Talking Points February 2013: Alison, Chika, and Ellen

Talking about … books that have made a difference to us:

Women Who Run with the Wolves, The Guided Construction of Knowledge, and Appropriate Methodology in Social Context.

Alison: Several months ago, Ellen Head suggested starting a column or forum for LD SIG members to write about the books that had most influenced them. I thought this was a wonderful idea: I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to name a single book that most influenced me, but I’ve been thinking for some time that I would like to try. I would also like to find out what books have made a difference to other people. Since it was Ellen’s idea in the first place (though Ellen claims Andy Barfield thought of it first), Chika and I have invited her to join us this month in sharing our most important books.

Ellen: Women Who Run with the Wolves (1996) immediately springs to mind as a book which re-enchanted me with life (and with teaching) in 1998 when I was working as a software release assistant, burned out and bored. The book woke me up. But it’s not a teaching theory book. It is a compendium of stories presented with a Jungian analysis of archetypes in each story. The sequence of the book follows “initiatory stages” of growing up and maturing and aging. It is also a polemic against patriarchal-industrial society. The tone is at times haranguing, emotional and prolix, but the content is useful, entertaining and, I think I could argue, connected to personal autonomy. The author, Clarissa Pinkola Estes grew up in New York as an adopted child with one Spanish-speaking parent and one Eastern European parent. As a result, she is speaking from what Claire Kramsch (1993) would call a “third place”, a meeting point of three different cultures and languages and a vantage point from which she has been able to select the aspects, stories, archetypes and motifs that seem to her to be authentic. Her project is to identify themes that are universal to maturation, but she is also careful to present each story in a contextualised way. One of the premises is that all the characters of any story are components of a single person’s psyche. A second idea is that stories are metaphors which allow us to link bits of experience together and look at them from various points of view. Of course these ideas have their counterpart in research into narrative ways of knowing for teachers and students. As a teacher and as a person, I have found that the ancient stories have interacted with my personal story in a subtle way. For example, one of the first stories I told to students, “Soulskin, Sealskin”, about the fisherman who captures a seal-woman. Like the Japanese Bamboo Princess or the Little Mermaid, she cannot thrive married to a human and has to go back to her tribe. Estes interprets this as a lesson about needing to go back to your community. (Of course the Learner Development SIG members are all seals in my opinion.) A later story is “The Handless Maiden” who is given hands made of gold–almost like robotic hands–to replace her human hands which get chopped off in a brutal incident. The interpretation is that loss is a pre-condition of maturity, that humans cannot survive without skillful help and re-learning how to do the things we thought were easy. Is it stretching a point to make a connection between this kind of maturation and the process of developing autonomy as a teacher/learner? I guess that is something every teacher/learner can give their own answer to.

It happens that, on the shelf next to Estes, I have bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, which deals with some of the same concerns (feminism, empowerment, identity) as they relate to teaching. “When our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to the processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice” (hooks, 1994, p.61). For my students (and, I admit, sometimes for me), stories are more juicy and urgent than theory.

Chika: One of the most impressive books for me is Neil Mercer’s The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk Amongst Teachers and Students (1995). In my university seminar class, I am often referring to concepts and strategies I learned from it.

My first encounter with the book was 2007. I was in the library, looking at the data I had just collected on the classroom interaction between a teacher and students in a junior high school English class in Japan. At that time, I had a basic knowledge about how to approach and analyze patterns of interaction with reference to Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE), teacher roles and several question types teachers ask in a classroom. However, I was looking for other ways to look into and “cook” the data from different perspectives.

As the title shows, the book emphasizes the social constructivist idea of learning. The underlying theme is that knowledge is constructed and shared through interaction with others. Using examples of different types of talks between a teacher and students and even among students in various settings, Mercer introduces a variety of approaches and strategies for analyzing and understanding how knowledge is constructed. One chapter deals with how teachers employ certain strategies and techniques to elicit students’ understanding and help them construct and consolidate knowledge. Among many ideas and strategies applicable to any learning context, one of the interesting findings was that teachers and students engage in constructing “ground rules” for classroom talk. This concept immediately reminded me of an English class I took in my high school, which was taught in the traditional yakudoku style. It was a common understanding in the class that the teacher would nominate a student and the student would read the English sentences first and then provide the Japanese translation. One day, Yumiko, one of my classmates, “broke” the rule by giving the Japanese translation before reading the English sentences. The teacher stopped her right there and asked her to read the English sentence first; she was forced to follow the rule. Of course, we were not informed of the rule in advance, but we naturally understood the rule implicitly and did not think to question it. This episode may sound like a very small incident, but it had a significant meaning in the process of constructing our classroom culture.

Talking Points was initiated last November as part of LD SIG’s activity and this is our fourth web dialogue (I should call it “trialogue” this time, though). This interactive dialogue always provides me with opportunities to be engaged in the process of guided learning and co-construction of knowledge. Reflecting on the theme of my choice of book, I am wondering what our “ground rules” are and how we co-construct those rules consciously or otherwise.

Alison: Here’s mine: Adrian Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology in Social Context (1994). I first came across this book during my first year of doctoral study in 1998. At the time, I was interested in teachers’ beliefs about, and practices of, teaching writing in EFL, but I was feeling increasingly frustrated that the academic publications I was reading were mainly focused either on writing methods, with little or no mention of social or cultural contexts of learning, or on contrastive rhetoric, which treated culture as fixed and hardwired to language and national identity. Appropriate Methodology was a revelation to me, a book that put forward the principle that methodology in education–in other words, teaching practices, curriculum design, and methods of conducting research–cannot simply ignore the social context. Holliday drew on data, collected while working on a project of curriculum reform in Egyptian higher education, to identify two distinct and incompatible teaching cultures co-existing in that context. One culture was “instrumentalist” and was associated with the Communicative Language Teaching practice prevalent in ESL language schools in Britain, Australasia and North America (hence, its acronym, BANA). The other, Holliday claimed, was “statist” and was prevalent in the language education of state tertiary, secondary and primary institutions (hence, TESEP).

Although the Egyptian situation he described was not the same as the one I had encountered working as a part-time teacher in Japanese universities, his central premise of conflicting professional cultures made a lot of sense to me. It set me off on a new tack in my research, abandoning the safer waters of teaching methodology for the uncharted territories of teacher identity. What made the book seem revolutionary back then–researcher reflexivity, a sensitivity to, and respect for social contexts, a shift away from regarding national culture as monolithic and determinant of practice, and a move toward a new concept of “small cultures” in the classroom–may now be considered fairly mainstream in educational practice and research, but its message still resonates strongly with me now. As a practitioner-researcher, it is important for me to keep asking what “appropriate methodology” might be and to remain open to new and different ways of thinking about it. Likewise, it’s important for me to try to keep working for a better understanding of my social context–the classes I teach and the university where I work, as well as the society and wider world in which we live.

References

Estes, C. P. (1996). Women who run with the wolves: Myths and stories of the wild woman archetype. London: Rider.

Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate methodology in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. London: Routledge.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and students. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

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