How do teachers learn?

How do we learn as teachers? Is it by studying the research into language learning?

Photo by Arash Soufivand

I’ve always thought instinctively, from my own experience, and from asking other teachers about it, that by and large it isn’t. We learn mostly by going out and doing it; we learn primarily from our own classroom-based experience, from reflecting on that experience, from talking to colleagues and observing students.

In her recent IATEFL talk, Penny Ur spoke about this. Research-based theory, she said, ‘is not seen by most practising teachers as a central or essential contributor to teacher knowledge.’   Teachers learn principally from reflection on experience.  All other forms of teacher learning: courses, conferences, reading the literature etc. are seen as a very poor second to experience.   As Donald Schön says:

  • Professionals learn mainly by reflecting in/on action
  • Not by applying research-based theories      (The Reflective Practitioner,1983)

In other words, teachers don’t learn by firstly studying theory and then applying that theory to the classroom, as so many teacher training courses and so much of the professional literature seem to suggest.

Research often has limited practical application, for a number of reasons.  One of the  issues with research-based theory is  the fact that the researcher often feels it necessary  to make  practical pedagogical implications which, to the ear of a practising professional  sound outlandish, even, as Ur puts it ‘off the wall.’  Some of this is often on show at teachers’ conferences such as IATEFL, where academics sometimes feel that they just have to make direct links to the classroom for the benefit of the audience.  They would be better off leaving it to the teacher to make those links and finding the practical implications.

Now I’m not saying- and neither was Penny Ur- that research doesn’t have a role to play in providing practical help to the practitioner. In her talk, Ur went on to suggest ways that some research might be of use, and very useful advice it is too.  I recommend watching the video below, as she comes a very long way towards putting research in its rightful place.

Anyway, the talk got me thinking- again- about the relative status of experience versus research, and that of the teacher versus the academic.

So back to my initial questions:

  • How do you think you learn about teaching?
  • Is it theory first, or experience first?
  • What’s the role of theory in your own learning?

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts…


Something different?

Have you done something different in your classroom or training room recently?

In his opening plenary at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow just a few days ago, Adrian Underhill took us on a heady trip into the realms of systems thinking, and then brought us back to earth to discuss learning from experience.  The whole talk was fascinating (see below), but it’s  particularly the issue of learning from experience I want to discuss in this post.

In the talk, Adrian introduces the idea of the ‘Learning Mantra,’ a variation on the experiential learning cycle.  The Learning Mantra goes like this:

  • See what’s going on
  • Do something different
  • Learn from it

This is a simple but powerful mantra which allows you to ‘prod the system’ and learn, he suggests.  We learn more from doing something different than from doing things the same.

What might doing something different involve?   Adrian suggested one of the following three alternatives:

  1. Do what you don’t usually do.
  2. Refrain from doing what you usually do.
  3. Do what you usually do, but watch it more carefully.

Well, yes. This is all very true, but have you ever tried changing your teaching or training routines? It can be very hard to do-if you watch the video, Adrian’s first song has an amusing take on the difficulties of doing something different.  But of course here where the learning comes in. Much of our training is geared towards establishing routines, and changing those procedures and practices can be challenging. They retaliate by kicking back at you. It is perhaps in the fight that ensues that real learning can happen.

Still, it is hard, changing your habits and routines….

But hey, wait a minute.  I’ve forgotten that I’m doing something different, and my first step is to accept this idea without being overly-critical – and try it.

What about you? Have you tried doing something different? How did it work? What do you think of the talk? I’d be interested to hear from you.

Five great things about blending it!

One of the things I’m doing at the moment is running the online part of a blended trainer development course and mentoring programme. It’s the first time I’ve run a trainer training course in this way – courses I’m involved in are usually fully face-to-face or fully online and it’s got me thinking about the pros and cons of blended, online and face-to-face for that matter.

Getting a good blend...

Is the blend right?

In the case of this particular course, the participants have already done the face-to-face part over five days in November 2011. They are all now working on a virtual learning environment (Moodle), sharing their experiences as they practise the skills they learnt in the course, discussing issues and problems- and being mentored and supported through their post-course development. This stage will last initially three months.

I’m finding it very stimulating watching the participants’  post-course development and I thought I’d share with you five great things I’m discovering about blending it in this way.

  1. It’s easy to connect. Trainer and participants all know each other – i.e. they’ve actually been in a room together. This makes quite a big difference to how we interact, I find. Rapport has already been established. So for example we know that when a person comes across as direct in writing, they‘re not actually like that. We know what each other means.
  2. It’s pedagogically sound, and takes account of the fact that learning takes place over time. Topics that came up in training but haven’t been perhaps fully understood or processed can be dealt with at greater leisure. We can ‘hit’ the topics again, even do a bit more teaching and/or background reading.
  3. It’s immediate and real! Participants are actually running training workshops. So they’re putting plans on wikis for everyone to comment on, then coming online and telling everyone what happened afterwards.
  4. It’s easy to plan activities and discussion topics. The trainer knows from working face-to-face with people what some of the needs of the group are, and where the gaps are.
  5.  It’s rewarding. Five days face-to face is actually quite short. As a trainer, I find it satisfying to be able to carry on supporting and mentoring the participants, ‘drip-feeding’ them over a period of time. I can also give them more individual attention.

So those are five great things I find about this blended model. What about you? Have you ever taught or followed a blended learning course? I’d be interested to hear about your experience either as a teacher or learner. What do you like about it? What are the cons? I’d love to hear from you!

Change, growth and giving things up

This time of year there’s always a lot of talk about professional development. People have started courses in all sorts of subjects, gaining qualifications and generally-well, improving themselves. Yes, folks, there’s a lot of learning going on.

Is it something to do with the shorter days, the cold weather, the idea that we should be hunkering down with a book in front of a roaring fire?   I notice that Brad Patterson’s blog , exemplifies this as he shows us his seasonal professional development reading and invites us to share ours.

Anyway, it got me thinking about growth and change.  As someone who has been in the profession for a fair bit of time now, and who has been working for herself for 16 years, I’ve mostly had to be in charge of my own professional development. I mean, like many people, I’ve had to take control of my own career, and decide what path is best for me. And, well, it’s very difficult sometimes, to choose from the multitude of options. Especially as everything seems so interesting.

Walt Disney famously said that change is inevitable, but growth is optional.  In order to grow, I think, we have to consciously put our attention on specific areas and make a determined effort to embrace change. Neuro-Linguistic Programming talks about the difference between Cause or Effect. You’re either at cause for a change, or at effect for it. As we all know, being at effect makes us feel like victims; being at cause means that we assume responsibility.

Responsibility for change sounds fine to me, though of course like most human beings I get into my ruts. The part of change and growth that I’ve always found a real challenge, though, is that part where you have to give something up because you want to make space for something else.   As I say, I’m the kind of person who finds everything fascinating, and I’m loath to give up on any part of my portfolio. But sometimes you just have to- after all there are only so many hours in the day, right?

I’ve had lots of instances of having to leave things in my career, sometimes being forced through circumstance to leave things, sometimes doing it voluntarily. It’s always hard. A few years ago, for example, I was an inspector on the British Council Scheme in the UK. I absolutely loved it, going in to schools , talking to teachers and managers, talking to students. The only reason I gave it up finally was because I moved out of the country.  I also had to eventually leave CELTA training, because I simply couldn’t do that and everything else I wanted to do.  The list goes on.

I suppose the reason I’m thinking about all this now is that I’m at the point again where I’ve just decided that I have to give up something. Right now, it’s giving up managing my website. It takes too much of my time, and someone else can do it just as well, probably better. I do so enjoy doing it though  …. Sigh! I suppose what I need to do is keep my focus on what I’m making space for. The new projects I want to take on, the courses I want to design.

However I reframe it, it’s going to be hard, I know. But then, perhaps it’s the changes we find most difficult that allow us to grow most.

So there we are. My musings on change, growth and giving things up. What about you? Do you find this giving up as difficult as I do? What are you giving up right now? What are you making space for?

How do you start a trainer development course?

Welcome to my first guest blog, written by Simon Smith. Simon is a colleague of mine who I’ve worked with on a number of projects in which trainer development has been a key element. He has lived and worked in Africa, Asia and East and Central Europe. As well as being interested in trainer development, he is also very keen on supporting teachers of children in the primary sector. He has just co-developed our online trainer training course which starts in October.

 He writes here about an engaging way to start a course.

I’ve just finished working with a group of experienced trainers, and have been thinking about opening activities on trainer development courses.  Here’s a board game I have adapted from the Values Topics Board Game in Friederike Klippel’s classic Keep Talking  (1984).

The procedure I follow is usually something like this:

  1. Trainers throw the dice and move their counter forward (they agree where to start from) . They tell others in their group about the topic they land on. If a trainer lands on a ‘free question’ square, others can each ask them a question. A trainer can refuse to answer a question if they feel it is too personal, or if they have no experience of the topic referred to on their square.
  2. After an agreed time limit, I find out in plenary what trainers learned about each other and make any summary comments on what I found interesting and why.
  3. We discuss and exemplify ways of adjusting the activity to suit trainers’ own contexts.

As they do the activity, I’ve noticed that trainers have a choice of whether to go for spread or depth in their discussion. Some groups like to keep a brisk pace, while others  like to spend a long time on each question, and may move into areas not directly related to the question, such as trainers’ pay, trainers’ status, and so on.  Other groups will tend to vary their pace according to the level of interest they perceive in the question.

I think this activity works well as it provides good opportunities for trainers to get to know each other, to draw immediately on and share their own experiences, and to follow up on points of interest with colleagues outside of the course  classroom.  This seems to apply both when trainers come from different countries and on courses where they all come from the same country. They usually see good possibilities, too,  for using the board game format with their own teachers (e.g. for a focus on classroom language).

The board game is often helpful to be as a course tutor and designer, as trainers’ responses during the board game and after it can help me to find out about their values, attitudes and beliefs.  If a number of trainers say that they are interested in finding out more about classroom observation and feedback, for example, I can use this information to fine-tune the design of the trainer development course itself.

What are your reactions to this board game? What activities do you use to start off a course when you work with trainers or teachers? I’d be really curious to know.

Teach the student, not the subject

Yesterday evening I went to see Sir Ken Robinson speaking on the subject of ‘Educating the Heart and Mind’ here in Vancouver. For those of you who haven’t seen him speak, there are a lot of videos of him on YouTube and on his own website.

Sir Ken’s talk was rich, and a number of subjects were covered in the space of some forty –five minutes. What I want to write about in this post is an analogy he made which started me thinking about the way we train teachers in ELT and generally.  He talked about Peter Brook’s book on the theatre, The Empty Space. In that book, Brook suggests that drama doesn’t need a building, a playwright, a stage, or even a script. For drama to happen, there needs only to be an actor and an audience- even if it’s only an audience of one. What we call drama is born out of the relationship between the actor and the audience. The art form of acting is in that relationship. Sir Ken went on to say that he felt that this was the same with teaching and learning. In essence, teaching and learning don’t need all the normal trappings of education- the school building, the curriculum, the materials. It’s the relationship between the teacher and the student which is the heart of the educational process. Teachers need to be teaching the student rather than teaching the subject, he suggested, personalising learning so that each student is attended to for what they are and for the talents they have.

Well, OK. Apart from reminding me of Mark Twain’s famous quote, ‘I never let education get in the way of my learning,’ it got me thinking. Without getting into the whole dogme/technology discussion within ELT, it seems to me that teachers today arguably have a lot of distractions that could easily take their attention away from that central relationship.  So what are we doing about ensuring that the relationship between teacher and student is at its best?

Well, after his talk, Sir Ken went into a moderated conversation with Dr. Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl , who’s  an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. She reported that she had done research into pre-service teacher training in North America and found that none of the official teacher training programmes included any focus on any of the kind of skills that would allow teachers to effectively teach the student rather than the subject. No focus on training teachers to listen effectively, no real training in how to foster each student’s individual talents. The question, which was rather left hanging in the air, was whether all these qualities need actual training- or not.

So what do you think? Do the teacher training programmes you know have any focus on effective listening skills, for example, or train teachers to really attend to the individual nature of student talent and learning? Are teachers taught to teach the student rather than the subject? And how do we train teachers to help students to find their own personal way of learning – in our case enabling students to learn the language most effectively?

Online development- a double whammy?

Do you find it difficult to make time for your own professional development? Have you thought about continuing your development online? Let me share a bit of my story of how I got into online learning-and how it fed into my professional development.

Internet cafés of the world

I did my MA in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.  Well, in fact I did it in Cambridge, UK, Argentina, Serbia, Morocco, Spain, Georgia, Moldova…. Only very rarely did I actually make it to London to see tutors and the group I was working with. With my laptop and a rare gift for hunting out an internet café in the most unlikely places, I was set to go.

My MA was my first experience of e- learning, and I have to say it was a really good one. At the time I was based in Cambridge, UK, running my own consultancy and travelling extensively. I simply didn’t have time, or the financial means, to take two years off work and sit in a classroom every day. The ‘e’ option, whereby I could study from anywhere I chose by using email, was just what I was looking for.

During the course we had to read articles and books and watch video lectures. We also had email groups in which we would discuss the topics of the day and then be moderated by our tutors. My experience was that writing about the issues actually improved the level of the discourse, as people usually think more carefully before they write something for public consumption. Anyway, I learnt a lot on my MA course, but what I hadn’t bargained for was that I learnt a lot about online collaboration and learning, and had time to reflect on the mode and not only the content. It was a very powerful learning experience.

Blended Learning

I became more and more excited as I started to use blended learning in my own work and began to realise what a great tool e-learning is for dealing with situations when there are distances between learners and tutor. Blended learning simply means using a combination of face-to-face learning and e-learning. My first major experience of this blended learning  as a tutor was in a 2.5 year project I ran in Serbia & Montenegro in which we trained 4 groups of teachers to become teacher trainers: ‘trainer training.’  For each group we went to the country four separate times, for a total of 20 days, to work with the teachers. In between visits they had tasks-they were developing their own training materials- and we tutored them to improve on their session plans by email.

This was a very simple blended learning model, but it really capitalised on the tools we and the trainers had available, which was basically email, and the fact that we couldn’t be ‘in-country’ all of the time. It meant effectively that when we did visit, we could do some very useful work with the trainers-in-training, since all the writing and editing had been done beforehand. We could really take advantage of the fact that we were all in the same place. Since then, I’ve built e-learning into a large number of my programmes, and also developed fully online courses.

Of course, it’s not just about email these days-though for many places it is still an important tool. In fact, we are currently helping one country develop a teacher training course by email. Nowadays, though, there are a whole range of VLEs, or virtual learning environments that we can use for online learning.  Moodle and Blackboard are two of the more popular ones.


So why might an online course be a good direction for your professional development as a teacher or trainer? Here are a few possible reasons I thought of. Perhaps you’d like to add a few of your own.

 Why might it be good professional development for you?

  • Following an online training course means you’ll have a large degree of flexibility about how, when and where you study. In that way it’s idea for busy people like teachers!
  • You can instantly be in a virtual classroom with teachers from all over the world- a very enriching experience.
  • Not only will you learn new content in your course, but online learning gives you a new way of looking at teaching and learning. In other words, the mode of learning itself is very enriching for us as educators.  Now that’s what you might call a ‘double whammy’ …