“if you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything.” – Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of the Five Rings
Miyamoto Musashi c. 1584 – June 13, 1645
Everyone can remember a time in their life when they opened their mouth to express themselves in a second language and ended up inserting their foot. As educators, how should we treat moments like these? Should we gloss over these instances so as to not embarrass the learner? Or should we treat these occasions as teachable moments? The answer, as with all questions worth asking, is it depends – specifically, it depends on the individual learner as well as the dynamics of the classroom. In order to know whether to mine a situation for its learning potential or to shift the focus away from the learner requires knowing the students as people. It is only by viewing the learners as people that possess useful knowledge and relevant experiences (and not merely as payers of tuition) that the educator can assist the learners in maximizing their learning potential.
An additional way to boost meaning making potential is through embracing modern/emerging technology. For example, while some educators shy away from, or even ban, the use of electronic devices (computers, tablets, cellphones and/or electric dictionaries) in class, I encourage their use. Why/how? When I was teaching English 101 at the University of Arizona, one of my students asked what the word “mythos” meant. I asked the student to take out her smartphone (she had been texting on it before class) and to download the free Merriam-Webster Dictionary application and find the definition for the class. Puzzled, she asked me what I was talking about so I took out my phone and showed her the app to which she said, “That is such a teacher thing… to have a dictionary on your phone.” To which I replied, “No, it is a learner thing to have a dictionary app on your smartphone.” Consequently, the entire class took out their smartphones and used the free wifi provided by the University of Arizona to download dictionaries. In that one moment, two key aspects of my educational philosophy are highlighted.
First, learners are not passive, empty vessels waiting for knowledge to be poured into them, like a jar, by the “sage on the stage.” In order for learners to maximize their time in class, they must take an active role in the meaning making process. How? Whether I am teaching Composition to native speakers, TOEFL iBT, IELTS, Business or Conversational English to English Language Learners (ELLs), my lessons center on students be given achievable tasks that, through their completion, encourage students to achieve the stated goals of the day. Class-time is precious and should be used only for activities that students cannot accomplish on their own outside of class. Additionally, since the vast majority of learning takes place outside of the classroom, it is the instructor’s role to encourage students to apply the learning strategies practiced during class-time outside of class so as to maximize their learning potential.
For the idea above to work learners (and educators) must take full advantage of the advances that have been made in technology. Many students walk around with a supercomputer in their pockets, purses and backpacks but only use it for the most basic of functions. Making students aware of the resources at their disposal is a key responsibility for educators. For example, having learners use their phones to record and listen to themselves works wonders for improving their pronunciation. Additionally, having students use Ted talks, with their interactive transcripts, has been highly beneficial for my students who wished to improve their comprehension and production of suprasegmentals. As for teaching writing, students workshoping compositions in real-time using cloud based writing programs (such as Google Drive) has proven to be incredibly effective since students are able to receive feedback and edit their manuscripts simultaneously.
In terms of research, all reflective, analytical teachers are researchers. Personally, I keep a “Teaching Journal” that records my thoughts on each lesson in order to track the effectiveness of my teaching. While this version of action research is not as highly structured or as replicable as the studies found in scholarly journals, it does encapsulate my view of the relationship between teaching and research: researchers have a theory (educators have a problem), create treatments (activities) to test the theory (solve the problem), apply the treatments (teach, assign homework), measure the results (use dynamic assessments), review their findings (look at the grades/measurements), and finally measure the relative success of the treatments (compare results across classes/sections). For the reflective educator, this process is cyclical and a challenge that is relished because it is the educators chance to discover something new, or improve an old practice, that will advance the field.
As for my own development, I will continue taking advantage of my personal learning network (PLN), which consists of TEFL/ESL instructors from around the world, giving presentations at conferences, expanding my on-line presence through the use of social media and mining useful websites (such as Edutopia, Edudemic, OneStopEnglish and TeachThought) that focus on the practicalities of teaching and learning. Additionally, I will continue to conduct action research with my classes only in a more formal and scientific way in an attempt to have my results published. Finally, but most importantly, I will continue to reflect on the feedback received from my students for helping them to achieve their goals is why I teach.