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Following or reflecting?

Are you happy with just reading the headlines, or do you feel the need to read the news?

What do you usually expect to take away from interactions with other teachers? How often do such interactions and exchanges fall short of your expectations? Just like everything we do, we usually engage in conversations with other people because we expect to have some sort of insight or at least to have something to think about that might change us, slightly as it may be, but still, something that will definitely contribute to our growth. Needless to say, we do have some meaningless conversations in our daily lives, but we deride a great deal of pleasure from such chit-chat that this is also something we benefit from. However, my focus here is how often do we tend to reflect about the things we talk about to other people or how often we simply repeat what we’ve heard.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is what I look for when I go to a convention or a lecture. I remember that in the past, I’d always look for practical, hands-on activities that I could instantly use in classes. After all, variety is the spice of lessons as well, right? I didn’t expect anything else but ideas that I could simply go home and use straight away in my morning lessons. As time went by, I believe my focus has changed and I am now a lot more interested in learning a bit more of the theory that leads to such activities. What is the rationale behind them? Why is it that this or that results in more effective learning or recalling?

I wouldn’t say that there’s anything wrong with either of the approaches. However, I must say that I don’t think teachers will fully develop unless they start investigating their own beliefs towards learning and teaching. Why do I do the things that I do? Why do I believe that activity A is likely to work with that specific group whereas activity B can simply be dismissed out of hand? No matter how little you do it, reflecting about what others tell you is always a sound thing to do. And so is challenging your beliefs.

I wish more teachers understood the importance of actually trying to come up with their own personal language teaching methodology, as Jason Renshaw did on this post, and Marisa continued doing on this post. If you’re just following in your teachers’ footsteps, you’re always going to be a follower, and chances are you’ll progress very little. On the other hand, if you start thinking about what you believe in as a language teacher, you’re bound to always look for more effective ways to help your students learn. If I were still doing the same things my teachers did when they taught me, no matter how good they were, I’d probably have done very little. Fortunately, at least some of my teachers taught me that there’s no way one can know everything. If there’s one thing I still follow, it is this – always strive to improve.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I sometimes feel that more and more frequently conferences are becoming a place for teachers to share practical ideas of what they’ve done in class and expect others to follow them blindly. I don’t think I was the only one who came across someone who simply refused to listen someone else’s opinion because it was entirely against what they were saying. Pity. I see in that a great opportunity for growth. Having your ideas challenged, or even putting forward something that others might not entirely agree with should be a healthy habit. When is it that people stopped trying to answer WHY and only focus on HOW? I guess when you expect a lot of answers to WHY, some of your professional interactions may actually fall short of your expectations…

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  1. September 3, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Excellent post! If we continue to seek the same information (to be fed new ideas) constantly without ever developing our own philosophies of learning, we will never find our identity as a teacher. I believe each teacher has a unique gift that they bring to the teaching/learning relationship. If we are constantly following others leads without putting it through our own filter, our students miss out on a unique view we can offer them.

    • September 3, 2010 at 11:02 pm

      That’s exactly what I think, too. If we only reproduce what others do, we might end up simply acting as robots who will never understand why is it that certain things don’t work in our lessons. I really miss having the chance to actually discuss (mainly face to face) certain theories of learning, for example. However, the blogosphere seems to be working fine for that!
      I guess I couldn’t put it better than you did: “our students miss out on a unique view we can offer them.” :)

  2. September 3, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Hi, H!

    Well, I guess we share the same feelings about this topic. The last conferences I’ve been to were just the way you described above- most of my colleagues would choose to attend practical workshops instead of watching a talk or something more theoretical which would lead to deeper discussions. I know they have reasons, and I respect their choices. However, I do miss this ‘rationale behind’ discussion and I guess that’s where twitter and blogs and PLNs come in. I think this whole social media thing has brought back to life these discussions we just don’t have face-to-face anymore. I haven’t been able to put down into words what my approach is like so as to respond to Jason’s post yet, but I can assure you that the reading of that post gave me a lot to think about…

    • September 3, 2010 at 11:06 pm

      Hi Prix! :)

      We do seem to see eye to eye on this matter, then. It’s not that I don’t like to attend sessions with practical ideas, but what about going a bit beyond that? I think there comes a time in a teacher’s life when he’s got to make certain choices, right?
      I also agree with you that this world of blogs and twitter, and our PLN have certainly contributed to fill in a gap that seems to exist in face to face meetings. :)

  3. September 4, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    I really agree that this should be the “end game” – challenging our beliefs with the intention of “firming them up”. This is a very fertile area for teachers and as you mentioned – not always something that comes up in lectures/workshops/conferences.

    My students grit their teeth at first, when I spend a lot of time on teaching beliefs. But at the end of it all – they see the benefit. I also always ask teachers to make one “change goal”. (and a tip, if you try something very new in your classroom – I recommend trying with your best class!). Teachers choose to teach differently and reflect on the experience. A way to get us out of our comfort zone.

    Anyone interested in the area of teaching beliefs has to start with Stern’s work – especially his Framework (views on 1. Language 2. Social context 3. learning and learners 4. Teaching). I have several great quizzes on this topic and get teachers to actually stand and respond to simple statements of belief by walking to different parts of the room. Then in small groups, they discuss the statements and why they believe what they do. Find them here – http://bit.ly/8YvDSU You could do a whole workshop using Wright’s statements/questions.

    It is so easy to fall into the “rut” and just do what you’ve been doing. However, I think this a disservice to our students. We want them to grow and change and our classrooms should articulate that philosophy. Even trying something new in your class, outside of your belief structure and explaining that to students, is really transformative. Hopefully posts like yours will help keep this “out there” and get teachers thinking more about beliefs!

    Cheers,
    David

    • September 8, 2010 at 10:14 pm

      Hi David,

      Always a pleasure to read your comments! You’ve always got a link to share to add to the discussion, and this is one of the reasons I decided to write a blog – to receive the help of others and challenge a couple of my own beliefs, and reflect on what I think about everything related to education and EFL. I guess it’s pretty likely that I’ll make use of the quizzes.

      One thing I noticed is that there are many teachers who simply can’t answer why they do what they do. I guess this is the most important question teachers should always try to answer: “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” If there’s no reason, or if the reason isn’t clear, there’s got to be something wrong. Either that, or a lot of room for development.

      Cheers!

  4. Cecilia Coelho
    September 4, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    What a food-for-thought post Henrick! It certainly made me reflect :-) I agree with you 100% when you say good teaching practice’s essence is in knowing there’s always room for improvement, in reflecting upon everything we teach, the “how”we teach, the presentations/lectures we see, the conversations we have. We have to be able to take in things and put them through our own beliefs and experience and see what comes out. And I was glad to find out (while reflecting after reading your post) that I do that.

    The best example would probably be that I teach more than one group of the same level, one after the other, on the same days. And of course the lesson plans are somewhat similar – with usually minor differences to embrace each group’s individualities. But after I’ve taught the first group I never do the things exactly the same on the second. I’ll change what didn’t work, trying to make it work. AND (this is actually what made me think I am one of the good teachers we mention) I change what worked too – because I always think it can work even better.

    Now, there’s one thing I slightly disagree with you (and Prix). I also have a feeling people have a tendency of going into more practical sessions when they attend ELT events – those were the most crowded sessions in this year’s Braz-Tesol for sure, the last event I went to. But I don’t see that as a necessarily bad thing – as long as people don’t just take that in and spit it out (like you said in the post). Going to sessions where people give you practical activities to use in class can be productive as long as you put them through your “teaching processor” (beliefs, experiences, etc) and take out your own activities. If that is not what happens, I believe we can try and change that, teach people to do that, reflect upon what is said and own it later.

    And on a final note I have to say I have, just as you and Prix, found twitter to be the best thing that has happened to my development as a teacher (and as a person as well) that I can remember. The people I’ve met, the discussions I’ve seen and taken part in, the wonderful world of teacher blogs – how much knowledge, experience and reflection on these! – the resources… Am in love with it.

    Please keep feeding us, helping us reflect :)

    • September 8, 2010 at 10:20 pm

      Hi Cecília,

      I really agree with you when you say that going only to practical workshops isn’t bad per se. It’s only a problem, as I see it, when teachers simply don’t give any thought to what it is that they’re going to try with their learners. Repetition without reflection is bound to cause more harm than good in the long run.

      I’ve also been in your situation of teaching the same level, using the same coursebook, but for two different groups. It’s a complete different class, and it’s got to be planned differently. And just as you said, it seems that the second class is usually better as we’re now a tad more certain of what the problems might be and are much better prepared to deal with questions we hadn’t thought of when planning the lesson.

      I’ll keep posting as long as you keep helping me reflect on my teaching practices as well! :)

      Cheers!

  5. September 15, 2010 at 1:43 am

    I loved reading this. That’s exactly my stance on the issue of thinking beyond the doing. A friend once told me she usually assesses a workshop/talk based on the number of insights she derived throughout – whether or not she agrees with most of what was said, whether or not there were “doable” activities and teaching tips.

    • September 15, 2010 at 8:11 am

      Hi Luiz,

      That’s indeed a very nice way to assess a workshop. There’s got to be some take away value in any lecture, talk, or workshop we all attend. Otherwise, we might as well stay at home and do something else.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment! :)

  6. September 24, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    First we learn how and then we begin to wonder why?

  1. September 2, 2010 at 11:52 pm

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