December 2013
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Stephanie E. Dewing, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

With the growing number of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD)[1] learners in the United States school system, it is not a matter of if but when teachers will be faced with how to help them learn. Between 1980 and 2009, the number of school-age children (ages 5–17) who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 4.7 to 11.2 million, which is an increase from 10% to 21% of the population in this age range (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010). The children of immigrants constitute around 20% of the K–12 student population, which is projected to more than double within the next 20 years (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 2002). In these times of rapidly changing demographics, the duty of providing preservice teachers with the rigorous preparation necessary to meet the modern demands of education is the responsibility of teacher education programs (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002).

The Study

I approached this study, which looked at the experiences of six teacher candidates (TCs) taking an online ESL for Educators course as part of their teacher licensure program, from a sociocultural perspective (Lantolf, 1993; Vygotsky, 1978; Wenger, 1998) and drew on constructive-developmental theories of adult learning and development (Baxter-Magolda, 2001; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Drago-Severson, 2004; Kegan, 1982, 1994, 2000; Mezirow, 1997, 1990, 2000). The general purpose of this study was to explore the potential for transformative learning (i.e., a change in not just what a person knows, but how a person knows) over the course of one semester (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). I sought to learn what changes took place in students’ thinking about linguistically diverse education as a result of their participation in the course and which course activities made the greatest impact.

To better understand the teacher candidates’ learning, experiences, and practice, it was important to consider their sociocultural histories, the activities in which they engaged, the contexts in which they learned and worked, and the previous experiences from which they drew (Johnson, 1994; Johnson & Golombek, 2003; Lantolf, 1993; Teague, 2010; Vygotsky, 1978). In this study, I explored the process involved in the TCs’ shifts in thinking and how specific aspects of the course contributed to those shifts in thinking and/or development of new understandings.

One way the ESL for Educators course strove to accomplish the goal of transforming TCs’ thinking about CLD learners was through three field assignments—attending a panel discussion of local ESL directors, a cultural field experience, and an ESL classroom observation—and reflections on those experiences. Based on the results of the data collected, the topic of field assignments and reflections emerged as one of the most common themes throughout the interviews, and the TCs reported that those activities had the greatest impact on them.

For the purpose of this article, I will focus on one key field assignment, which was the cultural field experience. The cultural field experience asked the prospective teachers to push themselves outside of their comfort zones and attend an event or language class conducted in a language they did not speak. The purpose was to instill a sense of empathy and give them an opportunity to walk in the shoes of their ELLs and see the world through their eyes, even if it was just for a moment. An activity such as this provided the TCs with an opportunity to be able to take on a new or additional perspective.

One of the reasons for incorporating the cultural field experience into the course was that research has shown that cross-cultural experiences are necessary if preservice teachers are to be able to transform and critically construct meaningful educational experiences for culturally and linguistically diverse students (Ference & Bell, 2004; Gay, 2002; Giroux, 1988; Nieto, 2000). Because many programs are unable to provide prospective teachers with a cross-cultural experience outside of the United States, some universities provide short-term cross-cultural experiences for preservice teachers (Bradfield-Kreider, 1999; Wiest, 1998; Willard-Holt, 2001). The cultural field assignment was this program’s version of that short-term cross-cultural experience.

A common theme that emerged from the reported experiences of the TCs during their cultural field experience was that of the importance of feeling welcome in an unfamiliar situation. Often it was just one person who made the TCs feel more welcome and hence more comfortable. In addition, some TCs described the experiences they had during their cultural field experience as emotional, which helped them take the perspective of what it might be like for someone to come here from another country and experience a language barrier. Many indicated that they would be sure to be patient and understanding as well as create a welcoming environment for their future ELLs.

Implications for Practice

Overall, there were several factors that appeared to influence the TCs’ course experiences. First, their backgrounds and prior experiences formed their preexisting assumptions about culturally and linguistically diverse learners and gave them a starting point for the course. The study participants’ life circumstances, more than age, appeared to influence their experiences of the course. Several of the adult learners were in a period of transition, and the ESL for Educators course played different roles in each of their transitions. If we take time to get to know the TCs at the beginning of the semester, their backgrounds and experiences with cultural and linguistic diversity, and the assumptions they bring with them, teacher educators can better foster transformational learning over the course of the semester.

Second, TCs’ teaching experience and teaching context appeared to influence their sense of urgency or feelings of relevance toward the course material. The two participants that were teaching at the time of the study indicated that the course content was important and relevant to their lives at that time. They were able to apply what they learned to their classroom practice and experienced positive outcomes, which is an important implication for practice. For those who are not teaching at the time they take the course, finding a context for them to which they can apply their learning may lead to a greater likelihood of transformational learning.

Finally, with respect to the online learning environment, results of the analysis highlighted the challenges and limitations of this particular online course and online learning in general. The most commonly mentioned benefits were convenience and flexibility. However, convenience and flexibility do not equate to effective learning or professional preparation. The participants were not all actively contributing to the online discussions, and the instructor was unable to provide timely feedback. The greatest challenges and limitations reported were: lack of connection, difficulty keeping up with the work, challenges in finding a routine, frustration with participating in superficial and repetitive discussions, fear of miscommunication, lack of instructor feedback, and limitations of typing versus verbalizing thoughts. Finding ways to address those challenges and limitations could lead to a more conducive environment for transformational learning experiences. Because many people take courses online due to their scheduling constraints, we need to take a more critical look at the online learning environment and make the adjustments necessary to make it more conducive to fostering transformational learning about CLD education.


Based on my collection and analysis of the multiple forms of qualitative and quantitative data, I conclude that the online ESL for Educators course did provide opportunities for learning. However, there was minimal evidence to support the claim that the course overall was an ideal context for transformative learning experiences. Several of the participants developed new understandings and experienced shifts in their thinking, and some even experienced transformational shifts in thinking, both personal and professional. However, the results imply that modifications in course design, such as getting to know the TCs better; finding a teaching context to which they can connect their experiences; and adjusting the online environment would result in a context more conducive for transformational learning. It will be difficult to determine which modifications result in greater learning and development, though, because a new group of learners and a new instructor in a new semester will bring with them their own sociocultural histories, experiences, ways of knowing, and life circumstances, which will all influence whether or not the potential will exist for transformative learning for them.


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Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wiest, L. R. (1998). Using immersion experiences to shake up preservice teachers' views about cultural differences. Journal of Teacher Education, 49(5), 358–365.

Willard-Holt, C. (2001). The impact for short-term international cultural experience for preservice teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(4), 505–517.

Stephanie Dewing, PhD, is an instructor in the MA TESOL Program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She has more than 15 years of experience as a Spanish teacher, ESL teacher, and teacher educator.

[1]“Culturally and linguistically diverse learners” is used interchangeably with “English learners,” “English language learners,” and “linguistically diverse learners.”

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