Review: Cambridge Elements – Mediating Innovation through Language Teacher Education – Martin East

Here we are again with another review of another Cambridge Element! Martin East is someone who really needs no introduction, especially to those in the TBLT world. When I heard that he was releasing an Element that focused on innovation, with TBLT as the ‘focus’, and it was done so from a teacher education perspective, I set an alarm in my calendar for the release date. As with previous Elements, this one was a brilliant read, and its 60 or so pages of content provided plenty of food for thought. In this review, I’ll try my best to summarise the main elements of the Element ( 😉 ), give you a run down of what I liked and didn’t like, and some ideas on who I think might benefit from reading this.

Three-sentence summary

Martin East’s Cambridge Element, Mediating Innovation through Language Teacher Education takes the reader on a journey through East’s own journey as a language teacher educator, focusing especially on his efforts to bring innovation about regarding task-based language teaching (TBLT) and pre-service teachers through the lens of an S-STEP study. The Element is broken down into five main sections, covering innovation as a theme, language teacher education (LTE) and S-STEP research, an example of a pre-service course East run in New Zealand, a summary of a number of studies East undertook over a six-year period, and implications for LTE programmes. By the end of the Element, the reader can expect to have a much more nuanced understanding of how innovation may or may not (or should / should not) be implemented.

Three takeaways

As usual, there are plenty of takeaways. And, to make things really interesting, there are takeaways from three perspectives: Innovation as a theme, implementing TBLT, and S-STEP study (something we will touch on more shortly). Whilst I can’t go into detail about all of them, I will touch on one takeaway from each of these perspectives.

“In other words, for teacher education to have any opportunity to be successful in enhancing the implementation of innovation, it needs to hold two tensions in balance: what theory and research say about the benefits of the innovation in question, and what real classroom encounters raise about its challenges.”

East, 2022, p.14, emphasis in original
  • Innovation as a theme – The decision to implement innovation is not a simply one, and resistance to change may come in many forms – all of which need to be considered: One of the most interesting points from the Element was the look at how innovation could be implemented and the reactions to the implementation of innovations (in this case TBLT). East went into detail about how there are many factors that come into play when implementing innovation, and some of the biggest ‘hurdles’ can be the teachers’ values, attitudes, beliefs, etc., resistance from ‘tradition’, and resistance from experience. Let’s take a look at these now.
    • Resistance from teacher’s themselves: Taking a look at the first point, East (2022, p.16) mentions that teachers’ “early formed beliefs can become filters that continue to play a significant role in [their] thinking and practice even as teachers are confronted with different ideas during their ITE” (initial teacher education). This is clearly linked to Lortie’s (1975) concept Apprenticeship of Observation; in effect, our experiences as learners influences our thoughts and opinions regarding what is ‘good’ teaching. Later in the Element, East notes that to counter this we should be starting with an exploration of these values, attitudes, beliefs, experiences, etc. and then going from where teachers are. This is something that has been echoed by many other teacher educators also (e.g., Wright and Bolitho, 2007).
    • Resistance from tradition: I found this one quite interesting. In effect, after teachers’ ITE, they move into language teaching organisations (LTOs) and begin ‘working’. Here they may encounter other teachers with ‘more experience’ who tell these teachers that the new innovations, in effect, aren’t worthwhile. One of the studies East (2022, p.31) went into detail about mentioned “that, in part, teachers’ circumspection was influenced by attitudes and understandings held by more senior colleagues in the schools in which these teachers were working”. Personally, I think this is one of the biggest hurdles when looking at implementing innovations, especially something as ‘innovative’ as TBLT. East later mentioned that one way around this problem was to prepare teachers for dealing with such resistance from senior teachers and mentors in their new LTOs.
    • Resistance from experience: Teachers may finish their ITE and be full of these lovely new ideas, all of which are innovative. However, when they begin working, they come to the realisation that these new ideas/innovations are not effective in their context (or at least in their ‘pure’ form). East refers to this as classroom experience shaping teacher development. He (2022, p.16) also references Brouwer and Korthagen (2005) who call this “phenomenon whereby local school contexts influence teachers’ thinking and practices, and work against the implementation of ivvincations to which teachers may have been introduced[…] as occupational socialization”.

“From a teacher education perspective, I ended up positioning myself as
favouring a hybrid that sees TBLT as a development of, rather than
a sweeping departure from, prior practices, one that encourages (even centralises) the use of tasks, but also one that can accommodate task use within more traditional teacher-fronted elements. Indeed, this hybrid is acknowledged in much of the TBLT literature as a viable, although less radical, interpretation of TBLT, and is sometimes labelled as task-supported language teaching.”

East, 2022, p.55, emphasis in original
  • Implementing TBLT – From a teacher educator perspective, perhaps a task-supported syllabus or approach to language education is what we should be pursuing: It was really interesting to read East’s reflection on how his views of TBLT have changed, and how his approach to ITE and TBLT now perhaps focuses more on a task-supported approach, something less radical than what Long (2015) would call ‘uppercase’ TBLT. East’s views seems to take in the realities of innovation (see above) and takes stock of what hurdles those trying to implement TBLT are likely to face. I personally feel that this is where I stand at the moment as well, although in a perfect world I would wish for the more uppercase TBLT. But, the reality is that we don’t live in the perfect world, and resistance to innovation is everywhere – so we need to work with it, or at least take it into consideration.

“If teacher cognition and critical reflective practice are to form the bedrocks of both effective teaching practice and effective teacher education, I would argue that it is also incumbent upon teacher educators to reflect on their own practices as teacher educators in light of their own beliefs about effective practice. After all, those of us who serve in the role of teacher educators are also subject to the influence of beliefs about best practice which may be framed not only by our own encounters on our journeys towards becoming teacher educators but also by defensible theoretical arguments about effective pedagogy with which we may have engaged as researchers.”

East, 2022, p.19
  • S-STEP – Self-study as a research methodology can provide significant insights into one’s practices at the same time modelling desirable reflective actions to teachers and contributing to the knowledge based on LTE: When I read Barkhuizen’s (2021) Element Language Teacher Educator Identity, I read about ‘self-study’ and kind of thought of this as taking one’s knowledge of one’s practice further through reflection and ‘studying’, i.e., engaging with research. After reading this Element, I realise that this was only half of the story – there is actually a lot more behind ‘self-study’ as a research methodology. East’s Element in effect is an example of what is called S-STEP, something that Peercy and Sharkey (2018, p.106) call a “powerful epistemological, ontological, and methodological framework” (their article is not too long and well worth the read, by the way) and can focus on the micro (e.g., classroom), meso (e.g., course, programme, etc.), or macro (e.g., impact of local policies). Basically, one engages in critical reflection of their practice, collecting and analysing data with the focus of “investigating and reflecting on [one’s] own beliefs and practices from [their] own perspective” (East, 2022, p.21). This is definitely something I’d like to explore further as a teacher educator when I have more time, because I see the value of this, but I still need to work out the nuts and bolts. At the moment it seems like a mix between reflective practice and action research – just on steroids and in a much more methodologically principled manner.

Things I liked

“The findings presented here lead to the encouraging conclusion that beginning teachers’ practices can be enhanced with suitable mediation, and this is a beneficial outcome. That is, the status quo appears not to remain an option for teachers who are introduced to innovative thinking and practice in their ITE. That said, nor is a wholesale overthrowing of established ideas. It seems there will always be elements of tradition that continue to find expression. This is not, however, necessarily a pessimistic case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The
evidence I have presented suggests that teachers’ beliefs and practices can and do change when confronted with innovative ideas, albeit sometimes in small and incremental ways. Making changes to teaching and learning practices can be a tricky business, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

East, 2022, p.63, emphasis in original
  • Talks about innovations through the lens of ‘the realities of the world’, something which is very refreshing: Whenever one reads about a great new method, technique, etc. it is usually from the point of view that “it’s going to work, and you have to try it now”. The advocates of X approach, technique, etc. often rave about what it is they want everyone to try, but are often hesitant to admit that there will be challenges. I must admit that when I first started to learn about TBLT, I was probably one of those teachers, telling everyone that this is the ‘approach’ we should be using for X, Y, Z reasons. I don’t think I was critical enough, or at least not openly to others. This Element is excellent in that it talks about the realities of implementing an innovation such as TBLT.

“With regard to my own approach to LTE, I draw the following conclusions from the data I collected: if, as teacher educators, we are to take new or inexperienced teachers with us on journeys into innovation, we need, first and foremost, to respect what these teachers already think, know and believe (Borg, 2003). We must listen attentively to their concerns and misgivings, before, during and after any process of innovation. We must be willing and open to what these concerns and misgivings might tell us about effective practice, and willing and open to modify our own beliefs (and practices) based on what they tell us. It is at this point in particular that language teacher educators must be prepared to reflect on their own work, both in practice and in research. Nonetheless, we as teacher educators must not shy away from challenging our own and others’ current practices in light of theory and innovative ideas, and thereby throwing down the gauntlet for new and inexperienced teachers to take up.”

East, 2022, p.58
  • East really emphasizes that as teacher educators we should be leading innovation, but we should also be constantly analysing our own practices, values, attitudes and beliefs, and not be too rigid: Throughout the entire Element, a common theme is that of East analysing his thoughts and beliefs in relation to his findings, his teacher-learners’ feedback, etc. I really liked how much East implores teacher educators to revisit their own beliefs and practices constantly, as this is something that I feel that teacher educators may not do enough (especially those teacher educators who may have not been in the classroom for some time!).

Things I didn’t like

  • No In-service focus: This is not a criticism of the Element itself, as from the outset East outlines that it focuses on ITE and his experiences with pre-service teachers. However, I really would like to have seen a S-STEP Element such as this for an in-service programme. I know that Jackson’s (2022) Element went into detail about some programmes, but not in an S-STEP manner (and I know that the studies he mentioned weren’t S-STEP focused).
  • No reflection questions or questions for the reader: I really like when I encounter questions set by the writer – they help me engage with what they are writing, and I feel they help me see what they want me to ‘pick up’ more effectively. A number of reflective questions could have been included at the end of this Element (as there were in Jackson’s (2022)) – especially considering there was a whole section devoted to reflection-in, -on, and -for-action.

Who should read this book?

  • Managers and teacher educators implementing ‘innovation’: Whilst TBLT was used as the ‘example’ of innovation, this Element provides a wealth of information regarding ‘things to consider’ when implementing any innovation, especially from an ITE perspective. With this in mind, those looking to implement something innovative in their context will find this Element useful.
  • TBLT advocates: East’s look at TBLT through a ITE and S-STEP lens is really interesting, and I think that those of us actively involved in disseminating the ideas of TBLT or advocating its use should read this element, if for nothing else to get an idea of what we are up against 🙂
  • S-STEP-ers: For those looking for an example of S-STEP, this Element does quite a good job. I don’t think it provides all the ins and outs, but I do think it give a good overview of what to expect.

Applying to practice

So, what am I taking away from this Element? Well, two main things, both of which are kind of ‘long term’:

  1. An understanding of innovation: As a DoS, I hold one of the ‘power reins’ with the academy, and I would like to implement new ideas (every year there is something new). This Element has given me a much clearer understanding of some of things I should consider and be prepared for.
  2. A want to try S-STEP: I found the S-STEP methodology and potential benefits fascinating. Whilst I don’t have the time, nor identified focus at the moment, I would like to experiment with this research methodology to take my understanding of my practice, beliefs, etc. as a teacher educator further. Perhaps once I finish the MAPDLE I’ll be able to get this underway.

Final notes

East’s Mediating Innovation through Language Teacher Education was a great read, and will get you thinking. If you are a teacher educator, then I highly recommend checking it out. It is short, but it will get you thinking. And if you’re a TBLT advocate such as myself, then this Element will present you with a number of ways in which we can help the process of implementing TBLT in our contexts, and hopefully make it more mainstream in years to come. But enough from me – what about you? If you’ve read the Element, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Book details

Book title: Cambridge Elements – Mediating Innovation through Language Teacher Education

Author: Martin East

Pages: 72

ISBN:97810091242563

References

Barkhuizen, G. (2021). Cambridge Elements – Language Teacher Educator Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brouwer, N. & Korthagen, F. (2005). Can teacher education make a difference? American Educational Research Journal, 42(1), 153-224.

East, M. (2022). Cambridge Element – Mediating Innovation Through Language Teacher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, D.O. (2022). Cambridge Elements – Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long, M. (2015). Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley Blackwell

Lortie, D. (1975). School Teacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peercy, M. & Sharkey, J. (2018). Missing S-STEEP? How self-study of teacher education practice can support the language teacher education knowledge base. Language Teaching Research, 24(1), 105-15.

Wright, T. & Bolitho, R. (2007). Trainer Development. Tenn: Lulu

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