What BENEFITS and CHALLENGES can we expect from international English teacher professional development?

In 2018, 104 experienced primary and secondary English teachers from Yunnan and Gansu provinces in China attended three months of professional development training at the University of Ottawa in Canada. They participated in lectures and discussions on applied linguistics theory, small group workshops on ESL methodology, English training, English conversation clubs, public school visits, and field trips. In a lecture, Prof. Douglas Fleming summarizes common benefits and challenges of this kind of partnership—when university teacher training programs in Inner Circle English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. partner with university programs in other countries for teachers of EFL/ESL at the primary or secondary level. I end the blog post with 3 takeaways, as I see them.

Fleming, D. (2021, November 2). International second language teacher professional development: De-colonial response-able research and teaching challenges in the Chinese context. Lecture. Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Canada.

Braj Kachru and Yamuna Kachru were famous linguists and applied linguists of Indian origin in the U.S. in the late 20th century. One of the things they studied was World Englishes. The Kachrus understood that English was a language that belonged to the world, that all countries were English-speaking countries, but that they had different relationships with the English language. In some countries where English is widely used in society, English is seen as “native,” and speakers of English in these countries set standards for the rest of the world. These are the five Inner Circle English-speaking countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. All other countries were theorized by Braj Kachru (1986) as being Outer Circle or Expanding Circle English-speaking countries.

In Outer Circle countries like Bangladesh, India, Singapore, and Tanzania, English is widely used by the professional class in daily communication and in government domains. These are former colonies of Inner Circle English-speaking countries like the U.K. and U.S. The Expanding Circle includes most of the rest of the world. These are countries who started learning English during the Cold War during an international economic expansion period of global capitalism, led by the U.S. and U.K., which went hand-in-hand with promoting English as the language of global communication. Robert Phillipson, another famous applied linguist, wrote about this history in the book Linguistic Imperialism (1992).

Fleming began his lecture by playing a 2-3 min. video clip of an old song from a Hollywood movie, titled “Why can’t the English learn to speak?” In this song, Prof. Higgins goes on a rant about how poor people in England could make their lives so much better if they could only speak properly… he saw their “bad” ways of speaking (and they were all native speakers of British English, but of different geographic and class dialects) as the reason why their lives were not getting socioeconomically better.

“Why can’t the English learn to speak?” from My Fair Lady (1964)

In this horrible movie, Prof. Higgins takes a beautiful lower-class girl off the streets and teaches her to speak properly, and they fall in love and get married. (The movie differs in terms of plot and final lesson from the play it is based on, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which Fleming points out has an unhappy ending for Prof. Higgins.)

In real life, Prof. Fleming, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and whose family was a working-class British family (his grandmother spoke with a Cockney accent), uses My Fair Lady in many of his ESL/EFL teacher training lessons. After playing this song, he next showed a picture of a cohort of visiting experienced English teachers, from Yunnan province in southwest China, across the border from Laos and Vietnam. Yunnan, he explained, is “extremely multicultural and multiethnic.” The other group, which combined with the teachers from Yunnan to form a total of 104 visiting teachers, came from Gansu province in the Northwest, on the border with Mongolia. [Blogger’s note: These are both considered backwoods or hinterlands of China, unlike the developed eastern coastal cities where you find many middle-class global elites and the Chinese universities with national and international reputations.]

These teachers were the last cohort in a four-year project that hosted a different group of teachers per year. The question he next raised was: “How do you do program evaluation, if it’s by yourself, on yourself??” The teachers, who were already experienced teachers, were observed in their classrooms in China by Fleming and his Canadian colleagues (he identified as the only white male) prior to the trip, and in Canada they participated in all the activities described at the top of this post. Through all the observations 0f 104 teachers, individual and focus group interviews, and artifact collection, Fleming says: “We collected a mountain of data.” But how to analyze this data and share the findings in a way that is moral and ethical?

What he identified as the benefits and challenges of the program is probably true for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of international partnerships connecting the Inner and Outer/Expanding Circles, between universities with comparable levels of international or national prestige. Therefore, these findings are quite universally relevant and worth paying attention to.

Historical and Sociocultural Context

In rural China, as in rural parts of many Expanding Circle countries, English education is mandatory in primary school though not common in secondary school. People do not really expect to attend postsecondary education, much less postsecondary education in English.

In Sept. 2021, a New York Times article by Li Yuan reported that English education reforms were taking place in Mainland China. Overseas textbooks were banned for use in high schools (probably a good thing, as they tend to be very culturally and pragmatically irrelevant; see my post here on why). There has been a crackdown on English after-school tutoring companies, especially foreign-owned ones, leading them to close. On the Gaokao, the national university entrance examination that determines whether a high school graduate goes to university and which universities they qualify for, English used to be accorded equal weight with Mandarin and Math. Now, the English exam weight has been reduced by 1/3, and it can be taken twice a year.

[Blogger’s note: All this points to English being less of a goal among the general Chinese public, though the upper-middle-class in the eastern cities tends to enroll in private Mandarin-English bilingual schools, which prepares them for postsecondary English education in Inner Circle English-speaking countries, bypassing the Gaokao altogether. With teachers who know how to practice effective bi/multilingual pedagogy, these students become fully proficient Mandarin-English bilinguals for academic and professional purposes. For the less privileged, there’s the option of English-medium offshore campuses in China that are partnerships between Chinese and Western universities. Here, Gaokao scores must be decent, but English scores can be low. (After all, students and parents spent the whole of secondary school mastering grammar-translation to get a high enough score on the Gaokao, seeing English fluency and oral communication as far less important because there was no practical use for them at the time.) This, of course, poses a challenge to students’ quality of postsecondary education in these “total-English-immersion-absolutely-no-translanguaging” environments… especially as some of these programs involve transfer to the Inner Circle country partner university for the second half of the 4-year undergraduate degree. My current doctoral students and I are exploring all these various kinds of secondary/postsecondary English education program types and the helpful role of translanguaging… which is as strongly forbidden in secondary/postsecondary education for the general public as it is made skilled use of in secondary/postsecondary education for the upper-middle-class, by bilingual teachers with strong academic proficiency in both languages and who embrace translanguaging.]

In the rural areas where Fleming formed partnerships, the Gaokao reflects a “transmission” model of teaching and testing; English on the Gaokao involves memorization of structures provided by language teacher. If a young person in a rural area can have even a small chance at postsecondary education, they must do well on the Gaokao. “Authentic” language teaching methods, even if changed to fit the rural Chinese context, such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT), Project-Based Learning (PBL), and Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) do not translate into higher Gaokao scores. And it is standardized English tests like the English portion of the Gaokao that are used to stratify, or divide, social classes in Outer and Expanding Circle English-speaking countries (see Kanno, 2003, on Japan, and Canagarajah, 1997, on Sri Lanka). The more privileged youngsters have more access to English and more reason to use it in their lives for both conversational and content learning purposes (going beyond grammar-translation), and they have a genuine future goal involving English, such as international postsecondary study. Thus, they do better when exposed to CLT, TBLT, PBL, and CLIL. If these “authentic” methods are to work with working-class or rural people, they must be adapted for their language needs, and this is very hard to do, as such communication involves translanguaging between English and other languages, and “authentic” English teaching methods like CLT/TBLT/PBL/CLIL are traditionally conceptualized as monolingual. Elites’ language learning and use is one-at-a-time and side-by-side, but translanguaging among the general public around the world is dynamic and fluid (Canagarajah & Wurr, 2012).

The classrooms Fleming and his colleagues observed in Yunnan and Gansu had 60 to 80 students. The main methodology employed was grammar/translation, with occasional use of audio-lingual technique. There was a simple overhead screen with a PowerPoint, and students repeated after the teacher… How could one do anything innovative, especially in terms of technology? It was “a very challenging work environment” with poor resources and pay, entrenched bureaucracy, and Gaokao pressure over desire to use English for conversation or in authentic ways. When we consider how impractical (monolingual) English conversation and “authentic” English teaching methods might have been in this setting, this view is not entirely unreasonable.

Fleming said: “These teachers are not paid very much. We visited their homes… These are very dedicated teachers. I admire them so much. They really put a tremendous amount of effort into teaching these large classes.”

Literature Review: What do we know about EFL teachers in China (and elsewhere)?

Naturally, teachers had mixed reactions to CLT and other associated pedagogies. “How useful is the English language for those students with no post-secondary ambitions? Is it enough to say that the language is important from a national or international perspective?” Historically, Chinese education has entered on the authority of the teacher. Fleming emphasized: “The West is not romanticized in these rural areas by students who really have no use for the language.”

Though they were supposed to be going to Canada for professional development, these “non-native English-speaking teachers” had a wealth of advantages for teaching their students, such as familiarity with the language learning process and an understanding of learners’ culture, as well as proficiency in the students’ language(s). At the same time, they had doubts about their English proficiency, lack of knowledge of the cultural and pragmatic aspects of English because it was not the dominant language in their society, and their limited access to the latest techniques/materials/approaches (but see this post on postmethod pedagogy). Overall, these professional strengths and insecurities caused by colonialism and linguistic imperialism are not true only for English teachers in China, but for teachers in Outer/Expanding Circles more generally.

Methods

The goals of the “West China Project” were: (1) ESL/EFL teaching methodologies, (2) English language acquisition, and (3) Cultural exchange. (I know… what program of this sort doesn’t have these goals?) These 104 experienced primary teachers from Yunnan and Gansu lived in campus housing at the University of Ottawa for three months. They listened to lectures on applied linguistics theory, attended small group workshops on English teaching methodology, took English lessons themselves, participated in conversation clubs with volunteer graduate students, went on public school visits, and did other outings/field trips (for example to visit heritage language schools for indigenous languages on First Nations reservations). They were funded with scholarships from Beijing and accompanied by a Chinese scholar; in fact, the curriculum was developed with a partner university, the Beijing Foreign Languages and Culture University, which is a very reputable university in China for foreign language learning.

Yet recall the conditions in rural China, including very little student interest in English or higher education in general, a highly multicultural and multilingual population (in this case, there are actually parallels with the indigenous peoples in Canada), and low socioeconomic status schools. How did the teachers experience the program? And what experiences did they have after returning to China? Fleming and his colleagues tried to answer these questions using surveys, interviews, focus groups, classroom observations and video-taped presentations… all part of the “mountain of data” that had to be analyzed in moral and ethical ways.

Below, I summarize the findings as (1) Benefits, (2) Critical Pedagogy, and (3) Challenges.

1. Benefits

After taking the program, teachers favoured more student-centred teaching approaches. Even if they were teaching large classes, they realized that they needed to get students talking and doing, co-constructing meaning in order to learn.

People seemed very willing to support each other through the program. The teachers’ oral English proficiency was limited and the university lecturers knew zero Chinese, so getting meaning across in lectures could be difficult (e.g., to explain what colonialism is in someone’s second language). However, they worked through it, as well as the difficult IT conditions: when communicating across campuses, the IT was great in the capital of Canada and not so great in western China. [On the plus side, I imagine this could give the people in the Education department a deeper understanding of their privilege to better anticipate what might or might not be available when Education students went on teaching practicum to low resourced schools in the city or on reservations. Around the world, this is something that people in elite Education faculties at universities sometimes forget when training teachers: how the schools they prepare teachers for may not have the IT capacity of their university.]

The teachers found concrete activities and methods most useful—materials and activities they could bring to their classrooms. “It’s understandable,” said Fleming, and in this way they were similar to Education students at the university.

Over the course of just three months’ immersion, their oral English language acquisition increased substantially. Another kind of learning that seemed to surprise Fleming (as he gave the talk) was that they found Canada/U.S. differences surprising (though he did not go into what those were). I suppose North America seemed a giant, uniform space before they went there; after going there, they could better distinguish between its parts. (I had the same experience after moving to China.)

The teachers found models of student-centred methodology inspiring, and models of collaborative teaching useful, e.g., how to do team teaching. They found Canadian models of multiculturalism and bilingualism valuable. They went home with “reignited” enthusiasm for teaching. At the same time, they saw a lot of hard work ahead to disseminate what they learned, such as by giving workshops to colleagues—“That’s a lot of work on top of what they were already doing,” Fleming said.

2. Critical Pedagogy

While the university tried to use indigenous content, there could be problems with this. Western universities can do this to feature the “uniqueness” of their settings, but in this way they are making their indigenous communities into tourist attractions. Fortunately, because this partnership was with multilingual, multicultural parts of rural China, they were able to make parallels. They took the visitors to a reservation where there was a thriving Algonquin language program—showing that this group was successful in fighting for their language and culture.

They taught critical content to challenge the “native speaker” standard and Anglo-American English—trying to help teachers take pride in their professionalism. The program delivery was “decentralized” and distributed across different teachers and lecturers, as well as being shared with colleagues in China who helped shape the curriculum and teach. Everyone normalized bi- and multilingualism, and the teachers got to see public schools where they could see what that looked like in Canada.

The Canadian lecturers admitted the “dogmatic” interpretations of CLT (and associated methodologies like TBLT, PBL, and CLIL) if applied uncritically around the world. They also questioned black-and-white differentiations between the East and the West, and the political nature of English teaching and learning (both past and present). They emphasized adapting CLT to local Yunnan and Gansu conditions—“not an easy thing to do.” About the teachers, Fleming reported: “They really were trying to ascertain what was useful for them and what was not useful for them.” He also added that they did come up with “quite inventive” solutions, e.g., group work and team teaching.

3. Challenges

The question still arose: “How do we report research that presumes cause-effect linearity, fixed identities and trajectories, without reinforcing the centre-periphery dichotomy?” At the end of the day, when the program report is written, all participants need to claim that because the teachers went to Canada and did the program, they became more professional. It always had to look positive. This affected the objectivity and authenticity of data. There were no “third party researchers” (instructors, teachers, and researchers often being the same people). “How do we do Global ELT study-abroad research that is critical of our subject positions?” he asked. The program made a great deal of money, compared to how much the teachers made, and helped to pull them out of debt as a faculty.

Teachers also expected to be instructed how to teach, as this is what they were prepared for in China. But even after having visited the teachers’ schools and seeing the difficulty of their teaching conditions, Fleming admitted in his lecture: “I don’t know China! … I certainly don’t know the conditions under which these teachers were working. But they were very insistent that we do this. They wanted to have a curriculum…”

He also felt pressure to partner the research in China with top-tiered rather than lower-ranked universities, with reputations comparable to the University of Ottawa. “We lost a lot of opportunities to work with local school districts and local universities. [Voicing colleagues] ‘Why aren’t you working with Beijing Normal University?’ Well Beijing Normal isn’t giving us access to the students we want to meet… We’re told, ‘University of Ottawa has this ranking…’”

Wrapping Up + Fleming’s Response to Q&A

Fleming argues that we need to draw on response-able methodologies when doing this kind of work (Bozalek & Zembylas, 2017; Murris & Bozalek, 2019). Institutional texts must be read between the lines for their practical implications, beyond deconstructing and labelling things as wrong or offensive [something the American and Canadian liberal elite like to do]. There is always a need to critique epistemic dependency (i.e., knowledge dependency) on the West, and critiquethe dominant discourse of gratitude” for the opportunity to study abroad that is part of every partnership between the West and the rest. Teachers could not so strongly tell researchers what they didn’t like about the program, especially if they had scholarships sponsored by their country. If examined in an unbiased way, results of the program would probably have been mixed: he reported that some teachers, on coming back to China, received teaching awards, but others abandoned their attempts to adopt CLT.

Overall, he concluded: “The empire’s changed [U.S. to China], but the class dynamic seem to be with us still.” In every type of English-speaking country (i.e., in every country), “the elites weaponize English,” and their ways of using English—just look at Prof. Higgins. I myself commented in the Zoom chat:

So interesting to hear what happens in the rural areas! I work in Hong Kong University and the cosmopolitan middle class in the coastal areas is, in contrast, totally into private English-Mandarin bilingual secondary schooling… with systematic bilingual pedagogy to prepare them for higher education in English-dominant countries. It works quite well: Mandarin is shared by all and helps them to learn English across the disciplines, and they bypass the Gaokao. (My EdD student says if you get 1 point higher, you displace thousands in the ranks!)

The cohort was the last (4th) cohort in a 4-year project. Even though I don’t know what parts of China the previous cohorts came from, Fleming said that by this time, the researchers had a pretty good idea what they were dealing with, in terms of the teachers’ challenges, and I imagine that even in the well-off coastal areas, large classes and teacher-fronted learning would still predominate in public schools (e.g., in Hong Kong).

What I do like about Fleming is that he attempted to make the partnership as “critical” as possible within the parameters that he had. Briefly, these are the takeaways as I see them:

  1. Always try to teach ELT from a critical perspective (see “#2: Critical Pedagogy,” above).
  2. Find out as much as you can about the teachers’ actual teaching conditions. In Fleming’s case, he actually visited the teachers’ schools in Yunnan and Gansu.
  3. Try to get third party researchers specializing in different methods (e.g., mixed methods, ethnography)… if only, for example, graduate students who are not working in the program or belong to different departments, and explain to the visiting teachers that these are third party researchers doing research for their individual theses and dissertations. In this way, more critical feedback on the program might be obtained for the purposes of further theorizing the benefits and challenges of such study abroad experiences.

References

Bozalek, V., & Zembylas, M. (2017). Diffraction or reflection? Sketching the contours of two methodologies in educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education30(2), 111–127. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2016.1201166

Canagarajah, A. S. (1993). Critical ethnography of a Sri Lankan classroom: Ambiguities in student opposition to reproduction through ESOL. TESOL Quarterly27(4), 601–626. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587398

Canagarajah, A. S., & Wurr, A. J. (2011). Multilingual communication and language acquisition: New research directions. The Reading Matrix11(1), 1–15.

Kachru, B. B. (1986). The alchemy of English: The spread, functions, and models of non-native Englishes. University of Illinois Press.

Kanno, Y. (2003). Imagined communities, school visions, and the education of bilingual students in Japan. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education2(4), 285–300. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327701JLIE0204_4

Murris, K., & Bozalek, V. (2019). Diffracting diffractive readings of texts as methodology: Some propositions. Educational Philosophy and Theory51(14), 1504–1517. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2019.1570843

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

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