Friday, November 6, 2015

Identifying the expectations of the teacher

Looking at my latest teaching experience, I have to admit, there is plenty room for improvement. I think most teachers feel this way when they reflect on their teaching, but it's important to reflect and be honest with yourself about your teaching performance. I recently found this pod cast where two very experienced teachers talked about what happens when their lessons seem to be crumbling around them.

My Lesson Plan is Not Working, Kids Are Not Learning, I Am Freaking Out!

I think all teachers experience this type of "melt-down," doubt, and panic. It's even worse when its being exacerbated with uneven criticism -- usually from unknowing and uncaring observers. In my last teaching experience, I felt that my teaching was sub-par. I didn't understand what to change, and I wasn't finding any support either, which is why, I think we must instill a reflective and improvement practice on our own. Seriously, that's not just lip service. For example, looking back, I think I was so busy trying to create the perfect lesson plans that I ignored the expectations of my students and manager. Now, I wonder, how could I stream line my own teaching so that I'm doing less lesson planning and focusing on teaching in the class. I asked three teachers that I know who are teaching in Intensive English Programs in Japan and in the U.S. and all of them state that they don't have time to do full lesson plans. One teacher told me, "If you don't know how to make some short cuts, then you're going to fall behind. Way behind." And another teacher told me, "I have a system that is in my head, and I follow that. I don't do a lot of detailed lesson planning." I know these teachers. They went through the same program I did, and I know they both know and appreciate the value of lesson planning. But in the reality of teaching, it's not always an option. Their advice made me reconsider what I knew about my own teaching practice -- away from what I was formally taught.

 John MacBeath (2015) rightly points out that a teacher must bring more to the table than just delivering a lesson. A teacher must also place themselves in the shoes of their students and reflect on what is working and what isn’t. He asks us to consider three key ideas:

1) Stop (what isn't working)
2) Start (what does work)
3) Continue (what is working)

I found a very well thought out blog post using these same questions just the other day:

Stop, Start, Continue: Conceptual Understanding Meets Applied Problem Solving

So in the spirit of thoughtful reflection, I wanted to know and understand how to make myself into a better teacher and I also wanted to think about what my students and admistators think makes a good teacher. For me, learning to become a better teacher means understanding how to identify what I needed to improve upon in my teaching. MacBeath (2015) posed these three essential evaluative questions that every teacher should ask before they begin their course: 1) What do I already know? 2) What do I not know? and 3) What would I like to know? When we do this type of reflection, we should end up with this kind of thinking framework "I used to think...but now I think..." (MacBeath, 2015).

Here is what I came up with: I’m still struggling to remember everything that I learned about language learning and teaching. It’s such an immense field and there are so many aspects to consider: 1) How are languages best learned? 2) How are languages best taught? 3) and How does language actually work? There are many approaches to language teaching (Content-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, Task-Based Language, Game-Based Learning, etc.) and pedagogical principles to keep in mind (agency, automaticity, knowledge transfer, interlanguage, motivation, identity and investment, self-regulation, and interaction) (Brown & Lee, 2014). While I am familiar with the theory and practice of these ideas and have a working teaching philosophy and approach, it was an eye-opening experience when I stepped into the classroom and tried to apply what I thought I knew.  I quickly found that I was missing some practical skills. I didn't understand how to sequence the activities, bring my ideas to life, build deeper learning experiences, or communicate to them the importance of my approach to my students. Perhaps, I tried to apply too many of these ideas at once. Perhaps, I didn’t understand how to apply them correctly. I’m still searching for my answers. However, looking the questions asked by MacBeath, I can answer disparate parts of the questions that he posed: 1) I know a lot about language theory and practice; 2) I don’t know practical ways to apply my knowledge in ways that are effective for both my time and my students’ learning; and 3) I would like to know how to build a better teaching practice that is informed by theory, practice, and practicality to perhaps build a framework that I can quickly apply.

To better understand what I wanted to improve my teaching, I considered the quality  teaching, e.g.,  “What makes a good teacher and who decides?” I’m not currently teaching and don’t have many people to ask this question to, so I went out and looked on the Internet at sites where language learners discussed the qualities of good language teachers. In particular, I found one site ( ) in which a polyglot lists the qualities he appreciated in his language teachers and tutors. A teacher 1) has superb listening skills, 2) fosters language production and communication, 3) is fair and respectful to students, 3) has command of language’s grammar, 4) understands the students’ language learning journey and honors it, 5) clearly communicates goals and pushes students to achieve theirs. There are more characteristics, but I thought this was a really good list to begin with, and interestingly enough, I looked back at a paper I wrote on my own language learning experience and found that I had targeted many of the same characteristics.

Then I went out and looked at some job postings and wrote down some of the top skills or requirements that employers were listing: 1) Understand various language theory and practices, 2) Has mastery knowledge of linguistics or grammar, 3) Is able to teach over a wide range of proficiency ranges and ages, 4) Can tailor instruction to meet institutional standards and objectives, and 5) Abides by program’s policies and ethical standards. Of course there are many more requirements listed on different job postings, but I thought these matched well with what MacBeath (2012) stated in his book The Future of the Teaching Profession: “theoretical knowledge and concomitant skills,” “code of professional conduct,” and “Mobility: skills, knowledge, and authority belonging to professionals as individuals…” The key idea, I believe, is that students, principals, and stakeholders all have a different idea of what a good teacher is and what a teacher should be doing. A students’ view is centric to their experience and learning opportunities. Do they feel like active agents in their own learning and are they getting the support that they require from the teacher? For principles and managers, can the teacher tailor their instruction to meet the goals and approach of the school or program? In my case, I’d say my last job didn’t have clear goals, but they did have expectation, which I should have asked them to define before stepping into the classroom. It was only after being observed that I got any kind of direction or stated expectations, and by that time, it was too late for me make a better first impression.

 So with some ideas of the expectations in mind, I turned to researching how to improve my teaching. I looked for a lot of different resources on the Internet. Some, while well meaning, are incredibly un-helpful. They offer advice such as, “Make your teaching more authentic and engaging” or “use these 9 tips to integrate technology into your classroom.” And I always respond, “Yes, but why and how?” Shouldn’t we require continuity and coherence in our pedagogical approach? More helpful, was some advice that I found from Diane Larsen-Freeman (Anker & Larsen-Freeman, 2001 ), who is a recognized expert in the language learning field in both theory and teaching, proffers the following advice 1) The essence of good teaching is learning to watch your students, 2) Teaching is about what the students are doing and not about the teacher’s performance in front of the class, 3) Use your language theory as a metaphor that guides your teaching and what you’re trying to accomplish as a whole; 4) Take a step back and look at the long term view by asking what do you want them to do by the end of the course, and how can we systematically build towards that? I also found an article on that gives more practical advice such as building support groups, establishing classroom expectations from the start, and “don’t try to do everything in your first year.” But most importantly, I think the best advice comes from MacBeath (2015) in using tools such as the Critical Incident Analysis, which focuses teachers’ reflection on a particular place for improvement, or the Force Field think piece, which asks teachers to consider what promotes and inhibits better teaching. I appreciate MacBeath’s (2015)  acknowledgement of the uncertainty of teaching in which we must explore what is effective in each particular situation with the mantra: “If at first you fail, try again, fail better.” It’s difficult to keep evaluating yourself, but without these ideas or tools, we won’t understand what our students and managers require from us or how to meet needs on our own terms.

So returning back to MacBeath's framework, I would say that I used to think that creating an air tight lesson plan was the most important part of delivery in a lesson. Now I think there are way more factors that must be met by the teacher such as listening to students' and ask them how they want to learn and what's working and what isn't, being able to organize and communicate content and goals so they are visible to the students and administration, paying attention to students' thinking and their learning styles, being able to adjust to situational factors that emerge from the lesson, maintaining persona of a teacher, and driving interest in the overall lesson as opposed just sequencing and varying activities.


Brown, H.D. & Lee, H. (2015). Teaching by Principle: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains: Pearson Education.

MacBeath, J. (2015). Teaching for learning. [PowerPoint]. Retrieved from

MacBeath, J. (2012). Future of the teaching profession. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Ancker, W.P. (Interviewer) & Larsen-Freeman, D. (Interviewee).  (2001). The joy of watching others learn: an interview with Diane Larsen-Freeman. Retrieved from American English:

Friday, October 23, 2015

Making thinking visible

How do we, as teachers, make our student's thoughts visible? How do we get them to share what they are thinking and why they are thinking it?

These might be two of the most essential questions for learning going back to the time of Socrates ( who continuously asked his students, "What are you thinking and how do you know what you're thinking is true?" Not only is it necessary for us to know what our student know, it also vital for us, as teachers, to think about what we know and how do we know it.

I'm taking a very good course on teaching through Coursera and the Common Wealth Education Trust, and the course instructor, Professor John MacBeath has asked us to think about our own thinking as well as our students. As teachers, he has asked us to do the following exercise, which really opened my eyes to my own thinking and assumptions about teaching and learning:
  1. What do I know about learning?
  2. What do I know about teaching?
  3. What do I know about the context for learning?
  4. What do I not know about learning?
  5. What do I not know about teaching?
  6. What do I not know about the context for learning?
  7. What would I like to know about learning?
  8. What would I like to know about teaching?
  9. What would I like to know about the context for learning?
You may want to rewrite these questions into a table with empty cells in the middle and answer these questions for yourself. If you're like me, and haven't thought about your teaching critically in a while, you might find this exercise very useful. By asking ourselves these questions, we are returning to the very fundamental nature of learning and teaching, or, perhaps, teaching for learning.

One of the things that I found out about what I didn't know about teaching for learning was how to make my students' thinking visible. When I was considering this lack of knowledge about my own teaching, it became a top priority for me. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources about making your students' thinking visible. One given to us in the course is the website "Visible Thinking" ( Although the idea of visible thinking seems like an obvious one to tackle, it might prove useful to "have a think" ourselves, as John MacBeath puts it, to consider the problem of making our students' thinking visible. MacBeath asks us while showing the graphic of the different cats, "How do you know what your students are thinking?" And the answer is, we don't know...unless we ask them.

Imagine that we have asked students what we think will be a simple problem, but suddenly we find ourselves with a perplexing one like the teaching in this video (

I found the teacher doing an excellent job at asking her students to evaluate the problem of dividing 1 by 2, and she seems to be aware of her students grappling with a concept that may change the course of their learning. While watching this video, I thought, "Wow, what an amazing learning moment!" The teacher almost has her students to the answer, and they are responding to her question and displaying some thinking, but then she allows the students to change the problem, thereby retreating back to firmer ground. If only she had broken the stick in two and asked them to think, is this one stick, two sticks, or two halves of a whole stick? Or even better, had one of the students break the stick and then ask the class how many sticks they had.

We should top and take a moment to think about the questions the teacher is asking. How many of the questions asked by the teacher are what appear to be display questions. In other words, questions that the teacher already knows the answer to, such as "Is this number right?" Then think about how many reference questions the teacher is asking, in other words, questions that ask the students may respond openingly to about their thinking.

Watch how the teacher gives the students choices, which leads them to the amazing moment of learning when the student chooses to divide 1 by 2. As I watched, I thought, "Oh, no. How will they get this difficult concept?" I was even more amazed when the student gave 1 as the answer to the question. She writes one on the board and ask the students, "Is this correct?" The students intuitively say "No." The teacher replies, "Why, what's wrong?" This question elicits multiple answers. Later she asks, "Look at this sign, in between here, is this correct?" At this point, we can supposition that the teacher wants to change the numerator. But she also asks, "[students' name] thinks the answer is 2. How many think this is correct." And by polling the students, she begins to understand what her students are thinking and then asks the students who think 2 is not correct to explain to the other students why. Some students say the answer is 1 and other say the answer is 2. Unfortunately, we can't hear the reasons the students give, and the teacher returns to asking if the numbers in the boxes are correct. Then she shows the student the stick and asks them, "How can I divide this stick by 2?" and the students answer, "I can't." Then the teacher goes on to change the numerator. Do we have the right reasoning here? Yes, if you want to stick and the lesson to deal with whole numbers. But what an amazing feat if the teacher would have introduced to the students the idea of halves of wholes or fractions.

 Today, teachers are asking students "What is the evidence?" or "Why do you think that?" While, I think these two questions are linked, they are not necessarily the same thing. Think of what the evidence would have been from the lesson from above. We have a stick and the stick can't be divided in two. Really? That only gives us evidence of limited reasoning (not incorrect). Could we have extended the reasoning for this lesson and said, "Ok, here is something new to think about. We can divide this stick by two and get two halves. The are not two sticks, but two halves of one stick. Think about that for a moment." Then we would have an opening for new ways of thinking and stronger evidence for our reasoning.

I'm not a math teacher, and I don't expect to be able to teach a lesson better than the teacher in the video, nor should I second guess the lesson that she taught and the reasons for teaching the way she did. But as an English teacher to speakers of other languages, the lesson of making thinking visible is a powerful lesson. Often we ask students, to communicate and by communicating students must make choices in meaning. If I ask a student, "How are you today?" and the student responds, "not good," should we correct the student and say, "No, you mean 'not well.'" Then how are we misdirecting their thinking and meaning making choice? Don't people say "not good" all the time? Wouldn't it be better if we recast and said, "Oh, not good or not well. I'm sorry to hear that." This way, we don't make assumptions about what the students wants to say, rather we present another meaning making choice.

 In addition, what if we insist on our students saying whole sentences, such as "I am not well." But in reality, we co-construct language and almost never hear the subject and verb repeated in conversation openings because such information has already been given. Do our students realize the difference between given and new information and how that is structured in sentences? How then do we make our knowledge of the language system visible to our students?

I believe the answer is making sure as teachers that we are thinking about language and showing how we think think about language. Instead of asking for specific language forms, we showing how to use language to communicate and providing moments where we think about the "form, meaning, and use" of the language. For example, if we ask ask our students, "What did you do today?" and our student replies, "I woke up. Then I ran about two miles. Then I went to school." Could we then the student, "Why didn't you say, "I wake up?" or "I run about two miles?" and "What's the difference?" Then we can see if the students can explain the difference in using the simple past events that occur in the near past versus using the present simple to describe actions that are habitual. By asking students about the language they use for reasons they use it, we are opening opportunities for students to think about their awareness of language and to demonstrate their knowledge of collocations and patterns in addition to how language is constructed through meaning making choices. This approach, it seems, would work well with the action based language lessons in which students use language to do something, thereby providing an opportunity for us to ask students "what did you say and why?"

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Future of the Teaching Profession

In James MacBeath's chapter on the Future of the Teaching Profession, he outlines some critically important professional criteria that should always resonate with those in the teaching profession.

These criteria are summarized as:

1. Theoretical knowledge and skills related to the practice of teaching.

2. Preparation through pre-sevice and academic or professional activities that demonstrates professional competence.

3. Recognition and passing of professional and legal requirements to join the professional body.

4. Induction into the profession as a teacher in training or as a beginning professional with feedback and opportunities for continuous professional development.

5. Participation and joining professional bodies, organizations, and passing entrance requirements for membership.

6. Ability to work autonomously while utilizing professional and theoretical knowledge.

7. Adhering to professional code of conduct and ethics.

8. Ability to self-regulate profession separate from the government.

9. Dedication to the betterment of the public and altruism.

10. Joining to organization with legal authority over profession

11. Body of knowledge and skills is inaccessible to the uninitiated.

12. Skills and knowledge are mobile and belong to an individual and not the organization for which they work.

Teaching is a profession that demands high level of knowledge, skill, and moral/ethical behavior. However, it is often seen by the public as being part of a "trade" with minimal education and professional entry requirements, with low or unqualified practitioners,  and with low pay and benefits.

While the low pay and low benefits may be true, the perception of teachers being unqualified and untrained is not. Granted that there will be exception -- as there are in all professions -- most teachers in the U.S. must have either a Bachelor's of Science in education or a Masters in Education, which could mean 6 years of formal education in a specialized area of education (primary, secondary, special education, language, mathematics, science, etc). Teachers must also pass a "highly qualified" test such as the Praxis (, have at least one year of professional induction as a teacher in training, satisfy state requirements for professional competence, pass a state run criminal background check, and satisfy not only job entry requirements the work place but maintain high teaching and learning outcomes. In addition, teachers must pass regular observation and evaluations by their principals or managers. That's not even counting what happens inside the classroom with the students or outside the classroom with the parents.

MacBeath points out a definition taken from the Australian Council of Professions that define teaching as "A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public as, possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others" (ACP, 2004, p.1).

I agree that teaching is different than other professions because it demands a commitment to the students and to altruism, but I don't agree that teachers should be under paid with low benefits because of their dedication to others. In fact, we as a society should honor those who devote their lives to helping, saving, and protecting others and they should be fairly compensated.

While teachers work in the interest of others, it seems that others don't always have the interest of teachers in mind as shown through ignorance of professional requirements, unrealistic performance expectations, and minimal recognition or work autonomy. The current state of the teaching profession, which has been marred by incidents of cheating on standardized assessments or gross ineptitude, is a symptom of unrealistic, uninformed, and uneven education reforms, focusing mostly on students' performance on irrelevant standardized assessments. MacBeath does note that teachers face "excessive expectations from society at large" which has resulted in teachers feeling caught between the the excessive expectations and low professional esteem. In other words, teachers must rise to meet the professional standards listed above and the high performance expectations from government and society while also dealing with the perception that they lack professional competence.

The nature of teaching is one of continuous evaluation and self-improvement, and good teachers often fall into exhaustion, frustration, or are simply pushed out of the profession. While of course there are teachers who don't or can't perform to the standards, few from the outside realize that at any given day, even the best teachers fall short, and its through continuous support and development, just like what we expect for our students, that teachers become better teachers.

Teaching to solve problems that don't exist

We know the wold is smaller than it was two decades ago because of work done by economists and journalists, such as Thomas Friedman who wrote "The World is Flat" and "Hot, Flat, and Crowded." I don't mean smaller in size, but smaller in proximity. And you really don't need to read Friedman's books to realize that world is getting smaller. Think about our main modes of communication: WhatsApps, Snapchats, Facebook, and Face Time. We don't need to travel great distances to communicate any longer. All we have to do is send a text, jump on a Skype call, or send an email. In short,we've all become neighbors whether we like it or not, and being close neighbors isn't exactly a good thing sometimes. It can have unintended consequences. For example, the war in Syria has created a massive migration of refuges and impacted the economy in Europe. Events in Africa such as the Ebola outbreak have changed the health policies in countries like the U.S. and China. And, the strengthening of the American dollar has influenced growth in South and Central America. While in our daily lives, we aren't always aware of the impact of events that may seem far away from us, but they do impact us. The industrial and information ages have brought us together, and now here we are hours away by plane and milliseconds away through the Internet.

In the video below, Hans Rollings discusses the movement of poor and sick countries during the eighteen hundreds through the Industrial and Information ages to now, the Knowledge age. On average, countries are become more wealthy and our lives are becoming longer, but we must also deal with problems of communication, war, intolerance, over population, hunger, extreme-poverty, pollution, species extinction, epidemics, and unemployment. And these are the problems that we know about. What about the problems that we don't know about?

Hans Rollings shows how humanity has progressed from sick and poor to more healthy and wealthy.

As teachers, we are on the front lines of the battleground to solve these world's problems because it is our job to prepare the physicists, engineers, doctors, nurses, ecologists, economists, entrepreneur, designers, artists, writers who must confront these issues. Just think that one of our students will one day have to work side by side with someone from the Middle East, or Asia, or Europe. They will have to understand the cultural and business customs of coworkers (and they are radically different), find common ground, and solve problems together. Also, just think that this student will not be an outlier with some unusual job that requires a lot of traveling. This student will be an average, every day employee somewhere, doing web training and working on conference calls with team members or customers from all over the world. Today, almost every sector of business must communicate and work with foreign companies and personnel. And our personal, community, and national success will depend on how well we master new skills and solve unexpected problems. The Fukushima tsunami and nuclear melt down is perfect example of how international assistance and expertise is vitally important to not only one country but to all counties. Without the help of international experience in nuclear disasters, search and rescue, and eventual environmental clean up, Japan would have been severely pressed to reign in the Fukushima melt down ( and prevent wider environmental and economic damage. Another example is the Ebola epidemic in West Africa where it took a large concerted effort my multiple nations to contain the deadly Ebola outbreak (

Consider the following local/global issues:
  • Mining for rare minerals for computer manufacturing
  • Supplying clean and cost-effective energy
  • Growing/producing enough food for growing populations
  • Assisting aging populations and providing affordable health care
  • Creating new and sustaining jobs to lower unemployment
What skills, knowledge, and qualities will we have to instill into students to take on and solve these problems in the future? What smaller problems do each of these larger problems include?

Recently Olivia Hallisey, a 17-year-old student from Connecticut ( developed a portable, inexpensive, and more importantly easy to use Ebola diagnostic test that can be adapted to use for other medical tests. Watch as she explains how she identified a problem and then found an elegant solution.

Olivia Hallisey explains how she developed a portable, inexpensive, and easy to use diagnostic test for Ebola.

What skills and knowledge did Hallisey need in order to create the diagnostics test? How did she seek out a solution? What obstacles did she have to overcome? How did she test and prove the validity of the test? How did she communicate her findings? By using Hallisey as an example, can we re-create or re-produce the drive, ingenuity, and determination that Hallisey demonstrated? Not all students are going to be as successful as Hallisey, but we should/must prepare them to contribute to the problems of the future both large and small.