Linking Experiences: How We Learn to Teach

What do Penny Ur, Willy Cardoso, and James E. Zull have in common? They all presented at the 2012 IATEFL Conference, and they all referenced the connection between reflecting on experience and learning.

If you know me, or my blog, you know that I’m quite passionate about the subject of reflective teaching. I’ve done a few presentations/workshops on the subject, and will soon be doing another at the KOTESOL Reflective Practice Symposium in Busan on April 21. I’m very excited about this, especially since I’ll be in the good company of friend and reflective practitioner, Michael Griffin.

This shameless plug is simply to say that when I saw these three speakers on Glasgow IATEFL Online, my mind quickly made links to how their individual takes on teaching and learning connected to my understanding of the experiential learning cycle and reflective practice. Here are the links I noticed.

Dr. James Zull

Plenary speaker James Zull helped us understand the physical implication experience has on learning. At the end of his talk, he spoke of the four pillars of learning as it relates to inner-workings of the brain:

  • EXPERIENCE – GET INFORMATION (sen­sory cor­tex)
  • REFLECT – MAKE MEANING (back inte­gra­tive cor­tex)
  • CREATE – PREDICT (front inte­gra­tive cor­tex)
  • ACT – TEST (motor cor­tex)
image from

This was extremely fascinating for me because until this point, I had only thought of the experiential learning cycle as an intellectual process and had been ignorant to the actual physical nature of the process. By pinning up the brain’s learning cycle next to Kolb’s learning cycle, Zull helped me develop a greater understanding of the biology behind experiential learning and reflective practice. Read The Art of Changing the Brain: Interview with Dr. James Zull to learn more about how he also makes this link.

Penny Ur

During her presentation, ELT expert, author, and teacher trainer Penny Ur  told us about the time she asked a Barcelona conference audience of about 200 practicing teachers how many of them had recently read a piece of research or research based theory. Not surprised, she reported only one hand went up. Although her IATEFL presentation focused on how research studies, if thoughtfully and critically examined, can be valuable resources for teacher development, Ur first explained how “classroom learning and reflection is the primary source of learning”. Referring to the work of Donald Schon, she shared that most often teachers learn how to teach via reflections-in or on-action.

Where Zull gives us a biological representation of the reflective cycle and it’s impact on learning, Ur reinforces how important reflective practice actually is in the field of teaching. Hearing about this reality from her reinforced my own beliefs about reflective teaching. Although I understand the value and importance of being aware of linguistic and educational theories, in my mind, this knowledge is all for nothing if it isn’t coupled with the exploration of one’s experience. It isn’t until I deliberately take my own experience through the reflective cycle mentioned by Zull that I can make sense of my own teaching. Through this process of experiential learning I can take the theories I learned, match or discount them according to my unique classroom experiences, and come out the other end with my own personal theory of teaching and learning. I can formulate my beliefs.

Isn’t this much more profound and helpful than simply regurgitating theories? With this personal theory creating a foundation for my beliefs, I am better equipped to mold my lessons to match the needs of my learners so that they accomplish their learning goals.

Willy Cardoso

This concept of helping teachers form their teaching and learning beliefs is what teacher trainer Willy Cardoso presented on. Although I wasn’t able to see his presentation (video was not streamed and has not been uploaded yet), via his interview and the informative tweeting of CELTA trainer, Jemma Gardner, I learned that Cardoso also has strong beliefs around the importance of in-depth reflection for better teacher development.

In his interview, Cardoso talked about how teacher training courses would better serve participants if they gave them more time and space during feedback sessions. He sees the feedback session as a valuable opportunity for teachers to explore their past learning and teaching experiences, and it is from here that teachers are really able to articulate why they teach the way they do. And as @jemjemgardner tweeted:

Our role as trainers is to allow space for examination of beliefs on our courses to deepen understanding & knowledge. @willycard #iatefl

This reminded me of what Carol R. Rodgers says about assumptions:

It is my firm conviction that the theory that is generated about teaching and learning must be grounded in the text of teachers’ experience — that is, in the evidence that arises from the description of practice. In turn, this evidence needs to be looked at from various perspectives and rigorously questioned so that explanations and theories are not allowed to stand on selective data.

By giving course participants the space to describe their beliefs in depth, they are given the chance to check (analyze) their assumptions and make sound decisions about how they want to proceed. Without this space, as I believe Cardoso would agree, something is lost.

Concluding the Links

Last week at IATEFL, Willy Cardoso requested that teacher training courses give participants the time they need to reflect on their experiences so that they may develop sound beliefs. Penny Ur reminded us that teachers are more apt to reflect on their experience as a way to learn about teaching, and that theories and research cannot replace this truth. Finally, James Zull informed us of the natural, biological process of learning through experience.

Noticing these links, it is clear to me that when teachers begin the dialogue of teaching and learning, especially in training programs and institutes of higher education, greater attention needs to be placed on experience and reflection. Let’s meet teachers where they really are: in the classroom, not in the textbook.

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