Worm's-Eye View; The Impact of Policy and Research on the Classroom Practitioner
This paper is written from the perspective of a long-serving expatriate classroom practitioner working in the Arab Gulf, and is based on a presentation given at the 2013 Fourth Annual Gulf Comparative Education Symposium. It offers a critical examination of Kennedy's (2001) model of Language Policy and Planning, explaining how that model operates within the Arab Gulf educational context, but simultaneously questioning Kennedy's relegation of teachers to the category of "variables".
The paper argues that teachers ought to be regarded as far more than delivery agents who are tasked with passing on a set curriculum to a homogenous student population, and guaranteeing results that will satisfy the demands of external stakeholders. It suggests that truly dedicated teachers share specific inspirational qualities, and have also adopted recognizable "best practices" that make then central to the entire educational process.
Context domain learner planning policy stakeholder variable.
This paper is entitled Worm's-Eye View – and I am the worm. I am a serving classroom teacher, or classroom practitioner if you want to use a fancier euphemism. I began teaching in 1972, and in the last 40 years, one thing that has remained unchanged is the contempt that many employers, managers and stakeholders demonstrate when dealing with classroom practitioners.
McCourt (2005; 157) explains:-
This aspect of education policy, therefore, probably has global application. Paradoxically, lesser rewards are offered to those teachers who fulfill their job descriptions and actually TEACH. Dornyei (2001; 169) suggests that this situation can be rectified by "introducing titles such as 'super-teachers' or 'master-teachers' within the educational hierarchy" but that is questionable.
The award of titles like "Teacher of the Year" apart from engendering jealousy and divisions within staffrooms, also offer hostages to fortune. There is, for example, the case of Sandra Hadsock, who taught at the Central High School in Hernando Country, Florida. In 2010 she was their Teacher of the Year. Do a Youtube search for Sandra Hadsock and you find a video of her punching a student in the face. She actually does it twice. This inevitably raises doubts, not only about the validity of her award but also, possibly unfairly, about the other candidates for that same title.
In the 1970s, British Further Education was encumbered with an almost Byzantine hierarchy of titles. The intention was to offer a clear career path. In reality, it encouraged ambitious teachers to plan their next career move almost as soon as they arrived in post, creating a level of disruption that a simpler arrangement might have avoided.
This segues neatly into Kennedy's (2001; 36) model of Language Policy and Planning (Figure 1). This model has been chosen because it directly refers to the situation that applies in the Arab Gulf, and to its "mismatches between language policies, the realities of the social situation outside the classroom and pedagogical practice" (Kennedy 2001; 39). The model works down the page, starting at the highest level – International and National Context – socio-economic; political; cultural; linguistic – and ending up at the very bottom with the classroom teachers – the worms – who are mentioned only in the context of variables.
International and National Context
Classroom practitioners, of course, are not supposed to concern themselves with the international or national contexts of language planning. In military parlance, such concerns are "above their pay grade".The most dramatic, recent example of such planning, however, was the 2008 announcement by the Government of Rwanda that henceforward the official language would be English, not French (Vesperini 2010). So far as the Rwandan government was concerned, France had been complicit in genocide and civil war (Smith 2011), and so, in future, Rwanda would look east to the Anglophone countries of Africa.
National Policy and Planning (non-linguistic)
Now clearly, this type of policy change has an impact. The Rwandan decision has stretched that country's resources almost to breaking point (De Lotbiniere 2010), but the problems faced by classroom practitioners are mainly logistical. A shortfall in teacher numbers means larger classes and overcrowded classrooms. Lack of resources means shared, or no, books
National Planning and Policy (non-linguistic) is effectively a misnomer, for it has three strands – educational policy and planning; language policy planning and human resource planning. It is easy for governments to announce policy changes. The difficulties come in ensuring that those policy changes are actually carried out. For example, a lack of human resources can invalidate both language and educational policy and planning.
This could be the situation that applied in Saudi Arabia in the period 2002 to 2004. Following the notorious fire at a girls' school in Mecca, the Saudi government revised its education system and it was announced that English would be introduced in Grade 6 of primary education. The Ministry of Education had initially intended to introduce English in Grade 4, but it is entirely possible that they were unable to find enough teachers.
Language Domain Policy/Planning
This takes us into the next level of Kennedy's model, and this is where the impact of policy and research really begins to impact on the classroom practitioner. Clearly Kennedy's list of domains is not intended to be exclusive, but for present purposes, it is sufficient to consider the five areas of education, government, law, media and business.
At the highest level, the days when there was open control of the Arab Gulf states by English speaking expatriates (Innes 1987; Henderson 1988) have passed.
The move to government in Arabic was, of course, inevitable. It gives an advantage to the national populations when official business is conducted in Arabic. Code-switching is accepted among the Arab stakeholders, but expatriates are required to rely on translations. This places them at a double disadvantage. They are excluded from important decision making both by virtue of their nationality, and by the pragmatic requirements of the local forms of Arabic.
Until very recently, the same double disability applied to legal language. In all the Gulf Arab states, the law was based on Shari'a, and proceedings were conducted in Arabic. As a result of globalization and altered economic circumstances, however, there is now a slight shift towards English, particularly in the area of commercial law.
This is partly an unforeseen consequence of the economic recession that hit Dubai in the years 2008-2010. With hindsight, it is clear that Dubai placed far too much faith in an unsustainable property boom. The bursting of that bubble, and the following retrenchment, led to a blizzard of litigation, and a realization that the Shari'a code of law was simply unsuited to the complexity of many of the cases.
In Oman, by coincidence, a totally different set of circumstances produced a similar outcome. In 2010 the actual fabric of the Oman College of Law and Shari'a had become physically unsafe. The College therefore transferred to the campus of the Sultan Qaboos University, and became an integral part of SQU. At the same time, it was decided that students at the new College of Law should be required to reach the same minimum competence in English as all other SQU undergraduates. That meant that the SQU Language Centre was obliged to accept some 200 additional undergraduates. The implications of that decision will be discussed later.
All Arab Gulf states offer a bilingual media, with the local publishing houses printing Arabic and English versions of what is essentially the same publication. Across the Arab Gulf, the reportage also reflects the population composition of the English literate readership.
More importantly, however, use of English reflects the nationalities of the journalists. South Asians use terms current in Indian English, with the result that reporters are referred to as "scribes" and photographers become "lensmen". The quality of writing can also be clichéd, probably because India has its own English language press, and the Indian journalists employed in the Arab Gulf would only be writing for provincial publications back home. The clichés, however, can seep into the writing of Arab Gulf students, particularly when well-intentioned teachers refer them to the local English language press, or even to the weekly free newspapers.
In the Arab Gulf, English is now the primary language of business, but in that respect the Gulf is no different from the rest of the world. Even in the smallest, most remote villages, however, retail shop signs are bilingual in Arabic and English, although this simply reflects the shops' customer base. For commercial purposes, the high percentage of expatriate workers in the Gulf has resulted in English becoming a lingua franca (Troudi 2002), used among non-Arabic speakers, and between Arabic speakers and expatriates.
What should not be forgotten, however, is that the citizens of the Arab Gulf resemble those of Singapore and Hong Kong, and that they "learn English because they want to compete with the Anglo world, rather than join it." (Babrakzai; 2004)
This returns us to Kennedy's model, and the division of English language as either a subject, or a medium. Kennedy includes the acronym EAP, but it is open to question whether EAP (English for Academic Purposes) is applicable to all levels. The literature (Jordan 1997; Flowerdew and Peacock 2001; Hyland 2006) suggests that it is not.
It oversimplify, it could be argued that English is taught as a subject at primary and secondary school levels, and that it becomes the medium of instruction at tertiary level. This is certainly true for the Arab Gulf students who have attended the public schools. It is not, however, universally true, which is why this model is an oversimplification. Wealthier Arab parents often choose to send their children to private schools, where at least part of the instruction is in English.
The ethnography of the Gulf states is such that even very young children are aware that service encounters may require code shifting into "a common medium for communication." Within the public school system itself, however, much depends on the quality of the input, or the materials and the teaching.
English-medium Education, of course, does not rely on locally produced texts, but English-medium Education has generally remained the preserve of private schools, international schools, and those schools which have been established to serve the needs of specific expatriate communities. In the latter case, these follow the syllabi of their parent nations.
At tertiary level, the Arab Gulf countries have generally employed an English-medium approach, with the exception of subjects like Arabic, Islamic Studies, Shari'a, History and sometimes Geography. This has been criticized by both Troudi (2002) and Habbash (2008) who have a good deal of logic on their side. There is no real reason why tertiary education in the Arab Gulf should not be conducted in Arabic, other than the fact that doing so would be to swim against the current linguistic tide. It might also suggest, to the national population, that local universities were offering a devalued education.
Now this brings us to the role of variables. In many cases, these are the unforeseen circumstances that can have major impacts on both educational institutions and their teachers.
The first variable can be the stakeholders, of whom Kennedy makes no mention. Parents are one such variable, but government policy can be another.
In Oman, at tertiary level, the demands of the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA) have impacted on both teachers and students. The OAAA, however, was established with the best of intentions. His Majesty the Sultan's commitment to education is total: "From the moment we assumed our responsibilities in this land, education was one of our constant pre-occupations; in fact, one could say it was our main concern." (Qaboos bin Said; 2000).
It was precisely to avoid the development of a two-tier tertiary education system that the OAAA was established, tasked with ensuring that all Omani tertiary educational institutions provided instruction in English, Mathematics and ICT. That way, the credibility of Omani degree certificates would be guaranteed. Oman's qualifications would have international currency.
The devil, however, is in the details. We now accept Gardner's (1983;1993;2006) theory of multiple intelligences. We should therefore also accept that not all students are equally gifted in all areas, and that some will probably lack specific intelligences. Why, therefore, should we require future English/Arabic translators to pass Foundation Level courses in Mathematics?
Reference has already been made to the cohort of Law students who joined SQU in the Fall 2011 Semester. Prior to their arrival, it was assumed, on zero evidence, that because they were studying Law, they would be high level entrants to the English programme. In fact, the reverse was the case. Many of them experienced difficulty in completing the Foundation Level course. The reason for this was simple. Knowing that their English was weak, many students had specifically opted to study Law, because, at the time of their choice, Law had been described as an Arabic medium subject.
Kennedy's "input" clearly refers to what is taught in the classroom, and as anybody who has ever taught is fully aware, materials, no matter how good, are always deficient in one way or another.
In the 1970s it was generally assumed that teachers would supplement published materials, partly because the materials then on offer were limited in both content and application. From the publisher's point of view, there is a limit to the number of pages that can be profitably printed for a dollar. From the perspective institutions, or of teachers, there is also a limit to the number of pages that can be covered in a semester or an academic year.
Today, by contrast, we have the "teacher-proof" course – the Student Book; the Workbook (with and without answers); the Teacher's Book; the CDs; sometimes DVDs; an associated website; a recommended dictionary with its own CDs and website; and occasionally even recommended graded readers.
The immediate effect of this is to reduce some teachers to little more than "delivery agents" (Burns 2011); deskilling them to the extent that they are unable to operate without a battery of print and ICT support devices.
In the same way, many students in Omani tertiary education now have to adhere to the demands of the OAAA, following Foundation Level courses in English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) which operate "under the premise that four skills are all that is needed to learn a new language" (Ntombela 2012; 145).
A further complication here is that stakeholder demands may conflict with each other. On the Foundation Programme at the Language centre at SQU, it is now a requirement that students research and produce a 500 word essay. For many students, this is the longest piece of continuous English prose that they will ever have written, and while experience proves that it is within their capabilities, some students still find the task daunting. For that reason, writing tutors give support, writing teachers scaffold the task, a series of checks are in place to ensure that plagiarism is avoided, and to ensure that the essays reach an acceptable standard.
This, however, has not prevented criticism from some Credit Programme teachers that the former Foundation Programme students "can't write a simple sentence." This, clearly, is exaggerated nonsense. It would obviously be impossible to produce a 500 word, researched essay on any topic if that charge were true. This complaint really means that, on the Foundation Programme, time constraints have meant paying less attention to decontextualised grammar, and so some of the students who enter Credit Programmes may have gaps in their knowledge.
These gaps, however, may themselves be the result of their secondary, and indeed, primary school experience. It is an open secret that, year-on-year, Omani students never finish "the book." They are, moreover, taught to learn-and-forget. School teaching focusses on end-of-term examinations. Material from previous terms, or previous years, is seldom revised. Although the school materials appear to offer a smooth transition, in reality the last unit of "the book" is never touched.
Everything that has previously been said, moreover, presupposes homogeneous learners who subscribe to Freire's (1974) "banking" concept of education. They sit still while teachers deposit knowledge into their empty heads.
Once again, reality intrudes. We easily accept that some students have difficulty in making the transition from Secondary to Tertiary Education. That is a worldwide phenomenon. It applies to students who are the descendents of several generations of graduates and who are studying in their L1. In the Arab Gulf, most undergraduates are still the first generation of Tertiary education students, and they move from Arabic medium to English medium instruction, so the strain must be that much greater. This is the reason that we have Foundation, or Preparatory Year Programmes.
Furthermore, in those PYPs, students move from complete teacher-dependence to a diluted kind of semi-autonomy; from adherence to a strict timetable to being responsible for their own work schedule; from the lavish rewards of secondary marking (Al Issa 2009) to a less generous system. All this is necessary because the students, while READY for Tertiary level studies by virtue of having completed the Secondary cycle, and not PREPARED for Tertiary level study. They lack the skills that they will require to become independent learners – although again, they are not alone in that respect.
This variable deserves a paper in its own right. There are qualified, semi-qualified and unqualified teachers. There are native-speaking and non-native speaking teachers. There are motivated and unmotivated teachers, and there are frequently combinations of all these variables as well.
Troudi (2011) says that "Teaching is about passion, love of education and learning, inspiration, compassion, consideration of the other, dedication to trusting students, belief in the power of knowledge and an incessant attempt to make a difference to the lives of others."
In a study conducted with teachers at the Language Centre of SQU (Asante; Al-Mahrooqi and Abrar-ul-Hassan 2012) found that variables of gender, length of teaching experience and teacher qualifications all affected the importance that teachers placed on student motivation strategies. This is deeply significant, suggesting that the entire concept of teacher quality may be more fluid than has been assumed. More importantly, it also suggests that teachers' own attitudes may alter over time, and that such alteration may be part of professional growth.
Most important of all, however, was the finding that
These criteria meld with some of Troudi's recommendations, but they still ignore one crucial factor in the age of the "massification" and international mobility of the English teaching profession. Govardhan, Nayar and Sheory's (1999) question "Do US MATESOL Programs Prepare Students to Teach Abroad?" reached an emphatically negative conclusion. No similar study appears to have been conducted on UK programmes, but massive anecdotal evidence supports the suggestion that many teachers come to the Arab Gulf with naïve or negative stereotypes about the culture that they are entering. Indeed, a cursory glance at the discussion fora on Dave's EFL Café website produces evidence of the grossest forms of ignorant, racist abuse.
If "it is socioculturally and perhaps politically irresponsible to think that native speakers can go abroad and teach their own language without specialist training" (Govardhan, Nayar and Sheory 1999; 124), then surely it is even more foolish to imagine that expatriate non-native speakers can teach their L2 any more effectively.
By now it should be clear that the only impact of research on classroom practitioners occurs when policy-makers are influenced by research and institute top-down changes. This takes us back to Burns' suggestion that classroom practitioners are often little better than "delivery agents." Ur (2012; 4) reports a teacher telling her that "employers often convey the message that they would rather teachers did not 'waste their time' on conferences and reading when they could be in the classroom." This may rather overstate the case, but many teachers will have encountered managers whose enthusiasm for professional development is, at best, lukewarm.
At primary and secondary level, in particular, there is sometimes the suggestion that teachers who engage in professional development activities are somehow defective; that they have failed to learn the skills required for classroom survival. This negativity can come from management but, more alarmingly, it is often current in the staffroom. It comes from serving teachers whose self-image is threatened by new approaches, new ideas, or a colleague's enthusiasm for teaching.
At tertiary level, by contrast, institutions generally pay at least lip-service to the idea of professional development and research, although they may then fail to follow through. Collections of research papers (Clough and Nutbrown 2001; Gunn 2009; Wyatt and Austin 2009) appear from time to time, and TESOL Arabia publishes volumes of themed research, but this activity seems to have limited impact beyond the careers of the most committed enthusiasts.
To be frank, expatriate teachers of EFL/ESP/ EAP working in the Arab Gulf, no matter how prestigious and extensive their qualifications; no matter how broad and deep their experience; no matter how obvious their dedication, do not command a high level of respect. Even in tertiary education institutions, they work in Language Centres, not Faculties, and they are generally paid less than similarly qualified academics in those faculties.
Yet if there is one thing that is more expensive than education, it is ignorance. Stevens (2012) refers to Richardson's (2012) book Why School? which explains that our education systems "are designed on models of information scarcity, when now that we live in a world of abundance, people can, and do, learn what they want to know when they need to know it." (Stevens 2012; 54). At the same time, we organize our students' education on a time-frame that was designed to allow the children of nineteenth century peasants to help their parents take in the harvest – hence the long summer vacations (Von Drehle 2010), when socially advantaged parents enrich their children's lives with programmes of activities, and the socially disadvantaged children are allowed to forget much of what they have already learned.
This must change. The patterns of the nineteenth should not be imposed on the twenty-first century, and the assumptions of the nineteenth century should also be challenged.
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