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…


11 thoughts on “How do teachers learn?

  1. Hi !
    I am Upendra an Access Teacher at English Access Micro-scholarship Program in Nepal.As I came through reading this article and listening to the video I really like this.We teachers from Nepalese context used to learn by reading, listening and following others such as native speakers.But the trend has been changing.Research-based experiences are the acquisitional tools for learning a language like English.
    If I find more to share I will meet you then.
    Thank you.
    Upendra Babu Dhakal
    Access Teacher
    English Access Micro-scholarship Program,Gorkha Nepal

    • Hi Upendra

      Nice to hear from you!

      You bring in the added dimension of learning the language, which is of course a huge part of being a teacher for most teachers out there. I’d be interested to hear more about the research-based experiences you talk about here, if you have time.

      Thanks again for dropping by!


  2. Hello! I’m very happy to have come across this post via Brad Patterson tweet. He added the word “reflection” and it quickly caught my eye. I was delightfully surprised to find out that we wrote on the same topic and share a similar perspective. Here is my recent post if you are interested in seeing the links I made Linking Experiences: How We Learn to Teach

    I was doubly surprised, after clicking on your badge, to find out that you seem to work with Radmila Popovic! She was my MA thesis supervisor at SIT. What a small world.

    I look forward to reading more posts!

    • Hello Josette!

      Great to hear from you and nice to hear we’re thinking along the same lines. I enjoyed reading your post, and your personal reflections on ‘making sense of your teaching’ as opposed to regurgitating theories certainly makes sense to me.
      Also, I didn’t see the Zull plenary, but I’ll definitely do that now.

      I like your line: ‘Let’s meet teachers where they really are: in the classroom, not in the textbook.’ It resonates with things I’ve been thinking about why it is that so many courses focus on theory and research. My own little theory is that it seems easier and ‘faster’ to train at theory-level than at experience-level. Also, I guess at pre-service stage, many teachers don’t actually have the experience to reflect on. Ultimately, though, there’s something about the difference in status between academics and teachers, between theory and practice, that features here. What do you think I wonder?


  3. A very subtle issue! To me, experience talks louder than theory- this is what I have learned by “experience.” A student of mine once came to me complaining about his Practicum instructor who kept advising him to consult the “good deal of literature” on managing problem making students. My graduate student was a teacher at the MOE (Ministry of Education), and was wondering why all the relevant research he studied came to be of little help to him. He said he expected that the Practicum instructor would give him practical solutions rather than refer him to the heaps of materials he had already browsed….. He shared the challenges he had to meet in the classroom with high school boys, and we had long discussions, and eventually came up with possible solutions.

    I agree with Simon Smith re the position of theory and practice he once shared (quoting an anonymous quote): “Theory is where nothing works and everybody knows why; Practice is where everything works and nobody knows why.”

    Having said that, Theory complements Practice professionally.


  4. Thanks for your comments Elli. Yes, I think the classroom management issue is definitely one where referring to the literature might not help at all!

    That is a good quote, isn’t it- and so true! The part about practice hits on the issue of intuition and lack of real solid ‘knowing’ about why something works. Perhaps that’s why practice alone feels ultimately like having too much food with no nutritional value- and why as you say theory complements practice…?

  5. Well, theory paradoxically complements practice in that if what we do works and theory supports the same, then both theory and practice back each other; if what we do fails despite supports from theory, we’ll have counter evidence, and theory might as well be modified to accommodate more cases in practice.

  6. So true, the theories may mislead the unexperienced teachers, they try to stick what they’ve been told and make them to fall apart from the reality of learning and teaching, not recognizing the students needs and teaching/learning failures. There are as many teaching methods/ theories as per number of teachers all over the world and of course as per number of students in each classroom.

  7. Hi Sheila

    Thanks very much for your comments.

    I particularly like the point you make about theories possibly misleading inexperienced teachers as they try to stick to what they’ve been taught. I often think that if we spent more time training teachers to observe and listen to their learners- to really attend to what is going on in the teaching and learning encounter- then it would be time very well spent.

  8. Hi there

    I have just found your blog, and read several posts, including this one. I am wondering if you keep writing somewhere else (and if it would be possible to share a link). I keep a blog about reflection, teaching (a little) and training (a lot!) and really enjoy sharing ideas, especially on breaks between projects. Wishing you a good 2016, in case we don’t get in touch soon.

    Warmly from Ukraine (and from the SIT family globally)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s