#CCK11: What is learning and teaching?

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Aug 032013

What is learning and teaching?

Beyond Dewey’s (1909) training and thought and logical considerations, creating opportunities for learners to explain, interpret, apply, have perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) would seem to cover what learning is for me.  Classifying all performance verbs in terms of these “six facets of understanding” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), and then affording learners to develop these six facets over a period of time provide the experience for individuals to learn.


Also, learners (through the guidance of others, including teachers) need to recognize and adapt both intended and unintended learning outcomes in a way that serves some future benefit. 

Teachers and learners need to co-create the “educative experience” (Dewey, 1938) by reflecting (critically and with devotion) on the types of connections that exist throughout PLNs as well as the attributes that make up the boundary nodes they entail.  This connective perspective is precisely what is needed in order for learning to occur.

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Leadership Framework

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Aug 032013

School-wide leadership and professional development endeavors that set out to close the gap between what teachers know and what teachers actually do oftentimes fall short of expectations (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, 2008; Reeves, 2010; Reeves, 2009). During the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, President Barack Obama (2009) declared the following: [Lincoln] recognized that while each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can, and be as responsible as we can – although we are responsible for our own fates, in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do (as cited in Alvey & Robbins, 2010, p. 39). Stakeholders who cooperate and collaborate in an “open, diverse, autonomous, and interactive” (Downes, 2010) manner afford educators an equitable opportunity to cultivate their learning through the development of a personal learning network (PLN) that is maintained through iterative and reciprocal social relationships. Creating a connective community of educators provides the “social capital and relational trust” (Sergiovanni, 2005) required to help close the knowing-doing gap that ultimately leads to higher academic achievement for each student.

Like students, academic leaders (e.g., supervisors) and teachers have varying degrees of readiness with regard to personal knowledge, skill sets, and habits of mind. Academic leaders in particular also have the responsibility of fostering a learning organization through professional development endeavors that lead to closing the gap between the vision and reality of the school (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). Closing the gap between the vision of the school and reality necessitates working with each teacher – depending on individual readiness – based on the behaviors that emerge within the teacher-academic leader relationship, namely listening, negotiating, and problem solving.

Listening that Leads to Learning

Interaction between the AL and the educator requires careful listening in order to better understand the educator’s position with regard to a particular phenomenon. But the way in which listening becomes a part of the discourse between the AL and educator will depend on the type of interaction and the behaviors that follow. In the three-minute walkthrough (Downey, Steffy, Poston, & English, 2009), the type of reflective discourse that results between the AL and the teacher will depend on the type of interaction that transpires (e.g., direct, indirect, and collaborative). Glickman, Gordon, and Ross-Gordon (2007) suggested that the listening phase as part of the overall reflective discourse (i.e., listening, clarifying, encouraging, reflecting, presenting, problem solving, negotiating, directing, standardizing, and reinforcing) will occur depending on the type of supervisory intervention taking place: “directive control behaviors, directive informational behaviors, collaborative behaviors, and nondirective behaviors” (pp. 144-149). Understanding the perspective of the teacher will depend on the type of supervision that is established between the AL and the educator and how the ongoing supervision transforms the educator from being dependent to independent to ultimately interdependent. Active listening becomes an iterative and reciprocal process that allows for such transformation.

To understand the perspective of the teacher, ALs actively listen to both what the teacher says and the intention of the what the teacher is saying. Giving teachers the AL’s undivided attention, noticing the teacher’s verbal and nonverbal communication, and responding to the teacher’s message through dialog help build the relational trust required to be a good leader (Hoppe, 2006). According to J.L. Austin, the sender’s message can have both an intended meaning or illocutionary force and the actual meaning as interpreted by the interlocutor which is referred to as perlocutionary force (as cited in Lycan, 2008; Kaplan, 2010). Thus, listening becomes the precursor to understanding the intended meaning of the speaker which corresponds to an acceptance of diversity.

Diversity throughout a professional learning community demands active listening via open dialog. President Lincoln had a way “of bringing aboard individuals with diverse personalities, ideas, and ambitions sheds light on the value of separating person from practice and choosing competence over personality” (Alvy & Robbins, 2010). Actively listening to teachers leads to professional learning that focuses more on people and practices than on programs (Reeves, 2010). And listening to parents and the community establishes mutual trust and respect among stakeholders who have a direct interest in the achievement levels of the students (Voltz, Sims, & Nelson, 2010). Accepting and respecting others through active listening enables a professional learning community to lead and flourish as a result of purposeful dialectic. Engaging in a purposeful dialectic comprises of negotiating meaning in terms of closing the gap between current teaching practices (i.e., reality) and what teachers should be practicing or the vision statement of the school (i.e., ideal).

Negotiation of Meaning that is Navigational and Nurturing

Negotiating meaning between teacher and AL employs an iterative and reciprocal process of listening and responding. Extending the previous notion of active listening and illocutionary and perlocutionary forces, negotiation leads to meaning-making processes based on the ongoing interpretations that emerge between speakers during the conference. A Wittgensteinian view of language is that people converse by way of a “language game” and that there is no difference between the meaning and use of a speech act (Lycan, 2008). Similarly, distinguishing between analytical, synthetic, and emotive statements helps speakers to interpret what is logically to be true, what can be proven through the scientific method, and what are statements of emotion (Gutek, 2004). Indeed, language and meaning that transpires over the course of a teacher conference forms interpretations and understandings of not only certain behaviors and perspectives but also is representative of the power relationship that exists between the educator and AL.

Power relationships between AL and educators influence social identities. When teaching children, power relationships dictate how the teacher sees the student and how the student sees the teacher (Rogers, Kramer, & Mosley, 2005). How an educator and AL relate to each other depends on the type of help that is given: “dependency and autonomous-oriented and assumptive help” (Nadler, Halabi, Harapz-Gorodeisky, & Ben-David, 2010). The authors argue that dependency-oriented help (i.e., the recipient turns to rely on the helper) and autonomous-oriented help (i.e., tools are provided to the recipient to solve problems) actually lead to the formation of “high and low status groups” (p. 188), doing little to resolve the power relations that exist. In contrast, assumptive help results from a solicitation on the part of the recipient as is viewed as being more preservative of self-identity. The negotiation of meaning, therefore, overlaps between the meaning of understanding via a dialectic and the meaning of the type of help that is being implemented. Instead of viewing negotiation as solely dyadic, negotiation across a network creates the dynamic that empowers all members to develop self-identity while recognizing the power relationships that can best serve the entire connected community.

Negotiating meaning through networks dissolves the expert/novice dichotomy that can formulate into status groups. Downes (2010) promotes a “connective intelligence” through the creation of community via the “semantic principal” that applies to the following four domains: (a) “autonomy”, (b) “diversity”, (c) “openness”, and (d) “interaction”. In this way, the educator becomes a part of a network that relies on more than just the AL for professional advice, but rather learns from colleagues and outside experts as well. The learning process emerges through having a choice in one’s learning, a respect for diversity in opinions, maintaining transparency in one’s learning, and interacting with others by sharing experiences and perspectives. Thus, the expert/novice notion that is often associated with one’s role is substituted for an expert/novice distinction linked to a particular activity or event where any particular moment warrants experts and novices depending on personal understandings, skill sets, and dispositions. Hence, negotiating meaning between educators becomes more reliant on assuring the success of others throughout the network and less about power relations that stifle the network.

Problem Setting and Solving Through Action Research

Active listening and negotiation of meaning intertwines with problem setting and solving. Taking a pragmatic view of learning and doing through experience, the educator and AL can co-create a personal learning path based on the mission and vision statements of the school. For pragmatists, general questions related to one’s experience are of the utmost importance: “How do we know? What is the most accurate way of knowing? How do we know that our ideas and beliefs are true?” (Gutek, 2004, p. 73). And “experience is experimental, and all of our beliefs are fallible. Meanings, and hence the determination of truths within their structures, are never final, but are subject to revision” (Rosenthal, 2007, p. 5). Implementing a systematic approach to setting and solving problems (e.g., educators focusing on a personal weaknesses in their teaching practice) permits learning by doing and reflection in a way that is conductive to the semantic principle mentioned earlier.

Action research ties the practitioner to the problem. Within the education field, the term practitioner research has gained popularity “which implies that insiders to the setting are the researchers, whereas in other traditions of action research, the researcher is an outsider who collaborates to varying degrees with insider practitioners or community members” (Herr & Anderson, 2005). When comparing participatory action research (PAR) in particular with the pragmatic approach of experimentalism, “PAR adherents agree that is breaks from the positivist and empiricist science” (Reason & Bradbury, 2008, p. 31). Hence positionality (insider or outside) can vary in PAR, but nonetheless remains a “negotiated process” between educator and AL until favorable responses result. (Ravitch & Wirth, 2007).

Kemmis (1982) put forth the notion that the “spiral of action cycles” begins with the development of “a plan of action to improve what is already happening” (as cited in Herr and Anderston, 2005, p. 5). The AL and educator collaboratively sets a problem through negotiating meaning, which leads to understandings, and active listening. The type of reflective dialog that results from such collaboration will depend on whether the teacher is at the dependent, independent, or interdependent stage. What follows is a description of an action research proposal that is intended to develop improved teachers through a cyclical process that includes setting a problem, taking action, observing the results of the action, and reflecting on the final experience.

Academic Leadership in Practice

Academic leadership requires actively listening, negotiating meaning, and problem setting and solving. What follows is a plan that will explain how academic leadership emerges from a distributed entitlement that affords a learning community to be open, interactive, diverse, and autonomous (Downes, 2010) through a problem solving cycle of problem setting, action, observation, and reflection. The goal of the plan is to create the educational ecosystem necessary for educators to connect with others so that they might take on a more active role in their own professional development, a professional development endeavor that consequently all stakeholders are responsible.

Before describing the plan, a description of the educational context is necessary. The plan is meant for educators teaching English-as-a-foreign language (EFL) at the University of Aguascalientes (UAA) (Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes, 2011) located in the country of Mexico. Teachers’ ages range from 24-60 and although most teachers have a bachelor’s degree in English language training, others have varying degrees in medicine, business, and other degrees in the humanities. Years of experience range from one year to 12, and about half of the teachers hold a master’s degree. There are no EFL educators with doctorate degrees. The EFL educators teach general English in a program that consists of eight levels, each level constitutes 80 hours of study. EFL students can choose between classes during the week, Monday through Friday for one hour each day, or Saturday classes that run five hours each session. Teachers teach between one to four classes per semester and are paid monthly for their services. Teachers are responsible for attending various face-to-face meetings throughout the semester as well as certain online workshops that are held both synchronous and asynchronously, and their participation is considered as part of their evaluation that occurs each semester.

The Plan

Over the last year, the EFL educators at the UAA have participated in various online workshops (Stewart, 2010a; Stewart, 2010b) that were intended to promote more interaction and teacher autonomy. The objective of these two virtual workshops was to provide faculty the opportunities to interactive with not only themselves but with other EFL educators from around the world. At the same time, EFL educators learned about different technologies that could be used to not only promote their own learning but also as tools to be used in their own classroom teaching. During the semester a few face-to-face sessions were scheduled but the intention was that teachers would work through the modules of the workshop interdependently. The result of these efforts were less than stellar in that few teachers participated even though their participation was included in their teacher evaluation.

This semester – January-June of 2011 – a similar plan was implemented but with a slightly different focus. To promote more interaction between the EFL educators and the AL (i.e., coordinating department of the English program), the online workshop was centered around PAR (Stewart, 2011). Prior workshops lacked the collaborative participation among teachers and more importantly lacked the evidence of problem setting and solving capacities required to address improvements to current teaching practices. To resolve this, a student questionnaire (Stewart, 2010c) was administered to 65% of the student population (n=900) in order to gain insight on student perspective and current teaching practices. Some question items included topics such as teacher-to-student talk time, the use of English versus Spanish in the classroom, and the types of feedback teachers use to assess learners. The results of the questionnaire were shared with teachers shortly after the questionnaire was administered to allow teachers to reflect on the results and on their own practice in relation to a variety of topics. Thus the workshop began by having the faculty to develop an area to improve upon in any combination of the following domains: (a) communicator of the English language, (b) pedagogical skill set, and/or (c) knowledge of how languages are learned or applied linguistics (Bartels, 2005).

Once the teachers developed a problem, they were asked to create a Google Docs (2011) as a means for fostering a negotiation of meaning (and thus understandings) as well as active listening skills. The document was shared with at least one other colleague as well as the AL so to create at least a triadic discourse of shared experiences. The document includes the following three sections: (a) the problem or area the teacher feels needs the greatest improvement, (b) scheme of work that outlines content and language to be covered on a weekly basis, and (c) a personal reflection on how current thoughts, perspectives, and behavior have changed in terms of the initial problem that the teacher set. Since the document is shared with another colleague and the AL, the problem and the reflection can manifest itself in many different ways: (a) the educator can work alone, (b) groups of educators can work together, and (c) the educator and AL can work collaboratively. And the three types of manifestations can shift throughout the action research cycle as the EFL educator becomes more interdependent by gaining more confidence in making personal learning more transparent and participatory. The listening process and the negotiation of meaning indeed become an iterative and reciprocal process that all but eliminate the fixed expert and novice dichotomy often associated with traditional views of teacher supervision.

The final part of making learning more transparent is by sharing thoughts and experiences in an open forum. Since the distance English language training workshop is open to anyone, EFL educators working at the UAA have the chance to collaborate with other EFL educators from around the world. As they are expected to reflect and share thoughts in Google Docs (with a colleague or colleagues of their choice and their AL), they are also expected to share something in an open forum for everyone to see. The sharing between Google Docs and the open forum might be the same reflection but it does not have to be. The EFL educator can decide on how much or little to share in the open forum just as long as some amount of reflection is occurring. As with Google Docs, the open forum is designed to provide the means for EFL teachers to share more with others in the field of EFL education. The entire workshop is meant to be a place where teachers feel comfortable to take risks, reflect on their results, and share those results with others. Without interaction, diversity, autonomy, and openness (Downes, 2010), teachers will not be able to actively listen to each other, negotiate meaning that leads to understandings, and problem set and solve their way to improved classroom practice.

Challenges and Expectations

Planning a professional learning community around listening, negotiating meaning, and problem setting/solving behaviors renders a professional network that is open, diverse, autonomous, and interactive (Downes, 2010). The time and place for active listening between the EFL educator and the AL will depend on if the teacher is dependent, independent, or interdependent. The AL’s responsibility is to guide the teacher so that a personal transition can take place, moving the teacher from dependency to interdependency. Moreover, active listening is the ability to understand now only what an EFL educator says explicitly but the way in which statements are being expressed (i.e., tone, register, nonverbal communication) and what is not being said. Active listening thus becomes a precursor to negotiating meaning whereby speakers are giving and receiving illocutionary and perlocutionary forces that aid in the collaborative meaning-making process. Moreover, negotiation between individuals or groups can involve power relationships that can negatively influence one’s social identity. For this reason, creating a community based on the “semantic principal” yield educators who are more autonomous, diverse, open, and interactive (Downes, 2010) as the concept of negotiation extends through a more networked discourse as opposed to the typical dyadic discourse often associated with more traditional approaches. Through active listening and negotiating between faculty members themselves and the AL, problem setting and solving occurs at both the individual and group level such that the educational experience is viewed as “experimental” (Rosenthal, 2007, p.5).

The challenges of implementing a relationship between the AL and faculty that incorporates active listening, negotiation of meaning, and problem setting and solving constitute the creation of a professional learning network that emerges from a participative action research process that is daring, sharing, and caring. Specifically, teachers rely on relational trust and social capital (Sergiovanni, 2005) that extends throughout the network in order to achieve personal goals that are aligned with the mission and vision of the school. Although the expectations are that EFL educators are to share ideas and experiences openly, the learning ecosystem needs to exist beforehand in order to encourage faculty to take more risks and to learn from their successes and failures through ongoing and open discourse with others. By creating interdependent educators, accountability becomes a shared responsibility, commonly expresses as one for all and all for one while still maintaining autonomy and respecting the personal goals of each teacher.


Alvy, H. & Robbins, P. (2010). Learning from Lincoln: Leadership practices for school success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Bartels, N. (2005). Applied linguistics and language teacher education. New York: Springer.

Downes, S. (2010). Dimensions of a learning network. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/Downes/dimensions-of-a-learning-network-5560762

Downey, C., Steffy, B., Poston, W., & English, F. (2009). Advancing the three minute walkthrough: Mastering reflective practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Google Docs. (2011). Retrieved from https://docs.google.com

Gutek, G. (2004). Philosophical and ideological voices in education. New York: Pearson.

Herr, K., & Anderson, G. (2005). The action research dissertation: A guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks; CA: Sage Publications.

Hoppe, M. (2006). Active listening: Improving your ability to listen and lead. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

Kaplan, R. (2010). The Oxford handbook of applied linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lycan, W. (2008). Philosophy of language: A contemporary introduction. New York: Routledge.

Nadler, A., Halabi, S., Harapz-Gorodeisky, G., & Ben-David, Y. (2010). Helping relations as status relations. In M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver (Eds.) , Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature (pp. 181-200). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/12061-010

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (2008). The SAGE handbook of action research: Participatory inquiry and practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Reeves, D. (2009). Leading change in your school: How to conquer myths, build commitment, and get results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Reeves, D. (2010). Transforming professional development into student results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Rogers, R., Kramer, M. A., Mosley, M., Fuller, C. (2005). Professional development as social transformation: The literacy for social justice teacher research group. Language Arts, 82(5), 347. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/196859334?accountid=28180

Rosenthal, S. (2007). C.I. Lewis in focus. The pulse of pragmatism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ravitch, S. & Wirth, K. (2007). Developing a pedagogy of opportunity for students and their teachers: Navigations and negotiations in insider action research. Action Reseach, 5(75). doi: 10.1177/1476750307072878

Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the hearbeat: Leading and learning together in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stewart, B. (2010a). Collaborative Understandings. Retrieved from http://wikieducator.org/PFLE

Stewart, B. (2010b). Distance English language training workshop. Retrieved from http://bnleez.moodlehub.com/course/view.php?id=11

Stewart, B. (2010c). Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes. Retrieved from https://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?hl=en&formkey=dFBlczJ1Vi1qc2dpMEtqWF9wVll1cEE6MQ#gid=0

Stewart, B. (2011). Distance English language training workshop. Retrieved from http://bnleez.com/moodle/course/view.php?id=3

Voltz, D., Sims, M., Nelson, B. (2010). Connecting teachers, students, and standards: Strategies for success in diverse and inclusive classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.uaa.mx/

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by design: Mission, action, and achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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Research Methods and Critique

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Aug 032013

Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that “rules are not necessarily sacred; principles are” (as cited in Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 111). One notion is to believe that teaching has become too personalized and has lead to criticism of teaching practices that make most educators “defensive and resistant to the message” (Wiggins and Mctighe, 2007, p. 111), while others may feel that a “principled eclecticism” is more appropriate that allows each teacher to take on a personal methodology that teachers “work out for themselves what is effective in their own classrooms” (Scrivener, 2005, p. 40). Consequently, reaching an interpretable consensus as to what makes a good teacher and learner depends on the particular ontological stance one takes within a critical constructivist worldview.

How one becomes a good teacher depends in part on how subjectivity is engulfed through the notion of critical constructivism. The term constructivism itself can be viewed as the absence of objectivity whereby “nothing exists before consciousness shapes it into something we can perceive” (Tobin & Kincheloe, 2006, p. 8). Indeed, “how humans learn by building knowledge cooperatively through social interaction and the application of prior knowledge (as tools) in a continual interpretation of ongoing experiences” (Bentley, Fleury, & Garrison), 2006, p. 7) becomes the basis of a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Critical constructivism derives from constructivism and critical theory forwards how power imbalances that exist in schools and knowledge relationships mature or dissipate within particular contexts (Love, 2008). In terms of becoming a better teacher, negotiating interpretations links what one does in the classroom to a personal identity within a community. Since social interactions develop and recede through an iterative and reciprocal process, social connections become expressed also in terms of being intersubjective versus being dichotomized in terms of objective and subjective opposites.

Critical constructivism and its focus on relationships leads to an entitled approach to leadership. “Entitlement seeks to place those who have the ability to act in the forefront of decision making (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 43). Empowering individuals to act can be influenced by self-perception. Zmuda (2010) put forth the notion that “the way I see myself and the contributions I hope to make affects the way I conduct myself as a learner” should replace the myth “the way I want to be seen by [others] affects the way I conduct myself as a learner” (p. 171). Hence, as members of a community are empowered and who have the will and ability to act (i.e., to change), the idea of meaning becomes “assigned” instead of being “inherent in external phenomena” (Bently, Fleury, and Garrison, 2006, p. 16). Accordingly, the act of decision-making becomes an ever-important 21 century skill (Dodge, 2008) for all learners as negotiation of meaning becomes distributed throughout a network.

A variant albeit supportive view of critical constructivism is accepting the process of learning via a network as a metaphor. The epistemology of connectivism is the assertion that learning occurs through the formation of networks that are formed by the individual; that is, knowing rests in the individual and resides in the collection (Siemens, 2006). As with critical constructivism, interactions with others form the (strong and weak) ties that make one’s reality personal. But reality in and of itself consists of not only subjective objects and facts – as is the case in constructivism – but also objective objects and facts as well (Boghossian, 2006). Therefore, connectivism (as a learning theory) rejects the assumption that knowledge is propositional and instead assumes that knowledge (i.e., knowing, truth, etc.) is emergent, nonreductivist, and contextual. How one views knowledge impacts the way research is conducted.

Researchers choose designs based on a particular worldview. Creswell (2009) mentioned that the type of design one chooses (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods) will depend on the particular worldview one subscribes to: “postpositivism, constructivism, advocacy/participatory, or pragmatism” (p. 6). The researcher who adheres to a critical constructivist approach incorporates to various degrees critical theory, pedagogy, and thinking as well. Critical theory in particular can be defined as being “normative: …to delineate a more just and free future. The term critical refers not only to a critique of social conditions, but also to Kant’s idea of self-reflective examination of the limits and validity of our own knowledge and understandings (McLean, 2006, p. 9). Moreover, researchers who subscribe to participatory action research (PAR) grounds human interactions as “participative, interdependent ecology of life” (Reason & Bradbury, 2008, p. 17), a framework which underpins a critical constructivist approach.

Critical constructivism unites social constructivism theory with critical theory in a way that begins to blur the distinct differences researchers once had when classifying data strictly in terms of being quantitative or qualitative. The interactions themselves are central to entitling members of a network to take on leadership roles that are based on will and ability and not solely on title, position, or pay grade. By distributing leadership throughout the network, participants begin to have a voice as power laws begin to shift in favor of those who were once marginalized or on the peripheral. By establishing the “relational trust and social capital” (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 21) that teachers need to achieve personal goals, the whole network (i.e., all stakeholders) begins to flourish as interdependent teachers begin forming a Gemeinschaft; that is, a community that considers more the “we” as opposed to solely the “I” (Sergiovanni, 1999). When assessing teacher capacities in terms of what makes a good teacher, social capital, community, and relational trust viewed through a critical constructivist lens become an integral part of an individual’s perception, perspective, and social constructions.

Article Review

Huang (2010) conducted a case study (i.e., qualitative research design) of an English language teacher at the Nanjing University in order to see what makes a successful English-as-a-foreign (EFL) teacher in China. The EFL teacher who was the target of the research was Miss H (pseudonym) who taught general English courses to undergraduate students studying Chinese Medicine – English courses are a requirement in order to graduate. Other participants included “24 English-major students who were in their second year of university and who had a teacher-student relationship with Miss H; and eight English teachers who were in the same staff room as Miss H.” (p. 22). The purpose of the study was to investigate the following three research questions:

  1. “What are the unique qualities of Miss H (including her personal traits, professional achievements and teaching style) that make others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?
  2. How does Miss H teach English effectively in the classroom?
  3. What other roles does Miss H undertake in her teaching position” (p. 20)?

The results of these questions are not meant to be inferential to other populations, but rather generalizable to a particular group outside the given context.

The theoretical framework for what makes a good teacher, in principle, was summarized into three categories: (a) “professional knowledge or achievements”, (b) “personal traits”, and (c) “teaching style” (p. 21). In order to determine how Miss H was classified within these three categories, data collection involved interviews, surveys, and focus groups with the participants previously mentioned. The first step was to interview Miss H in order to get personal data about her education and experiences. The second step was to apply a survey to Miss H’s eight colleagues so to obtain an outside perspective of Miss H. And the final step was to interview and conduct focus groups with a sample of Miss H’s students, getting yet a third perspective of Miss H’s knowledge, skills, and disposition as an EFL educator.

The findings of the study included a variety of perspectives. Miss H believed that motivation was crucial to becoming a successful EFL teacher in China and went on to mention that “learners play the central role in teaching” (p. 23). Some of Miss H’s colleagues described her as enthusiastic, responsible, having rich knowledge, cross-cultural awareness, and communicative competency among many other descriptors. Students mentioned that “practising as much as possible, interest in the language, and perseverance” (p. 24) were the three main aspects of Miss H’s teaching that they enjoyed the most. Additional roles Miss H takes on involves working with parents and students with life problems and working with faculty in exchanging teaching methods and techniques. The authors overall purpose was to expose what a successful EFL teacher is and does in China with the hopes that others will reflect on their own practice in finding ways to improve.

Article Critique

At first glance, Huang’s (2010) qualitative study into what makes a successful EFL teacher in China appears to place perspective on that of the participants and not on the researcher. For example, a triangulation approach was taken that included interviews, surveys, and focus groups and included collecting data from not only Miss H (i.e., the target of the study) but also from her students and colleagues. Opinions from Miss H, students, and colleagues were then categorized and represented using a vast number of descriptors: “responsible attitude, easy-going, good command of the language” etc. (p. 24). Thus, one could infer that the researcher was sharing only the values and the assumptions of the participants by simply reporting what participants said. But this positive description of Miss H was mainly presented with little contextual background. What is left out of Miss H’s profile is whether she has tenure, the number of her colleagues that have tenure, the profiles of her colleagues who participated in the study (e.g., professional achievements, educational background, professional experience, etc.), the relationships the colleagues have with Miss H, the number of hours in front of a group Miss H has in comparison with her colleagues, and the criteria used to select the students and colleagues who were to participate in the study. As a result, there is the possibility that the lack of contextual description with regard to how Miss H works and the hidden assumptions that exist as it pertains to the research methodology used to conduct the study might blur the objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity of the constructions.

The notions of objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity as cognitive and social constructions emerge through a network. Huang (2010) failed to demonstrate the two key components required of any type of personal network: “connection” and “contagion” (Christakis & Fowler, 2009, p. 16). The authors added that networks adhere to the following rules: (a) “we shape our networks”, (b) “our networks shapes us”, (c) “our friends affects us”, (d) “our friends’ friends’ friends affect us, and (e) “the network has a life of its own” (pp. 17-24). Therefore, instead of applying a research methodology that limits perspectives (i.e., reality) on the individual, decontextualized accounts of reality (i.e., subjectivity), constructions should emerge by investigating who Miss H interacts with (i.e., the connection) and the type of tie (i.e., the contagion) that exists with each person or node that makes up her personal learning network. A “macro” view of human interactions, indeed subscribes to Freire’s unabashedly appeal “to an ‘objective’ reality that we all can come to know through careful, critical analysis” (Olson, 2006).

The way in which constructions are formed are also representative of how the world is shaped. Huang (2010) seems to view the world primarily in terms of personal accounts of reality, absent of the actual interactions that actually are required in order for an individual to form a perception in the first place. As there are a variety of key principles at play – “communication, transparency, knowledge, innovation, regulation, accountability, ownership, citizenship, and power” (McCarthy, Miller, & Skidmore, 2004, pp. 11-21) – communication, knowledge, and power will be considered in ways of offering addition insight into the subject of what makes a successful EFL teacher. A change in focus as to how the world is shaped would imply a different set of research questions that would shift the direction of the research as well (see Table 1).

Table 1

Current research questions New set of research questions
  1. What are the unique qualities of Miss H (including her personal traits, professional achievements and teaching style) that make others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?


  1. How does Miss H teach English effectively in the classroom?


  1. What other roles does Miss H undertake in her teaching position
  1. How does Miss H cultivate a personal learning network in a way that makes others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?
  2. What type of ties exist within Miss H’s personal learning network that have the most impact on her current teaching practice?
  3. How influence does Miss H have on her personal learning network that extends her role beyond her teaching position?










Clearly, changing the focus of the study in this fashion changes the scope of the investigation as well. Researching constructive processes requires a more narrow and in depth look at a particular phenomenon, and in the case of Miss H, perhaps the need to limit the study to one or two research questions. But in doing so, a more descriptive account of what is takes to be a good teacher would result.

Continuing the network metaphor, psychosocial dispositions also impact how adult learners are influenced by and how they guide others through ongoing social interaction. “Psychosocial dispositions act as mediating pathways between the students’ demographic characteristics (e.g., parental education, age, and gender), academic programs (e.g., arts or sciences), and their academic achievement in college” (Clifton, Perry, Roberts, and Peter, 2008, p. 687). Those adult learners about to enter the education profession also have doubts about their chosen career and the control they have over what they can teach (Daniels, Clifton, Perry, Mandzuk, and Hall, 2006). The issue of control and career anxiety among those participants in Huang’s (2010) study was not addressed but might influence perspective and the manner in which both students and colleagues expressed opinions. However slight, a diversity of opinion (e.g., psychosocial dispositions of the teachers) can provide additional context when interpreting the attributes needed to be a successful teacher. From a critical constructivist approach, the act of allowing Miss H. to express her opinions on career anxiety and control over what she does in the classroom and the control she has with regard to her personal learning network would provide a more informative description of her perceived success. In other words, instead of presenting current attributes that she possesses, a look at her becoming a successful teacher would provide more insight into the process of formulating personal psychosocial dispositions.

Having control over one’s teaching practice and how one views the role within the profession is a complex and emergence phenomenon. As mentioned earlier, three general interactive types are constantly in motion: (a) how an educator affects others (either directly or indirectly), (b) how others affect the educator, and (c) how the network itself emerges as a whole (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). As a complex adaptive system (Fryer, n.d.), an educator recognizes how one adapts or co-adapts to a “learning ecology: formal learning, experience/game, mentor, performance support, self-learning, community-based learning, and informal learning” (Siemens, 2006, pp. 39-40). Power relations, sustainability, and decision-making are but a few examples of how different contexts can influence and be influenced by the type of interactions that take place between individuals and artifacts. Huang’s (2010) research ignored how Miss H arose from the determinants of her ever-changing environment or what affect her socio-cultural background had on her success. Specifically, what effect did Miss H have on her environment, what effect did her environment have on her, and what transformative change of events emerged on their own. Knowing when and how she made decisions over time would better explain how she became a successful EFL teacher.

The decision-making process as part of a three-part harmony also includes andragogy and critical thinking skills (Moore, 2010), and links cognitive and social constructions via personal perception. When teachers are entitled to make decisions, an increase in the following domains exist: affective aspects, job satisfaction, job commitment, and perception of workload (Chi Keung, 2008). Each of these domains create personal constructions that are both cognitive and social in nature. Researching the relationships that exist between the participants of the study allows personal reflection and learning and the critical skills required to make decisions under particular contexts. It is precisely these type of analysis where behavioral and perspectival patterns begin to emerge. By analyzing the conditions by which constructions arise, researchers explain phenomena in terms of individual impact on others (i.e., the network), as well as the impact others have on the individual. Moreover, researchers who investigate the process of construction through relationship building may also see self-organisational tendencies as the network itself grows and develops on its own. Understanding what makes a good EFL teacher lends itself to an analysis based on critical constructivism that ultimately empowers not only the successful teacher but those who are in contact with the successful teacher to improve as well. Thus, learning that is meaningful and relevant to personal goals emerges through both independent and interdependent experiences (Moore, 2010).

Understanding the purpose of a critical constructivist approach helps researchers to decipher meaning through context. Individual perspective that stems from the participants themselves allows for a more descriptive and explanatory account of a particular phenomenon in terms of time and space. Temporal and spatial relations that are shared through multiple interpretations not only provide the constructions but also the conditions by which the constructions emerged. For example, if we understand the context by which an EFL teacher made a particular decision or a self-reflection that demonstrates a particular habit of mind, the reader has a better understanding of an intersubjective reality. A critical constructivist approach to research is not only epistemological but is also ontological as well. Knowing how one becomes a good EFL teacher is equally important (perhaps more so) as knowing what a good EFL teacher is as a final conclusion. As a result, the reader gains a better understanding of the learning ecology (i.e., environment, socio-cultural context, etc.) by experiencing the interactions (i.e., connections and contagions) that determine (a) the affects the EFL teacher has on others, (b) the affects others have on the EFL teacher, and (c) the self-sustaining attributes of the learning network itself. Having said experiences underpins the notion that actionable understandings are better positioned when they lead to a more suitable praxis.


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Sep 172011

Ok, so it’s been awhile since my last post. I’ve been (and continue to be) extremely busy developing a concept paper for my dissertation, teaching, and doing separate research regarding peer/self reflection among English language learning writers.  This week I plan to hang out, so if you are into Google+ and you are interested in knowing more about my research, let’s connect!  My Google+ profile link can be found by clicking the About tab above.

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