The goals of teaching

The goals of teaching

There are two absolutely crucial questions regarding the goals of teaching: 1) Who should decide the goals? 2) What should the goals be?

We have analyzed how these issues are addressed in 75 highly cited reviews of research on teaching methods (see references and links below). The reviews concerned more encompassing teaching methods such as cooperative learning to more restricted aspects of teaching such as e.g. the teaching of a specific content.

It should be emphasized that the reviews are generally very carefully carried out and published in journals with good reputations, such as the Review of Educational Research.

What did we find? Before answering that question, it may be interesting to see how the two questions above are answered in the Swedish school system.

A broad mission established by political means

Undoubtedly, it is a broad assignment that is formulated for the Swedish school in the Swedish Education Act. I have previously identified seven key assignments for the school system:

· A knowledge assignment that includes the desire to learn

· An assignment that deals with the transfer of values ​​and education to democracy

· A compensatory assignment

· An assignment that deals with the development of virtues (such as responsibility)

. Promotion of personal development

· Promotion of community

· Health promotion

This broad assignment has been established by politicians and is specified in more detail in curricula, general advice from authorities etc. Since the education is to a very large extent realized in teaching, we can expect that the above-mentioned goals should also be central to teachers in the Swedish school system.

Of course, goals of schooling are formulated differently within different school systems. Given the central role of goals in education we were interested in how issues concerning the goals of education and the related issue about who should formulate such goals were addressed in high-impact research reviews of working methods in teaching.

A somewhat unexpected result

We expected that the reviews of working methods in teaching would contain reflective sections on the school's goals. Furthermore, we expected that the reviews would refer to governing documents of various kinds such as laws, curricula, documents from professional organizations etc.

We were thus surprised when only about one-fifth of the research reviews explicitly addressed the issue of the school's goals. Furthermore, only one-fifth of the reviews were oriented towards governing documents. Only six of the 75 reviews dealt with both the question of the school's goals and related to governing documents.

In our discussion in the article, we point to this as an obvious shortcoming in the research field. We state three arguments for why it is important for research reviews of working methods in the school to explicitly relate to the school's mission and the documents that regulate schools in different ways.

Firstly, there are divided opinions about what the goals should be. Therefore, it is important to be clear about the choice of goal, to motivate why goals were chosen and to discuss the consequences of this choice for the review.

Secondly, goals are often set for the school in various forms of governing documents, and  it is thus important in research to relate to these in order to clarify one's position; Do you see it as your task to make it easier for teachers and others to achieve the goals that are set out in various forms of governing documents? Do you see these goals as illegitimate and mean that teaching should have other goals?

Thirdly, an increased focus on the goals of teaching can deepen the discussion about the role of education in society.

A (perhaps) more expected result

Thus, although it is rare to explicitly relate to the school's goals in the reviews, it is obvious that the reviews implicitly orient themselves towards goals for teaching. Clear examples of this are quantitative studies of working methods where the dependent variables reflect what is believed to be central to the working method to achieve.

In the analysis of what teaching goals appeared in the reviews, we distinguished between four types of goals: a) knowledge / cognitive goals (eg results on knowledge tests, development of metacognitive ability) b) goals that are about developing personal qualities (eg commitment, responsibility, creativity) c) social goals (eg empathy, communication, relationships) and d) democracy goals (eg knowledge of democracy, preparation for citizenship, development of communities in the classroom).

Furthermore, we analyzed whether a certain goal was seen as a means to achieve another goal, rather than being seen as a goal in itself. An example of this is if we see communication between students as something that improves the development of knowledge, rather than that such communication is desirable in itself. Each review was thus assigned a number of codes depending on which goals for  teaching could be found in the article and if one goal was soon seen as a means to another goal.

Not unexpectedly, knowledge / cognitive goals dominated, which constituted a main goal in about 4 of 5 of the reviews and were seen as a means in only about one in ten articles. Development of personal qualities constituted a main goal in about a third of the reviews and was seen as a means for other goals in another 1/3. Only one article out of seven identified social goals as the main goals of teaching while about one third identified social goals as means to achieve other goals. Only five of the 75 reviews identify democratic goals as the main goals.


There are perhaps above all two conclusions that can be drawn from the outcome described above.

Firstly, that it is important that reviews to a greater extent than before explicitly highlight what is seen as the goals of the teaching and that these are put in relation to governing documents and the like.

Secondly, it is important to critically analyze the teaching goals that are taken as more or less given in the research.

In the article, we  discuss the outcome of the study, among other things, in the light of the contradiction between Dewey's and Thorndyke's teaching ideologies. While the former saw education and teaching as a preparation for and a deepening of democracy, the latter saw education from a more instrumental perspective, where it is largely a matter of achieving pre-set goals.

Several have stated that Thorndyke emerged victorious from this battle, which is also evident in our analyzes of mostly US research. It is probably not very controversial to say that this instrumentality has also been given more leeway in Swedish schools in later years.

Article on which this blog is based:

Nilholm, C., Sundberg, D, Forsberg. E., Hirsh, Å. Och Román, H. (2021) The aims and meaning of teaching as reflected in high-impact reviews of teaching research. Teaching and teacher education, 107.



Articles where the same data material is analyzed:

Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å ,. Forsberg, E. and Nilholm, C. (2021) Mapping and analyzing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography. Review and Education.



Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Sundberg, D. och Forsberg, E. (2020) Reviews of teaching methods - which fundamental issues are identified? Educational Inquiry.



The articles are written within the framework of the research project "Research on teaching - mapping and analysis of research landscapes" funded by the Swedish Research Council. Link to the project's website:


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