December 2016
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DEVELOPING REFLECTIVE PRACTITIONERS THROUGH ACTION RESEARCH IN TESOL
Dr. Sarina Chugani Molina, University of San Diego, San Diego, California, USA

As part of the process of learning to teach and teaching to learn, our TESOL teacher candidates engage in the development of their identity from that of a student teacher to a professional educator through the culminating practicum course where they conduct their research study. They begin to see that they are central to the meaning-making process, where they construct meaning and make sense of their knowledge and experiences as they interact with the broader contexts, which influence the practice of learning and teaching (Kumaravadivelu, 2012). Teachers begin to realize that they are not only enacting what has been transmitted to them, but also taking an active role in the knowledge generation based on their learning from their instructional practice. They also begin to understand that they need to tailor their methods and strategies to suit their students’ individual and collective needs. Essentially, this shift in identity is from acquiring pedagogies and practices and employing them directly in the classroom, to considering the appropriateness or effectiveness of these pedagogies in light of their students, their classroom context, and the multitude of external factors. One opportunity provided through our program, where students can begin to make sense about what it means to teach students in their particular contexts, is through the cyclical opportunities provided by engaging in the action research process with embedded reflective opportunities. We believe that action research is a cognitively and emotionally demanding task, but a powerful tool for potentially improving instructional practice.

Figure 1. Shifting identities from student teachers to professional educators

 

Unpacking Reflective Practice for Teacher Transformation

The wordsreflection, reflective practice, reflective thinking, reflective judgment, reflexivity, and reflective learning are variations of terms that are often used in teacher development literature as playing a central role in teacher transformation (Kember et al., 1999; Mezirow, 1991; Schön, 1990).

Teacher transformation is often referred to as the goal for teacher education programs, but what this means and how to get our candidates to this goal remains unclear. Kumaravadivelu (2012) calls for a reconceptualization of language teacher education in this postmethods and posttransmission era, where he emphasizes the role of teacher transformation. This transformation is believed to be achieved by shifting our teacher candidates to the center of the meaning-making process and empowering them to mediate their own praxis, analyzing the theories in their practice and, in turn, having their practice influence their theories about what it means to teach and learn in their given contexts.

Fieldwork experiences and practitioner research (Burns, 2010) have been proposed as tools that support such transformation because of the reflective opportunities embedded within these experiences (e.g., observing, debriefing, journaling, micro-teaching).

But What Does Transformative Learning Really Mean?

According to Mezirow (2003), “Transformative learning is learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating (discernment), open, reflective, and emotionally able to change” (pp. 58–59).

Take the following riddle for example. A man and his son are in a terrible accident and are rushed to the hospital in critical condition. The doctor looks at the boy and exclaims, "I can't operate on this boy. He's my son!" How could this be?

Most people are often perplexed by this riddle, until their own assumptions and frames of reference are confronted. The assumption is often the relationship between gender and profession, where a doctor is associated with “man.” However, in this case, the doctor is a mother. Perhaps we might consider that this could have also been a stepfather or a second father from a two-father home. The reader may have considered other possibilities as well.

Likewise, through engaging in research, particularly action research, our candidates are often confronted with a sense of cognitive dissonance when what they are doing with their students is not leading to student learning as revealed by what we require, which is the triangulation of data. We require our candidates to include, at minimum, three data sets so that their inclination, intuition, assumption, and proclivity often collected in their teaching journals can be corroborated by objective counterparts, such as student perceptions, test measures, and so on. Candidates often come up with project ideas that they have a certain attachment to, and it is often this attachment that causes severe disenchantment for them. For example, one candidate wanted to employ games to teach vocabulary, where it became clear that her inherent assumption was that the use of games will lead to increase in vocabulary knowledge and use (however, “games,” “vocabulary knowledge,” and “vocabulary use” are operationalized for her study). The results of this study could veer in many directions: (a) vocabulary knowledge and use increased, (b) vocabulary knowledge and use stayed the same, (c) vocabulary knowledge and use decreased, (d) vocabulary knowledge increased, but use decreased, and so on. In addition to a multitude of variables such as students’ previous background knowledge and selection of vocabulary, this candidate had to begin to consider other factors that might have influenced her finding. When she found that their vocabulary knowledge increased, but not its usage, she elected to try another game. However, through our discussions, she came to an understanding that she needed to dig deeper, that it may not necessarily be the games themselves, but the specific embedded opportunities that the games provided that led to the results of her study.

Transformative Learning: How Do We Break Free?

Several processes have been identified in the literature as providing opportunities for transformative learning. Mezirow (1999) asserts that when premise is reflected upon and questioned rather than reflection on content or process, this can lead to transformation. Likewise, Cranton (2006) describes the questioning of “prior habits of the mind” (p. 23). Daloz (1999) and Daloz Parks (2000) refer to the moment when cognitive dissonance is revealed as a “shipwreck moment,” where Kegan and Lahey (2009) term this as an “optimal conflict” leading to adaptive change (p. 54). In action research, this often occurs through the deliberate mediation structures embedded in our program.

Our Learning Community Based on Sociocultural Theory

Figure 2. Our holding environment

 

Sociocultural theory has its roots in the work of Vygotsky (1978), who points out that all learning happens through social interaction. First the learning appears in the social realm, or the interpsychological dimension, where teachers or more capable peers (experts) can scaffold the learning process through the co-construction of meaning within the zone of proximal development. This learning then moves from the social level or the interpsychological dimension to the internal level known as the “intrapsychological category” (p. 128).

Johnson and Golombek (2011) have done considerable work around reflective learning and teaching and describe the mediation process as follows: “When we see/hear the same teacher interact with someone who is more capable while accomplishing a task that is beyond her capabilities, this creates a window through which we can see her potential for learning and her capabilities as they are emerging. . . . [M]ediation in this metaphoric space of potentiality is essential” (p. 6).

We have tried to embed these mediation opportunities in our holding environment (Kegan, 1982, 1994), with the intention of providing both support and challenge purposefully negotiated for teacher candidates’ learning and development. The “expert” others in our program include not only the seminar professor, but also a critical peer or two selected from their cohort, content area experts including other faculty members within and beyond our program, and their practicum mentor teachers. In addition, candidates engage in feedback sessions where faculty provide additional feedback on their presentations, prior to the culminating research symposium where the candidates present their final research project to a panel of TESOL and other professionals and receive additional, invaluable feedback.

As such, our program attempts to provide multiple opportunities for candidates to engage in the type of premise reflection necessary for teacher transformation to help them make sense of the disconnect or disenchantment they experience through the process. It remains unclear what this process entails and what reflection for transformation looks like given the different knowledge, skills, experiences, and dispositions students bring with them to the program. As such, a study is now underway to ascertain how candidates engage in such reflective practice through a systematic analysis of the mediation process embedded in the deliberate structures we have put into place to support teacher transformation in our program.

References

Burns, A. (2010). Doing action research in English language teaching. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Daloz, L. A. (1999). Mentor: Guiding a journey of adult learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Daloz Parks, S. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and meaning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, K. E., & Golombek, P. R. (Eds.). (2011). Research on second language teacher education: A sociocultural perspective on professional development. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Kember, D., Jones, A., Loke, A., Mckay, J. Sinclair, K., Tse, H., . . . Yeung, E. (1999). Determining the level of reflective thinking from students’ written journals using a coding scheme based on the work of Mezirow. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 18(1), 18–30.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2012). Language teacher education for a global society: A modular model for knowing, analyzing, recognizing, doing, and seeing. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimension of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2003). Transformative learning as discourse. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(1), 58–63.

Schön, D. A. (1990). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Sarina Chugani Molina serves as assistant professor and coordinator of the MEd in TESOL, Literacy, and Culture Program at the University of San Diego. Her research interests include teaching English as an international language and TESOL teacher development, particularly as it relates to developing mindful, reflective practitioners.

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