Second language teacher education: a sociocultural perspective

The following is a review of one book which has inspired my own research and reflections towards L2 teacher learning, L2 student learning and all the complexities of the L2 teacher education enterprise.

Johnson, K. E. (2009). Second language teacher education : a sociocultural perspective. New York: Routledge.

This book gives us a comprehensive view of the epistemological underpinnings of sociocultural theory in the field of second language teacher education. Second language teacher education : a sociocultural perspective provides the reader with an understanding of L2 teaching, L2 learning and teacher professional development. This text fills in a gap in the literature of second language teacher education contributing to the understanding of teacher learning and  L2 teacher education. The reading of this book is pleasant and thought provoking. It makes you reflect on L2 teacher education connecting the cognitive and social dimensions of such a complex activity.

Johnson starts her book with a preface arguing that a sociocultural perspective enables second language teacher education “to trace the inherent complexities that make up the sum of L2 teachers ‘ learning and teaching experiences, and make visible what those experiences ultimately lead to” . This argument is supported throughout all the book in which she analyses second language teacher education according to five changing points of view: L2 teacher learning, language, L2 teaching, and the social-cultural macrostructures and L2 professional development. This analyses comprises a thorough proposal not on how to do L2 teacher education, but how to approach the inherent complexities of second language teacher education.

Second language teacher education : a sociocultural perspective is a hundred pages volume divided into eight chapters. The first chapter is an introduction of the book in which the author defines sociocultural perspective. Johnson uses Wertsch words to state the goal of a sociocultural perspective  ” to explicate the relationship between human mental functioning, on the one hand, and the cultural , institutional and historical situations in which this functioning occurs, on the other”. This definition is aligned with the epistemological tents drawn from Vygotsky’s   and his followers as Leontev and Luria. However, the discussion about sociocultural history, its origins and development is rather brief and expects the reader to be informed about critical issues underpinning this theory.

Chapter one offers an overview of the book outlining what the author tries to answer in the following chapters: What does a sociocultural perspective on human learning have to offer the enterprise of L2 teacher education? Johnson argues that a sociocultural perspective would change our views towards teacher learning, language, language teaching, social and cultural macro structures and professional development. This chapter is engaging and keeps the reader interested and challenged by the author’s proposal.

The second chapter deals with the different epistemological shifts in the last 40 years of research in teacher education. The shift from positivism to an interpretative epistemology is discussed, the emergence of teacher cognitions and the reconceptualization of knowledge base in L2 teacher education.  Then, the most important section of the chapter is devoted to discuss Johnson’s sociocultural perspective of L2 teacher education.  This author argues that “learning to teach is based on the assumption that knowing, thinking, and understanding come from participating in the social practices of learning and teaching in specific classrooms and social situations” (2009 p.13) Then, the author elaborates on how the sociocultural perspective deals with different aspects of L2 teacher education. The first aspect is the cognitive aspect in teacher learning, second, the acknowledgement of L2 teacher education as a dynamic process of reconstructing and transforming (p.13).Third, Johnson postulates that sociocultural theory can inform both the content and the process of L2 teacher education and finally a need to examine mediational tools used by teachers. This chapter is very dense and rich in concepts and theoretical discussions on the reasons why a sociocultural perspective should be taken up to understand teacher learning.

Chapter three deals with teachers as learners of teaching discussing teacher cognition.. Johnson argues that “teachers’ knowledge and beliefs are constructed through and by the normative ways of thinking, talking, and acting that have been historically and culturally embedded in the communities of practice in which they participate” (p.17) This author claims that to understand teacher learning we can look at the movement from externally social mediated activities to internal mediation controlled by the teacher. Here, she makes the link to Vygotsky’ s concept of internalization giving different examples and description of how this process occurs in the case of L2 teachers. The second part of this chapter deals with the analyses of three narratives in which we can see  “see” teacher learning. Here we can appreciate how teachers understand their own knowledge and beliefs and also how different tools can mediate their understanding.

Chapter four advocates for a perspective about language as social practice. Johnson starts the discussion with a brief historical background on the definitions of language in the field of linguistics that have been applied in L2 teacher education and providing us with evidence that “the mentalist-individualist definition of language” has heavily influenced the knowledge base of L2 teacher education in the last decades. This author defines language as “a vital means by which humans represents thought”(p.44) aligned with Vygotsky’s view that language is a psychological tool , a means of transforming experience into cultural knowledge and understanding. Johnson claims that meaning is in everyday activities that individuals engage in, and not in the grammar, nor in the vocabulary of the language. Therefore, meaning is bound to specific social and cultural situations. Then, the chapter deals with how this perspective is embraced in L2 teacher education and gives examples of teacher’s awareness of language as social practice.

Teaching as dialogic mediation is the title of chapter 5 which deals with teaching, learning and development. This chapter starts with a discussion about the goal of education and teaching claiming that a sociocultural perspective offers an alternative view of teaching and learning. Johnson states that teaching’s goal is the creation of opportunities for learners to participate in activities which allow them to master new concepts (psychological tools). Then, the author describes the process of instruction which involves teaching and learning as a “dialogic process of reconceptualizing knowledge as teachers and learners engage in activities together”. This chapter elaborates on teaching as dialogic mediation which is the “primary means by which learners are assisted as they appropriate relevant linguistic and cultural resources and are guided as they use and transform those resources to accomplish certain goals”. Johnson not only discusses theoretically about the perspective of teaching and learning from a sociocultural perspective, but she also gives very interesting and illuminating examples of what dialogic mediation means. The first example refers to the author’s experience as a teacher educator teaching ESL methods. The second example describes the work of Au (1990) about a teacher’s development understanding and implementing a model of reading comprehension instruction. The chapter ends with an interesting discussion about the contested views of scaffolding and consecutive examples of   assisted performance. Johnson in this chapter argues for teaching as dialogic mediation analysing the character and quality of classroom interaction and its mediating role in learners’ overall conceptual development.

Chapter six refers to the macrostructures of the L2 profession. This chapter provides an overview of Activity Theory which derives from Vygotskian sociocultural theory and examples of cases using this theory as an analytical framework. The author starts the chapter with a theoretical discussion about Activity Theory, its historical development and a description of the activity system. Johnson uses this chapter not only as an introduction of activity theory, but also as a way to analyse the macrostructures underpinning the L2 profession.   This author sees the potentiality of activity theory as an analytical framework rather than a theory per se. In this sense, she exemplifies the analyses with studies about educational reform in Korea, redesigning a school community in a Finnish middle school and high-stakes language testing. The examples here are clear demonstrating how Activity theory can be a useful lens to show the contradictions and tensions within each activity. This chapter illustrates very well how a sociocultural perspective can allow us to understand that individual mental functioning  does not exist as separate from the cultural, institutional and historical situation in which it occurs. I agree with the author when she claims that teacher education programs have the mission to inform L2 teachers and provide them with the tools to actively and continually scrutinize the macrostructures that are present in the contexts where they live, work, study.

Chapter 7 reviews several inquiry based approaches to professional development. The approaches discussed here are Critical Friends Group, Peer coaching, Lesson Study, Cooperative development and Teacher development groups. These models according to the author seek to create a mediational space for teachers to engage in on-going, in-depth, systematic, and reflective examinations of their practices and their students’ learning. Interestingly enough, the author before reviewing the models poses  a question about the effect of teachers’ accounts on teacher learning and improvements in teaching practice. Johnson analyses four issues first: the narrative nature of teachers accounts, the school culture and context and third, the links between teachers’ accounts of classroom experience and professional discourse and practice and the zone of proximal development as a mediational space created in inquiry based approaches to professional development. In this chapter the author elaborates on the concept of professional development from a sociocultural perspective. She reviews the mentioned inquiry based approaches showing the reader that professional development consists of learning systematically in, from and for practice.

Future challenges for L2 teaching constitutes the last chapter of this text. This section is devoted to integrate the arguments presented throughout the book in favour of a sociocultural perspective. The challenges presented by Johnson are not new, however, her approach is thought provoking and inspring.

The first challenge of L2 teacher education is to scrutinize teachers’ practice and create new ways of L2 professionalization in a situated context.  Johnson claims that L2 teacher education should enable teachers to understand the consequences of  the the macrostructures into their everyday practice. The second challenge is to examine the relationship between teacher learning and student learning. The discussion here is about teacher professional development as an influential factor on greater student achievement. Johnson presents an interesting study on the relationship of influence between teacher learning and student learning which shows evidence that this relationship is complex and that students are influenced not only on what they learn, but also on how they learn. The author encourages other researches to continue exploring into L2 professional learning and student L2 learning. The third challenge is to equip teachers with inquiry tools which will enable them “to create educationally sound, contextually appropriate, and socially equitable learning opportunities for the L2 students they teach.” Johnson claims that in the politics of accountability which has in filtered the L2 teaching, it is absolutely necessary that teachers can be “transformative intellectuals”. She ends the chapter and concludes her book rounding up the main argument of the book: a sociocultural perspective on human learning challenges the way l2 teacher education has traditionally thought about how teachers learn to teach, how they think about and teach language, the broader social, cultural and historical macrostructures that are ever changing in the L2 teaching and what constitutes l2 teacher professional development.

As an overall, this text constitutes an innovative contribution to the understanding of L2 teacher education. It provides us with a comprehensive perspective of sociocultural theory applied in second language teacher education. This volume is well written and easy to follow, engaging and challenging, suitable for both a novice reader in L2 teacher education as well as an experienced teacher educator. Johnson’s proposal of L2 teacher education gives both theoretical underpinning together with excellent examples of classroom practice and research. This book has inspired my own research and reflections towards L2 teacher learning, L2student learning and all the complexities of L2 teacher education enterprise.

About Malba Barahona

Educational researcher, language educator. PhD from Australian National University. Passionate bushwalker and mountain lover. I procrastinate reading fiction, hiking, doing yoga, riding, having a beer and more recently decolonizing my existence. I write in English and Spanish in different blogs especially with the purpose of encouraging my students to write.

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