Have you ever, in your teaching reality, considered the fact that a Critical Incident (CI) could modify your teaching practices especially when it comes to transmitting knowledge to your L2 learners?
Have you ever considered that Critical Incidents could be regarded as a perfect form of Teacher Development (TD)? How much do you as a teacher actually know about Critical Incidents?
Taking into account that “teachers want the best for their students…have the best possible learning opportunities and outcomes” (Bell and Gilbert, 1996, p.1), they explore new teaching ideas, follow new resources and equipment (Bell and Gilbert, 1996).
This specific need for an ongoing renewal of professional skills and knowledge, especially once the teachers’ period of formal training is terminated, is not a result of inadequate training but comes as a response to the fact that not everything teachers need to know can be provided at pre-service level. Richards and Farrell (2005, p. 1) put it well when they cite that the “knowledge base of teaching constantly changes” therefore Teacher Development (TD) is more than necessary for appropriate teaching to occur.
Additionally, considering the fact that development “means change and growth” (Head and Taylor, 1997, p. 1) it serves a longer-term goal and seeks to facilitate growth of teachers’ understanding of teaching and of themselves as teachers.
It is prompted by “teachers own questioning of who they are and what they do rather than by any external training agenda” (Head and Taylor, 1997, p. 1). Thus, teachers acknowledge the possibility of converting to new teaching styles and modify their biases regarding teaching and learning.
At its most basic level, TD “is a strategy of influence and indirect intervention that works on complex, integrated idiosyncratic and individual aspects of teaching” (Freeman, 1989, p. 40). Contrary to Teacher Training, the former is a “bottom-up, teacher-initiated” process central to an “increasing or shifting” (Freeman, 1989, p. 40) “personal awareness of the possibilities of change and of what influences the change process” (Head and Taylor, 1997, p. 1).
Through “individual, one-to-one, group-based or institutional” activities (Richards and Farrell, 2005, p.14) it is a process interconnected with the past and the present.
On the one hand, teachers’ recognition of how developmental their past experiences might have been assists them into establishing new prospects for change both in the present and future.
On the other, it draws on the present through a “self-reflective process” promoting an aspect of “human maturation” in encouraging a fuller awareness of the kind of teacher one is due to the fact that “it is through questioning old habits that alternative ways of being and doing are able to emerge” (Head and Taylor, 1997, p. 1) with teachers assuming new responsibilities and challenges.
Thus, a strategic technique which derives from “a movement away from outsider approaches to insider ones” (Richards and Farrell, 2005, p. 13) according to which teachers examine their contexts, frame their knowledge and understanding of how their classes operate, “assume responsibility for setting goals for self-development and for managing and controlling their own learning” (Richards and Farrell, 2005, p. 13) is the analysis of Critical Incidents.
As described by Angelides (2001, p. 26) “in the Literature, the term “Critical Incident” has acquired a number of slightly different definitions, as researchers have approached the issue from a variety of angles”.
However, Measor (1985 in Angelides, 2001, p. 26) defines Critical Incidents as “highly charged moments in teachers’ careers that have enormous consequences for change and development and implications for identity”. Brennon and Green (1993 in Fox, 1995, p. 1) argue that a Critical Incident “tends to interrupt or bring into focus the taken for granted ways of thinking and doing and valuing, theorizing and writing”.
Miles and Huberman (1984 in Tripp, 1994, p. 69) refer to “some event or situation that marked a significant point or change in the life of the subject”. Based on Richards and Farrell (2005, p. 113) Critical Incidents in teaching situations are “unplanned and unanticipated” occurrences aiming at initiating self-knowledge regarding teaching and learning.
At the same time, Tripp (1993, p. 24) argues that most Critical Incidents are straightforward accounts of very common place events that occur in routine professional practice which are critical in the rather different sense that they are indicative of underlying trends, motives and structures”.
Therefore, they are not essentially close, emotional cases but instead, they are conventional episodes (Tripp, 1993) whose “criticality is based on the justification, the significance and the meaning given to them” (Angelides, 2001, p. 26). It is an open-ended, retrospective method which according to Richards and Farrell (2005, p. 115) “serves as a form of reflective inquiry”.
Teachers can diagnose and decipher problems, identify good practice and acquire an augmented perception of professional awareness (Richards and Farrell, 2005) that through collaborative discussion, the mutual sharing of expertise and collegiality could produce solutions to problems that may also affect the institution.
The reporting on Critical Incidents, either written or oral, should follow specific stages. For instance, Tripp (1993) suggests that the anatomy of a CI should take the following form:
a) describing an incident (i.e. Mary abruptly demanded for an L1 definition of an English vocabulary item during a reading activity). b) providing/suggesting a contextual explanation of the incident (i.e. Mary is used to inactive, spoon-feeding approaches to instruction, sceptical in experiencing ‘anything new’). c) finding a more general meaning and classification/significance of the incident (i.e. It means that Mary lacks of autonomy, motivation and use of affective strategies during the lesson). d) articulating a position (i.e. I believe Mary should depend less on her teacher’s authority).
Meanwhile, Thiel (1999) proposes a four-step analyses of a CI report which reads as follows:
a) ‘self-observation’ which involves the documentation of events through a reflective-teaching journal, a video recording or lesson transcript of one’s teaching. b) ‘describing what happened’ which consists of a detailed description of the incident itself, how it was created and what happened next. c) ‘self-awareness’ which analyses why the incident occurred. d) ‘self-evaluation’ in which the teacher consider possible solutions to the problem. which involves the documentation of the incident through a reflective, teaching journal, a video recording or lesson transcript.
All things considered, CIs are the unremarkable and everyday events that mark our routine teaching lives. They can display the patterns and values that promote our practice. Incidents can only become critical when we see them as such. Thus, it is through rendering critical the incidents of normal events that much teacher development can occur…!!!
Martha Tsirchoglou BA (Hons) Modern English Studies MA TESOL
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