tight
as before.
In the first semester, form-focused drills and exercises were the major types of prac-
tice to consolidate language knowledge. At the beginning of the second semester, how-
ever, several important changes took place. First, Valen had more form-focused language
practices in class. Valen explained that her students needed to learn how to use the lan-
guage through more exercises as they moved to a higher grade, which was also the
shared practice of her peer teachers. Second, Valen began employing meaning-focused

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Kang and Cheng 177

language practices, e.g. dialogue and role-play. Such activities were absent in the first
semester largely because she lacked confidence in the students ability. Now that she
knew the students better, she could encourage them to use language in meaningful
In the middle of the second semester, Valen went further to include language pro-
duction tasks in her teaching. For example, in a unit about different countries in the
world, she asked the students to design a poster for their favorite countries. To finish
the task, students must work in groups to search for information, write summaries
about the country they liked and illustrate the poster with pictures. The task was com-
pleted successfully and Valen continued to use similar activities through to the end of
our data collection.
In Valens reading class, the reading materials were primarily used as a means to teach
vocabulary and grammar. In her earlier lessons, Valen always translated the text sentence
by sentence and explained important words and expressions. In the second semester,
however, she quit the practice in order to make room for more language consolidation
activities. Meanwhile, she tried to guide students to discover language points in the text
and to work out their meaning and usage by themselves. Valen justified this by quoting
the principle of teacher-led student-centeredness, which she had learned during her pre-
service education and rediscovered through her participation in a series of teaching and
research activities.
Changes in Valens use of classroom discourse were mainly found in her oral feed-
back. In most of her earlier classes, she responded to students oral contribution with a
simple OK. Later, she used a variety of expressions in her feedback, e.g. good, excel-
lent, nice work, and well done. She became aware of her feedback problem (always
saying OK) after she learned in a post-observation conference that immediate and posi-
tive feedback on students efforts would motivate them to participate actively in class-
room activities.
Regarding the use of teaching materials, Valen exhibited an important change: she
used multi-media materials (mostly films) frequently either to teach new words or to
activate students prior knowledge. The practice was new in Valens classroom as she
used to follow the textbook closely. It was employed in response to parents request fol-
lowing a teaching incident. At the beginning of the second semester, Valen used a clip
from Titanic to present the new word movie. After class, students watched the whole
film at home and were greatly enchanted. Later, some parents suggested at a parent
teacher meeting that Valen give more interesting materials like Titanic to help students
learn better. As a result, Valen continued the use of multi-media materials as supplements
to the textbook in class.
The last category of changed practices, differentiated teaching, was installed as the
teacher sensed students polarized performance in the mid-term examination of the first
semester. After the examination, Valen began to assign different tasks to students accord-
ing to their varying abilities. For example, for the same writing task, high achievers were
encouraged to write creatively whereas slow learners were allowed to model after the
sample writing, or simply copy and recite it so that they could at least write down some-
thing in future tests. Meanwhile, Valen often asked slow learners to answer questions in
class. She hoped this would help these students catch up with others.

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178 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

2 Factors leading to changes in Valens practices

The previous section has briefly discussed some reasons behind Valens changes in her
classroom practices. This section reports in details the factors that led to these changes.

a Teacher experience. The first factor that contributed to Valens behavioral change is her
own experience, including both her professional learning experience and teaching expe-
rience. Professional learning experience refers to Valens engagement in in-service learn-
ing and informal collegial exchange within the community of teaching.
As the major learning opportunity in Valens professional life, the teaching and
research (jiaoyan) activities helped Valen improve her oral feedback and adopt the
guided-discovery approach to tackling language points in the reading class. As has been
mentioned previously, Valen began to practice the principle of teacher-led student-
centeredness after she heard it spoken about on different teaching and research occa-
sions. Below is a sample of her reflection:

Ive learnt about that at college. It seems all the people were talking about it recently. (Where
did they talk about it?) In the lectures organized by the district, and also post-observation
conferences. Early this semester, I went to Dulangkou with my colleagues. We observed
student-centered teaching there and discussed it a lot. I think it would not be bad to try it out.
(Interview: 11/12/2010)

This comment supports the positive role of the teaching and research activities in shap-
ing teacher practice. Interestingly, she complained in one of the earlier interviews that
these activities were useless because they could not provide ready answers to her prac-
tical problems. However, when the abstract principles were not only introduced, but also
demonstrated in classrooms and discussed by teachers themselves, Valen was intrigued
to experiment with them herself. Meanwhile, she began to respond positively to the
learning activities that she was required to participate in.
The second type of learning experiences that led to the behavioral change is informal
collegial exchange, i.e. the talks or conversations held in the office or over lunch. One
piece of evidence is that Valen employed more language drills and exercises after she
talked to her colleagues. She explained as follows:

They [students] are now in the eighth grade and need more practices to master the language. I
talked to other teachers in my group. They all increased language exercises in this semester
(Did you agree on this during your collective lesson planning?) No. They were doing this on
their own. Its like a tacit practice. I just follow suit. (Informal talk: 10/27/2010)

The communication between and among the teachers helped Valen better understand the
culture of teaching in the school and form a new identity as a member of the
In addition to professional learning experiences, Valens teaching experience, particu-
larly some critical teaching incidents, made her reflect on practice and triggered some of
her changes. One example concerns the mid-term examination in the first semester.
When the test results were out, Valen observed:

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Kang and Cheng 179

Nearly half of my students scored above 90. But a third failed. Few of them are in the middle.
I was quite upset. I thought that I had to do something to push the upper-level students further
forward and enlarge the middle group. (Interview: 04/28/2010)

As the unbalanced distribution of students scores revealed their mixed abilities, Valen
adopted differentiated teaching as a solution to the problem.
Data analysis shows that a large proportion of Valens behavioral changes were results
of her participation in professional learning and teaching, during which she reflected on
the implicit meaning embodied in these experiences and tested new insights in the

b Reflection on practice.Another factor that initiated Valens behavioral change is her

reflection on practice. Due to a heavy workload, systematic reflection on teaching was
absent at the outset of the study. As the study went on, more and more reflection appeared,
particularly during interviews. Some topics that emerged during the interviews triggered
her thinking and prompted changes later. This was evident in Valens explanation of
adopting both explicit explanation and contextualized vocabulary teaching in different
situations. Below is her comment:

Its mainly because you asked about this question last semester. I thought about it after that. It
seemed really boring. I taught in this way because I couldnt catch up with other teachers at that
time. Since the schedule is not very tight in this semester, I think maybe a little change will be
better. Now, when Im teaching simple words, I use pictures to illustrate them. As long as
pictures can be used, Ill use them. But for difficult words, Ill still explain them directly.
(Interview: 10/28/2010)

Meanwhile, many of the alternatives she mentioned during the interviews resurfaced
later in her class. For example, in one of the earlier interviews, Valen reflected:

I think students need more practice. Some of them cant even count the 26 [letters of the]
alphabet. Im not sure whether they can learn well without these exercises. Maybe I can
design some activities and let them do something. Last time I observed a teacher using role-
play in her class. Maybe I can also do that. Things may become different. (Interview:

The above excerpts illustrate how reflection brings fresh practices into otherwise routi-
nized classrooms and promotes teacher change. However, the examples may have also
indicated the interfering effect of teacher interviews. Although the researcher tried to
refrain from providing any comments on Valens practice, the participation in the study,
particularly the interviews, did catalyse teacher change to some extent. However, if we
recognize the reflexive nature of interview and embrace the concept of interview as
social practice (Talmy, 2010), during which data are collaboratively produced, it is such
contamination of data that helps us understand why and how Valen changed in the way
she did. Such co-construction of meaning provides Valen with an opportunity to articu-
late her thinking behind decision-making, evaluate the efficacy of teaching, compare
alternatives of practices, and finally change her classroom behaviors.

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180 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

c The teaching context. The third factor that triggered the behavioral changes is teaching
context. As part of the teaching context, the school culture made Valen give up the prac-
tice of contextualized vocabulary teaching and adopt the explicit explanation approach.
While justifying the practice, Valen explained:

I remember I asked them the question at the beginning of last semester. They said this would
save a lot of time. They all taught in this way. (What do you think of the practice?) I think its
all right. Its very effective. I was taught in this way while in middle school. I learned well at
that time. (Interview: 05/06/2010)

The quotation illustrates how Valen adapted her practice to what has been prevailing in
the community. It also, however, points to the effect of the teachers prior learning expe-
rience on her practice. This echoes the findings of numerous current studies that teach-
ers own language learning experiences play a significant part in shaping their practices
(Lortie, 1975). Valens case shows when the shared practices in the school were vali-
dated by the teachers own experience as a learner, she would prefer practicing what she
has experienced rather than what she has studied. For the novice teacher, learning to
teach has become a process of understanding the social context of teaching and creating
the conditions that would allow her to survive in the particular institutional culture.
In addition to the school culture, important others have also influenced the teachers
practices. Valens obsession with the use of films best illustrates the point. As has been
mentioned before, films were adopted at the parents request. However, the urge to sat-
isfy the parents was so overwhelming that the new practice did not seem to function well:
some of the selected films served the teaching poorly. For example, in one of the observed
teaching episodes, Valen used a clip from The phantom of the opera to exemplify the
word opera. As the selected scene was not an opera but a ball, students seemed con-
fused while trying to make sense of the word.
Valen explained that she happened to have this film at hand and wanted to take this
opportunity to recommend it. Parents are an important force to evaluate the teacher and
the outcome of teaching. It is not surprising that their suggestions would exert so great
an influence on the teachers pedagogical decision-making.
It is worth noting that the three factors discussed above do not exist in isolation as has
been presented. They mostly work together to enable teacher change. On the one hand, new
insights gained from teacher experiences usually provide alternatives for the teacher to
solve the problems that have been identified during reflection on practice. For example, the
idea of using freer language practice to consolidate knowledge came from Valens observa-
tion of a public lesson and resurfaced in her practice after her reflection. On the other hand,
the teaching context decides which idea can be put into practice and stay in the classroom.
For example, the idea of using films as supplementary materials derived from a successful
teaching incident, but was localized in Valens classroom as a result of the parents request.
The interrelatedness of these factors indicates the complexity of teacher change.

3 Changes in teacher cognition

As has been discussed, the factors that caused Valens changes in practices all worked
together with her thinking. Some of the changes took place because she had more

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Kang and Cheng 181

thinking or new thinking about teaching. These changes in turn made Valen further
reflect on her practices. Interpretive data analysis has revealed varying degrees of change
in Valens cognition in connection with behavioral changes over the course of the study.
Changes in Valens cognition, essentially cumulative in nature, took place in three
ways: confirmation, elaboration and disagreement. Confirmation means some of Valens
theoretical knowledge was confirmed (i.e. she believed that the knowledge is right and
useful). She was thus able to articulate it and consciously endorse it in her practices. For
example, after Valen experimented with the guided-discovery activity, the theoretical
knowledge that she had learned in her pre-service education was reactivated to endorse
the practice. Valen commented:

I used to translate every sentence and explain the words explicitly. No matter how hard I tried,
students couldnt learn well. Ive seen other people doing well with that. So, I guess if I encourage
them to discover by themselves things wont be worse Ive done this many times this semester.
Its not bad. I believe if students learn well, they should be able to say what they know. And they
should also be able to find the problem and solve it by themselves. (Interview: 12/17/2012)

Valen joined the profession with a large stock of theoretical knowledge learned during
her pre-service education. Some of the knowledge, e.g. the principle of student-
centeredness, remained on the sidelines because it carried little practical implication for
her situated practice. Though researchers have cautioned that what is presented in pre-
service teacher education may be washed away by the first-year experience (Freeman,
1994), the present study found that practice-oriented in-service learning helped the nov-
ice teacher consolidate the acquired knowledge by prompting her to test the theory out in
the real classroom. Once positive outcomes were observed, a new practical understand-
ing would emerge from the new practice. The theoretical knowledge was thus brought
more to the center of the cognition system and became part of the working theory of the
Elaboration means adding new dimensions to existing teacher cognition. In other
words, Valen refined the existing beliefs by relating what she had already known to the
new input. In the present study, an elaborated understanding about language teaching,
particularly vocabulary presentation, emerged after Valen evaluated the effects of both
explicit explanation and contextualized vocabulary teaching. She reflected as follows:

The two approaches do not differ much in helping students learn vocabulary. But, for the words
with difficult spellings and pronunciations or those abstract words, teaching words in context
will cause problems in students understanding. So the best way is to vary approaches at
different times according to the types of vocabulary. (Interview: 10/28/2010)

This example indicates that Valen polished her understanding of how to teach language
after a modification in the vocabulary presentation strategy. Consequently, her knowl-
edge became more situation-specific and comprehensive to cover both the merits and
demerits of the different approaches.
Disagreement occurred when there was a conflict between Valens current cognition
and a new theory, which was resolved through her questioning and rejecting the former.
Thus she moved away from the old cognition towards the new one. For example,

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182 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

following the addition of meaning-focused language practices, Valen reevaluated her

beliefs about students and her choices to consolidate knowledge. She originally consid-
ered her students as incompetent learners, as is illustrated by the following excerpt from
an earlier interview:

Sometimes, I have to teach the same knowledge again and again. But students still cant
understand. Most of them are weak in learning. I might have designed activities or tasks in
class, but the outcome wouldnt be good. Students didnt have enough knowledge. For
example, I can ask them to prepare something at home and come back with a presentation.
But it wont work. They wont do it. They will only do some simple work, like copying the
vocabulary items or the text, particularly when I tell them Ill collect and grade the work.
(Interview: 04/12/2012)

After Valen had incorporated more meaning-focused activities in the classroom, she

I didnt dare to let students talk too much last semester, perhaps because I didnt know them
well. Since Ive been with them for one year, I think I can have them do something I feel,
most of the students can do what I want them to, like making a dialogue. Others can even add
their own ideas in the dialogue or use complicated structures. Im kind of surprised. Im now
more certain about what they can achieve. (Interview: 11/12/2010)

As a novice teacher, Valen started teaching with little knowledge about her students. Her
underestimation of the students competence narrowed her pedagogical choices to
mechanical drills and exercises. By shunning activities involving creative use of lan-
guage, Valen could avoid troubles that might jeopardize her professional credibility.
Thanks to the reflection on alternative ways of teaching, Valen was able to try out some
meaning-focused activities and observe the learning outcome. Following the successful
implementation, Valens estimate of students ability was called into question and conse-
quently rejected. She was thus empowered to expand her pedagogical choices to include
creative tasks later in her class.

The findings presented in the previous section indicate that behavioral changes do not
always originate from changes in cognition. Many factors can trigger change. Cognitive
changes are not always as achievable as expected. They are closely related to changes in
practices. Clarke and Hollingsworth (2002) compare the teachers learning process to a
spiral of action research in which teachers make informed modifications to their prac-
tices, reflect on the significance of the consequences, and make further modifications to
their practices. The present study further illustrates that it is within this cycle of behavio-
ral change that the teacher gains new practical theories of teaching and updates her cog-
nition. Teacher cognition development is the result of a continuous process in which the
knowledge and belief system cyclically interacts with the teachers classroom practices
under the mediation of teacher reflection. The process is shaped by and through the
teachers experiences in the lived-in world.

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Kang and Cheng 183

To make teacher cognition development take place, several conditions are crucial.
First, ideas of change should emerge as a result of the teachers response to her own
experiences. At the beginning of the study, Valens negative attitude towards the teaching
and research activities, combined with a lack of reflection kept her practices largely
uninformed. It was not until half way into the data collection that she was found to adopt
the ideas demonstrated in these activities. Research carried out by Tsui (2003) indicates
that those who are more capable of identifying possibilities in the context and effectively
utilizing them are more likely to develop expertise. The different response patterns deter-
mine why and how teachers develop in an idiosyncratic way.
Second, experimentation should be carried out to enact the new ideas. An idea will
likely be put into action, if it is considered acceptable to the existing cognition and the
teaching context, and applicable to the particular classroom to solve the current problem
or improve the learning outcome. For example, the differentiated teaching approach was
employed because Valen deemed it helpful to satisfy students differing needs. Likewise,
the shared vocabulary presentation method in the community was adopted because it was
consistent with her prior conception.
Third, the new behavior has to be scrutinized via feedback to become a regular prac-
tice. The teacher will evaluate its efficacy by drawing on references from various sources,
including not only her own perception of the learning outcome (e.g. improved students
performance or motivation), but also critiques from other agents involved in the teaching
and learning process, e.g. colleagues, school administration and parents. A negative
response may result in the removal of the new practice or further modification. If the
feedback is positive, however, the new practice will be solidified and become a new
norm in the classroom.
In the present study, Valens use of films was sustained by the parents request. She
regularized the guided-discovery approach after it was tested in the classroom and pro-
duced positive results. The findings confirm Guskeys (1986) contention that field-
testing of new practices and first-hand experience of change in students learning
outcomes may be crucial to the change of teachers practices. They also support Lamies
(2004) assumption that teacher performance and beliefs will naturally be influenced by
feedback given from external sources.
Finally, a vital link in the change process is the interaction between practices and
cognition. To begin with, the emergence of new personal theory requires theorization of
new practices, making apparent the practitioner knowledge and providing the means by
which such knowledge can be elaborated, understood and reviewed (Burns & Richards,
2009; Richards, 2008). This entails not only articulating the tacit knowledge gained in
the new practice and generalizing it into fresh practical theory, but also interpreting the
formal knowledge from the new practice and incorporating that insight into the cognition
system. It is in this process of theorization that the teacher becomes the user and creator
of her own knowledge.
In the meantime, the teacher needs to practice what she has theorized to finish the
interactive cycle. The existing practices will be refined according to the newly-formed
cognition and a fresh experiment cycle starts. Following the refinement of her knowl-
edge about students and task choices, Valen tried out language production tasks that
required student cooperation. It is in this way that cognitive change leads to further

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184 Language Teaching Research 18(2)

modifications in behavior and enables continuous teacher growth. The interactive mech-
anism between cognition and practice reinforces the understanding that theory and prac-
tice together constitute a dialectical praxis by mutually informing each other (Freeman,
1998; Johnson, 2006). The cyclical interaction makes it possible for the teacher to realize
her growth by continuously reframing practices and gaining new understandings in day-
to-day work.

This study investigated a novice EFL teachers change in both her classroom practices
and her cognition and found that teacher cognition cyclically interacts with the class-
room practices to enable continuous teacher growth. The findings offer a number of
implications for promoting teacher learning.
First, approaches to in-service teacher development should be reevaluated regard-
ing if the activities involved are to reinforce the effect of pre-service education and
positively impact on teacher development. If teachers can observe the espoused theory
practiced in the classroom with promising results and no major hindrance to their
work, they will be tempted to experiment merely out of interest. Second, a supportive
and nurturing condition should be created to facilitate teacher learning. A favorable
workplace condition includes: suitable workload, collegial support, as well as availa-
bility of in-service learning opportunities. Finally, teachers should assume an active
role in their own professional development. It is in this way that the wheels of learning
will be set in motion.
In spite of the insights offered, this study has limitations. The single case presented
here can not answer all the questions involved in so complicated a matter as teacher
change. Neither does the one-year span of research serve well in probing the teachers
long-term growth. Future studies that involve more teachers of diversified background
and extend over longer periods are expected to help paint a more accurate picture of the
domain of teacher learning.

The authors gratefully thank the guest editors and anonymous reviewers for their invaluable com-
ments and revision suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.

This work was supported by the Social Science Research Common Program of Beijing Municipal
Commission of Education (grant number SM201210028006).

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