Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
Teachers like strategies. We keep lists of them. Nearly every teacher has owned (and likely still owns) books of strategies on top of the lists of strategies they've developed themselves that they like to use. And when we sit around a table and talk, strategies are often the topic of conversation. How did you do this or that? How did it work? How could I try it in my room?
Strategies often come in the form of a pre-packaged "method", which includes research-based approach along with clear design and procedure for using in class (Richards, 1986). In other words, research says _____ increases student learning, so we're going to do that by doing A and B, and the expected outcome is C. A "method" can form an entire curriculum or even set the context for a school (i.e. "Montessori method" or "Suzuki method").
Methods are nice - they tell teachers "we've done the research and the work to make you a tool - go take it and teach!" It allows teachers to focus on their immediate classroom needs. The trouble with teaching by methods, however, is that teachers are limited to the artificial walls created by whoever designed the method. If teachers only understand the methods and then hold themselves to the methods, two problems arise: First, they miss opportunities to meet the needs of their students which might be served by a different method that they have either rejected or are not familiar with. This leads to the second problem, where teachers modify the method in order to meet the needs of their students. However, this modification can fundamentally alter the method to a point where it is no longer achieving the goals intended. They may be achieving some goal, but it's like the game of "telephone" - the end result is often some sort of message, but it isn't the original message that was intended. While this might seem good on the surface (look! He's learning better now!), it is problematic because the "original message" was research-based and the final message received is not. Thus, we may no longer be teaching with "research-based" methods. Obviously, the researchers did not work with our kids and adjustments will always need to be made - this is why we hire professionals to lead our classrooms. So, how can we know that our real-life decisions in the classroom are really what is best for our students beyond a set methodology?
We must transcend the methods.
In other words, we need to take a step back and ask what principles make a particular method useful, and how can we apply those principles as we adapt our instructions to the students we have in our classroom and the needs of our circumstances (including your own teaching preferences)? We need to look at the research itself and understand its implications at a deep level. It's helpful to become familiar with methods based upon the research to understand some examples of application to the classroom while still understanding that most research looks at the nuts and bolts of learning rather than prescribing certain methodologies.
Moreover, we need to use this research to evaluate every method or strategy that we might employ. This not only includes taking a critical look at any pre-designed methods, but it also breaks down those artificial walls to allow teachers to create new methods based on the needs of their students while adhering to research on student learning.
So, how do we do this?
First, we have to understand the principles established by extensive research. These are at the core of our teaching philosophy, and so each teacher must carefully research, consider, and eventually adopt the principles they feel are most appropriate for their classroom. Although we should come to some consensus about what these principles are, teachers teaching by someone else's principles that they do not fully understand and endorse will likely lead to a misapplication of the principles and ineffective teaching.
In the short-term, a teacher who is only ready to teach by methods can "borrow" principles, as we implicitly do each time that we agree to use a method. Moreover, principles should be constantly reviewed and adjusted based on new learning - both in the world of research and in the teacher's own professional development.
I am working on a post which more fully articulates the following principles that I have developed for my own instruction (second language acquisition), but here is a brief summary:
Once we have these principles, we can explore, modify, and create endless methods while ensuring they are still firmly grounded in our instructional philosophies and principles. As I explore new ways to reach my students, I apply the following questions based on my established principles:
The answers to these questions give the why (or why not!) to every decision we make regarding instruction (and, yes, classroom management deserves its own list as well!). This is so empowering! So why is it not a regular practice? I am guessing that it's because teachers are fed pre-packaged methods from the time they decide to become teachers. Rather than asking new teachers to explore educational practices on a deeper level and develop and evaluate methods, we like to give them the tools to hit the ground running, and rightfully so.
Novice teachers usually do not have the experience, expertise, or even the capacity to engage in this deeper-level thinking - even educators must work their way up Bloom's Taxonomy in their practice, both in scope and in depth. They are not focused on "practice" as much as they are focused on "tomorrow" or even "next period". Their main objectives are to remember their lesson plan (which they may or may not have been able to create on their own), understand what it is they're trying to do, and applying it to the classroom. Hopefully, they able to analyze the results (this usually comes with time), and eventually begin evaluating their lessons to create new lessons that are more efficient.*
As we learn and grow, however, not only are obligated as professionals to not only move toward the upper tiers of Bloom's taxonomy, but we must also expand the scope of our vision and begin to look at practice. Transcending the methods requires us to analyze and evaluate the practices themselves, and then effectively create new ones, both through modification and invention, that address the needs of our students and circumstances (which include the needs of the teacher!). We cannot do that unless we let go of methods and teach by principles.
*Although new teachers might not be able to effectively develop effective principles at the beginning of their career, I think it is a great shame that they are mainly trained to focus on the methods rather than looking for the principles behind them. Doing so facilitates a culture of "tunnel vision" where teachers may not even realize there is a need to eventually transcend the methods, and it takes trial and error for experienced teachers to eventually learn to do so for themselves.
Herman, E. (2016). Acquisition classroom memo 4.
Richards, J.C., & Rodgers, T.S. (1986). The nature of approaches and methods in language teaching. In J.C. Richards & Rodgers, T.S. (Ed.), Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis (pp. 14-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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