Ross Sampson, Kanda University of International Studies
Sampson, R. (2020). Trying on a new hat: From teacher to advisor. Relay Journal, 3(2), 250-256. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/030211
*This page reflects the original version of this document. Please see PDF for most recent and updated version.
Self-Access Centre’s (SACs) which facilitate autonomous learning are becoming more prevalent in higher education institutions (Morrison and Navarro, 2012). A new educational role entitled ‘Learning Advisor’ is becoming more commonplace also. Learning Advisors (LAs) have advising sessions with learners, usually one to one. During these sessions an Intentional Reflective Dialogue (IRD) takes place. This IRD is an interaction intentionally aimed at promoting autonomous and transformational learning within the learner (Kato, 2012). This paper is a reflection of the author’s first advising session with a learner conducted via Zoom, the teleconferencing platform. The session focuses on three ‘advising strategies’ selected by the author, chosen in an attempt to reflect on the author’s ability to use them effectively as an advisor. As research on advising has been relatively scarce (Kato & Mynard, 2016), the author intends this paper to add to the field of literature on first-time advising sessions. The author concludes that reflecting upon the session enabled him to understand the session in greater depth as well as understand educational roles from different perspectives.
Keywords: Advising in language learning, professional development, reflective practice
Background and context
I have been teaching various courses at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) since April 2017. My position at KUIS is my first university teaching position. Since starting at KUIS I have been interested in gaining research, publishing and presenting experience, and I knew Kanda was a very nurturing place for all three. Over the last three years I have learnt a lot about learner autonomy, learner identity, beliefs about language learning as well as reflection on learning.
When I heard there was a course being run within the university which could enable me to ‘try on a new hat’ in a different educational role within the same university context, I was eager to enrol. I thought by gaining skills in advising, I would be able to strengthen myself as a teacher and educator and benefit my students in the classroom setting. Kato (2012) explains that an advisors’ job can sometimes be misunderstood as someone who gives advice, makes suggestions and generally tells learners how they should proceed with their learning. However the main role of an advisor is to empower learners (Kato, 2012), and as Kato and Mynard (2016, p. 2) state, advising in language learning (ALL) is “an intentional dialogue whose aim is for the learner to be able to reflect deeply, make connections and take responsibility for his/her language learning.” I wanted to fully grasp what becoming a learning advisor entailed. I thought I needed a solid understanding right from the start of how an advisors’ role was different from a teacher’s role, and if I had one, it would help me feel confident taking on this new role as a learning advisor. As metaphors are utilised often in advising, I thought it fitting to title this paper with one. I think the metaphor of ‘trying on a new hat’ highlights the fact that having a different ‘hat’ means others will know what role or position you are taking on. Additionally, it represents the fact that I am documenting my discovery of my first experience as a learning advisor, still an educational role in language learning, but not a teacher.
My advisee Tomomi (pseudonym), was my current student at the time of the advising session. She had also been my student two years prior to the session. She was an English language major at KUIS and had recently returned from studying abroad in a northern European country. I had always viewed her as a very mature, driven and motivated person in her language learning. Even though she majored in English, she also had experience learning Russian, Chinese and Swedish to differing degrees. Prior to our session I asked her in an email what she understood by an ‘advising session’. Kato and Mynard (2016, p. 3) state if you skip this step (the learners understanding of ‘advising’), then learners may view advisors as tutors from whom they can get answers to linguistic questions. Her response was “I would say that the session can analyse language learning journey from various perspectives such as four skills”. From this I concluded that she recognised that an advising session was not a time for an advisor to give advice. I liked when she said “analyse language learning journey from various perspectives” as this made me think that she possibly exhibited signs of being at the “going deeper” stage of the learning trajectory for learners (Kato & Mynard, 2016, p. 14). I had already established rapport with Tomomi, having known her as my student and also having chatted to her on campus, and thus did not need to pass the chemistry test so to speak, as is the case with first time advising sessions.
Area of Focus: Summarising
I chose to focus on summarising as I believe it ties in repeating and restating (two other advising strategies) and also demonstrates to whomever your interlocutor is, that you are actively listening to them. After watching the session back, I concluded that my use of summarising was a success overall. I arrived at this conclusion by gauging my advisee’s reactions. Her reactions (verbally and physically) seemed to convey slight surprise that I had remembered what she had said and also confirmation that what I summarised was in fact what she had said. In the session I used summarising as a way to show her that I remembered what she said some time ago and then used that to lead into my next question. In this excerpt I attempted to tie in what she previously told me about liking ‘grammar systems’ with our discussion of the casual lounge area within the university.
Tomomi (advisee): I like going to yellow sofa (casual lounge within the university SALC), but every time I speak, just before I start talking, I think grammar, construct grammatical sentence, you know, so it takes time for me to like speak. I’m always thinking about grammar so I couldn’t enjoy the conversation because my brain is like – subject, verb, like something! Every time I speak my brain is stuck.
Ross (advisor): So, before you were saying that you like grammar (previously in the session) because it feels like solving a puzzle in any language, English or Russian. But when you’re on the yellow sofa area, you, you feel like your brain’s stuck because you’re thinking of grammar first before you speak.
T: Yeah (nods head in agreement).
R: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
T: Well…in terms of like accuracy it might be good, but for the fluency it is not.
R: Okay, do you think accuracy is more important than fluency?
T: Not really (laughs).
There were other instances in the session in which I believe I was able to tie in what she had said previously with something else. However, I chose to include the previous excerpt because I did not feel like I forced it. I remember this exchange arising rather naturally, whereas the previous two attempts at summarising seemed more forced. Also, by this point I got a sense from Tomomi that she thought I was actively listening to her and genuinely cared about the content of her responses.
Area of Focus: Using Metaphor
I chose the strategy of metaphor to focus on as I think it is a creative way to understand how a learner imagines their language learning and how they can mentally paint a picture of where they are as well as the struggles they may be experiencing. I asked “If you think about your language learning journey, from when you started, up until now, and thinking about the future. What does your English language learning journey look like to you?” I think this was too wordy, also I don’t think the need for a metaphor arose naturally. Before I even let her answer, I proceeded to give her an example of my language learning journey in an attempt to mitigate potential confusion and also experience share (another advising strategy). My example detailed operating a car, the car breaking down and getting lost driving the car. From Tomomi’s reaction, she could easily understand my metaphor and seemed to like it, but after an extended period of silence, was unable to verbalise her own metaphor to represent her position in her language learning journey. This led me to ask her “If your language learning journey is like climbing a mountain, where are you on the mountain, what can you see?”. After more silence I said, “where are you now on the mountain and what does it feel like?”, to which she replied, “I cannot give you perfect example but like up and down hills (hand gesture)”. She continued to explain that this metaphor of ‘up and down’ represented her language learning in her entire life.
R: Are you ‘up’ (gestures) now, or are you ‘down’ (gestures)?
T: Now, middle, but I think it is kind of ‘down’ right now.
R: Okay, why do you feel like you’re more ‘down’ than ‘up’?
T: Compared to study abroad, I enjoyed a lot talking English or like taking classes in only English, so that was really high. But I came back to Japan and lost opportunity to speak English compared to, you know, back then. And now I have to make the opportunity by myself. I also have to do a lot of things other than studying right now, so that’s why I feel like a little bit ‘down’ (gestures).
The discussion of metaphor eventually proved fruitful even though initially it appeared to confuse Tomomi and slow down the momentum of the session. I brought metaphors into the session not because a need for them arose naturally but because it was a strategy I chose to focus on. I do not think advisors should do this as it is too leading, however for the purposes of my first advising session I thought it was okay.
Area of Focus: Asking Powerful Questions
I chose powerful questions to focus on, as after reading about powerful questions I thought that they were useful to encourage learners to find solutions themselves and thus a good strategy to promote learner autonomy.
I consciously asked what I thought were powerful questions to get Tomomi to think deeply. The powerful questions that seemed to resonate with her the most were when I asked her what ‘confidence’ and ‘fluency’ meant to her.
R: Do you remember one key moment or highlight that, like something that you remember especially well, something happened in your mind? Maybe there wasn’t.
T: There were so many, but being like confident and being fluency, the meaning.
This was my first time attempting to formulate powerful questions. In my opinion, from Tomomi’s reactions – her eyes looking up and her extended periods of silence (thinking time), it seemed that my powerful question had been thought provoking and had had a positive impact on her.
After the Session: Reflection
I asked Tomomi some questions after the session ended to find out how she thought the session went.
R: What was your expectation of this 1-1 session before?
T: Well…pretty much what we did (laughs a little).
R: How do you feel now?
T: Well uh, by talking with this kinda thing, the goals are clear (laughs), well because the exam outside of school is like doing by myself, kinda how can I say, almost every time, not every time, I feel I can do next time, next time and I don’t do.
R: Like procrastinating?
T: Yeah exactly.
R: Do you remember any questions I asked you that made you think deeply or changed your mind about something?
T: Well I like the example of your learning journey, the car! It was so interesting. It was really clear and how can I say, easy to understand. But I couldn’t come up with an example for myself.
From her responses I felt positive about how she viewed the session. Even though the session was in some ways about me and my utilisation of advising strategies (due to the course assignment guidelines), the advisor should always keep in mind the first of the three principles of transformational advising – ‘focus on the learner’ (Kato & Mynard, 2016, p. 18). I also believe I was able to motivate, support and encourage her during the session. Which are ways Mynard and Carson (2012, p. 16) state can promote greater learner autonomy.
I watched the recording of the session back twice, trying to pick up on anything I could that I deemed relevant. The session was about twenty minutes longer than the suggested time, my facial expression looked unintentionally quite stern for much of the session (which might come across negatively to a learner had I met them for the first time), and I went into the session with an intention to deploy certain strategies rather than just naturally going with what might be suited at key moments. However, despite these points, overall, I am pleased with the session mainly because I was able to mostly use the three advising strategies successfully and I concluded my advisee left the session feeling more positive about herself and direction to go in.
Thinking about what I could have done differently, I should have tried to allow advising strategies to surface naturally. However as with any skill, the more it is practised and honed, confidence in its use will likely grow over time.
Further reflection and Conclusion
Around a month later, I had the opportunity to reflect further on the session with a peer. By ‘peer’ I mean someone who was also in training to become a fully qualified learning advisor. This session lasted about twenty minutes and it put me in the shoes of advisee. As an advisee, I was able to think back on what I had done to enable my advisee to leave our session positively with clearer goals. I was asked powerful questions and the silence that followed the powerful questions allowed me to really reflect deeply on the session. On many occasions following the session, I experienced moments when I wondered if I had even been an advisor and times when I thought I hadn’t done it properly. Reflecting a month later however, brought me back to concluding overall that my first advising session was a success. The experience of taking course one of the advisor certification course gave me a glimpse into a different perspective of understanding language learners. After having ‘tried on my new hat’, I believe my perspective changed the way I view my approach to students. I think it altered and added to my identity as an educator. Learning about advising strategies and empowering learners through the use of IRD has made me more eager to conduct advising sessions as well as incorporate activities to promote autonomy within my classes as a teacher. Doing this will encourage my students to become more autonomous in their language learning journeys while they could apply their autonomous skills to other areas of their lives in order to feel more in control and confident about the direction of their lives. As a teacher I would like to connect with and understand my students’ goals and individual learning characteristics as much as I can. As a learning advisor I am able to do that.
I hope to add my newly acquired ways of thinking as an advisor onto my current mindset as a teacher, combining them into one ‘hat’ and to form a stronger educational approach. I believe that students who are able to take classes with a teacher, take tailor-made modules with an advisor, and use resources in a SALC/SAC at their leisure, are truly in a fortunate position.
Notes on the Contributor
Ross Sampson is a lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies. He holds an MEd in TESOL from the University of Glasgow and has worked in the TESOL field for 10 years. His research interests are learner identity, learner autonomy and reflection.
Kato, S. (2012). Professional development for learning advisors: Facilitating the intentional reflective dialogue. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3(1), 74-92. Retrieved from https://sisaljournal.org/archives/march12/kato/
Kato, S., & Mynard, J. (2016). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. New York, NY. Routledge.
Morrison, B.R., & Navarro, D. (2012). Shifting roles: From language teachers to learning advisors. System, 40, 349-359. doi: 10.1016/j.system/2012.07.004
Mynard, J., & Carson, L. (Eds.) (2012). Advising in language learning: Dialogue, tools and context. Harlow, UK. Pearson.