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Teacher Learning in Language Teaching:
Professional Development Today
By David B. Hopkins (in progress, 2013)


    Many of the teachers with who I work enter the classroom with idealized views about creating a learning environment that is interactive and communicative, only to find themselves obsessed with classroom control and discipline. They are surprised when they find that their students don’t respond in kind to an activity that they, as students, once found enjoyable. Their knowledge of classroom life tends to be limited to what they experienced as students and thus does not account for what they experience as they enter the classroom as a teacher. This dilemma is supported by recent research which suggests that teachers learn about teaching through their prolonged apprenticeship of observation and that these experiences have a much greater impact upon learning to teach than the content or their experiences in any sort of teacher education program (Carter, 1990; Kagan, 1992).
    --Quote from Understanding Language Teaching (Karen Johnson, 1999)

Johnson goes on to say that as teachers learn to teach they progress through stages of “concern” focusing first of how to maintain a level of classroom order and decorum which fits their personal needs and the requirements of the institution. This may take some time, and I would suggest that some teachers never really escape this level. The more proficient and confident tend to blend entertainment and intimidation to achieve a sort of rapprochement with their students. Others use the power of their personalities to either bring the students under their spell, or keep them guessing. One cannot criticize this tendency for order as establishing individual security for oneself and one’s students is job one.

Once the teacher reaches a state of procedural comfort with their classroom environment, they may embark on a more introspective journey to examine what they are doing, and what the students are doing. This requires a certain comfort with the classroom context, but more important, it demands a capability for self-criticism. Critical reflection is not natural for many. John Fanselow suggests, “Do the opposite,” which is one way to escape the chains of routinized instruction patterns. This means trying out things that have been considered beyond the pale. A second strategy is the skill training approach of certificate training programs, which provide instructional models to expand and build on. A third approach takes the teacher on a reflective exploration of their beliefs, values and theories of learning to create space for new teaching practices. All of the above seem to work best for newer teachers looking to get a head start in the classroom, or more experienced teachers looking for a “quick fix.”

Professional development programs take a more extensive approach to the process, and may have the best chance of producing verifiable results. Time alone does not change teaching practices, but time plus focused effort may. In other words, experience, in and of itself, is not enough to bring about more effective teaching. It may allow the teacher to develop the procedures for better classroom control referred to as stage one, but it is doubtful that we learn from experience in the classroom any better than we do in any other human endeavor. I grant that there are exceptions, but I would suggest that in these cases the individual teacher carried into the classroom the strategies and behaviors that allowed them to develop once the initial security needs were met.

For most, professional development offers the opportunity and the time to examine what they are doing, perceive what the students are doing, and, make some intelligent decisions on what might be done better. Just to make clear here what we are talking about, professional development would involve a process where teachers are engaged in:

    1. Critical reflection upon what they are doing
    2. Analysis and exploration of alternatives
    3. Considered application

It is assumed here that there are not any best practices to be inserted into the teacher’s program, but rather, alternative practices which might prove to have better outcomes under certain circumstances. This is not a simple formula, and the tendency towards quick fixes with best practices misses the point.

Looking at where we are – A work in progress.

There is a basic axiom of learning that proposes, start where the learner is and progress from there. An extension of this idea is the proposition that people don’t learn new things unless they can attach them to something they already know. Thus, the first task in teacher development is to look carefully at what the teacher is doing, and what are the outcomes of the attitudes, actions and approaches being employed. This is neither quick nor easy, but requires ongoing spiraling of the three points in the process above – critical reflection, analysis of alternatives and considered application.

A teacher is not going to revise their whole teaching program in a single class. For my first experience of teacher observation I asked an expert, Dr. David Trumbull, what I should look for. His advice was, “Focus on one thing that the teacher will be able to see, accept, and act upon in the next class.” When I consider the checklists that I have used or produced since that time this gives pause for thought. It is likely that when we look at a class, our own or others, we can find a myriad of things that went wrong, or at least, need improvement. The trick for teacher development is determining:

    1. What do I do and why? This is harder than it sounds because if we really did “see and understand” our missteps, why wouldn’t we make the needed changes? Thus, where are we really conscious of something to be done?
    2. What is to be done? In any teaching situation there are multiple, but limited alternatives. We should consider more than one, but it is not even necessary to choose the best option since we don’t know what the best is. It is necessary to make a choice, and look at the reasons why this choice might be effective based upon our experience and our knowledge of learning theory.
    3. Considered application. As Donald Freeman points out (see Teacher Learning in Teacher Education, Freeman & Richards, CUP), reflective teaching is not enough without intelligent action. In other words, it’s not enough to examine what we have done and how it might be improved, but there is a need to do something about it. Not only do something, but also consider carefully what has been done in terms of the desired results.

It is doubtful that we can apply this thinking to more than one or two points at a time.

Learning vs. teaching. Since the main point in the classroom is the students’ learning, we have to look at what the teacher does in terms of its effect upon what was learned. There is a considerable problem here in that we don’t really know what the student is learning, and must guess from incomplete circumstantial evidence. I will not at this point go through the complete litany attached to this proposition, but the quote from Dave Willis says it very nicely.

    What is taught is not necessarily what is learnt, and what is learned as not necessarily what was taught.

What we are left with in our professional development efforts is a best guess scenario based upon:

    1. What seems to have been learned in the lesson?
    2. What evidence is there to support this learning?
    3. What did the teacher do to facilitate the learning?

There are certainly more sophisticated processes, but these questions, consistently applied and with the results analyzed, are as good as anything available in the teacher development literature. The successful application depends upon practice and experience with real classrooms.

    Vignette 1
    Ray introduced the unit on Family Business by asking the students to talk about the picture in the book. He then elicited responses about the picture, and asked the students to talk to each other and make notes about their own family businesses, or family businesses they knew about. After eliciting ideas from the students, Ray gave several examples of well-known family businesses, and matched them with “colors” which symbolize these businesses. Next, he wrote the vocabulary from the unit on the board and elicited meanings from the students with the books closed. The students were enthusiastic, but he realized that only some of the students were participating. Next, he brought up the E Board, and went through the vocabulary activities with the students providing the answers at the board. Finally, he handed out a copy of the reading with the vocabulary words blanked out for the student to fill in. The students got most of the answers, especially as they shared results and helped each other.

What was learned? How do we know? What did the teacher do to contribute to the learning?

    Analysis 1
    A simple answer to what was learned would be the vocabulary words in the context of the reading, the evidence being the blank completions in the reading text. However, this does not tell us much about what was learned in “this” lesson, since we don’t know how much the students already knew, and, how much depended upon the collaborative sharing of the information during the exercise. The teacher’s facilitation seems pretty clear from modeling to discussion to elicitation, but if we were to get a better reading on the vocabulary that was learned, it might be a good idea for students to use the vocabulary words in a writing task of their own creation. This idea being the point of asking the questions, and suggesting how they might be better answered in another lesson.

How do we go beyond the logjam of the individual lesson, and get into the dynamic, multilinear, process of language learning and development? The lesson observation shows us a single frame in a process that probably extends beyond the average shelf life of the teacher. Even if there were a longer time span to study the effects of a single teacher, it still would not tell us much about the learning of the students who cycle through their classroom. What is needed is a process by which data on the effects of learning can be collected over many years, allowing periodic study to gain glimpses of what students are learning; what is the evidence for this learning; and, how teachers might facilitate the process. We also need to assume that this “process” will be self-reflective and self-instructional, thus becoming, professional development. Professional development must have as its mission to enhance the learning of students in a given educational context through the conscious actions of the teachers, both individually and as a group. It is the mandate of the professional development program to initiate and develop strategies to engage the teachers in this process, and to measure their success in maximizing student learning.

Before Professional Development – Needs Assessment & Profiling
The first step will be to find out what is needed to enhance the teacher skills to facilitate learning? What are the skills, principles and approaches that will lead to better teaching? Well, it depends. It depends upon the teachers, the teaching-learning context and the students. Who are the teachers? What are their values and beliefs about learning and teaching? Who are the students, and what are their values and beliefs about learning. And, not insignificantly, who are the administrative stakeholders and what are their beliefs and values about education and learning?

The first step towards professional development must involve asking two questions, who are the teachers? And, what do they need that will contribute to the learning of their students? The needs assessment, and the profiling will go hand in hand to provide the substrata of professional development. Moreover, the survey of teachers will have to cover not only the teachers’ educational beliefs, but also the beliefs of the students and the program managers:

    a. What are the principles and beliefs of the teachers? Of the students? Of the managers?
    b. What teaching enhancements might be needed to facilitate learning in the opinion of the teachers, the students and the managers?

Kumaravadivelu (see Beyond Method) refers to the potential of perceptual mismatches as a source of misunderstanding about what is being learned in the classroom. The point being, we must be aware of the different ways in which the learning is perceived in the classroom, if we are to make any progress towards developing the skills and principles of the teacher. Consider,

    To a large extent what goes “in” is determined by how learners perceive the usefulness of the classroom events through which they are exposed to input….(Kumaravadivelu)

Kumaravadivelu goes on to say that there have been, “… very few systematic studies on learner and teacher perceptions in the field of classroom L2 learning and teaching.” (Kumaravadivelu) One study referred to cites a South Africa case where the teachers were very surprised to see the importance that the students placed on learning “mechanical language skills.” (Barkhuisen, 1998) In another the teacher spent most of the class on a job skills exercise, which the students mostly wrote off, while they spoke most highly of a “news reviewing” task that the teacher thought hardly deserved mention (Block, 1996).

Kumaravadivelu identifies ten possible areas of mismatches between learner and teacher perceptions.

  • Cognitive. This refers to the difference between the learner’s knowledge stock and the teacher’s.
  • Communicative. The difference between what the learner understands and what the teacher intends.
  • Linguistic. The language proficiency gap between learner and teacher in terms of what is communicated.
  • Pedagogic. The difference between what the teacher believes is important, as opposed to what the students interpret as important in a given classroom activity.
  • Strategic. The mismatch between what the teacher expects the students to do in a specific exercise, and what they actually do. For example, teacher expects considerable discussion and negotiation between pairs, but the students resolve the question in the simplest terms to arrive at a quick answer.
  • Cultural. The variations in the significance of actions and artifacts in different cultures. For example, a teacher might ask students why someone might pat another person on the back, not realizing the implications in some Asian cultural contexts.
  • Evaluative. The inconsistency between what the teacher says is right, and what the student has formed as a self-evaluative standard or interlanguage.
  • Procedural. A mismatch between the learner’s approach to a problem, and the expectations of the teacher for how to find a resolution. For example, a learner might suggest a straightforward approach to renting an apartment, while the teacher is looking for a top-down review of classified ads.
  • Instructional. An example is the difference between what the student understands by “remember,” and what the teacher intends – i.e. the student thinks, “memorize” while the teacher only means, “take note of.”
  • Pragmatic. This often occurs when the student chooses a word from past learning or L1 reference, which does not match what the teacher has in mind – e.g. the difference between “costly” and “too expensive.”

The wide range of perceptual mismatches is important because they significantly alter our assessment of what is being learned in the classroom. I would add to the above teacher illusions, meaning the difference between what the teacher thinks is being learned based upon his own intentions, and what the learner is taking in based upon his perspectives and underlying frameworks. Suffice to say; there is sufficient evidence to suggest that needs assessment must include both teachers and students. Furthermore, determination of what is needed by the teacher in terms of professional development must translate into what is needed by the learner.

Needs assessment and teacher-student profiling is a complex issue and deserves our critical attention. The multiple perceptions of the classroom means it is not enough to know “who” the teachers are, but we must know “who” the students are and how they juxtaposed in the classroom. It is not an impossible task, nor reason to give up on the task. It is sufficiently important to receive proper consideration in our quest for professional development.

So how do we do this? I don’t believe that this is so much a “step” in the process, as “part” of the process. What I mean here is that as we work on teacher development, we are also collecting and analyzing information on teachers and students. It is a multi-lane highway to our goal of professional development. This will also be true of the other strategies for development. Perhaps we can view professional development as a three-pronged operation – needs assessment & profiling, individual action and collaborative strategies.

Individual Strategies

Individual professional development assumes a certain level of commitment and self-management. It is not easy to say whether this approach in most appropriate for beginning, mid-career or experienced teachers. It does occur that anyone contemplating personal professional development needs to:

    1. Have a plan. This means primarily a schedule of what will be done and when.
    2. Define the means of reflection. The most common would be a journal, or perhaps a recorded dialogue with a colleague.
    3. Publish the results. This would usually be an article, or a presentation. The important thing is that the teacher should publish (make public) the results to elicit feedback.

Let’s look at some strategies for approaching professional development by yourself.

Strategic Reading.

Reading books about teaching and learning certainly constitutes professional development, however, how much will be learned and the effectiveness in developing teaching can vary considerably. Some suggestions would be:

    1. Choose carefully. There are a lot of books on teaching and learning out there. Take some time to look at reviews and gather opinions from colleagues about what might be useful to you.
    2. Read for you. The previous point about asking colleagues is fine, but ultimately, choose what interests you most.
    3. Consider the alternatives. There is really a very wide range of possibilities that might help your teacher development from “how to” texts, to research books. It is important to sample first by borrowing, renting, or, even going to the library(!)
    4. Annotate. Take notes, highlight and underline. EBooks and readers usually have a way to do this. If not, keep your notebook and pen handy. Something you remember from reading is not much use if you can’t check the accuracy, or cite the source.
    5. Read selectively. Just because you started the book doesn’t mean you have to finish. Nor, does it mean that you have to read every chapter. Plan your reading and read those parts that interest you most and are relevant to your purpose.
    6. Have a purpose. Why are you reading this book or article? What do you hope to discover? If you can’t articulate your objectives, you may be lost.
    7. Read the opposite. If you only read to support your existing ideas and beliefs, it is doubtful you will develop professionally. Have the courage to read the opposing viewpoints. You might be surprised what you will learn.
    8. Be focused; Be persistent. Stick with it. It is not important that you finish every text, but it is important that you allow the author time to present their argument.

While reading is perhaps the most traditional means of professional development, it is often the least used. Check with your friends and colleagues by asking them what they are reading “right now” that they consider “professional development?” The question might be extended to, “What have you read recently?” or even, “What have you read?” It is interesting to note how few teachers continue to read beyond their degree requirements. My colleague suggests that they probably don’t read because they don’t have a “reason to read,” which is interesting since the same individuals may partake of workshops, or other events meant to develop their teaching and learning skills.

Learn a Language

This is certainly a traditional way to learn about teaching, and certainly one of the best. While it may not tell you much about how or what your students learn, it most assuredly will give you a much better idea of what your own beliefs are about teaching and learning. It is often quite revealing to see how teachers choose to learn a language. Language learning as a development strategy also needs to be supported within a framework to be effective.

  • Have a plan. What? When? Where? And with whom? Learning “in country” so to speak, is actually quite difficult unless one approaches the task with purpose and organization.
  • Make time. Learning a language is like exercise or writing a novel. You have to set aside time and then stick to it.
  • Make your language goals explicit…And then refine them regularly. You have to know “What you want to be able to DO in the language?”
  • Keep a record. A language learning journal is critical if this is to be a professional development strategy. The journal not only helps you remember, but helps you make the learning meaningful for your teaching.
  • Make a recording. An audio or video recording of you using the language to accomplish some task, “doing something,” is both motivational and useful feedback. Something to remember when you are teaching.
  • Do it together. While the “learning” may be individual, the learning-teaching construct works best when there is a group. Either join a class, or form your own learning group.

The best teacher certificate courses are following a model set by Peace Corps in the 1960’s by requiring an, “Unknown Language Experience,” as a key component of teacher training. There is really no better way, but it isn’t easy, and it is crucial that the teacher exploit the experience through critical reflection. What is truly enlightening is to note the difference between the way we promote language learning – for example, communicative language approach, and the way(s) we choose to learn languages ourselves. Does anyone else have a collection of phrase books for learning a language?

The first two strategies mentioned here are more or less traditional approaches to professional development for language teachers. The table above from the Richards & Farrell book gives a more complete listing that goes beyond the standard tools. While based in Richards & Farrell, the following is an interpretation of their approaches based upon the experience and perspectives of the author.

Prerequisites for professional development.

A. Decide what you want to be able to DO that you can’t do now. Richards & Farrell put it more traditionally in terms of, “What do you want to learn…?” That’s fine, but one would hope that there were some sort of outcome that would indicate if something had been learned. Conventionally, this would be some sort of action, expression or production that would show that something had, in fact, been learned. Just to ease the mind of the practitioner, there are some examples below.

  • Write a journal
  • Practice a new technique
  • Make a presentation
  • Facilitate a workshop
  • Write an article
  • Participate in a discussion

    These are not all “terminal” outcomes, nor are they meant to be. It is important to both define final products, and demonstrations of a work in progress. Probably a two-level process would be sufficient. For example,

    Implement project based learning in my classes

      1) Read articles and texts
      2) Observe class(es)
      3) Write journal notes
      4) Write a lesson plan
      5) Discuss with teaching partner
      6) Teach project based lessons
      7) Write self evaluation
      8) Review video or audio recording
      9) Discuss and annotate with peer teacher

    B. Determine a strategy for knowledge and skill development. The example above already includes this and assumes that the teacher has a strategy in mind, or has acquired one from the following process.
      1) Strategic reading. In other words, focused reading for approaches to learning about the topic.
      2) Discussions with peers. Don’t forget to use your Internet connection here. There are numerous groups out there on LinkedIn, TESOL and even Facebook that can help you with this.
      3) Make a plan. Obvious, and it can be as informal as a set of notes, but it is critical.

    C. Set time frames and how you will share the results. Apart from the obvious, your criteria for sharing the outcomes will motivate and enhance your learning. We seem to learn best when we teach, something to remember when teaching. The time frames are equally important as left to our own inclination, things tend to get lost in the shuffle. One final suggestion here is to be realistic about both the time frames and the results.

    One has to admit that there is a certain attraction and potential value to an ad hoc approach to professional development at the individual level. The only problem with this is uncertainty. It is uncertain if it will be effective, and it is uncertain what the results will be. There is also the question of whether most people are capable of fundamentally changing the way they teach since the way we teach is closely linked to our principles and beliefs about teaching and learning. The potential for changing basic principles and beliefs is a challenge.

    However, two important points should be considered here. One, it is doubtful that any change in basic principles will occur without conscious awareness and consideration of one’s beliefs. If we don’t know the baggage that we are carrying around, it is not likely that we will make changes in the roots for our teaching. Secondly, broadening the options within our belief sets has value in and of itself. Suffice to say, that a certain commitment to change must be part of our approach to professional development. John Fanslow’s admonition, “Do the opposite,” has a certain appeal just in terms of shaking up our options in the classroom, and reordering our belief sets. Back in the day, there was a certain effect to Caleb Gattegno’s Silent Way that accomplished this reordering of priorities in the ALM days through pure “shock” value. It is also worth keeping in mind the very scary conclusion that can be drawn from Lortie (1975) that teachers usually teach as they were taught. Lets hope that this is sufficient warning to keep us searching for teaching and learning development that is outside the box.

    Article by David B. Hopkins
    Riyadh, SAUDI ARABIA

    2013 ESL MiniConference Online

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