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Improving the ELT supervisory dialogue: the Sri Lankan experience

Mike Wallace and David Woolger

This article falls into two parts. In the first part, some general issues affecting teacher supervision will be discussed. The supervisory dialogue is seen as a crucial stage in the supervision process. A simple ‘key stage’ observation schedule for the supervisory dialogue is proposed. In the second part of the article, the implementation of these ideas within the context of a ‘microsupervision’ workshop for ELT teacher educators and field supervisors in Sri Lanka will be described and evaluated.

Teachers and supervisors

It seems to be the experience of most educational systems that the relationship between teachers and inspectors/supervisors1 has seldom been a happy one. The normal relationship between teachers and supervisors is perhaps best summed up in the title of Arthur Blumberg’s book Supervisors and Teachers: A Private Cold War (1980). Blumberg notes, for example, that ‘in a recent survey of teachers’ attitudes towards supervision (Heishberger and Young, 1975) it was reported that, while 82 per cent of the respondents felt that there was a “definite need for supervision and evaluation in schools”, 70 per cent indicated that “the supervisor is often perceived as potentially dangerous.“’ (Blumberg, 1980: 2). Blumberg again quotes another rather amusing, or perhaps rather sad, paradox. He refers to a colleague who regularly asked his trainees how they would react if: a. they were going to be appointed as supervisors; and b. they were going to be visited by a supervisor. Under a, a typical response was ‘I’d look forward to helping other teachers.’ Under b, however, most responses registered anxiety, and only three out of many said they would see the supervisor as a source of assistance! Supervision means, of course, different things in different contexts, but our experience is that Blumberg’s remarks seem to ring a bell with teachers and supervisors from a large number of countries.

The supervisory dialogue: two models

For us, part of the problem lies in the nature of the supervisory dialogue between supervisor and trainee, which in turn depends on the view which both of these participants in the dialogue have of their respective roles. It has been argued elsewhere (Wallace, 1988) that there is a crucial
ELT Journal Volume 45/4 October 1991 © Oxford University Press 1991




distinction in teacher education between an ‘applied science’ model of teacher education and a ‘reflective’ model. In the ‘applied science’ model, the expertise is seen as basically residing outside the trainee: the trainee’s job is to imbibe the expertise in the best way that he or she can. In this model, the trainee’s role is essentially passive or reactive: the supervisor is the ‘expert’. Trainees are usually quite happy to fall in with this model. It removes the responsibility for their professional development from their own shoulders and places it squarely with the supervisors. Supervisors also find this model congenial, albeit for different reasons (often related to status and self-image). The effect of this model on the supervisory dialogue is that it becomes essentially (and sometimes literally) a monologue, in which the supervisor ‘sorts out’ the trainee’s problems, the latter dutifully taking notes. In the final analysis, neither party finds much professional satisfaction in the ‘applied science’ model, attractive though it might be at first. The root of the problem is that the two participants are much more evenly balanced than they seem. Although the supervisor usually has superior knowledge and expertise in general terms, the trainee usually has greater knowledge of this particular class and also, of course, a different perspective on this particular lesson - from the inside as it were. In the reflective model, the responsibility for the development of professional expertise is seen as essentially residing with the trainee, by a process of reflecting on his or her own practice. The role of the supervisor then becomes one of helping the trainee to develop and refine the trainee’s reflection on this particular lesson, and the trainee’s powers of reflection in general. This role is even more demanding than the previous one, and will fully extend the supervisor’s knowledge and expertise, but will also probably be found more rewarding. It will be clear that according to this model, a true supervisory dialogue is essential, because the supervisor must start with the trainee’s experience. Common ground must be established. There must be agreement on what happened, and what was intended to happen.

The key-stage observation schedule

One way to establish common ground between the supervisor and the trainee is to establish a simple observation schedule which will serve as a point of reference for both participants in the dialogue. Observation schedules are, of course, nothing new in terms of teacher education: the Royal Society of Arts, for example, has pioneered an impressive range of observation schedules for a variety of different language training situations. However, these schedules (and indeed most such schedules) have been designed originally for assessment purposes, and tend therefore to be rather comprehensive. What is required, we feel, is a simple, easilyremembered formula which can be used as a starting point for the Improving supervisory dialogues



supervisory dialogue. In its simplest form, the dialogue is seen as being structured in four key stages. Stage 1: establishing the facts - what happened?

In this part of the dialogue, the supervisor and the trainee simply go over the lesson agreeing on the facts of what happened: the main stages of the lesson, and critical incidents during the lesson (from both the supervisor’s and the trainee’s point of view). In this way, each participant can be clear about how close together (or far apart) their interpretation of the events are, and also how far they agree on the significance of the events. It might be helpful to subdivide this question into: a. What did the teacher do? and
b. What did the pupils do?

Stage 2: objectives and achievements Having established what actually happened, the dialogue now backtracks to what the teacher intended to happen: What were the objectives? This leads onto other vital questions, namely: a. What was achieved? and (most importantly of all) b. What did the pupils learn? (A corollary to the last two questions is, of course, How do you know?) Stage 3: generating alternatives: what else could have been done? This is the most difficult area of all to handle. The idea here is to encourage the trainee to generate alternative strategies (see Fanselow, 1987), and to consider what the positive and negative effects might be. A difficult concept for trainees (and some supervisors!) to grasp is that there are almost always alternatives worth considering, even when both participants agree that the lesson has been very successful. Somehow, the trainees must be brought to the point where the discussion of alternative strategies, procedures, and so on is not seen as a criticism (or even an implied criticism), but as an essential element in their on-going professional development. Stage 4: self-evaluation: what have you learned?

This last question is directed in the first place at the trainee, but also, of course, applies to the supervisor. It is important for the trainee to have a chance to articulate what the lessons of the teaching experience have been for him or her. The supervisor has to listen carefully here, for this is an important indicator of the trainee’s powers of self-evaluation, and therefore self-improvement. Whether supervisors decide to share with the trainees what they have learned will no doubt depend on individual situations.

A training workshop for supervisors

Clarification of the kind of supervisory dialogue which might encourage reflective thinking by new teachers was the focus for a three-day workshop conducted at Pasdunrata College of Education, Sri Lanka.

Wallace and David Woolger
articles welcome


The immediate context of the workshop was the introduction, about four months previously, of an experimental internship programme by Pasdunrata (‘internship’ being the term to describe the probationary year which makes up the final component of all initial teacher-training programmes in Sri Lanka). In the eight years or so that an extended period of practical teaching has been part of basic teacher training in Sri Lanka, little attention has been given to the issues that this raises. There seem to be two underlying assumptions; first, that simply by putting new teachers into classrooms they will be provided with a training experience, and second, (and following on from that), supervision can be left as an essentially straightforward process whereby a tutor will occasionally visit a school and adjudicate on observed classroom performance. Few teacher educators or student teachers appear to question these assumptions fundamentally. The Pasdunrata scheme, however, compelled such questioning. Although the immediate stimulus for its development was a practical one (a shortage of ELT staff in the College, and therefore severe problems in releasing tutors for supervision of interns), it soon became clear that the scheme was providing an opportunity for a much-needed examination of the whole area of the supervision of new teachers. The essential feature of the scheme is undramatic enough: instead of using College staff for supervision, specially recruited teachers from the regions are used on a full-time basis, so that regular weekly supervision may be provided to the interns throughout the year. This simple starting point, however, has had many ramifications. To take just two examples which were obvious from the very beginning: the new supervisory teachers (designated ‘Field Supervisors’, or FSs) would require some form of supervision-training because of their lack of experience in teacher education, and a form of supervision quite different from the traditional one would be necessary if such an extended programme of regular supervision were to be sustained. Although some preliminary work had already been done on these two issues, the workshop presented the first opportunity for everyone to get together for a long enough period to practise and collectively reflect upon the supervisory process. In essence, the ‘training’ experience consisted of working towards a clearer shared understanding of the kind of supervision we were trying to evolve.

The workshop

The workshop began with a ‘trouble-shooting’ session, partly in order for the supervisors to express their problems, and partly as a means for the organizers to take an approximate measure of ‘where the supervisors were’ after their first term in the job. Amongst all the problems that were raised, none touched directly on the supervision process itself. Either the FSs were unwilling to admit to any uncertainties they themselves had, or they did not feel that to be problematic (feedback from the interns, however, indicated that at least some of them, as receivers of supervision, did not share that view). In the preliminary discussions, the key-stage observation schedule was described to the participants and discussed,
Improving supervisory dialogues




together with some video-based practise on producing descriptive data on observed teaching. The
microsupervision process

The core of the workshop, however, consisted of the rehearsal of a reflection on the supervisory dialogue, structured on the lines of microteaching (‘microsupervision’). Four micro-lessons, each lasting approximately twenty minutes and given by College students to small groups of pupils from a local school, were recorded on video. The supervisors and tutors were divided into four groups, and although everyone viewed all lessons, each single group focused on just one lesson for the planning of the post-observation conference session, which was given the following day by one member of the group to the student concerned. These ‘microsupervisions’ were themselves videotaped and used as a basis for discussion, with two groups evaluating their own sessions together. A final plenary session was held on the third day, in order to bring together the main points which had been raised. The participants were asked to compile their own set of guiding principles for supervisors (in the form of a summary list of ‘DOS and Don’ts’), as a means for the organizers to get some immediate feedback on the main principles which the supervisors had themselves arrived at as a result of the workshop experience; these, together with further comment and an extract from one of the videotaped conferences, were subsequently produced as Notes to Supervisors, to serve as a reminder of the conclusions which had been reached. One month after the workshop, two sets of questionnaires were sent out; one to all the participants, to find out what they felt they had gained, and another to a sample of interns from each region, to provide some measure of actual perceived change in the quality of supervision they received. Of the 16 FSs, 11 completed their questionnaire, and 12 replies from the 18 questionnaires sent out to interns were returned (as the total intern population for the year was 158, this sample of intern opinion was far too small to be treated as anything but a very approximate cross-reference for the FS returns). The organizers had been conscious of the need to match ‘message’ and ‘medium’, which was one reason for the essentially collaborative and experimental approach which was adopted. This approach was clearly welcomed by the participants, only two replies (18 per cent) requesting more ‘lectures’. One commented: My expectations were exceeded as I was interested and enjoyed the 2½ days where everyone contributed , . . no one bossed the show . . . Another, in explaining microsupervision practice remarked: the reason why she wanted further of the kind provided by the workshop, in some supervisors


of the workshop

Traditions of supervision [are] . . . deeply-rooted . . . [and] can only be eliminated slowly . . .
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Given that the new supervisors had been given some prior, though largely theoretical, orientation to their new role, it was gratifying that replies relating to what the FSs felt the workshop had provided for them suggested that the main effect may have been not so much introducing radical new insights, but rather strengthening or clarifying existing understandings. For example: [The workshop] enhanced knowledge and facilitated a better approach and attitude in supervision. Techniques and methods I already knew could be put into a better framework. [The workshop made me] more confident about the type of work I am doing. [My] work [is] now done more systematically than before.

A positive response to non-directive supervision

By far the most common aspect of supervision which the participants felt had been clarified was handling the supervisory dialogue in a nondirective way, so that the intern may be helped to achieve what one respondent termed ‘self-realization’. Descriptions by the FSs of this process were ‘the democratic approach’, ‘supervision by negotiation’, ‘self-evaluation by intern’, ‘getting the intern to reflect on what s/he is supervision’. One comment, which doing’, and ‘trainee-centred confirmed the value of the practical emphasis in the workshop, was that observing ‘one of the lecturers [who] did it cleverly’ helped the FS concerned to realize more fully what was meant by this approach. The key-stage observation schedule was given specific mention in several replies, not only as a useful basic framework for the post-observation discussion, but also for the way that it highlighted the importance of documentation and shared data on the lesson to be discussed, and on relating methodological discussion to specified teaching aims.

Participants’ overall assessments

When invited to give an overall assessment of the effect of the workshop on the quality of the observation/supervision they were giving, ten of the FSs (91 per cent) claimed that it had ‘significantly’ affected what they did. Three replies spoke of improvements in observation (e.g. ‘more alert’, supervision as an ‘empiric process’, and increased awareness of ‘aims and objectives’), and another three of subsequent supervision being handled in such a way as to involve the intern more. For example: . . . before I was only telling them their mistakes and being a little too critical. Now I get it out of them - they suggest better alternatives that I never dreamt of to improve their techniques. As this comment implies, many of the supervisors felt that this new way of working was personally more rewarding, and often in fact resulted in them learning from the interaction with the interns, something which is effectively impossible with the traditional approach to supervision.
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Although the small number of replies by interns means that the results of the second questionnaire should be treated with some caution, it appeared that the workshop had indeed had some perceived effect on the quality of supervision. The figures given below provide an approximate measure of what may crudely be considered ‘significant’ changes (changes indicated by 40 per cent of replies or more), and it will be seen that they are entirely ‘desirable’. In summary list form, the following percentages of interns felt there had been an increase in: - time spent by FS with intern - value in FS’s comments/advice, as judged by intern - detail of FS’s observation notes - encouragement of detailed thinking about lesson - the intern being allowed to make his/her own comments - FS giving suggestions for intern to think about and try - encouragement to intern to define own strengths/weaknesses - encouragement to intern to make own teaching suggestions - encouragement of self-evaluation by intern - degree of attention given to intern’s ideas Two selected comments: Our FS is doing her duty very well. She likes to share her ideas with us. She always looks after our needs. She associated with us [in a] very friendly and kindly way . . . . . . we did feel some change in attitudes. Our suggestions were welcomed - helped us to improve them. She always encourages the importance of self-observation and self-evaluation. It is clear from comments such as these that student teachers place a great emphasis on the manner with which the supervision is conducted and appreciate being treated as a ‘partner’ in the supervisory process. The consensus view seemed to be that the practical experience of planning, giving, and reviewing supervision in the controlled and collaborative atmosphere of the microsupervision workshop improved specific procedures or clarified points relating to observation and supervision within an already established, if still perhaps largely inchoate, general approach. Most important of all, it brought about a commonly agreed definition of the kind of non-directive supervisory dialogue which was felt to be both desirable and possible. 50% 60% 40% 60% 50% 70% 80% 70% 60% 60%


Clearly, a single workshop such as this cannot be expected to solve all the problems relating to the supervision of teachers. The complexity of the supervisor’s task, and the resulting need to provide various kinds of specific training experiences, has become an increasing focus of much literature. The evidence presented here suggests that practically-oriented and reflective training exercises which focus on the supervisory dialogue
Mike Wallace and David Woolger




can significantly affect the quality of supervision which is given, even by people new to the supervisory task. Received January 1991


The authors

1 The term ‘supervisor’ is used in this article to refer to anyone who has as a major professional remit the inspection or supervision of how teachers perform their classroom duties.


David Woolger has just completed a period as British Council ELT0 at Pasdunrata College of Education, Sri Lanka. Before that, he worked in Uganda, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. He has a postgraduate Diploma in Education from Makerere University, and an MA TEFL from Reading University, UK. During his time in Sri Lanka, he has been involved with curriculum reform for initial ELT teacher training. This included designing a new supervision programme for probation teachers. From this experience, the issue of teacher development has become his main professional interest. Mike Wallace is a Senior Lecturer with the Scottish Centre for Education Overseas, Moray House College, Edinburgh. He has had over twenty years’ experience in the field of ELT Teacher Education, during which time he has done consultancies in many countries for a number of national and international agencies. He holds MLitt and PhD degrees in Applied Linguistics, both from the University of Edinburgh. He has published books and articles on various aspects of ELT. His most recent publication is
Training Foreign Language Approach (CUP). Teachers: A Reflective


A. 1980. Supervisors and Teachers: a Private Cold War (2nd ed). Berkeley, California:
and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching.

McCutchon Publishing Corporation. Fanselow, J. F. 1987. Breaking Rules: Generating New York and London: Longman. Heishberger, R. and J. Young 1985. ‘Teacher Perceptions of Supervision and Evaluation’. Phi Delta Kappan, 57: 210. Wallace, M. J. 1988. ‘TESOL Teacher Education: the Reflective Model’. Mimeo. Paper given at 22nd International IATEFL Conference, Edinburgh.

Improving supervisory dialogues