As English teachers, we all operate within our particular constructs. There’s the curriculum we are teaching, the materials we are using, the assessments we are working towards, and of course the students themselves. Lessons need to be planned, language needs to be taught, skills need to be developed, aims need to be achieved, evidence of learning needs to be produced.
It may seem that this is enough to be going along with, and there’s little point in worrying about the wider issues; we don’t have any control over them, after all. But could this focus on the day-to-day routine activity of teaching actually be damaging to our profession?
Sam Shepherd recently published an excellent post on the problems he has with the term “Best Practice”. He makes the very good point that the act of labelling teaching techniques or activities as “good” or “best practice” takes these techniques or activities out of context, which suggests that examples of good or best practice can be applied in whatever context with equal effect. Obviously this is nonsense. Some activities will work better in some contexts than others, depending on the many variables that exist (learners’ age/level/needs, length of lesson/course, resources available etc.). And just because something works well in a specific context, there may well be times when it’s not appropriate to do it.
The decontextualization of teaching and learning is dangerous. It reduces our profession to a series of mundane, mechanical procedures. The implication is that all teachers need to do is employ the practices that are variously described as “good” or “best” and they will, inevitably, be good teachers. We know it’s not as simple as that. But in what Hargreaves (2000) describes as the “post-professional age”, people who are not professional educators (yes, Michael Gove, people like you) seem to think that it’s simply a question of identifying things that work and then doing them. Not only that, but we seem to be allowing this belief to prevail within our profession.
Maybe it’s not just the “good/best” bit that’s the problem – maybe we are too hung up on teaching practice altogether. Practice is a very mundane kind of word. It evokes an image of someone following procedures that have been laid down by someone else, or of someone doing the same thing again and again, without putting much thought into it. It’s true that teaching can involve this, but good teaching also requires a significantly different kind of thought. There’s a word for it too – Praxis.
Praxis is a term that comes from Aristotelian ideas about knowledge. It describes action that is informed by a sense of moral and social consequence. Rather than merely following procedure or employing technical skill, it is about the practitioner making considered choices when deciding on their actions, mindful of the impact that these actions will have on society as a whole.
Engaging in praxis requires an enlightened understanding of the social and moral consequences of what you do. In education it is very easy to see that what we do has a clear impact on society. Language teaching exposes our students to whole societies that they would otherwise have not had access to. Opportunities for social and economic (as well as personal) development can increase massively as a result of this.
It’s easy enough to engage in praxis on a day-to-day basis, as part of what you do and the decisions you make as a teacher. For example, if I have a class of students who believe that homosexuality is wrong and should be punished, I can either allow them to continue to believe this or I can include lesson content that challenges this belief. Whatever action I take involves taking a moral stance of some kind. Or if a student tests in at pre-intermediate level, but I know that she needs a B1 qualification to apply for UK citizenship, I may decide to tell her she needs to spend a year on a course that doesn’t allow her to achieve her goals before she can get on a course that will allow her to get what she wants. Or I may decide to push her into a B1 level class anyway in the hope that her motivation will allow her to make sufficient progress. These kinds of choices are not about practice – they’re about praxis. They require us to think beyond our existing constructs, beyond the four walls of the classroom, and instead to think about the wider consequences of our actions.
The fact is that teachers employ praxis in their everyday work all the time. Many aspects of our work involve dealing with critical incidents, making difficult decisions, confronting dilemmas and overcoming externally-imposed obstacles. But this aspect of the job isn’t valued. We’re not judged on our use of praxis. Instead, we are judged simply on our practice. Kemmis and Smith (2008: 5) express their concern about this:
“We think that praxis is slowly being edged aside in late modern times – what some think of as postmodern times – by that form of practice that amounts simply to following rules.”
Valuing praxis in education requires an acceptance that this is a complex profession, and that educators need to be highly skilled and knowledgeable in what they do. However, when you think about it, English Language Teaching tends not to be regarded in this way. Here are some examples:
- There is a universal belief that it’s possible to go from knowing nothing about teaching or about the subject to becoming a competent language teacher in the space of four weeks. Unsurprisingly, the content of most initial training courses tends to focus mostly on classroom techniques that allow the teacher to “get away with it” – basic classroom management techniques, concept-checking questions, giving instructions, that sort of thing.
- ELT as taught in private language schools is unashamedly commercial. This means that keeping students happy and perceived progress is often valued more highly than what is actually learnt.
- In-service professional development usually focuses on further improving the low-level teaching techniques that were initially taught, as opposed to developing an understanding of the wider socio-political implications of language teaching.
- At any point during career progression, observation criteria tend to require teachers to demonstrate further proficiency in the procedural aspects of teaching – produce a detailed lesson plan, demonstrate that you can clarify language etc.
- Other people (including teachers of other subjects) often don’t regard English Language Teachers as true professionals – “Yes but he’s not a real teacher”. In fact, many of us don’t regard ourselves as professionals – “I’m only doing this because I want to travel. At some point I suppose I should get a proper job”.
- There’s an assumption that the same teaching practices can be employed equally effectively in any context. Doing the CELTA in Barcelona will allow you to teach in Kazakhstan. This allows the assumption to be made that context doesn’t matter.
- The same global coursebooks are used all over the world, promoting a belief that all students can learn the same way using the same materials. All the teacher needs to do is manage the class and follow the procedures described in the coursebook.
- Language teaching practice has been greatly influenced by people who do not specialize in education – linguists and psychologists in particular. The considered (and expert!) opinion of the teacher is rarely valued unless it is backed up by some theory about language acquisition or the psychology of language learning. For some reason it’s not our place as teachers to present ideas about teaching.
What I’m trying to show through these examples is that English language teaching as a profession seems to encourage us to focus only on the procedural. It is widely regarded that it doesn’t take much to become an English teacher in the first place, and becoming a really good one is largely measured by an ability to employ technical, mundane, low-level skills. In terms of how we evaluate the profession, praxis doesn’t get a look-in.
There is so much discussion about the practice of English language teaching and very little about praxis in English language teaching. We teachers need to be mindful of the impact of the decisions we make in our teaching, and to reflect on what leads us to make these decisions – our role in relation to the students, and the moral values or assumptions we apply to our teaching. We do make moral judgements and assumptions in our work, and there’s no point in pretending we don’t. In our profession there seems to be a sense of moral agnosticism, a belief that English language teachers have no connection with morality – no responsibility to address moral values in the classroom, and no moral responsibility for their own actions. It’s certainly not something that is given much attention in teacher training courses.
As English teachers we deal with highly charged moral issues all the time. There is always an element of social justice underpinning our work. Our ability to reflect on these elements and make considered decisions in our classroom practice is what makes us professional educators. Isn’t that something we should value more highly?
Hargreaves, A. (2000) Four Ages of Professionalism and Professional Learning, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 6:2, 151-182
Kemmis, S. and Smith, T. (eds.) (2008): Enabling Praxis, Rotterdam, Sense