Teacher Development in Action: Understanding Language Teachers’ Conceptual Change
Palgrave Macmillan 2012
This is a courageous book. Rather than trumpeting a success story, it documents and analyses the ‘failure’ of a project designed to radically restructure teachers’ conceptual understanding of their teaching. The study lasted one year and was conducted with eight volunteer teachers in Slovakia. Although all were well-qualified and initially highly-motivated, the course did not achieve the transformative effect hoped for. The book is a frank and determined attempt to find out why.
The introductory chapter puts the study in context. It is written for ‘anyone working with or researching language teachers’. Chapter 2 reviews the work on teacher change and reveals that for all the many studies conducted, the yields have been disappointing, and that the field remains confused and poorly organised. And all too often, words are not matched by deeds: ‘embracing the language of change does not always imply embracing its mindset’. The author argues for a more rigorously theoretical framework for teacher cognition research.
In Chapter 3, she examines Theories of Learning and Change in Psychology. She looks specifically at Attitude change, Conceptual change and Possible selves theory. She outlines two routes to attitude change: the systematic, which involves effort and a willingness to engage deeply with the change, and heuristic, which is a short-cut based on prior experience, knowledge and beliefs, mood and feelings. The impact of the heuristic route is generally superficial and temporary. This links with conceptual change, which can either involve assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation involves simply adopting a new idea without it really impacting on our current state, whereas accommodation involves a deep process of self-questioning. Possible selves theory posits an actual self (who we are now), an ideal self (who we would like to become) and an ought to self (who we feel we are expected to become).
Chapter 4 presents a model integrating the ideas so far explored. The Language Teacher Conceptual Change Model is explained in some detail. Essentially, unless a teacher has some vision of who they want to become, feels they are implicated personally at a deep level, can recognise that there is a dissonance between where they are and where they want to be, and then systematically engages with it, there will be no change in their beliefs.
The methodology of the project is outlined in Chapter 5, along with information about the Slovak context and detailed biographies of the eight teachers involved. The combination of formal input, classroom observation, field observation, formal and informal interviews, detailed field notes and student focus groups yields a ‘thick’ description for analysis.
Having cleared away the theoretical undergrowth, we now come to the nitty-gritty part of the book, which for many non-specialist readers will be the most interesting and accessible. Chapters 6 to 9 document in detail the different reactions of the eight subjects/ teachers to the course. Three metaphors emerge: ‘Nice but not for me’, ‘Couldn’t agree more’ and ‘Nice but too scary’. The main concerns of one group of subjects (‘Nice but not for me’) were ‘centred around their expertise in the subject matter and maintaining a positive self-image’, rather than in engaging with the new concepts. The programme did not, therefore, implicate their ‘ideal language teacher self’ and simply slid off them like water off a duck’s back. Another subject (‘Couldn’t agree more’) was convinced that she was already doing what the course was advocating. Hence there was no sense of emotional dissonance, no problem to confront, so no change resulted. The new was assimilated into the old on the assumption that it was the same. Others (‘Nice but too scary’) sensed in the message of the course a threat to their sense of self. They felt threatened by the discrepancy between ‘what I do, and what the course says I ought to do’.
Chapter 9 explores the development of one teacher in fine detail, and reveals that the process is not linear but cyclical. This teacher’s trajectory involved a number of U-turns and false starts, yet ultimately, she did emerge as someone for whom the course had made a change. Her realisation – ‘I’ve got to teach differently’ – offers hope for her future development.
The final chapter explores the metaphor of teacher change related to ‘complexity theory’. To account for it, we need to take into consideration the multiplicity of factors and their varied inter-relationships. Kubanyiova’s conclusion is: ‘If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.’ To do this we need to inspire a vision, rock the boat by provoking dissonance and spread a safety net.
This book will primarily be of interest to teacher trainers and researchers, but teachers will also find much to reflect on, especially in the sympathetic and detailed analysis of the human data.