Teacher Intentions – can we separate from context?

Up until last week I’d been using teacher intention and learning intention as interchangable terms.

However, when I was took part in a discussion with our newly qualified teachers last week I began to wonder if they might actually be different – or at least one being a sub-set of the other?

Ann McLanachan made very useful contribution to this debate when she stressed the need to try to separate the learning intention from the context. Given some of the work we have been doing relating to the importance of disciplinary learning  I wondered if we can ever really separate learning intention from context – and that perhaps teacher intention is more related to an awareness of context and what the next step in learning might be.

Back in the the early 1990’s I undertook some research which explored the physical education curriculum by referring to the intentions of teachers and the functions of activities. For example – what were teachers intentions when they taught gymnastics and how might that differ from when they were teaching a team game or another form or activity?

At the time I surveyed half the schools in Scotland and interviewed a large number of teachers. What transpired was that the different activities fulfilled different functions, e.g:

  • gymnastics was seen to be primarily connected with the fulfillment of the following functions skill (discrete physical skills which formed part of the activity); aesthetic ( to develop an awareness and appreciation of phyiscal movement); and cognitive (to promote knowledge about the facts and principles associated with physical education);
  • whereas, the functions of a team game were primarily skill; social (using an activity to enhance children’s ability to interact, communicate and co-operate with other people in a socially acceptable manner); leisure (to develop children’s awareness of activities which can constitute adult leisure interests).

One of the conclusions of my research was that the activity – or the context – had a significant influence upon the the focus the teacher took when teaching that activity, i.e. a teacher wouldn’t try to use swimming to promote children’s understanding of “right” and “wrong” in a moral sense, whereas they might when teaching games.

My point here is that context does influence the intentions of the teacher and we must take account of the context when considering learning intentions.

However, I totally agree with Ann McLanachan when she stressed the importance of ensuring that the teacher and the learners share an understanding of the learning intention.  I came across an interesting piece of research relating to language teaching which backed this up:

Recent explorations in task-based pedagogy have pointed out that learning outcome is the result of a fairly unpredictable interaction between the learner, the task, and the task situation. From the teacher‘s perspective, then, achievement of success depends largely on the degree to which teacher intention and learner interpretation of a given task converge. The narrower the gap between teacher intention and learner interpretation, the greater are the chances of achieving desired learning outcomes.

I wonder then if learning intention might be the thing which the teacher and the learner work out as an agreed understanding of what it is they are going to be doing in that lesson – which would bring together the potentially divergent points of view as represented by the teacher’s intention and the learner’s interpretation?