Meta-reflection, a response

Yesterday I traveled down the country to Busan, where there was a Reflective Practice Special Interest Group (RPSIG) meeting in Nampo-dong. The meeting was facilitated by Mr. John Pfordresher, rising star in Busan’s ELT community. Today he wrote a post sharing his reflections on the meeting: RP Busan – September 2012 on his blog, Observations from the Classroom, and I was struck by how different his perceptions were from my own. I’m writing this unsure if I’m going to publish it publicly but out of a need to reflect on my own experience.

There were 12 participants. The meeting began with introductions, as many of the participants did not know each other very well. I learned that the participants with experience in RP share a passion for reflection to better understand their teaching and create a space where they can examine their practices together. This gathering provided such a space. It is refreshing to sit with other teachers and share ideas and resources. This is something I want more of.

John introduced the idea of crowd-sourcing (as he mentioned in his blog post). To help those unfamiliar with the term, he succinctly explained that it means pooling information to help each other. He adeptly created a safe space for us to do that in the meeting.

The next part of the meeting was the check-in. Those who made reflective goals (or teaching goals) at a previous meeting had the opportunity to be accountable to the group for their accomplishment.
Before we moved on to the meat of the meeting, the point was made that it is important to set things up for success rather than dwell on failures. It struck me that this idea is applicable in so many parts of our lives, both for teachers and learners. Modeling for our students and providing examples of the language we are asking them to use is one way to do this. Helping students correct errors by focusing on what is going well rather than on what they’re doing wrong is another. As reflective teachers (if we can call ourselves such), focusing our reflections on the process towards better facilitating our students’ learning is key.

That brings me to the next part of the meeting: John asked pairs of participants to spend five minutes talking about our Teaching Toolbox. This was a subject of discussion on Twitter recently, instigated by Mr. Kevin Stein (@kevchanwow – a #mustfollow dude). As teachers, of course, we didn’t give very many normal answers. But you know what? I wish we had because I was personally more interested in tangible teaching aids that are used with learners, rather than by teachers. I often find that there is something so obvious that I’ve completely missed. That’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of good (and great) ideas from participants. My partner pointed out that a positive attitude and a smile go much further than any tangible teaching aid (I feel like, somehow, this relates to my post on Teacher Fun – a seed). He also suggested coffee, not just for the teacher, but to be shared with tired students. Other groups shared their ideas: a water bottle, usb drive, notebook, paper for the students, internet access, objectives and agenda on the board, structure, warm-up activities, transitions, assessment, a timer, a mic, mini boards and markers, and a plan B. The question also arose of how to keep yourself on task during your lesson (a problem I have, too). Perhaps the answer can be found in writing the agenda on the board (that way the students also share the responsibility) or on something you look at regularly (like the PowerPoint slides? a post-it on the computer screen?). This is an issue I would like to think more about.

John also voiced the opinion that the teacher is vital, as the expert in how the language is actually used. He made his case for this quite well as you can read in his post. Perhaps it will not surprise you that I do not agree. One reason is that I have met many Korean English speakers who have attained a level of communication (either written or oral, sometimes both) without ever having studied with a “native speaker”. Another reason is that I think more often than not us “native speakers” don’t have either the linguistic knowledge or the Korean skills to explain points that will aid students’ understanding. I’m also not totally convinced that “fluency” has to mean sounding like “native speakers” or that “Korean English” might not become a recognized variety of English. That said, I am not really sure of myself in this. I think that the primary factor in students learning is their own motivation. If they have that, they’ll use any tools they can find (with or without us) as their learning aids.

The discussion on connecting with students was very interesting. It ties in with the idea that students will learn more from a “bad” (= inexperienced? not knowledgeable? I don’t really know what bad means) teacher that they like than from a “good” (I’m not even going to try to define this one) teacher that they do not feel connected to. Somehow the discussion also touched on flexibility (although I don’t remember how it came in) and the importance of meeting the students where they are, rather than where we thought they were when we wrote our lesson plans. I remember when I was a newer teacher becoming quite frustrated with classes because they were not learning the material I was teaching. When I reviewed at the beginning of the next class, it seemed obvious to me that no one had done the homework or even listened in the previous class. Maybe they hadn’t opened their books at all. I blamed them. I accused them. In my frustration, I yelled at them. In fact, I now realize, it was my own fault for failing to assess where they actually were and teaching from the lesson plan and then from the book. This happened many, many times (like beating my head against a wall) before I finally learned, thanks to my students – who are really the best teachers – that I was teaching over their heads and not engaging them in learning. Flexibility.

The discussion turned to Teacher Talk, as John asked the group to consider whether it is important and how important it is. He pointed to an experiment wherein Mr. Stein (hatless) spent an entire class in silence, communicating non-verbally and allowing all the language to be produced by the students. Another teacher who tried a similar experiment features in @pteralaur’s blog post: “Shut up! – encouraging learner autonomy through minimal instructions“. (And in fact that reminded me of a totally different Facebook chat conversation I had with a teacher who had lost her voice and so designed a set of activities that could be done without her needing to speak at all – with surprising results.) John described his own experience trying out the silent class, which led to a short conversation around the circle on old teaching methods, including the Silent Way.

Back on topic, in pairs again, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages to non-verbal communication. My new partner, Darryl, made the excellent point that a silent lesson could not be done early in the semester. There would have to first be the time for students and teacher to get to know one another and create a safe space for such a thing to be successful. And to set the record straight, it is he and not I who brought up Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin is the king of silent communication. However, the only video of his that I’ve used in class was spoken. It didn’t really matter, though, since the students couldn’t follow most of what he was saying anyway. Their group discussions indicated that they were pooling their information (crowd-sourcing?) based on both verbal and non-verbal cues from the video (@designerlessons saves the day again, but I adapted this one quite a bit.). In any case, I love the idea of using silent film to stimulate conversation based on non-verbal communication.  I am going to use it in the future. But it’s not my idea and all credit goes to @Darryl_Bautista. Other groups shared their thoughts on non-verbal communication and the opinion that made the biggest impression on me was that non-verbal communication might best be used to supplement verbal, graded language. I found that I agree with this perspective because it most closely resembles real (authentic?) communication (and yes, I will argue that graded language is authentic).

The meeting ended with a check-out in which we all made new reflective and/or teaching goals. I left feeling like I still had a lot to think about and surprised that I hadn’t really had much to contribute myself. Post-professional development (Busan-style: at an Indian restaurant) involved more talk on teaching aids, this time specifically how student work can be used as teaching aids. There are ideas and projects brewing!

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  • haeundaelife  On September 17, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Hi Anne,

    Let me just start by thanking you for keeping the discussion going! I think we hit on so many points on Saturday and putting them out there, with our opinions and thoughts, is crucial to getting our community at large involved. The larger the crowd the bigger the pool!

    I like how you explained the meeting from your point of view. We all twelve had different one on one discussions. I was busy facilitating and so had my mind on the time, and transitions and what not. It’s fantastic to see the meeting through the view of another participant. And it is further confirmation that we could have spent many more hours together discussing many many ideas that were passed over in the two hours.

    I would like to clarify a point of my own, which I am afraid I may have not gotten across correctly. When I say that we are pretty important to our teaching toolbox I do not mean that students cannot learn without us. I do not think that fluency is a determiner of learning success. In fact, as you said, many students get to a very high level without ever seeing a native English teacher in their class. Proof that learning can succeed regardless. I meant more that, since it’s our toolbox, and it’s our class, we must be a pretty important aid to student learning.

    I believe that by BEING native teachers who ARE in the classroom one of our greatest assets is the knowledge we have of the informal usage of the language. Let me be more specific. We know how our parents used to speak and how that’s changed over the years, and how it is still changing today (every time I speak with my little brother I learn a little more). We have an intimate knowledge of the many intricacies of our language, and considering its wide swath of usage, from Britain to Nigeria to India, I don’t think it’s too big a statement to say that we offer something unique to our students over a L2 teacher (who also are language informants in my eyes).

    I think this blog was fantastic and most certainly needs to be shared. This is exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping would carry on after Saturday and I thank you for taking the first step.

    • livinglearning  On September 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks for your feedback and willingness to continue the dialogue. I would also like to thank you for your initial post that spoke so strongly to me that I couldn’t remain (metaphorically) silent. And I’d like to assure you that I also could have sat for hours and discussed the topics we covered in the meeting. I suspect that’s why there are time limits. 😀

      I appreciate your clarifying your point about the fluent English-speaking teacher. I suppose I can concede that it would be silly to be sitting silent in the classroom pushing buttons on a cd player or something and not using ourselves as a teaching aid. And yet, there are many schools who use their English-speaking teachers exactly so, ignoring what a positive resource they can be.

      Is this then an argument *against* a non-speaking class? After all, how can we be uniquely useful if we never speak?

      And another question that comes up for me is, are there ways in which having a foreign teacher can be a negative resource? Is there a danger we can harm students’ learning more than we help them? (With the caveat that I don’t think teachers should stop teaching for fear that they might do more harm than good, without evidence.)

      Thank you again for the dialogue and I’m happy to keep the discussion open with you or anyone else who wants to join in.

      • haeundaelife  On September 17, 2012 at 5:30 pm

        I 100% agree that most native teachers, at least here in Korea, are underutilized. It is a great shame, but also, perhaps, a response to the fact that such a large number come here for purposes other than teaching.

        I would not say this is an argument against a non-speaking class because I do not believe a non-speaking class should be every class. I think It is an immensely powerful tool to use once the right atmosphere in the classroom is created. It is also useful in terms of a student self check after they have spent some time learning. In that I mean that we teach, and then every so often can use silent teaching techniques in parts of our lessons as a way to give students the chance to speak up and hear each other. In doing so they not only hear English more akin to what they produce themselves, but can also work on hearing errors in their own speech which can be hugely beneficial in the self learning process that must take place in a language learning course.

        I would certainly submit that a native teacher, any teacher for the matter, could have a negative effect on students learning. I think however, if managed appropriately we check off far, far more boxes in the positive than negative column. Students must be reminded that my speaking, or yours, or anyones, is not any more “correct” than theirs as long as (and here is a point I harp on consistently at my school) the understanding, the meaning, of what they are trying to get across gets across. I believe that no matter how many “errors” a students produces, if his point is taken the way he intends, his language production has succeeded. Does that mean he cannot improve? Certainly not. I can improve. We all can. Language is an artform. Art can be interpreted in a myriad of ways and a good artist never stops trying to improve how he is heard.


  • livinglearning  On September 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Thank you for exploring these issues with me. I feel like I don’t have a lot more to say on the topic of NETs (aside from a rant on underusing foreign teachers because they are not, in fact, teachers at all – YET – and … well, I’ll save it for another time, along with the question “What makes someone like you or me a teacher?”).

    I agree with you that a non-speaking class shouldn’t be done all the time. I like your idea of giving students space to practice the language, listen to each other and get to know their own variety of English (as well as correct errors) without the teacher’s interference. I would like to add that a class in which the students produce 100% of the language also is motivational because it shows them that they CAN. It also increases their sphere of people they can practice with. Too often Korean students are learning English to speak with their teachers or other foreigners they meet in town (which is rare). It’s high time they realize they can use it to practice with one another as well. One of the things I love about my school is that the Korean staff speak to each other in English when they talk in front of students. The students ask them why and they say that they like practicing English with each other. I’m sure there are many other reasons as well. 🙂 In any case, it’s good for the students to see that and mimic the attitude.

    I like your point about trying to improve, both ourselves and our students. A question I would like to explore more is what sorts of things might we be doing that would have a negative impact on student learning?


  • breathyvowel  On September 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Hey Anne & John,

    You mentioned this on Twitter so I thought I’d pile in. Anne, thanks a lot for sharing this. I think it’s a great post that’s simultaneously challenging yourself and others, and even received wisdom. Essentially, everything that reflection should be about.

    I wanted to comment a little bit on the whole NS issue. I’m pretty careful about the terms that I use when blogging these days. I tend to prefer ‘expert’ to ‘native’ speaker, as I think that anyone who can use the language with a reasonable degree of fluency, clarity and creativity is going to be a good model for the students. These are all elements of being a good communicator, which must form part of any definition for being a “good teacher”, and includes communicating enthusiasm and belief as well, through verbal and non-verbal channels.

    I do wonder, though, about whether a native speaker is necessary to teach students (especially at levels below what some people would call “Upper Intermediate”) the exact native idiom. This might be overstretching the learner, when their more general (and perhaps Konglishy) utterance fits better into the language patterns that they are developing (call it interlanguage if you like). Of course, if something is unclear of not understandable, then it needs to be reformulated, but this can be done by any proficient English speaker. However, the exact way that a native speaker says it may not be applicable to other native speaking contexts.

    More than this, it’s a much bandied-about factoid that students are far more likely to use English as a lingua franca with other non first language speakers than they are with native speakers. Given that this is something which it is impossible for us to experience as NSs, I’d say that this is a potential way in which we may do harm to students, by making them less understandable in international contexts.

    One other way we might do harm is by knocking confidence. Again, Korean English is much easier to understand for students, (if you want proof, Korean learners, just listen to another foreigner speak Korean) and the ‘linguistic blur’ of native speech makes listening a much more difficult task. For students who wish to work in exclusively English speaking contexts this is fine, but anywhere more international, native English may cause students to doubt their abilities. On a related note, it’s worth considering that some British companies are having to train people in international communication, and how to modify their native English for international contexts.

    That’s a few of my thoughts on the whole thing. There’s a load more on using NTs in schools that I wanted to write (that was the more positive bit), but now I have to go meet some students for lunch. I will write some more if I have time.


  • Andee  On September 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    To further what Alex brought up, ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) and EIL (English as an International Language) are the domains that many learners of English will ultimately be using the language. And perhaps what teachers should be drifting toward. However, the question is very dependent on the circumstances of each individual learner; what exactly do they want?

    Some learners agree that ELF/EIL and being understood by others from non-English L1 backgrounds is of utmost importance. Others will have a plan to live in an English L1 country and then the issue of ultimate attainment, and acquiring as much of ‘native-speaker’ English as they can muster — idiomatic expression, pronunciation, even turn-taking. But why does it make a difference? Because if they can’t assimilate into whatever context they will be using English in can result in discrimination.

    Discrimination can stem from using idiomatic expression in the ELF context and the interlocutors not comprehending due to the nuance of expression or it being out-of-context, resulting in divergence. In the English L1 country context, then not ‘sounding like a local’ can have a significantly demotivating impact, or worse. Some participants I interviewed a few months ago say that they now don’t even ask questions to their supervisors at work when they’re unclear on something because the response usually follows the ‘it’s because of your English’ line; these are speakers with Korean-accented English, grammatical production that rarely hinders intelligibility, and hold IELTS 8.0 across all bands.

    Personally, it’s no secret that I’m sat in the ELF paddock, and always will be, but our students needs should steer us, not our personal beliefs. If my students want idiomatic expression and corrective pronunciation, while trying to sound ‘as native as possible’, I give it. It’s a serious issue in need of address in this country, and in Japan (although they are a few steps ahead in terms of educational policy and reform) and China.

    Something I would love to see and I push for as much as possible is that educational policy in Korea opens its doors a little wider. There are more than seven passport-holding nations that ‘speak’ English and I would love to see Korean students be given the opportunity to realise this through either, a) allowing other nations to teach English here (Singapore, Malaysia, Kenya…), or b) facilitating international exchange amongst institutes (video conferencing with students in other nations would be so easy to implement and it adds the reality of English to the mix).

    • breathyvowel  On September 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm

      See, I knew someone who actually knew what they were talking about would turn up and say it much better than I could.

    • haeundaelife  On September 18, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      Andee, Alex and Anne

      You guys both bring up fantastic points in regards to NS’s in the classroom. I would agree wholeheartedly that not enough exposure is given to the students in terms of world Englishes. I think it can become an enormous obstacle for these kids if American English is the only kind ever heard throughout their education and then they run into someone from another region (also hugely demotivating).

      Andee, I liked that you made the point, that knowing our learners needs is of the utmost importance, again. I also agree with putting the importance on ELF if our students aren’t in the special situations you mentioned.

      Alex, I agree that a NS is not necessarily needed, especially in the lower levels, and even at any time if the language instructor is at the appropriate fluency. I would also agree that NS can hinder student motivation in making the bar of acceptability seem too high for them (especially the case for young/lower level learners).

      Anne, I think Andee hit most of the points I that popped into my head when considering the negative impact NS’s might have in a language classroom.

      I would like to thank you all for making this discussion so enriching and informative. I think we have hit a lot of really important points, some which aren’t discussed nearly enough. Thank you Anne for unlocking this post so the conversation could (and can continue to) happen!


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