Ideas on teaching: should we abandon adherence to lesson aims?

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Reflections on an article on Bakhtin & digital scholarship

I’ve recently read an article from the Journal of Applied Social Theory called ‘Bakhtin, digital scholarship and new publishing practices as carnival’ which discusses how digital scholarship causes disruption to traditional academic practices (Cooper & Condie, 2016). The authors theorize the issues by using Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts on language and dialogue ‘to understand how new forms of digital scholarship, particularly blogging and self-publishing’ are able to both foster and limit academic dialogues (ibid). One idea throughout the discussion is that of whether digital scholarship represents something ‘carnivalesque,’ or in other words, something that disrupts traditional, established practices in academia (Bakhtin, 1984b as cited by Cooper & Condie, 2016).

According to the Cooper & Condie (2016), one part of the dominant discourses in academia and research is that these can be viewed as ‘finalising’ which thus creates a definite, fixed understanding of subjects as opposed to them being viewed as ‘unfinalised’ and thus changing. Cooper & Condie (ibid) discuss this notion through Bakhtin’s view that a more ethical approach to social science is one where research dialogues attempt no finalization of participants in research or topics of inquiry (Frank, 2005 as cited by Cooper & Condie, 2016). Cooper & Condie (ibid) note the example from Bakhtin’s analysis of a character called Devushkin from the Dostoevsky novel Poor Folk:

Devushkin, who in recognising himself in another story, did not wish to be represented as something totally quantified, measured, and defined to the last detail: all of you is here, there is nothing more in you, and nothing more to be said about you (p. 58). Thus from a Bakhtinian perspective, researchers should not ‘Devushkinise’ their research participants, and the power to finalise people with social science discourses should be scrutinised (Frank, 2005).

In brief, Cooper & Condie (2016) appear to be advocating an ‘unfinalised’ approach in research that invokes a ‘carnivalesque’ element is one that seeks to be inclusive by welcoming voices from students, teachers and researchers alike rather than solely established researchers and traditional, established ‘norms’ within academia.

Traditions in EFL/EAP teaching: the teaching observation

What most interested me about the ideas and theories in the article was the potential applications to teaching within English as a foreign language and English for academic purposes. One tenant of EFL/EAP especially within the UK context is that one should be indoctrinated, as it were, by undertaking the Cambridge CELTA course initially and the Cambridge Delta course subsequently. Indeed, many English language schools and professional organizations, such as BALEAP and the British Council, often require teachers to have one of these qualifications while most UK universities where EFL/EAP is taught often demand the Cambridge Delta qualification which is an expensive and narrowly focused undertaking that does not always fit ‘well’ within the context of teaching academic writing for university.

Both the Cambridge CELTA and Delta qualifications place a high value on narrow aims for lessons, which must be adhered to in order to demonstrate learning. However, I believe that any experienced teacher would fully understand that a list of 3 aims for the lesson does not indicate learning and will not indicate that the students have learned everything by the end of the lesson. Learning is a continuous process that does not begin and end within the confines of the walls of the classroom. However, those seeking CELTA or Delta qualifications are forced to demonstrate that these fixed aims have been met within the space of 60 minutes, and thus, that learning has been achieved by the students as a result of the teacher’s success in addressing and thus ticking off each of the aims!

As part of one’s employment as a teacher of English as a foreign language and/or for academic purposes, mandatory observations are often required as part of the contractual obligations, whether employment is in a language school or a university. One set of criteria that observees must note down are the lesson aims. In the observation, the observer will look to these and attempt to identify whether the aims have been met within the context of the lesson plan, often within the space of a 60-90 minute observation.

However, this approach to observations, in my opinion, raises several questions which relate back to the theories in Cooper & Condie’s article:

  • Can the lesson aims, without a doubt, demonstrate whether learning has taken place after the lesson?
  • Do not a series of lesson aims suggest that learning is fixable, and thus able to be finalized?
  • Where do student interest and inquiry come into play as far as the lesson aims, and whether these are met or not?
  • Where the students and teachers spend more time on specific aims that lead to an aim not being met, should this reflect poorly on the teacher?

A potential solution

I think one potential solution is to revamp how observations are done: they should not be conducted according to how Cambridge CELTA and Delta observed lessons are conducted as these observations are quite narrow in focus and presume that a 60-90 minute ‘snapshot’ of the teacher is ‘enough’ to make a value judgement. These observations also tend not to focus on students at all, but solely on the teachers – as if learning and teaching were not a dialogic process! Learning and teaching is a dialogic process – without dialogue, the teacher would become a speaker who talks at the students as opposed to discussing with the students the issues being covered.

Therefore, observations should also look at learning on the part of the students rather than focusing solely on whether the teacher is delivering a lesson and meeting lesson aims according to a plan. A pre-planned lesson on paper might indicate that deviation from the plan should be avoided in order to fulfill the lesson aims and thus the plan. For some reason, lesson aims are traditionally seen as tenants – they must be achieved.

However, learning and teaching in the classroom does not often go according to plan for various reasons. One reason is that students might want to know more about a particular area, and thus might have questions, deep questions, about a particular topic. If we, as teachers, only quickly address their questions on the surface without going into depth in order to meet our aims, I feel we are doing our students a disservice. This also can make teachers appear a bit rushed or hesitant to address students’ concerns – within the eyes of the students – at their expense and for achieving the lesson aims, which might negatively affect the atmosphere in the classroom.

Another reason might be that the materials, at times published within a book or within a course pack, might work in theory within the lesson plan and thus within the mind of the teacher but in practice do not work according to plan. In this case, the teacher has to ‘teach on their feet’ especially they observe that the materials are presenting problems for the students.

Final (but unfinished) thoughts…

To sum up, if learning and teaching is a dialogic process, it is very likely an ‘unfinalised’ process that does not end once the class has ended. Students do not simply learn everything within the space of 60-120 minutes whether or not lesson aims have been met. Teachers should advocate for different forms of observation in order to reflect the complex reality and nature of learning.

Learning continues through dialogues outside the classroom, whether face-to-face or online through discussion forums or text messaging or most importantly, within the minds of the students. I would argue that learning has no natural endpoint, and thus, it simply cannot be encapsulated or evidenced within a lesson observation.

We can attempt to understand what learning has taken place in the classroom, but in order to do this, observation practices will need to start taking a closer look at the learners perhaps before, during and after a particular lesson. A more ‘carnivalesque’ approach is merited – one that is inclusive and looks at all participants in the learning and teaching process, and gets a sense of their voices on the processes. A snapshot observation of teachers is old hat, and in the world of the digital  – where information can be easily obtained and disseminated to foster and support learning and teaching – I believe such observations are outmoded. A new model for observations must include student learning and participation as they are also key stakeholders in the process of learning and teaching. To close, Bakhtin would not support traditionally accepted notions of teacher observation practices in 21st Century world of teaching English as a foreign language/English for academic purposes, and therefore, change is needed.

Bibliography

Cooper, A., & Condie, J. (2016). Bakhtin, digital scholarship and new publishing practices as carnival. Journal of Applied Social Theory, 1(1). Retrieved from http://socialtheoryapplied.com/journal/jast/article/view/31/7

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