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 Teacher research: Giving students roles to help develop their identities

Throughout my long career I have been committed to two fundamental goals: the professional development of my teachers and using the learning environment as a space to develop identities. In this article I would like to show how these goals can be addressed within the context of teachers striving to give meaningful roles to their students. These roles relate to Peer Teaching and Peer Noticing.


Text by: Agnes Katsianos

Teacher Research

As Director of Studies (DoS) of my language school, I am committed to addressing classroom issues in the context of teacher research. The two approaches I will outline here were both, initially, conducted at our school as research projects. Using an Action Research model1 we, the teachers, asked: How could we give our students greater roles to help develop their identities, not just as language learners, but more generally as maturing individuals? This was clearly an attempt to align our practice with the school’s ethos. As with most research projects, the DoS’s role is to guide the teachers on the road to self-evaluation and stimulate the teachers to become empowered and more resourceful. Planning classroom actions and anticipating their outcomes should be openly discussed amongst colleagues. Evidence gathering opportunities should also be planned for. This will ensure that the research can be properly assessed. And of course, results should be shared in a professional setting.

 Identities 

Our question: How could we give our students greater roles to help develop their identities?  is really a follow-up of the question every young teacher inevitably asks him/herself, namely: What is my role as a teacher? This simple question can, and often does, lead to years of soul-searching. Indeed, it raises many questions about the teacher’s own identity. Thankfully, there is a considerable body of research on this topic that curious teachers can turn to.

Richards (2016)2 points out three different aspects of a teacher’s identity. First there is the personal identity which is reflected in one’s gender, age and cultural origins. This is a relatively stable part of one’s identity and teachers present it to the class as “This is who I am”. Next there is our socially constructed identity which arises through interactions with any particular group of students. We present it in the class as “Here’s who I am now”. Finally, there is my professional identity which reflects how I position myself in the language teaching profession. We, as teachers should strive to be conscious of how our identities impact our teaching. This will in turn help us to develop an intuition about the importance of students’ identities.

Indeed, it is my firm belief that students cannot be expected to leave their identities at the door when they enter the classroom. That is, they cannot be expected to interact solely as obedient learners. They are developing human beings with agency who are seeking, often consciously, to position themselves more confidently in their environments. Increasingly, students expect their teachers to understand this and they expect to have opportunities to engage their strengths in the classroom. Every time learners speak, listen, read or write they are organizing and recognizing a sense of who they are and how they relate to the social world. Here is the question every teacher must ask: Am I willing to challenge my own identity as a teacher, my authority, my dominance, my roles in the classroom, in order to give my students greater roles?

 Student roles

As mentioned, I want to outline two roles for students that teachers at our school have explored through their research projects and which we have long since incorporated into regular practice. These are peer teaching and peer noticing. 

Roles: peer teaching

Peer teaching is an invaluable way of moulding autonomous and confident students in the language classroom. Its positive gains are most apparent with its consistent application over several years. Gains for the student and the classroom environment in general are made as the practice becomes an integral part of the school curriculum. In our experience, the more regular the practice became, the more we noticed the students using the opportunity to strengthen and share their interests and skills.

Peer teachers need to receive focussed training from a teacher trainer. What makes a good peer teacher involves a careful consideration of what methodology to follow and what tools peer teachers should use in order to teach their classmates. Topics for teaching are another issue that should be well thought out. Above all, students must be guided on how to evaluate their own teaching (see Peer Noticing below) so as to develop as effective peer teachers.

There are certain potential difficulties that arise with peer teaching that it is well advised to be aware of as they can usually be significantly mitigated, if not totally eliminated. These include students making their presentation far too elaborate than they have time for. There is also the danger of students presenting material with language that is too advanced for their peers. This is usually the result of the peer teacher’s failure to paraphrase source material. These particular issues can mostly be avoided by ensuring the class teacher has time to look at the student’s teaching material at least a week before it is to be presented. This allows ample time for amendments.

One cannot but admire the way peer teachers at our school prepare to deliver a class! Many students are eager to impress with sparkling slides on the screen, interesting content and graphic images. Their teaching points are generally well organised often with bulleted lists on PowerPoint or a YouTube film may follow to illustrate the lexical items they want to present. Generally, they can be seen trying hard to impart their teaching points to their classmates. And it's absolutely thrilling to see how prestigious a young peer teacher (perhaps aged only 13) can appear when addressing questions, inviting students to provide derivatives of a stem word or asking them to comment on a video he/she had taken the initiative to ask classmates to watch for homework in order to discuss it in class.

Roles: peer noticing

Here, teachers’ role is to help the students learn from each other through noticing.  Peer noticing is an extension of the important practice of grammar or vocabulary noticing that most EFL students take part in.

With peer noticing, students are given the time to comment on aspects of their classmates’ performance. This is especially effective after peer teaching but also after student presentations or class debates.  Younger or less experienced students can be encouraged to look out for specific aspects of their peer’s performance while more experienced students could perhaps choose their own topic of focus. This gives students the opportunity to evaluate their classmates' classroom presence, praise them and ask them to share learning strategies and personal experiences in terms of their English learning. Noticing topics could also include levels of confidence, presentation skills, multi-media skills or even humour. The invitation to focus on the whole-person aspect of a presentation also seems to offer a more engaging experience for the students. Furthermore, it extends the role of the peer teacher or presenter and challenges them to extend their leadership role. By answering their peers’ questions, they are articulating and sharing their skills.

Efforts must be taken to ensure peer noticing is done in a respectful and supportive environment. Boundaries should be discussed before peer noticing gets underway.  However, in our experience, having clear school rules guiding all classroom behaviour and reminding students of these is generally sufficient to avoid hurtful feedback.

Student testimonials from our school’s long running practice of peer noticing speak for themselves.  For example, one student wrote: "Some of my classmates have built up much more considerable strengths in some learning areas than others. Through noticing I identify these strengths, (fluent oral skills, high vocabulary competence, good debate skills etc.) discuss with them the learning strategies they are using, and appreciate my classmates' progress through acknowledgment and praise". Students sound so mature while underlining their peers' potential in the class. Another, intermediate student wrote: “Thomas, I have identified your excellent presentation skills and I want to congratulate you on that... Could you please share with us what exactly has helped you develop such high presentation skills?"

It's amazing to give your students these kinds of opportunities in a language classroom, and it should be clear how all this is conducive to their personal as well as intrapersonal development.

Conclusion

Peer teaching and peer noticing help build students' self-confidence and reinforce their learning. They offer creative ways for students to participate more fully in the learning process. Moreover, they encourage learners to offer each other the emotional support they need. Indeed, I have many testimonials from our ex-students, today spread out all over the world, who profess the benefits they gained through opportunities to teach their classmates. Today, our students need teachers with strong identities who are constantly thinking of their work critically and who recognize the new school era students live in. We need teachers who can empower their students to be protagonists in their classrooms and feel the sense of belonging to their community.

We teachers are not teaching English only! We are helping our students develop as personalities by offering them meaningful opportunities to communicate, collaborate and to think critically and responsibly about their learning and their society.

Notes:

  1. Johnson, Andy (2021). Action Research: The Basics 1 https://youtu.be/u755itz4eDo
  2. Richards, J.C. (2016). What does it mean to be a teacher of English? https://youtu.be/LYuK18e8V08