This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by George Vassilakis
Introduction: an anecdote Here is what happened in a lesson that I observed recently: the teacher began the lesson by asking the learners to turn to page 42 of their textbook, read a text out loud, then asked each student to read out 3-4 lines of the same text. After that, she asked whether there were any words the students didn’t know, which elicited a series of illformed ‘what means X?’ questions from the students. The teacher translated and wrote on the board all of the vocabulary queried, and directed the students to the comprehension exercise in their textbook. Asking one question of each student in turn, she completed the comprehension activity in less than five minutes and then read aloud and translated the grammar explanation included in the textbook. The bell rang at that point, so she assigned the rest of the textbook material for homework. When I saw the teacher after the lesson, it transpired that her main concern was that there was never enough time to cover all of the material in the textbook. I asked a number of questions, to which I cannot say I received any clear answers. Here are just a few: • Is it necessary to cover everything that is in the textbook? • Why did she read the text aloud? • Why did the students read the text aloud? • Why was all of the vocabulary dealt with? • Why did she translate the vocabulary? • Why did she translate the grammar explanation? It is, of course, not easy to ask a why question of a teacher whose lesson you have just observed without sounding critical, and this teacher, like many others, was initially very defensive, but when I finally managed to convince her I was genuinely interested in hearing her rationale for these decisions, and after a lot of non-judgemental soulsearching, it turned out that she was not really aware of the reasons why she was doing things the ways she was in the classroom. As this teacher had learnt English herself as a foreign language, I suspected that many of the techniques that she used had actually been used on her by her English teachers in the past, and I asked her if she remembered anything about her language learning experience and her favourite English teacher. She had a lot to say about her favourite English teacher, obviously a role model for her, who was ‘very knowledgeable,’ ‘demanding, but rightly so,’ and who, naturally, used exactly the same method as this teacher had used.
Teachers’ Theories I consider that this half-conscious imitation of models of teaching and learning that we have experienced in the past is the gravest obstacle in the route to teacher development. Unfortunately, teacher beliefs and theories (cf. Borg 2001, Richards 1998) tend to be uncritically based on past experience, and, whereas they affect
teacher behaviours and decisions in the classroom, they are rarely consciously accessible. In other words, the beliefs and theories which guide and determine our actions and reactions in the classroom are not necessarily rational, nor open to discussion or critical scrutiny, because we ourselves do not realise they are there. The significance of the beliefs that teachers bring to the classroom and to teacher education programmes has been pointed out repeatedly (e.g. Freeman 1996, Roberts 1998, Roberts 1999, Woods 1996). In simple terms, it appears that teachers, like learners in other situations, do not respond to the input provided as part of a teacher education programme as is, but rather construct a meaning of the input which is compatible with their own schemata, and assimilate or accommodate it depending on where it stands in relation to their personal (often unconscious and unarticulated) beliefs and their social and educational context. Thus, to be effective, a teacher educational programme has to be based on the teachers’ own experience and social context (cf. Bax 1997) and take explicit account of their implicit theories. Teacher education, training and development I have argued elsewhere (Vassilakis 1998) that the difference between teacher training and teacher education is a very sharp one, which we should always remember in discussing the issue of becoming a better teacher. According to Widdowson (1983: 16-20) education refers to the acquisition of competence, which involves a deeper understanding of principles as well as the element of conscious choice from a repertoire of techniques and activities available; training, however, refers to the development of a partial competence, which endows one with a limited number of ready-to-use techniques without ensuring that an understanding of the underlying principles has been achieved nor that choice can be made with reference to a set of criteria. Thus, a teacher education course necessarily aims at bringing teachers’ ‘hidden’ beliefs and theories out into the open, so that choice can be conscious and informed. A teacher training course, on the other hand, does not encourage the teacher to challenge her (or his, occasionally!) underlying beliefs – at best, it adds ‘activities that (seem to) work’ to the repertoire of the teacher in question, therefore adding to the body of unchallenged, unthought-about beliefs and theories. As for teacher development, this is clearly a desideratum in education, but the term has, unfortunately, often been misused as an alibi for what is essentially lack of development! Teacher development presupposes teacher education, and the way to develop as a teacher is by making sure you are constantly educating yourself in the sense described above. It is very difficult to see how, for example, development can result from two teachers talking to each other in the staff room of a school, telling each other what they did in the classroom, but not why they did it, why it worked or did not work, or how they might do it differently. And the kind of awareness that would enable them to discuss the latter, more salient, questions is the awareness resulting from a teacher educational process. Components of Teacher Education Programmes Given the definition of teacher education as primarily a process of change, perhaps we should look next at the elements of a teacher education course that serve this objective.
There are basically two components in a teacher education course of the kind described here: experiential and awareness-raising ones (cf. Ellis 1990, Wallace 1991, Woodward 1991). Experiential practices would include team-teaching, peer observation and teaching practice work, while awareness-raising practices would involve course participants working on tasks based on experiential data. Thus, a teacher education course should consist of the following components: 1. Experiential Component • Teaching Practice (including micro-teaching, peer-observed lessons and tutorobserved lessons) • Language Learning Experience (English or a third language) 2. Awareness-Raising Component This component should contain tasks and procedures based on data drawn from the experiential component, as outlined below. • Data o lesson plans o videoed lessons o audio recordings of lessons o lesson activity description o case studies of learners, classes and/or teachers o lesson transcripts o samples of student work o textbook materials o Sample tasks o comparing (e.g. two lesson plans) o evaluating (e.g. textbook materials) o justifying (e.g. teacher’s choices as recorded in a lesson transcript) o Sample procedures used in performing tasks o brainstorming (e.g. rationale for a teacher decision) o elicitation (e.g.. of similarities and differences between two lesson plans) o lecturette (e.g. on the principles behind a textbook structure)
Experiential Practices Experiential practices are of course those most clearly connected to actual teaching: micro-teaching as part of a teachers’ course, actual teaching practice observed by peers and/or tutors, but also, language learning experience, whereby the teacher learns a foreign language so that she can gain a better understanding of the process from the recipient’s end. Discussion of a lesson taught, also known as a post-lesson conference or feedback session, is obviously an extremely important part of the experiential practice. This discussion, however, should not be directive (Freeman 1982:21-28), as the educational goal should not be to assess teacher performance, but rather to help
teachers re-evaluate, assess and, if necessary, change their underlying beliefs. It is preferable, therefore, to adopt a co-operative or alternative approach (Freeman, op.cit.), and base the post lesson conference on a factual description of what happened in the lesson, inviting the teacher to give their rationale for each decision taken in the course of the lesson, to discuss alternatives to what they actually did, to identify strengths and weaknesses, to find links between what they did and work that they had done in an input session, etc. A very interesting technique for achieving this kind of non-judgemental execution of the post-lesson conference is to give the teacher an accurate description of their lesson and invite them to make marginal comments on things that they liked or did not like, then base the discussion on what they say. Awareness-Raising Practices However, it is not only in the experiential practices of the course that the participants' own experience is exploited; so that participants can benefit from the course as a whole and recognise the explicit link between course input and their own development as teachers, their own experience should be incorporated in awarenessraising practices as well. Thus, the data used for course activities should, as far as possible, be derived from the teachers' own classes; this is so easy to organise, that it is quite surprising it is not done on all teacher education courses: lessons taught by course participants can be observed, whether live or on video by the whole group who then use them as primary data for tasks such as those listed by Ellis. If this is not technically possible, audio recordings, transcripts, samples of students' work, activity descriptions, lesson plans, or participants' own field notes can be used to very much the same effect.
Goals of Teacher Education and Development This framework would allow for attention to be paid to all of the domains of teacher competence that an educational programme should seek to develop (summarised by Richards 1998): • Theories of teaching can be discussed based on selection of tasks and data that are representative of existing as well as alternative beliefs present in the teachers’ own context. • Technical teaching skills can be developed through imitation, in teaching practice, of models provided as part of the data. • Communication skills will be developed through the use of appropriate procedures requiring co-operation to achieve an outcome (e.g. buzz groups, projects, simulations, tutorless groups), while language proficiency can be enhanced both through the experiential language learning sessions and, more indirectly, as part of the course activities. • Subject matter (linguistic systems) knowledge can be developed by using appropriate data in the awareness-raising component of the course: data from actual language use for description, or data from textbooks (in grammar, discourse or phonology, for example, for discussion) • Pedagogical reasoning skills and decision making will necessarily be focused on in all of the course activities, including the experiential ones. This should in fact be the main objective of any course for teachers.
Contextual knowledge can be developed by ensuring that the data to be used in the awareness-raising component not only reflect, but also slightly expand, the teachers’ experiential knowledge.
Conclusion To ensure professional development on any course for teachers, however, the content of the course must be explicitly related to the professional reality of the teachers participating in it. I feel that this link between actual teaching experience (in other words, practice) and teacher education (which inevitably involves theory, or reference to a knowledge-base which is supposed to enhance the quality of our teaching) is what makes the essential difference between learning about teaching and developing as a teacher.
Bibliography Borg, M. 2001. Teachers’ beliefs. ELT Journal 55 (2): 186-188 Ellis, R. 1990. Activities and Procedures in Teacher Education, in Richards, J. C. and D. Nunan (eds) Second Language Teacher Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Freeman, D. 1996. Renaming experience/reconstructing practice: Developing new understandings of teaching. In Freeman, D. and J.C.Richards, Teacher Learning in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 221-241 Freeman, D. 1982. Observing teachers: three approaches to in-service training and development in TESOL Quarterly, 16: 21-28 Roberts, J. 1999. Personal Construct Psychology as a framework for research into teacher and learner thinking. Language Teaching Research 3 (2): 117-144. Richards, J. Beyond Training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Roberts, J. 1998. Language Teacher Education. London: Edward Arnold Vassilakis, G. 1998. Qualification vs. Development: Complementation or Contradiction? In A.S. Gika & D. Berwick (eds.). Working with Young Learners: A Way Ahead. IATEFL Publications. Wallace, M. 1991. Training Foreign Language Teachers: a reflective approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Widdowson, H. G. 1983. Learning Purpose and Language Use, Oxford: Oxford University Press Woods, D. 1998. Teacher Cognition in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Woodward, T. 1991, Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press published in ELT News, January 2004