I recently witnessed a comical situation of two English teachers meeting each other for the first time. One made an error within about 20 seconds of speaking. It was an error I personally classify as ‘common usage’ and rarely correct unless the context necessitates. Unfortunately the other teacher rather abruptly corrected it. I’m sure you can all visualize the ensuing politics.
A running theme I observed in the recent iTDi blog on error correction is the very nebulous definition of an error coupled with the focus on meaning and fluency. Back to the anecdote of my two colleagues, the question on my lips was “why would you correct a colleague?” Are we never allowed inappropriate use of language because we’re teachers? Now with the obvious errors related to concordance between tenses, pluralisation and so forth aside; what some teachers view as errors, others are simply less or not at all bothered by.
It is my contention that error correction creates a necessary hierarchy in a classroom when a teacher isn’t equipped with the methodological tools to establish it otherwise. I also believe a teacher needs to feels firmly grounded in his or her role of either the more knowledgeable other, a capable facilitator, a presenter of learning opportunities or any of the other theoretical foundations that give the role of teacher its many facets. The red pen is a pretty effective fertilizer for this grounding. Is it right? As I’ve always said, there is no ‘right’. However I don’t think that the more you correct someone the better they learn and I very much share the views expressed on iTDi related to appropriateness.
iTDi is one of the most important steps forward in teacher development today. It breaks hierarchy. No red tape and no vetting of credentials by trainers who are going to admit us into a circle to then instruct us and finally add to our credentials. I have absolutely nothing against teacher training programs and am the happy product of one but a space that carries the motto for teachers, by teachers has the impact of a slow-release drug on teacher motivation. It gives teachers a safe space within which to grow professionally because there aren’t always equal opportunities for access to professional development.
I recently came across the concept of psychological safety. Psychological safety refers to “a climate in which people are comfortable being and expressing themselves” (Edmonson, 1999; 2003, my italics). It describes the environment most of us try to foster in our classrooms to reduce the ambiguity of communicating in a second or foreign language. Dale Coulter’s two pillars in a teacher’s reflective space (cf. TESOL France’s Teaching Times Issue 63) all relate to notions of comfort (what was “easy”, what was “difficult”) and expression (“how much did I/they speak”).
Amy Edmonson researched psychological safety and learning behaviour in teams. She observed that members of a team have “taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line”, the line being anything that widens horizons from asking a question to reporting a mistake to suggesting a new idea. How we express ourselves in a team is governed by our perception of how others will react. How often do we check our site stats when we blog?
So if I draw a parallel between what happens in our classrooms to what happens in our professional development; we have on the one hand learners putting themselves on the line every time they use the target language. Their affective response to the teacher they’re interacting with will have an impact on how well or badly this is done.
We have on the other hand teachers who put themselves on the line when they engage in professional development and open themselves to the influence of new ideas. They engage and re-engage in learning and see this as being a career-long, life-long journey. Just think of the archetypal director of studies with his or her comfortable desk, title, decision power and absence, whom you perceive as completely disconnected from your world and more importantly, the classroom. We’ve all met him or her at some point.
One of the conclusions Edmonson’s extensive research has given us is that in teams where learning occurs in the real playing field (2003:18), i.e. on the aforementioned ‘line’, the decision-making does not benefit from any rehearsal. Edmonson observed medical teams, those involved in cardiac surgery specifically. I believe teaching is clearly in the same field of a job where we learn by doing and while doing.
Examples of teams that benefit from rehearsal are professional sports teams or cockpit crews. Rehearsal feeds into the construct of psychological safety because “there are no material consequences of errors”(2003:19). The appropriate management of hierarchy within a group also nurtures the notion of psychological safety. This is why I have the greatest respect for the online ELT community because it dissolves the boundaries of background, titles and affiliation and creates a meta-group united by the fundamental goal of being better teachers.
For those of you who enjoyed Dan Meyer’s video of the water tank as much as I did, my favourite part is when he described putting all his students on the level playing field of having filled something up with water before. There was a lot less at stake than when they were presented with a formula or a line-art image with numbers. This is where iTDi’s by teachers, for teachers comes in. Look at their panel of teachers who simply call themselves ‘teachers’, not ‘teacher trainers’. There is no formula or password and we’re all members of the same team. I think that makes a significant difference on how accessible this space and the psychological safety net it hosts ELT teacher development in for the years to come.