Learning through Change, Learning to Change

One of the real honors of being TESOL International Association President is the chance to represent the Association at conferences hosted by Affiliate associations around the world. Since being elected I have had the chance to speak at events hosted by TESOL Kuwait, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Association of Language Teachers (KSAALT), VenTESOL, EcuaTESOL, Society of Pakistani English Language Teachers (SPELT), and TESOL Italy, with Thai TESOL and TESOL Arabia still to come. Each of these conferences has had a unique theme and has sought to address local issues, but at the same time there has been a persistent thread running through them all: the need to adapt as professionals to a changing and uncertain future.

Recent political events in countries around the globe that signal a backlash against migrants, cross-national and cross-cultural alliances, and values that the TESOL world holds as fundamental serve to underscore the uncertainty that many ELT professionals feel today. These threatening changes give added meaning to the theme of my blogs this year: TESOL 2.0. They do not change my basic message, however. When faced with a changing world, teachers who see themselves as professionals and who actively seek out opportunities for continual learning and development are the ones who will be empowered to make a difference.

Lifelong learning has been a buzzword for many years, and my guess is that very few people think of themselves as avoiding it. If an article sounds intriguing they will read it; if a talk or workshop sounds interesting, they will attend. But how many of us actively manage our professional learning? Do we think about how we learn best, monitor and reflect on our learning, and strategically seek out opportunities that either complement our preferences or challenge us with new experiences?

When I spoke at the first EcuaTESOL International Convention in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in June, I was struck by the affordances for learning offered by two of the other plenaries. On the first day of the conference Dorothy Zemach from Wayzgoose Press in Oregon helped us to understand how methods for teaching and more importantly understandings of what English is have changed over time. Dorothy brought us to this understanding by sharing excerpts from textbooks published over the past century. On the next day, Marina González from the Universidad de Flores in Argentina also addressed changing understandings of what language is when she spoke on chaos theory. She gave us an overview of the theory, shared metaphors and models of developmental processes, and helped us think about principles for the classroom that could be deduced from it. For me, having the chance to experience both a bottom-up, learning-from-artifacts and a top-down, learning-from-theory approach to the same topic was both useful and illuminating.

As a field we adopt—and benefit from—varied approaches to learning. We know that models for how learning happens extend far beyond the inductive-deductive distinction. Indeed, theories about how we learn different types of knowledge and skills are extensive (see, for example, this page on Learning Theories or this useful infogram). In other plenaries this year, I have seen Mary Scholl from Centro Espiral Mana in Costa Rica apply social constructivist paradigms while helping the audience understand the value of setting up classrooms where students could learn from each other; Nasreen Hussain from the Institute of Business Management in Karachi adopted a human-centered paradigm with inspirational quotes and theoretical models that encouraged each of us to think of ourselves as a leader within our domain of influence; and Joyce Kling Soren from the University of Copenhagen used visual graphics to support cognitive learning of distinctions between English as a medium of nstruction (EMI), content and language integrated learning (CLIL), and integrated content and language in higher education (ICLHE).

If we are to actively take charge of our professional learning, we must also think about the genres we learn through. Although each of the above examples illustrates a different approach to fostering knowledge, they all occurred through a single genre: the conference talk. In-person, face-to-face events—or even online events such as the discussions for the TESOL Summit on the Future of the Profession—where we have a chance to learn from peers and experts are invaluable for giving us a jump start, but they cannot sustain us. We should be regular readers of professional publications. Every TESOL member receives an electronic subscription to TESOL Journal and has access to cutting edge books through the TESOL Press Bookstore. I often find, however, that the real value of my reading comes when I discuss it with someone else.

There are multiple ways to involve others in our learning. Many educators today talk about having a professional learning network (PLN) that connects sources of information with opportunities for discussion and sharing. PLNs tend to be very dynamic with both the focus and participants continuously changing and evolving. A similar, but more focused approach, could be to form a lesson study group with peers in a context where you teach. In a project I directed using lesson study with middle school teachers in Qatar, we focused our learning on how to incorporate strategic reading instruction into science and English classes. We met once a week and studied together an aspect of the issue. Then we planned a lesson that built on what we had learned. One of the group members then taught the lesson later in the week while the other members observed students’ learning during the lesson. The next week we came back together again, reflected on how our lesson had worked and what we would do differently, and then turned to learn about a new aspect of the issue and plan another lesson. We went through this cycle five times. One of the things I observed in the group was that the trust that developed over time allowed members to move from trying to show what they already knew to being open about what they wanted to understand.

I always make it a point to tell my students on the last day of class that they have to prepare themselves for life after school, when there will not be a teacher to manage their learning for them. If they want to be successful, they will have to write their own assignments, assemble materials and possibly seek out peers who will support them in their tasks, solicit feedback on their performance, and then look back on what they have learned. I think this is good advice for educators too as we face a changing and uncertain TESOL 2.0.




About Dudley Reynolds

Dudley Reynolds
Dudley Reynolds is the 2016-2017 president of TESOL International Association and a teaching professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, where he teaches first-year writing. Over his career he has also taught elementary school learners in Egypt, intensive English students at Indiana University, and MA TESOL candidates at the University of Houston. His research focuses on teacher development and second language literacy issues.
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One Response to Learning through Change, Learning to Change

  1. Valerie S Jakar says:

    A super resource. Thank you for your leadership.

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