Donald Freeman is a professor of education at the University of Michigan, where he works with undergraduate and post‐graduate teacher preparation in all subjects K‐12. Today, he joins us to preview his webinar How we think as (language) teachers which he will present on March 29th and 30th.
I can imagine my title raises questions. Of course people think when they teach, just like they breathe or they use language. It may be surprising, therefore, to learn that studying how teachers think only became a part of second language teaching about 25 years ago. Before the 1990s, teacher thinking was part of methodology: When you learned a particular way of working in the classroom, the thinking went along with it. Learning how to do specific things in teaching– like how to conduct a substitution drill or set up a listening activity for example—included the reasons for why and how to do these activities. In this way, theory was part of practice; the activity embedded the reasoning. However, with the growth of research in the ‘parent disciplines’ of language teaching, second language acquisition and applied linguistics, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, what we called ‘theory’ took on a life of its own. There emerged theories about how people learned languages, and what languages were, that the teacher needed to somehow combine with understanding of pedagogy.
This changed the role of the teacher. Beyond learning teaching methodologies, and how to do things in the classroom, teachers were also expected to know these general ideas about teaching and learning. But these theories lived in ‘academic’ worlds that seemed very far removed from the messy, complicated work that language teachers do with their students in their classrooms on a daily basis. So to counteract this distance, it makes sense that interest in understanding how people actually think as language teachers increased —the kinds of thinking they do, what factors shape the thinking, how the thinking evolves over time through a teaching life, and how that thinking can be ‘taught’ to (or developed in) new teachers.
I was very fortunate to be part of this work in second language teaching. As we started to investigate how people think as language teachers, we drew from similar work on teacher thinking in general educational research. Like any borrowing, this process had positive and negative implications. On the positive, studying language teachers as teachers focused us on what might be true about the work in general. For example, our understanding of how teachers learn in their first five years in the classroom are anchored in research on the development of teaching expertise generally. A negative was that these general understandings of teaching distracted from examining how language works differently from other subjects (like math or science) when it becomes classroom content. The fact that we do not have a clear view of language as classroom content that is based in research in classrooms and documented in how language teachers actually work has presented major challenges. Too often, the profession has relied on proxies and shortcuts, rather than truly examining how language works in teaching.
Let me give two examples. First, for years, language teaching has used the concept of the ‘native speaker’ as a reference point for teaching qualifications, although the concept itself is not linguistically definable. This geo-political idea has been substituted for various reasons, for a clear definition of the language that teachers need to know for classroom teaching.
This connects to a second example: the principle of teaching English in English, which is directly connected to how we define language as classroom content. Using the target language in teaching makes a lot of sense pedagogically—it can provide students with exposure and input, and perhaps most importantly it makes the target language real. But how to teach English in English is complicated. It depends on the students’ language level, the content the teacher is expected to teach, as well as the culture of the school and the wider society.
This webinar will examine how understanding teacher thinking has evolved in ELT. We will review the ‘generations’ of language teaching and use that generational framework to consider how people learn to teach languages. Participants who are teachers will have the opportunity to frame their own development; those who are teacher trainers, supervisors, or educators will be able to apply the framework to their work with teachers.
If you’re interested in attending the full webinar, simply follow the registration button below.