T is for Teacher Knowledge

5 05 2013

teacher ny 1920What you do need to know in order to be able to teach?

The question concerns not only teachers, but also teacher educators and methodology writers, since the way we answer it impacts on the design of training programs and their related materials. Do teachers need to know a lot about grammar, for example? Second language acquisition? Educational theory? Curriculum design? Developmental psychology? And so on.

Those who study these things have hypothesized a number of different kinds of knowledge that appear to be implicated in teachers’ decision-making, including subject matter knowledge, general pedagogic knowledge (such as classroom management skills), and contextual knowledge, such as knowledge of the curriculum, of the students, of their social context and so on. At the same time, this slicing up of the pie should not obscure the fact that, in the actual business of teaching, these knowledge bases are deployed simultaneously and interdependently, and constitute ‘an integrated and coherent whole’ (Tsui 2003 p.59). ‘It is the melding of these knowledge domains that is at the heart of teaching’ (op. cit.p.58).

Nevertheless, in the interests of teacher training and evaluation, and for the purposes of  course design, it is often necessary to tease apart these diverse domains and organize them into a structured programme.

One such attempt at isolating and itemizing the components of teacher knowledge in our own field is embodied in the Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT), a teaching award offered by Cambridge ESOL. Aimed primarily at teachers whose first language is not English, and in response to a perceived need for affordable training opportunities in a wide range of contexts, the TKT was originally ‘designed to assess English language teachers’ knowledge about teaching, including concepts related to language, language use and the background to and practice of English language teaching and learning’ (Harrison 2007 p.30).

teacher romania ndInitially conceived purely as a test of knowledge, the TKT did not at first include an assessment of teaching ability in the classroom. Yet there was evidence to suggest that, for some teachers at least, the TKT was perceived as being as much a test of ability as of knowledge. An impact study on the TKT in Uruguay, for instance, found that ‘even though TKT is a test of knowledge, 61% of respondents seemed to expect the test to have an impact on their teaching practice’ (Valazza 2008 p.22). This expectation may well derive from the widely-held belief that knowledge does in fact equate with ability and that the more you know, the better you teach — that, in short, the naming of parts is tantamount to being able to use these parts. But, as Freeman (2002 p.11) observes, ‘One needs the words to talk about what one does, and in using those words one can see it more clearly.  Articulation is not about words alone, however.  Skills and activity likewise provide ways through which new teachers can articulate and enact their images of teaching’.

Just as important, therefore, as identifying, naming, and describing the knowledge bases of teaching is understanding how they are proceduralized in practice and developed over time.  It is now generally accepted that learning to teach involves a dynamic interplay between knowing and doing. As Tsui (op. cit. p.65) puts it, ‘teachers’ knowledge shapes their classroom practices, but their classroom practices in turn shape their knowledge, as they reflect on their practices during and after the action, and they come to a new understanding of teaching’.  For this reason, teacher training programs, whether pre-service or in-service, ideally (some would say necessarily) involve some kind of hands-on practical component, where planning-for-teaching, teaching, and reflecting-on-teaching are integrated into a continuous developmental cycle.

To their credit, Cambridge ESOL have now incorporated a practical test, involving 40 minutes of assessed teaching, into the packet of core modules on offer as part of the TKT.  This can only be a good thing. But ‘core’ does not mean compulsory, and there is always the risk that, because of pragmatic and economic considerations, the practical component will be side-lined, and the ‘knowledge modules’ alone will be considered a sufficient measure of classroom teaching ability.

As publishers, training and examining bodies scramble to address the very real needs of language teachers worldwide, shouldn’t we be asking: What is the minimum a professional development program should offer teachers?

teacher mexico 1923References

Freeman, D.  2002.  ‘The hidden side of the work: Teacher knowledge and learning to teach’.  Language Teaching, 35/1.

Harrison, C. 2007.  ‘Teaching Knowledge Test update — adoptions and courses’.  Research Notes, 29, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.

Tsui, A, B. M. 2003. Understanding Expertise in Teaching: Case Studies of Second Language Teachers.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Valazza, G. 2008.  ‘Impact of TKT on language teachers and schools in Uruguay’. Research Notes, 34, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.

This post is an adapted version of a review of Jeremy Harmer’s Essential Teacher Knowledge (Pearson, 2012) that appeared in the ELT Journal, 67/1, January 2013.





P is for Pre-service training

1 04 2012

Or C is for CELTA. Or F is for Four-week course.

This month celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first teacher training course offered by International House (IH) at its then London home in 40 Shaftesbury Avenue. As the current issue of the EL Gazette notes, this is ‘still the model of initial training for native-speaker teachers which predominates in most of the world’ (p.24).

A model that is not without its problems, it goes without saying.  But first some autobiography.

Teaching practice, 40 Shaftesbury Ave

I enrolled on the 4-week course (as it was then called, prior to its morphing into the RSA course, then the CTEFLA, and now, its most recent avatar, the CELTA) in early 1975. I had recently arrived in the UK, via a few heady days and nights in Athens, and I had set my sights on a teaching job in Greece. Friends who had done ‘the course’ and were already teaching recommended it: I was duly interviewed (by the wise and lovely Georgie Raman) and coughed up the course fee of £65.00. Probably the best 65 quid I ever spent.

IH was still housed at 40 Shaftesbury Avenue, just down the road from the evocative Berwick Street market and around the corner from the Blue Posts pub (the site of many well-lubricated lesson post-mortems). Finding your way around the warren of rooms that comprised IH almost required a course in its own right. Day 1 began with a welcome speech from IH’s co-founder, John Haycraft. It all felt a bit like drama school: we sat on the floor while John’s introduction involved a lot of what I would soon discover was a core technique on the course itself: he elicited.

There was more eliciting in the foreign language lesson (which happened to be Thai) even though none of us had any Thai to elicit. Magically, though, we were all exchanging names and greetings in Thai within minutes and with NO TRANSLATION!  Just as geese will mistakenly assume that the first perambulating object they set eyes on, such as a wheelbarrow, is their mother, and will follow it unquestioningly, we were all instantly and irrevocably ‘imprinted’ by the direct method.

Our instructor was the always encouraging and endlessly inventive David Thompson, who, not long after, would leave to set up the IH chain in Argentina. Hazel Imbert was one of the Teaching Practice tutors, and took advantage of her role to recruit potential performers for the English Teaching Theatre, of which she was a member. (After one of my lessons she slipped me a note: ‘Can you play the guitar?’)

Teaching Practice (TP), of course, is at the very heart of the 4-week course, and is what made it both so terrifying and so exhilarating – and also so effective. In retrospect it seems amazing that such a perfectly obvious idea (i.e. to incorporate a practicum from Day 1) hadn’t been thought of before, or that – even today – it is so relatively rarely instituted on preservice teacher training programs, especially at tertiary level. Of course, it’s not just the teaching practice that is so formative: it is the collaborative planning and the tutor-led post-lesson feedback discussion, as well as the regular classroom observation, not to mention the way that the input sessions themselves cross-refer to teaching practice, so that – when it works well – the whole experience is entirely integrated, coherent and maximally practical.

From beach bum to EFL teacher - in 4 easy weeks

So practical, in fact, that, having finished the course on a Friday, I was teaching my first class in IH Hastings the following Monday. The rest, as they say, is history (except that I never did make it back to Athens).

So, if it’s so good, why is it so bad?

The same issue of the EL Gazette that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the IH course, has another piece about teaching in Russia, which makes salutary reading. Despite having been ‘opened up’ to non-native speaker teachers, there is still a widespread perception that the CELTA is a native-speaker club, a feeling that clearly causes resentment to many Russians (judging by the article) especially when the CELTA is promoted as a more reliable measure of employability than a degree in linguistics or yards of teaching experience. One Moscow-based teacher complained that, to get work, ‘we have to change our methods because only Celta teaching is acceptable. I think Celta is fine, but it isn’t the only way to teach. It would be nice to have other options’ (p. 21).

It took me many years to outgrow the 4-week course and to realise that there are ‘other options’. This is not to deny its power and its fitness for purpose, nor to feel less grateful for the incredible career it kick-started. But isn’t it time that some of the other options were given more credence? And more legitimacy?





P is for Practicum

10 07 2011

Teaching practice, MA TESOL at The New School

As part of a Methods course I am teaching at the moment, I am observing teachers-in-training working with especially constituted classes of ‘guinea pig’ students.

Trainers who work on CELTA or DELTA courses, or on other pre- or in-service schemes, will be familiar with the teaching practice (or practicum) set-up. The trainee teachers plan their classes collaboratively, and then take turns to teach a segment of the overall lesson. The trainer (me, in this case) takes a corner seat, mutely observes the succession of ‘teaching slots’, and then conducts a joint feedback session with the trainee teachers either immediately afterwards, or on a subsequent day.

The more I do this, the more uncomfortable I feel with the process on at least two counts. One I’ll call logistical, and the other—for want of a better term—I’ll call existential.

First: the logistics. The trainer’s role, as silent, impassive observer, noting every move,  and delivering the feedback retrospectively, seems to run counter to what we now understand about skill acquisition. Cognitive learning theory has long recognised that feedback in ‘real operating conditions’—i.e. while you’re actually engaged in a task —is generally more powerful and more durable than feedback delivered after the event. More recently, a sociocultural perspective argues that skills are best learned through ‘assisted performance’, where the expert and the novice work collaboratively on a task, the former modelling and scaffolding the necessary sub-skills, and mediating the activity by means of well-placed interventions, such as commands, gestures, or gaze. In this way, and assuming an optimal state of readiness (aka the zone of proximal development) novices begin to appropriate the necessary skills, until they are capable of regulating them independently.

All this would seem to argue against the traditional practicum structure, with the trainer detached from the activity, and the feedback delivered ‘cold’. In fact, I’m finding that, on my present course, the sessions in which we ‘workshop’ lessons as a group in a micro-teaching format, with the trainees teaching their colleagues and me intervening as they do so, are both less stressful for the trainees and (I think) more productive in terms of their developmental outcomes. Here is an example of what I mean: a group has prepared a presentation of used to, and one of the team has volunteered to demonstrate it to the class.

The milling activity

Of course, micro-teaching lacks the authenticity of real classrooms, so the next step might involve taking a more interventionist role during the actual teaching practice, in the form, for example, of team-teaching, or of ‘coaching from the sidelines’, i.e. intervening more actively during the teaching practice lessons. In fact, I did this last week, gesticulating like a football coach in order to prompt the trainee who was teaching at the time to stop what he was doing and to pre-teach a question form, in advance of the milling activity that he was about to launch into. He got the hint, took the necessary steps, and the activity—I think—was all the better for it.

And now for the ‘existential’ problem, which goes much deeper. Sitting at the back of the room, or even intervening from the sidelines, I can’t help wondering what my role really is here. All these teachers I’m watching are so different, in terms of style, personality, experience, professional needs and aspirations, teaching contexts, and so on. And yet I get the sense I am trying to shoehorn them into a way of teaching that is very much ‘one-size-fits-all’.

Thinking back, I realise, uncomfortably, that, over the years that I have been working with teachers-in-training, my intentions as a trainer have always been more prescriptive than I would have admitted at the time. Initially, as a fairly inexperienced Director of Studies, these intentions took the form of wanting to turn my newly-trained teachers into clones of myself: “Do it like this (because this is the way I do it)”. Then, as a CELTA trainer, it was all about getting the trainees to teach in the way that the ‘method’ dictated. Of course, we used to deny that there was a ‘CELTA method’. It was all about eclecticism, surely. Looking back, I now realise that, if the CELTA course offered a range of methodological choices, this range was in fact fairly limited. Or even, very limited, given the way that a small set of global coursebooks determined (and still determine) the prevailing approach.

When I became an in-service trainer, working on DELTA courses, I paid lip-service to the notion that it was professional teacher development that should drive the agenda, and hence encouraged my trainees to look beyond the narrow confines of their CELTA ‘method’, to experiment, to reflect, and to adapt their teaching to their specific contexts. This, of course, ignored the fact that DELTA is an externally examined course, with a very clearly specified syllabus and success criteria – and, moreover, that the teachers are still using (and therefore are still constrained by) the same coursebooks.

Now, as I sit and watch and take notes I realise at least two things:

1. Whatever I say and do, these teachers will change only to the extent that their own beliefs, values, self-image, personality, previous experience etc will allow them; and

2. Whatever change that they do make, they will likely revert to their ‘default’ setting as soon as my back is turned. The teacher who is the entertainer, or the lecturer, or the football coach, or the social worker, will always be the entertainer, lecturer, football coach, etc.

Hence, all I can hope to do is help them become the best (= most effective, but also the most fulfilled) teacher that they themselves can possibly be – irrespective of how I myself teach, or whatever method is the flavour of the month, or whatever materials they happen to be using, or whatever context they happen to be teaching in.

And how do I do this?  Probably not by sitting at the back of the room and taking notes.