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.

T is for Transmission

13 01 2013

teacher dixon 01“I do agree that it takes multiple aspects of learning L2 with frequent reviews for learners to absorb information”.

So wrote one of my online MA students on a discussion board last semester. The course I was teaching was on second language acquisition, and the tasks that they were asked to engage with focused on their reading (of the core texts), their teaching experience, and their experience themselves as second language learners.

What I started to notice (and then couldn’t stop noticing!) was the persistence of the metaphor of language learning being like absorbing information.  In one form or another, it came up again and again. Here’s a sample:

1. I figure out what the teacher wants/requires then take the info she/he provides and jumble/distribute/ teach it to myself in the way I know I’ll absorb the information then come back to class.
2. I like to think there’s just a few broad types of ways students will absorb/process/react to the information and refine from there as needed.
3. Spending time around Spanish speakers, absorbing information incidentally while being able to produce the language…
4. While students must be active during input for acquisition to happen, it nonetheless has a more passive nature to it, something along the lines of absorbing the information.

(Note that the students used the ‘absorb information’ metaphor to describe, not just language teaching, but their own experience of second language learning).

This prompted me to see if there was anything else, apart from information, that is ‘absorbed’. In fact, there’s a lot: pronunciation, grammar, language in general. Again – a few items from my ‘corpus’:

5. The students that already knew how to write became much better speakers than I was because they just needed to absorb the pronunciation.
6. I learned syntax, grammar and vocabulary in school but I found that communicative interaction was a key factor in absorbing the language.
7. I like the idea of not stressing the order of which students absorb input fully

Interestingly, if you check the principal noun collocates of the verb ‘absorb’ in a corpus of general English, this is what you get (in order of frequency): water, light, heat, energy, shock, moisture, information. That is to say, information is the most frequent non-physical entity that is absorbed, and it does this, it would seem, because it shares conceptual space with fluids and energy sources. A metaphor of information absorption construes the mind as a kind of sponge.

The idea that information is a physical substance, either liquid or solid, was instantiated in a number of comments:

8. I agree that a good teacher does make all the difference as to whether the information sticks.
9. Drilling stores that information somewhere
10. At least my mind holds on to information I can associate with real life application better than abstract ideas.
11. Each method has some effect on each kid, but for each kid, one of those methods would really cement the information in their minds.

Alternatives to absorbing information included taking it in and retaining it:

12. If you [find] that the students are learning and retaining information, there is no need to change how they learn that information
13. Students intake information based on their individual needs or circumstances.
14. [I] find this interesting from a teaching viewpoint because you see how different information is garnered by the students
15. I subscribe more to the connectivist idea that you learn by taking in information over and over again

teacher dixon 02.jpegAnd, it’s hardly surprising to note that this somewhat passive view of learning was matched by an active, transmissive view of teaching, whereby information is delivered in some form or other:

16. It is my role to present information about the language, whether it be grammatical rules, vocabulary, or cultural situations
17. I have since learned to trim up my syllabi, as well as the information that is directly given to students so as to lessen anxiety
18. We are given a textbook and it is up to us to convey the information in whatever manner we choose.
19. Teachers then have to get that information out using other mediums such as handouts or PowerPoints

Teaching-as-transmission is a way of conceptualizing education consistent with the so-called ‘conduit metaphor’ of communication (Reddy 1979: 288), in which information, encoded in words, is transmitted from speaker to listener who ‘must find the meaning “in the words” and take it out of them so that it gets “into his [or her] head”’.  Likewise, as Barnes (1976: 142) described it, the transmission teacher ‘sees it as his [or her] task to transmit knowledge and to test whether the pupils have received it. To put it crudely, he [or she] sees language as a tube down which knowledge can be sent; if a pupil catches the knowledge he [or she] can send it back up the tube’.

The question is: are there other ways of thinking about (and hence talking about) language, and about the teaching-learning process, that don’t presuppose a conduit metaphor?

What I found slightly dispiriting about the ‘absorbing information’ comments on the discussion board was that they persisted the length of the course, even after we had spent some time looking at alternative models of language acquisition, including the ‘participation’ metaphor (Sfard 1998). Which left me wondering: Is the transmission model so inextricably lodged in the minds of teachers? What alternative metaphors are there? What might it take to ‘change the chip’?


Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Reddy, M.J.  (1979)  ‘The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language’, in Ortony, A. (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one,’ Educational Researcher, March, 4-13.

Illustrations from Dixon, F.G. (n.d.) Método Práctico de Inglés: Primer Libro, Barcelona: Massé, 15th  edition and 33rd edition.

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?

R is for Rapport

15 01 2012

As part of my job on the New School MA TESOL program, I’ve been collating evaluations of the last semester’s online courses. What really stands out are the extremely positive ratings of the teaching faculty: not surprising perhaps, given their collective expertise, but when you consider that the students never actually see their instructors, such positive evaluations are quite remarkable. Here’s a sample:

  • The instructor’s ability to motivate the students was a key ingredient to making this course successful.
  • Great instructor, sensitive, effective with helpful comments throughout the course.  And always available by email if I had a question.
  • This was an excellent course because the professor was extremely involved, helpful and articulate.
  • I cannot praise this instructor enough. He was infinitely patient with my questions, frustrations and problems. He was encouraging without being coddling. He was articulate about the subject matter and one could tell he enjoyed the material, and teaching the material. He was very active in the DB [discussion board] and very responsive to emails and queries. He is an excellent professor!
  • I’ll always remember her inspirational model of what effective teaching is and carry that with me into my future teaching practice.

What these teachers seem to have achieved – despite the potentially alienating effects of the medium – was to establish an excellent rapport with their students. But, when it comes to inducting new instructors, how do you explain what rapport is?

I remember puzzling over this same question as a tutor on the old DTEFLA (now DELTA) inservice courses, where observed lessons were assessed according to three main criteria: planning, execution – and manner. Under this last heading were listed descriptors of the type: Is able to establish a good rapport.   But not only was it unclear as to how, as a trainer, you developed this capacity, it was also startlingly obvious that the rapport factor almost always outshone all other factors, including planning and execution. That is to say, a good rapport made up for any number of infelicities in the actual design and implementation of a lesson.

But what is this thing called rapport? Like me, Jim Scrivener, in Learning Teaching (2005), is equally baffled: ‘The problem is, whereas rapport is clearly important, it is also notoriously difficult to define or quantify’ (p. 23). However, he does go on to suggest a number of things the teacher can do to create a positive learning atmosphere, and, by extension, to establish rapport. These include:

  • showing respect
  • being fair
  • really listening to the students
  • giving clear, positive feedback
  • being authentically oneself

Jeremy Harmer (2007) devotes several pages to rapport (incidentally, in An A-Z of ELT I ignore it entirely!) and lists four core capacities that make it up:

  • Recognising students – including knowing their names
  • Listening to students
  • Respecting students
  • Being even-handed

He also suggests that the quality of ‘respect’ cuts both ways: not only does rapport entail the teacher respecting the learners, but  ‘successful rapport derives from the students’ perception of the teacher as a good leader and a successful professional’ (p. 113). Professionalism includes being ‘well-organised and well-prepared (that is, they [i.e. the teachers] have thought about what they are going to do in the lesson)’.

‘Professionalism’ might be more easy to train than such qualities as ‘being authentically oneself”, perhaps, but it raises the question as to whether the two qualities (being professional and being authentically oneself) are always compatible.  That is to say, can you ‘be yourself’ and ‘be a teacher’ at the same time?  (Cynics might argue that Dogme-style teachers trade on ‘being authentically themselves’ to mask a lack of preparedness. Certainly, it would seem to be difficult to establish rapport if you don’t actually talk  to the learners, and talking to the learners is at the heart of the Dogme philosophy).

I guess the real question is: is rapport an essential component of good teaching, or is there a danger that it substitutes for good teaching? If the former, how can it be nurtured, and is it more likely to flourish in situations where teachers have more freedom to respond to the learners’ needs and interests?

In his memoir, Teacher Man, Frank McCourt recalls how, when he began his teaching career, he won over his classes of restive New York teenagers:

Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching.
I was learning.

His staffroom colleagues warned him against telling the kids anything about himself, lest they take advantage of this ‘weakness’:

‘They have teachers all figured out. They’ll know if you’re even thinking about grammar or spelling, and they’ll raise their little hands and put on that interested expression and ask you what games you played as a kid or who do you like for the goddam World Series. Oh yeah, and you’ll fall for it. Next thing you’re spilling your guts and they go home not knowing one end of a sentence from the other, but telling their moms and dads about your life’.

McCourt ignored his colleagues’ jaundiced advice: ‘I had to find my own way of being a man and a teacher’. This was his life’s work and – judging by the book – the rapport he achieved is what sustained him.


Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th edn). Harlow: Pearson Longman.

McCourt, F. (2005) Teacher Man: A Memoir. New York: Scribner.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers  (2nd edn). Oxford: Macmillan.

Illustrations by Victor Bertoglio, from Byrne, D. (1967) Progressive Picture Compositions (Pupils’ Book). London: Longman.

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.

A is for Aims

24 04 2011

Ready, aim.... (Vital Imagery Ltd)

“Yes, but what were your aims?!

This must be one of the most frequently voiced questions in the discussion that follows an observed lesson. The trainee – with little or no idea of how language learning is managed – is pitted against the trainer, convinced that learning can be manufactured according to precise specifications, and with the reliability of a Swiss watch.  It’s all about planning, anticipating, predicting and pre-empting.  Hence, the need for aims, and hence, the kind of advice on lesson planning of which the following is typical:

“To write an effective plan the teacher needs to think carefully about what exactly the aim of the lesson is. What will the learners learn?” (Watkins, 2005). 

Yes, but what will the learners learn? Will it be someting entirely new or simply consolidation of existing knowledge – in which case, will the improvement be perceptible? Will all the learners learn the same thing, and at the same pace? And what does ‘learn’ mean here? Is this conscious or unconscious learning? Are we talking about the acquisition of inert, declarative knowledge, or is this knowledge available to be proceduralised, and, if so, how can such proceduralization be realistically achieved in the space of a 45-minute lesson? And how, in the end, do you measure it?  How do we know when someone has learned something? And so on and so on.

The concept of aims seems to be based on the fallacy that language learning is the incremental accumulation of discrete-items of linguistic knowledge. But, as Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997) reminds us, “learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (p. 18).

Not only that, the classroom – being essentially a social organism –  is a complex dynamic system, where small effects may have unintended consequences, and where major interventions may produce only trivial results. As Dick Allwright (2005) points out “What learners get from a lesson is not predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and certainly not just from the teaching points covered… We cannot now sensibly measure the overall success of a lesson simply in terms of the percentage of teaching points successfully learned because the learners may have learned little from the teaching points and a lot from everything else that happened in the lesson” (p 12).

Hence, it might be better to start with the assumption that learning cannot be programmed, in any deliberate sense, and that, as Leo van Lier puts it “it might be a good idea to design … lessons as if they formed a small organic culture (or an ecosystem) in themselves, where participants strive to combine the expected and the unexpected, the known and the new, the planned and the improvised, in harmonious ways” (van Lier 1996, p. 200).

What advice should we give trainee teachers, then? Allwright suggests that we should not abandon the idea of planning, but that we should replace the notion of ‘teaching points’ with that of ‘learning opportunities’: “I see planning as crucial to language teaching and learning,  but planning for richness of opportunity and especially for understanding,  not planning to determine highly specific learning outcomes” (op.cit, p. 10). That is, rather than defining the aims in terms of pre-specified outcomes (typically grammar McNuggets), trainees should be encouraged to think in terms of the desired learning opportunities, or what van Lier calls ‘affordances’.

Moreover, evidence from research into expert teachers’ planning decisions suggests that effective teachers seldom start their planning processes with a clear conception of an ultimate aim. Rather, they start with a somewhat fuzzy notion of what will feel right, for this class, at this stage of their learning, at this time of day, and given such-and-such contextual factors – what I call ‘fit’.  I now tell my trainees to try and esatablish a ‘fit’ for their lesson, and work from there, while at the same time incorporating plenty of elasticity into the design. And I tell them to be prepared to adapt or even abandon their plan in light of the response of the learners.

A coursebook

Such an approach, of course, sits uncomfortably with the ‘teaching point’ culture imposed by coursebooks. But coursebooks (mercifully) consist of more than simply a syllabus of teaching points. They include topics, tasks and texts – all of which, with only a little ingenuity, can be usefully detached from the teaching point that might originally have motivated them. If trainees can be encouraged to see the ‘affordance potential’ of coursebook tasks, for example, they may be some way towards designing lessons that maximise learning opportunities, even within a coursebook-driven paradigm.

In the end, as the man said, we cannot cause learning; we can only provide the conditions in which it may occur. And maybe, therefore, we should learn not to fear unpredictability, even to celebrate it. As Stenhouse put it, a long time ago now, “Education as the induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable” (1975, pp. 82-3).


Allwright, R. 2005. From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9-32.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18.

Stenhouse, L. 1975.  An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Addlestone: Delta Publishing

T is for Teacher Training

7 11 2010

A teacher in Turkey sent me the following email recently:

“I am a teacher interested in teacher development (TD), and I have had my DELTA recently. I am trying to become a teacher trainer in the professional manner. … I would like to request suggestions on the long path of becoming a teacher trainer.”

This comes the same week as another colleague asked me a similar question: how can she gain the skills required to run an in-service program for secondary school teachers that her institution is hosting next year?

Teaching practice, IH London, in the early days

Both questions address the issue of training to become a teacher trainer, a job for which there seems to be no clearly defined path nor formal, certificated preparation.  (How did you become a teacher trainer, if you are one?)

Cambridge ESOL, for example, (who administer the CELTA and DELTA programs) offer no training courses, but only the following advice:


Who can become a teacher trainer for CELTA?

Potential CELTA trainers are required to have the Cambridge ESOL Delta or an equivalent ELT qualification. Prospective trainers with solely a strong academic background may not be suitable as CELTA trainers because of the required focus on practical classroom issues. An MA in ELT with a strong practical focus may be acceptable if the following four conditions are also met. The prospective trainer:

  • has substantial (normally five years), recent and varied ELT experience
  • is familiar with the types of classes trainee teachers will teach
  • is familiar with the materials trainee teachers will use
  • can demonstrate professional involvement in ELT.

What might that ‘professional involvement in ELT’ be, and how could this support an application to be a trainer? My advice:

Give talks and workshops

  • Offer to give talks/workshops in your own institution, especially of a practical nature – e.g. how to exploit the coursebook, how to use the IWB, how to develop listening skills, etc.
  • If possible, observe your fellow teachers, and allow them to observe you. This should be done in a non-judgmental way, and purely as a means of sharing ideas and techniques.
  • If your schedules allow, team-teach with a colleague: planning and executing a lesson together can be an extremely instructive.
  • Offer to mentor newly recruited teachers, i.e. help them with with their lesson planning, and observe them from time to time, if this is permitted.
  • Write articles or reviews for journals such as English Teaching Professional, that focus on some aspect of classroom practice.
  • Keep a blog.
  • Participate in online webinars or discussions hosted by professional bodies, such as SEETA, and offer to moderate one.
  • Conduct some kind of action research on your own teaching, such as monitoring the effect of an innovative use of some technique or technological aid.
  • Join a professional organisation, either national (such as MASH – if you live in Japan) or international – such as IATEFL.
  • Attend, and present at, conferences and seminars, both locally (if available) or further afield.
  • Attend teacher training workshops or short courses, such as those offered by organisations like International House: these are the nearest thing to some kind of recognised qualification in teacher training.
  • If you are thinking of embarking on an MA course, choose one that has some kind of teacher education component.
  • Create a portfolio: e.g. open a folder itemising and documenting all the above activities that is easly available to support any application for a job.

Even if none of these activities leads directly to a teacher training job (which ultimately depends a lot on being at the right place at the right time), they will certainly improve the quality of your professional life, and enhance your career prospects generally.