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Archived Content from Conference Held in May 1999 

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


Towards a new knowledge-base of
second language teacher education

Donald Freeman, School for International Training
Karen E. Johnson, Pennsylvania State University

Moving beyond the historical and theoretical traditions that have defined teacher education in TESOL over the last quarter century, in this plenary address we argue for a reconceptualization of the knowledge-base of second language teacher education. Under the rubric of 'second language teacher education' (SLTE), we include TESOL teacher education as well as second language teaching and second language teacher education more generally. While we acknowledge that the teaching of different languages is shaped by their respective cultures and literatures, we find common shortcomings in defining what second language teachers are seen as needing to know and be able do in order to teach successfully.

The challenge, in our view, is to account for the socially embedded nature of language teaching and of learning to teach. Thus we propose to view the teacher as a learner of teaching, schools and schooling as socio-historical contexts within which teacher learning and teaching take place, and language teaching and language learning as activities which are embedded in this context. Together these three domains--the teacher learner, schools and schooling, and teaching as activity--form a tripartite framework which we use to elaborate a new epistemological view that accounts for second language teaching as it is learned and as it is practiced.

A different epistemological view of English language teacher education

In this plenary, we offer a framework that connects the activity of language teaching to the person who does it and the time and place in which it is done. Drawing on the approaches of socio-cultural and activity theory, as well as research in teacher cognition, learning, and socialization, we seek to broaden the conversation about what constitutes teaching knowledge in TESOL and how that knowledge is learned both formally, through professional training and education, and informally, through life experience.

The position which we propose stands in contrast to the professional history, curriculum structures, and many teacher education practices in TESOL. To date, the knowledge-base has been rooted in a binary structure which opposes subject matter (the English language) and learners. Theory and practice in second language teaching and second language teacher education have generally made this duality an operating principle. Indeed it is instantiated in common forms and practices ranging from the contrast between grammar and communication in second language teaching, to the contrast between core professional knowledge, generally learned in the university lecture hall, and the teaching practicum in SLTE. The binary framework is rooted in the disciplinary antecedents of second language teaching, particularly linguistics, applied linguistics, and literature on the one hand, and cognitive psychology on the other. It presents methodology as the bridge between what is taught, the subject matter, and those who are learning it. The current knowledge-base creates what is basically a transmission view of language teaching and learning. This view has substantial and troubling implications for issues ranging from teacher credentialing and licensure (i.e. that teachers can be tested for their knowledge apart from their classroom practice), to improving classroom teaching (i.e. that different materials and 'new' methods can improve the transmission of content), and to educational reform (i.e. that expertise can be repackaged through professional development).

An agenda for the new knowledge-base

In contrast, we argue that the knowledge-base of second language teacher education needs to understand teacher learning within the social, cultural, and institutional contexts in which it takes place. Thus we believe that views of what constitute legitimate knowledge in TESOL must be broadened to include a wider variety of paradigms and practices, including the work of classroom practitioners. To operationalize the systemic framework which we are proposing, we must examine the nature and experiences of language teacher-learners throughout their careers, from the time they first participate in the practices of schooling. We must also examine schools and schooling as contexts of participation both in and over time. We need to understand more about how schools as communities of meaning shape language teaching and learning, and how they contribute to the formative nature of schooling and the meanings that develop and are sustained through them. Thus ultimately we argue the new knowledge-base must become grounded in the time, place, and activity of language teaching. It must feature the perspectives, experiences, and beliefs of the protagonists about the content and the learning-teaching process.

Our view does not reject the importance of theorizing about language as content or second language learning in their own rights. Clearly these are necessary and useful epistemological undertakings. However, we do contend that the results of such research and theorizing are not relevant or applicable per se to second language teaching and learning. For the purposes of educating second language teachers and for understanding second language teaching as classroom practice, any theory of second language acquisition, classroom methodology, or description of the English language as content must be understood against the backdrop of teachers' professional lives, within the settings where they work, and within the circumstances of that work. Thus we seek to blend conceptual knowledge (known as theory) and perceptual knowledge (known as practice) in order to inform and reform educational practices in second language teaching and in second language teacher education.


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