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Teacher Talking to Teacher:
Newsletter of the Japan Assoc. for Language Teaching Teacher Education SIG
Vol. 3, No. 3. Oct. 1995 (p. 21-23)BOOK REVIEW
Awareness Training in Learning and Teachingby William Plain (1991)
Turin, Italy: Edizioni il Capitello.
William Plain's Awareness Training in Learning and Teaching is a welcome reminder that the scientifically quantifiable approach, important as it has been to the establishment of the ELT field, is not the only approach open to us in improving our understanding of teacher and learner development. It's an interesting, speculative study of how the essentially spirit-enhancing practice of awareness can be used by individuals to increase their sensitivity to the role which insight plays in the learning and teaching process. By focusing attention on the real but largely immeasurable issue of "personal growth" within the individual teacher as a factor in teacher training and subsequent practice as a teacher, the discussion will provide much food for thought for those readers who may be seeking a more expansive philosophical foundation for their chosen profession than is generally offered by more traditional teacher training literature.
"Awareness is . . . a completely open barrierless interaction in which the learner and the learning field completely coincide."
- William Plain (p. 4)
Not all books, however, are best read in the order in which they were written: depending on the reader's background knowledge and life experience - one's 'schemata' - certain texts may prove to be more beneficial if we first survey and find our way around them before we plunge into page one. Awareness Training in Learning and Teaching is a good example of this proviso. As the writer himself suggests in his introduction, "There are difficulties involved in using a term such as 'awareness' which is frequently employed in educational literature as well as in everyday speech, and in addition carries a wide range of meanings. This has obvious disadvantages in that professional communication may be hindered by the fact that each interlocutor is unaware of the fact that the other is using the word in a different way to himself" (xiii). While it is true, as the writer further suggests, that "the residual vagueness inherent in this word is not a disadvantage... [because it] will hopefully permit each person to acquire an understanding of his practice via the medium of his own intuitive processes" (xiii), nonetheless, the structure of the book provides readers with a choice of reading order which, depending on the individual's previous 'awareness of awareness,' may determine to what extent the book is in fact helpful to the reader in explicating these intuitive processes.
The book is divided into three parts, the first two of which, "The Practice of Awareness" and "The Nature of Awareness," are comprised of the writer's own exploration of the subject. The discussion in Part 1 uses as its focal point the context of how lecturers attempt to develop awareness in participants on a MA TEFL course and the factors, such as individual differences, anxiety and time, which are involved in the participants' own perception of this awareness training. Part 2, as its title implies, is a more open-ended discussion of the writer's search for a more creative mode of learning "...in an attempt to generate concepts that could provide as rich a source of useful insights as possible" in contrast to "the conscious rational mind, the ego, conditioning, and being subject to our models and world views" which results in "paradigmatic limitations" (53). For this purpose, the writings of J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian teacher, form an essential base in providing the defining characteristics of awareness training - "watching, awareness and attention" (66)- which create the potential for "the thunder of insight" (66) to take place.
The third part of the book is a collection of individual interviews with twelve of the most innovative and 'aware' teacher trainers in the ELT field - Martin Bygate, Don Porter, Mario Rinvolucri, Jon Roberts, Pauline Robinson, Steven Smith, Gill Sturtridge, Alan Tonkin, Adrian Underhill, Ron White, Eddie Williams and Tessa Woodward - interviewed by the writer during his MA course at the University of Reading in 1987 and 1988. By asking each lecturer to describe his or her definition and practice of 'awareness' in the teacher training courses he/she conducts, the result is a series of diverse, lively discussions which not only reveal a great deal about what awareness training means in practical terms, but also show us 'between the lines' how a caring teacher training staff can achieve 'unity in diversity' - that is, how it is possible to work towards a common goal of helping the course participants to achieve personal and professional growth while, at the same time, respecting one another's individual growth as teacher trainers. Essentially, the interviews illustrate very well a central concept of the book as a whole: that, undefinable, immeasurable and impossible to program as it may be, "insight is action" (67).
"Awareness breeds awareness. In this sense it is important that the teacher himself should have obtained a reasonably high degree of awareness, not so much in that he will be emulated by his students, but rather that his active, creative, searching spirit will continually be discovering little ways in which his content, or his presentation, or even his asides, can be structured in such a manner as to produce a result which goes in the direction desired."
- William Plain (p.7)
As suggested above, these three parts present the reader with a choice of reading order which may influence to what extent the many valuable ideas in this book become accessible. Beginning at the beginning may be fine for readers already familiar with Krishnamurti's work, or those who have knowledge of the concept of awareness through such spiritual writers as the Zen Master Eihei Dogen Zenji (Instructions for the Zen Cook, contained in the commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi in From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life), the Indian Jesuit retreat master Anthony de Mello (Awareness) or Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) - as well as many other sources - or, of course, those who are themselves practitioners of any one of the many forms of awareness training through meditation. Within the confines of the ELT field, readers who have been exposed to the "Rashomon"-inspired, multiple perspectives approach inherent in John Fanselow's method of non-judgmental observation and his interest in the "Ah ha!" experience of learning, will also find familiar echoes in Mr. Plain's work.
Readers without previous exposure to some form of awareness training in theory or practice might perhaps best begin the book with the interviews in Part 3, particularly as numerous quotations from these interviews are used to illustrate various points of the discussion in the first two parts. Diverse as the interviews are, they nonetheless provide an overview of what is meant by awareness to which virtually all teachers will be able to relate some aspect of their own experience. Tessa Woodward's delightful description, for example, of how she has course participants 'exorcise' their 'ghosts of teachers past' in order "to bring it to the surface and discuss it and think about it" (165) is an excellent, concrete introduction to awareness training in action. Similarly, Adrian Underhill's description of the kind of sensitively 'aware' counselling that can take place between a teacher trainer and his or her students provides a clear picture of the personal stance which is one of the central goals of awareness training: "...the first thing for me is to, in myself, try to be prepared, centred, not necessarily prepared in my lesson plan, but prepared in myself, as prepared as I can be, as fully hu man as I can be, so that I am more alert to the messages that are coming from someone else and from myself" (137). Simply by reading through the many insightful reflections of the interviewees, certain readers may well be better prepared to understand and appreciate the discussion which precedes this section of the book.
"When you have an insight about e.g. language, you don't have to subsequently go through a process of learning: the insight is in itself an awareness of that grammatical relationship or whatever. The state of awareness that triggers insight is thus a direct way to learning, or rather to acquisition, as there is no effort in the act of insightful acquisition as is implied by the concept of learning." - William Plain (p. 64)
Exactly what kind of reader, however, is this book for? This is a difficult question, because, while the context is focused primarily on the development of awareness through teacher training, there is no reason to suggest that readership be limited solely to a teacher trainer audience. While the warning must be given that this is not an "easy" book to read - greater clarification of many areas would have been helpful if a wider audience was intended - nonetheless it contains a great variety of ideas which are in themselves worth the effort to discover and which may be of interest to a wide variety of readers. For example, given a good deal of its subject matter, the book is likely to be of interest to teachers currently on a MA course or planning to start one. Beyond that, however, since the practice of awareness is above all meant to be a life-enhancing one, the book has potential to suggest new modes of learning and teaching to virtually anyone concerned with his or her personal or professional development. And this may lead, as the writer hopes, to "a direction which will be taken by a substantial, and influential, stream of research in the not too distant future" (68).
Reviewed by Nanci Graves