Professional Development Series (1) -Three questions every  teacher wanting to improve their teaching practice should ask themselves

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1.Intro

One of the buzz-words in the Professional Development circles these days is ‘Reflective practice’. Teachers are told on a daily basis that being a ‘reflective practitioner’ is a must if they are to build on their craft and enhance the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms. Teachers are encouraged to work in dyads and triads  to work collaboratively on lesson plans , to carry out peer-observations and read research together… Excellent stuff! I have done it myself during my school’s professional-development afternoons with my insightful and creative colleague Dylan Viñales and it has indeed benefitted my teaching whilst triggering ideas for the blogposts I publish on The Language Gym.

But I do have a teacher-training background and a PhD in Applied Linguistics  on top of 25 years language teaching experience. Would my learning discussions with Dylan be as fruitful were I simply to rely on the input on language teaching methodology I received during my PGCE in Hull 30 years ago?  What my PGCE tutors and my school-based mentors taught me about language teaching methodology was a random mix of tips borrowed from various – often contrasting – schools of thoughts, often discounted by current research findings and cognitive psychology acquisitions. So, for instance, I was taught to teach speaking pretty much in the audio-lingual way whilst being told that my teaching was meant to be absolutely CLT-based. I was told that not talking in the target language was anathema whilst research indicated clearly that code-switching does not do any harm to the students in terms of L2 acquisition. Tragically, many of such misconceptions still persist nowadays in the teaching profession.

So the question is: do most teachers possess sufficient know-how in terms of knowledge of theories and research in second language teaching and learning? The ugly truth, in my experience, is that most language teachers have not received adequate training in this area of their teaching competence and, sadly, many do not often have the time – busy as they are marking and planning lessons – to spend hours reading articles or blogs on L2 teaching methodology. Hence, professional development sessions which encourage practice-sharing and collaborative reflection can be beneficial but only to a certain extent; in order to improve one’s teaching it is imperative, in my view, to have an understanding of how the brain processes and acquires languages, of how language competence evolves and of what constitutes valid assessment, as such an understanding enables one to design the curriculum in a more principled and consistent fashion; to sequence learning activities more effectively and more adaptively; to create tests that are as objective and fair as possible and actually measure what they purport to measure.

So, why this post and its extremely pretentious title…? Because the three questions the title alludes to should be, in my view, the essential starting point of any reflective process on one’s own teaching practice. When I was asked the most important of those questions (“How are language learnt?”) by Professor Ron White – an Applied Linguistics legend – on my MA TEFL course 20 years ago I felt as disorientated as I did after my first parachute jump as a young recruit. I felt I should have known the answer, as I had been teaching for over five years prior to that course! Yet, I could not actually articulate it.  It was only after three months of Language-Learning-Principles lectures and much individual and collaborative reflection with fellow MA-TEFLers that I felt I was starting to nail it.

In my experience and in that of many of the readers that contact me in the social media, not many teachers find it easy to articulate their beliefs as to how languages are learnt; in fact, many of them do not really espouse a specific view of language acquisition or do not have a given principled pedagogic reference framework.

But “Do teachers actually need one?” – the best teacher and head of faculty I have ever worked with – Gillian Bruce – once asked me. “I know many teachers who do not have any knowledge of SLA theory and still get excellent results!”. My come-back to that was: “Would those teachers who get excellent results do even better if they knew more about Language Acquisition theory and research?” My hunch is that they would.

Here are the three questions I think every teacher who wants to improve their own practice should ask themselves  . These questions should be pondered over and answered way before Departments venture in the typical development-time discussions on what the elements of a great language lesson are; on what constitutes best classroom practice; on how to best provide corrective feedback (a highly controversial area of teaching which is massively affected by one’s espoused L2 acquisition theory);  on how to best integrate emerging technologies in the curriculum etc.. How can a language department even remotely hope to tackle the above issues effectively when they have not addressed the three questions below?

  1. The three questions

(1) How are foreign  languages learnt ?

In my opinion this is the most important question a teacher should ask themselves and I encourage every PGCE student /Probationary teacher to do so at the very beginning of their teaching practice. Trainee teachers should ask this question to their PGCE tutors and school-based mentors, too. This is paramount as any long-/medium- and short-term planning should be based on the answer.

In my case, finding the answer to that question and using it to frame my classroom approach was fundamental in enhancing my teaching- a true professional breakthrough for me. It meant sacrificing and adapting much of what I had been doing until then, but it paid enormous dividends. Cognitive models of language acquisition (especially Skill-based theories and Connectionism) provided the basis for my espoused theory of learning and shaped much of what you read in my blogs and of what I have been doing in the classroom for the last 20 years.

Can someone hope to answer that question without reading books or articles on second language acquisition? I believe so, if one has been teaching for a fairly long time, has been an assiduous reflective practitioner over the years and thinks long and hard about their own language learning experiences (what worked and what didn’t).

What matters is not to come up with a universal truth but with a set of guiding principles which are not written in stone – as future experiences or learning discussions with peers might end up restructuring them- but can provide a reference framework which will warrant consistency and cohesion to our approach. As professor Macaro, former Head of the Oxford University Education Department, wrote in his review of our book ‘The Language Toolkit’ :

it’s all very well saying there are no ‘methods’ for teaching a foreign language any more but it can’t then be a free-for-all with teachers doing exactly what they want to do. As much as I believe in teacher professional autonomy, language teaching is so complex that you have to have a series of guiding principles.

Ideally, as a Head of Department you will compare your reference framework/guiding principles with those of your staff and come to a sort of agreement – hopefully through democratic consensus-  as to what the espoused theory of the department is and on how it should shape teaching and learning. This will hopefully bring about consensus amongst the team as to what constitutes desirable and less desirable practice and possibly prevent controversy during post-lesson observation discussions and lead to fairer performance evaluations.

It is very important for the answer to this question to be as unambiguous as possible if you are working as a Department. For instance, in many Department handbooks I have come across lines to this effect: the Department endorses a Communicative Language teaching approach to MFL instruction. What does this entail in practical terms? A set of guiding principles , whilst not being overly prescriptive, should state roughly  how much TLU (target language use) is desirable; roundabout what ratio of receptive-skills-to-productive skills ; suggest possible approaches to listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary and grammar instruction; a framework for the implementation of PBL work; how it is believed that Information technology should be best used to enhance learning etc.

 

(2) What are the implications of the answer to question (1) for language teaching and learning ?

As hinted above, the answer(s) to the first question will inevitably shape teaching and learning in your classroom, from the emphasis you will give to comprehensible input to the prominence of speaking and auracy/oracy, from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches, from all-out traditional feedback methodology to selective or no error correction, etc.

If you are doing this exercise as a whole Department, this process is bound to cause some controversy and has to be handled with much sensitivity and respect for other colleagues’ views. Having come up with a very clear set of guiding principles in answering question (1) above will definitely help.

My answers to this question are laid out in my blog posts  and I am glad that they are, as the process of writing about them has embedded them even deeper in my cognition . I do advice colleagues to answer this and the other questions in writing; it will impact your practice more.

 (3) Is the answer to (2) truly reflected in your own teaching practice? If not how can you make sure that it is in the light of the existing curriculum, resources and other logistic constraints (e.g. contact time)?

Chances are – as many research studies show – that your practice is not fully aligned with your beliefs. Partly because of your previously acquired metaphors of learning (which you formed throughout your own language learning experiences) which subconsciously shape the way you teach; partly because of the (often textbook-based) curriculum adopted by the school/institution you work at and the exam requirements; finally, the micro-cultures in your department will play an important role in the way you teach.

Will you’ have the guts’ to be true to yourself and find ways to teach the curriculum content in a way which reflects your beliefs? In my experience, teaching in a way which is consistent with one’s beliefs leads to greater satisfaction and self-fulfilment. Sadly, compromise will be necessary as your bosses’ pedagogic dogmata and the exam requirements will indeeed limit the scope of your freedom to a certain extent. In my case, for instance, I have had to adopt feedback-to-writing strategies that are not aligned with my espoused language learning theory and beliefs – despite having researched error correction in second language writing as part of my PhD study.

If you are doing this as a Department, this can be an exciting opportunity to rewrite the dull Schemes of Work that you have (not) been using so far in a way which is much more conducive to effective and productive curriculum design. You might finally come up with schemes of work that people will actually use, not frozen icons on your computer screen for OFSTED inspectors or your line managers to open as part of checklist-ticking exercises.  

Concluding remarks

Reflecting on one’s teaching practice does contribute to making us better teachers. Without a doubt. However, the self-reflection whether conducted alone or in dyads and triads needs to be framed adequately and needs some background knowledge – even fairly basic –  of teaching methodology and acquisition theory. There are many blogs that provide valuable pedagogic know-how, some of my favourites are listed in this post by Steve Smith.

In the absence of an espoused theory of language teaching and learning, I suggested classroom practitioners start the reflective process from the three framing questions discussed above, the most crucial one aiming at identifying the core sets of beliefs we hold about how languages are learnt. Once identified such beliefs one can then lay out the guiding principles which will warrant their classroom practice consistency and cohesion.

To find out more about my views on language teaching and learning do get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith: ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ 

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