125. IATEFL 2015 Reflection 1 – Donald Freeman

Donald Freeman, IATEFL 2015Donald Freeman absolutely blew my mind with his opening plenary session. It was a very eye-opening session in which Freeman weaved stories to illustrate how we justify or give reasons to what we consciously and unconsciously do in the classroom. Freeman talks about three specific myths that have somehow become ‘frozen in our thought’ and we take them for granted in our action as well. Here’s an excerpt (mixed with my own tidbits) of his session:

Myth 1: Myth of Direct Causality There’s a myth that students learn through teaching only, that learning has direct relationship with teaching. Similarly, students are evaluated based on how they perform, and teachers are evaluated based on how students perform. In other words, good students mean a good teacher, bad students mean a bad teacher. Freeman used a metaphor of pool-game where the white ball (the teacher) propels the other balls (students) into action (learning). The myth is in thinking that there’s a direct cause and effect relation between teaching and learning. But teaching has a ‘relational connection’ between teaching and learning. A teacher’s move connects to student’s move and it connects to the teacher’s move and so on, and forms a spiral of seemingly disconnected interrelations. Teaching does relate to learning (that’s the myth) but it also informs learning, shapes possibilities and creates opportunities to learn.

Myth 2: Myth of Sole Responsibility The myth that as a teacher one is solely responsible for making learning happen in classroom. That when things work and don’t work, we are responsible for it. Many a times, we as teachers do think and act as if we are the ones responsible for everything that happens in classrooms. I make the lesson plans. I make the critical decisions. I prepare the questions. I check the exam answer sheets. So in some ways, whatever happens in the class is my responsibility as a teacher. That’s the myth of sole responsibility. Freeman disproved this myth with the help of a chess-board metaphor. The moves a teacher make opens up the moves the students make and then it opens up what the teacher does and so on. In reality, responsibility is not solely own, it is distributed. Moreover, distributed responsibility means distributed opportunities, both for the teacher and the students.

Myth 3: Myth of Proficiency as the goal The third myth is that the goal of classroom teaching is student proficiency. What’s right about this myth? Yes, teaching and learning in the classroom has to improve towards proficiency. What’s frozen about this idea? The relation between what we do in the classroom and the way we think about how it travels outside. One prominent example is that the goal of English language teaching and learning is to reach the native-speaker proficiency.

Freeman asserted that both ideas of native-ness and proficiency are mistaken. Native-ness is a geopolitical concept, not a linguistic concept. Proficiency, which is very appealing, is also conceptually problematic. Freeman labels it as a “usefully wrong idea”. “Language is like water, not like ice”, it is ever changing and therefore the goal of reaching proficiency is problematic. We have to re-think proficiency as Plural and that they are always situated in particular context and therefore bounded by a particular social practice.

Here’s what I am taking away from his session:

Myths indeed have some elements of reality in them, but as teachers, we have to challenge them, probe them and question them. And in doing so, we have to question ourselves. Learning is not only about what a teacher teaches in the classroom, it is not a product of cause and effect. Teaching is not only about managing what you can/can’t control but it is also about distributing responsibilities. And lastly, proficiency is not the ultimate goal, understanding is.

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