Thesis Seminar Weekly Roundup


Thesis Seminar Weekly Roundup

Hashtags: #tesol #tefl #appliedlinguistics #linguistics #research

As we conclude week two of thesis seminar, we want to begin looking at aligning our thesis statement with our research questions.  Some of you have already completed your literature review from last semester's academic writing course; so for you, it's a matter looking at the last sentence of your introduction paragraph, where your thesis statement should reside, and verifying if this one single sentence answers your research questions.  Your research questions will be introduced in the final paragraph of your literature review, just before the Method section. For those of you who are starting your literature review from scratch, begin writing your thesis statement and research questions in the same way...the only difference is that you will not have a completed literature review to separate the two.

For those who have a completed lit. review, note the main idea from each paragraph that makes your completed lit. review.  If you are developing your lit. review, simply write out the main idea that later will become a developed paragraph.  For both, list these topic sentences in the order in which you plan to organize your premises/claims.  Refer to my video tutorial from last week for details regarding premises and claims.

Once you are content with the order of your topics sentences, then begin either moving your completed paragraphs or begin developing each paragraph around the respective topic sentence.  Typically the topic sentence, I have found, is the most difficult sentence of a fully-developed body paragraph.  We'll discuss body paragraph development in a subsequent tutorial.

This exercise does two things: it forces you to develop coherent topic sentences for each body paragraph and it also forces you to take a macro view of your work to take sure that your ideas follow a logical order.  When you organize your topic sentences, also make sure to remove any headings that you might have.  I have found that sometimes headings are not clearly representative of the content (text) it represents.  If this is the case (or you are not sure), removing the headings when organizing your topic sentences can help.

For week three, follow the process as described above and contact me when you would like for me to review your work.  Let's review...

  1. Based on your annotated bibliography and a concise researchable problem, develop and align a clear thesis statement and set of research questions.
  2. Organize topic sentences in a logical fashion that creates an overall argument or position that directly and explicitly supports the thesis statement.
  3. Move or develop body paragraphs for each topic sentence.
  4. Add (back) headings as necessary, making sure that typically you have more than one paragraph for each heading.

Remember that the last paragraph of your literature review should transition from the theoretical framework to the specifics of the actual study.  Your transitional paragraph might include the following...

Restate and reword your thesis statement within the context of the researchable problem.
State the purpose of your research.
Introduce your research questions.
Finish with a closing sentence.

Continue working this week on your literature review while you continue reflecting on the specifics of your own research.  As you complete your literature review make sure the thesis statement aligns with your preliminary ideas that you currently have about your method section: participants, instruments, and procedure.

Make sure you contact me if you become frustrated or are not sure how to proceed and I look forward to seeing your work!

The Mitra Debate: Research vs. Teaching Practice

I read ELTJam meets Sugata Mitra today and found some interesting comments that I thought I might tease out.  My comments today are based mainly on Robinson's text as many of the YouTube videos I was not able to open at the time of this writing.

I commend Robinson for taking the time to conduct this interview with Mitra in revisiting some of the issues around his research and how many EFL educators perceive his research.  Then taking the time to post the interview with some journalistic tones that emerge throughout his text.  Overall, I get what he's after: to bring forward some of the controversial issues that have been floating around the web, along with sufficient dousing of editorial comments throughout.

But there are moments in this text that left me scratching my head, followed by a comment from Nicola that prompted me to ask myself, What is journalistic writing as it pertains to this blog post? I realized that this question and the reasons for me scratching my head were related, so I wish to explore this relationship...and yes, I might sprinkle in a few editorial comments of my own as well. :)

Nicola really loves Robinson's piece...

I love this piece! I am choosing to comment on the article as a piece of journalism rather than the questions raised because there are so many and worth a longer time to consider.
But I wanted to say, on first reading, as a piece of journalism this blew me away. I really care about writing – maybe more than I care about ELT in some ways and this seems to me like pretty groundbreaking journalism. It’s not just an interview/blog post…it’s creative non fiction with video. Stand back a minute and look at the skill that went into presenting this in this way. It’s awe inspiring – really.

She may be able to divorce language with content, but it's not as easy a task for me. But I appreciate her comment as it made me take another look at this post from a slightly different perspective: fact vs. opinion.

The Road to Newcastle

Since I was unable to ever view the recording, my commentary is strictly related to Robinson's text.  His use of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person is distracting and presumptuous at times.  This section is mainly based on opinion...after two paragraphs he introduces his first report by quoting Mitra which was his describing how he ended up becoming a teacher and his motivations...

How to make money. … How to make money doing the least amount of work as possible.

Then Robinson's response throws me off...

There it is in black and white: the root of the whole problem. From those early days would come a quest for economic efficiency straight out of the neoliberal manual for the automation of labour, and the root of the eventual demise of teaching as a profession.

I think if you ask any teacher, most would agree that summer vacations, holidays, etc. (time off) is one of the perks of being a teacher.  Isn't that what Mitra's saying?  And I think in most countries, few teachers would say that they got into the teaching profession because of the money.  How does this statement get construed to Mitra being the "devil in disguise" (aka a neoliberal)? Can anyone argue his investment into educational research as not being work?  And do we need to compare this with the amount of work found by a "traditional" teacher?  Finally, even if he did have horrible intentions when getting into the profession...who cares?  Isn't what he's doing now more relevant?

Then, Robinson shifts from a strict personal opinion to being diplomatic.

But it’s a little facile to read too much into it, isn’t it? What’s more, I agreed with him, as you can hear in the video. And I think many other people would agree, too. Who wants to work inefficiently? Who wants to work more than they have to? Do teachers? Do we feel that it’s the teacher’s lot to work too hard? Do we have some kind of martyr complex? Is that why some people can’t even start to entertain the thought that our role might end up different (or diminished)?

This sudden shift threw me.  I'm used to reading either an opinion piece from start to finish (e.g., persuasive/argumentative piece); reporting that is more diplomatic throughout (e.g., an objective balance between various sides of the argument); or presenting facts, like something Mitra said, followed by a comment (an opinion).

East vs. West

The first paragraph is more reporting, but then in the second paragraph...

What I’d hoped to get here was some sense of just how bad the conditions in a place needed to be in order for the possibility of ever getting a teacher there to be ruled out.

This says a lot.  I'd argue that having this discussion was not at all about how bad conditions would need to be to take any kind of action to improve teaching and learning.  The presumption here is that the result leads to a teacher being ruled out (Robinson does this later as well), which I do not subscribe to.  Robinson continues on which leads to the following questions...

What if the system is actually broken? What then?

I'll just say that every classroom has something that is broken, and that this premise goes a lot further in getting to better solutions that simply asking a overarching, dichotomous question that requires a complex answer.

Better than Nothing

I worked hard to follow Robinson's logic here, but ends by posing two questions:

Are those who agree with him [Mitra] simply giving up too easily?

Or are those who don’t simply too idealistic (or, maybe, naive)?

I commend Robinson for trying to simplify the matter, but I just don't follow.  I think we (the TESOL community) are better off having been exposed to Mitra's research. I think it brings up important questions like how can EFL educators create learning environments where students can learn more on their own, and then assist them more efficiently and effectively in matters they are unable to learn on their own.  Robinson's questions seems to again attempt to simplify a complex scenario.  And whether or not a teacher agrees with the outcomes of Mitra's research specifically (or him personally) does not mean that the research itself is irrelevant.   

The Neoliberal Question

Robinson states, "I’ve taken the liberty of pulling out some of the choicest quotes from this section and displaying them without context, as that’s what’s likely to happen in blog comments and on Twitter anyway..."  In other words, he might as well post isolated comments that are easily misconstrued since everyone else is doing it. Robinson goes on to list six "choice quotes" (again, going by text only since the YouTube video does not open):

  1. How Mitra feels about the profession of a postman is irrelevant.

  2. If Mitra is saying that teachers cannot be replaced, and that schools can never disappear, then what's the problem?  What side of the argument is this statement on?

  3. I have no idea as to the relevance of this "choice quote".

  4. In other words, are educators putting their time to good use when students can learn the same content without the help of the teacher? Students should learn what they can on their own (using the objects available to them), so that educators can take students to the next level.  Wouldn't Mitra support this idea?  I think so. How would one support an argument against this idea?

  5. Any educator who is teaching a student something that they could just as easily learn themselves (with no teacher intervention), and this behavior represents a singular teaching method, should be replaced (by either man or machine - using gender-specific language for effect).  Am I being unkind?  To the educator who is not adding value to the educative experience, yes.  To the learner, no. 

  6. See comment five above.

A Theory about English Language Teachers

Robinson concludes, "non-native teachers of English from around the world; in the anti camp: native speakers from Britain. Is this another battle line in the debate – East vs. West?"  Comparing native/non-native speakers and East vs. West is like comparing apples with oranges.  The logic is all over the place.  Stick to one point and unpack it.  If it's a native/non-native thing, stick to that.  If it's an East/West thing, stick to that.  To answer one of Robinson's questions, yes, I think our community can be divided at times in terms of expectations individuals have between the perceived notion of native and non-native speaker teacher.  But the way to remove this division is to stick to the nuances of issues and avoid generalizing (stereotyping) groups of people.  We should be beyond the native vs. non-native speaker teacher debate by now to one that is more about what is and is not working in the English language learning classroom.

On Evidence

I completely agree with Robinson here.

The Edge of Chaos

Robinson started his conclusion well...

From our conversation, I, at least, did get something of a clearer sense of what makes Sugata Mitra tick: a belief that we’ve let control go too far; that if we can loosen that control, learning will happen, and it will happen in a better way; and that, in some cases, the way to relinquish that control might be to...

I was with him all of the way, until he finished with...

...get rid of the teacher altogether.

What?  Why must the end be "get rid of the teacher altogether"?  Why can't the answer be somewhere in the middle?  Why can't the answer be something like teachers taking a closer look at their teaching practice and adopt and adapt as necessary as they recognize that students can learn a lot more on their own than we sometimes give them credit for. 

I know why...Educators, at times, misunderstand research design for teaching method.  Yes, research should be rooted in pedagogy.  Yes, there should be a link between research and teaching and learning.  But to Robinson's point about evidence, educators should take research (evidence) and compare and contrast how the findings relate to their own teaching and learning (local) context. This should be done without feeling that a particular research design, under a particular research setting, is synonymous in application across an infinite set of local learning environments that may exist.

The Mitra debate is as much about the role of research and teaching practice as it is about Mitra and his research.  It's a worthy debate and one that is likely to continue.

Photo Attribution (Steve Jurvetson)

Narrowing down a research topic

Narrowing down a research topic

Selecting a topic (handout): Move from an everyday problem that you would like to investigate (stage 1) to defining a specific subject, perspective, and vantage point that defines your research topic (stage 2).  The final stage (stage 3) is to remove yourself from the personal domain of refining the topic of interest to the formal world of academia.  In this final stage, switch from everyday language to technical terminology used in a particular academic discipline (e.g., applied linguistics). See list of possible research topics in applied linguistics below as a guide. Source: The Literature Review

Merge your topic with an area of linguistic focus: a) individual skills (i.e., reading, writing, listening, speaking), b) grammar, c) vocabulary, d) or some combination of the aforementioned (e.g., reading and writing, listening and speaking, speaking and vocabulary, etc.). 

Moving from a topic to questions (Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 2008

Brainstorm a set of questions from a variety of perspectives, beginning with asking who, what, when, where, but focusing on how, and why.  Then continue brainstorming through the following types of questions:
  • Topic history

    • Ask questions about developmental context.  How has this problem, technique, method, material, etc. changed over the years?  Why has it changed over the years? etc. 
  • Structure and composition

    • How does your topic relate to a bigger context?  What is the composition of your topic?  How do the pieces fit together?
  • Categorization

    • How can your topic be grouped together?  How does your topic compare and contrast with topics within the same or similar category.
  • Positive to negative questions

    • Turn positive questions to negative questions.  Why have wikis not become a prevalent web tool in today's language classroom?
  • What if... questions
    • What if all language teachers had to use wikis with their learners?
  • Questions from sources
    • Search primary research articles and find questions for further research.  Or tailor research questions from primary research articles to local research topic interests.  Find questions from outside sources that allow you to fill the literature gap so that what you investigate adds to the body of knowledge that currently makes up the field.

Moving from questions to a problem

To move a question to its significance, try using the following prompts:
  • I wish to learn more about...(a topic).
Here are some examples with key words (nouns deriving from verbs) italicized...
  • I am studying teachers' beliefs about formative assessments and related teaching techniques.
  • I am working on why students are reluctant to speak English in class.
  • I am trying to learn about teaching covert grammar and how students feel about different related teaching techniques.
Add an indirect question (in bold) to your topic to indicate what you don't know or would like to understand better...
  • Example: I wish to learn more about _________ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how _________.

  • I am studying teachers' beliefs about formative assessment because I want to find out how students feel about related teaching techniques

  • I am working on why students are reluctant to speak English in class because I want to find out what authentic materials I might use to promote better interaction among students

  • etc.
Build research questions specifically around the indirect question (bold text) that you have created above.

So what?

Your topic must be interesting to you, the researcher, but must also be interesting to others in the field.  Add to your topic and indirect question the significance of your research.
  • Example: I wish to learn more about __________ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how _________ in order to __________.

  • I am studying teachers' beliefs about formative assessment because I want to find out how students feel about related teaching techniques in order to demonstrate the role of formative assessment in the English language classroom. 

  • I am working on why students are reluctant to speak English in class because I want to find out what authentic materials I might use to promote better interaction among students in order to place less emphasis on the coursebook as a syllabus

  • etc.
Moving from a topic to questions involves a three-part process: 1) stating what you want to learn more about, 2) tagging an indirect question to your topic (beginning with a because clause), and 3) concluding with the significance of your research (an in order to clause).

Moving from questions to a problem

Reflect on your topic-to-question statement:
  • Topic: I wish to learn more about...

  • Question: because I want to find out what/why/how etc....

  • Significance: (Reflect on the reader's point of view.): in order to...
First, distinguish between a practical problem and a research problem...
  • Practical problem: Students are afraid to speak in class.

  • Research problem: How can I provide feedback to students in such a way that they feel more confident to speak English with their peers?

  • Research solution:  Provide individual feedback when requested during the task, and group feedback once the task has been completed.

  • Practical solution:  Avoid overcorrection or providing too much feedback to students.
A problem consists of a condition and a cost or consequence.
  • (topic) I am studying teacher feedback (question #1 & condition) because I want to find out when giving feedback allows students to feel more confident when speaking L2 with their peers (significance, question #2, & cost or consequence in order to answer the bigger question of how teacher intervention can either promote or discourage student's oral production in class.
The first question (the condition) helps answer the second question (the cost or consequence).

Example: Knowing when to give feedback that allows students to feel more confident when speaking with their peers (question #1 or condition) addresses the bigger question of how teacher intervention can either promote or discourage student's oral production in class (question #2 or cost/consequence). 

Here are additional tips when searching for a problem to research:
  • Ask teachers, students, administrators, and other experts in the field about problems they face related to teaching and learning an additional language.

  • Search primary research articles for related problems to find relevant examples.

  • Begin with a problem at the onset of your research, but understand that research problems may morph or emerge in different forms as one conducts a study.

Unit of Analysis

Lesson 1-5 Units of analysis
Possible Research Topics in Applied Linguistics 
  • Grammar
      • Overt/cover
      • Implicit/explicit
      • Chomsky's Universal Grammar

  • Bilingual education

  • Classroom discourse

  • Corpus linguistics

  • Cognitive linguistics

  • Discourse analysis
    • Grice and Implicatures (part 1part 2, & part 3)
    • L1 use in language teaching
    • L2 transfer
    • Learner autonomy
    • Interactive/collaboraitve language learning.
    • Task-based learning
    • Problem-based learning
    • Performance-based learning
    • Language learning strategies
  • Language exchanges

  • English for Academic Purposes
  • English for Specific Purposes
  • Generative grammar
  • Chomsky's Universal Grammar
  • Innatism
  • Krashen's monitor model
  • Language and culture
  • Language and Gender
  • Language and Identity
  • Language Emergence as a complex adaptive system
  • Language learning and technology
  • Language teacher education
  • Professional development or professional learning among (English language), in-service educators
  • Professional development or professional learning among (English language), pre-service educators
  • Language testing
    • Formative assessment in the language classroom
    • Formative vs. summative assessment in the language classroom
    • Dynamic assessment in the language classroom
    • Language exchanges
    • Task-based learning
    • Problem-based learning
    • Performance-based learning

  • Lexis
  • Linguistic Imperialism
  • Multilingualism
  • Phonetics and phonology
  • Systemic functional linguistics
  • Multimodality
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Sociocultural theories
  • Sociolinguistics
    • Motivation
  • Translation

Additional reading

Six steps for conducting a literature review (Machi & McEvoy, 2009)
  1. Select a topic.
    Search the literature.
  2. Develop an argument.
  3. Survey the literature.
  4. Critique the literature.
  5. Write the review.


Booth, W., Colomb, G., & Williams, J. (2008). The craft of research. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Machi, L. & McEvoy, B. (2009). The literature review: Six steps to success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Asking Why Instead of How (#Change11)

How to balance soft and hard technology?

Soft technologies are flexible, supporting creativity and change, because the gaps inside them have to be filled with processes constructed by people. They are needy and incomplete until people fill the holes, while hard technologies contain within them the processes and methods to achieve the ends for which they were designed [emphasis added], bring efficiency, scalability, replicability, freedom from error and speed.  Conclusion: "Most learning technology research concentrates on technology (including methods and pedagogies) not the talent and skill with which it is applied that is frequently more significant" (Dron, 2011).

I would approach the use of technology a bit differently, asking why instead of how.

I find it combersome drawing a distinction between soft and hard technologies.  Defining hard technologies as particular processes and methods that inherently achieve certain ends confines the user to act or think in a certain way.  This leads to linking technologies to individuals based on socio-cultural-historical assumptions.  If one concludes that it's not the technology but how one uses it, does it matter which contained processes and methods lead to arbitrary (decontextualized) ends?

When reflecting on the different (hard) technologies that I use, I have yet to find one that does everything.  I am constantly adding and pruning technologies as my teaching and learning context changes.  The hard technologies that I use (in aggregate) are as fluid, flexible, and incomplete as some soft technologies.  Individual web tools serve as nodes that make up part of my PLN; a change in one can influence a change in others, similar to how people interact.

Jumping on the ANT bandwagon, I find it helpful to view technology as designing an assemblage (i.e., PLN) which views the social as a "very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling" (Latour, 2005).  I see a PLN as a movement that re-associates and reassembles reifying conceptualizations, people, and material. 

Reifying conceptualizations is the process of making some abstract idea, notion, or problem more concrete through open and ongoing interaction.  From a socio-technical perspective, people use artifacts to interact with each other around related conceptualizations.  Interactions that connect conceptualizations, people, and material are contextually rich and provide the basis for one's teaching and learning rationale.

Consequently, my approach to technology would be to ask why someone chooses to interact within a PLN in ways that foster open and ongoing professional learning.  Asking why, also requires asking what, how, when, and with whom (plus any other applicable question words), while embracing a perspectival sensitivity between subject (i.e., participants of the study) and object (i.e., researcher). In other words, it's about understanding how the individual's interpretation of becoming emerges from the recollection of the associations, assemblages, and dynamics of a PLN. It just so happens that my interest in such a topic has led me to a doctoral proposal.



Projects Slated for the Rest of 2011

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The great difficulty in education is to get experience out of ideas. -George Santayana

This next semester is a busy one.


The last few days I have been working feverishly on my dissertation proposal, trying to get it cleaned up and approved before I start my research.  I'm conducting a study on how EFL educators working in Mexico interact within a personal learning network and how that interaction influences a change in behavior and beliefs (i.e., teaching practice and reflection).  It's a hermeneutic, qualitative case study involving three teachers who will be using various ICTs in which to interact with other individuals, communities, and/or groups.  The Moodle course that we will be using can be found here and many of the activities are open to anyone interested in teaching English to students of other languages.

University Classes

Classes begin the second week of August and I'm scheduled to teach the following: (a) Applied linguistics, 7th semester, (b) academic writing, 7th semester, and (c) teaching practicum, 5th semester.  The applied linguistics and academic writing classes will have some online content made available to anyone who might be interested.  The idea I have for applied linguistics is to get my students to interact in online communities so they can address current issues related to teaching and learning English as a foreign language.  And the students taking the academic writing course will work largely in Wikieducator as they improve their writing skills and knowledge about formal writing discourse.  Finally, I will also be facilitating 5th semester students who will be teaching for the first time English in front of a group of peers.  They'll work in groups and students will be ask to plan, implement, and reflect on their English classes in terms of curriculum, assessment, and instruction.  All the students from the three classes are pre-service English language teachers studying a BA in ELT at the UAA.

I will be sharing more about these classes throughout the semester either in the form of a blog post or in my TESOL Talk program.

University research

Since February of this year, I have been involved with a research line with two other colleagues investigating the noticing hypothesis among EFL learners practicing their writing skills.  This next semester we are slated to begin the data analysis and will begin writing up our findings for peer-reviewed publications.  This semester we are scheduled to present talks at RECALE (in September),  MEXTESOL (October), and ANUPI (October).  More information will be provided as our research unfolds.

Edukwest writer

I am happy to announce that as of this month, I will be joining a group of writers for Edukwest: On the search for better education.  Edukwest (originated by Kirsten Winkler) covers a wide variety of topics and formats all dedicated to improving education.  I look forward to joining in on the discussion and if you have any interest in anything related to education, I recommend that you check out the website!

Well, that's about it.  The latter part of 2011 will certainly prove to be the busiest semester yet, but am happy to be involved in so many worthwhile projects.  If there is anything in particular that interests you and you would like to know more, feel free to contact me by clicking on the email icon below.

Research Methods and Critique

Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that “rules are not necessarily sacred; principles are” (as cited in Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 111). One notion is to believe that teaching has become too personalized and has lead to criticism of teaching practices that make most educators “defensive and resistant to the message” (Wiggins and Mctighe, 2007, p. 111), while others may feel that a “principled eclecticism” is more appropriate that allows each teacher to take on a personal methodology that teachers “work out for themselves what is effective in their own classrooms” (Scrivener, 2005, p. 40). Consequently, reaching an interpretable consensus as to what makes a good teacher and learner depends on the particular ontological stance one takes within a critical constructivist worldview.

How one becomes a good teacher depends in part on how subjectivity is engulfed through the notion of critical constructivism. The term constructivism itself can be viewed as the absence of objectivity whereby “nothing exists before consciousness shapes it into something we can perceive” (Tobin & Kincheloe, 2006, p. 8). Indeed, “how humans learn by building knowledge cooperatively through social interaction and the application of prior knowledge (as tools) in a continual interpretation of ongoing experiences” (Bentley, Fleury, & Garrison), 2006, p. 7) becomes the basis of a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Critical constructivism derives from constructivism and critical theory forwards how power imbalances that exist in schools and knowledge relationships mature or dissipate within particular contexts (Love, 2008). In terms of becoming a better teacher, negotiating interpretations links what one does in the classroom to a personal identity within a community. Since social interactions develop and recede through an iterative and reciprocal process, social connections become expressed also in terms of being intersubjective versus being dichotomized in terms of objective and subjective opposites.

Critical constructivism and its focus on relationships leads to an entitled approach to leadership. “Entitlement seeks to place those who have the ability to act in the forefront of decision making (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 43). Empowering individuals to act can be influenced by self-perception. Zmuda (2010) put forth the notion that “the way I see myself and the contributions I hope to make affects the way I conduct myself as a learner” should replace the myth “the way I want to be seen by [others] affects the way I conduct myself as a learner” (p. 171). Hence, as members of a community are empowered and who have the will and ability to act (i.e., to change), the idea of meaning becomes “assigned” instead of being “inherent in external phenomena” (Bently, Fleury, and Garrison, 2006, p. 16). Accordingly, the act of decision-making becomes an ever-important 21 century skill (Dodge, 2008) for all learners as negotiation of meaning becomes distributed throughout a network.

A variant albeit supportive view of critical constructivism is accepting the process of learning via a network as a metaphor. The epistemology of connectivism is the assertion that learning occurs through the formation of networks that are formed by the individual; that is, knowing rests in the individual and resides in the collection (Siemens, 2006). As with critical constructivism, interactions with others form the (strong and weak) ties that make one’s reality personal. But reality in and of itself consists of not only subjective objects and facts - as is the case in constructivism - but also objective objects and facts as well (Boghossian, 2006). Therefore, connectivism (as a learning theory) rejects the assumption that knowledge is propositional and instead assumes that knowledge (i.e., knowing, truth, etc.) is emergent, nonreductivist, and contextual. How one views knowledge impacts the way research is conducted.

Researchers choose designs based on a particular worldview. Creswell (2009) mentioned that the type of design one chooses (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods) will depend on the particular worldview one subscribes to: “postpositivism, constructivism, advocacy/participatory, or pragmatism” (p. 6). The researcher who adheres to a critical constructivist approach incorporates to various degrees critical theory, pedagogy, and thinking as well. Critical theory in particular can be defined as being “normative: delineate a more just and free future. The term critical refers not only to a critique of social conditions, but also to Kant’s idea of self-reflective examination of the limits and validity of our own knowledge and understandings (McLean, 2006, p. 9). Moreover, researchers who subscribe to participatory action research (PAR) grounds human interactions as “participative, interdependent ecology of life” (Reason & Bradbury, 2008, p. 17), a framework which underpins a critical constructivist approach.

Critical constructivism unites social constructivism theory with critical theory in a way that begins to blur the distinct differences researchers once had when classifying data strictly in terms of being quantitative or qualitative. The interactions themselves are central to entitling members of a network to take on leadership roles that are based on will and ability and not solely on title, position, or pay grade. By distributing leadership throughout the network, participants begin to have a voice as power laws begin to shift in favor of those who were once marginalized or on the peripheral. By establishing the “relational trust and social capital” (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 21) that teachers need to achieve personal goals, the whole network (i.e., all stakeholders) begins to flourish as interdependent teachers begin forming a Gemeinschaft; that is, a community that considers more the “we” as opposed to solely the “I” (Sergiovanni, 1999). When assessing teacher capacities in terms of what makes a good teacher, social capital, community, and relational trust viewed through a critical constructivist lens become an integral part of an individual’s perception, perspective, and social constructions.

Article Review

Huang (2010) conducted a case study (i.e., qualitative research design) of an English language teacher at the Nanjing University in order to see what makes a successful English-as-a-foreign (EFL) teacher in China. The EFL teacher who was the target of the research was Miss H (pseudonym) who taught general English courses to undergraduate students studying Chinese Medicine - English courses are a requirement in order to graduate. Other participants included “24 English-major students who were in their second year of university and who had a teacher-student relationship with Miss H; and eight English teachers who were in the same staff room as Miss H.” (p. 22). The purpose of the study was to investigate the following three research questions:

  1. What are the unique qualities of Miss H (including her personal traits, professional achievements and teaching style) that make others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?

  2. How does Miss H teach English effectively in the classroom?

  3. What other roles does Miss H undertake in her teaching position” (p. 20)?

The results of these questions are not meant to be inferential to other populations, but rather generalizable to a particular group outside the given context.

The theoretical framework for what makes a good teacher, in principle, was summarized into three categories: (a) “professional knowledge or achievements”, (b) “personal traits”, and (c) “teaching style” (p. 21). In order to determine how Miss H was classified within these three categories, data collection involved interviews, surveys, and focus groups with the participants previously mentioned. The first step was to interview Miss H in order to get personal data about her education and experiences. The second step was to apply a survey to Miss H’s eight colleagues so to obtain an outside perspective of Miss H. And the final step was to interview and conduct focus groups with a sample of Miss H’s students, getting yet a third perspective of Miss H’s knowledge, skills, and disposition as an EFL educator.

The findings of the study included a variety of perspectives. Miss H believed that motivation was crucial to becoming a successful EFL teacher in China and went on to mention that “learners play the central role in teaching” (p. 23). Some of Miss H’s colleagues described her as enthusiastic, responsible, having rich knowledge, cross-cultural awareness, and communicative competency among many other descriptors. Students mentioned that “practising as much as possible, interest in the language, and perseverance” (p. 24) were the three main aspects of Miss H’s teaching that they enjoyed the most. Additional roles Miss H takes on involves working with parents and students with life problems and working with faculty in exchanging teaching methods and techniques. The authors overall purpose was to expose what a successful EFL teacher is and does in China with the hopes that others will reflect on their own practice in finding ways to improve.

Article Critique

At first glance, Huang’s (2010) qualitative study into what makes a successful EFL teacher in China appears to place perspective on that of the participants and not on the researcher. For example, a triangulation approach was taken that included interviews, surveys, and focus groups and included collecting data from not only Miss H (i.e., the target of the study) but also from her students and colleagues. Opinions from Miss H, students, and colleagues were then categorized and represented using a vast number of descriptors: “responsible attitude, easy-going, good command of the language” etc. (p. 24). Thus, one could infer that the researcher was sharing only the values and the assumptions of the participants by simply reporting what participants said. But this positive description of Miss H was mainly presented with little contextual background. What is left out of Miss H’s profile is whether she has tenure, the number of her colleagues that have tenure, the profiles of her colleagues who participated in the study (e.g., professional achievements, educational background, professional experience, etc.), the relationships the colleagues have with Miss H, the number of hours in front of a group Miss H has in comparison with her colleagues, and the criteria used to select the students and colleagues who were to participate in the study. As a result, there is the possibility that the lack of contextual description with regard to how Miss H works and the hidden assumptions that exist as it pertains to the research methodology used to conduct the study might blur the objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity of the constructions.

The notions of objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity as cognitive and social constructions emerge through a network. Huang (2010) failed to demonstrate the two key components required of any type of personal network: “connection” and “contagion” (Christakis & Fowler, 2009, p. 16). The authors added that networks adhere to the following rules: (a) “we shape our networks”, (b) “our networks shapes us”, (c) “our friends affects us”, (d) “our friends’ friends’ friends affect us, and (e) “the network has a life of its own” (pp. 17-24). Therefore, instead of applying a research methodology that limits perspectives (i.e., reality) on the individual, decontextualized accounts of reality (i.e., subjectivity), constructions should emerge by investigating who Miss H interacts with (i.e., the connection) and the type of tie (i.e., the contagion) that exists with each person or node that makes up her personal learning network. A “macro” view of human interactions, indeed subscribes to Freire’s unabashedly appeal “to an ‘objective’ reality that we all can come to know through careful, critical analysis” (Olson, 2006).

The way in which constructions are formed are also representative of how the world is shaped. Huang (2010) seems to view the world primarily in terms of personal accounts of reality, absent of the actual interactions that actually are required in order for an individual to form a perception in the first place. As there are a variety of key principles at play - “communication, transparency, knowledge, innovation, regulation, accountability, ownership, citizenship, and power” (McCarthy, Miller, & Skidmore, 2004, pp. 11-21) - communication, knowledge, and power will be considered in ways of offering addition insight into the subject of what makes a successful EFL teacher. A change in focus as to how the world is shaped would imply a different set of research questions that would shift the direction of the research as well (see Table 1).

Table 1

Current research questionsNew set of research questions

  1. What are the unique qualities of Miss H (including her personal traits, professional achievements and teaching style) that make others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?


  1. How does Miss H teach English effectively in the classroom?


  1. What other roles does Miss H undertake in her teaching position

  1. How does Miss H cultivate a personal learning network in a way that makes others perceive her as a successful EFL teacher in China?

  2. What type of ties exist within Miss H’s personal learning network that have the most impact on her current teaching practice?

  3. How influence does Miss H have on her personal learning network that extends her role beyond her teaching position?










Clearly, changing the focus of the study in this fashion changes the scope of the investigation as well. Researching constructive processes requires a more narrow and in depth look at a particular phenomenon, and in the case of Miss H, perhaps the need to limit the study to one or two research questions. But in doing so, a more descriptive account of what is takes to be a good teacher would result.

Continuing the network metaphor, psychosocial dispositions also impact how adult learners are influenced by and how they guide others through ongoing social interaction. “Psychosocial dispositions act as mediating pathways between the students’ demographic characteristics (e.g., parental education, age, and gender), academic programs (e.g., arts or sciences), and their academic achievement in college” (Clifton, Perry, Roberts, and Peter, 2008, p. 687). Those adult learners about to enter the education profession also have doubts about their chosen career and the control they have over what they can teach (Daniels, Clifton, Perry, Mandzuk, and Hall, 2006). The issue of control and career anxiety among those participants in Huang’s (2010) study was not addressed but might influence perspective and the manner in which both students and colleagues expressed opinions. However slight, a diversity of opinion (e.g., psychosocial dispositions of the teachers) can provide additional context when interpreting the attributes needed to be a successful teacher. From a critical constructivist approach, the act of allowing Miss H. to express her opinions on career anxiety and control over what she does in the classroom and the control she has with regard to her personal learning network would provide a more informative description of her perceived success. In other words, instead of presenting current attributes that she possesses, a look at her becoming a successful teacher would provide more insight into the process of formulating personal psychosocial dispositions.

Having control over one’s teaching practice and how one views the role within the profession is a complex and emergence phenomenon. As mentioned earlier, three general interactive types are constantly in motion: (a) how an educator affects others (either directly or indirectly), (b) how others affect the educator, and (c) how the network itself emerges as a whole (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). As a complex adaptive system (Fryer, n.d.), an educator recognizes how one adapts or co-adapts to a “learning ecology: formal learning, experience/game, mentor, performance support, self-learning, community-based learning, and informal learning” (Siemens, 2006, pp. 39-40). Power relations, sustainability, and decision-making are but a few examples of how different contexts can influence and be influenced by the type of interactions that take place between individuals and artifacts. Huang’s (2010) research ignored how Miss H arose from the determinants of her ever-changing environment or what affect her socio-cultural background had on her success. Specifically, what effect did Miss H have on her environment, what effect did her environment have on her, and what transformative change of events emerged on their own. Knowing when and how she made decisions over time would better explain how she became a successful EFL teacher.

The decision-making process as part of a three-part harmony also includes andragogy and critical thinking skills (Moore, 2010), and links cognitive and social constructions via personal perception. When teachers are entitled to make decisions, an increase in the following domains exist: affective aspects, job satisfaction, job commitment, and perception of workload (Chi Keung, 2008). Each of these domains create personal constructions that are both cognitive and social in nature. Researching the relationships that exist between the participants of the study allows personal reflection and learning and the critical skills required to make decisions under particular contexts. It is precisely these type of analysis where behavioral and perspectival patterns begin to emerge. By analyzing the conditions by which constructions arise, researchers explain phenomena in terms of individual impact on others (i.e., the network), as well as the impact others have on the individual. Moreover, researchers who investigate the process of construction through relationship building may also see self-organisational tendencies as the network itself grows and develops on its own. Understanding what makes a good EFL teacher lends itself to an analysis based on critical constructivism that ultimately empowers not only the successful teacher but those who are in contact with the successful teacher to improve as well. Thus, learning that is meaningful and relevant to personal goals emerges through both independent and interdependent experiences (Moore, 2010).

Understanding the purpose of a critical constructivist approach helps researchers to decipher meaning through context. Individual perspective that stems from the participants themselves allows for a more descriptive and explanatory account of a particular phenomenon in terms of time and space. Temporal and spatial relations that are shared through multiple interpretations not only provide the constructions but also the conditions by which the constructions emerged. For example, if we understand the context by which an EFL teacher made a particular decision or a self-reflection that demonstrates a particular habit of mind, the reader has a better understanding of an intersubjective reality. A critical constructivist approach to research is not only epistemological but is also ontological as well. Knowing how one becomes a good EFL teacher is equally important (perhaps more so) as knowing what a good EFL teacher is as a final conclusion. As a result, the reader gains a better understanding of the learning ecology (i.e., environment, socio-cultural context, etc.) by experiencing the interactions (i.e., connections and contagions) that determine (a) the affects the EFL teacher has on others, (b) the affects others have on the EFL teacher, and (c) the self-sustaining attributes of the learning network itself. Having said experiences underpins the notion that actionable understandings are better positioned when they lead to a more suitable praxis.


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Do Quantitative Findings Mean Anything?

52% of Online Language Learners Consider Classic Offline Learning as More Efficient

Without knowing the details of the study, my first reaction to this analysis is that macro findings say very little. A micro-analysis that reveals specific demographics would provide a deeper description. Even the question itself leads to ambiguity. For example, I could choose books as my first choice and podcasts as my second. But these choices do not indicate degree - do I think books and podcasts will help me about the same in the future or do I think there will a be a big different between the two? And what does each learner interpret as "efficient" learning? And the socio-economic aspect of this analysis is not phase 2 but rather an essential part of the main analysis, again at the micro level.

Your question is a legitimate on: "Do we tend to prefer learning using the tools and methods we grew up with?" Was this question part of the study? I've seen literature that supports the notion that we tend to teach the way we were taught, so I would suspect the same goes for learning over time. Regardless, since everyone learns differently, it's hard to draw conclusions even if we know we tend to stick to the same tools and behaviors as we've done in the past.

I'd be interested in knowing how learners currently take advantage of learning affordances now (to learn another language) and how do they forecast learning affordances for the future. A third question addressing past affordances would also provide a historical perspective.

Human behavior (e.g., learning) is simply too complex to generalize quantitatively in an analysis of this type - there are simply too many concomitant variables at play. The amount of detail what is required to draw any sound conclusions would require detailed information, information that I suspect Busuu is not willing to provide. :)

Note: It's been my belief that efficient and engaging learning (and the teaching that allows this to happen) looks about the same whether being delivered f2f, through blended courses, or at a distance.

52% of Online Language Learners Consider Classic Offline Learning as More Efficient

Digital native and the usefulness of the term in language teaching/learning

Recent quotes from an ongoing PD treatment for EFL educators...

Techonology seems something generational.

I am not using blogs currently as a teacher, because I think I need to practice more in order to get all habilities so I can be able to guide my students through all the process.

Quotes for the term digital native...

Wikipedia entry...(notice authors)

Quotes against the term digital native...

It seems that it is impossible to generalise about teenagers

...students they studied displayed an inordinate level of trust in search engine brand as a measure of credibility.

So, is the term digital native relevant to today's teaching and learning of another language?  Is there a positive correlation between a teachers age and the way in which technology is used to increase student achievement (i.e., language development)?

Digital native and the usefulness of the term in language teaching/learning

Recent quotes from an ongoing PD treatment for EFL educators...

Techonology seems something generational.

I am not using blogs currently as a teacher, because I think I need to practice more in order to get all habilities so I can be able to guide my students through all the process.

Quotes for the term digital native...

Wikipedia entry...(notice authors)

Quotes against the term digital native...

It seems that it is impossible to generalise about teenagers

...students they studied displayed an inordinate level of trust in search engine brand as a measure of credibility.

So, is the term digital native relevant to today's teaching and learning of another language?  Is there a positive correlation between a teachers age and the way in which technology is used to increase student achievement (i.e., language development)?