Try answering the following questions:
– What are your beliefs about teaching?
– What are your attitudes towards teaching?
– How do these beliefs and attitudes influence your classroom behavior?
Not easy, huh?
One of the assignments that I completed for my MA TEFL was to answer the above questions: analyze my teaching beliefs and attitudes and how these affect my teaching behavior. I remember finding this essay topic particularly interesting at the time and thoroughly enjoying the reflection process it involved. I have since tried to continue to reflect on my beliefs, attitudes and teaching behavior (BATB) in a similar way from time to time. As a teacher, it’s a healthy thing to do. Below, I’d like to share some of the main points from my essay and hopefully get your own reflective juices flowing!
What are Beliefs, Attitudes and Teaching Behavior ?
Beliefs are the base of a teacher’s conceptual framework and include the teacher’s theories about language, language learning, and education in general. Beliefs are what Richards and Rogers (1996) might call the approach of a teacher’s personal methodology. They are complex and as Richards and Lockhart (1996) underline, they originate from a number of sources and experiences. For example, a teacher’s personality, past learning and teaching experiences, culture, education and training are all sources of beliefs. Richards and Lockhart identify five main categories of beliefs:
1) beliefs about English
2) beliefs about teaching
3) beliefs about learning
4) beliefs about the program and the curriculum
5) beliefs about teaching as a profession.
Beliefs are important because they directly influence a teacher’s attitudes towards teaching and learning activities in the classroom (Basturkmen, et al., 2004). These attitudes, then in turn, often influence teaching behavior: they are where teaching behavior and beliefs meet. However, the transformation from attitude to teaching behavior does not always come to fruition. Indeed, different beliefs and attitudes may contradict each other or contextual constraints might call for certain teaching behaviors that go against the teacher’s beliefs and attitudes.
In sum, beliefs can be defined as what one thinks about learning and teaching, attitudes as what one thinks about certain practices in relation to those beliefs, and teaching behavior as what one actually does in the classroom.
How have my beliefs, attitudes and Teaching behavior changed since I began my teaching career?
In my essay I focused only on three categories where the changes in my BATB have been most profound: beliefs about learning, teaching and the curriculum.
Changes in my beliefs and attitudes about learning and resulting changes in Teaching Behavior
Over the past years, the way I view the process of language learning has evolved considerably. When I began teaching, my belief was that language learning was essentially a question of breaking a language down into its individual parts, and studying each part, piece by piece in an orderly fashion. One simply needed to accumulate the various entities of a language in a building block fashion (Rutherford, 1987 cited in Willis, D. 1997: 84). My belief was that if broken down into language structures that were simple enough, and if taught the right way, a learner could internalize and begin using a target structure by the end of a lesson. To this end, I believed grammar structures should be taught in the following order: a clear presentation, controlled oral exercises, semi-controlled exercises and finally a communicative activity that would incite the students to use the target structure. My attitude was that, when done in a relaxed and interesting classroom atmosphere and paired with periods of conversation, this approach, known as the Presentation, Practice, Production (PPP) approach (Willis, J. and Dave Willis, 1996), was the best way to learn a language. Not only did I believe in this approach, I also put it into practice in almost all of my grammar classes
Today, the activities used in my lessons are more diverse. One of the central reasons for this is a change in my beliefs about how languages are learned. From seeing language learning as an exercise in breaking language down and building it all back up again inside the mind, I now believe that this approach should also be mixed with consciousness-raising (CR) and Task-Based (TB) activities. This change in my fundamental beliefs about language learning was sparked by my readings of the material in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) course of my MA. The debate in this module about the advantages and disadvantages of the PPP approach not only made me call my practice into question, it incited deeper reflection on how languages are really learned. I came to believe that if learning a language is like building a house brick by brick, then in addition to teachers presenting language bricks, students must also learn to dig around in the clay and see if they can make a brick for themselves. Furthermore, just as bricks need time to dry in the sun, language structures need time to solidify in the mind. Learners should not be made to feel that they must be able to use a structure right away.
In terms of teaching behavior, this change in beliefs has induced me use more diverse types of activities when focusing on forms. I have not abandoned PPP-inspired exercises altogether, because I believe it has a number of merits in my context; I simply no longer see this approach as the only valid way to teach. For example, one of the principal ways I help students to learn language forms or vocabulary is through CR and TB activities. I either make these activities myself based on authentic materials, or I use business English coursebooks that propose these types of activities. However, for the moment I only use a few styles of CR and TB activities and I would like to improve on this by expanding my repertoire in this area.
Another way that my beliefs about learning have changed is that meaning has become absolutely central to my approach. My old practices were based on behaviorist theories that focused on repetition from a model. My belief was that if students are coaxed into using a structure often enough, they will eventually learn it and be able to use it spontaneously. While I still believe that this is part of learning to communicate in a language, I also believe that struggling to produce and understand meaningful language is necessary in order to reach full communicative competence. This change stemmed from reflection on the work of authors such as Dave and Jane Willis (1996), and Jim Scrivener (1996) and the material from the SLA module. In the past, what was said took a back seat to how it was being said. Now, it is the opposite. Communicating a real message that comes from the student, must come before simply displaying use of a target structure. A well structured sentence that is absent of all meaning to the student who utters it is not communicating anything. It is parroting, or what Dave Willis (1996) calls conformity..
The consequence on my teaching behavior has been that, while I still use repetition and drilling in some cases, I now focus primarily on meaningful exchanges about topics which are important to them, supported by written feedback and correction. Although I used to have similar exchanges in the past, I only considered them a relaxing aside for the student, a break. Indeed, when I did it too much, I felt like I was not teaching and quickly came back to more ‘structured’ exercises. Meaningful exchange that was not focused on practicing a language form simply did not fit into my beliefs about learning, so I avoided it, even though it felt natural to me and the students liked it. Additionally, I also use speaking tasks and meaning-focused (rather than structure-focused) information gap activities.
The final change in this category has been the addition of learner autonomy as a central tenant of my beliefs about learning. Whereas before I thought students could simply follow the steps put forth by the teacher, I now consider that students must also autonomously seek out learning opportunities. All of the course material from my MA about learner training, the good language learners, and learning strategies helped me realize what my classroom experience had already been hinting at: promoting learning autonomy promotes learning. Work from authors such as G. Ellis and B. Sinclair (1989), N. Anderson (2005), H.D. Brown (2001) and O.Malley and Chamot (1990) were also central to this change. As a result, I now try to encourage learner autonomy in the classroom in three ways. First I give students a list of materials that they can use for self study, including a list of places to find podcasts, videos and articles. Second, I have created a new needs analysis, entitled the learner/teacher contract. which involves the learner in setting goals, choosing material and topics for the class.
Finally, I give the students assignments and do in-class activities that help them discover new ways of learning English. However, as mentioned above, one is not always able to translate one’s beliefs into actual classroom behavior. Learner autonomy is one area where this is particularly true because my students are all extremely busy.
Changes in my beliefs and attitudes about teaching and resulting changes in teaching behavior
Larsen-Freeman (2001) once stated that a good metaphor for teaching can sustain a teacher throughout their career. Since the beginning of my career, I have seen my self role in the classroom as a guide and/or coach. Although actual metaphor I have used has not changed, my understanding of my role has evolved in two ways. First, while I have always felt that students needed specific language learning goals, I now feel that to be successful, part of the responsibility for the achievement of these goals must lie with the student as well as the teacher. They must be empowered and encouraged not only to be led, but to lead. As a guide or a coach, a teacher must encourage students show the way as much as they are shown the way. In practice, this has led me to actively promote learner autonomy through the specific practices mentioned above.
Second, I feel that coaches must be able to adapt their coaching methods to individual trainees. I have therefore abandoned ideology and made an effort to diversify my methods. Now, I believe that above all, teachers must listen to their students and focus on their learning, rather than on getting though a method. In other words, rather than being able to apply one method perfectly, a good teacher must be knowledgeable in a number of methods and be able to use the right combination of methods according to the goals, needs, interests and linguistic weaknesses of each student. All methods had something to offer.
In practice, this means that I now rely on a much more diversified repertoire of teaching activities.
Changes in my beliefs and attitudes about the curriculum and resulting changes in teaching behavior
Probably the most salient difference between the courses I teach now and those that I taught in the beginning of my career is the depth and frequency of consultation with the student. I used believe that the teacher should be alone at the helm of the course. I now believe that the curriculum must be a product of teacher student consultation. Although I did do needs analyses in the past, they provided minimal information about student goals. Rather, I focused mainly on when the student uses the language, for what and with whom, as well as how the student perceived strengths and weaknesses in English. I then devised objectives for the course on my own.
I now believe this needs analysis leaves out extremely important information for a truly learner-centered course. As mentioned above, I now discuss the direction of the class through a ‘learner/teacher contract.’ This new document guides the student and the teacher through a discussion of the student’s goals (short-term and long-term), the choice of materials including work-related materials the student can bring, and types of in-class and out-of-class activities. This new needs analysis helps to prepare the learner to share responsibility for the direction the course takes. This consultative atmosphere is encouraged throughout the class, both through frequent discussion about the direction of the class and questionnaires.
So, ready to give it a shot? I’d be very interested to hear how your BATBs have changed over your career. Leave a comment!
Basturkmen, H. et al (2004) Teacher’s Stated Beliefs about Incidental Focus
on Form and Their Classroom Practices Applied Linguistics 25/2: 243-272
Larsen-Freeman, D. 2001. The joy of watching others learn. An interview with Diane Larsen- Freeman by William P. Ancker. [Online].English TeachingForum online. F:\ELT Management\Module 5 Essay\Internet Sources Assignment 5\English Teaching Forum Online Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.mht (Acessed on 7 December 2008)
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Richards, J.C. and Theodore S. Rogers (2001, 2nd Edition) Approaches and Methods in
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Willis, D. (1997) Second Language Acquisition Centre for English Language Studies.
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