do teachers bring to the teaching-learning process?
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
have argued elsewhere (see "Constructivist
Learning" and "What
is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered?")
that knowledge does not belong to a teacher who is supposed
to deliver it ad placitum; it is rather the result of social
interaction and the meanings the teacher and the students
construct together. This process is not a linear sequence
of events but a dynamic phenomenon, whereby the teacher, who
is more knowledgeable, is called upon to act, among other
things, as a mediator, influencing and being influenced by
the students, who happen to lack this knowledge. In reality,
this process is far more complicated than it seems, as there
are a host of factors that affect its outcomes, for example,
learner abilities, the classroom environment, infrastructure,
etc. Here, we will only examine the role of the teacher and
his / her contribution to (language) learning. Of course,
teachers in the real world come in all shapes and sizes, exhibiting
a wide range of different personalities, beliefs and ways
of thinking and working. Thus, we cannot hold that someone
who uses methods and models of teaching that differ from the
ones informed by research is necessarily a "bad teacher."
After all, the present paper is a far cry from a list of injunctions
or guidelines on effective teaching. Its main purpose is to
draw our attention to a vast theoretical plane, of which language
teaching is only a small part.
constructivist view of education
von Glasersfeld, the "father" of constructivism,
believes that education has two main purposes: to empower
learners to think for themselves, and to promote in the next
generation ways of thinking and acting that are deemed important
by the present generation (Glasersfeld, 1995). Moreover, in
his view, constructivist learning is best put into practice
by dint of presenting the learners with issues and concepts
in the form of problems to be explored, rather than as factoids
to be ingested and then regurgitated. To this end, the teacher's
role is very important, as is evidenced below:
teacher cannot tell students what concepts to construct or
how to construct them, but by judicious use of language they
can be prevented from constructing in directions which the
teacher considers futile but which, as he knows from experience,
are likely to be tried (von Glasersfeld, 1995: 184).
this poses a problem, in the sense that the teacher may thwart
the development of critical reflection on the students' part
by acting in such a preventative way.
For Thomas and Harri-Augstein (1985), constructivist learning
and, in general, all approaches to learning and teaching,
are organised attempts to bring some kind of meaning to our
lives. For them, education can be an enriching experience,
as long as the meanings that emerge are personal and significant
in some part of the person's life. Meanings should also be
viable, that is, they should prove useful in mediating one's
transactions-with stored knowledge and the world around (Thomas
and Harri-Augstein, 1985: 257).
What has become clear is that taking a constructivist perspective
on education is tantamount to viewing education as a means
of helping people to construct their own meanings.
In their attempts to understand the meaning that teachers
make of their work (we will not concern ourselves with students'
meanings), researchers have resorted to a wide variety of
different methods, ranging from looking into the thinking
and planning that teachers do outside the classroom (Clark
and Peterson, 1986), through ethnographic studies, to autobiographical
accounts of the understanding teachers bring to their work
(Ashton-Warner, 1980; Connelly and Clandinin, 1990). At any
rate, it seems to be the case that, when confronted by new
challenges, a teacher strives to resolve them in ways that
are commensurate with the understanding she brings to the
problem-a process that leads in turn to new horizons of understanding
(see Louden, 1991 for further details). Besides, Salmon (1988:
37) maintains that teaching is 'not
the passing on of
a parcel of objective knowledge, but
the attempt to share
what you yourself find personally meaningful'-an assertion
that could be said to encapsulate the philosophy of constructivism.
The above views have certainly blazed a trail in (language)
teaching, inasmuch as they have been instrumental in casting
the role of the teacher in a different, more liberating "mould."
Teachers are no longer seen as competent or incompetent because
they are simply unique. They do not act as gateways to knowledge
because they themselves embody the curriculum, conveying not
just what they know, but also their position towards it, as
well as the personal ramifications which it may have for them.
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