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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Major Article

Reflective Teaching in the Low-Resource Classroom: Reinventing ourselves as Teachers through Self-Scrutiny

Bill Templer
Vientiane, Lao, PDR

  1. Constructing a self-ethnography of teaching
  2. The prime paradox
  3. Logging onto self-practice
  4. Autobiography of oneself as a language learner
  5. Mutual peer observation
  6. Questionnaires for students and teachers
  7. Self-recording
  8. Connected knowing and empathy
  9. Action research
  10. Reflective teaching and DOGME
  11. Particularity
  12. Ghost-writer: a portrait of self
  13. What happened during a lesson

We need to hold up mirrors to our own practice, making more conscious what is beneath the surface. To ask ourselves: why do I teach the way I do? What principles and beliefs inform my teaching? Should I do it differently? What is the greatest single problem I face in my teaching? Why does a particular teaching method work well for one student but not for another? What are my unconscious teaching routines? What am I doing right in my classrooms? What wrong?

1. Constructing a 'Self-Ethnography of Teaching'

Self-inquiry into one's own practice is doubly important for teachers working on peripheries in what Prakash and Esteva (1998) call the 'Two-Thirds World,' i.e. most of the planet. Where books are scarce, supplementary materials rare, in-service teacher training limited, teachers overworked & underpaid, often with classes of more than 40 or 50 pupils, with little access to the 'professional literature' in ESL, one transformative tool is reflective or (self)-exploratory teaching. The present paper outlines some ideas and techniques for what might be called a 'self-ethnography of teaching.' Indeed, as van Lier (1988) powerfully shows, ethnography is probably the single best approach to analyzing classroom phenomena and their meaning for the participants (Schön 1987).

2. The Prime Paradox

Bottom-up self-reflection and self-observation look at what is actually happening in our classes: what really matters in the mysterious chemistry of the classroom as 'crucible' is not just our plan, but "what happens anyway, independently of our designs" (Allwright and Bailey 1991, p. xvii). As students co-produce a lesson, we become ever more adept in 'interaction management' (Saballs 2003), seeing the class as an event, essentially unpredictable, its prime paradox. If the class is a lab, how can we begin to better grasp and reconstruct it, developing a kind of heuristics of self-reflection as teachers--and a more holistic understanding of what unfolds on a daily basis in our practice?

Emphasizing the need for this professional 'metacognition,' Kumaravadivelu (2003, p. 2) comments that teachers

need to systematically observe their teaching, interpret their classroom events, evaluate their outcomes, identify problems, find solutions, and try them out to see once again what works and what doesn't. In other words, they have to become strategic thinkers as well as strategic practitioners. As strategic thinkers, they need to reflect on the specific needs, wants, situations, and processes of learning and teaching. As strategic practitioners, they need to develop knowledge and skills necessary to self-observe, self-analyze, and self-evaluate their own teaching acts.

Stress the notion of 'teaching acts.' We need to learn to think about what worked and what didn't in class this morning, what irritates us most, what puzzles us most about what is happening in your own classroom. All part of our 'culture of teaching' and its necessary ethnography.

3. Logging on to Self-Practice

The best single interactive mirror for the teacher is the classroom journal, diary or field log, kept on a regular basis. It can involve jotting down notes on anything that struck you as memorable or problematic in a class. Start by taking nine minutes each day, perhaps after a string of several classes. Expand that to look at more basic questions, such as your routines, your teaching philosophy and how it is reflected (or not reflected) in your classroom praxis (see appendix 2). Such diaries can also be exchanged with other teachers, creating a special kind of more reflected communication on what you are doing. Mlynarczyk (2002) is full of ideas on her own use of learning logs as a graduate student, teaching diaries and field logs as a writing instructor and how they have transformed her teaching practice. If a journal seems formidable, lesson reports are another more compact way of getting a hold on the flux of what is unfolding in our classrooms (Richards and Lockhart 1996, pp. 9-10, 44-47).

Learners can also be encouraged to begin a diary about their language learning experiences, the difficulties they encounter on a daily basis in class and outside the classroom, kept in their own first language. Such journals are low-resource yet can yield insight (Mlynarczyk, p. 49). They could also be exchanged among several students in a kind of dialogue journal of the language learning class and syllabus. What turns them on in the classroom, what turns them off? How anxious do they feel and why?

4. Autobiography o oneself as a Language Learner

A third instrument is a teacher's' retrospective autobiography as a language learner, looking back on one's own experiences as a foreign language learner (Allwright and Bailey 1991, p.168), recalling positive teacher experiences, what motivated you to learn the language, or stopped your learning. What would you have liked the teacher to do that s/he didn't do? What strategies did you explore as a language student that helped you improve in different skill areas? Why is learning Japanese or Lao now such a nightmare? (Svendson 2004)

A corollary of this is that every foreign language teacher should regularly engage in trying to learn some new language, reflecting on the difficulties, the bright spots, the experience as a whole. We can construct a kind of ongoing life history as a language learner if we periodically try to become one, attempting a new language at elementary level every year or two, even through self-study, while learning to reflect on the experience and its dynamics. The experience can be an eye-opener. And will give you better insight into what your students are struggling with. Threats to self-esteem and identity and 'face' are among the most important reasons many of us feel great anxiety about learning and using another language (Allwright and Bailey 1991, pp. 178-80).

In a similar vein, teachers might also want to assemble analogues for themselves to the European Language Portfolio, which is a learner-owned document for recording language learning and cultural experiences, a flexible tool to facilitate the learner's direct hands-on involvement in both planning and assessing h/er language learning process and progress (Templer 2004).

5. Mutual Peer Observation

Another useful technique for sparking self-reflection is the most obviously available and most-resisted in practice: inviting colleagues to sit in on your classes and then provide constructive criticism, telling you what they see. As Mayher (2002) notes: "teaching is a surprisingly lonely profession in terms of the amount of collegial talk most teachers engage in about their teaching, and visiting another teacher's classroom is even rarer." That can be changed. It does not require video or any other recording device, just a perceptive fellow teacher and a sense of mutual trust. Departments should find more ways to build this into the regular structure of the program, despite all restrictions on time. This is not class visitation. Its philosophy is different, and it should be teacher-generated, not supervisor-imposed. It is mutual, not asymmetric. It encourages candid comment but in an atmosphere of mutual self-support, not the power games often played in 'teacher evaluation.'

6. Questionnaires for Students and Teachers

In addition to having students evaluate their experience in your classes, they can complete a questionnaire that will get them thinking about their own 'language learning culture,' their preferences and strategies as learners, their likes and dislikes. Useful questionnaires for students on their language learning culture can be found in Richards and Lockhart (1996, pp. 20, 50, 72). A good questionnaire probing the 'teacher belief inventory' is reproduced in Posner (1989, pp. 100-105); Hadfield (1992) has an engaging section with activities on 'what kind of language learner are you?' for post-elementary students and above (pp. 35-36), and another questionnaire on 'learning a language: experience and expectations' (pp. 36-37).

7. Self-Recording

Though stress here is on inexpensive methods that require a will and a way and little more, technology can of course supplement and enhance self-analytical strategies. A cheap tape recorder can suffice to record some kinds of classroom interaction and prompt the memory in recollection. The new digital recorders, still expensive for most teachers and schools, are another instrument. And of course video, especially where the camera is trained only on the teacher.

8. Connected Knowing and Empathy

Essential to reflective teaching is what some psychologists called 'connected knowing,' insight that is wedded to feeling, anchored in personal experience and geared to the capacity for empathy (Mlynarczyk 2002, pp. 26-30; 55-83). Cultivating empathy as a primary tool for understanding students and colleagues is key to effective self-ethnography in the classroom, your own and that of a fellow teacher. Connected knowing contrasts with the objective detached 'separate knowing' we engage in much of the time in academic settings.

9. Action Research

No doubt a major modality for discovery in low-resourced and high-resourced learning environments alike is action research (Allwright and Bailey, pp. 38-40, 42-44 and passim). One intriguing project to explore and change learners' reactions to classroom language learning is a diary study, where a group of learners keep a detailed language learning diary, preferably in their own first language. How to motivate learners in this direction and the practicalities of keeping such logs is presented in detail in Allwright and Bailey (pp. 190-193). Another fascinating mini-project focuses on classroom attention (ibid., pp. 186-190), a problem in virtually all classes. Once teachers start self-analyzing as a professional practice and wellspring of self-insight, they can also begin collaborating with one another on small action research projects. The very rationale of action research is of course transformation of teaching from the bottom up. Richards and Lockhart (pp. 12-14; 27-28) provide a good easy-to-understand guide to action research in the EFL classroom, with descriptions of six different projects, including an intriguing attempt to introduce 'contract learning' (pp. 110-112). The ELT profession needs more action research specifically from more 'peripheral' learning environments where the social majorities on this planet live.

Teachers should view this kind of analysis more as 'inquiry' than 'research' (Maley 2003). Most characteristics of the kind of practical inquiry Maley suggests--pragmatic, local, commitment to learners, bottom-up, open-ended, continuing, holistic, particularized, integrative, intuitive, incremental--lend themselves well to the perspective of reflective connected knowing about what is happening in the classroom. Listservs online help democratize such shared 'inquiry' where teachers have access to Internet. But it need not be mediated by technology: 'self-focused inquiry' is possible without anything but the engaged selves involved.

10. Reflective Teaching and DOGME?

Especially on low-resourced peripheries, the stress of the post-method deconstructive pedagogy known as DOGME transforms that lack of ELT paraphernalia almost into a blessing in disguise, making a pedagogical virtue of necessity. It advocates that we shed structuring and watch carefully what crystallizes: "Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom - i.e. themselves - and whatever happens to be in the classroom" (Thornbury 2000). That seems to jibe well with 'reflective teaching' as a survival mode for teachers between a rock and a hard place, where most of us ply our trade. If reflective teaching is an instrument for self-improvement that meshes with minimal resourcing and instructional austerity, and modest 'teacher training,' it also can help to configure experimental EFL à la DOGME and its self-inventive bricolage. DOGME seeks to humanise the classroom through a radical pedagogy of dialogue: "By talking with learners and using their lives as the source of your lessons, interest is heightened and learning opportunities flourish. That's all that dogme says" (Fogarty 2004). Indeed, techniques of reflective teaching are the natural set of self-constructed mirrors that DOGMEtics, uncoupled from the many props of materials and textbooks and syllabi that most teachers use in our normally heavily 'mediated' teaching, would seem to require. Teaching and learning must pass through an introspective looking glass.

11. Particularity

Rigorous self-analysis can be a central strategy in anchoring your own teaching in the concrete 'particularity' of your own situation and that of your students, a perspective central to the 'post-method' pedagogy Kumaravadivelu and others are building. Particularity is 'idiographic': it means adapting whatever you do to the hard reality of your situation, however meagre its resourcing, however peripheral its multiple constraints, making sure through self-introspection that your teaching is relevant to a

particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu … It starts with practicing teachers, either individually or collectively, observing their teaching acts, evaluating their outcomes, identifying problems, finding solutions, and trying them out to see once again what works and what doesn't. … Such a continual cycle of observation, reflection, and action is a prerequisite for the development of context-sensitive pedagogic theory and practice (Kumaravadivelu 2003, pp. 34-35).

Teachers must construct their own theories of teaching, drawing on their own knowledge, skills, training and experience (Richards and Lockhart, p. 203). On their own multiple self-reflected 'happenings' that make up their classrooms and ever new daily praxis. It takes a certain Mut zum Sein, a courage to be. In the uniquely particular place that you and your learners are. It is that self-reflective mosaic--or the "patchwork flower garden quilt" that Rebecca Mlynarczyk (p. xiv.) recalls from her childhood--which we as teachers all have to begin to create.

12. Appendix 1

For starters among teachers at your own school, get together in an informal meeting and try the following activity:


You have ten minutes to find out as much as possible about each other. Concentrate on some (or all) of the following questions:

  1. What are your two greatest strengths as a teacher?
  2. What is your greatest weakness if any?
  3. What is the biggest problem you face in your teaching (lack of materials, size of class, student fears, unresponsive students, lack of good communication with fellow teachers, etc.)?
  4. Why did you decide to become a TESOLer?
  5. What has been a big problem in learning your second or third language (English or another), the beginning of a language autobiography?
  6. Reflect on a recent class. What worked well and why? OR: what didn't work, maybe why?
  7. In what ways are your classes centered on the learners? Do you try to encourage learner autonomy? How?

Now, write a brief sketch as if you. were the person you just interviewed. Include the facts. If you wish, embroider: also include other things you might think are true, like; "I'm shy, but I have a great sense of humor when I get to know people." When finished, distribute these autobiographies to others present. People then read out what they have and others try to identify themselves. OR: paste the 'autobiographies' on the wall and find the one that matches you (adapted from Hadfield 1992, p. 69).

13. Appendix 2

Questions about what happened during a lesson (adapted from Richards and Lockhart (p. 16)

  1. What did you set out to teach?
  2. Were you able to accomplish your goals?
  3. What teaching materials did you use? Were they effective?
  4. What techniques did you apply, with what effect?
  5. Was the lesson teacher-dominated?
  6. What kind of interaction (student-student, student-teacher) occurred?
  7. Did you have any problems?
  8. Did you do anything different than usual?
  9. Did you have any clear lesson plan, and did you depart from it?
  10. What parts of the class hour were most successful, least successful?
  11. What would you do differently if given a second chance to do that same class hour?
  12. How was your philosophy of teaching reflected in the lesson?
  13. Were students really challenged?
  14. What did they like most about the lesson?
  15. What didn't they respond well to?


Allwright, D. and Bailey, K. M. 1991.Focus on the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge UP
Fogarty, D. 2004. in 'sum up' thread on dogme, GISIG IATEFL listserv, January 28
Hadfield, J. 1992.Classroom Dynamics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press
Kumaravadivelu, B. 2003.Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for Language Teaching. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press
van Lier, L. 1988.The Classroom and the Language Learner: Ethnography and Second Language Classroom Research. London: Longman
Maley, A. 2003. "A Modest Proposal: from Research to Inquiry,"HLT Magazine. 5 (6), www.hltmag.co.uk/nov03/mart2.htm
Mayher, J. S. 2002. 'Foreword,' R. W. MlynarczykConversations of the Mind .
Mlynarczyk, R. W. 2002. Conversations of the Mind: The Uses of Journal Writing for Second-Language Learners. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum
Posner, G. 1989.Experience: Methods of Reflective Teaching. New York: Longman
Prakash, M. S. and Esteva, G. 1998.Escaping Education. Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures. New York: Peter Lang
Richards, J. and Lockhart, C. 1996.Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press
Saballs, J. T. 2003. "Class Management in Today's High Schools,"HLT Magazine . 5 (6), http://www.hltmag.co.uk/nov03/mart5.htm
Schön, D. A. 1983.The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books
Schön, D. A. 1987.Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Svendson, A. 2004. "Diary of a Language Learner," paper, LaoTESOL Annual Conference, Feb. 4, Vientiane
Templer, B. 2004. "The International Language Portfolio in Turkey: Appropriating a Tool for Learner Empowerment from the Council of Europe,"INGED Newsletter. (February), www.inged-elea.org.tr
Thornbury, S. 2000. "A Dogma for EFL,"IATEFL Issues. No. 153, Feb/March www.teaching-unplugged.com/sources.html

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