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Reflective Practice as Professional Development
Experiences of Teachers of English in Japan
By Atsuko Watanabe
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2017 Atsuko Watanabe
All rights reserved.
Introduction and Preface: Embarking on the Journey of Reflective Practice
Because we are forced to....
A teacher's response to the question of why she and her colleagues attended the Ministry of Education's professional development seminars
This book narrates my exploration of reflective practice as a novice researcher studying seven (one participant in my pilot study and six in the main study) in-service high school teachers of English in Japan. At the time I embarked on the study in 2007, reflective practice, which is generally understood as a form of teacher development that takes place through close examination of one's own experiences and ideas in teaching, had received little attention in Japan. I planned to be as sensitive as possible to Japanese cultural conventions, while at the same time trying to avoid influencing the expression of the honne (real intent) of the participants and to distinguish reflection from the familiar Japanese practice of hansei (which is typically translated as negative reflection and is widely used in industry, education and other professional contexts).
In the event, my exploration of reflective practice turned out to be very different from what I had originally expected. Beyond cultural conventions, I learned the importance of simply being a sensitive researcher (Mann, 2011). Studying human activity, I learned, did not happen through being a detached researcher who 'objectively' observed the teachers' engagement in the study of reflective practice; rather, my interaction with the participants became an important factor in their reflective process. In addition, I found that cultural sensitivity meant considering local political and historical contexts, which are crucial to the introduction of any new approach.
My journey through the study of reflective practice has its origin in a specific sequence of distressing experiences in my professional life. In the spring semester of 2003, I found myself facing regular difficulty in my English language classes at the university in Tokyo, Japan, where I worked. I was often nervous and tense and unable to teach good lessons, and I did not feel comfortable interacting with my colleagues. I knew something was bothering me but I could not quite pinpoint what it was. One night, frustrated, I sat in front of a computer and started writing questions to myself in order to find out what was bothering me; after about 10 rounds of questions and answers, I began to see the cause of my anxiety: I was in the process of applying for a tenured position at the university and this was influencing my teaching and communication with my colleagues.
Identifying the cause of my stress did not solve all my problems at that time, but my tension was soothed by knowing that I had a legitimate reason to be nervous. I was amazed to find that a seemingly obvious cause of stress such as applying for promotion could be so hard to recognise, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, that the simple activity of asking myself questions could raise my own awareness so much. I did not know at that time that this self-inquiry was a well-established concept known as 'reflective practice'.
In the summer of 2003, a colleague and I were asked by our English language programme to lead compulsory one-day teacher training sessions for in-service public junior and senior high school teachers of English in Japan. These sessions were organised by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) under the action plan Japanese with English Abilities, launched in 2003 to foster the English abilities of Japanese nationals. My colleague (I will call her Hitomi) and I were asked to lead two sessions on the topic 'How to teach writing' to mixed groups of junior and senior high school teachers of English.
Simply put, the sessions were a total failure. The participants were reluctant to speak up and seemed unmotivated about being there. They were hesitant to engage in the activities that we had planned, and they were reluctant even to move their chairs into small groups to talk with other teachers. Even when they did talk, they did not want to speak in English. So, not surprisingly, the sessions did not achieve even half of what we had hoped to accomplish. That one day of 'training' remains among the most difficult and traumatic professional experiences that I have ever had.
After completing the sessions, Hitomi and I were both exhausted and, to be honest, surprised at our failure. Discussing the experience on the train that evening, we considered a number of questions: Why weren't the teachers motivated? Why didn't they seem interested in what we had to say? Why were the junior and senior high school teachers placed together for these sessions? Why did the education centre choose such a general topic – 'How to teach writing' – for these relatively diverse groups? Why were we, language teachers and not teacher educators, tapped to lead the sessions? (The education centres, located in each prefecture, are under the administration of MEXT.)
We first concluded that the education centre, and thus we, as the workshop leaders, had not been well prepared for the compulsory seminars, given that they were conducted as part of a new and unfamiliar scheme, namely the aforementioned action plan, Japanese with English Abilities. The education centre was under severe time constraints to design the curriculum and find trainers willing to hold sessions just five months after the plan was announced. This pressure, we thought, may have been one reason Hitomi and I, who were not teacher trainers, had been asked to lead the seminars.
Another reason for the failure of the sessions was probably our position as university-level instructors. Viewing English language instruction from the perspective of the university classroom made it difficult for us to create a rapport with teachers who worked in junior high and high schools. Our university may have made this rapport particularly unlikely, as it is unusually supportive of English language education. We were teaching in a programme where English was used as the sole medium of instruction and communication in the classroom. We were quite unfamiliar with the contexts in which these teachers worked, and with the different pedagogical roles assigned to them.
In Japan, junior high schools and high schools are typically considered to be stepping stones to the next higher tier, either in education or work; teachers are deemed responsible for the success of their students' progression. Teachers at the university level, on the other hand, do not assume such responsibility, being primarily associated with academic support rather than students' career paths. Hitomi and I had of course reviewed the government-approved textbooks used by most of the schools in which our seminar participants worked (all textbooks used in public schools in Japan have to be examined and approved by MEXT), but without experience in the junior or senior high classroom, we were not familiar with or sympathetic to the wider contexts in which they worked. Their roles as English teachers, their teaching schedules, the wide variety of students they taught and the time they were required to spend on extracurricular activities were simply not on our radar. After the session, some participants told us, 'This is a good idea but we don't have time for something like this'. As a rule, the reactions we received from the participating teachers in general confirmed our belief that there was a huge gap between what we offered and what they felt were their needs.
Not surprisingly, the dismay I felt after this experience led me to contemplate what I, a teacher of English at college level, could have offered to junior and high school teachers of English.
In 2004, Hitomi and I were again invited to be teacher trainers in the same programme. Eventually, we conducted teacher training seminars for five years until 2007. After 2004, some changes were implemented, such as dividing the participants into junior high school teachers and senior high school teachers, and changing the topic of the sessions to 'How to motivate students', a topic with more general interest for teachers from diverse contexts. These changes, along with more thorough preparation on the part of Hitomi and myself, seemed to result in more active participation by the teachers.
However, we still found the teachers reluctant to engage deeply. To gauge their sense of investment in the training, I started our sessions in 2005 by asking the teachers the reasons for their participation, expecting responses along the lines of 'teacher development'. However, the most common response was that they participated 'because we are forced', or because 'the authorities told us to'. Beneath the teachers' semi-humorous responses lay a profound reluctance to engage with us and a powerful sense of demotivation from being compelled to attend our seminar. Our informal findings that day echo the results of a questionnaire of in-service teachers conducted by Ashdown (2002: 124), which showed that 84 out of 112 teachers held negative experiences and impressions associated with in-service teacher development courses. Indeed, Ashdown was able to identify four categories of negative feelings about compulsory professional development events: they undermine a sense of professional autonomy; they are time consuming; they are isolating in that they tend to separate participants from their usual colleagues; and they are frustrating.
Hitomi and I recognised all four of these reactions among the participants in our sessions. We speculated that such emotional responses might be attributed to the underlying assumption of teacher training in Japan, namely that knowledge is bestowed upon practising teachers by the trainers, regardless of the participants' own possibly lengthy and always richly complex experiences as professionals. We began to wonder if there could be a way to provide professional development that would tap into the expertise of the participants.
My thoughts went back to the self-inquiry that had helped me identify the roots of the severe anxiety I felt when under pressure from the tenure-earning process. Could self-directed questioning (and answering) be beneficial for teachers? When teaching does not go well, we teachers cannot always identify what is not working; we just know that something is not going well. Generating our own answers from questions that we ask ourselves may not necessarily solve all our teaching problems; still, the process could perhaps help to identify potential causes of difficulties and challenges, a crucial first step for professional development.
So, I turned to the existing research, and came across the well- established term reflective practice. For the seminars in 2006 and 2007, I suggested that reflective practice be the topic for our teacher training sessions. We led two one-day sessions entitled 'Teacher development through reflective practice', in which the participants were positioned as both the owners and the providers of knowledge. Our experiences in these two years were quite different. We were able to give the participants an opportunity to develop their teaching through exploring their own thoughts, beliefs and values, that is, looking at teaching through the lens of teacher cognition and teacher identity. At last, Hitomi and I had uncovered at least one answer to the question of what we, university teachers of English, could offer our participants. We were not bestowing knowledge upon the teachers, but introducing them to a way of studying their own practice through reflection that they could continue doing well after our seminars had finished.
The Aim of the Study
This book is based on a subsequent research study that I conducted to illuminate the relatively novel area of incorporating reflective practice as a development tool for in-service English teachers in Japanese high schools. Through a qualitative, multiple case study approach, the study attempts to answer my primary research question, 'How does reflective practice work as a professional development tool for in-service high school teachers of English in Japan?' In the examination of the main research question, the following subsets of questions are also addressed:
What does it mean for Japanese high school teachers of English to reflect?
What kinds of interventions can be effective in helping Japanese high school teachers of English to reflect?
What are some individual differences and similarities among teachers in their engagement in reflection and what implications does that have for the wider implementation of reflective practice in professional development programmes?
I conducted a pilot study between September 2006 and March 2007, asking one public high school teacher of English, Mr Sato (pseudonym), to engage in weekly journal writing and monthly individual interviews and class observations. Informed by the findings from the pilot study, my main study was conducted from September 2007 to March 2008 with six Japanese teachers of English (Ken, Kyoko, Sara, Yoko, Naomi and Miki, all pseudonyms) who taught in public high schools. These participants engaged in a variety of interventions under my direction, including focus group discussions, individual interviews and journal writing. The purpose of these interventions was twofold: providing opportunities for the participants to engage in reflection and providing a source of data for me to analyse. To emphasise the aim of their design, I call these opportunities 'reflective interventions'. The data were analysed in ways that highlighted both cultural and individual factors and perspectives. With regard to specific cultural perspectives, I drew upon my personal knowledge of Japanese culture and attempted not to influence the honne (real intent) of the participants while at the same time I tried to keep them from engaging in hansei (self-critical reflection), two cultural variables which I discuss in greater detail in Chapter 3.
At the onset of the study, I tried to maintain 'objectivity' as a researcher; however, as is often the case with qualitative research, the study evolved and the importance of my own interactions with my participants emerged. So, I think it is relevant to give my own story here. I was brought up and educated in Japan. My substantial learning experience in the United States started as a high school exchange student for one year and continued as an undergraduate student. I earned a BA in psychology from a university in the United States. As a psychology major, I was particularly interested in the ideas of Carl Rogers, and his client-centred approach.
After obtaining my BA, I wanted to pursue my study of psychology in the United States to become a counsellor, but my parents urged me to return to Japan, so I enrolled in an MA Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) course at an American graduate school which had just launched a satellite campus programme in Tokyo. I started teaching English and taking graduate courses at the same time. After obtaining my degree, I taught at various universities as a part-time teacher, and became a full-time teacher in 1997 at the university where I currently teach and obtained tenure. At the time I embarked on the present research study, I had about 20 years of experience as a teacher of English, mostly at university level.
My teaching has been influenced tremendously by what I learned in my MA programme, especially Fanselow's (1987) idea that teacher trainers do not train teachers how to teach, but that teachers learn through self-observation of their teaching practice.
Due to my continuing interest in reflective practice, I enrolled in a doctoral programme in 2005 to conduct a more formal investigation of how reflection could be relevant to the Japanese educational context. This book is based on my doctoral thesis, Reflective practice as a tool for professional development of in-service high school teachers of English in Japan.
Overview of the Book
Chapter 2, Designing a Better Way to Learn about Teachers and Professional Development, introduces my research study design with a brief introduction to reflective practice within teacher development, highlighting the important contributions of reflective practice to the field: teachers are acknowledged as legitimate owners of their knowledge; teacher cognition contributes to professional development; and reflection is recognised as a productive form of professional development. The chapter elaborates on three specific choices I made: using a case study approach, using my position as an outsider strategically and accepting that teacher cognition is accessible only indirectly. It then positions the three reflective interventions (journal entries, focus group discussions and individual interviews) within the reflective practice literature. Finally, it discusses how incorporating the participating teachers' own insights by asking them to select their own reflective themes is a significant element of the research design.
Excerpted from Reflective Practice as Professional Development by Atsuko Watanabe. Copyright © 2017 Atsuko Watanabe. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of ContentsChapter 1: Introduction and Preface: Embarking of the Journey of Reflective PracticeChapter 2: Designing a Better Way to Learn about Teachers and Professional DevelopmentChapter 3: Situating My Study: Reflective Practice in the Japanese ContextChapter 4: The Reflective ContinuumChapter 5: Reflective Practice and the Consolidation of Professional Identity: Cases of the Novice TeachersChapter 6: Reflective Practice and the Consolidation of Professional Identity: Cases of the Experienced TeachersChapter 7: Participants Awareness and Understanding: Exploring Teacher CognitionChapter 8: The Reflective Interventions: Creating a Space for ExpressionChapter 9: Implications for Professional Development Opportunities for Japanese Teachers