Classic article: Putnam & Borko on teacher learning

This is another entry in my occasional series of classic articles of interest to educators and education researchers. This piece was co-authored by Hilda Borko, now on the faculty at Stanford and formerly a professor – and my advisor – at the U. of Colorado at Boulder.

Putnam, R. T. & Borko, H. (2000, January-February). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 29(1), 4-15.


The education and research communities are abuzz with new (or at least re-discovered) ideas about the nature of cognition and learning. Terms like “situated cognition,” “distributed cognition,” and “communities of practice” fill the air. Recent dialogue in Educational Researcher (Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996, 1997; Greeno, 1997) typifies this discussion. Some have argued that the shifts in world view that these discussions represent are even more fundamental than the now-historical shift from behaviorist to cognitive views of learning (Shuell, 1986).

These new ideas about the nature of knowledge, thinking, and learning — which are becoming known as the “situative perspective” (Greeno, 1997; Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996) — are interacting with, and sometimes fueling, current reform movements in education. Most discussions of these ideas and their implications for educational practice have been cast primarily in terms of students. Scholars and policymakers have considered, for example, how to help students develop deep understandings of subject matter, situate students’ learning in meaningful contexts, and create learning communities in which teachers and students engage in rich discourse about important ideas (e.g., National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; National Education Goals Panel, 1991; National Research Council, 1993).

Less attention has been paid to teachers–either to their roles in creating learning experiences consistent with the reform agenda or to how they themselves learn new ways of teaching. In this article we focus on the latter. Our purpose in considering teachers’ learning is twofold. First, we use these ideas about the nature of learning and knowing as lenses for understanding recent research on teacher learning. Second, we explore new issues about teacher learning and teacher education that this perspective brings to light. We begin with a brief overview of three conceptual themes that are central to the situative perspective–that cognition is (a) situated in particular physical and social contexts; (b) social in nature; and (c) distributed across the individual, other persons, and tools.

The full article is available online here.


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