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Archived Content from Conference Held in May 1999 

Building on our Strengths:
Second International Conference on Language Teacher Education


Teaching to the National Standards: The challenge of change

Mimi Met, Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools

Whether we teach in K-12 classrooms, supervise foreign language instruction, teach in postsecondary institutions, or train foreign language teachers, we teachers will be vital agents of the change process before us. How we teachers carry out our craft, how we choose to engage in instructional practice, will impact on whether the tomorrow's students are enabled to attain the outcomes delineated in the National Standards.

Teaching practices reflect what teachers believe about teaching and learning:

  • Teacher beliefs determine how teachers teach. (Ulichny,1996; Williams and Burden, 1997)
  • Teacher beliefs are often contradicted by teacher actions and behaviors. (Williams and Burden, 1996; Schön, 1988)
  • To effect lasting improvements in instructional practices it is necessary to help teachers understand the relationships between what they believe and know about student learning, and how beliefs shape teaching (Freeman,1996; Ulichny,1996; Willams and Burden,1996; Pennington, 1995; Schön, 1983)

Changing belief systems

When teacher beliefs are not supported by theory and research , changing teacher beliefs may be challenging. Research in science education may illuminate some of the reasons for this. In science education researchers have found that students often have erroneous or inaccurate understanding of science concepts. Student misconceptions are personally constructed explanations of scientific phenomena encountered in daily living. Numerous studies have identified some of the major characteristics of misconceptions.

  • Misconceptions, or alternative conceptions, differ from those held by experts in the field. (Fisher, 1985).
  • Misconceptions are intuitively logical and satisfying to the individual. As one author has phrased it, such individuals are intelligently wrong. (Prather, 1990; Eaton, Anderson, and Smith, 1983).
  • The same misconception may be shared by many individuals. (Fisher, 1985).
  • Misconceptions usually result from experience (especially those shared by many persons) and even from instruction. (Fisher, 1985).
  • Misconceptions are highly resistant to change, including explicit instruction. (Eaton, Anderson, and Smith, 1983; Fisher, 1985; Prather, 1990; Redish, 1994; Stepans, Beiswenger, and Dyche, 1986).

Misconceptions in science and cognitive constructivism Cognitive science may help to explain why misconceptions are so resistant to change. The human brain is programmed to seek patterns, to create meaning from experience. Thus, experience is a powerful shaping force in our understandings, whether of science or of how people learn language. Current theories of learning, particularly constructivism, acknowledge the powerful role played by background knowledge in learning. We construct new knowledge by building upon existing mental models, or schemata. In Piagetian terms, new understandings and knowledge are either assimilated into existing knowledge structures or accommodated in revised structures.

Existing knowledge structures, or schemata, act as filters to screen how new information is processed. As a result, new information is more likely to be assimilated into existing schemata when it is compatible with them. If the discrepancy between what is believed to be known and new information is too great, the new information may simply be rejected. "In Piagetian terms, learning occurs...as new cognitive structures are formed by the assimulation [sic] of new information sufficient to resolve disequilibrium resulting from conflict between a students observations and individual expectations. If the dissonance created by novel experiences is...too great to accommodate through cognitive restructure, learning will not occur" (Prather, 1990, p. 8). That is, when experiences provide information or evidence that contradicts existing mental models, learners are likely to misinterpret or distort that evidence so that it supports the existing models or to reject the evidence as irrelevant (Eaton, Anderson, and Smith, 1983; Miller, Steiner, and Larson, 1996; Prather, 1990; Stepans, Beiswenger and Dyche, 1986 ) .

Effective approaches to professional development:

Three current trends in professional development can be beneficial in promoting change in belief systems.

The teacher as reflective practitioner

Reflection "is defined as the purposeful, deliberate act of inquiry into ones thoughts and actions through which a perceived problem is examined in order that a thoughtful, reasoned response might be tested out (Loughran, 1995, p. 13). Reflective practitioners enhance their professional knowledge and skills by reflecting upon instructional situations and analyzing classroom experiences to try to solve instructional problems. (Schön, 1983; Pennington, 1995) Through careful attention to observations of classroom events teachers can gain deeper insights into the relationship between how they teach and how learners learn. Without such reflection, it is unlikely that day-to-day teaching experiences can result in lasting professional growth. To be effective, reflection must be systematic, and teachers must be careful to collect observational data that support the conclusions they derive from experience.

Socially constructed/mediated professional development

Learning is mediated through interaction with significant others (Vygotsky, 1962). Interactions with peers and expert others can help teachers build common understandings of their practice. (Corcoran, 1995; Fink and Raack, 1994; Kennedy and Wyrick, 1995).

Learners need to articulate their preconceptions (i.e., background knowledge and understandings) to highlight any of their misconceptions or incomplete understandings (Prather, 1990; Miller, Steiner and Larson, 1996; Redish, 1994). Interaction with significant expert others can help teachers confront contradictions between evidence, their practices, and their interpretations of their observations of student learning in their own classrooms. (Donato, 1997).

Job-embedded learning

Effective staff development programs recognize that teacher learning must emanate from important instructional problems teachers need and want to solve, and should help teachers explore the solutions in their own classrooms. Job-embedded learning may take multiple forms, including classroom-based action research, teacher participation in collegial study groups, and peer observation, among others. (Corcoran, 1995; Fine and Raack, 1994; Sparks and Hirsh, 1997).


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