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?

The end- and the beginning of reflection!

Over 720,000 teachers, 1600 teacher trainers, 100 plus trainer trainers and thousands of mentors. By any measure, the statistics of the British Council’s  ETTE (English for Teaching: Teaching for English) project are impressive.

My colleague Simon and I are just coming to the end of a four-year training and support consultancy on this project which has encompassed seven countries in Central and South Asia.  At this moment, the  ETTE project is moving  from British Council stewardship to ministries and NGOs throughout the region. ETTE is providing training and support in methodology and language to these enormous numbers of primary and secondary teachers. It has extended to mountain villages in Nepal and slum areas in Bangladesh. Teachers from rural areas of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan , Pakistan and Uzbekistan are also benefiting from it.

As well as the remarkable numbers of teachers reached, sustainability looks extremely promising. Partnerships in each of the countries look strong and optimistic about the future. The ‘product’- training for teachers with low levels of English- is one that is desperately needed in all the contexts- and local agencies are eager to grab it with both hands.

ETTE Trainers in Pakistan

Perhaps unusually for such a large project, we have had the enormous privilege of being lead consultants from Day 1. We’ve provided trainer training, materials development training, supervision of courses development, as well as general methodological consultancy. It’s been a colossal, joyful job for us.

Naturally, for me, now is not only a time of  standing back and looking at what everyone has achieved, but also of reflecting on what the project has meant to me personally. My own belief about training and consultancy is that unless I’m learning myself, I’m of little use to participants in my training sessions, or working with me.  So what have I learnt through working on the ETTE project, and what do I take with me as I move forward? This is the first in a series of blogs on this subject.  Today I want to talk about the initiation stage of the project, and particularly about Commitment and Belief.

Commitment and Belief

Inevitably, a long project such as this goes through a number of different phases. Engagement does not come as a steady flow, but in fits and starts. The initiation phase is delicate and requires effective communication of the need for the project and a good understanding of contexts. How do we convince people that this project will really work? How do we fire up the energies of the talented individuals who will really take the project forward?

There is a lot of literature on this subject- Martin Wedell, for example, writes well about change in education, and I agree with much of what he says in his book Planning for Educational Change. But here, I want to reflect on what I experienced rather than what I’ve read about.  In this first phase of ETTE, in which the energy was mainly coming from the project initiators- the project manager, the project owner and us, I found that there were two key components to my own input which helped me, at least: commitment and belief. If I were to write down my ideas on this as pieces of advice to facilitators and consultants they would go something like this:-

  • Show your passion for the project

Passion and enthusiasm are infectious. You’re going to be asking people to do a lot of hard work, so they need to know that you think the project is really worth it!

  • Act as if it’s happening already

If something is in the future and looks difficult to achieve, it becomes…. In the future and difficult to achieve.  ‘Energy flows where attention goes’ is one of the Laws of Attraction.

  • Work on communicating the need for change

Clearly, communication is all.  Be aware that people are excited by big concepts, thrilled by the potential of making a difference. Be prepared to engage peoples’ higher selves. I learnt that large goals are inspiring for people, and that sometimes you just have to hope that the little steps in between will just get done. When you’re climbing Everest, it’s probably the view of the summit that keeps you going!

A mountain to climb?

  • Understand the contexts as much as you can

This is hugely important- and not easy in such a large project. Listen to people, observe when you can, and just get information about what is actually happening in training and teaching. Above all, I am constantly learning and re-learning about the need to listen.

  • Acknowledge the difficulties on the ground, but be confident that there are solutions

Not much to add to that really. Needless to say, if people know you understand, you’ll have more credibility. You have to trust that people will find their own solutions and you can only offer them support in doing so.

  • Commit to the people who are involved right now

The people who are willing to work in the project at this moment are very important. Commit to them as people, not just as project members. Ultimately, the success of the project will depend on those people.  I’ve always valued people, I hope, but in this project I really saw the truth of the concept of ‘ investing in people.’

Well, those are some of my initial reflections, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on them. In future blogs I’ll be reflecting on the implementation stage of the project, on trainer training and more.