Monday, 14 August 2017

SOTL in the South conference – deliberations on language
by Shashi Cullinan Cook

The ‘SOTL in the South’ conference that took place in late July in Johannesburg was a thought-provoking platform for researchers to raise questions about the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in African, Asian and Latin-American contexts. The discussions that interested me most at the conference were those that involved language and naming, since these topics repeatedly arise in the South African context in which I work. This is due to the fact that the country has eleven official languages, and because English is the predominant language of business and of the academy, which continuously raises questions about knowledge and power in our post-colonial context.

The issue of language repeatedly arose during the conference - often in relation to the social and cultural conventions associated with the language one speaks, and the implications of this for SOTL researchers. For example, in the pre-conference workshop ‘Ethical considerations when researching with or about students’, Dr Dudu Jankie of the University of Botswana stressed the importance of using respectful, context-appropriate greetings when interviewing research participants. In Jankie’s experience, many research participants had found the academics they encountered incredibly rude. Jankie also strongly advocated that academics should moderate their use of jargon for the participants involved in the research, so that the goals of academic projects are very clear to all involved.

Dr Kershney Naidoo and session chair Brenden Gray
Language and learning
I also attended Dr Kershney Naidoo’s presentation ‘Bridging the gap: the first year paradigm shift’ during which she shared some of the research she has undertaken with Carel Oosthuizen at the University of Pretoria. In this research context, students have the option of a language translator for their lectures. However, surprisingly, Naidoo noted that it was difficult to say for certain that this additional benefit significantly assisted students with their learning.

The concept of SOTL
Some interesting questions about naming arose in relation to the term ‘SOTL’. Some of the conference attendees prefer using the term SOLT (Scholarship of Learning and Teaching). I can understand this stance, since I consider teaching to be the most significant learning experience I have ever had. For me, the concept of learning is more important than the concept of teaching and should therefore be more prominent. I also try to keep in mind that there is power associated with the ‘teacher’ position and that this may shift when learning is prioritised over teaching. In a discussion on the future of the SOTL in the South conference, Prof Peter Looker stated that he had in fact been suggesting for years that this phrase should simply be the “Scholarship of Learning”. I am sure this debate has arisen many times at SOTL meetings since the advent of the field, but I am relatively new to the field of SOTL, and it still seems an important question.

Prof Brenda Leibowitz
Part of the emphasis on language and naming at this conference was this was probably because the name of the conference highlighted the geopolitics of ‘the global South’. Prof Brenda Leibowitz explained that the conference title was intended to spark debate on the ‘North-South’ SOTL dynamic, and about teaching and learning in ‘the global south’ more generally. Disclaimer: I am now going to throw around the terms ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ with unforgivable abandon. Please forgive me; I am just trying to summarise the gist of the debates at the conference.

Before the conference, I was aware that contexts from the ‘global South’ may share a number of common characteristics. This term usually refers to Asian, Latin-American or African contexts, but these do not necessarily have to be in the Southern Hemisphere. Instead, they may share various characteristics common to postcolonial contexts, such as concerns about power and its relationship to knowledge or resources. However, what was interesting was that very few of those who attended or spoke at the conference seemed to view the ‘global South’ through the lens of deficit thinking. Rather, there was a certain excitement and sense of potential at the realisation that there were aspects of the ‘southern SOTL’ discussed at the conference that seemed to address many of the problems that had dogged ‘northern SOTL’ for some years, as well as the potential to identify SOTL approaches that are more appropriate to contexts in the global South.

Zach Simpson and Prof Peter Looker
In the abstract to his keynote speech ‘Bringing context back into SOTL: the cultural, material and ideological considerations in learning and teaching in higher education’, Prof Peter Looker questioned “why SoTL practice, conferences, and publications [had] focused for so long on a narrow range of Anglophone countries”. During his keynote presentation on Thursday 27 July, Looker referred to ‘northern SOTL’ as “chasing its tail”, because of the tendency of ‘northern’ SOTL researchers to ignore important cultural factors in the context of their studies in the interests of generalising their studies. Looker mentioned that some of his most reliable teaching methods had failed while he was working in Singapore because of cultural factors and approaches to group discussion that he was (initially) totally unaware of because of his ‘Western’ background.

Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela 
Looker’s words echoed Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela’s references to her experiences at northern conferences on SOTL, at which there was little interest in the particularities of southern SOTL. In the abstract in her keynote address, Guzmán-Valenzuela also stated that a study of publications on Latin-American (LA) SOTL showed that it tended to adapt northern approaches “which are then nuanced to understand or explain a specific LA context” rather than to generate new knowledge grounded in the specifics of the area. This seems to be an avenue for knowledge-making that could be explored over the next few years and at future ‘southern SOTL’ conferences. It may be problematic to continue thinking polemically about the North/South dynamic, but I noticed that during both of these keynote addresses there were many murmurs of agreement from the audience. It gave me the sense that Looker and Guzmán-Valenzuela were not alone in feeling discontent about a geopolitical imbalance in the SOTL discourses, or at least that there is a recognition of the commonality of some of our experiences of SOTL. Ultimately, it seems that the construct of ‘SOTL in the South’ is a provocative one which will generate healthy debate for some years to come. 

Teacher Professional Knowledge and Development for Reflective and Inclusive Practices: A Book Review

by Dr Loïse Jeannin

In this post, I want to share with you why I was so excited to read this book. It focuses on teachers’ reflective practice and inclusive pedagogies by drawing on key theories (Dewey, Schön, Brookfield) and developing practical recommendations for school teachers.

Let me first tell you why I wanted to read it. Having taught in Thailand in an international university with students coming from 92 different nationalities, I have developed a strong interest in inclusive teaching. I indeed quickly realised that my French way of teaching was not adequate to engage culturally diverse students, who—for a standard classroom of 35 students, came from 10 different countries (with a majority of Thai students). I encountered diverse learning styles, different teacher-student interaction modes, and different habits in terms of individual/group work, etc.

That’s how my doctoral journey on the professional development of university lecturers truly started. I had first to be exposed to students’ cultural diversity to be able to reflect on my ability to serve their learning needs and to finally reconsider my teaching philosophy, the course content and the assessment modalities. As I was teaching economics and management at the time, I decided to draw more often on Thai/Asian case studies and to use a larger spectrum of assignments (from individual to group assignments).
This “pedagogical culture shock” forced me to grow, and as I wanted to learn more, I decided to further my knowledge through a doctoral study on lecturers’ professional development needs in this multicultural setting.

So, I was hoping that reading this book would further my knowledge on teachers’ reflective practice and inclusive teaching. Hence, in the following, I summarise its content before sharing some critical thoughts.

1. Book Summary

The first part of the book looks at how primary and secondary school teachers can become more reflective in various contexts (South Africa, Qatar, the United States), while the second part presents strategies to develop inclusive teachers, for different ethnic groups but also for children with special learning needs. This second section also includes examples from different countries (Greece, United Arab Emirates, Hong-Kong, Malaysia).
So, the question I asked myself was: How do we connect reflective practice to inclusive pedagogical practices?

Let’s start with the theoretical backgrounds that underlie the chapters. The art of reflective practice is anchored in the works of Schön (1983) and Brookfield (1995). Teachers are expected to be reflective in (=during), on (=after), and for (=planning) practice. In fact, three kinds of assumptions can influence teachers’ interpretation of the reality: paradigmatic, prescriptive and causal assumptions. The first one is a taken-for-granted assumption about what is true, the second one concerns prescription about what should be, and the last one pertains to logical relationships that are expected between different phenomena.
Other conceptual constructs were interestingly mobilised in the book, such as reflective scepticism that supports transformative learning (Mezirow, 1990), imaginative speculation to imagine different ways of thinking and teaching, and contextual awareness when teachers acknowledge that their taken-for-granted assumptions are socially and personally constructed.

Through a critical analysis of their assumptions, teachers are encouraged to depart from a deficiency/deficit analysis of the learning abilities of their culturally diverse students (Milner, 2010) to be able to better support their learning process. Hence, the book suggests to support teachers’ reflective practices through the use of different tools, that I organized around individual and collective activities (Table 1).

Individual Reflection
Peer-Group Reflection
Journal/Blog writing
JoHari window*
Action research: experimentation-reflection-introspection
Participative action research
Formative portfolio
Observation and advice from school principals
Communities of reflective practice: face-to-face or online, with teachers, school professionals and academics working together
Table 1. Reflective activities presented in the book.
*JoHari Window: a group activity where one teacher review his/her main teaching qualities/personal attributes with the help of peers.

Then, several good practices were presented in the book to develop teachers’ inclusive pedagogy, for learners from different cultural backgrounds or for children with special learning needs/learning impairments. These pedagogical activities can be implemented in the class or outside (Table 2).

Outside the class
Differentiated instruction
Community & family engagement
Culturally responsive teaching (Ladson-Billing, 1995; Gay, 2010)
Appreciative inquiry*: Map of community assets
Table 2. Actions to develop inclusive pedagogies
*Appreciative inquiry is a method to list and praise the resources that can be mobilised to undertake changes and promote learning. 

The general argument of the book is that reflective teachers are better prepared for diverse classrooms because they learn every day by reflecting on what works and what does not, and by wondering regularly how is each of their learners doing in terms of school performance, taking into account cultural preferences and community resources for learning (see Chap. 10 & 18). But the book does not assume that some teachers are reflective by nature while others are not. It suggests strategies to support teachers on the path of reflection and inclusiveness. For example, in Chap. 11, the author recommended to combine two approaches to prepare culturally foreign teachers who start teaching in a new context. First, they advised to provide specific contextual information about students’ cultural preferences, without falling into stereotyping and over-generalisation. The author argued that culture cannot be narrowed to an unique “list of traits”, it is moving with the changes impacting societies and countries (economic changes, international flows); however, providing newcomers with some contextual information is recommended. The second approach is to encourage teachers to be open-minded and curious towards differences, to value and respect them in class. It may require adjustments in terms of student-teacher communication practices. This second approach is less context-specific but encourages teachers and students to adopt an inclusive mindset.

Finally, the role of school leaders is strongly emphasized throughout the book (see Chap. 7), as they play a crucial role in supporting teachers’ reflection and pedagogical innovation, like implementing new technologies for children with visual or hearing impairments (Chap. 13). If teachers feel supported by their school leader, through encouraging discourses and professional development programs, they will be more prone to technological innovation that supports children’s inclusion and collaboration.

2. Critical thoughts

The chapters are unequal in terms of quality, some are well-written while others are undermined by recurring typos and inadequate affirmations. The relationship between reflective and inclusive practices is not always clarified, but important questions are debated which makes this book interesting for school teachers and leaders working in culturally diverse environments. For example, Chap. 14 and 15 are excellent in showing the relationship between reflection and inclusive practices using different channels: perception changes of who are the students/ their needs/ their abilities and resources, and the development of teachers’ resilience when facing difficult teaching situations.
I found this book rich in ideas for reflective activities which can be useful for academic developers/trainers. For example, the community of reflective practice presented in Chap. 15 showed how it provided teachers with a safe space for learning and sharing, under professional guidance. As a result of these reflective meetings, teachers reported having become less critical toward parents and students considered ‘problematic’, they learned to manage their own anxieties and got a more thorough and holistic understanding of the child’s context. Hence, Chap. 15 is an interesting chapter that shows how awareness, resilience and inclusiveness are intrinsically linked. When teachers are emotionally resilient, and can reflect and collaborate on creative ideas, they can derive solutions to support students’ at risk.

Finally, as expounded in the book (Chap. 1), 21st century teachers are expected to “teach” new skills beyond the 3Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic); they must develop learners’ critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity skills to enable them to meet the challenges of fast-changing environments.

      Figure 1. Shift in learning objectives

This shift in the teaching objectives enables me to conclude this critical review. The book can truly help teachers and school leaders to get prepared for the 21st century, by adopting a reflective stance and developing inclusive teaching practices to promote social justice and children’s equality. However, these new skills (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) must firstly be developed by teachers (under the encouragement of their school principals) before expecting them to design learning activities that will support the development of their learners’ skills.

Title: Teacher Professional Knowledge and Development for Reflective and Inclusive Practices
Book published in 2017, by Routledge
Editors: Ismail Hussein Amzat & Nena Padilla-Valdez 

About Loïse Jeannin
Loïse is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Johannesburg. Her topics of interest are inclusive education and professional development programs for university lecturers. She has taught in universities in France and Thailand and has published several research articles in peer-reviewed journals.