What do teachers bring to the teaching-learning process?
I have argued elsewhere (see "Constructivist Learning" and "What is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered?") that knowledge does not belong to a teacher who is supposed to deliver it ad placitum; it is rather the result of social interaction and the meanings the teacher and the students construct together. This process is not a linear sequence of events but a dynamic phenomenon, whereby the teacher, who is more knowledgeable, is called upon to act, among other things, as a mediator, influencing and being influenced by the students, who happen to lack this knowledge. In reality, this process is far more complicated than it seems, as there are a host of factors that affect its outcomes, for example, learner abilities, the classroom environment, infrastructure, etc. Here, we will only examine the role of the teacher and his/her contribution to (language) learning. Of course, teachers in the real world come in all shapes and sizes, exhibiting a wide range of different personalities, beliefs and ways of thinking and working. Thus, we cannot hold that someone who uses methods and models of teaching that differ from the ones informed by research is necessarily a "bad teacher." After all, the present paper is a far cry from a list of injunctions or guidelines on effective teaching. Its main purpose is to draw our attention to a vast theoretical plane, of which language teaching is only a small part.
A constructivist view of education
Ernst von Glasersfeld, the "father" of constructivism, believes that education has two main purposes: to empower learners to think for themselves, and to promote in the next generation ways of thinking and acting that are deemed important by the present generation (Glasersfeld, 1995). Moreover, in his view, constructivist learning is best put into practice by dint of presenting the learners with issues and concepts in the form of problems to be explored, rather than as factoids to be ingested and then regurgitated. To this end, the teacher's role is very important, as is evidenced below:
Nevertheless, this poses a problem, in the sense that the teacher may thwart the development of critical reflection on the students' part by acting in such a preventative way.
For Thomas and Harri-Augstein (1985), constructivist learning and, in general, all approaches to learning and teaching, are organised attempts to bring some kind of meaning to our lives. For them, education can be an enriching experience, as long as the meanings that emerge are personal and significant in some part of the person's life. Meanings should also be viable, that is, they should prove useful in mediating one's transactions - with stored knowledge and the world around (Thomas and Harri-Augstein, 1985: 257).
What has become clear is that taking a constructivist perspective on education is tantamount to viewing education as a means of helping people to construct their own meanings.
In their attempts to understand the meaning that teachers make of their work (we will not concern ourselves with students' meanings), researchers have resorted to a wide variety of different methods, ranging from looking into the thinking and planning that teachers do outside the classroom (Clark and Peterson, 1986), through ethnographic studies, to autobiographical accounts of the understanding teachers bring to their work (Ashton-Warner, 1980; Connelly and Clandinin, 1990). At any rate, it seems to be the case that, when confronted by new challenges, a teacher strives to resolve them in ways that are commensurate with the understanding she brings to the problem - a process that leads in turn to new horizons of understanding (see Louden, 1991 for further details). Besides, Salmon (1988: 37) maintains that teaching is "not the passing on of a parcel of objective knowledge, but the attempt to share what you yourself find personally meaningful" - an assertion that could be said to encapsulate the philosophy of constructivism.
The above views have certainly blazed a trail in (language) teaching, inasmuch as they have been instrumental in casting the role of the teacher in a different, more liberating "mould." Teachers are no longer seen as competent or incompetent because they are simply unique. They do not act as gateways to knowledge because they themselves embody the curriculum, conveying not just what they know, but also their position towards it, as well as the personal ramifications which it may have for them.
The teacher as reflective practitioner
It stands to reason that, if teachers are to be effective in the approaches they decide to take, they should act in accordance with their espoused beliefs. In reality, though, this is hardly the case. According to Chris Argyris and Donald Schon (1974, 1978), there is usually a discrepancy between what teachers say they believe (their "espoused" theories) and the ways in which they act (their "theories-in-action"). What could resolve this discrepancy is an attempt to help teachers become "reflective practitioners" (Shon, 1983), thereby subjecting their professional practice to ongoing critical reflection and making clear their own particular world view. Smyth (1991: 116) suggests that this critical reflection can be fostered by means of asking a number of questions:
While critical reflection is not negative in its own right, it does imply that teachers should be cognisant of their belief systems, in order to monitor how far their actions reflect those beliefs. However, in keeping with constructivism, becoming effective and autonomous is a shared process, whereby both teachers and learners monitor, reflect, and act. Thus, a teacher needs to look both inwards and outwards. She needs to become aware of others' points of view, as well as her own beliefs - about learners, about learning per se, and about herself.
Beliefs cannot be defined or evaluated, but there are a number of things that we should know about them. Beliefs are culturally bound and, since they are formed early in life, they tend to be resistant to change. By virtue of the fact that they are difficult to measure, we almost always have to infer people's beliefs from the ways in which they act rather than from what they say they believe.
Beliefs about learners
Teachers hold any or a combination of beliefs about their students. Roland Meighan (1990) suggests that there are at least seven different ways in which teachers construe learners and that such evaluative constructions have a profound influence on their classroom practice. So, according to him, learners may be construed as:
These constructs are seen in terms of a continuum which mirrors the nature of the teacher-learner power relationship. Thus, the first three constructs are teacher dominated, whereas the latter involve learner participation.
More specifically, the notion of learners as resisters sees learners as recalcitrant individuals who do not wish to learn. This assumption, however, gives rise to the assertion that punishment is the most appropriate way of overcoming such "recalcitrance."
An even more common conception of learners is one in which they are viewed as receptacles to be filled with knowledge. The teacher is seen as having a "jug" of knowledge which he pours into the learners' "mugs." This is what Freire (1970) describes as the "banking" concept of education, where learners are like bank accounts where deposits are made and drawn upon.
Even though we have not dwelled upon Meighan's theory in detail, it should be apparent by now that constructivism fits more comfortably with the latter end of the abovementioned continuum.
Beliefs about learning
Teaching is not indivisible from learning. We can be good teachers only if we know what we mean by learning because only then can we know what we expect our learners to achieve. If our goal is to prepare our students to pass an exam, then this will affect the way in which we teach. If we see foreign language learning as a perennial process which has social and cultural implications, then we will take a different approach to teaching it. Gow and Kember (1993) suggest that most approaches to learning can be subsumed under any of the following points:
Teachers' beliefs about themselves
For humanistic teachers, teaching is esentially a personal expression of the self, which has particular implications with regard to teachers' views of themselves, since a teacher who lacks self-esteem will not be able to build the self-esteem of others. The teacher who does not accept his learners for who they are makes it difficult for them to accept themselves. By the same token, the language teacher needs to impart a sense of self-confidence in using the language, while at the same time respecting learners' attempts to communicate in the foreign language.
There is no such thing as "the perfect teacher." Giving a homily on what "good teachers" do appears to be unhelpful and unrewarding to those who want to improve their own practices. A far more helpful approach seems to be the study of teachers' beliefs, which inform and shape their actions. Constructivism lies at the heart of this endeavour, as it offers valuable insights into the cognitive as well as affective aspects of the relationship between teachers and their self-images, and teachers and students. Teaching is not merely information or knowledge, but mainly an expression of values and attitudes. What teachers usually get back from their students is what they themselves have brought to the teaching-learning process.
© Dimitrios Thanasoulas 2002