The importance of being anxious

By Evelyn Boyd,2014-12-20 00:45
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The importance of being anxiousThe,the

    The importance of being anxiousby Carole RussellMy purpose in this article is not to offer yet another 'solution' to the problems of language teaching and learning. It is, rather, to describe some of the shadowy areas that lie between the dilemma of teacher anxiety and its possible resolution. It seems to me that in this space between dilemma and resolution lurk several amorphous shapes whose existence we tend to try to ignore. For who knows what disturbing truths we may be confronted with if we look into those dark spaces?But look into them we must, before we can even begin to resolve them. This "looking" involves, at a minimum, careful description and analysis of the dilemma within a framework of self-critical questioning of cherished assumptions about teaching and learning processes. Without this spirit of self-critical enquiry (for which, as I shall try to show, teacher anxiety acts as the 'trigger'), we may, in our haste to resolve teaching and learning dilemmas, fail to devote sufficient attention to certain shadowy truths. This may result in a) dilemma resolutions that address only outward signs, leaving the underlying causes untouched, and b) the dilemma returning to haunt us, since it has not been effectively brought out from the shadows into the light of accurate identification and analysis.However, when we confront these neglected shadows, we also run the risk of aggravating our professional anxieties. But isn't it time, though, that we admitted to ourselves that without the (sometimes painful) process of being honest with ourselves about the causes and effects of anxieties experienced at the chalkface, authentic 'teacher development' cannot take place? Shouldn't we be making common cause with experts in the field of ELT (and they with us), to create the kind of public forum where we could openly, honestly, and without fear of ridicule discuss our anxieties and thereby learn from each others experiences? In other words, what if we were to strive, as a profession, for the collaborative learning communities' described so eloquently in the literature - not of ELT - but of the field of education? (see, for example, collected papers in Bennett et al, 1994).In trying to do this, the first amorphous shapes we run up against are the selective narrowness of our teaching and learning horizons, the fragmented nature of ELT research, and of the conferences and journals through which results are disseminated. I find it unfortunate that nothing approaching the mutually supportive and multi-disciplinary synergy of the 'collaborative learning communities' described in the education literature to which I have just referred has yet to emerge in ELT. For it seems to me that the move we seek to fill the gaps in our professional skills with knowledge and insights gained from outside the relatively narrow scope of ELT, the more the shadowy anxieties so many of us have about our abilities to help our learners will diminish. Even a cursory glance at the rich insights provided by great thinkers in the field of education will enhance and deepen our understanding of both the nature and principles of teacher development, especially as they apply to our own practice. While the term used in the field of education is 'reflective practice', we will find not only that this concept bears a direct relationship to our own notions of 'teacher development', but also that it sheds much light on the anxiety' which is my theme. Take, for example, a thoughtful paper entitled 'Rethinking Professional Development', by Osterman & Kottkamp (1994: p.46) in which the process of 'reflective practice'

    is described as 'a means by which practitioners can develop a greater level of self-awareness about the nature and impact of their performance, an awareness that creates opportunities for growth and development'. As the authors elaborate the principles to which this concept gives rise, we begin to see the need for a precisely defined 'reflective toolkit' in order, first, to achieve the sharpened levels of awareness of thought and action which are necessary for identifying and analysing those problems which lurk in the shadows, and, second, to achieve the personal and professional growth in teaching and learning contexts which we seek.But Osterman and Kottkarnp stress, as do others in the field of education, that 'reflective practice' is not a 'relaxed meditative process', but rather a 'challenging, demanding, and often trying [one] that is most successful as a collaborative effort' (ibid). We find, further, that this concept is not new, but is firmly rooted in a tradition of self-critical enquiry which stretches back to Socrates. It is a tradition which draws into itself thoughtful contributions from such writers as Dewey, Piaget, Kofb, Schon and many others who have written on the subject of developing greater levels of awareness of the impact and nature of personal performance in diverse teaching and learning settings.In the field of education, we find, too, that the process of developing such awarenesses (our reflective toolkit') is often described as being cyclical and rooted in experience. Koib's 'experiential learning cycle'(1 984), for example, relates theory to practice by 'doing'. Koib's thesis is that in order to become proficient in a skill, we have to practise it, a concept that is referred to in ELT circles as 'learning by doing'. I am not personally aware, however, that this concept has been linked with its origins in 'reflective practice'; nor, more significantly, have I yet to see it analysed in terms of its relationship to problematic learning processes and experiences.It is this omission which brings me to a 'key disturbing truth' - and one which is, for me, a key area to emerge from the shadows. Discussions of 'reflective practice' in the field of education converge on the point that effective learning comes about through 'a troublesome event or experience, an unsettling situation that cannot be resolved using standard operating procedures ' (Osterman and Kottkamp, op. cit.) describing Dewey's [19381 exposition of the 'process of inquiry').It seems to me - and I hope you will forgive me if I stress yet again a point that we seem (at least outwardly) to ignore in ELT - that prominent thinkers in the field of education generally accept that anxieties and uncertainties are key elements in the process of effective learning. Moreover, such anxieties and uncertainties act as a trigger for the dialogue of 'thinking and doing' to which Schon refers (op. cit, p.47 ). Hence 'the importance of being anxious' - for without such a 'trigger' the sharpened awarenesses necessary for personal and professional growth might never develop. Put very simply, 'no anxiety, no growth'. Does it not follow, then, that teacher anxiety is a healthy sign that reflective practice is taking place? Is it not an indicator that awarenesses are being sharpened and honed as a result of difficult encounters at the chalkface, that 'confusions and irritations' are being confronted and put to good developmental use? So why the 'culture of silence' which surrounds this subject in ELT? Should not such anxieties and uncertainties be publicly aired (instead of privately suffered)? Is it likely

    that real advances will be made in understanding what really happens in our classrooms if anxious feelings arising from problematic teaching and learning experiences are kept out of sight in the shadows (as they now are) rather than being shared and aired (as they need to be)?Our reticence to confess to anxiety at the chalkface transforms a phenomenon that is, under the circumstances, quite natural (on this point, see Robert Nusbaum's article in this issue) into a debilitating condition that must at all costs be suppressed, and that consequently cannot be brought to light through open discussion. When these unvoiced doubts are allowed to remain beneath the surface, they insidiously undermine professional and personal confidence. In our profession, practitioners often fear that if they admit to anything less than perfection, they run the risk of being accused of that most heinous of ELT crimes:

    incompetence.Occasionally, some honest soul will nonetheless risk possible ridicule and bring up such anxieties and insecurities during, say, a weekly staff meeting. More often than not this will be in the context of urgent pleas for more staff development workshops to ease the frantic 'preparation-teaching' round which barely leaves teachers enough time to keep up with current developments in teaching and learning as disseminated by ELTJ, MET, etc. Just mention the word 'anxiety', however, and an embarrassed and defensive silence will descend. Colleagues may be more than ready to pick over and advise on the problems experienced by the honest soul in question; but there will rarely be an admission of personal doubts or difficulties, and how these were (or were not) overcome. An account of 'successes' in difficult classroom situations, yes. 'Anxieties', no.

    This is not to suggest, however, that all teacher practitioners are beset by such doubts. Some, even many, no doubt do stride purposefully into their classrooms confident that what has been planned The importance of being anxiouswill indeed bring about the desired learning. And then there are those whose teaching is 'personality- based', where recognition of personal strengths has led them to develop intuitively their own techniques and methods for guiding and interpreting teaching and learning processes, which may or may not be consistent with received wisdom on such matters (I am using the term 'received wisdom' here with specific reference to those skills-based teacher training courses, such as the RSA Dip. TEFLA, which propagates a view of 'the right way to teach', a view which I am not the first to question: see, for one example among many, Tessa Woodward, 1994, in issue 31 of the SIG Teacher Trainer. p.3).Back to the TopBe that as it may, I would like to pose the following questions to those with whom the issues I have raised here resonate: if we accept that anxieties and insecurities are part and parcel of the self-critical reflective process through which a committed teaching professional will strive to become more effective (and given that this process, which is often brought on by an unresolved dilemma encountered in the classroom or elsewhere, lies at the very heart of teacher development) should we not then agree as a profession to be more forthcoming with each other about our failures as well as successes, to describe to each other for our mutual benefit what really happens at the chalkface? Would this not be preferable to plugging away doggedly in isolation, not daring to openly acknowledge that far from bringing about the desired learning, the repertoire of standard CLT

    methodologies on which we draw may actually be preventing learning from taking place?And this brings me another disturbing truth: is not teacher anxiety also a natural and healthy 'symptom' of the underlying causes that I referred to at the beginning of this article'? Is our anxiety not rooted in a dual awareness (based on experience) that (1) CLT methodologies may not bring about the intended learning, and (2) we may well be using a dysfunctional teaching model'? Could this awareness not motivate us to search further and differently for resolutions to teaching and learning dilemmas, rather than pretending to ourselves and each other that our methodologies are effective, when we know in our (anxious) hearts that they are nothing of the sort?Back to the Top

    And just imagine what exciting avenues of research would open up if we were get to grips with these amorphous shadows and begin acknowledging even some of the following:--that instead of wasting our time scouring the methodological haystack for an "effective" needle, we should be inventing, collectively, as a profession, a multi-purpose, flexible, and adaptable needle that sews.--that as a result of turning in anxious haste to resolutions without accurately identifying and analysing the corresponding dilemma, we have found out little of use to practitioners about how second language learning takes place, leaving us no choice but to live by the old but hazardous adage that says, 'if you don't know where you're going, any old road will get you there'--that as a result of our lack of faith in our teaching models, we have moved (as Michael Swan put it in his closing plenary talk at IATEFL Keele in 1996), from leaching language' (which is hard) to 'doing things with language (which is easier, and more fun)--that our 'aims and objectives' in language teaching arise from a whole host of unexamined and untested personal, institutional, and theoretical assumptions about teaching and learning processes --that 'teacher training' notwithstanding, it is the idiosyncratic personal beliefs of both trainer and trainee concerning how these processes take place that will in the final analysis determine the respective roles of teachers and learners, and the kinds of teaching tasks and materials selectedBack to the Top--that Lazonov's dictum (cited by Jeremy Jacobson in TD 32) - 'there is no learner incompetence, only teacher mismanagement' - both a) smacks of 'the customer is always right', which clouds important economic and structural, not to mention ethical issues in ELT, and thereby fuels teacher anxiety and b) belittles and humiliates the teacher practitioner, which also exacerbates professional anxieties--that, despite extensive lip service paid to the learner-centred classroom, in the vast majority of settings it is the teacher who is inevitably at the centre, since 'all classroom actions, curricular decisions, and methodological concepts are filtered through and influenced' by her own 'complex interpretative construct' (Medgyes, ELTJ 5114, reviewing Devon Woods' book on teacher cognition)--that we fail to differentiate between teaching 'language' and teaching 'communication' (Dodson, 1985a, p. 179)--that learners (unless very 'advanced') cannot attend at simultaneously to both the 'medium' (i.e. the 'form of the words) and the 'message' (i.e. what the words are 'saying' and what the speaker's intention is in a given speech act) and therefore must be helped to systematically progress

    from one to the other (Dodson 1967, 1985a & 1985b)Back to the Top--that 'understanding' takes place in Wernicke's area of the cortex, and 'production' in Broca's, which are indifferent parts of the left hemisphere thereby making progression from practice' (or'medium') to 'production' (or 'message') a 'quantum leap' (Caldwell, 1990, p.463) which is not taken into account by CLT methodologies, and certainly not by the less flexible 'PPP' model--that both long silences in the classroom (a perennial cause of teacher anxiety) and fossilisation are due to the factors I have just mentioned, and not to deficiencies in our learners--that 'learner autonomy' requires students to deploy learning strategies which cannot be developed without the acquisition of 'threshold' competence (Curnmins, 1984, the 'acculturation threshold' of Acton & Walker de Felix, 1986, et al) and is simply not feasible without due attention to the above factors--that, above all, our eyes are in the wrong place - we are teaching to the wrong model; as Dodson has shown (op. cit.) there are similarities between first language 'natural order' and second language acquisition, but the differences are of vital importance--that we have failed to recognise these differences, with the result that we continue to teach according to a monolingual model of first language acquisition, rather than a bilingual model of second language acquisition--that the profound implications of teaching to a bilingual model are first and foremost that learners need to reflect on and try to analyse differences between Ll and L2, and must be systematically helped to do so--that if we are to avoid fossilised 'interlanguage', we must allow for carefully sequenced bridge-building between Ll and L2 beginning with 'medium' oriented activities which alternate between the two languages; only then does the 'quantum leap' from 'medium' to 'message' become possible--that we must therefore abandon our 'English only' classroom policy, and integrate systematic reference to Ll into principles and procedures of 'good practice'

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