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Teaching English: Reflecting on stance and scope

Winter 2004 Magazine
Professor Diarmuid Leonard, University of Limerick.Teacher stance and the teaching of English
In the professional development that accompanies large-scale curriculum change perhaps the most profound changes, from the teacher’s viewpoint, is what, following Bruner, Elliott (1998) has called the stance of the teacher, i.e. a characteristic point of view about the uses of the subject in relation to the students’ education. However, Elliott goes further arguing that to develop a point of view about the subject requires teachers to adopt a characteristic view of their own role. Here we consider what this means in relation to the teacher of English.

The dominant stance that tradition handed on and that, no doubt, continues to persist (since traditions die hard in education) was to view knowledge as a revered body of subject matter which the teacher transmitted, in the form of propositions which were mastered by the student. Over recent decades, the significance of subject knowledge in English and other disciplines has changed. In the changing stance of the English teacher, knowledge is viewed as an invitation to teachers to extend their professional knowledge in the ways they represent knowledge to children. Subject knowledge becomes, in Elliott’s term, ‘a resource for thinking about the problem of living’. Viewed in this light, English is a subject of immense potential in many areas of students’ personal development, not least its contribution into learning to reflect on the human condition.

The teacher-inquirer

The question then is: In a society such as ours, marked by fast change, contradictory values and uncertain future, how are the resources of English to be best employed to engage students in reflecting on problems of living, communicating and understanding one’s world? Given that no one can be certain about answers to such questions, the teacher interprets and shapes the curriculum through reflective experimentation in the wealth of resources that are available in the study of English. The teacher stance is not to look unquestioningly to traditional norms and routines to determine how to teach, but to inquire into issues of practice: finding answers takes the form of classroom action as well as arriving at a deeper understanding of issues arising.
Neither can a preordained intellectual or affective response be expected of the student since the students, too, are testing their capacity to respond to the open-ended cultural challenge of responding to language and literature. What counts from the student is the student’s own capacity to respond.

Teaching, for example, Othello, Elliott (1991:30) considers the English teacher’s stance is to offer the Shakespearean play for study as a resource to reflect on the motivations, passions, moral and ethical issues, and dilemmas of the human condition. The teacher is aware that outcomes of reflection and meaning-making are not predictable, and that it is not always obvious which strategies are best suited to the context. The teacher approaches the play in an experimental mode, knowing that education in difficult cultural subject matter is an uncertain venture where total success is rare and never guaranteed: every resource and teaching strategy is in some sense an experiment to be tested in each lesson.

The teacher-inquirer tries out the selected strategy and investigates what happens, with the aim of understanding and improving personal practice. As reflective learners who are active makers of meaning, the students are participants in the experiment. Where both students and teachers have participated in a educationally valuable and fulfilling mutual process, a challenge to teachers as professional lifelong learners-through-inquiry is to understand and gain insights into their own practice and the teaching of English.

Recognising intrinsic difficulties in teaching English is, of course, not at all easy, nor is change in one’s classroom practice. A fundamental principle to be recognised is that teaching at one’s best is difficult, and therefore in need of reflective investigation. Principles that guide high-quality English classrooms do not make for easy teaching; instead they make demands on teacher professionalism in ways that pedestrian transmission of content does not. Recognising the complexity and difficulty of teaching, and acknowledging the need to inquire into practice are prerequisites in personal commitment to pursuing quality in teaching. Some of the principles that guide high-quality classrooms include:
· teaching English is best guided by educational values and principles rather than by narrowly examination-driven objectives
· the teacher engages students in a tripartite, continuing conversation between teacher, students, and the resources of English
· the teacher must live professionally with ambiguity, tension and dilemma in exploiting the resources of the subject and inquire into their resolution.

It is because teaching is difficult that highly competent teachers invest time and personal effort of many kinds – intellect, imagination, reflective ability and inventiveness – in approaching challenges inherent in excellence. There was a time when teaching was easier, making few such demands on practitioners. But few of today’s teachers of English would want to return to a different era when schools were concerned more with recall than understanding, more with students’ acceptance of received opinions on literature than with their capacity to think for themselves. Teacher inquiry offers an intellectually honest and professionally productive way of responding to dilemmas encountered by competent teachers who contemplate proposed new approaches in teaching English.

Difficulty and inquiry

One area of such difficulty recurs in recent literature on teacher inquiry into teaching English. Everywhere teachers are aware of tensions between traditional values and emphasis on control as against the spontaneity of classes where participation is encouraged. In this regard Hargreaves describes such participative and co-operative classrooms as ‘filled with spontaneity, unpredictability, danger and desire’. Against such an image of the classroom which probably most teachers of English would wish to realise in their practice, Hargreaves poses a contrast. Where on the other hand order and predictable responses are preferred to spontaneous and authentic responses, classrooms that domesticate such spontaneity, are ‘controlled, contrived, and ultimately superficial in character’ (1994: 174). Gloria Vella (1999) quotes an Australian teacher of some first-generation immigrant children regarding such a dilemma in his teaching.

“A very diverse group to teach, but at times they can get a little out of control,” said Mr.T, the high school E.S.L. teacher. “I would like these students to feel comfortable to interact in my class, since this is one of their only classes that they can be with friends from their native country. How do you create a fun, interactive environment, but at the same time, control their anxiety levels?” he questioned.

Mr T.’s question is a potential starting point for teacher research into tensions between interactivity and anxiety. When Gloria addressed this dilemma through her own action research, she was guided by the question: ‘How do we get the students actively engaged in their work while maintaining order in the classroom?’ Gulla (2003) describes how likewise Darlene, teaching English in New York. sensed a disjunction between her actual practice and the personal beliefs that guided her practice. What she wanted the children in her class to do was ‘to be able to sit and listen to directions and enjoy the learning’. She expressed her image of the desirable classroom of English like this:

When I have control, I can see what they can do. I want be able to put them in groups, I want them to be able to be creative, but sometimes you just have to do what you are told. I’ll give them moments during the day to do what they want. (Gulla 2003:156).
On reflection it becomes clear that wanting students to be creative but only at prescribed moments during the day is a contradiction best approached through teacher inquiry. As the examples illustrate teacher inquiry ranges over the constant fact of tension between dilemma and desire, aspiration and achievement, self and practice, values and actuality. But such tensions are inseparable in classrooms where teachers aspire for excellence in teaching.

Scope for imaginative teaching and teacher-inquiry

Fortunately however not all is stacked against the teacher-inquirer in English. As conceptions of English as subject have changed, so too have classrooms in ways that open up possibilities for the teacher of English. Classrooms see a greater degree of student participation. Student-active learning finds limitless scope in the primary skills of English: speaking, listening, reading, writing. As inventive teachers constantly show, focus on language and literature need not be a dry and dusty affair. Much classroom study in English generates student-active participation in role-play, mime, drama, debating, and group discussion, among others. High levels of active personal response in learning engagement are called for, too, in critical thinking, creative writing and the enjoyment of literature and language.

Broadly then, conditions and possibilities in classrooms facilitate student-active conceptions of English in ways that favour the view of student learning and student stance presented earlier. At the same time the wealth of resources, in an expanding changing subject, enables teachers of English to adopt the stance that while the subject poses dilemmas in realising curriculum, it also opens up opportunity to exploit and test its resources of language and literature in their many forms in a lifelong reflective project of interpreting, experimenting and inquiring into the fascinating and rewarding profession of teaching English.

Becoming a lifelong inquirer and learner

Classrooms of English never cease to throw up unique situations for teacher inquiry – successes to be understood, issues to be identified, tensions to be minimised, dilemmas to be resolved or lived with. This is why Clarke and Erickson (2003) prefer to speak of teachers’ ‘professional knowing’ – a process of learning that is ongoing, tentative and evolutionary –’ rather than of teachers’ ‘professional knowledge’, since the term knowledge may imply learning that is fixed and completed. For those who appreciate that to teach English is a difficult, complex and rewarding professional challenge, scope for reflective inquiry and learning never diminishes.

Professor Diarmuid Leonard of the University of Limerick has worked in the area of teacher education and development in Ireland, North and South for many years. His work has contributed to the fusion of curriculum change and teacher professional development. He has published widely, particularly in the field of teacher enquiry and action research.


Elliott, J. (1998) The Curriculum Experiment: Meeting the Challenge of Social Change. Buckingham: Open University Press

Gulla A.N. (2003) ‘’Poetic moments in the classroom’’, in Clarke, A and Erickson, G (eds) (2003) Teacher Inquiry: living the research in everyday practice, pages 154-161. London: Routledge Falmer.

Vella, G. (1999) ‘’Teacher bares all.’’ Available online: http://educ.queensu.ca/~ar/oerc97/
Hargreaves, A. (1994) Changing teachers, changing times: teachers’ work and culture in the postmodern age. London: Cassell.

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Created: February 14, 2006 16:10.
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