This is my first blog post on the British Council Teaching English webpage.

Thank you BCTE for allowing me to post! :-)

Without any further ado, on to the question - one of four topics on offer for January 2014 - of How does blogging help you to be a better teacher?. Here are some of the words that popped into my mind on first consideration of this topic:

  • Reflection
  • Metacognition
  • Motivation
  • Destination
  • Connection

(OK, "destination" was actually "purpose" initially, but I couldn't resist turning it into another -tion noun! ;-))

In answer to the question posed above, I’m going to explore each of these words in terms of relationship with blogging and potential role in teacher development.

Reflection and Metacognition

I will treat my first two words together, as they are closely related and make good bedfellows:

As is the case with language learning, I’m sure we’d all agree that there is no substitute for actually doing it – in the case of language learning, USING the language (receptively and/or productively) and in the case of teaching, BEING IN the classroom and, well, teaching (or “enabling”, if you prefer). However, the value of helping learners develop metacognitive skills as well as language skills is also widely recognised (see Vandergrift and Goh 2012, for a comprehensive treatment of metacognition in language learning, with specific focus on listening skills development) and reflection plays a key role in this by enabling construction of a greater depth of understanding of the self-as-learner and learning tasks and consequently a greater range of responses to any given issue that arises in the completion of these (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012).

But what has this got to do with teaching and blogging? Well, perhaps it is equally important for us as teachers to develop our metacognitive awareness of the cognitive and affective processes we use in teaching, so that we are better able to respond to our learners and the issues that may arise in our classroom. Reflection is equally key here: If we go from lesson to lesson without reflecting on what happened in the classroom, both good and bad, and our role in that, then we can’t learn from what we are doing. Thus, good things may fall to the wayside, bad things may become lodged and create obstruction in future classes too. Blogging is one means of reflecting on classroom practice, as well as on the efforts we make to improve this practice. So, for example, we might also reflect on what we learn through doing a course, reading methodology books or research, reading professional journals and magazines, and the effect that the various things we’ve tried as a result have had on various classes. In writing these reflections on a blog, and through the discussions that emerge via the comments, a greater understanding of what happened, and future implications, may be reached.

Motivation

Motivation is another thing that we often consider in terms of our learners but neglect in terms of our own development. Sharing ideas and experiences (both positive and negative) can be hugely motivating. We see this in the classroom, of course: learners who might have felt like giving up but on realizing that fellow classmates also struggled with a particular activity, decide to persevere – perhaps with some help in terms of trouble-shooting from other classmates who approached the problem differently - and learners who have tried out new activities outside the classroom enjoy the opportunity to share what they discovered with classmates. Motivation is very fluid and dynamic, it does not remain static. In the classroom, we try to create learning conditions that will help motivate our learners and we may also try to help learners become better able to manage their own motivation levels through appropriate goal-setting, for example.

But what of our motivation? Managing our own motivation levels is important if we are to avoid getting stuck in a rut and losing enthusiasm. Action research is a great way of upping motivation levels: projects, big or small, can be very exciting, as we discover new things about our learners, about language learning, about our own teaching. However, one key element of research is being able to share discoveries with other practitioners. We may not be Rod Ellis or similar, but what we learn can still be of interest to others and blogging is a great way of sharing the process and outcomes of such projects. As evidence of this, we need only consider the huge range of ELT-related blogs out there currently: what a rich tapestry they create and what a wonderful source of fresh ideas and things to try they constitute.

Destination

For blogging to “help us become better teachers”, we need to have a clear idea of our destination: what is the purpose of the blog? It may be specific but of course it can be multi-purpose – we can use blogs to reflect on our teaching, to share materials and lesson ideas, to explore the process of language learning. If you know what you want from blogging, then you are more likely to be able to get it, just as learners are more likely to succeed in doing a task if it has a clear purpose and they understand that purpose. However, this “clear idea” may only crystalize some way into the process, as was the case for me. My blog had two years of seeing very little in the way of content but then I did my Delta/M.A. and discovered reflective practice and the value of focused reflection in general, then using my blog as a space to reprocess my learning and to reflect on learning-in-process (my “Dissertation Diary” series), I have also shared my first two conference presentations, materials I’ve made and various lesson ideas. I’ve reflected on language learning from the point of view of an elementary learner of Italian. As the content accumulates, you become able to look back over your development as a teacher and the development of your ideas. (Of course, you can also do this offline just as easily. Since October, I’ve been experimenting with ideas for developing learner autonomy, but on my blog, I’ve only posted thoughts related to this once or twice – mainly focused on my reading project thread. Why? Because in a month’s time, I will be doing a webinar on learner autonomy and I don’t want to have already said it all before! ;-) )

So this being the case, if you can do it just as easily offline, why blog? This brings me on to the final word.

Connection

Blogging allows you to share your thoughts/ideas with others, while reading their blogs means you can discover theirs too. It allows cross-fertilization of ideas between a wide variety of people. Online professional development has become a big thing, as the internet and devices for accessing it have become widely available and many people speak of their PLNs (personal learning network), developed through social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Blogs. You could call it ‘a staffroom without walls’. “But I have my staffroom at work already”, I hear you say. Yes, and a good staffroom, where sharing ideas is de rigeur, is indeed a blessing. However, the world is a big place. There are so many different ways of thinking and doing things, so many ideas, so much creativity, all taking place in a myriad of small cultures (different institutional cultures, different classroom cultures etc) – finding out more about them, through members of your PLN and what they do, is fascinating and enriching.

Reflection, metacognition, motivation, destination and connection are all important threads weaving through blogging and how it can promote development.

With regards to the question, I think it is less a question of blogs help you BE a better teacher but rather they help you BECOME a better teacher: they can play a unique role in that developmental process, but they can't turn you instantly into "a better teacher". Perhaps, though, the way(s) in which blogging helps you BECOME a better teacher are very personal and you really only discover what they are by doing it!

So, what are you waiting for? Give it a go!

References: Vandergrift L. and Goh, C (2012) Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening.Routledge

Lizzie usually blogs at www.reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/reflections and has been doing so since May 2010, learning a lot in the process. The majority of the content, however, has been posted since May 2012, at which point she was nearing the end of her M.A. with integrated Delta at Leeds Metropolitan University. http://reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/2013/12/31/blogging-highlights-of-2013-me-versus-wordpress-monkeys/ gives a fair taste of her posting over the last year.

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