The safety net of iTDi

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.

6 thoughts on “The safety net of iTDi

  1. Love this post! Nobody’s perfect and sometimes teachers need to take it down a notch. I would never feel that it would be necessary to correct a colleague. I think we all slip into common usage language at some point when we’re not teaching. Ya gotta live and language has many levels once you start to master it. I udually don’t appreciate teachers that take themselves too seriously. Teaching is an ongoing project. The more you teach the more you learn and the more you learn the more you can teach!

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  2. The anecdotal story of a teacher insisting on staying a teacher by all means in all circumstances does look familiar! Looks embarrassing to me now on second thought, I’ve never corrected a colleague’s mistake, but I always notice mistakes my friends make when we sing or speak English. I know I surely male mistakes myself, especially when I’m tired or am just in a bad mood for teaching (things happen! I’m human!))
    My students are thus a part of the process as valuable as I am. We’re learning together and we’re learning to be tolerant to other people’s mistakes.
    iTDi has not only extended my professional horizons and my reach (?might be a mistake, not sure here!)), but also has boosted my confidence a hundred times. I’ve noticed that teachers can have a level of confidence either too low (and thus close up), or too high. iTDi is a perfect place for all of us.)
    Thank you Divya! A wonderful post!

    Cheers from Moscow,
    Ann

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    1. Great thoughts Ann. I think the process that you mention is all important. Error correction and error tolerance have to find their positions on either side of a threshold that is unique to each teacher-student relationship. The threshold has to be high enough so that students know that we care about their language development and want to help them sound better but low enough to be relevant to the context and appropriate for their needs. As with so much in teaching there is no explicit technique to work this out. Thank you so much for reading and sharing, much love from Paris xx

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  3. So true, Divya! Loved the post. Feeling safe and not being judged – we are all the same. Some know more on one topic, other have more experience, but we can all learn from each other, and knowing more (or less) about something does not make anybody better or worse than anyone else. I feel that when I admit to my students I don’t know a word or the answer to a question they have. I am still a good teacher, I still have good knowledge of the language I am teaching, I just don’t pretend to be all-knowing. Students feel safer to make mistakes, I think.

    Thanks for this post.
    Cheers!

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  4. Dear Divya,
    A post that got me thinking and left me feeling so connected with what you’ve said! I was one of those teachers in that list of being ‘victimized’ for something I pronounced. I’ve got a teacher friend who constantly corrects my pronunciation that at a point, I was feeling low, demotivated and insufficient as a teacher. Also, I felt that I wasn’t being heard at all, and started refusing to partake in the conversation at all; preferring to keep my thoughts to myself. When we place learners on similar grounds, this is probably exactly how they feel. Which is why I think there are subtle ways to give feedback to learners and help them to continuously develop in the language. Yes, I used the word “feedback” instead of “correction”.

    You’re right about ITDI! It’s one of those platforms where we help each other grow as a group. No hierarchy; no superiority; each individual a part of one team; the team of educators.

    Glad to have known you, Divya. Take care!
    Ratna

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