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Bridging Belief Gaps in ELT Teacher
Education in Cross-cultural Settings
by Qing Gu
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Figure 3 below summarises the two clusters' emotional feedback on their experience in China as teacher trainers. Among the first cluster of nine people, only one thought of the experience in China as 'wonderful'. In comparison, five out of ten people in Cluster Two enjoyed their professional experience in the Sino-British ELT projects. There are no confused faces in Cluster Two as in Cluster One who appeared to have had some demanding time in the projects. Cluster Two people tended to regard their experience in China as a professional investment that had led to the progression of their academic careers.

Interaction (9)
Contextual needs (10)

Figure 3: Two clusters' feedback on their experience in Sino-British projects

Discussion

The belief gaps across and within cultures observed in this study both emphasise sociocultural and contextual factors underlying language teaching and learning. The main disparity lies in the awareness and extent to which ELT professionals realise and perceive the influence of contextual and personal factors on language teaching practices. Pennycook (1989) argues that


… teachers made a whole series of decisions about teaching based on their own educational experiences, their personalities, their particular institutional, social, cultural, and political circumstances, their understanding of their particular students' collective and individual needs, and so on.
(1989: 606)

Pennycook's argument presents a complex picture of teacher personal knowledge. It implies that any teaching method, say CLT, cannot be an abstract label to a teacher. What the teacher has learned from theorists about the teaching method will have to be used and tested in practice before the theoretical knowledge is conceptualised and constructed as part of the teacher's personal knowledge. This is a dynamic, on-going process that interplays with the teacher's contextualised beliefs about teaching and learning. The teacher's educational and professional experience, knowledge of learners' interests, motivation and learning strategies, and understanding of teaching context including the classroom context and the institutional culture play a crucial part in this process.

The ultimate personal knowledge creation is accomplished by the 'complimentary processes of assimilation and accommodation' (Williams & Burden 1997: 22). According to Williams and Burden (1997), the process of assimilation refers to the methods whereby teachers change and modify the incoming information (say, theories of CLT) in their minds so that it will fit in with what they already know. The process of accommodation, on the other hand, refers to the process whereby they modify and adapt what they already know to take into account new information. Elsewhere, Eraut (1994) addresses a similar point on the construction of personal knowledge:

learning knowledge and using knowledge are not separate processes but the same process. The process of using knowledge transforms that knowledge so that it is no longer the same knowledge. But people are so accustomed to using the word 'knowledge' to refer only to 'book knowledge' which is publicly available in codified form, that they have developed only limited awareness of the nature and extent of their personal knowledge.
(1994: 25)

Eventually, teachers' knowledge of the teaching method is anchored in the practical circumstances in which they work and is based on personal understandings of classroom knowledge as well as knowledge of students (Carter 1990, cited in Munby et al 2001). The theoretical claims of CLT will be integrated and reconstructed into individual teacher's schemata or knowledge structures on language teaching and learning, and no longer be the same knowledge in theorists' publications, but of distinctively individualised and contextualised characteristics.

An awareness of the nature of teachers' personal knowledge may help to lift the veil of the belief gaps across and within cultures observed in this study. The identification of two clusters of British specialists highlights the importance of understanding the meaning of sociocultural factors in language teaching and learning. British specialists who tended to mediate CLT to fit in with the local context were more likely to rate their experience in the projects positively than those who held more rigid views on the universal applicability of CLT.

Hofstede's (1986: 301) suggests that in bridging the cross-cultural teaching gap - 'The burden of adaptation in cross-cultural learning situations should be primarily on the teachers'. It is argued here that in the case of INSET programmes in cross-cultural settings the burden of adaptation should be rest primarily on the expatriate teacher trainers. They may need to take one step back from their values and 'cherished beliefs' and get 'intellectually and emotionally accustomed to the fact that in other societies,' people teach and learn in different ways (Hostede 1986: 316). In Kennedy and Kennedy's words (1998: 458), no matter how good or logical some ideas might seem in the generating culture, they cannot be automatically transferred into another culture that may hold different values.

The key to bridging the belief gap between ELT professionals across cultures lies in a realisation of the contextualised nature of professional knowledge, an appreciation of a different teaching and learning culture, and a willingness to establish dialogue. It is of crucial importance to understand that teacher change is a slow cognitive process that involves the reconceptualisation of teaching theories and the establishment of 'a sense of plausibility' (Prabhu 1990: 161). In order to achieve long-term change in teachers' performance, as Richardson and Placier (2001) argue, teacher training should give way to teacher education, focusing on helping teachers to develop ways of thinking. The ultimate aim will be to enable teachers to develop from the competence-oriented end on a professional development continuum to the meaning-building end that requires rationalised reflection of teaching practice and professional empowerment.


References

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Biodata

Dr Qing Gu, a former Lecturer in EFL at a Chinese university, has recently completed her doctoral research on in-service language teacher education in cross-cultural contexts in the School of Education of the University of Birmingham. Her research interests are language education, teacher education and comparative education. She has several publications in national and international journals. Qing

qinggu@yahoo.com

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