Explore the stated beliefs of teacher-learners and novice English language teachers in the Teacher Education Programme (TEP) in Rosario (Santa Fe, Argentina) regarding the knowledge base of Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE).
Examine to what extent such beliefs are congruent with current research on the knowledge base of SLTE and can inform local proposals for initial English language teacher education (IELTE) curriculum reform.
Curriculum reform in education is characterized by its complexity, which has often meant that changes planned by policymakers have had little impact on classroom practices (Freeman 2013; Kirkland and Sutch 2009; Wedell 2009). In this vein, current studies on the curriculum for IELTE have highlighted the importance of acknowledging local contexts and teachers’ professional identities as part of the process of reform (Franson and Holliday 2009; Johnson 2009; Smolcic 2011) as well as of considering teachers’ knowledge and beliefs to conceptualize the knowledge base of SLTE (Borg 2006a, 2009; Graves 2009; Tarone and Allwright 2005).
In Argentina, as the National Education Act passed in 2006 dictates the extension of compulsory education to encompass secondary school (Ruiz and Schoo 2014), educators meet new challenges to cater for diversity and achieve inclusion. The case of IELTE requires a transition from English Language Teaching (ELT) for a small elite to the provision of ELT for everyone. In addition, national language policy (see Banegas 2014; Ibáñez and Lothringer 2013; Porto 2015; Porto, Montemayor-Borsinger and López-Barrios 2016) advocates a plurilingual and intercultural perspective and a reflective and research-engaged teaching pedagogy, thus widening the scope of change to be introduced.
The process of IELTE curriculum reform in Santa Fe, our province, is still ongoing at the time of writing this chapter. Whereas on the whole this has been a participatory process involving policy makers, ad hoc specialist committees, IELTE heads of department and teacher educators in current programmes, in contrast the voices of students in TEP and those of recent graduates have been acknowledged perfunctorily or not at all. Yet it falls on them to carry out the implementation of the curricular change in primary and secondary education, which has already been put into effect.
The aim of this study is twofold: to explore the beliefs of advanced teacher-learners and novice English language teachers in Rosario (Santa Fe, Argentina) regarding the knowledge base of SLTE and to analyse to what extent such beliefs are congruent with current research on the topic. We believe that the conclusions can prove a welcome, contextually bound contribution to the curriculum under construction, as they allow us to glean the strengths and weaknesses of the current TEP and the demands of classroom teaching. Furthermore, they can contribute to the body of research on context-specific SLTE curriculum practices, which Nguyen (2013: 37) characterizes as scarce, though the apparent dearth in this respect could perhaps be attributed to limited accessibility to publications from non-central contexts.
The comprehensive conceptualization of the teaching knowledge base by Shulman as ‘a codified and codifiable aggregation of knowledge, skill, understanding, and technology, of ethics and disposition, of collective responsibility’ (1987: 4) sets the grounds for most of the subsequent research on teacher education. He submits that the sources for such knowledge are to be found not only in discipline-specific scholarship, in the materials and settings of the institutionalized educational processes and in the practice itself, but also in ‘research on schooling, social organizations, human learning, teaching and development, and the other social and cultural phenomena that affect what teachers do’ (1987: 8). The seven seminal categories he proposes (content knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge, curriculum knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, knowledge of learners, of contexts and of educational ends, purposes, and values) have been widely examined with reference to IELTE programmes (e.g. in Latin America in Álvarez Valencia 2009; Banegas 2009; Fandiño 2013).
The knowledge base of SLTE has been the subject of extensive research in its own right, with Graves (2009) as a case in point. She sets apart the knowledge base of SLTE, that is, what the education of language teachers involves, from the knowledge base of language teaching (LT), which refers to the education of language learners, though she suggests that both are inextricably linked. She draws attention to the fact that different conceptualizations of language as well as the teacher-learners’ identities as L1 or L2 speakers will determine differences in the curriculum of SLTE and that the rationale for the inclusion of content should be its relevance to language teaching. Yet she argues, from a sociocultural perspective, that ‘the issue is not what is relevant in the curriculum but who makes it relevant, how and why’ (2009: 120).
Also from a sociocultural standpoint, Freeman and Johnson (1998) highlight the commonalities between the knowledge base for general teacher education and for SLTE. They focus on the activity of teaching and put forward the existence of three interrelated domains: the teacher as learner of teaching, the social context and the pedagogical process. At the crossroads with cognitivism, they posit that student-teachers’ prior experiences of learning (both in early schooling and during SLTE) as well as their wants, needs and expectations have a key role in shaping the knowledge base.
In more recent studies, the contextual dimension has gained prominence. Johnson (2009: 114) advocates the need to ‘take into account the social, political, economic and cultural histories that are “located” in the contexts where L2 teachers learn and teach’ to prevent the imposition of external methods and recipes, while at the same time challenging local constraints through engagement with wider professional discourses and practices in processes of reflective inquiry. In this line, the discussion of the knowledge base of SLTE is further enriched with the contributions of critical and postmethod pedagogy. Franson and Holliday (2009: 40), for example, argue for a decentred approach to ‘recognize and explore the cultural complexity and diversity’ within the personal experiences of teachers and learners, as opposed to an essentialist view of culture abounding in stereotypes.
Richards (2010) further discusses the notion of context, which he understands to encompass both structural influences (e.g. school culture, management style and physical resources available) and personal influences (including learners, other teachers, even parents). He also delves into two dimensions of professionalism: one that is institutionally prescribed and refers to qualifications as well as a commitment to attaining high standards, and another that is independent and concerns the teachers’ reflection on their own values, beliefs and practices. After IELTE, he posits, SLTE continues as a process of socialization in a particular context as the teacher becomes a member of a community of practice.
The role of socialization experiences, in fact, is another aspect that currently features prominently in the literature. Farrell (2009) draws attention to the part they play in the first years of teaching to consolidate teachers’ beliefs about language teaching and learning. Conway, Murphy and Rath (2009) espouse the view that learning to teach should occur within a continuum of teacher education spanning initial, induction and in-service education and development, and they document a number of countries that have set up quality induction programmes. The purpose of such programmes is to assist novice teachers to address the challenges of their early years without being drawn into dominant practices of the professional context and to strengthen their commitment to lifelong learning. In order to bridge the gap between SLTE and the realities of the school classroom where novice teachers take their first steps, a number of options have been described in Farrell (2015a), all of which revolve around the need to integrate theory and practice through the development of principled reflection by teacher-learners and novice teachers.
Yet other directions found in recent analyses refer to the consideration of changing local circumstances instead of the pursuit of an all-encompassing static model for the knowledge base of LT to be replicated worldwide. Álvarez Valencia (2009), for example, postulates the existence of multiple, context-bound knowledge bases in dialogic interaction, which he illustrates through the metaphor of an orchestra with the teacher as conductor who, through reflection, decides what to play and how to play appropriately for a given audience and setting. In the same vein, Nguyen (2013: 37) observes that ‘the development of the knowledge base of SLTE needs to be viewed as changing, contextualized and situated’, and Fandiño (2013) recommends that IELTE programmes should undertake the development and improvement of national (or even regional) knowledge bases by infusing inquiry into daily practice in order to respond to the educational needs and interests of the community. It is in this light that we undertook the study discussed below.
IELTE programmes in Argentina are generally undergraduate qualifications (Banfi 2013), which in Rosario are taught in three higher education institutions following a common provincial curriculum implemented in 2001 and currently undergoing an amendment process. Students who want to become teachers of English in secondary schools need to complete a four-year degree course, totalling 2,880 contact hours distributed in over thirty subjects, most of which are taught annually (from April to November). These subjects can be grouped in three fields: general pedagogy, or, in Shulman’s terms, general pedagogical and curriculum knowledge, (delivered in L1 by education specialists, with 18 per cent of the curriculum load), linguistic competence and content-specific pedagogy, related to Shulman’s content and pedagogical content knowledge, (delivered in L2 by teachers of English, with 68 per cent of the curriculum load) and teaching practice (14%) realized in four teaching practice workshops, the last of which features the practicum in tandem with a small-scale research project, which address issues encompassed in Shulman’s knowledge of learners, of contexts and of educational ends, purposes and values. The main purpose of these workshops is to provide practice in reflective inquiry as well as to coordinate the organization and management of gradual practical experiences and the liaison between the TEP institution and schools.
Upon graduation, entry to the profession in the state sector is contingent on a selection process based exclusively on credentials and service period (see Muscará 2013; Doberti and Rigal 2014). In the case of EFL, given that vacancies are allocated per class, each totalling usually three contact hours a week, newly qualified teachers stand in competition with senior teachers who have already achieved tenure and are looking to increase the number of classes they teach. As a result, novice teachers have to resign themselves to be summoned at short notice to fill in for absentee teachers for a few days at a time in schools unknown to them, as the only path to build a service period, while embarking on ministry-approved courses which provide credentials that will make them more eligible in the future. Terigi (2009: 137) uses the term phased entry (inicio escalonado in Spanish) to refer to this process, which she sees as a stumbling block to effective induction or mentoring. The private sector, in contrast, offers a number of options ranging from private primary and secondary schools to language schools or in-company teaching, where entry and permanence may be subject not only to performance and achievement but also to connections and personality, and where working conditions and stability vary widely. As can be seen, no provisions are made for an initial, induction and in-service continuum in SLTE (Conway et al. 2009), while the demands of the institutionally prescribed dimension of professionalism discussed by Richards (2010) can prove conflicting at times.
We set this study at IES N° 28 Olga Cossettini in Rosario, Santa Fe, where we ourselves graduated and where we have been teacher educators for over twenty years. This institution offers the oldest IELTE programme in the city, dating back to 1936, but as mentioned above, the current curriculum under revision was implemented in 2001. Our role as researchers can then be described as ‘socially located’ (Holliday 2007), since we are bound to a place, time and culture. Our research process was guided by the tenets of the interpretative inquiry paradigm, whose core endeavour is ‘to understand the subjective world of human experience’ (Cohen, Manion and Morrison 2000: 21).
We contacted the participants of the study by email and enlisted their voluntary participation. We administered two similar web-based self-report survey forms: one was addressed to student-teachers who had already completed their practicum and were about to graduate, and the other one to novice teachers who had graduated within the previous two years. The survey combined quantitative data, in which the respondents rated their TEP on a four-point scale and indicated their employment status, with qualitative data in the form of open-ended questions that can be grouped as follows:
Why did you rate your TEP as you did? What declarative or procedural contents should be added, removed or intensified in a curriculum reform of the TEP? What challenges do you face at work? Do you feel prepared to meet them? (the last two only for novice teachers)
We would like to point out that the classification of respondents into teacher-learners and novice teachers does not intend to sample opposing perspectives on the issues under discussion but rather displays a continuum along the situated academic and workplace domains. The analysis of the answers has been carried out considering both groups part of a ‘small culture’ sample, which, following Holliday, refers to ‘those aspects of social cohesion, values and artifacts that distinguish one social group from another; only a small culture can provide the network of meaning for the social phenomena found as data’ (2007: 34).
A total of twenty-one (N=21) responses from student-teachers and twenty-one (N=21) from novice teachers were analysed. Twenty respondents in each group were working as EFL teachers and most student-teachers (sixteen) and all graduates did so for more than ten hours a week. Even though all of them expressed their aspiration to work in state education, at the time only five graduates and two teacher-learners (who held other degrees, one as a translator and one as an EFL primary school teacher) had been able to secure a teaching position.
The question ‘What should a good EFL teacher know?’ was designed to identify key issues in personal constructs about the knowledge base of LT that participants had developed in the interaction between their prior language learning experiences and the current TEP.
No significant differences could be appreciated in the answers from both groups, probably due to the fact that answers were informed by the respondents’ personal experience as teachers, even though the statements varied regarding wording and length:
An English language teacher should be a language expert and have a thorough knowledge of the language system. But she should not overlook the fact that her role is to teach; therefore she should keep updated in methodology, philosophy, pedagogy and new trends in education. I believe that a good teacher is constantly looking to better herself and develop her skills to do her work.
Answers were collated tagging salient expressions and then conceptualized in terms of the main constructs about the knowledge base in current research discussed above. The two broad domains to emerge from an analysis of the responses are the conceptual, or knowing what to teach (associated with content, knowledge or theory) and the operational, or knowing how to teach (associated with pedagogy, skills or practice). Within these two domains we were able to detect, regardless of convergence and frequency of mention, these salient categories: general knowledge and subject matter knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge and curricular knowledge on the one hand, and on the other, language proficiency and teacher communication skills, pedagogical and decision-making skills, and the context of curriculum development, underlying which we identified a strand that brings together attitudes and values.
Table 1.1 illustrates these categories with samples of our selective coding of the responses. Even though they have been presented in two discrete listings, the order chosen highlights their correlation, and in each dimension of content knowledge found in the responses, there stands a counterpart in terms of skills.
Table 1. The knowledge base of LT as represented in our selective coding of responses
|Knowing what to teach||Knowing how to teach|
|General knowledge and subject matter knowledge||Language proficiency and teacher communication skills|
|General pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge||Pedagogical and decision-making skills|
|Curricular knowledge||The context of curriculum development|
For the qualitative analysis, again teacher-learners’ and novice teachers’ answers were collated by tagging salient expressions under emerging common themes, and few significant differences were found between both groups other than a greater focus of students on the enacted curriculum. In contrast, graduates provided a more holistic appreciation, further informed by the description of the challenges they typically faced at the workplace.
Initial quantitative results from the participants’ evaluation of their TEP were calculated to set the ground for the ensuing discussion. Both student-teachers and recent graduates reported a high appreciation of the programme they studied (mean 3.33, SD 0.48 and mean 3.28, SD 0.64, respectively, on a four-point scale where four is the maximum). The qualitative study supports this assessment as, on the whole, participants proved to be fairly satisfied with the programme and suggested amendments only in certain curricular aspects but did not demand a massive transformation of the official programme. Their accounts also exuded a sense of pride relative to their institutional belonging, which reminds us that all programmes are enacted in a cultural, historical and subjective setting (Álvarez Valencia 2009; Nguyen 2013) and each realization is therefore unique:
Most of my teachers were passionate about what they did, and that passion is enough to motivate students, and much more important than colourful screens, digital platforms or pleasant music. The human and academic quality of IES is fabulous (of course there are exceptions); that is why I would like to teach there one day.
The evaluation of the TEP was developed by participants within the framework allowed by an official prescriptive programme, and appears to be strongly underpinned by the teacher-learners’ identity as L2 speakers (Graves 2009). They alternatively advocated reducing the curriculum load of pedagogic subjects delivered by education specialists in Spanish or increasing that of language-specific subjects (grammar in particular) or culture-oriented subjects (social studies or literature). There was also a call for the articulation of content and assessment criteria in some subjects and suggestions for an interdisciplinary approach to certain topics to foster their comprehensive treatment, which can be related to the pedagogical process domain described by Freeman and Johnson (1998). A number of respondents also considered it essential to add content related to learning technologies, while individual suggestions ranged from intercultural studies, oratory, debate workshops, Spanish grammar, Latin, business English, neuroscience and language philosophy to teachers’ voice care, first aids and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
The most recurrent shortcoming recorded was that the programme failed to prepare them for the challenges in the ‘real life of a teacher’, which, in the perspective of our respondents, are clearly aligned with the structural and personal influences identified by Richards (2010) in his discussion of context.
In connection with responding to social demands, particularly in terms of diversity and inclusion, participants expressed major concerns regarding the organization and management of teaching experiences. The strongest comments denote an evident mismatch between the apparently ideal scenarios selected for the teaching practice and the array of actual school settings where in-service experiences usually take place:
Today new teachers need to have the skills to face reality. Behaviour problems, learning problems (dyslexia, for example), given that we work under the motto ‘Inclusion’. I believe the teaching workshops should be more comprehensive and cover not only planning but also problem situations such as absenteeism, grade repetition, discipline, exam design and correction.
There was also a demand for earlier immersion in the schools’ contexts instead of postponing it until the last two years of the TEP. While participants felt professionally prepared to plan lessons and to design teaching materials, they voiced their shortage of strategies to understand and cater for students’ needs, to cope with the absence of resources and family support and to address learning disabilities, misbehaviour, lack of interest and unexpected situations:
Another real-life challenge in which the TEP was found lacking refers to coping with the administrative demands of the education system. Almost unanimously, participants regretted the absence of career guidance. They felt they were left to their own devices, not just to find work, but also to make sense of the intricate procedures and regulations that appear as a stumbling block to gain access to employment in state education and, later on, advancement in the form of tenure. Other administrative aspects that were mentioned included legal rights and obligations, leaves of absence, form-filling and paperwork in general (syllabi, projects, reports, etc.). As expressed by one of the respondents:
Proposals to enhance the TEP were also consistent with Richards’ (2010) views on context, especially in terms of personal influences. Recommendations featured a unanimous claim for a subject dealing with student diversity and special needs, particularly intellectual and physical disabilities and social inequalities:
Our participants’ take on the knowledge base of SLTE, as interpreted above, is in keeping with the theoretical framework discussed, as well as with recent contextually bound studies to which we have had access. To mention but a few examples, Banegas (2009) concludes that language proficiency is a central constituent in contexts where English is a foreign language; Faez and Valeo (2012) find that beginning teachers consider grammar as a significant element of the programme they studied; and Nguyen (2013), Higuita Lopera and Diaz Monsalve (2015) and Erten (2015) describe the challenges of responding to students’ diverse needs and backgrounds as well as understanding the administrative dimension.
We started this study looking for distinctive constituents of the knowledge base of SLTE that were determined by our context, as expressed by those at the chalkface with a recent experience of the TEP in our institution. We struggled to make sense of the data, which to a large extent constituted an appraisal of our everyday work as teacher educators, and at first emerged empty-handed. The stated beliefs about the knowledge base of LT we have been able to reconstruct are well aligned with current research, and the demands for an IELTE curriculum that prevents the reality shock that novel teachers face are well documented in studies involving native and non-native teacher-learners alike. No significant differences are mentioned that would justify the inclusion of contextual adaptations in the on-paper curriculum. On the other hand, an area that does require significant change, not only in the TEP itself but also in the current legislation, is the transition from teacher-learner to in-service teacher and the only answer to that seems to be a continuum approach to teacher education and career that integrates IELTE, induction and continuous professional development.
However, it is in the participants’ silences that we find the most revealing insights. When they describe the conceptual and the operational dimensions of the knowledge base, they fail to account for the way in which both nurture each other in the pedagogical process as learners make sense of their learning experience. When they complain about the absence of tools to address the everyday challenges of the classroom, they seem to be demanding magical recipes that will make their job simpler, rather than elements to transform their teaching experiences into instances of inquiry and reflection. We feel that in both cases the responsibility for these omissions lies largely with us teacher educators.
We therefore feel it is necessary to underscore the decisive role played by teacher educators in the enacted TEP. We are the ones who will make the curriculum relevant. We need to practise what we preach and align our practices with the spirit of critical and reflective inquiry that we lecture about. We need to take stock of teacher-learners’ prior beliefs and expectations and explore together the sociopolitical, economic, cultural and ethical issues that are part and parcel of teaching and schooling. We need to engage in a constant dialogue that will enable both our students and ourselves to become knowledge generators rather than consumers and to negotiate and construct our teaching identity within a specific social and institutional context.
This study aims to take some small steps in that direction. If we reconceptualize curriculum change as an opportunity for student- and in-service teachers and teacher educators alike to take a reflective stance on IELTE, we will make some progress towards developing our sense of agency. We believe that it is only through grassroots innovation that we can take on-paper changes into the classroom in a manner that will result in an improvement in education rather than the perpetuation of a status quo.
What do you remember about your first days on the job? What do you know now that you wish you had known then? What dreams did you have that you have given up on since? Would you like to renew any of those aspirations? How can you do so?