Vol. 4. No. 3 R-18 May 2000
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Understanding Language Teaching: Reasoning in Action
Karen E. Johnson (1999)
Boston: Heinle and Heinle
Pp. x + 149
ISBN 0-8384-6690-7 (paper)
US $20.95

In the acknowledgements, Karen Johnson writes, "This book was a blast to write" (p. vi). It is almost as much fun to read. Many realities of ESL teaching, especially decision-making based on the students in the class, are examined for their importance in understanding teacher reasoning, the thinking behind the practice of teaching. Johnson begins by jokingly telling us that students say that her standard answer to any teaching question is, "It depends." In the following pages, she reveals the honesty and complexity of this answer when investigating teaching.

This teacher training text introduces teachers to a vital element in teacher development: teacher reasoning. It explores issues that teachers face daily, but which they may feel unable to discuss or examine in detail because of the time demands of teaching or the isolation that often accompanies teaching. Through examining what new and experienced teachers do in their classrooms, Johnson takes us through the questions and approaches to reflection that can enable teachers to develop more principled knowledge of their teaching practices and thinking. While the emphasis is on developing reflective teachers, it comes not from a deficit model, but from the model of improving on strengths and addressing weaknesses in an effective manner. Johnson has written an intelligent book for intelligent practitioners: teachers.

The book is part the TeacherSource series from Heinle and Heinle and follows the three-part format of the series: framework, teachers' voices, and investigations. The chapters usually include a framework section that provides an overview of the chapter topic in relation to research and theory related to the topic. This overview is presented in understandable, reader-friendly, language. In the teachers' voices sections, different teachers speak by describing incidents that occurred in their classrooms, and extended descriptions of three classrooms give the readers opportunities for a deeper understanding of teacher reasoning in a dynamic situation. Investigations include activities that guide readers in examining and reflecting on themselves and their teaching.

Johnson's investigations model ways of exploring teaching. Furthermore, she provides ways for individual teachers, or classes, to arrive at a principled understanding of what they do in the classroom and why. Because in essence teacher knowledge and teacher reasoning can only be understood from the inside out, she does not use theoretical models against which to evaluate the teachers. Thus she does not write with the purpose of telling teachers what they should do in the classroom. Instead, she seeks to help teachers understand what they do and why and how they might go about changing what they don't like.

Understanding Language Teaching comprises nine chapters, the first five presenting the background for the explorations and the final four exploring classroom thinking through the eyes and minds of teachers. The first five chapters include an introduction to the theories and underpinnings of teacher reasoning with explorations of reasoning in teaching, teachers' knowledge, teachers' beliefs, learning to teach, and teachers' reasoning in action. These chapters prepare the way for three chapters devoted to descriptions of actual teachers involved in reasoning about what they do. The lessons described come from an elementary ESL teacher, a secondary ESL teacher, and an intensive English program teacher. The final chapter summarizes by showing what goes into the development of robust reasoning by teachers. [-1-]

The key point that comes through the framework sections is that teacher learning is primarily experiential. Teachers develop their own ways of thinking, beginning with an apprenticeship of observation during their own student experiences, and continuing through the constructing and reconstructing of experiences as teachers. This process of self-knowledge involves examining experiences from several perspectives: as a learner, as a student in the school system, as a second language learner, as a teacher, and as a teacher in the school system. Add to these experiences the teacher's knowledge of each student in the class. These components play roles in teacher reasoning during each lesson.

Johnson concludes the book with a series of questions that build toward robust reasoning. These questions involve teachers in exploring themselves, the material, the context, the professional community, the reasons for teaching in a particular way, the changes anticipated, and how teachers understand theoretical knowledge. Throughout the book, these questions are developed in different investigations that range from teachers writing their teaching autobiographies, through setting up classroom observations with their supervisors, and including professional relationships with colleagues.

The use of extended narratives covering teachers' experiences provides for an extended examination and reflection on the practices of teaching from three vantage points, those of the elementary teacher, the secondary school teacher, and the intensive English program teacher. The narratives allow us to see inside the classrooms from the vantage points of the teachers and to be privy to their reasoning in discussing the different choices they made during a lesson. Throughout this investigation of teacher reasoning, Johnson provides many different approaches and activities for teachers to learn more about their teaching.

While Understanding Language Teaching uses many carefully thought out exercises and activities, the writer may assume more knowledge on her readers' part than she should. Twice she instructs her readers to construct conceptual maps, but does not give an example of a conceptual map. I think I know, but am not confident that my idea matches hers. Although the students get much attention from the teachers, they are not described in much detail, except for when the teacher wants to explain certain decisions. Finally, there is no index, which seems to violate the otherwise reader-friendly nature of the book.

What comes through from this book is a firm commitment to exploring teacher reasoning as a resource for teacher growth. Johnson does not take the approach of comparing good and bad teaching, but appreciates each teacher's situation and respects each one's attempts at understanding the situation. She notes how the context, as well as the teachers' personal histories and thinking figure in their decisions, which also accounts for how different teachers handle the same situation differently. Consequently, many elements must be taken into account when trying to understand teacher reasoning, either from the perspective of the teacher or from that of the teacher educator or supervisor.

Teacher growth comes from teachers motivated to improve their practices through identifying problems and devising ways to address these problems. Since reflection can not always provide solutions, Johnson provides other possible avenues, such as colleagues and professional support. Accepting her basic tenet that most knowledge a teacher has is constructed experientially reinforces the demand that teachers take on the responsibility for their growth. Attempts to change teachers through outside forces, such as seeking to impose curriculum innovations or prescribing methodologies, will meet with resistance or failure if they do not take into account the nature of teacher reasoning. [-2-]

The book, which begins with the phrase "it depends," avoids didacticism throughout by giving readers many techniques for examining their practices and thinking, without leading them to a particular answer. This changes the map of teaching knowledge from what the teacher has to learn from others to what the teacher has to learn from the inside out. The theoretical framework is presented clearly with a practical grounding, but it does not overwhelm the crucial practical needs of developing teachers (whether graduate students or twenty-year veterans). It provides a rigorous set of self-examination tools for the teacher education student that will enable the student to make the transformation into teacher with more self-knowledge than many of their colleagues did at an earlier time.

John M. Graney
Interlink Language Center, Indiana State University

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