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Reflections on Context

I teach English as a foreign language to Brazilian upper-middle/middle class teenagers aged 14 to 17. All of them are at that stage of their educational trajectories where they are being primed for academic life in university. A vast majority of them go to renowned private high schools whose core goal rests in getting their students into the best universities and colleges in the country. That means that these kids are being prepared for competition, especially those who are aiming at prestigious careers, such as Medicine or Law, to name a few.

Pedagogically speaking, these kids’regular schools are pretty conservative. Students are grouped in large numbers (30 to 40 students) and classses are delivered lecture-style, with the teacher being the expert in charge of passing on the knowledge necessary for these kids to make it to the next big thing in their lives – college and the prospect of a promising professional life, which will provide the means for ensuring a comfortable life, much like the one they already have with their parents. Another contextual aspect particular to our city (Brasília, the capital city of Brazil) is that a career in public service is also among many of these kids professional future prospects. Being able to pass a public examination for a prestigious career in Congress, for example, means high salaries and life-long professional stability. On top of that, many of these kids parents are civil servants themselves, naturally being role models for their kids.

It’s a culture of competition the one in which our teenage students are born and raised. High-stakes tests are the gateways to a prosperous future, and the gatekeepers are the schools and teachers who make getting as many of their youth as possible inside a good university their highest priority. Schools actually use college entrance exam rankings for the purpose of advertisement. They are highly competitive and lucrative enterprises. It makes perfect sense that these schools prepare their students to do well on tests. After all, we live in an assessment-driven culture. Students’ performances are measured and primed for passing tests, and passing tests equals successful professional future. It is common for these high schoolers to spend their Saturdays taking tests at school and spending their whole week, mornings and afternoons, in school, both attending their regular classes and engaging in academic activities, such as writing workshops, where they practice writing academic essays in a product-oriented approach.

These are only some aspects of the cultural fabric of which we, EFL teachers, are also a part. It is our goal to teach these kids English, the language that will open even more doors to a prosperous future. Any job or career worth pursuing nowadays requires individuals who have very high levels of proficiency in English. These kids’ regular schools fail at teaching the language itself, since their goal is to prepare them to pass a test about the language, something which they can do without being able to speak or write fluently in English. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to teach these kids the language itself, and not only about the language. Our classes are taught in English, and we adopt a no-Portuguese policy in the classroom. We adopt communicative methodologies, aiming at developing students’proficiency in English in all four skills, understanding (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) the language fluently and accurately. A majority of our students start their English studies with us as little kids, staying with us until teenagehood, when they will have reached upper-intermediate to advanced levels of English proficiency. By the time they reach these high levels of English proficiency, most of them will have been studying with us for about 6 to 7 years.

The schooling experience of most of the teenagers that I have in my upper-intermediate and advanced level English classes is a very traditional, teacher-centered, high-stakes-test driven experience on a daily basis, as I have briefly described above. It’s a grinding routine in which they wake up very early, have classes the entire morning, have lunch (many times at school) and come over to our institute for their twice-a-week English lessons. Their classroom experience with us is different from their experience in their regular schools in some aspects. Our classes are smaller, with about 18 students in each group. The classrooms themselves are smaller and we adopt a U-shaped seating arrangement of desks. As I’ve mentioned before, we adopt communicative methodologies. Our teachers are trained to facilitate classes that are student-centered and dynamic, fostering plenty of genuine communication. We adopt course books that are the core of these classes, though teachers are encouraged to make the necessary adaptations to course books in order to address their students needs. Group work and pair work dynamics are widely adopted and are an important element in the communicative dynamics implemented in our classes.

Still, my teenage students are tired, and understandably so, given their high school routines. And even though their schooling experience with us bears many differences from their regular schooling, written tests, essays and grades are also important components of our courses. They need to do homework, write paragraphs and essays, and take tests on grammar and vocabulary, as well as reading and listening comprehension. I have often felt that my classes might be coming across as more of the same for my teenagers, despite all my efforts to engage them in energizing discussions and collaborative dynamics with their peers. I mean, these kids have been our students for nearly a decade. It’s as if they have already been intensely exposed to our repertoire of communicative dynamics and activities, no matter how much we personalize and adapt and revamp what goes on in the classroom.

I’m thinking of ways to rethink their engagement. I’m thinking, and looking around, and getting acquainted with other pedagogic practices. Lately something has caught my attention – project based learning. I have been really curious about it and on a quest for learning more about what it is, and how to implement it. I want to write more about it soon, but for now, I will let these reflections on my context sit in my mind a while longer.

On Professional & Existential Confidence

Last week, I watched the live broadcast of part of a very interesting IATEFL 2014 forum on Investigating new knowledge constructs in teacher education. In its initial fifteen minutes or so, professor Donald Freeman from the University of Michigan provided a concise overview of their take on how to rise up to the challenge of supporting teacher development all around the globe. He began by stating that in supporting teacher development they were primarily concerned with impacting the broadest number of people as possible by making learning opportunities accessible especially to those professionals who found themselves removed from the mainstream academic environments. In other words, they were considering public sector professionals in less privileged areas of the globe. He expressed their concern with equity, in that their project’s ultimate goal was to make it possible for the most people to benefit from learning. In his outline of how teacher development and quality of schools have been approached by researchers and scholars in the field of ELT/ELL, professor Freeman described the widely accepted and adopted line of thinking that to improve the quality of teaching, one needs to be able to improve teacher knowledge.

Therefore, we have operated under the assumption that quality depends on what a teacher knows, and that lack of knowledge, linguistic and/or methodological (to name a few), equals lack of quality. Put simply, we are trying to address deficits by focusing on what teachers don’t know and can’t do. That is the major assumption driving most major teacher training/education approaches and curricula to date. When the efforts to improve teacher quality fail to yield the desired results in terms of teacher performance, that is, if learning is clearly ensuing from the teaching practices adopted, we tend to resort to either one or both of the following explanations: the first being teacher resistance, in that the teacher is unwilling to change fixed mindsets, fighting new ideas and new ways of doing things for whatever reasons, professional or personal (or both). The second represents the standard deficit view, according to which the teacher is just deficient in certain aspects of the craft, that the teacher simply didn’t learn those things well enough in the past.

Professor Freeman then proceeds to argue that it just might be that we are not thinking about the problem of teacher quality in a productive way by adopting the widespread, mainstream view of deficit. He makes a point of saying that we commonly understand that when it comes to knowledge, it’s an ‘either – or’ phenomenon, that is, a teacher either knows something, or s/he doesn’t. That sounds very logical and all, but the trouble is that it doesn’t contribute to effectively addressing the issue at hand. In Freeman’s words, “the way we have addressed that problem has actually gotten in the way of trying to solve it.” So how does he propose we attack the problem? He sets off to explain three core costructs whose interconnectedness and mutual dynamics might offer a new way of approaching the problem of teacher quality.

The first construct is the idea of familiarity. That it is possible and desirable that the teacher work from what s/he knows to build what s/he doesn’t know, which is basically the application of Vygotsky’s ZPD concept, in that the teacher will start off of his/her comfort zone towards his anxiety zone, with learning happening in that movement. Teachers needs to, nonetheless, recognize the gaps in their knowledge themselves, rather than being told what their gaps are, which will therefore spark off the idea of agency, of momentum, of the teachers’ engaging in movement in their own growth and development.  The key to that movement is not giving people new ways to do things, but helping people think about their work in different ways, which Freeman calls ‘knowing things and believing in things in a different way’. At this point of his talk, I couldn’t help but think about the nature of innovation as being the search for new connections between pre-existing ideas and concepts. That innovation does not lie exclusively in coming up with novel ideas as much as it lies in establishing new relational patterns among familiar things.

quotation1There’s a popular notion that innovation arrives like a bolt out of the blue, as a radical departure from previous knowledge—when really, most new ideas are extensions, twists, variations on what’s come before. The skill of generating innovations is largely the skill of putting old things together in a new way, or looking at a familiar idea from a novel perspective, or using what we know already to understand something new. ~ Annie Murphy Paul

When articulated, the two constructs of familiarity and agency result in the third construct – professional confidence. Freeman explains professional confidence in terms of teaching effectiveness in the classroom via an awareness of, as well as a boost in the teacher’s confidence about what they know and what they can do. From a deficit perspective, confidence was a byproduct of knowledge increase, whereas in this model, one sees the necessity of making confidence a central element to teaching. That’s the shift we need. How do we make confidence central in teaching? Professional confidence leverages the potential to take actions that will make a difference in students’ learning. Professional confidence is the quality of thinking that you can potentialize positive impact. Agency is the ability to get things done.

Watching this talk raised a few questions for me, such as how do we become more confident about what we already know? When it comes to teaching and doing our craft, is an improvement of quality single-handedly a matter of gaining more knowledge? Or is it a matter of gaining more self-confidence about the knowledge we already have? Those questions got me thinking about a post written by Dave Cormier on the subject of open project practices. Cormier starts off explaining the importance of giving yourself permission to be a contributing member in a community of learning.

quotation1I’m increasingly starting to realize that one of the biggest impediments to any project is that people don’t believe they have permission to do things. Questions like ‘what am i allowed to do” and “what does success look like” are good indicators that people are comfortable participating openly. If you are participating in an open project there is a subtle balance between the organizers and the participants in this regard. We need to make an effort to give people the structure and the room to participate, but, in the end, the participants need to take on the authority themselves. ~ Dave Cormier

Dave’s words resonated within, in the sense that so much of how we go about our lives, and how we hold ourselves in our professional, as well as personal connections and relationships may sometimes be from the standpoint of deficit. Our own deficits. It might have been that we were overexposed to situations in which we have felt undeserving in life, or it might just be a lack of self-awareness and self-knowledge. No matter what the origin of the issue is, if there’s something we must attain in life, both in the professional and personal levels, is the right value of our contributions to the world and to the people around us. It is not only about knowing things, but it’s also about believing that you know things, and that you have the drive to impact the world around you by bringing your uniqueness to the table.

knowing  <   using   >  believing

professional  <   agency   > confidence

Try letting go of the deficit view, and give yourself permission to build confidence instead.

This post was also inspired by the words and the beautiful voice of my friend Maha Bali on the semi-privileged. I strongly recommend the reading. Thanks for the inspiration, my friend.