On “Armchair Teacher Education”: Some observations and humble suggestions

Teaching is an embodied practice. You get your hands dirty with chalk and board markers, or by collaboratively annotating a document with your students in a Zoom room. You go around in the classroom in-between desks, receive questions, respond to students, laugh out loud together with your learners. For your own professional development, you think about these experiences and write (about) them, or speak to a colleague, to a friend, or to someone you see as a mentor or supervisor. We know that teaching is a highly embodied craft and profession, but how come one think that teacher education can be performed without spending time in classrooms (online or in person)? Who thinks that one can sit in a university office, produce only theoretical work without spending time in schools with teachers and pupils, and write articles on what teachers do and say? Armchair teacher educators* do.

Armchair teacher education is a delusional act of affiliating oneself as a teacher educator while sitting in an office and producing only theoretical work. Armchair teacher educators write about what teachers do, without observing, exploring, and taking part in the performance and craft of teaching and learning in schools or informal learning environments. Armchair teacher education is a product of failed policies in various countries, in which the gap between schools and universities has widened to the extent that the teacher educators rarely see or talk to teachers. Some armchair teacher educators do not perform any kind of teaching even at their universities. Armchair teacher education thus fails to address the needs of pre-service teacher education and student-teachers. The damage to student-teachers gets worse in countries where practicum is not integrated well into teacher education curricula. The damage to student-teachers may sometimes be irreversible.

Those who are involved in both research and teacher education have at some point been armchair teacher educators, at least once, in their professional lives. In fact, no matter how much time we spend on NOT being an armchair teacher educator, we sometimes step out of our practice-oriented teacher educator zone. We then call ourselves researchers and academics, may engage with our teacher educator selves in a very limited way, and may do things that armchair teacher educators do. Yet, we can always stop being an armchair teacher educator and get our hands dirty through close collaboration with student-teachers, teachers, and mentors whenever our time allows. It is actually our duty as academics who claim to be teacher educators. However, it is more difficult to do this in teacher education contexts where practicum is not equally spread to the whole initial teacher education curriculum and where mentor teachers are not properly integrated in the process of initial teacher education. The gap needs to be closed to reach global goals in education.

I can speak about the teacher education curriculum and practice in two of the countries (out of 4) I lived in, where I was actively involved in teacher education. In one of these contexts, I observed that:

– student-teachers spend a lot of time in practice schools, under the mentorship of one or more experienced teachers.

– the practicum time is not limited to the “final year” in undergraduate studies. It is distributed in the curriculum from year 1 to the final year.

– subject studies, general didactics, and practicum time are (relatively) balanced in the curriculum.

– practice is not limited to practicum courses. Each course may include a “field” study in which the student-teacher visits the school to do some kind of field work. “Purely” theoretical courses are not encouraged.

– reflective practice is at the heart of teacher development.

– there is a(n) (relatively) independent unit at universities that administers the practicum and coordinates the links between the schools and the university supervisors in different subjects

– university supervisors make supportive visits, which involve post observation conferences

– post observation conferences are triadic and involve the student-teacher, school-based mentor, and the university teacher.

– eliciting reflection is prioritized over power-led advice-giving

– research by teacher educators involve qualitative and ethnographic investigations that provide insights from schools

– student teachers write independent degree projects that draw on school-based problems that they observe. This practice-driven research paper (around 10.000 words) is supervised by one academic with (relatively) relevant experience.

In the other teacher education context:

– practicum takes place only in the final year of the undergraduate degree

– courses are heavy in theory, sometimes delivered by academics who have little or no experience, or practice-based research interest, in school-based teaching

– the number of student-teachers assigned to an academic is not manageable

– there are no structured guidelines on how post-observation conferences will be carried out

– many academics assume the main teacher educator role, with little space for a mentor

– there are, in my knowledge, little or no formal procedures or training to become a mentor

– most research related to teacher education is quantitative and survey-based. This research mostly investigates university students and university teaching, and reflects little insights from pupils and teachers in schools

In one of these two contexts, there were many more armchair teacher educators. Armchair teacher education, in my humble opinion, is not only about the actions of academics involved in teacher education. It is also an outcome of:

– problems in national teacher education curricula,

– lack of standards and a sound quality assurance,

– limited research-base in education and policy-based decision making,

– unstructured or lack of internal and external evaluation, and

– an uneven distribution of power between universities and schools in practice.

Each country has its own political and social dynamics that may lead to armchair teacher education. It is the responsibility of those who hold the power to alter the imbalance. Decision makers and academics who are involved in teacher education, in my humble opinion, may consider the following suggestions to facilitate change and limit armchair teacher education:

–  increase guided practice time for student teachers throughout the curricula and create practice-based research initiatives for school-mentor / university-based teacher educator collaboration

– identify and support (the training of) emerging mentors and involve university-based teacher educators to the process

– create initiatives to support classroom-based research and encourage classroom interaction research that shows what actually happens in teaching and learning environments

– create sustainable university-school collaborations that mutually address the needs of the schools as well as teacher education programmes at universities

– support research that describes and explores teaching and learning practices, instead of supporting just those that “claim” innovation

– consider at least some of the items I listed in example 1 (the first country) to see which ones could be relevant to your context and are feasible in long term

I am aware that the armchair teacher educator is an individual, so blame me for not just talking about that individual but for providing yet another list of policy recommendations. However, I do think that the individual armchair teacher educator is, mostly, an outcome of the armchair teacher education in some contexts. In my closing paragraph, I do, therefore, want to repeat my call for more practice-based research in teacher education, more involvement of teacher educators in schools and other learning settings, and closer collaborations between student-teachers, mentors, and university teachers. We do also need more research on teacher educator identities, especially focusing on those academics who proudly act as researchers, teachers, and teacher educators in the same body. The simultaneous, changeable, and dynamic interplay of these three roles (researchers, teachers, and teacher educators) carried by the same person is not just an interesting future research topic, but also can be the answer to some of the deep-rooted problems like armchair teacher education.

                                                                                                               Last edited – 24.05.2022

Olcay Sert

  • * I was inspired by the term “armchair linguistics”, which I first encountered during my undergraduate studies. My use of the word armchair does not correspond fully to the original use. For some insights from linguistics, please download this piece from C. J. Fillmore.

Who is the expert? School teachers and university teachers in Swedish teacher education

Teacher education in Sweden and other Nordic countries is highly practice based. Student-teachers spend a significant amount of time in schools during their studies, engaging in teaching and other daily school activities under the supervision of school-based mentors. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the success drives of Northern European countries in education. Schools and school teachers are at least as influential as universities and university teachers during initial teacher education for student-teachers. The better an education system closes the gap between theory and practice in teacher education, the more ready the student-teachers would be in their first years in the profession. The well-deserved value of school teachers in teacher education, especially those who are also mentoring, should of course be celebrated. However, is it possible that the role of school teachers in teacher education has been taken to an extreme in countries like Sweden?

A recent policy in parts of Sweden is that faculties of education should hire practicing teachers to teach university courses. Faculties of education have also been advised to hire a specific number of “currently practicing” teachers to teach at university level. Although it is only natural to expect that teacher educators at universities should have previous teaching experience in schools, it should not be taken for granted that being a school teacher is enough to secure a teacher educator role at universities, due to, at least, two reasons. First, people who teach at universities should always have an eye on research, even when they are on full-time teaching contracts. A “researcher training” past (e.g. a second or third cycle degree) and motivation to carry out research should be expected from teacher educators working at universities. When it comes to what is known as subject-didactics (e.g. TESOL), it is important that a teacher educator has a broad knowledge of the field and has research & subject expertise. Second, primary or secondary school teachers cannot be expected to transfer their knowledge of teaching immediately to teaching at universities, in the same way as a university-based teacher educator/teacher cannot be expected to teach in a primary or secondary school without training.

After the “practice” turn in teacher education, the discourse in teacher education circles has devalued, in my opinion, the expertise and knowledge-base of university teachers with PhDs, who also function as teacher educators. While trying to close the theory-research gap and enable a healthy practice-based teacher education, we would not want to risk loosing the scientific base in teacher education. We need research-practice partnerships more than ever. The solution, I argue, requires both university teachers (with PhDs) and school teachers (who start working at teacher education departments) to take mutually beneficial steps towards professional development for teaching and research. The school teachers who start working at universities should be encouraged (and financially supported) to become researcher-practitioners while also going through higher education pedagogy training. University teachers with PhDs who are involved in teacher education (and who, preferably, are former school teachers), on the other hand, should be encouraged and financially supported to spend more time in schools in partnership with teachers and student-teachers, increasingly developing more ties with school cultures. Finally, I do not think that theory and practice are two separate entities – they are and they should be intertwined, constantly being informed from each other, contributing to the never-ending professional development of student-teachers, teachers, mentors, teacher educators, researchers, and those individuals who are at the intersection of some of these roles at the same time.

Olcay Sert
Last edited: 16 March, 2022

Blurring faces in pictures: GIMP

Many classroom interaction researchers struggle with blurring their participants’ faces in the images that will be used for publications and presentations.

I am sure there are thousands of easier ways, but I use GIMP, a free image editing software that works both on MAC and Windows. I created a gif explaining the process. I hope it helps.

Corrective feedback: an angel or an angle?

Do you remember the first time a teacher corrected something you said in a classroom? I do. I was 12. It was a Mathematics lesson in Gemlik (Bursa, Turkey) that was being taught in English. The teacher had asked a question. I do not remember, though, what it was exactly about. I raised my hand, stood up, and the teacher walked towards me. I cannot recall the whole answer I gave, but my response included the word “angle” /ˈæŋgl/, which I mispronounced as “angel” /eɪnʤəl/. I remember her smiling kindly and moving her hands and arms as if she had wings of an angel. She said something like “I am not an angel”, as far as I remember. There were no hard feelings. No shame for being corrected publicly, or at least this is how I remember this scene. I now know (I guess) the difference between the pronunciation of these two words.

Photo credit for the angel: Defne Sert, 2021

We can discuss the how, when, why, and what of corrective feedback for hours based on research findings. But this is not my intention in this post. I have a simple question: what is your first memory of receiving (oral/visual) corrective feedback in a classroom? Do you remember how you felt? How do you feel about it now?

Classroom-based Conversation Analytic Research

Our edited volume (w/ Silvia Kunitz and Numa Markee) “Classroom-based conversation analytic research: theoretical and applied perspectives on pedagogy” is now out! You can order the book using this link, or read it online on Springer’s webpage.

The book brings together prominent classroom interaction researchers from all over the world and addresses classroom-based CA research from different angles, focusing on teaching, teacher education, and assessment in a number of settings.

Review

“This is the first edited collection of research papers which addresses L2 classroom practices from a conversation analytic perspective, incorporating both theoretical and applied issues. Its international perspective, using data from a wide range of contexts and dealing with language teaching, L2 teacher education and assessment, gives the volume a distinctive and appealing flavour. The editors have been extremely successful in bringing together such a collection, presented in an accessible and relevant style. This volume is sure to have wide appeal to teachers, teacher educators, researchers and anyone involved in language assessment.” (Steve Walsh, Newcastle University, UK)

Final reflection on #ONL202

Being an active ONL202 participant has provided me with important insights into digital literacies, open learning, networked collaborative learning, and design for online learning. However, rather than what I learned (the course contents) in this course, how I learned is what I will reflect on in this post. The Problem Based Learning (PBL Group 15) group that we created, as an integral part of ONL202, has been the main drive behind my learning experience. Our learning was facilitated through engaging discussions, collaborative decision making, and problem-oriented focus that took place during our weekly meetings. We discussed, created, produced, and delivered collaboratively.

ONL202 involves weekly course webinars, many PBL group meetings, and multimodal course content. PBL group meetings almost felt like a bridge that connects what we read, watched, and wrote in our own time to the task we were supposed to complete each week. I think the central reason why this course has been so effective, engaging, and fun was due to the continuous collaborative and productive work we have been engaged in as a group. I should say that I had never experienced a long-term collaboration that is as intense as the one in our PBL group. It is clear that I had to dedicate substantial time, which was very difficult given the workload in my full-time job. This was the case for other members of our PBL group too. How could we meet during the evenings every week on Tuesdays and Thursdays then? How could we complete all the individual tasks and group assignments in a timely and well-planned manner? What motivated us? There are two main answers to these questions: we prioritized and we were engaged.

Engagement is a key word here. We did not simply “participate”, “get involved”, “co-operate” and “collaborate”, but we were engaged. This meaningful engagement kept us going until the final task. One of the reasons we have been able to engage this much was due to the selection of topics, which were highly relevant to our current situation. Almost all of us were teaching online lessons and designing online or blended courses. We could easily relate to and apply what we had learned from the course and from each other to our daily teaching practices. Sometimes this involved the use of a collaboration tool like Padlet, and sometimes the benefit was more at a conceptual level. (1) The input from the course webinars, (2) the discussions and the production in the PBL group, and (3) the opportunity to reflect through blog posts created this strong engagement.

I know that I will be using what I learned from this course in the future for designing new courses. Online course design is part of our professional life now, and I am very glad that I was part of the ONL202 group this semester. Our PBL group decided to keep in touch, and there is a possibility that we may even write an article together in the future J We have enjoyed learning together, and we will hopefully continue this collaborative partnership over the years. My humble suggestion for the future ONLers is that they should keep an open eye in this course from the very beginning and make the most out of this course: in order to do this, one needs to prioritise, engage, and collaborate.

Reflection, #ONL202 Topic 4: Supporting students in online and blended learning environments

Language teachers are, according to some, cursed when it comes to online and blended learning. Many language teachers cannot fully focus on the “message” an online text written by a student gives, without an eye on linguistic accuracy. Some teachers who design online courses fall into the temptation of correcting all language mistakes in students’ messages and use online platforms as an opportunity to assess students’ proficiency in writing rather than using them as facilitator of an overall learning experience. I first came to realize this back in 2011, when I first read Mompean’s (2010) piece on meaningful interactions in a blog for second language users. In Mompean’s study, the online presence of the teacher and the feedback the teacher provides to students’ blog posts were found to be very important for creating a good learning atmosphere. However, feedback “provoked paradoxical reactions from the students who were not sure whether they liked it to be public or not” (p. 391). Nevertheless, the message was clear: in an online environment, teacher presence and feedback need to be “felt” by the students. They need to know that the instructor/teacher is with them, reading (and responding to) all the messages, posts, discussions in great detail. In order to maintain your presence throughout an online or blended course and to become a source of continuous feedback, though, you need to design the course in a way that meaningful communication can take place in as many parts of the course as possible. Communication is the main drive in a supportive online course.

Communication is also a matter of design in online and blended learning environment. In the 7C Learning Design Framework (Conole 2015), communication has a central role. The way you design your activities according to who will participate with whom, you can facilitate a stronger community of inquiry. Within these channels of communication teacher presence is quite important, as presence of the teacher and the practices of scaffolding throughout a course are not just motivating, but directly pedagogical interventions to the learning environment. As a teacher, you need to design activities in a way that will allow multiple and varying frameworks of participation, most of which should create room for engagement and learning. I have tried to design a range of communicative modes in my recent online courses: sometimes students think “alone” and annotate the screen to provide responses, sometimes I put them in break out rooms and they brainstorm their ideas that will be drafted on Padlet. In moments of transition, I add whole class discussions. Yet, the design of communication is not the only way to support the learners. I also “planted” online hands-on tasks to be completed in pairs and groups as well as mini reflection assignments. Sounds all positive, right?

Not always. One of the tasks I assigned was not being completed by the majority of the students for instance. I tried to get immediate feedback from the students in a semi-open discussion format and I think it worked. It raised students’ awareness and also clarified the aim of the task to those who probably needed clarification. Therefore, I got to understand that although increased teacher presence and giving feedback are key in creating a supportive online environment, gathering instant feedback from the students on emerging problems, without waiting till the end of the course, is also key in creating a supportive online environment. I should confess, though, that creating a community of inquiry in an undergraduate course where everyone involved (the institution, learners, teachers) are “obsessed” with assessment is a massive challenge. I know that I need to work hard to create a supportive online environment: good that I have 30 years before I retire…Do I really though? 🙂

References
Conole, G. (2015). The 7Cs of learning design. Learning design: Conceptualizing a framework for teaching and learning online, 117-145.

Mompean, A. R. (2010). The development of meaningful interactions on a blog used for the learning of English as a Foreign Language. ReCALL, 22(3), 376.

Reflection, #ONL202 Topic 3: Learning in communities

I first learned about the concept of “Communities of Practice” (Lave and Wenger 1991) while I was reading John Hellermann’s (2008) influential book on classroom language learning. Considering a group of learners as a community of practice and applying this idea to understand how the students learn as a community in a classroom have been eye-opening. Group work and collaboration are two key aspects of collaborative learning in a community. In a digital environment, collaborative learning be an excellent means of development for some learners, while it may create frustrations and turn out to be ineffective for others. I am personally enjoying learning collaboratively in online environments: I do believe that the digital tools we have access to and we use for collaborative work now are golden. This is why I am increasingly using tools that facilitate collaborative work between groups of students in my online lessons. Do all my students share this passion of mine though? Probably not.

I have assigned students many group work tasks in different courses in the past, and these students were assessed after their group work. I have to confess that compared to now, 9-10 years ago, I probably was taking the positive effect of group work for granted. Recently, I believe that I am more careful and responsive when it comes to online collaborative learning activities carried out by my students. As Capdeferro and Romero (2012) have revealed, online collaborative learning activities can be frustrating for learners, due to a number of reasons including asymmetric collaboration, the excess time spent on online tasks, difficulties in communication, etc. I believe that most of these can be prevented by careful planning, transparency, effective communication with students, amongst other things. Brindley et al. (2009) list many recommendations to increase the effectiveness of online collaborative learning, including monitoring group activities closely, making sure that the tasks are highly relevant to the learners, choosing tasks that are best performed by groups, and providing sufficient time. The issue of time, amongst others, is key in my opinion, when it comes to online collaborative learning tasks.

Time and relevance are two extremely important issues in online collaborative learning environments. I use Zoom in teaching, and I assign group work that is assessed (lightly), which is to be completed during the lesson in break-out-rooms. Students work using third party applications like Padlet. So far, I have observed that online collaboration takes more time than face-to-face collaborative tasks. After seeing this problem, I decided to add pre-written sample tasks on Padlet, together with step-by-step instructions, which have been quite useful. I visit the break-out-rooms so that I can check if there are any problems. This is also useful to monitor the group work in online collaborative tasks. The next step is to receive feedback from my students on these practices, and I will try to do that before the semester is over, so that I can make changes in forthcoming weeks and in future online courses. Student evaluation needs to feed into our online collaborative teaching activities. Each course and each group of students are unique: making reflections on our design principles and receiving feedback from students are very important for those of us who want to facilitate online collaborative learning.   

References:

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3). Click here to download.

Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences?. The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

Hellermann, J. (2008). Social actions for classroom language learning. Multilingual Matters.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Instructional materials and OPENness: a reflection on #ONL202 Topic 2

The last two weeks of ONL202 has been eye OPENing in a number of ways. We have had the opportunity to gain important insights into open learning and the concept of openness. One of the interesting materials in this part of ONL202 was a podcast, which included an interview conducted by Kiruthika Ragupathi. The interview features educators from all around the world who discuss what openness means to them. In the podcast, the words of a Finnish educator, Johanni Larianko, made me think about my own attempts to encourage students to share what they produce with each other and the rest of the world. Larianko stated that he is willing to share as widely as possible, and although this may also mean that he shares his mistakes, he said: “I am willing to be more vulnerable”. I think this is a position that we and our students all can learn from. In this post, I will reflect on a course I delivered in the past that involved an element of “openness”, and will consider how practices of openness can inform my future courses.

I personally have always believed in the value of collaboration and openness when it comes to the courses I have had at higher education level. Between 2013 and 2017, the Instructional Technology and Materials Development course I offered at Hacettepe University (Department of English Language Teaching) had a blog where student-teachers can upload their materials and get feedback from their peers. These materials mainly included lesson or activity plans designed by pre-service teachers (see a sample material here). I am happy that I used a blog for that course, as blogs and other participatory technologies are crucial for an open pedagogy (Hegarty 2015) that can benefit many people. What was important for me back then was that the student-teachers collaborated in creating these materials, and they provided peer-feedback to each other. I was able to write about the benefits of this peer-feedback (Sert & Aşık 2020) and collaboration process in a research article recently, which made me realize once again that students, and student teachers, need to be “open” to collaboration, and they need to go beyond collaborating within a class and share their experiences with the rest of the world. However, I have also realized that I should have educated myself better, as a course instructor, on open education practices and ask my students to get creative commons licenses for the materials they produced.

Bates (2019) argues that in the future “students will work mainly online and collaboratively, developing multi-media learning artefacts or demonstrations of their learning”. Especially if we are teaching to student-teachers, then, we need to equip them with the skills that they will use to create engaging online and open content for their students. I will definitely put this at the heart of my future teaching, but this time, I will make sure that each student-teacher taking my course “considers” (at least) open education as a future goal, thinks about what kind of licenses they need for the materials they produce as part of the course, and actively thinks about how collaboration with peers and other professionals in the world may benefit them as well. One important point for future teachers to consider is that the material (i.e. content) they share online will not be the same when it is used by another teacher in another “context”: it will need to be contextualized (as was discussed in the webinar for topic 2 of the course). This is something the teachers need to consider when they use an open access material: it needs to be adapted to the context. Therefore, critical evaluation and adaptation are skills we need to possess and teach to our students when it comes to open pedagogy. This is something that student-teachers taking my future courses will be made aware of.

The last two weeks have been eye opening for me thanks to our PBL group discussions, readings, the webinar, and the materials. I had the opportunity to reflect more on openness and I have made some future-decisions. Open access is the way to go, both in education and in research. Yet, ethical considerations and criticality still need to be at the centre of any decision making when it comes to openness in education.

References:

Bates, A. W. (2015). Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for teaching and learning. Victoria BC: BCcampus. Recuperado de: https://opentextbc. ca/teachinginadigitalage.

Hegarty, B. (2015). Attributes of open pedagogy: A model for using open educational resources. Educational Technology, 3-13.

Sert, O. & Aşık, A. (2020). A Corpus Linguistic Investigation into Online Peer Feedback Practices in CALL Teacher Education. Applied Linguistics Review. 11(1), 55-78. https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2017-0054