This paper analyzed the influence of a teacher’s self-positioning on learners in an adult English classroom. It is argued that this factor plays an important role in determining the learners’ levels of engagement and participation in classroom learning activities
Keywords: behavior, identity research, self-positioning, interactive positioning, culturally relevant pedagogy
Despite there being a growing body of literature on different aspects of adult literacy for English language learners, the emphasis has primarily been on the linguistic rather than the social and cultural needs of low-literate adults (McKay & Wong, 1996). Additionally, there has been limited research into the influence of classroom teachers’ approaches on the participatory practices of language learners (Yoon, 2005).
A relatively new direction in language teaching research, positioning theory provides a theoretical perspective for work on learners’ participatory behaviours and identity formation in the classroom. Positioning theory adds a new and valuable dimension to the field of identity research in language education, marking a move towards ‘dynamic theories and methods and away from static and essentialist approaches’ (Yamakawa et al., 2005: 20).
There are two modes of positioning which are relevant. One is intentional self-positioning, ‘reflexive positioning’, where individuals deliberately position themselves according to their world views (Davies & Harré, 1990: 48). Individuals’ self-positioning guides the way in which they act and think about their roles, responsibilities and activities in a given context. In the same way, teachers’ self-described beliefs help to explain how they position themselves in the classroom. For example, while some teachers may see themselves as linguistic facilitators based on their beliefs about their learners’ needs, others may view their role in more social terms, such as offering learners exposure to the wider social community. Whatever position teachers adopt, that positioning guides them in their interactions with learners in the classroom.
The other mode of positioning is interactive positioning. It is based on the premise that social phenomena always occur in relation to other people, and that what an individual says positions another (Davies & Harré, 1990: 48). Interactive positioning therefore tells us how and why the same person may position herself differently in different contexts. Furthermore, such a perspective implies that positioning people in particular ways limits or extends what those people can say and do (Adams & Harré, 2001). It has been further asserted that positioning individuals as deficient may deny them the right to correct their cognitive performance and that, conversely, positioning them as intelligent may allow them the possibility to improve performance (Harré & Moghaddam, 2003).
These characteristics of interactive positioning, along with teachers’ self-positioning, can help us to understand how teachers position ESL literacy learners in their classrooms. Teachers can intentionally or unintentionally position students in more positive or more negative ways through their pedagogical approaches. This in turn affects students’ self-positioning. It thus seems evident that teachers’ positioning of their learners as intelligent, and being responsive to their learners’ specific needs, are crucial factors for learners to be able to view themselves positively and participate meaningfully in classroom activities.
Researchers point to the suitability of identity research as a lens through which to investigate language learning in the classroom, highlighting the theoretical constructs of investment and imagined communities (see, e.g., Norton & Toohey, 2011). Investment is a construct conceptualised by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It can be used to describe how learners’ desire to learn English is often ambivalent, and heavily influenced by their social and historical context. If learners ‘invest’ in the target language, they do so with the understanding that they will gain a wider range of symbolic and material resources, such as an elevated status or a better-paying job. Investment is a construct deriving from the assumption that language learners have multifaceted identities that change across time and space and which become manifested in different forms of social interaction. Investment therefore links a learner’s desire and commitment to learning a language to their changing identity (Norton, 2010). For example, even if highly motivated, a learner may nevertheless have little investment in the language practices of a classroom that she or he perceives as elitist or sexist.
For many learners, the target language community presents what has been referred to as ‘a community of the imagination’, offering a wider range of identity positions to choose from in the future (Norton, 2010; Norton & Toohey, 2011: 415). It therefore extends to learners the possibility to enhance their social networks and achieve more social power in the community. Such potential takes on added salience for very low-literate adult learners in Australia, many of whom are newly arrived migrants with refugee backgrounds and are thus actively involved in negotiating new social, cultural and economic identities.
The phrase ‘culturally relevant pedagogy’ was coined to describe teaching practice that addresses learners ‘intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes’ (Ladson-Billings, 1994: 108). Such an approach implies that the teacher needs to create a bridge between the learner’s home and school life, while still meeting curriculum and policy requirements (Coffey, 2008). In doing so, teachers also need to draw on learners’ unique backgrounds, situated knowledge and life experience to inform their lessons and teaching practices and classroom management.
Research suggests that teachers’ backgrounds are influential in determining the way they conceptualise their roles in relation to their learners (Stritikus, 2003). Inclusive self-positioning of a teacher serves as a link to the broader social community appeared to affect her pedagogical choices of socially and culturally inclusive lesson content. In view of these findings, it can be said that establish a link between the teacher’s pedagogical approach and the learner’s participatory behaviour in the classroom has been established.
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