The name of the game

In order to frame the question in the perspective of international research we are first of all faced with the problem of how to translate the subject matter into English.

A first, somewhat straightforward attempt would involve the literal translation of Unterricht into 'lesson.' In natural language, this would be a fair translation, the associated semantic fields in German and English overlapping almost entirely. Indeed, while the Duden dictionary refers to Unterricht as a “systematic, regular instruction of learners by a teacher” [1] (where we are, of course, neglecting 'second order' translation issues), Cambridge defines 'lesson' as “a period of time in which a person is taught about a subject or how to do something” [2]. Quite notably for the science education scholar, the very first usage example provided by the Cambridge dictionary is “How can we make science lessons more interesting?” – which might as well deserve some further attention elsewhere.

As I was pointing out in the introduction, everyone in our culture of reference possesses a folk theory of what a 'lesson' is such that, confronted with a video recording like the one chosen as the unit of analysis for this book, they are able to identify the depicted scene as a 'lesson.'

The task we are pursuing here, however, is to give a technical (scientific in a broad sense) description of the phenomenon commonly referred to as 'lesson,' that is, to address the subject matter in terms of a scientific theory thereof. In a similar way, when a physicist talks about 'energy,' he is not so much interested in a physics-theoretical definition of energy as in the set of assumptions, principles, problems and so on within which that technical concept is introduced. Independently of such assumptions and principles, there is no theory to be built. My central thesis here is that these assumptions are a matter of free choice and that this choice is indeed crucial to the theory.

This is the first of two good reasons why I shall not adopt 'lesson' as the subject of my analysis.

The second has to do with the circumstance that we are asked to address the subject matter “in its pedagogical specificity.” Now, the specialized use of the term Unterricht seems, for what I have been able to acquaint myself with the German pedagogical research discourse, to imply a broader semantic field than the English 'lesson.' This may also reflect the fact that in German, the noun Unterricht is a direct substantivation of the verb unterrichten (to teach), or vice versa, that is, they share the same root. This is in fact evident in the previous sections of this book, in which my colleagues' analysis cannot develop without involving concepts such as Bildung, Erziehung, Didaktik and so on. In English, instead, the correspondent association would take us from 'lesson' to 'lecturing,' two terms whose semantic fields are much less closely connected, 'lecturing' being usually referred to a specific form of teaching. The specialized use of the term 'lesson' in science education research is accordingly limited.

I will therefore propend for another option which seems more appropriate. I believe, and will try to show in what follows, that the concept of 'teaching' more effectively reflects, on one side, the semantic field of Unterricht as referred to in research literature and enables, on the other, to pursue our programme of a theoretical approach to the subject matter [3].

  • [1] “Planmäßige, regelmäßige Unterweisung Lernender durch eine[n] Lehrende[n]”, retrieved from on January 2nd, 2014
  • [2] Retrieved from on January 2nd, 2014
  • [3] Be noted here, moreover, that the most direct English translation of the verb unterrichten is 'to teach' so that 'teaching' can be directly referred to das Unterrichten, i.e., the process of unterrichten
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