Eamon Charles

Where we’ve been in the year so far – and a quick visit with Tibetan students

Follow the link for this fascinating post: Innovating English language curriculum through translanguaging in Tibet: fostering plurilingual identity for minority students

It’s been a busy 2023 here at AARE – we publish twice a week on a wide array of educational topics, from early childhood to higher education, from researchers at Australian universities. Today, we are reminding you of the fascinating posts we’ve published so far in 2023 with a bonus post about teaching English to Tibetan students.

Our most read post this year – by far – was a heartbreaking post by Robyn Brandenburg, Ellen Larsen, Richard Sallis and Alyson Simpson on their research. It explains why teacher retention is such a challenge. Please read Teachers now: Why I left and where I’ve gone if you missed it the first time around. It brings new insights into what is happening to the most important profession in our country.

“I was just so anxious, unwell, and unhappy. Every day I felt sick on my way to work. I could never get through my mountain of work, I could never get on top of classroom behaviour, and I could never get to a place where I was able to deal with the unreasonable demands of the school.”

Next up, Trauma in all our classrooms. Judith Howard explains how to respond to the children and young people who have been victims to complex trauma sitting in most school classrooms and early learning settings across our country. 

These young victims can struggle with feeling safe, with attaching and relating effectively to other people and with regulating their emotions.” 

Two pieces sparked a lively conversation and had a number of comments. The first was by Pasi Sahlberg and Sharon Goldfeld: If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be? and in a response by Nathaniel Swain, Pamela Snow, Tanya Serry, Tessa Weadman and Eamon Charles: What we want to say right now to Sahlberg and Goldfeld

Sahlberg and Goldfeld write: “In our Discussion Paper titled “Reinventing Australian schools for the better wellbeing, health, and learning of every child” (Sahlberg et al., 2023) we outline a new vision for uplifting student learning, wellbeing, and health in our schools. We argue that the core purpose of schooling needs to shift from primarily focusing on narrow academic intelligence to equal value learning, wellbeing and health outcomes for balanced whole-child development and growth.”

The reply, from Swain et al, says: “Importantly, [Sahlberg and Goldfeld] note that these [declining] trends, seen across literacy, numeracy, and science, have stubbornly persisted in the face of increased per capita education spending. What is surprising to us though, is that Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld seek solutions to academic struggles not in improved classroom instruction, but in extra funding and focus on wellbeing, without considering the contribution to wellbeing made via academic success.” 

We have had many other fantastic contributions this year and you can read our entire back catalogue here.

And please read this fascinating post from Xingxing Yu, Nashid Nigar and Qi Qian on:

Innovating English language curriculum through translanguaging in Tibet: fostering plurilingual identity for minority students

Discriminatory education policies for Indigenous communities across the world is still a human rights issue despite the rights of Indigenous peoples (370 million) to education which is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. The article 14 of the second Declaration proclaims,

Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

Yet, the policies of education across the world (70 countries) are orchestrated on dominant language/s and minority language divide. When dominant languages are privileged over those of minorities, it triggers a flurry of disadvantages and segregation for the minorities, benefiting the privileged at the expense of subjugated. According to United Nations,

Barriers to education for Indigenous students include stigmatization of Indigenous identity and low self-esteem of Indigenous learners; discriminatory and racist attitudes in the school environment, including in textbooks and materials and among non-Indigenous students and teachers; language barriers between Indigenous learners and teachers; inadequate resources and low prioritization of education for Indigenous peoples, reflected in poorly trained teachers as well as lack of textbooks and resources.

To address the barrier, “inadequate resources and low prioritization of education for Indigenous peoples” , we, three non-Indigenous educators collaborated internationally and took initiative to experiment and propose some innovative ideas to include Tibetan language and culture in the English language curriculum for Tibetan students. This is relevant for any dominant language focused curriculum that does not include and/or ignore indigenous languages, cultures, and knowledge systems in the curriculum: textbooks, materials and pedagogy. 

In the summer of 2021, Qian, a master’s student at the University of Melbourne, decided to teach English in Ganzi county in the Sichuan Province for one month. Although not located in Tibet, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Region has a greater than 80% Tibetan population, according to The People’s Government of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, 2021. At the school where Qian worked, Tibetan students comprised the entire student body. This one-month course provides a clearer picture than the dispersed data in peer-reviewed articles.

Trilingual education

Qian: If the language of instruction is Tibetan, students seem more engaged in the classroom activity. Maybe, they can comprehend the teachers better through their native language.

Commonly, the term trilingual education is used to describe the learning of three languages by Tibetan students. First, minority students must learn their mother tongue as well as Mandarin Chinese as soon as they enter school; second, English as a compulsory subject must be learned as early as secondary school. Tibetan students, in this context, must learn two additional languages beside their native tongue, Tibetan.

Current research has uncovered two major negative effects of trilingual education on Tibetan students. First, Tibetan students are more likely to be labeled as “deficit” language learners owing to the paucity of educational resources (teachers, for example) in Tibetan areas, as well as their extra language learning responsibilities in comparison to their Han peers. Second, the Han-dominant ideology, embodied in both Mandarin-instructed English classrooms and English textbooks where Han-culture prevails, devalues Tibetan culture and language, as well as the ethnic identity of students.

In lieu of imaging a larger picture that is more idealistic and human rights oriented in terms of policy change, which appears impractical in China, we propose devising a more pragmatic approach. that, on the one hand, is permissible within the realm of current educational policy. It is, on the other hand, able to contribute to multilingual identity and an easier way for Tibetan students to learn English. It also paves the way how teachers’ agency can be applied in terms of teaching English from a multilingual perspective. 

A new approach to curriculum

As master’s students taught by Nashid Nigar at the University of Melbourne, Qian, and I (Xingxing) discussed how to implement translangaugeing theory into the English language (EL) curriculum for Qian’s Tibetan students. We believe this practice demonstrates that translangaugeing could be viewed as a pragmatic solution for minority language users.

What is translangauging?

Translanguaging is a term originally attributed to the Welsh educator Cen Williams.  The extended version of translanguaging, nevertheless, is aligned with the critical perspective of the named language. It is, according to O. Garcia and W. Li, socially constructed and represents a distinct concept of language itself. They assert that the transformative potential of translanguaging practices is derived from their capacity to transcend the socially constructed boundaries of named languages, notably the creative and critical feature. The worldview of Translanguaging involves the acknowledgement and development of their plurilingual identity through the uses of their full linguistic repertoire: languages, cultures, knowledge, values, and beliefs. 

Under this understanding, educators in Tibetan classrooms should make full use of their students’ linguistic resources not only to activate students’ language creation so that they can learn English effectively, but also to empower them to reconsider the hegemony of Han-dominated language and culture.

Predicated on translanguaging theory, we put together a curriculum with the topic “I am a tour guide” that encompasses four classes and an assessment task.

First, we adapted the existing official English textbook more relevant to Tibetan students’ daily lives without altering its instructional focus. For example, Han festivals and foods were replaced with their Tibetan equivalents, and narratives of urban culture were revised to reflect rurality and snow mountains. On the one hand, the adaptation of teaching materials substantially increased students’ interest, and encouraged students to enjoy language learning and participate more actively in learning tasks and activities, thereby facilitating students’ connection to English by the means of Tibetan. In these, both languages were used non-hierarchically by them. The adaptations of the activities in the textbook addressed Qian’s concern for his students and provided multilingual support for them.

Second, we innovated the original test-oriented assessment by requiring students to simulate a tour guide to introduce Tibetan culture using all of their linguistic resources. In addition, students are encouraged to create an account on Douyin (TikTok in China) and upload their video recordings. The plurilingual identities of multilingual speakers and multimodal video creations served as a powerful incentive to enjoy and learn English. Throughout the process, they experienced, by knowing, doing,” becoming”, that their plurilingual self was underscored and valued.

Notably, repeated practices in front of the camera enhanced the students’ self-esteem and self-confidence in English interaction. Their oral fluency vastly improved, corroborating M. Amiryousefi’s (2018) conclusion that self-assurance indicates a solid command of a foreign language.

The innovative translanguaging-informed teaching strategies and curriculum reform that Qian applied in the Tibetan region promotes Tibetan English language learners’ plurilingual identity. However, we believe it is highly unlikely to institutionalize an all-encompassing democratic and inclusive curriculum that respects Tibetan identity and language under China’s current political system. Despite the severe censorship and surveillance of the government though, we can still do more to assist minority speakers not only in overcoming language learning hurdles, but also affirming and promoting their cultural and linguistic identities. Teacher professional development and exercises of their agency, and ethical commitment to responsive pedagogy are crucial in this process. 

This curriculum reform approach can be adapted by stakeholders involved in any diverse context of teaching and learning in terms of literacy and language education.

From left to right: Xingxing Yu has a Master of TESOL from the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Experience in working in Chinese state-owned enterprises and her family history in remote areas of western China have prompted her to study educational inequities in China, including gender and ethnic disparities, as well as urban-rural imbalances melody0901@gmail.com. 

Nashid Nigar has taught Master of TESOL and Master of Education programs at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She is at the final stage of completing her PhD at Monash Education. Adopting a transdisciplinary theoretical lens and hermeneutic phenomenological narrative enquiry, Nashid  has investigated immigrant teachers’ professional identity in Australia. Nashid.nigar@monash.edu Qi Qian completed his Master of Education at Melbourne Graduate School of Education. He has taught at Garze Ethnic Middle School in Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province. He is now teaching English in another junior high school.

Header image of the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture by Colegota

What we want to say right now to Sahlberg and Goldfeld

Schools are places for all kinds of success, including academic achievement.

In their recent article, “If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be?” Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld rightly shine a light on falling academic achievements among Australian students according to both national and international measures. 

Importantly, they note that these trends, seen across literacy, numeracy, and science, have stubbornly persisted in the face of increased per capita education spending. What is surprising to us though, is that Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld seek solutions to academic struggles not in improved classroom instruction, but in extra funding and focus on wellbeing, without considering the contribution to wellbeing made via academic success. 

We agree with Sahlberg and Goldfeld’s assertion that many policy initiatives have overlooked the “interconnection between health, wellbeing, and learning”. There seems to be an assumption, however, that an uplift in educational outcomes and equity can be achieved without the discomfort and upheaval of focusing on low-impact instructional practices (reading being a key case in point). One cannot ignore that the relationship between wellbeing, engagement and academic success is complex. We hold that strategic investment and accountability for health in schools—without investment and accountability for improving instruction—will fail to shift the dial upwards on Australian students’ falling educational outcomes and growing inequities (see here). 

Perhaps what is missing from Sahlberg and Goldfeld’s position is the notion that responsive, effective and evidence-informed teaching plays a pivotal role in fostering students’ academic achievement, self-efficacy and thus wellbeing. Longstanding research into the health outcomes for individuals without key educational capacities reveals the protection that success in reading confers on wellbeing across the lifespan, not merely during the school years. There are also examples in our own backyard of schools in disadvantaged communities turning around wellbeing and behavioural challenges via the vehicle of improved instructional practices. Without policy support and investment in teacher professional learning however, such transformations are difficult to take to scale. These initiatives into professional practice also entail three to five years of solid investment of time and instructional coaching, which is far less attention-grabbing in brief news cycles and political campaigns, than bids for a wholesale priority shift from instruction to wellbeing.  

The vision presented in Sahlberg and Goldberg’s article highlights the importance of responsive and effective teaching to enhance children’s sense of success and confidence while meeting their wellbeing needs. We argue that, somewhat ironically, one of the best ways to meet children’s wellbeing needs is for schools to remain focussed on their primary purposes: ensuring all children learn to read, write, do maths, and gain the other capacities they need to succeed in life. Our nation’s performance in these key learning areas create a stark picture of haves and have nots with regards to this primary goals of education.

Promoting the health and wellbeing of students is undeniably important, but it is crucial that the core purposes of education are not diluted or compromised in these endeavours. We already have ambitious goals to deliver a world-class education to all students, with significant work still to do to realise these aspirations.  

Blurring the boundaries between the roles of educators and health professionals could potentially lead to attenuation of efforts to strengthen instructional capacity of our teaching workforce. Teachers are already under immense pressure with a wide range of pedagogical and administrative responsibilities. If the expectations placed on teachers expand to encompass mental health supports beyond their training and expertise, this creates a further risk of diverting their attention and resources away from effective teaching and learning.

We cannot see a case for a focus on health and wellbeing without considering the impact of the ways in which precious instructional time is used. Students have long been subjects of social and pedagogical experiments in education systems, typically without ethical or empirical oversight. Neither children nor their parents are given opportunities to give or withhold consent to many policy change experiments and taxpayers are asked to believe that as the problem grows, so too the financial investment for its downstream “fix” must grow.  

We do not agree that “bold new ways of thinking about children, their schooling and what it takes to secure healthier and happier futures for all of them” are needed. This is an invitation to a populist “re-imagining” rather than a commitment to translating into practice solid scientific evidence about human learning and self-regulation, and ways in which such knowledge can be utilised in all classrooms. Insights from such research have been missing from teacher pre-service education in Australia and may well be contributing to high rates of teacher burn-out and attrition from the profession.

It is a given that schools need to be places of physical, social, and mental health promotion. Against this backdrop, they then need to be meeting children’s human and legislative rights to an education. This means students emerging at least proficient in core areas of the curriculum, as a gateway to a lifetime of learning and social, cultural, economic, and civic engagement. 

Our biggest concern is the potential for well-meaning schools and systems to be wrapped up in ambitious health goals for their students, while tragically under-responding to the learning needs of the children in their care—given that success in learning can make its own independent contribution to wellbeing. 

From left to right: Nathaniel Swain is a senior lecturer in La Trobe University’s School of Education. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity calledThink Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium.  Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain. Pamela Snow is professor of cognitive psychology in the School of Education at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, Australia and co-director of the SOLAR Lab (Science of Language and Reading). Her research has been funded by nationally competitive schemes and concerns the role of language and literacy skills as academic and mental health protective factors in childhood and adolescence. Tanya Serry is associate professor (Literacy and Reading) in the School of Education and co-director of the SOLAR Lab. She has taught in the Discipline of Speech Pathology. Her research interests centre on the policy and practices of evidence-based reading instruction and intervention practices for students across the educational lifespan. Tessa Weadman is a Lecturer in English, Literacy and Pedagogy in the School of Education at La Trobe University. She is a member of La Trobe University’s SOLAR Lab. Tessa’s research interests span across preschool and school-age language and literacy development. Eamon Charles is the academic intern in the La Trobe SOLAR Lab. He is an experienced school-based speech-language pathologist with special interest in the role of literacy as a protective factor in the context of childhood adversity.