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Disposition: a superfluous construct in teacher education.

Making plans is often the occupation of an opulent and boastful mind, which thus obtains the reputation for creative genius, by demanding what it cannot itself supply; by censuring what it cannot improve; and by proposing, what it knows not where to find.

--Immanuel Kant (quoted in Carus, 1949, p. 10)

Historically, a community granted permission to a person to teach on the basis of at least one of the following: (a) an assessment of the prospective teacher's character, values, and beliefs, usually by a member of the clergy; (b) an assessment of the prospective teacher's knowledge in selected domains, usually by a common or standardized test in the teaching subject; and/or (c) an assessment by a faculty with regard to the prospective teacher's course of professional study, usually with a major emphasis on pedagogy and teaching skill.

The field used what could be called an Aristotelian method to arrive at these requirements for the permission to teach. The normal school faculties and other members of the community thought hard about the issue and then proposed a system of ideas that made sense to them. In the past, this approach gave rise to the perfectly sensible and self-evident view, for example, that the earth was the center of the universe, that planetary orbits were circular, that heavy bodies fell to earth faster than lighter bodies, and so forth. Like many teacher educators, the peripatetic philosophers, as they were called, talked, walked about, argued, met, and crafted explanations that made sense and were convincing to many.

With regard to the specification of the teacher's character, values, beliefs, and so forth, such an approach yielded systems like the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC, 1992) list of dispositions for teaching, in which the teacher is required to realize, appreciate, have enthusiasm for, believe, respect, value, recognize, be sensitive to, be willing to, be concerned about, be committed to, understand, take responsibility for any number of ideas, all of which seem right and worthy to most members of the professional community.

The field of education is littered with terms, neologisms, and jargon that turn out under examination to have limited meaning, despite their conveying an impression that something is known and explained. With regard to the differences among pupils in the classroom, we see that the differences are attributed to the fact that some pupils are overachievers, conservers, field-independent, impulsive, learning deficient, gifted, levelers, analytic, extroverted, ready, subitizers, postconventional reasoners, illiterate, decoders, divergent thinkers, egocentric, anal-retentive, at grade level, right-brained, dyslexic, conservative focusers, at risk, and so on. By what criteria does the field discern which of these terms for describing a pupil is worth knowing and which should be discarded as merely tautological with the observed differences?

Quite apart from the terms that allegedly capture the differences among children are the terms that describe and differentiate the various kinds of mental activities that are implicated in the children's attempts to master the school curriculum. Consider just one aspect of the mind that is claimed to be at work in the schools: the various kinds of learning. Gagne (1970), for example, argued for the existence of eight types of learning that governed the order in which the pupil should attempt items in the curriculum. Claims are made for other distinct kinds of learning as well: incidental learning, cooperative learning, perceptual learning, mastery learning, verbal and nonverbal learning, conceptual change learning, discrimination learning, motor learning, discovery learning, rote learning, social learning, learning sets, signal learning, overlearning, active versus passive learning, place learning, mathemagenic learning, structural learning, trial and error learning, learning to learn, oddity learning, and so on. Similar distinctions are claimed for various kinds of teaching, for example, direct instruction, team teaching, reciprocal teaching, Lancastrian teaching, adaptive teaching, maieutic teaching, tutoring, and subject-matter specific techniques like "whole word," phonics, language experience, schema training, meta-comprehension training, mapping, SQ3R, and so forth.

Benton Underwood (1957) distinguished five levels of meaning in the hypothetical terms or constructs, such as disposition, found in the literature, and these provide useful guidance in sorting out the value of terms like those above. The levels are hierarchical, and the higher ones include the lower ones and have the greatest meaning.

Level 1

At the first level of meaning, the term signifies only what the researcher does. Words at this level mean only the procedure that the researcher follows or the context faced by a respondent. For example, the term extinction means only "the teacher's withholding of reward or reinforcement from the pupil." The disposition field independent (versus field dependent) refers only to the context of the titled chair and tilted room apparatus and how a researcher manipulates it.

Level 2

The term at the second level means only what a person does in response to what the researcher did to earn meaning at Level 1. Level 2 meaning is essentially a label for a phenomenon. Extinction at Level 2 refers to "the decrease in pupil performance when reward is withdrawn." Field-independence refers only to the fact the student can set his or her chair more or less upright when the room is tilted, and field-dependence refers to the student's error in setting the chair closer to the tilt of the room than the true perpendicular.

Level 3

At this level, the term means only that the phenomenon labeled at Level 2 is caused without stating exactly what the cause is. The shift from Level 2 to Level 3 is subtle but significant, because at this point "surplus and undocumented" meaning is added to the term, even though such meaning may be only an affirmation of the assumption that there are no uncaused events. Extinction now refers to something that causes school performance to decrease when reward is eliminated; extinction, rather than merely the label for an event, is now thought of as a process, mechanism, or entity that causes the event as when it is said that a behavior was extinguished. Field-independence is now thought of as an internal hidden trait or disposition that can influence behavior, as when it is said that someone has field-independence or is field-dependent.

Level 3 meaning is speculative and seductive because it gives the unsuspecting person the idea that more is known than really is. For example, we may say that the reason pupils do poorly in school is because they are educationally handicapped or learning disabled. The evidence for such a handicap or disability, however, may be only our observation that pupils do poorly in school, in which case we have learned only that pupils do poorly in school because we see them do poorly in school. In other words, we have learned nothing and have not advanced our understanding at all by inventing the terms educational handicap or learning disability. We say that the pupil acts out because he has the disposition to be impulsive or extroverted when all we really know is that the pupil acts out from time to time. That is, we reify the concept behind the term; we make that concept into a self-subsisting substance. Regrettably, most terms in educational theories are tautological and synonymous with the event that they purport to explain.

Level 4

At this level of meaning, the researcher attempts to specify the nature of the cause that was assumed at Level 3. Level 4 concepts and terms refer to a proposed mechanism or structure or entity. It is essential that whatever is postulated at this level be adequate to be the cause of more than one lower-level concept or event; otherwise, we are left with the kind of nonsensical and tautological constructs encountered in the handicap or acting-out examples. The more phenomena claimed to be caused by a Level 4 concept and the more unrelated they appear, the better the Level 4 concept is likely to be in advancing our understanding.

Neither extinction nor field dependence makes it to Underwood's fourth level of meaning. Rather, theorists hypothesize each to be caused by another hypothetical term that has sufficient surplus meaning to carry it to this level. For example, the construct reactive inhibition (I), a fatigue-like mechanism, is hypothesized to cause extinction as well as other apparently unrelated learning phenomena such as spontaneous recovery, reminiscence, and the massed-spaced practice effect. Field independence is thought to be caused by an analytic cognitive style that also is related to performance on such seemingly unrelated tasks as being able to break up an organized visual field and keep part of it separate (the embedded figures or Gottschalk task), remembering names better than faces, having a preference for environments with minimal social interactions, having a preference for self-paced learning, having an ability to disambiguate sentences, and so forth.

Level 5

Few concepts in the behavioral sciences or education exist at the fifth level of meaning, but when they are warranted, they are used to integrate, explain, and summarize sets of Level 4 concepts. The equation, [sub.s.E.sub.r] = [sub.s.H.sub.r] x D x I - (I.sub.r] + [s.sub.I.sub.r]), is an example of the Level 5 meaning of the concept, reactive potential, [sub.s.E.sub.r], where [sub.s.H.sub.r] is learning or the strength of the connection between a stimulus (s) and a response (r), and D is drive or motivation, I is incentive or attractiveness of the reward, [I.sub.r] is reactive inhibition or fatigue, and [sub.s.I.sub.r] is conditioned inhibition or a learned tendency not to respond.

The details of the equation are not important here except to point out that if any of the first three terms is zero or the last two terms become large, the pupil will have no potential for reaction or performance and will do nothing along the lines of what he or she has learned and been taught in school. What is important for the present discussion, apart from the fact that the expression describes much of the pupil's behavior in school, is to point out that the meaning of each term can be reduced to Level 1 and Level 2. Drive (D), for example, is "the number of hours the pupil is deprived of the reward the teacher uses to facilitate learning," and learning ([sub.s.H.sub.r]) is "the number of times the pupil's correct response was rewarded." All the terms, no matter how preposterous and pretentious that each may sound, are reducible to public procedures for measuring or producing the event that they signify.

Carroll (1963), to take an example in education, has provided a Level 5 meaning for the educational term mastery learning. Mastery learning, or the degree of school learning, is defined by the equation, ML = f ([T.sub.s]/[T.sub.n]), whose elements can be specified at the lower levels of meaning, where time needed for learning ([T.sub.n]) is a function of pupil ability plus teacher's effectiveness and where time spent on learning ([T.sub.s]) is a function of the pupil's perseverance or the time allocated by the teacher for learning the lesson, whichever is less.

The meaning of mastery learning can be run through to Levels 1 and 2 for each constituent term in the formula. Thus, pupil ability is taken solely as the time the pupil needs on his or her own to learn something. Teacher effectiveness is taken as the time that the pupil saves in learning the task (or loses, in some unfortunate cases) because of the teacher's efforts. Pupil perseverance is simply the time that the pupil works on the task, and allocated time is nothing more than the time that the teacher allocates for the pupil's learning.

Consider the implications of the Underwood analysis for the construct disposition. Teachers, for example, are expected to have a disposition of having high expectations for their pupils' achievement. At Level 1, we see the following documented context--the teacher seats certain pupils further away and outside the classroom zone of frequent teacher-pupil interaction, looks at them less, asks them low-level questions, calls on them less often, and gives them less time to respond, offers them fewer hints when they are called on, and gives them less praise and more blame than other pupils. At Level 2, we see the replicated phenomenon that these pupils perform at lower levels than the pupils who are treated differently (i.e., those who are seated inside the zone of frequent interaction and receive more teacher attention, more higher level questions, more hints, more time to respond, more praise, etc.).

There is little doubt about the features of the teacher's behavior and the expectation phenomenon. There is a strong temptation, however, to go beyond what is actually known about it by shifting to Level 3 (that something caused the teacher to behave as she did) and to go further to Level 4 by claiming the cause was the teacher's disposition. However, what disposition, exactly, is implicated? On one hand, the evidence is consistent with a teacher disposition of insensitivity or with the dispositions of low expectation, prejudice, or meanness. On the other hand, the evidence is equally consistent with the opposite dispositions of kindness and caring. The kind and caring teacher, believing the pupil does not know very much, will not want to embarrass the pupil by calling on the pupil often, will ask appropriately easy questions when the pupil is called on, will give fewer hints, and will offer less time when the pupil fails to respond, as it would be unkind to prolong the pupil's embarrassment and so on.

The teacher education program could address the disposition displayed in this example if it only knew what it was. How could the program figure out what the disposition was and what scholarship exists to guide its inquiry? Are the prospective teacher's private beliefs even relevant to the issue (viz., religious beliefs in an afterlife, astrology, political stance, belief in the heritability of IQ, and beliefs in slogans like "all kids can learn")? One teacher education program, cited as exemplary by its accreditor, monitors questionable and negative dispositions and follows students "closely to ensure that a pattern of inappropriate dispositions is not being displayed" (C. Clark, personal communication, 2005). Hines (2007) has described the abuses that have taken place historically and recently, when the profession's "well-intentioned" efforts of "professional socialization" override the candidate's academic freedom and freedom of conscience and become the basis of the state's and the profession's permission to teach.

If any of the candidate's beliefs, commonly used as a screening gatekeeper to teacher education, were relevant, how should the profession figure out what they should be? Should teachers have the disposition to be, for example, field dependent or field independent, analytic or global, devout or agnostic, liberal or conservative, to believe "all kids can learn" or that some cannot learn some things, and so forth? And if any of these beliefs were truly relevant, what guidance is there for how field-dependent, devout, analytic, and so on that the teacher should be--completely, partially, or minimally?

More important, and as the Underwood levels of meaning analysis shows, there is very little known beyond Levels 1 and 2 with regard to the dispositions cited by teacher educators. In most cases, there is hardly a basis for establishing the meaning of the disposition at Levels 1 or 2. A disposition associated with the INTASC ninth principle, for example, is that "the teacher is willing to give and receive help," but no work has been undertaken to establish what contexts dependably yield this kind of willingness or whether a willingness of this sort even exists to any measurable degree. There is a legitimate a priori doubt whether the "willingness to give help" and the "willingness to receive help" could constitute a single disposition, as it is likely that the disposition to give help may not reside easily with the disposition to receive it and vice versa.

The amount of scholarship and research that currently justifies the meaning of most constructs in the behavioral sciences at Levels 1 and 2, let alone the higher order levels of meaning, is enormous and a career-long undertaking for many scholars (see Cantor, 1990). Efforts of this magnitude have simply not taken place in teacher education, and none of the putative teacher dispositions, cited by INTASC and others, has the credibility that the psychological disposition, field independence, has, for example.

In fact, there is almost no basis for distinguishing the so-called teaching dispositions from the teacher's behavior in a context or situation. The behavior's occurrence at high stable rate or frequency sums up all the certain meaning of the construct disposition. If the behavior occurs at a low rate, the near absence of a disposition is established (or an opposite disposition may be indicated). A disposition, in other words, is nothing more than the rate or frequency of a behavior in a defined situation, and this is all that the term, given current levels of scholarship, can and does signify at the present time.

This view of disposition as an operant level of a teacher behavior is consistent with Katz and Raths' (1985) insight that dispositions can still be the goals of a teacher education program because a disposition is only a characteristic of a teacher's behavior that is displayed in the teacher's actions in the classroom. A problem the teacher education program must still confront, however, is the competence/performance distinction cited by developmental psychologists (e.g., Reese & Overton, 1970) and some teacher educators (e.g., Katz & Raths, 1985). Although prospective teachers may have acquired the appropriate skills, they still may not use or apply them (i.e., they may not be disposed to use them, in other words). Once a teacher education faculty has identified skills (competencies) to teach candidates, they must not only insure that the skills are learned but they must also strengthen candidates' disposition or tendency to use the skills in the classroom. So, as Raths (2007) has observed,
   If a teacher education program elects to teach candidates to ask
   higher level questions, or to employ think-pair-share techniques in
   discussions, or to practice wait time in recitation lessons, the
   faculty has implicitly also chosen as goals to strengthen the
   dispositions to use those skills in practice. Thus, every teacher
   education program that lists competencies as targets within its
   program is also pronouncing associated dispositions as goals. (p.

In other words, it must take steps to insure that the competencies are actually performed.

For the construct disposition to be of some true value to teacher education, considerable scholarship and research would be required to establish its meaning at even the lowest levels in the Underwood analysis. What are the contexts and what are the responses that occur reliably in those contexts in the case of teacher dispositions?

There are a number of methodological obstacles in establishing these contexts and rates, however, because of low coefficients of agreement among raters, tendency of the raters to use only the high end of the available scales, weak psychometric characteristics of the disposition scales, and conceptual difficulties in establishing a passing score. Even when belief or disposition scales with acceptable psychometric properties have been crafted (e.g., New York University's Educational Beliefs Questionnaire) the relationship of high scores on the instrument with other assessments of teacher competence and efficacy have proven elusive. Until these methodological obstacles are overcome and until a research base is forthcoming on the relationships between the teacher's private beliefs and intentions and his or her overt actions, disposition remains a superfluous construct in teacher education because it is largely tautological with the teacher's behavior that it seeks to explain.

Although disposition may be a superfluous construct at the present time, it is not an entirely useless one, however. Robert Browning noted that our "reach should exceed our grasp," (1) and in many areas of scholarship hypothetical constructs like gene or vitamin initially had, like disposition, no more than Level 2 meanings, but subsequent reflection and investigation earned them the higher levels of meaning that have made them essential and generative constructs in their disciplines. To be sure, disposition in teacher education awaits additional scholarship to add to its lower levels of meaning, but in the meantime, it can serve as a hypothetical construct to guide that research and to also guide reflection on the teacher's actions and to provide a continuity of purpose for the teacher. The disposition to employ wait time, for example, is little more than a technical move if it is separated from the disposition to encourage the pupil's participation in the lesson and to stimulate higher-order thinking.

By way of analogy to Underwood's levels of meaning, there are levels or scales of measurement in educational assessment that require that the assessor be able to make some solid determinations about educational accomplishment before different numbers can be assigned legitimately to pupils' achievement. The assessor at least needs a way to tell whether two pupils know different amounts of arithmetic (nominal scale): for example, whether one pupil knows more than the other (ordinal scale), how much more one pupil knows than the other (equal interval scale), and finally, the assessor needs a way to figure out what knowing no arithmetic would mean (the precondition for knowing how many times as much one pupil knows as the other-ratio scale). The point here is that almost no scales in education rise beyond the ordinal level, but researchers routinely and illegitimately apply statistical techniques to their scales that assume the scales are equal interval or ratio. They presume what they do not know and have not established because they hope that their reach might exceed their grasp and that they can find something out that will advance scholarship, thereby legitimizing retroactively at some point the assumptions they have made. In this sense, disposition could be acted on provisionally in teacher education as though there were higher levels of meaning and in the expectation of uncovering them.

Finally, there is the larger question, quite apart from what the lines of scholarship outlined above might eventually reveal about dispositions, about who should be entitled to teach. The answer to the entitlement question might entail the profession's scrutiny of a candidate's beliefs and values and restrictions on a candidate's liberties of conscience, but the entitlement question should not be confused with whether the construct disposition has more than the lowest levels of meaning that it currently has.


Cantor, N. (1990). From thought to behavior: "Having" and "doing" in the study of personality and cognition. American Psychologist, 45, 735-750.

Carroll, J. (1963). A model for school learning. Teachers College Record, 64, 723-733.

Carus, P. (Ed.). (1949). Kant's Prolegomena (Religion of Sciences Library No. 53). La Salle, IL: The Open Court.

Gagne R. (1970). The conditions of learning (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Hines, L. M. (2007). Return of the thought police. Education Next, 2, 59-65.

Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC). (1992). Model standards for beginning teacher licensure and development. A resource for state dialogue. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Katz, L. G., & Raths, J. D. (1985). Dispositions as goals for teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 1, 301-307.

O'Gorman, F. (Ed.). (2004). Victorian poetry: An annotated anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Raths, J. D. (2007). Experiences with dispositions in teacher education. Unpublished manuscript, University of Delaware, Newark.

Reese, H., & Overton, W. (1970). Models and theories of development. In L. Goulet & P. Baltes (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology (pp. 115-145). New York: Academic Press.

Underwood, B. (1957). Psychological research. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


(1.) "Or what's a heaven for" from the poem "Andrea del Sarto" (quoted in O'Gorman, 2004, pp. 97-98).

Frank B. Murray

University of Delaware

Frank B. Murray is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Delaware and president of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) in Washington, D.C. His research interests are in cognitive development, teacher education policy, and accreditation.
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Author:Murray, Frank B.
Publication:Journal of Teacher Education
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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