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Culture and the ‘good teacher’ in the

English Language classroom


Colin Sowden

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In the present post-method situation, E LT has become increasingly sensitive to
the issue of culture. However, this concept has been defined so broadly that it
cannot fill the gap left by the retreat from methodology. In the absence of objective
guidelines about what to do in the classroom, the teacher has returned to
centre stage, but as a more informed, articulate, and empowered professional.

Introduction Many readers must sympathize with Peter Grundy (1999) when he laments
the fact that after 30 years in the E LT profession, he still does not know
how to do his job. It seems indeed that, despite all the discussion, research,
and experimentation which has taken place over that time, it has not yet
been demonstrated that there is a best way of teaching a second language.
This conclusion has been a common theme in recent writings: although
different new methods have appeared to offer an initial advantage over
previous or current ones, none has finally achieved overwhelmingly better
results. Even the Communicative Approach, which has done so much to
restructure how we as language teachers view our activities, has had its
detractors and has not proven more obviously successful than other
methods in the past. There has indeed been methodological fatigue, leading
many to the pragmatic conclusion that informed eclecticism offers the best
approach for the future.
While confidence in specific methods has declined, interest in individual
learner differences, such as motivation, aptitude, family background, has
noticeably increased. If we cannot say exactly how we should teach, then
perhaps we must let our learners determine how they should learn, and
be guided by that instead. Thus has developed an interest in learner training
and self-directed learning, and in what is termed the student-centred
approach, either in its strong form, whereby the teacher and learners
negotiate the syllabus, or in its weak form, whereby the teacher tries to
ensure that what happens in the classroom responds to learners’ needs
and interests as well as to external or traditional requirements. It is in
conjunction with this shift of emphasis away from teaching and towards
learning, that there has appeared a growing awareness of the role played by
culture in the classroom.

A broad definition of In the past, culture tended to mean that body of social, artistic, and
culture intellectual traditions associated historically with a particular social, ethnic

304 E LT Journal Volume 61/4 October 2007; doi:10.1093/elt/ccm049


ª The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
or national group. One could talk confidently of French culture, the culture
of the Marsh Arabs, or British working-class culture. Now this term is used
much more broadly. In his analysis of the expatriate teaching situation,
Holliday (1994:29) argues that the typical teacher in that context will be
involved in a variety of cultures: those of the nation, of the specific academic
discipline, of international education, of the host institution, of the
classroom, and of the students themselves. To be effective, expatriate
teachers must take account of all these cultures and how they influence the
attitude and study styles of their students. Instead of trying to impose
cultures of their own, they must work with the cultures that they encounter.

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Reflecting on what determined the approach of local teachers whom he
observed during his time in Egypt, he comments (ibid.: 38)
the relationship between teacher and student seemed not so much
a product of explicit methodology; it was rather derived more naturally
from existing, unspoken role expectations, perhaps originating outside
the classroom.
Holliday presents guidelines for ways in which expatriate teachers can learn
from this observation by becoming better informed about local cultures and
adapting their teaching styles accordingly (ibid.: 193).
Diversity of culture, though, as Holiday’s analysis indicates, is not confined
to the expatriate situation. Even when teachers of English share the
nationality of their students, it is misleading to talk of cultural homogeneity.
Although they are likely to share many of the cultural assumptions of
their students, local teachers, who are not usually native speakers of English,
may well be seen to represent certain values that set them apart. In
implementing a national curriculum or experimenting with imported new
teaching methods, for instance, such teachers may also find a significant
gulf between themselves and their classes. Canagarajah (1999) explores this
kind of situation at considerable length, analysing the way in which Tamil
teachers of English in Sri Lanka need to take account in their work of the
cultures associated with government policy, particular ethnic aspirations,
the colonial heritage of the language, and student lifestyles and objectives.

The cultures of Of course, teachers need to be aware not only of the cultures of their students
teachers and their environment, but also of the cultures that they themselves bring
to the classroom, whether they are nationals or expatriates. This is not
just a question of the historical and social baggage that, for example, an
American or a metropolitan from New Delhi, inevitably carries with them,
but of the particular attitudes and practices that they have developed as
individuals. Woods (1996: 196) refers to a teacher’s ‘B AK’: their underlying
beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge. These determine how what is
planned is implemented in practice. He says of course design and delivery:
‘When a [plan] is carried out, it is interpreted using familiar structures in
a way which is coherent with the teacher’s BAK. By virtue of this
interpretation, the actual curriculum—what happens to the learners in the
classroom—is different from the planned curriculum’(ibid.: 269).
Even when we are dealing with culture in the more traditional sense, this
is increasingly seen primarily as a context within which personal identity

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can be worked out. Kramsch is very clear that learning another language
necessarily involves learning about the cultures with which it is associated.
She says (1993: 8): ‘If language is seen as a social practice, culture becomes
the very core of language teaching’. However, this does not mean that the
learner should merely take on board wholesale all that these other cultures
offer or represent. Instead there should exist a ‘border zone’ between the
target language cultures and local cultures (represented by both teacher
and learners or by learners alone), which all parties can meaningfully
inhabit and within which everyone can interact on equal terms. Effective
language learning will take place in this way, whatever the formal
requirements of the syllabus, when teachers and learners ‘are constantly

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engaged in creating a culture of a third kind through the give-and-take of
classroom dialogue’ (ibid.: 23). In similar vein, Canagarajah (op. cit.: 176)
argues that students and national teachers of English in ‘periphery’
countries should negotiate a new identity for themselves through the
language, stamping their own identity on it and modifying it in accordance
with their own needs and priorities.

The scope of These different perspectives on the role of culture in the classroom
inter-cultural demonstrate how very broadly the term has come to be employed in the
communication teaching context. It approximates in meaning to the patterns of behaviour
training and the belief systems which teachers and learners have evolved in response
to both their general social context and their particular life experience.
Broadly speaking, this could be paraphrased as ‘how people live or aspire to
live in their world’. Understanding this, it seems, is more important than
knowing how to teach in any narrow, mechanical sense of that idea.
Certainly the writers whose works I have quoted seem clearly to be
indicating that concern for culture must predominate over concern for
method, irrespective of what any official teaching syllabus might declare.
Naturally, this imperative places a huge burden on the shoulders of the
teacher, who must cope with the multi-faceted challenge that it presents.
In order to meet this challenge, courses have been developed to improve the
inter-cultural communicative competence of both teachers and students.
The understanding of culture here is usually the more limited and
traditional one, pertaining to the life-style and values of a given people
and society, with linguistic and/or pedagogical implications following on
from these. Through a series of exercises, such courses aim to sensitize
participants to the cultural issues involved in operating in a trans-cultural
situation, and to equip them to meet the related challenges that they will
face there. This process ‘involves an implicit and sometimes explicit
questioning of the learner’s assumptions and values; and explicit
questioning can lead to a critical stance, to ‘‘critical cultural awareness’’’
(Byram and Fleming 1998: 6).
A good example here is Utley’s Intercultural Resource Pack (Utley 2004).
This is a well-designed book which aims, in a convincing way, to promote
cultural awareness and encourage self-reflection. However, in parts
(primarily between pages 19 and 49), it does require users to provide
overviews of their own and other cultures. This is no easy matter: there is
no guarantee that they will be able to identify or explain relevant features
of these cultures. In addition, there is no provision for checking or

306 Colin Sowden


correcting any opinions which are offered, which could well reinforce rather
than challenge existing prejudices. This is Guest’s point (2002: 154) when
he warns of the dangers inherent in trying to generalize superficially about
other cultures:
much E F L cultural research has had the unfortunate result of
misrepresenting foreign cultures by reinforcing stereotypes and
constructing these cultures as monolithic, static ‘Others’, rather
than as dynamic fluid entities.
This distorts our understanding of them and achieves exactly the opposite
result from that intended.

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In fact, to develop familiarity with another culture, to improve one’s real
inter-cultural skills, it is necessary to live within that culture for a good
period of time, to be what Byram (1997: 1) terms a ‘sojourner’ rather than
a tourist. You need to experience the culture from inside as ‘an active
participant in a community’ (Barro et al. 1998: 83). As Barro (ibid.) says,
‘culture is not something prone, waiting to be discovered but an active
meaning-making system of experiences which enters into and is
constructed within every act of communication’. Barro and her colleagues
were writing with reference to the year abroad organized as part of the
Modern Languages Degree course at Thames Valley University. In the
context of a formal, structured setting, it is only through ethnography of
the kind required on this programme that real insights and skills can be
developed, but it is a time-consuming process which is impractical for
most people to undertake. In most cases, therefore, it is doubtful how
one can talk meaningfully about developing inter-cultural communicative
competence outside of the context in which it will actually be required.
Byram (ibid.: 33) identifies four main components of inter-cultural
communicative competence: knowledge, attitude, skills of interpretation
and comparison, and skills of discovery and interaction. While he admits
that these ‘can in principle be acquired through experience and reflection,
without the intervention of teachers and educational institutions’, he is
nonetheless keen to promote their being taught in the classroom setting.
Yet both attitude and knowledge, and to a large extent the other skills
mentioned, are essentially attributes that people bring to the situation rather
than abilities which can be produced there in a short time. In other words,
they reflect who a person is, in terms of background, education, personality
and experience, rather than what they can be trained to do in terms of
discrete skills. This is true for both national and expatriate teachers.
Although, as noted above, the cultural issues in question will differ in many
respects, the personal qualities that professionals need in order to be able to
navigate effectively around them are very much the same: ‘curiosity and
openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and beliefs
about one’s own’ (Byram ibid.: 50).

The profile of a Appropriate personal qualities, therefore, are what count most in the
‘good teacher’ development of good intercultural communicative competence. In fact,
I would argue, they are the key to overall success in the classroom, and
this has not really changed over the years, although concern with the
latest technique and method has tended to obscure this fact. As Brumfit

Culture and the ‘good teacher’ 307


(2001: 115) says ‘the ability to relate to learners, the role of enthusiasm for the
subject and the interaction of these with a sense of purpose and organization
were as relevant in 1500 as in 2000’.
Now, in the absence of clear methodological guidelines, and with an
understanding of culture too broad to be of real pedagogical assistance,
the teacher as person is coming to be recognized as the determining factor
in the teaching process, just as the learner as person has been recognized
as the key to successful learning. This ‘good teacher’, a well-rounded,
confident and experienced individual, will be at ease in their classroom role:
their teaching will be effective because it will be a natural product of who

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they are, and be received as such by their students.
This is what Prabhu (1990: 172) refers to as ‘a teacher’s sense of plausibility
about teaching’. He goes on to say (ibid.: 173) ‘The question to ask about
a teacher’s sense of plausibility is not whether it implies a good or bad
method but, more basically, whether it is active, alive, or operational enough
to create a sense of involvement for both the teacher and the student’. It
is the exercise of these qualities which matters and gets results. In a similar
affirmation of authenticity, Brumfit comments (1982: 16) on the ideals
of Humanistic Language Teaching, by saying that ‘. . . successful affective
teaching is more likely to emerge when students join a community in
which they are provided with an example of the desired behaviour pattern
than when the patterns are built into some kind of syllabus structure’. In
other words, success as a teacher does not depend on the approach or
method that you follow so much as on your integrity as a person and the
relationships that you are able to develop in the classroom. The ability
to build and maintain human relationships in this way is central to
effective teaching, as it is to true inter-cultural communicative competence
(Byram (op. cit.: 32).

The role of teacher Recognition of this fact has led to the traditional idea of teacher training
development giving way to the more far-reaching concept of teacher development. If
what I do in class depends mainly on who I am as a person, then I must
develop myself as much as I can if I wish to improve as a teacher. As far
as development in the classroom is concerned, teachers need to enhance
those reflective and critical skills which will allow them to assess and
appropriately modify their performance in the light of experience and of
the insights provided by research, both their own and that of experts in the
field. This process is described well by Tsui (2003: 277):
the theorization of practical knowledge and the ‘practicalization’ of
theoretical knowledge are two sides of the same coin in the development
of expert knowledge . . . and they are both crucial to the development of
expertise.
Such reflection helps prevent that ‘overroutinization’ which Prabhu (op. cit.:
174) considers to be the pre-eminent ‘enemy of good teaching’. It also helps
the teacher develop an individual voice, one which does not merely echo
external criteria and concerns, but gives expression to the teacher’s own
inner dynamic.

308 Colin Sowden


Of course, the fact that the teacher is all-important means that reflection
on our classroom activity must involve reflecting on ourselves. Such
self-analysis can be hard, even painful, because it may point towards
changes which threaten our security and self-image. This is why many
practitioners, even those apparently committed to the idea of professional
development, avoid it, though perhaps unwittingly. They may be impressed
by a new idea, but not actually allow it to modify how they behave. As Myers
and Clark (2002: 51) comment:
Our own concerns centre round our own experience that CPD
[Continuous Professional Development] does not always produce related

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change in the workplace . . . our own thinking is that most people have
an assimilative. . . .mind-set to CPD—i.e. they see it in terms of accruing
knowledge and skills rather than anticipating a deeper, accommodative
sort of change that could lead to real change in their subsequent
behaviour.
It is in order to overcome this barrier that self-exploration needs to be
a central element of teacher development programmes, helping
participants to progressively unpeel the various personal and cultural layers
that they have accumulated.

The teacher in charge If authenticity is the key factor in the classroom and, in a sense, we teach
who we are, then teacher development really becomes a matter of self-
development. If this is so, then, arguably, learning a musical instrument,
having a child, or achieving a greater level of fitness, may be as relevant to
your work as improving your technique at teaching grammar and
vocabulary if the end result is to make you a more fulfilled, more confident,
more interesting practitioner. Certainly such personal growth will help
us deal more easily with inter-cultural challenge: the more we understand
the world, human relations, and ourselves, the better able we will be to
empathize with others and make connections.
This merging of private and professional selves to achieve an integrated
identity with which we can feel satisfied, is a challenging but necessary
project. However, while this prospect may be invigorating for an
experienced practitioner, it can seem daunting to a novice, who is usually
looking for simple signposts to follow. To be told that teachers must rely
primarily on their own experience and expertise in order to chart their
way ahead, can be alarming. Yet expertise is not an abstract system of rules
which can be absorbed and then enacted; it is a personal construct which
is built up over a lifetime. As such, it involves a dynamic relationship with
the overlapping cultures and schemata within which the teaching takes
place. Tsui (op. cit.: 64) comments:
Teacher knowledge . . . should be understood in terms of the way
[teachers] respond to their contexts of work, which shapes the way their
knowledge is developed. This includes their interaction with the people
in their contexts of work, where they constantly construct and reconstruct
their understanding of their work as teachers.
Since teachers’ lives are different one from another, so their expertise will
differ, with no model emerging as an obvious template. What is right is

Culture and the ‘good teacher’ 309


what works in a given context in terms of all the various cultures which
operate there, including those represented by the teacher.
So how can we respond to Peter Grundy’s lament mentioned at the
beginning of this article? If we accept that our profession is an art rather
than a science, and if we recognize that our personal qualities, attitudes, and
experience are what finally count, providing that these are informed by
acquaintance with best current practice and research, then we language
teachers can free ourselves from the kind of mechanistic expectations that
have dogged us for so long. If we can accept this argument, we become
genuinely free agents, able to decide for ourselves not only how best to carry

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out our jobs but also how to direct our future professional development.
How do we know that we are doing a good job? Student response and
progress, which must be carefully evaluated, will provide the principal
guidance here. Peter must have had lots of positive feedback from
students during his career, and seen good concrete results from his
teaching. With apologies to Keats: ‘That is all you know in English language
teaching, and all you need to know’.
Final revised version received June 2005

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