Respect and Inquiry in Teacher Education

‘I see myself as a transmitter of knowledge,’ a teacher trainer told me a few years ago. Her job, as she saw it, was to convey to her trainees what she herself had learnt mainly by reading about language and language teaching methodology and by attending courses, seminars and conferences. Intuitively, I’m sure many trainers would agree, to a certain extent at least. There does seem to be a body of knowledge that is relevant to our profession and that can be transmitted to teachers-in-training. One might mention, for example, the following areas of “received” or public knowledge that is theoretically transmittable and arguably useful to foreign language teachers:

  • knowledge of the subject matter to be taught, i.e. language
  • knowledge of second language acquisition research
  • knowledge of methods and techniques that have been developed specifically for teaching foreign languages

However, even though it seems intuitively obvious that a language teacher should know about such things, the type and amount of knowledge they require has been a matter of debate for at least the last twenty years. Bartels (2005, p. 411), for example, concludes after reviewing relevant research that “well-formed KAL [Knowledge About Language] does not seem to be necessary to be a superior language teacher”. Freeman and Johnson (1998, p. 412), similarly warn that knowledge of second language acquisition research may be “of limited use and applicability to  practicing teachers”. In addition, Freeman (2016, p. 161) points out that a reliance on knowledge of methods and techniques in teacher education represents a simplistic view of teacher education, while Kumaravadivelu (1994, p. 29) emphasizes the need for practitioners themselves to “generate location-specific, classroom-oriented innovative practices” in the post-method condition.

In fact, whatever “received knowledge” there is to transmit could only form part of the content of a teacher education programme. In Jourdenais’s (2009, p.652) view, this would represent the  “public theories” component, i.e. the “theories articulated in published literature and research”. However, a more important dimension of teacher education is teachers’ private theories, which are not necessarily based on received wisdom, but rather on the teachers’ own beliefs, experiences and actions. The divide between what teachers learn on teacher training courses and what they actually do in the classroom may actually have everything to do with the fact that the received (and transmitted) knowledge of “public theories” remains disconnected from teachers’ private theories, formed through practice and developed through reflection on practice.

As a trainer, then, my job is not (merely) to transmit such received knowledge, but rather, as Hedgcock (2002, p. 309) puts it, to enable teachers to question, critique and challenge public theories so that they can “construct their own operational theories of classroom practice”. Far from being a linear process of knowledge transmission, teacher learning seems to be a process of internalisation in the Vygotskian sense, whereby the focus of attention is “on the character and quality of the activities they [teachers and learners] are engaged in together, the resources they are using to engage in those activities, and what is being accomplished by engaging in those activities” (Johnson 2009, p. 62).

This is quite a humbling realisation for a teacher trainer. Privileged access to a body of received knowledge which you can use to design teacher training programmes and sessions seems a relatively easy and secure route to becoming a teacher trainer; acknowledging, however, that your work actually involves helping teachers reshape and transform their thinking in ways that cannot be predicted and in contexts which you may not be fully familiar with forces you to realise that collaborative critical enquiry is the basis of teacher education (indeed, it seems to be the basis of all educational activity): there can be no superior, privileged positions in this collaborative endeavour; there can only be mutual respect and a willingness to question public theories in the light of your own and your trainees’ situated practice.

This is not to say that there aren’t things that the trainer “knows” and the trainees do not yet “know” or that there is no room for “received knowledge” in a teacher education programme. What I am suggesting is that neither the nature nor the usefulness and applicability of such knowledge is ever a given: the body of received knowledge itself is constantly growing and, perhaps more importantly, both the trainers’ and the trainee teachers’ personal theories should also be constantly developing, based on reflection and critical inquiry, i.e. the persistent questioning and critique of the  experiences, behaviours and actions of both trainers and trainees. What there is no room for is the kind of trainers who see themselves as sages in possession of all knowledge. Because knowledge is a process, not an object to be acquired; and it cannot be possessed, it can only be questioned!

Bartels, N. (2005) Applied linguistics and language teacher education: what we know. In Bartels, N (ed) Applied Linguistics and Language Teacher Education. Boston: Springer.
Freeman, D (2016). Educating Second Language Teachers. The Same Things Done Differently. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Freeman, D. & Johnson, K. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly 32, 397–417.
Hedgcock, J. (2002). Toward a socioliterate approach to second language teacher education. Modern Language Journal 86, 299–317.
Johnson, K. E. (2009). Second Language Teacher Education. A Sociocultural Perspective. New York: Routledge
Jourdenais, R. (2009). Language teacher education. In M. H. Long, & C. J. Doughty (Eds.), The handbook of language teaching. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The postmethod condition: (e)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 27–48.

6 thoughts on “Respect and Inquiry in Teacher Education

  1. Dear George, I strongly agree with you here. I’ve always questioned the effectiveness of most of the teacher education programmes because of the same reason. To my mind, most of these programmes result in teachers becoming, by and large, ‘passive technicians …who learn a battery of content knowledge’ transmitted by the professional expert (Kumaravadivelu, 2003:10). Wallace (1991:9) points out that ‘This training procedure was called ‘sitting with Nellie.’ To be honest, I think it’s time I stopped sitting with the Nellie and started reflecting on my own teaching acts and try to theorize. But, would ‘Nellies’ respect my ideas and thoughts or would they deny me the right to theorize is something that I’m yet to find out. I think we need to replace this transmission – oriented ways of training by a more transformative – oriented ones. That being said, I have to admit that I have learnt a lot from my great trainers (you being one of them). All I need now is a framework (tolerance from the Nellie), so to speak, in which I can reflect on my experience and use all that to come up with my own personal theories with minimum restrictions and fear. Am I asking too much?!

  2. Thanks for your comment (and for your kind words), dear Gomaa. You are definitely not asking much, but I think if the ‘Nellies’ of this world think that they are in a position to grant or deny the rights of expression, reflection and critical inquiry, then perhaps they do not deserve our respect at all, therefore whether they grant or deny anything to anyone is immaterial!

  3. Wholeheartedly agree with you, and the collaborative nature of teacher education. I recently reviewed in Babel magazine Rethinking TESOL in Diverse Global Settings Matt & English 2019 Bloomsbury. Might be related and of interest?

  4. Hi, George!
    I loved your post, and miss the long conversations we had together about things like this. The new word in e-learning circles I believe is ‘facilitator’, but that sounds rather too clinical for me. I think you’re right. We need to reconsider how we view ourselves as teachers and teacher trainers, and rethink the language we use to describe ourselves…Not as teachers or educators who simply inform, but rather as guides who inspire, nourish, encourage, inquire, explore, and challenge our students to seek their own answers, their own truths. One thing I have always been amazed at when teaching, is how much I have learned from my students. Following the Delta course with you, I learned a lot not only from you, but also from the other teachers on the course. No matter how much experience we have, and how much knowledge we acquire, we should never forget the value of collaboration and mutual respect when exchanging ideas. You reminded me of that. Thank you!

  5. What a memorable conclusion. And a one that by no uncertain terms supports an inquiry-based, autonomy-oriented approach to the practice in ELT.
    You are right, it is not a matter of who possesses the knowledge and how they seem fit to dispense it amongst their loyal subjects, but a matter of sharing and helping others discover commons. Viewing teaching and consequently teacher education as potentially empowering processes makes teacher training a rather demanding endeavour. This is mostly because one needs to explore teaching as a reflective activity. I can think of very few people that are up to the task and you are certainly amongst them.

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