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Language Teacher Education as a Means to Social Development in Africa: the Kenyan Case


By Charles Ochieng’ Ong’ondo

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 54-67]


Prior to the 19th century, teachers mainly acquired skills on the job without any formal preparation. Proper advocacy for Teacher Education started in the 19th century and gained momentum during the second half of the 20th century and its main objective is generally understood as being to enable student teachers to learn appropriate knowledge, skills and professional attitudes. It is now common in many parts of the world to find formal TE programmes, variously referred to as teacher training, teacher preparation or teacher education (my italics) (Korthagen, 2001). In this paper I am using the term teacher education as an umbrella term for all the others. I define teacher education as a process of developing student teachers’ critical knowledge of theories, principles, concepts, methodologies and perceptions that inform teaching and learning. Teacher educators see these as being possible to learn through coursework in a teacher education institution and, in many programmes, an in-school phase known usually as teaching practice or practicum (e.g. Darling-Hammond, 2006b; Zeichner, 2006; Freeman, 2002; Korthagen, 2001, Roberts, 1998; Richards, 1998).

In most current literature, it is emphasised that the main business of any Language Teacher Education (LTE) programme is to enable teachers to learn; that is to develop awareness, knowledge, skills, attitudes (e.g. Freeman, 2002, 1989) and the requisite ‘pedagogical reasoning skills’ (Richards, 1998; Shulman, 1987), or facilitate ‘robust reasoning’ (Johnson, 1999). Freeman (2002) makes it clear that ‘teacher learning is the core activity of teacher education’ (p.1).

One might argue, however, that while it may be relatively easy to agree that teacher learning is the essence of LTE, there are different views on what and how teachers ought to learn. The different views have implications for the role of language teacher education in the society and perhaps ultimately on the way teachers perceive their roles. I suggest that eventually the way teachers think about the relationship between their work and the society where they operate will have an influence on their learners’ perceptions and attitudes in that society. As Freeman (2001) notes: ‘over the past decade around the world, teacher education has been identified as a central variable in the transformation and reform of educational systems’ (p.608). Before we get deep into this argument, I wish to give a summary of the main views that inform general teacher education.

Views on Language Teacher Education

Generally, there are three main views influencing language teacher education at present, some of them more prominent in some contexts than others: behaviourist, constructivist and sociocultural. There are many other variants or combinations and in some programmes a mixture of these views are discernible. In this paper, I shall not delve deep into these variations or manifestations of the different views in various language teacher education programmes. However, I will highlight the main features of the three views identified.

To begin with, there is the behaviourist view which has its background in behaviourist psychology where learning is defined as ‘lasting behaviour change’ and habit formation. Learning is perceived to take place through external stimuli and reinforcement by use of ‘rewards and denials or conditioning’ (Roberts 1998:35). According to this theory, target behaviour is broken down into components that can be quantified and measured. In the behaviourist mode, the primary focus of teacher education is to equip student teachers with techniques that are thought to have the best results in teaching (e.g. Malderez and Wedell, 2007; Zeichner, 2006; Kumaravadivelu, 2003; Korthagen 2001; Johnson, 1999; Roberts, 1998). This theory is currently considered a narrow view of LTE because it assumes that there is a ‘best practice’ that all teachers should follow and that can be objectively assessed through observation of teacher behaviour (and exam results). It has been observed that ‘good teaching is not just a matter of displaying a certain set of behaviours, since in any case, perceptions of ‘‘correct behaviours’’ change as new theories of learning emerge’ (Malderez and Wedell, 2007:14). Nonetheless, behaviourism is also said to have served some useful purposes in LTE. One contribution is that it has made it possible to break down LTE into clear tasks for learning, in an orderly manner. This approach is also said to serve where there is a shortage of teachers, as a short term guide to beginner teachers (Roberts, 1998).

Another view of teacher learning is constructivism, whose main tenet is that people can learn by constructing and reconstructing their own interpretations from knowledge that they are presented with and these interpretations differ from one individual to another. This reconstruction is dependent upon the learners’ expectations, prior knowledge and present thinking. Constructivist Teacher Education therefore aims at enabling the student teachers to make their own sense of the content and skills offered to them and to review and improve their understanding during the TE programme (Roberts, 1998; Richardson, 2001). According to Roberts (1998), ‘constructivism…explains personal differences in perception and behaviour. This indicates the need to “start from where teachers are”, an apparently self evident principle which has in fact been ignored in many system-wide training programmes in the past’ (p.43). Constructivist views of TE have been criticised for failing to take into consideration the communal and participative elements in teacher learning. Some critics have accused the constructivists of focussing on ‘inner processes and therefore abstracts the person from the sociocultural landscape in which they live and work…no language teacher education approach can treat an individual as independent of society’ (Roberts, 1998:28). The third general view of teacher learning – the sociocultural view is the one I draw from heavily in this paper. I am of the opinion that this view is more responsive to the needs of the society and more likely to facilitate social development. I shall come back to that later. Let me first present the sociocultural view in more detail.

Sociocultural view of teacher education

A sociocultural view of learning and teacher education largely draws from the works of Vygotsky(1978,1987), particularly the notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which posits that learning occurs through social interaction with adults and more capable peers through mediated social practice (Hawkins, 2004). In this view, ‘learning is viewed as a situated activity…and mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of the community’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991:29). This view also posits that learning to teach is a process of creating a social identity and that effects of a teacher’s prior socialisation - as shown in their perceptions - needs to be attended to; that teaching is a social apprenticeship and teachers need to be educated to be responsible to the society and sensitive to social inequalities (Roberts, 1998; Hawkins, 2004; Grant and Gillette, 2006). Sociocultural views of teacher education do not necessarily seek to dismiss or disapprove the other views but reiterate the need to consider that language teacher education and its ultimate objectives of facilitating teaching and learning are not individual enterprises but are largely governed by and intricately related to sociocultural circumstances of the communities in which the education takes place (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Kelly, 2006; Intrator, 2006). Among the main points raised by the sociocultural view are the ones I present below.

Language teaching as a socialization process

This view holds that language teacher education and actual teaching takes place within a social landscape and is to some extent a socialization process. It holds that learning to teach is a process of creating a social identity as a teacher and is influenced by a society’s perceptions of teaching, the society’s goals of education, and perspectives on effective teachers. Teacher education is thus viewed as a social process of transforming the lives of young people (and adults in some cases), preparing them for careers and inculcating cultural awareness among them. This view therefore advocates for consideration of the sociocultural aspects of a teacher’ work, and pays attention to how the society affects the occupation of teaching. The society cannot be ignored, according to this view because it influences the features of teaching, the entry point, who enters teaching and actual teaching and learning acts (Roberts, 1998; Kelly, 2006). Teachers’ perspectives are influenced by a number of sociocultural factors including a person’s experiences as a learner, experiences as a teacher - in case of people who join teaching after some teaching work, personal perceptions, theories of education and teaching acquired during the teacher education programme, the social status of teaching and the norms associated with teaching and classroom interaction within a given context (Richards and Lockert, 1994).

Language teaching as socially transforming the society

This view also sees teacher learning as a ‘social apprenticeship to the practices (including language practices, activities, values and belief systems) of specified communities. Thus the work of teachers is framed as establishing and supporting classroom communities in which learners collaboratively engage in situated (socially sanctioned) activities’. In this way, teachers exercise an influence on learners; hence socially transforming the society. Language teachers should therefore be educated to realise the crucial responsibility the society has placed upon them and engage in practices that are carefully thought about and make decisions that are well informed. In the same way, language teacher educators need to re-consider the content and process of their programmes to reflect teacher learning as a ‘mediated social practice’ occurring through socially and culturally situated activity (Hawkins, 2004:6).

Language teaching as socially negotiated enterprise

Johnson (2006) draws her support for the need to take cognisance of sociocultural factors in language teacher education from reasons emerging from second language (referred to as ‘L2’) teacher education research. She reports that:

This research depicts second language teacher learning as normative and lifelong, as emerging out of and through experiences in social contexts: as learners in classrooms and schools, as participants in teacher education programs, and later as teachers in the settings they work. It describes L2 learning as socially negotiated and contingent on knowledge of self, students, subject matter, curricula, and setting. It views L2 teachers as users and creators of legitimate forms of knowledge who make decisions about how best to teach their L2 students within complex socially, culturally and historically situated contexts. And most significantly, it opens an epistemological gap between how L2 teacher educators have traditionally prepared L2 teachers to do their work and how L2 teachers actually learn to teach and do their work (p.237).

Based on this view, Johnson (2006) identifies four challenges for language teacher education if it has to be consistent with what she calls the ‘epistemological stance of the sociocultural turn’. The challenges are ‘theory/practice nexus, the legitimacy of teachers’ ways of knowing, redrawing the boundaries of personal development, and located teacher education’ (p.235). She argues that to address the theory /practice nexus, language teacher education needs to consider providing ‘public spaces’ that enable second language teachers to appropriately interpret the knowledge they create and receive in terms of (among other considerations) the social implications of their pedagogy on the social lives of their learners. She argues further that since language teacher education is now generally accepted as a social endeavour that pays attention to physical and social contexts and distributed across persons, tools and activities, ‘second language teacher education requires to extend the borders beyond the usual knowledge and skills concerns ‘to include teachers’ informal social and professional networks’(p.242).

Linking language teacher education to social settings and participation

Sociocultural considerations are probably one of the reasons that in some countries, the theory-practice approach to teacher education has gradually given way to alternative approaches which ‘are designed to create more equitable social roles and typically take place in settings that are more connected to the daily activities of teachers and students’(Johnson, 2006:243-245). These alternative approaches recognise context and participation as necessary in teacher education and they possibly enhance teachers’ chances to socialise in actual classrooms, schools and communities. The task of convincing language teacher educators and all players in education that the alternative approach is a legitimate means of teacher education and development is a great challenge (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Shulman and Shulman, 2004; Kelly, 2006; Johnson, 2006;).

The wider social contexts of language teacher education

Language Teacher education needs to adjust its content and process to adequately prepare teachers for several different social, cultural and economic contexts in which they are likely to work. Context should be considered more broadly to include all factors that have a bearing on teacher education both within their immediate political boundaries and in the wider global aspects. Located teaching (of a second language for example) need not confine teachers only to paying attention to the place where they are working but also to consider issues of policy and curriculum which are decided upon beyond their immediate contexts but which impact on their work. Even located language teacher education must be concerned with developments and discussions in their field internationally, and compare them with local approaches (Johnson, 2006; Kelly, 2006; Shulman and Shulman, 2004).

Language teaching and sociocultural concerns

Scholars in Language Teacher Education have argued that language teachers need to be educated in teaching approaches that are consistent with sociocultural perspectives. Freeman (2004) observes that Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is one such approach which recognises the fact that language is a social tool that can be learnt by using it for social interactions. Freeman notes that CLT encourages flexible language learning arrangements including learners working in pairs and groups ‘to personalise the content by using it to talk about themselves, their locales and their experiences…the target language is a vehicle for classroom communication, not just an object of study.’ Freeman therefore argues that if teachers are to teach language (e.g. English) in different contexts, then second language teacher education needs to go beyond providing knowledge and skills, and aim at producing teachers who actively make contributions to discussions and practices that take place within schools and the wider society (p.183-185).

Teaching Practice in the sociocultural view

Other proponents of this view observe that sociocultural aspects of schools play a significant role in the teaching practice phase of teacher education, as student teachers are exposed to the wider school culture. Teachers become aware of the ‘social worlds’ in which they operate and where their students exist. Learning of teachers also takes place as they interact with other members of the profession (Hawkins, 2004:5).Teaching practice therefore needs to enable student teachers to pay more attention to the social and political aspects of teaching (Zeichner, 2oo6).The sociocultural view considers teaching practice as a stage of moving from the peripheral (beginner or novice) stage to full participation within the society (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Adams, 2006).

Language Teacher education and social relationships

It has also been proposed that even non-teachers and learners in their social landscape have definitions about good teaching and though most of these definitions may concentrate on the personal aspects of teaching and not the pedagogical concerns, their views reflect the need for attention to matters of interpersonal relationships and conflict management strategies to enable teachers to deal with conflicts that may arise when views of the people they interact with clash with theirs (Malderez and Wedell, 2007). Language teacher education prepares language teachers who operate in the society and if their actions differ markedly from the perceptions of the society in which they teach, the social relationships between the teachers and their clients (students and parents and the rest of the society) will be unnecessarily tense. This aspect of teaching therefore also needs attention.

Language Teacher education as a means of social development

Effective language teacher education ought to aim at producing teachers who regard themselves as responsible agents of change in the community; who are contributing to development as a way of appreciating what the community gave them - education and socialisation. Therefore, language teacher education requires encouraging teachers to expand their knowledge base about the communities in which they work to include all the aspects that are seldom covered in programmes, such as effects of school locations, people and events as well as perceptions of the members of the community about the content being taught and the teaching and learning processes (Grant and Gillette; 2006; Imig and Imig, 2006; Darling-Hammond, 2006a&b; Liston et al., 2006). Language teacher education also ought to venture into aspects of the society that it has traditionally ignored. These, include issues of governance, legal matters, human rights, disability, gender equity and religious concerns. Language teacher education should also aim at producing culturally responsive teachers (Adams, 2006; Johnson, 2006; Hawkins, 2004). Grant and Gillette (2006) observe that such teachers, are people who:

  • Believe that all students can achieve and hold high expectations of learners.
  • Build a “community of learners” in the classroom and connect with students’
  • families.
  • (Are) learners themselves and vary instructions to meet the needs of students.
  • Know that students have a wealth of skills and knowledge and use them in teaching.
  • (Are) willing to be introspective about themselves and their teaching, monitor their beliefs and actions for bias and prejudice, and are unafraid to teach about “isms”.( p.294)

These sociocultural views have a relevance to the Kenyan context where education in general and language teacher education in particular needs to liberate citizens from the common constrained sociocultural perceptions to consideration or acceptance of alternative practices - beyond their own ethnic communities. In that way, language teacher education will be acting as an a means to social development - change to social practices that are more consistent with the developmental visions of the country, region and the global world such as the millennium development goals.

The Kenyan case

The Republic of Kenya is an independent country in East Africa neighbouring Uganda and Lake Victoria to the West, Tanzania to the South-West, Sudan and Ethiopia to the North, Somalia to the East and the Indian Ocean to the South-East. Out of a population of about forty million people there are Africans who form the majority with forty-two different linguistic communities; Asians, Europeans and Arabs. Most Kenyans, especially those who live along the boarders with other communities, are bilingual or even multilingual. Kiswahili is spoken as a native language by a community at the Coast although it has assumed the status of the Language of Wider Communication (LWC) and is also used as the National Language. That is to say, it is the language that is most widely spoken in Kenya and is seen as the language of national unity. As such it is the language used for business, politics and other socio-economic interactive situations involving multi-language communities. English is the official language; that is, all official government documents are written in English and all official transactions also take place in English. Generally, education is regarded as playing a very important role in the country and attracts a very high budget in government expenditure. All public primary schools offer free education and there are plans to extend free education to the secondary school sector. The role of education is captured in the national goals of education outlined below.

National Goals of Education in Kenya

The national goals of education in Kenya as explained by Kenya Institute of Education (KIE, 2002) are outlined as follows:

  • To foster nationalism, patriotism and promote national unity,
  • To promote the social economic, technological and industrial needs for national development,
  • To promote individual development and self fulfilment,
  • To promote sound, moral and religious values,
  • To promote social equality and responsibility,
  • To promote respect for and development of Kenya’s rich and varied cultures,
  • To promote international consciousness and foster positive attitudes towards other nations,
  • To promote positive attitudes towards good health and environmental protection.

The reason for this brief background of the Kenyan context, especially for including these goals here, is to illustrate the fact that education has a strong social dimension; that is, education is perceived to involve the participation of the entire community in one way or the other; and the way education is conducted at any level would equally have far reaching implications for the entire Kenyan society. In brief, the goals depict education as a social endeavour and not an individual enterprise. Secondly, effective teaching and social responsiveness of the teachers are key to the realisation of these goals. Whether we are talking about national unity or international consciousness, we require competence, for example, we require citizens who are competent communicators in the English language as it will provide the medium of communication among the Kenyan linguistic communities, with neighbouring countries and the wider international community.

In realisation of this social dimension of education, the Kenya government has revised the objectives of Teacher Education to emphasise the additional need for teacher education institutions to ensure that their graduates acquire more ‘socially’ relevant content knowledge, teaching and learning methodology, professionalism, and attitudes which enable them to diagnose and develop the educational competencies required of the learners to interact effectively in the society or to continue to the next level of education (Republic of Kenya, 2004). The government has gone further to suggest that the teacher education institutions need to re-structure their programmes. For example, the government says in a recent publication that:

It is imperative that the secondary teacher training programme is restructured to enable the trainees acquire sufficient subject mastery and pedagogy (Republic of Kenya, 2004: 64).

My argument in this paper though is that revision of objectives alone or sheer restructuring will not guarantee that teacher education acts as a means to social development. I suggest that what is required is a broader view of teacher education beyond the widespread behaviourist and the constructivist perspectives to include the sociocultural dimensions as explained above. I share these views with some other Kenyan scholars; for example, Digolo (2006). In a keynote paper titled Challenges of Education in Kenya in the 21st Century presented at the Moi University Second Annual Conference in Eldoret, Kenya, Digolo made several recommendations on the specific improvements that would be necessary. Among these was the suggestion that ‘the training of teachers in Kenya needs a scrutiny’ (Digolo, 2006: xxv); so that in addition to equipping student teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills for their work, they also make it possible for a student teacher to ‘develop reasoning (intellectual) skills, values and ability to create and recreate new working habits and values for changing lives in a dynamic social environment’. Digolo noted that teacher educators tended to ‘to over emphasise the textbook approach’ and called for the need to ‘use research results when making policy decisions’ (p. xxvii), affecting education. Similar sentiments are echoed by another educator in Kenya (Kafu, 2006):

Since the mid-seventies, (Kenyan) teacher education curriculum has remained narrow and rigid in nature and scope…It emphasises the training rather than the preparation of teachers. There has been no attempt to make it responsive to the emerging trends in the society in general and education in particular…Consequently, it has continued to produce conservative/traditional school teachers who are pervasive to change, less creative and innovative, and unable to manage modern instructional and non-instructional institutions. Consequently, a new teacher education curriculum should be designed to address the new demands of the society and those of the teaching profession. That is, the new curriculum should produce a pragmatic and creative teacher with the capacity and ability to manage efficiently the challenges of education in this century (p.11).

Implications of the sociocultural view for Language Teacher Education in Kenya

What then are the exact ways in which the sociocultural view of teacher education would be relevant to the Kenyan society? To start with, Kenya is a heavily multicultural community. One would say ‘multilinguistic’, ‘multiethnic’, ‘multieconomic’, ‘multireligious’ and perhaps even ‘multipolitical’. Language teacher education in such a context faces a serious challenge; first, of dealing with student teachers from all these sociocultural backgrounds and second, of educating them to be able to successfully operate in all these sociocultural settings. Accordingly, we need perhaps more than ever before – considering changes that are taking place in the Kenyan society (such as increasing awareness about human rights and equality) to produce teachers who are, in addition to being competent in content and pedagogy, also socioculturally responsive.

Teacher education in Kenya has not paid keen attention to these sociocultural concerns, especially in the subject specific courses; for example, language education. Granted, student teachers in almost all Kenyan teacher education institutions take a course in Sociology of Education but that deals with the general roles of education in a society such as education as a socialising agent. Perhaps there is need to infuse sociocultural aspects in courses such as language teacher education. Sociocultural concerns in English language teaching; for example, may be different from those in Mathematics at some point. Language has a lot of cultural elements in it, especially in terms of pragmatics. Language draws its vocabulary from the immediate sociocultural environment and heavily reflects the attitudes, beliefs and even prejudices held by a certain people. Indeed in Kenya, it can be demonstrated that what can pass as an ingenuous proverb or popular saying in one community may be interpreted as an insult in another community or another race. In addition, there are several stereotypes in Kenya regarding certain communities or races. Some communities or races may have been associated with certain crimes, occupations, attitudes, dietary habits, religious sects or cultural practices. These are deeply rooted and differ from one community to another. In some cases, the first time people interact outside their communities is when they come to the university, but for some the first time they get deeply involved with other cultures may be when they start teaching -whether during teaching practice or after qualification. As a policy, Kenyan teachers can be posted to work anywhere in the republic. These are not issues that are covered adequately in the Sociology of Education course in a manner that would enable the student teachers to work in a socially responsive manner in the societies of their posting. For example, since learners often carry language using habits from their first language to the second language, it becomes important to educate teachers to be able to promote cultural awareness through use of socially situated activities. At the same time, language teachers require skills to be sensitive to the sociocultural characteristics of their learners and adjust appropriately in terms of content and process. This is particularly important where teachers work outside their own cultures and also when they teach multicultural classes.

Intervening during language teaching practice

In this paper, I argue that the phase of teacher education where language teacher educators require to pay most attention to the sociocultural issues raised so far is during teaching practice. This is because the practicum is the first time (for most student teachers) they come face to face with learners, parents, other teachers as colleagues, educational administrators and perhaps members of the wider community in which the school is situated. For some of them it may be the first time they are working within a different culture or a multicultural setting. It is therefore expected that the practicum teachers will be faced with several sociocultural challenges both within and outside their classrooms. It is expected that these sociocultural issues will have a bearing on their work and they will want to communicate about them with a view to finding support from their educators and experienced colleagues. I therefore propose that more research be carried out that will examine what sociocultural issues arise during teaching practice and the perceptions of the key participants on how to deal with them when they join mainstream teaching. It is my view that through such research, information may be generated that could contribute to making teacher education a more significant means of social development. This view is supported by Grant and Gillette (2006), who observe that research is generally lacking on experiences of teachers when they start teaching. ‘We need to know what happens when they come face-to-face with students, families, and communities… and implement that which they learned through the programs we designed’. There is need to find out how teachers deal with day-to-day sociocultural issues that confront them’ (p.296). In my suggestion, I also draw on the earlier research by some scholars (e.g. Morton et al., 2006; Kelly, 2006; Johnson, 2006; Imig and Imig, 2006; Freeman, 2001; Richards, 1998). Freeman (2001), for example, summarises the views of these researchers in the statement that:

First…teachers are central mediators in what and how students learn in their classrooms, strengthening teacher learning will improve student learning…Second, teacher learning occurs both explicitly, through formally organized pre-and in-service teacher training and professional development, and implicitly, through personal and professional socialization of individuals into teaching (p.608)

From Freeman’s views and others, I could argue that if the professional socialization of teachers is addressed in a manner that facilitates their perception of their roles as agents of social change, then student learning on these social aspects are likely to be enhanced. I suggest further that these views are not just relevant to Kenya but to many countries in Africa. Certainly, though, this is a matter that could only be better understood through further research into the socialization process of teachers during teaching practice and other phases of teacher education.


The main argument in this paper has been that the sociocultural view on language teacher education raises issues that are worth considering as viable alternatives to the widely held behaviourist and constructivist perspectives that have constrained teacher education in Kenya and perhaps Africa in general. The main issues raised are that learning to teach a language ought to be looked at as a socialisation process and language teacher education needs to aim at producing graduates who are responsible to the society, sensitive to sociocultural factors and who view themselves as a means to social development. I have suggested that teaching practice could be used as an opportunity to draw teachers’ attention to sociocultural issues, in addition to the pedagogical concerns and that ultimately, research into socialisation of teachers when they begin teaching could shed some light on the way forward.


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