Scholarly article on topic 'Sharing Roles in the Classroom: Everyone is a Teacher, Everyone is a Learner'

Sharing Roles in the Classroom: Everyone is a Teacher, Everyone is a Learner Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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{"sharing roles" / "adult learners" / "classroom-based research" / teaching}

Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Kimberly Anne Brooks-Lewis

Abstract In this paper I will discuss results of classroom-based research I undertook in English as a foreign language (EFL) classrooms at two universities in Mexico. The data collected was written responses from the adult learners as to their experience of an introductory EFL course I had designed specifically for them. The theme of sharing roles was an arresting one that emerged from the data, and I would like to share some of the learners’ commentaries on the subject, along with my interpretations. The indications are that when working with adults, sharing teacher/learner roles is of great benefit to everyone involved.

Academic research paper on topic "Sharing Roles in the Classroom: Everyone is a Teacher, Everyone is a Learner"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 46 (2012) 4962 - 4966

WCES 2012

Sharing roles in the classroom: everyone is a teacher, everyone is a


Kimberly Anne Brooks-Lewis

Fatih University, Dept. o f English Language TeachingBuyucekmece, Istanbul 34500, Turkey


In this paper I will discuss results of classroom-based research I undertook in English as a foreign language (EFL) classrooms at two universities in Mexico. The data collected was written responses from the adult learners as to their experience of an introductory EFL course I had designed specifically for them. The theme of sharing roles was an arresting one that emerged from the data, and I would like to share some of the learners' commentaries on the subject, along with m y interpretations. The indications are that when working with adults, sharing teacher/learner roles is of great benefit to everyone involved. Keywords: sharing roles, adult learners, classroom-based research, teaching


The saga of my research began when I returned to the foreign language classroom as a mature adult. I wanted to learn Spanish, of which I knew nothing, so I was shocked when I entered the classroom and from the very beginning the teacher not only spoke in the language I was there to learn but expected me to respond in kind! I felt like I had entered in the second act of a three act play. We began right off with the text, in which thankfully the instructions and what little explanation there was were in English. There was a great deal of listening to disembodied voices on the recorder, group and pair work, and lots of exceedingly embarrassing games. Culture was never discussed, and I was surprised when I finally figured out that what was being taught was Castilian Spanish. I had assumed we would learn about the Spanish spoken in Mexico and about Mexican culture since we were in Texas, a state in the United States that borders on Mexico. There was never a mention of how to go about learning the language, or things that one needed to pay attention to, or even how to practice. Certainly the idea that learning a language is a lifelong process was never brought up. Somehow I muddled through and even managed to obtain excellent grades, but this was only because I became adept at filling in blanks and choosing the correct multiple-choice answer. I never had the feeling that I was learning the language.

I decided that if I really wanted to learn the language and about the culture I would have to move to Mexico, which I did. In order to earn a living I began to teach English as a foreign language (EFL) at several universities, and was discouraged to find that the same type of teaching methods and materials I had suffered with as a learner were required, including the regulation of English Only in the classroom, group and pair work and, of course, games. (I felt things were even worse for the Spanish-speaking learners I was working with because everything in the materials was in English - there was no recognition at all of who the learners were.) I had so recently had the experience of being an adult learner who felt frustrated with such classroom experiences that as a

1877-0428 © 2012 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer review under responsibility of Prof. Dr. Huseyin Uzunboylu doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.06.368

teacher I rebelled. I began to include ideas that I thought I would have benefited from, taking the first steps towards the classroom-based research I will discuss here.

About the research

Unfortunately, because of time and space restrictions I cannot go into a full description of the course, the data collected, or how it all relates to the literature, but will do so in a more lengthy article about sharing roles that I am working on. What I would like to do is arouse your interest in sharing roles by telling you a little about the results of the research with regard to what real adult language learners thought about their experience of everyone being a learner and everyone a teacher in the classroom. It is important to note that my specialty is working with adults at the university level, and I realize that all of these concepts might not be appropriate for all students. However, I would suggest that they could be adapted for different learners to see what their reactions are and learn about their thoughts of the process.

The first aspect of my teacher's rebellion was to include Spanish in the classroom with my speaking it, allowing the learners to do so, and comparing and contrasting English and Spanish. I requested that the Spanish-speaking learners correct my Spanish, not only to help me learn but, as I jokingly put it, as pay-back for my correcting their English. This always brought laughter into the classroom, and an almost tangible sense of the learners relaxing. Then I began to include discussions about culture, again using comparison and contrast with the learners' own. An instance of this was the discussion of body language, a culturally evolving aspect of communication that I had never heard of being included in a language course. When I saw in the classrooms that such ideas were well-received I became even bolder and began to include 'tips' for learning and practicing English. We talked about how learning takes place outside of the classroom with one taking responsibility for their language learning and that it is neither quick nor easy, the need for breaking the habit of translating, of accepting that one does not need to understand every word when reading or listening, that no one is perfect in any language - everyone makes mistakes - what counts is communication, not perfection. As my boldness in trying to help the learners progressed it came naturally for me to begin to talk about my own experiences in learning another language and about another culture. I made a point of calling attention to my being an adult language learner just like the learners I was working with, and way I did this was to emphasize that my learning had become self-directed and I expected it to be a lifelong process.

I saw learners' reactions to the ideas I had for teaching as I included them in the classes I taught, but wanted to find out what they thought of them. However, when I would ask, for instance, about including the Spanish in the classroom, the responses were invariably something on the order of, "Oh no! It's not done like that!" I began to realize that what I was working towards was a process, so taking the ideas out of context made understanding difficult. I decided to try to define the ideas and put them together in a logical format, and designed an introductory EFL course specifically for the learners I was working with. In order to learn within a structured framework about their perceptions of the experience of the process I decided to undertake classroom-based research. I used the course as the 'medium' in several EFL classrooms at two universities in central Mexico where I was teaching, and asked the learner-participants to write about their experience of it. These documents were the data I collected.

What I wanted to get some insight into was what ideas the learners thought had helped them in learning the language and which not, and more importantly in either case, was why. When I began to analyze the data not only was I frequently amazed by the commentaries but by various intriguing themes that came out and took me completely unawares. (I did not describe the ideas to the learners in order not to influence their responses, only telling them that the course would be 'different'.) One of these was learners' thoughts about sharing roles in the classroom, and I would like to share with you some of the most arresting commentaries about this theme.

Discussion of results

One of the themes that emerged in the data was how the experience of sharing roles was seen to have affected the teacher's practice. One commentary that surprised me was about the import of a teacher's continuing education and doing research: "The teacher told us that she is doing her Doctorate and this is good, because apart from being a teacher she also is a researcher and this makes it more interesting." (author 2007:D130) I never imagined that participating in the research might make the class more interesting, but hope that it also instilled an interest for the learners to become researchers themselves. Another comment on the teacher's admittedly being a language learner was put quite plainly: "I think that [the teacher's] experience of learning Spanish has helped [her] a lot in teaching English." (ibid.:E38) I think that most people who work in the field of language education are learners of other languages, but how many use this experience to better their practice or consider that sharing their own experience might be of benefit to the learners? That learners thought it was beneficial to them is evidenced in what another learner-p^iciprnt wrote: "We feel good in the classroom because the teacher is like us and we learn together with respect and tolerance for our cultures." (ibid. :E 142) I think the notion that sharing roles can promote respect and tolerance merits special attention, as well as that of 'learning together'.

Learning together - to me that is what teaching is all about. Most obviously, I think, a teacher must always be learning how to improve his or her practice. But how many teachers think of themselves as learners, and moreover, consider themselves to be on an equal footing with the learners they are working with? While I have always thought that being a teacher inherently means being a learner, Julie Klein (1996:162) sees the notion as being a "redefinition of teacher as co-learner", adding that this can be a challenge because it "shifts professional identity from the familiar ground of expertise to the risky terrain of mutual exploration." While I think this is a giant step forward for traditional thinking about teaching and points out the need for teachers to get out of their comfort zones, it doesn't recognize what I see as being the other half of the equation - the learner being the teacher. Results of the research I undertook show learners' observations that the full equation for sharing in the classroom is of great advantage, as shown in this learner-participant's response: "It was excellent being able to share with everyone in general, with everyone being a teacher-student." (author:D177) My impression is that this was a new experience, which is a shame, as it is to be remembered that the participants in the research were university students, so most had been in classrooms for the majority of their lives.

An outstanding discovery that I made in my own self-directed language and culture learning was that one of the most essential skills to cultivate is noticing. We do this unconsciously all the time, but it needs to be brought to the conscious level and constantly improved upon. I thought it necessary to discuss this in the classroom, and gave examples of how I had learned from noticing in my own language and culture learning experience. A participant who reported on this wrote:

I enjoy it when the teacher shares with the class her anecdotes. They are interesting, funny and meaningful because we can learn from them. For example, she told us about her first time taking public transportation, a combi, and how she did not know how to let the driver know she wanted to get off, so she observed the situation and found different ways of saying it. What I learned from this anecdote is that when we visit a foreign country and we do not know how things work, we could observe and learn that way. (ibid. :E34) I think this illustrates what Freire (2003:79) called a 'liberating methodology' which "consists in acts of cognition, not transferals of information. It is a learning situation in which the cognizable object (far from being the end of the cognitive act) intermediates the cognitive actors - teacher on the one hand and students on the other." I wasn't transferring information - the learners knew how to use public transportation - I was describing an act of cognition: noticing. Along with considering the sharing imbued in this, I think it relates to the adage of rather than giving a starving person a fish, show him or her how to catch them. I told about things that actually happened to me, and after seeing learners' enthusiastic responses to the practice I highly recommend it, and suggest that if a teacher can't

remember any personal incidents s/he could find examples from somewhere else or even make them up in order to get a point across.

In my interpretation of the data, the notion of the teacher's having been a living example of adult language and culture learning also arose, as demonstrated in a participant's report that "learning from and working with a person who knows and lives the experience of dominating another language has helped me a lot in my foreign language learning." (author:D85) Although the learner does not explain how this helped, one interpretation could be that it offered inspiration and encouragement and nurtured self-confidence. I especially wanted to do this to help the learners with speaking, because it is the most fearsome aspect of language learning for an adult, so instead of simply expecting the learners to speak and forcing them to do so, regardless of their feelings about it, I wanted to first help them to overcome their fears. I brought them out into the open and discussed them, but also felt that: "Simply telling students they should not be anxious about speaking is not as effective at lowering anxiety as showing them that they are not alone in their fears." (Phillips 1999:127-128) I revealed that I too had an aversion to making mistakes and feeling ridiculous, but explained how I had reached a point in my learning where I came to realize that if I really wanted to learn I had to accept making mistakes as part of the process. I talked about how I well remembered many instances when people had laughed uproariously when I made a mistake, but that I had come to understand that they were not laughing at me but at my mistake. I would get them to explain why what I had said had been so funny and then I could laugh along with them, sharing the moment instead of feeling made fun of and learning at the same time. I described how I was still encountering those blank looks that sometimes come over people's faces when one says something illogical, but rather than panic I had begun to try to remember exactly what I just said and analyze it in order to understand and correct my mistake. These changes in my attitude towards making mistakes were monumental, making my language and culture learning enjoyable experiences: I had come to appreciate my mistakes as being treasures of my learning rather than embarrassing moments. Knowing that the teacher herself had the same feelings as they do was reported to have been reassuring. One person, in writing about discovering that what he or she was going through was 'normal', said: "I appreciate your sharing your feelings from your experience with learning Spanish, which made me feel that I should take the adventure and find the feeling of the other language and not just study it because it is a requirement." (author:Q92). This portrayal of learning another language as an adventure is wonderful, and I think one can sense the learner's having become more confident. Of equal significance is their having come to see language learning in a different, meaningful light, being moved to find the feeling of the language. I think this is a superb goal for language learning.


Do your interpretations of the data I have discussed coincide with mine in the understanding that sharing of roles in the classroom helps to meet many adult learner needs? I think including such ideas in our teaching practice would be a real breakthrough in the advancement towards 'learner-centered' teaching. I hope to have encouraged you to reconsider your ideas about language teaching and furthermore, have inspired you to undertake your own research in the classroom. Revision of thinking is learning, it means progress and development in teaching, and is (or should be) a continuous process. I consider learning to be the reason for living and therefore to be a lifelong endeavor. And who knows? Maybe even longer!


Brooks-Lewis, Kimberly Anne. (2007). The Significance of Culture in Language Learning: Working with Adult EFL Learners in Mexico.

Doctoral thesis: University of Kent at Canterbury. Freire, Paulo. (2003). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition, New York: Continuum.

Klein, Julie Thompson. (1996). "Shadows of a Conference", in Lange et al. (eds.), Culture as the Core: Interdisciplinary Perspectives,

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Phillips, Elaine M. (1999). "Decreasing Language Anxiety: Practical Techniques for Oral Activities", in Young (ed.), Affect in Foreign Language and Second Language Learning, New York: McGraw-Hill College, pp. 124-143.