To welcome Vinnie as a new member of the Advisory Board of New Routes, all the questions in this interview are based on suggestions from the current members of the Board, including Graeme Hodgson, who Vinnie is replacing.
JS: What advice do you have for those learners of English who are considering teaching as a profession?
VN: The best advice I can offer is: “always behave as a true professional”. English language teaching in Brazil can be a beautiful career but it is still perceived by many members of society as an informal activity that anyone can do. One of the traps a novice teacher can fall prey to is believing this is true. As a real professional, one must invest in their own development restlessly and have the kind of attitude that earns respect without having to ask for it. This entails delving into theories of foreign language acquisition, studying the language in depth, consolidating a range of skills, taking courses, networking with other professionals in a respectful manner, being aware of your own strengths and areas to develop. It can be quite hard to embrace constant learning when in many contexts this may not even be expected or rewarded. However, we should not limit ourselves. Rather, we should become the kind of professional we would naturally look up to.
JS: What in your experience, are Brazilian EFL teachers’ main professional goals?
VN: I think the Brazilian EFL community is genuinely committed to promoting effective learning and positively impacting the life of students. In my experience, most teachers have this goal in mind when they choose to stay in the career regardless of the obstacles and constraints that are inherent in the life of a teacher. I have met wonderful teachers who truly want to contribute to a better world and see English Language Teaching as an effective way to achieve this goal.
JS: As a teacher trainer, have you been able to spot any blind-spots in teacher training courses? If so, could you name a few?
VN: Absolutely. There are wonderful professionals delivering really solid development programs around. However, it is also true that we lack a more professionalized approach towards teacher education, which raises serious blind-spots. Many teacher trainers get into the job in a very organic way, which might prevent us from developing a more informed and systematized philosophy behind the development of teachers. This usually triggers a tendency to address teacher development in a more prescriptive approach based on one’s own experience and opinions, focusing on ready made recipes and merely introducing tasks and techniques, without raising awareness of the rationale behind all the decisions that a teacher needs to make on a daily basis. There is a real need for more in-depth debates about the competences, skills and knowledge that an effective teacher needs to develop. Training courses should be designed and delivered by experts who have a deep understanding of professional development and English Language Teaching, and who can therefore aim at long-term goals, including the development of critical thinking and the empowerment of teachers in a range of contexts. The ultimate goal in teacher education should not be the presentation of ten fun activities that can be easily implemented. This is valid as long as there is a simultaneous effort to equip professionals with the knowledge, skills, awareness and attitudes that will allow them to act autonomously and devise their very own fun activities, with solid reasons and conscious knowledge of what is being done. However, this can only be achieved once we have an effective development strategy for the teacher educators themselves.
JS: In your view, to what extent have the BRAZ-TESOL Conferences and the Chapter events contributed towards Brazilian EFL teachers’ professional development? Do you believe there is room for improvement? Where?
VN: BRAZ-TESOL has been playing an extremely important role in bringing a range of professionals together to discuss English Language Teaching. Its contributions have been huge and I have met teachers who had never had the opportunity to attend a workshop to develop professionally before they learned about BT, for example. However, there is always room for improvement. I personally think that BT has the power to help teachers, teacher educators and conference speakers to professionalize our practice even more, deepening the discussions and building stronger bridges with academic research to create an independent and solid forum that can impact policies related to the profession. I think the ELT community could benefit from a more structured framework of CPD that caters for the different stages of professional development that a teacher might be in. BRAZ-TESOL conferences and Chapters have the range, energy and expertise to design something along these lines.
JS: How do you see the development of CLIL in Brazilian schools?
VN: CLIL is being thoroughly discussed and a lot of energy has been directed to a greater understanding of the benefits that it can bring to our learners. I personally believe, however, that context might still be sometimes overlooked when we consider a new pedagogy like CLIL and there are local variables that need to be taken into consideration in a more careful manner. Integrating content and language can pose unnecessary challenges to the educator that might still be struggling to achieve a higher level of language proficiency, for example. In my experience, this is one of the greatest challenges that many Brazilian ELT teachers still have to overcome. It might also understate English Language Teaching as an independent area of expertise (suggesting that it needs to be associated to other subject matters to be relevant). It is a fact that careful integration of content and language, done by specialized professionals and delivered by extremely qualified teachers, has the potential to make language learning more contextualized and meaningful (nevertheless, if done in a less favorable context, it might also add to the levels of stress of students and teachers). However, it is also a fact that meaningfulness, relevance, engagement and context have been concerns in the ‘pure’ ELT environment for many years as well – with fairly good learning results, I must admit. I personally think that CLIL can add a lot to the foreign language acquisition debate as one different way of helping students learn English in certain contexts. If we are careful enough not to deep dive into it without a critical analysis of the advantages and disadvantages that will arise in each context, I believe we might find ourselves a powerful alternative to the teaching and learning of English in specific environments.
JS: Increasingly, language learners are turning to apps (like Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise to name but a few) for more flexible learning on-the-go. With increased urban congestion and expensive parking, do you think the days of the traditional twice-weekly language classes are numbered?
VN: Mobility is certainly one of learners’ many demands today. The traditional language center model provides unquestionable results but may not be interesting or appropriate to many people anymore. In many societies, people want more practical solutions and do not wish to leave their homes to have access to learning. However, the ELT tools that offer full mobility might still be struggling to ensure the same outcomes that a face to face course can still offer. I believe that we are going to witness some very exciting discoveries and changes in the near future as pedagogy leads technological projects to provide learners with a more convenient – and equally successful – experience. As long as it is the pedagogy that identifies needs and designs solutions with the help of technology (and not the other way around), we might participate in a revolution in education and its current models quite soon.
JS: Why do coursebooks shape most of the language programs in schools and what should be done to shift this focus?
VN: There is a sad – and utterly wrong – belief that the material can ‘make up’ for the lack of preparation of a teacher. I have been asked, more than once, to write materials that would be ‘teacher-proof’ (which I naturally refused to do). Some language programs support this belief and expect teachers to follow detailed steps blindly, without room for adaptation or an understanding of the rationale behind them. In my experience this often happens because it is more expensive to invest in teachers who really know what they are doing (or help them get there) than to adopt a coursebook. In many contexts, having a coursebook shape a language program is believed to be the easiest way to ensure students’ experience. This is quite naïve, though. There needs to be an urgent shift of paradigm to place the teacher as the center of the education process. Coursebooks are extremely important and we have been witnessing relevant editorial developments in this field. However, teaching still boils down to the person who will explore the coursebook and the beliefs that they have about teaching and learning. Only by helping teachers become aware of their own beliefs through a deeper understanding of their practice, will we be able to maximize the principles, ideas and solutions of any coursebook. A coursebook is a tool. Like any tool (and no matter how wonderful it is), it will only serve its purpose if the tool-user knows what to do with it.
JS: If you were able to influence government policy in Brazil on Foreign Language Education, what would your main suggestions be for education authorities with a view to addressing the language learning needs of the population from early childhood through to adult education.
VN: I would certainly suggest a robust continuous professional development program, based on the development of language awareness and language proficiency, understanding of methods and approaches, reflective practice, knowledge about students and their needs, critical thinking and professional behavior. An effective teacher can certainly be even more effective with the right resources and can consciously adapt a syllabus to better cater for their students. However, a teacher who doesn’t get support to truly ‘own’ his practice will not know what to do with the resources (however wonderful they may be) and will see any syllabus as a straitjacket. In other words, they are likely to feel dependent and powerless. There is no point investing incredible amounts of money in technology, materials and prescriptive syllabi if the teacher is not equipped to exploit them in a critical autonomous way.
JS: To what extent is the English language teachers’ role to foster critical thinking in the learner? How can teachers bring social justice and intercultural competence into their classes?
VN: English language teachers have a very rich forum to foster critical thinking, social justice awareness and intercultural competence. Languages are better learned in context and should be used to convey real meaning and express authentic ideas. Therefore, teachers can select topics, sources of input and promote discussions that aim at sensitizing learners to their social role. However, I don’t mean to be repetitive, but this can only be done if there is a conscious investment in equipping teachers to be empowered professionals all around, and this includes being critical thinkers themselves with an awareness of social justice and intercultural competence. Critical thinking cannot be developed from materials alone. The attitude of the teacher, the quality of the questions they ask and their knowledge of the world can be pivotal to the successful exploration of a ny resource when focusing on a more holistic development of learners.
JS: To end on a highly positive note, could you please tell us a little bit about your exciting new start-up Troika?
VN: Troika is a start-up that provides innovative solutions to all stakeholders involved in education. We work with organizations and individuals that need help with content creation, professional development, technology projects and the management of academic strategies. We are truly passionate about what we do and very eager to help education become even more professionalized.
A Handbook is for experienced language teachers who wish to start acting as teacher trainers, for professionals who are already involved in teacher education but have not had any formal training for this role, for professionals in education or who work with staff development in general who might be looking for practical ideas or new concepts, and for English teachers who would like to understand in further detail the challenges and the process behind teacher training.