TEIS Newsletter

Some Thoughts on Redefining the Challenge in Language Teacher Education (from Winter 1987, Vol. 3 No. 2)

by User Not Found | 10/31/2011

At the first TEIS Academic session, held In Houston in 1984, four speakers addressed the question: Is our profession at risk? There was as I recall, no clear consensus, although each person spoke articulately about potential areas of weakness in the preparation of language teachers and how these weaknesses might be remedied.

The TEIS session followed by a year the 1983 Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics on "Applied Linguistics and the Preparation of Language Teachers". Here too there was little consensus on what constituted effective language teacher preparation or on the role of applied linguistics In those efforts. It seemed that everyone had a somewhat different approach to the topic and thus a different view or prescription for how to deal with it. Commenting In the preface of the GURT '83 Collected Papers, Stern and Strevens, the co-chairs, wrote:

GURT '83 has confirmed that we lack an established theory of LTE, that research is sparse, that some major differences of view persist, and that even the main issues are not yet sharply defined. (1983:1)

This diversity was confusing and even daunting at first to those who had hoped for some agreement on a sense of direction for LTE. On closer examination, some common themes did develop in both forums. Stern and Strevens, for example enumerate eight of than in their preface (1983; 2-4). It seam, however, that there is a deeper unifying them, which underlies the pluralism found of these various examinations and proposals.

This them nay not be what we would expect to find, for It lies precisely in what we do not know. We have not established I because we have not examined closely, how people learn to teach language.

Because we have not made this examination, we have no common starting point for our discussions or shared vocabulary with which to conduct them. We tend to define the problem we encounter or perceive

in language teacher education in very different ways and hence to propose a broad variety of approaches and solutions to them So we generally find ourselves addressing various facets of the issue, treating the symptoms, while Ignoring the Issue itself. The Issue is that we lack an understanding of the ways in which a person learns to teach language. [Note: As I reread the draft of this article, I realized that I had chosen the same word way which Stevick uses In his book Teaching Language: A Way and Ways (Newbury House: 1980). While Stevick does not offer a precise definition of the word, perhaps that is not necessary. For me, It aptly expresses the interaction or approach and educational process which links teaching and learning.]

Some beginnings have been made In understanding the learning of effective teaching. In examining this question, Gebhard and Oprandy (1986: unpublished) discuss six ways In which student-teachers can "explore and change their teaching behaviors," ways in which teachers can learn to teach: practice teaching, observing teaching, doing Investigative projects, talking about teaching, reading about It, and keeping journals about It.

In a paper In preparation, I outline four ways of learning to teach which I refer to as basic patterns In LTE: being told what/ how to do it [explanation], Imitating others [modeling], figuring It out for oneself [analysis of experience], and being guided to figure It out [inductive questioning]. There are clear parallels and connections between these two papers. I mention only these two papers because I am aware of them and because they fit neatly within the general challenge as I have defined it.

What is needed then Is an understanding of the ways or processes of learning to teach. I suggest that such an understanding has three basic elements: a description of the ways or processes themselves, a taxonomy that relates them to one another, and an examination of the variables which affect than In practice.

The Description: A description of the ways or processes through which language teaching is taught and learned includes three aspects:

First the objective or purpose of each process is detailed. Mile they may share the overall I goal of enhancing a teacher's professional competence different processes will have specific objectives.

Second, each process is described in a step-by-step analysis. There will be certain basic steps, which hold true in general, and there will be Idiosyncratic ones which vary according to subject matter, context, and so on.

Third, there is a description of the outcomes of each process. Mile the Intended outcomes are reflected in the objective or purpose of the process, the actual outcomes may differ. They will need to be assessed both externally, that is based on the judgment of others, and Internally, based on the Individual, subjective judgment of the trainee her/himself.

The Taxonomy: The first step was to compile a description of these ways or processes of learning to teach: the next step Is to organize them This taxonomy describes how the specific processes can be organized and Integrated. Like any form of education, LTE Is a complex, multifaceted undertaking: we need therefore to establish how the processes Interact and affect one another. It will allow us to see which processes seem to take precedence, which tend to achieve broader or more specific outcomes and which are more or less effective In accomplishing particular objectives.

Understanding the variables: The third step is examining elements, which affect the different processes at different levels in the taxonomy.

The variables Include amount and types of prior experience relevant to a language teaching; attitudinal variables like self-confidence, esteem, willingness to risk, tolerance of ambiguity; contextual constraints (see Stern 11983: 342-362]). just as with SLA research, there will no doubt be an enormous complex of such variables. We may not, therefore, be able to establish one or another approach to LTE as being universally effective regardless of the trainees, context, or purposes for which they are being educated. We will, however, be able to Identify through the taxonomic examination of processes where to begin in our efforts, and from that starting point, ham optimally to proceed.

Where does all this take us? Mile the goal may be ultimately to arrive at a common verifiable taxonomy of these learning processes, the first step must be to outline them This essentially descriptive project can draw on the various perspectives and cultural, institutional, and sociopolitical contexts within which we, as teacher trainers, supervisors, educators, work with teachers.

There will be a great deal of variety In the processes we use In educating language teachers, as there should be. My guess Is that even this first descriptive step of the project will be useful and Illuminating, however. Having looked at my own work as a teacher educator and at the work of sane of my colleagues, I find that the processes we use are fairly consistent. There are not a lot of them, and they don' t tend to vary much. Whether the processes are all equally effective, I am not sure. However, until the descriptive task is undertaken, we cannot really make comparisons within the diversity. We mast establish a common vocabulary for such comparative discussions, If they are to be plausible.

Writing about teacher preparation in a TESOL Newsletter article titled "TESOL entering the eighties: some professional perspectives," Dick Orem observed:

...we may be very good at training teachers in ... a cookbook approach to the classroom, but we have been very lax in developing a cadre of teachers who know why they do what they do... land] who have bothered to develop a personal philosophy of language teaching. (1981: 3-4)

It seam to me that six years later, we have not made a lot of progress In this regard, and not for wont of trying, but because the challenge has not been clearly articulated.

The challenge needs to be recast, that the first job Is a descriptive one which will lead us to a clearer, more easily stated and more easily shared understanding of the processes through which individuals learn to be language teachers. Then having described and understood these processes, we can concentrate on making our efforts at language teacher education more effective more of the time.

One thing Is clear: until we understand how people learn to teach, all our prescriptions an (arguments about ham to improve the quality or language teacher education are not likely to produce much In the way of lasting, useful change. If they are not founded on a common conceptual framework, our discussions will continue to be subjective and individual. So we may have gotten ahead of ourselves. The immediate challenge may not be how to do a better job of education language teachers, but rather to first understanding what It Is we do. With that understanding, we car do the better job we all seek to do.


Freeman, Donald. "Teaching Teaching: Four Common patterns in language teacher education" [unpublished].

Gebhard, Jerry and Robert Oprandy. "Multiple Activities In Teacher Preparation: Opportunities for Change". Paper presented at the 1986 TESOL Convention, Anaheim [Unpublished].

Orem Richard. "TESOL entering the eighties: some professional perspectives'. TESOL Newsletter. (2), April 1981.

Stern, H.H. 1983. Language teacher education: a approach to the issue and a framework for discussion. In Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics 1983. Edited by J. Alatis, H.H. Stern, and P. Strevens. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Stern, H.H. and Peter Strevens. 1983. Georgetown university round table on languages an linguistics 1983 in retrospect. In Georgetown University Round Table on Languages an Linguistics 1983. Edited by J. Alatis, H.H. Stern and P. Strevens. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.