by Rowland Anthony Imperial
In higher education (HE), English language teaching (ELT) practitioners often struggle to meet the ever-increasing demand for English language/communication (EL/C) or EMI courses due to the limited availability of teachers. This is often challenging for novice ELT practitioners who have to conduct EL/C courses in area(s) outside of their expertise.
I take the stance that novice ELT practitioners can actively engage in continuing professional development through experiential learning – the active construction of knowledge and meaning from real-life, in- and out-of classroom teaching experiences and social interactions. My perspective has been shaped from both my in- and out-of-classroom teaching experiences throughout the course of my instructorship, which has so far only spanned five semestersI argue that such experiences have been crucial in how my teaching philosophy has evolved within a short time; the changes I have made to my teaching philosophy have been instrumental in developing teaching strategies that are more concrete, clearly defined, and in line with educational practices that focus on student learning.
Experiential learning through educational praxis
Yardley, Teunissen and Dornan (2012, p. 161) define experiential learning as learning that is ‘situated’ in a context relevant to learners’ own future careers. Practitioners of experiential learning today continue to heavily borrow ideas from the works of Kolb (1984), and also from Dewey (1938) and Knowles (1980). Kolb’s works, in particular, have been useful in asserting the importance of experiential learning as a means for facilitating knowledge creation within structured or tutored settings. This serves as one of the crucial bases for the praxis or cyclical theory-practice approach to teacher education. Experiential learning also fits nicely within the Vygotskian sociocultural theory (SCT) paradigm. SCT proponents like Lantolf and Poehner (2014) argue that learning is hardly an individual process; rather, it is essentially situated within its environment. Vygotsky (1978, 1997) terms this the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Here, novice learners enter as ‘legitimate peripheral participants’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991) who receive support from more knowledgeable or experienced members of the community.
Bearing these theoretical concepts in mind, novice ELT practitioners can actively engage in the process of experiential learning from classrooms. They can jumpstart this process this by actively subjecting their curricula and pedagogical knowledge to empirical scrutiny; in other words, planning, designing, and carrying out design interventions to generate theoretical or practical knowledge of EL/C or EMI teaching strategies. Then, they can critically reflect on gained knowledge and experiences and utilise them in subsequent design interventions. Consequently, this evolves into a cyclical process that reinforces the dialectical interconnectedness between theory and practice in their teaching profession.
…novice ELT practitioners can actively engage in the process of experiential learning from classrooms…
Redefining my teaching philosophy through educational praxis
Teaching philosophy statements are an ideal means to evaluate the impact of experiential learning on teacher development, primarily because they critically reflect how teachers conceptualise and rationalise teaching curricula and pedagogies (Beatty, Leigh & Dean, 2009). With regard to developmental education, novice ELT practitioners who are more critical and reflective are more likely to reconstruct and redefine their teaching philosophies based on relevant in- and out-of classroom experiences.
The following sub-sections outline the developmental changes to my teaching philosophy that had taken place in the course of five semesters, from August 2017 to December 2019. This section is organized chronologically to show the diachronic influence of my in- and out-of classroom experiences on the developmental changes in my teaching philosophy, vice-versa.
First and second teaching semesters: A focus on linguistic forms
In 2017, I joined the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) as a full-time instructor of FAS1101: Writing Academically, an undergraduate-level, critical writing module for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. FAS1101, despite being primarily a content course, also largely assessed writing organisation and clarity, cohesion, and conciseness of language use. I thus viewed the module as a means for student writers to develop their meta-knowledge of academic language. Hence, my teaching style heavily drew from four semesters’ worth of experience as a graduate teaching assistant for a linguistics introductory course. As a FAS1101 instructor, I focused on imparting to my students two key knowledge domains in linguistics and language research:
- Grammaticality – languages have complex grammatical structures that can be empirically observed and learnt through exposure to a variety of texts;
- Variation – language use and linguistic forms display systematic variation even within the same type of source text (e.g., academic essays).
Adopting a form-focused teaching philosophy required using a variety of texts to expose the students to a vast range of citation and writing styles, reporting techniques, and vocabulary and sentence structures. As a trained linguist, I felt that it was important that my students understood the diversity and utility of language options to increase accuracy of meaning and achieve clarity, cohesion, and conciseness in writing.
Third teaching semester: Facilitating knowledge/meaning-making beyond ‘form’
In my second teaching semester, I was invited by several CELC colleagues to join a special interest group (SIG) that would focus on developing ways to cater to special needs students and promote more inclusive HE classrooms. The SIG decided to use the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, developed by the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST, 2018), as a basis for developing a standard operating procedure for accommodating/providing assistance to special needs students. My experience of working with the SIG inspired me to reconsider my form-focused teaching philosophy and redefine it along two needs-based principles – inclusivity and equity – which also reflect the guiding principles of the UDL framework:
- Inclusive education – students need learning spaces where they feel a sense of acceptance, belonging, and recognition;
- Equity – students need equitable access to participate in meaningful and challenging learning opportunities.
One of the key assumptions of the framework is that learners perceive and access information through different ways; inequalities may arise when information is presented to all learners through a single form of representation. So, for my third teaching semester, I decided to explore this issue by implementing several changes to the design and content of my classroom materials. For instance, I attempted to reduce inequalities in access to information by presenting the same lesson content to my students and repackaging them in several forms (print, digital, and oral). I also provided various types of embedded support, such as comprehensive housekeeping materials, which I disseminated at the very start of the semester; and weekly supplementary materials, which provided better options for accessing module content, building essay writing and organisation techniques, and internalising such techniques (to maximise learning transfer and generalisation). I also diversified the structure of my lessons through debates and even gamification. These initiatives, in particular, gained positive recognition among students, based on their end-of-semester qualitative feedback.
Fourth teaching semester: Promoting writing-reading competencies
My experience of designing and creating UDL-inspired teaching materials further pushed me to re-evaluate my teaching philosophy. I was very much inspired by Spivey’s (1990, 1997) textual construction framework that I decided to adapt it for a critical reading exercise on the third teaching instruction week. Here, students were taught the following critical reporting techniques: summarizing/paraphrasing, quoting, and use of reporting verbs. In this lesson, I devised two process-oriented classroom activities: (1) identification and internalisation of reporting techniques through a critical reading of academic source texts, and (2) transfer of critical reading and reporting skills through the construction of a new text. This approach felt very effective to me that I immediately decided to redesign my classroom materials for all subsequent lessons. The vast majority of my students seemed to appreciate the changes I had made to the lessons, as evidenced by their qualitative feedback and the significant increase in my student feedback scores.
Fifth teaching semester: Promoting critical thinking skills
My exposure to reading-writing literacy encouraged me to explore another aspect of FAS1101 that I felt could be better taught: critical thinking. I redefined my teaching philosophy and regarded academic writing not as an end-goal, but as a means to develop critical thinking both as a worldview and an intellectual practice. This philosophy drew inspiration from several prominent scholars of critical thinking, such as Jason (2011) and Paul and Elder (2006).
I devised new supplementary materials on critical thinking and disseminated these to my students at the very beginning of the semester. These materials provided the initial means for “encouraging action and expression” (cf. CAST, 2018), i.e., taking on a critical mindset when writing essays and reading from sources. Then, over the course of the semester, classroom activities that discussed linguistic forms and textual construction techniques were explicitly linked to several critical thinking concepts and ideas: deductive/inductive argumentation, truth, validity and soundness (Hughes & Lavery, 2004); elements of reasoning, intellectual traits, and their relationship with higher-order thinking processes, i.e., analysis, evaluation, and improvement (Paul & Elder, 2006). These design interventions proved to be effective, evidenced by the improved quality of writing of my students, their overall positive feedback on my teaching, and the additional increase in my student feedback scores.
The development so far: A three-pronged teaching philosophy
My experiences of teaching FAS1101 for two and a half years has helped me developed a three-pronged teaching philosophy based on the following theoretical pillars: linguistics, discourse analysis, and critical theory (see Figure 1). I continue to build on language-based theories on language use, communication, and meaning-making to help students identify and utilise a variety of language forms and writing techniques to construct academic texts; discourse-analytical/constructivist theories to help students develop reading-writing literacy; and critical thinking concepts to help build a worldview that encourages the value of truth and of knowledge in all forms. Ultimately, this teaching philosophy tailors to the needs of students and aspires to promote inclusive education and equity of access to learning opportunities.
Figure 1. Diagrammatic representation of my teaching philosophy for FAS1101: Writing Academically
…teachers must take a proactive stance towards teacher education and continuing professional development…
This reflection paper has emphasised the importance of experiential learning – the dialectical application of both theory and practice – in teacher education and training. Even within a short span of time, exposure to several in- and out-of-classroom experiences can cause positive changes to one’s teaching philosophy and ultimately, to their teaching strategies and classroom management practices.
Adopting an educational praxis approach enables ELT practitioners to find ways to mediate and self-regulate their experiences in the interest of improving classroom teaching and their continuing professional development. This is not to say, however, that department/faculty managers and administrators should leave teacher learning at hands of their academic staff; they must provide a variety of options for experiential learning and build effective communities of teaching practice. Regardless, teachers must take a proactive stance towards teacher education and continuing professional development. Teaching philosophies and pedagogies must be comprehensive enough to cater to diverse or unique classroom learning contexts and malleable enough to sustain through administrative or logistical expediencies.
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