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…