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What do teachers bring to the teaching-learning process?
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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Introduction

I 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.

A constructivist view of education

Ernst 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:

The 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).

Nevertheless, 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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