The Complexity of Teacher Decision-making

In the previous two posts (see here and here), I have argued that parents as well as grandparents, uncles and aunts who became home-bound teachers during pandemic-driven closures of schools have come to both appreciate and understand teaching as never before.

Sitting with a 10 or 14 year-old at the kitchen table figuring out how to answer the math word problems or parsing teacher-assigned paragraphs in a U.S. history text were generally unfamiliar tasks that stay-at-home parents had to do regularly when schools shut down. Parents pleading with or ordering their children to complete their homework before the home-bound children sat down at the screen to begin the next session of remote instruction is not what many felt they had to do once their children were of age to traipse off to the schoolhouse. But now they do. And many, if not most, parents see teaching hardly like what they had recalled from their own years in school but far more difficult than they had anticipated.

At-home teaching with one or more kids for maybe two hours a day parents have discovered, is hard work involving many decisions. Parents come to realize that to teach means depending upon the student to be motivated enough to respond and engage with the teacher. Hard enough as that is with one or more kids at home, parents do not face, for example,a third grade classroom filled with 30 eight year-olds for six hours a day for thirty-six weeks.

But most parents, grand-parents, uncles, and aunts are not teachers and their only memories of being a student were when they attended school decades earlier. For these ad-hoc teachers who are largely unfamiliar with the complexity of classroom teaching and especially, the rat-a-tat flow of teacher decisions during a lesson and other readers, I describe that often chaotic but essential process again stressing that teachers are dependent on students for interaction, engagement, and, ultimately learning. Teachers are not sole actors on a stage performing; they are part of a relationship where both sides depend upon one another. Later posts fill in the larger picture of teachers situated in a complex system of tax-supported public schooling.

Teacher decision-making before the lesson

To teach, one needs a college degree and able to meet state requirements for a license. Those state requirements dictate what universities offer in teacher-training programs. And nearly all teachers are college- trained to plan lessons for the particular content and skills they will teach. Training occurs in university education programs or alternative pathways to state certification as well as in the classroom as student-teachers or interns.

Depending upon how many years they have been teaching, both kindergarten and high school physics teachers plan their day’s lesson that morning, the night before, or even a week or month earlier. Typically, any day’s lesson is part of a week- or month-long unit of instruction geared to district and state standards. More experienced teachers have files of previous years’ lessons or know the content and skills to be taught so well that they keep plans in their heads (and occasionally wing it) while novice and early-career teachers usually have paper lessons sitting on their desks or on laptop screens. Thus, before a lesson is taught, a teacher’s plan includes a bunch of intended objectives, ways of reaching those desired ends through different activities, and how she will assess whether the lesson succeeded.

What complicates classroom decision-making are the myriad intentions (i.e., goals and objectives) teachers have ranging from managing the group of students to focus on lesson, getting students to learn, keeping the lesson moving since there is only so much time available, and avoiding distractions while teaching. With multiple intentions, diverse students, and limited time, conflicts and contradictions inevitably arise.

Teacher decision-making during lessons

When students appear in the classroom, planning shifts to actual decisions in real time made according to the original plan and, too often, as events unfold, on the fly. Improvising occurs when the lesson veers from the plan because of student responsiveness (or lack thereof), unanticipated events popping up, or the teacher suddenly realizing that there is another way of making the central point of the lesson. Or all three may occur in an unexpected trifecta of events.

Researcher Mary Kennedy interviewed 45 teachers at length for her study Inside Teaching. Here is what a 5th grade teacher told Kennedy about what she is thinking when teaching a lesson:

You learn to carry lots of things in your head–where the lesson is going, what you’re going to say next, who is paying attention to you, there’s a problem here. You’re carrying lots of things–I’ve got to watch the clock because at ten o’clock we have got an assembly–…. You have all of these thoughts going on–I think sometimes it affects how I speak to people because it comes out disjointed when I am having a conversation, because another thought comes in,and it rushes out, and there are all these thoughts bombarding all the time. I think that’s part of being a teacher, because you have to carry all this stuff in your head. You can write out nice little note cards and have all thing organized, but then there’s always something–the assembly is 10 minutes late because they were late getting–all these things, so you learn how to adjust and be flexible and how to carry these things around, partly through practice, I guess (p.56).

Non-teachers, then, would be amazed at the total number of decisions teachers make during a 45 to 55 minute lesson, the frequency of ad-lib, unplanned decisions, and the seemingly effortless segues teachers make from one task to another. In questioning students, starting and stopping activities, watching the clock, and minding the behavior of the class as if teachers had eyes in the back of their heads, decisions tumble out one after another.

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-driven routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions–were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, equipment breakdown). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected pile up teacher decisions.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and NBA basketballers, improvise, decide on the spot–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.

Teacher decision-making after the lesson

Depending on how experienced a teacher is, post-lesson evaluation–another form of decision-making– occurs either formally when teachers write notesr to themselves on what happened during the lesson and judging what seemed to work and what didn’t in their initial plans. New teachers are encouraged by their mentors and former university teachers to do so. More experienced teachers may jot down a sentence here and there for the next time they will use this lesson. Post-lesson decision-making is judgmental. Some teachers may ask their students–another teacher decision–to rate the lesson on what they remembered or learned in class.

Hence, teachers engage in complex decision-making before, during, and after a lesson is taught. Non-teachers like parents during pandemic closures know little of this complexity in individual teacher decision-making or the organizational complexity in which teachers live daily.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

7 responses to “The Complexity of Teacher Decision-making

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Larry. Your comment section has been taken over by Douck Duck Go.I cannot remove that

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Thanke. This is not your technical probem. I have a Mac Book Air and usualyy have Google as my search engine. I will try again later on after some tinkering.

  3. Good morning Larry
    You may be interested in an article I have had published on cognitive load and affect in teacher decision-making. Happy to send it to you directly or you can access through

  4. Good morning Larry
    I have just published an article on cognitive load, affect and teacher decision-making. It may be if interest to you. I would love to chat further.

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