Copy, cat!

In my last post, I took a light-hearted look at some – ahem – cultural icons whom I felt had some affinity with language learning and teaching.  A few people were amused by it and one of those took up the idea and ran with it, creating the scurrilously hilarious interview blog alternativeeflgurus.

This example of emergent blogging is interesting and has happened to me before: a while back, I sent out a rather cryptic tweet referring to a trainee who wanted to teach articles and developed a guided discovery task off their own bat.  When I asked them where they had got the idea from, they said “it just came to me”.  This led to me sending out the following, cryptic, tweet:

Cryptic Tweet Leads to Blog
Short ‘n’ Tweet?

A colleague from Berlin, Chris Miner, wrote to me and asked who this trainee going by the name of wnts2teach was and where their articles could be found online!

After this misunderstanding was cleared up, Chris was so disappointed at the absence of trainee wnts2teach’s voice in the Blogosphere that he went ahead and took on the character himself (and you can read his entertaining and candid explorations of his lessons over at

Fair copy

I think it’s great that these bloggers found something inspiring in something I said or wrote, just as I found something inspiring in other people’s work, which led me to start this blog in the first place.  I can’t speak for them, but I know that I pay close attention to how other people use their voice online to help me find my own – something that Scott Thornbury also discussed in a recent post.

So imitation seems not only to be the highest form of flattery; it is also a powerful developmental behaviour. We learn through imitating others and in working out variations on what they do. Nicky Hockly has written on explicit use of modelling in teacher training and made a strong case for its use.

Because my colleagues and I believe in the positive power of modelling, we make extensive use of it on our CELTA courses.  We teach the same teaching practice students that our trainees work with and use this opportunity to show how we go about handling lessons of different types. So our trainees see us teach about 3.5 hours in the first week of the course, which allows us to show them some approaches to speaking, listening, lexis/grammar and writing-oriented lessons.

After these observations, we open the lessons up for exploration during input. Our hope is that trainees notice something useful that they can go on to exploit themselves when teaching similar types of lesson.

Copy & paste

Interestingly, it is precisely this hope for imitation that we have been occasionally criticised for. The argument goes like this: if you teach a lesson observed by your trainees, you are de facto setting our own practice up as best practice and trainees will feel compelled to do things your way rather than finding their own way.

This is fair criticism: even if we do not wish our trainees to respond to these observations by thinking that they need to copy us in order to succeed (whatever that means), it is still the case that some of them might.

But this raises the question of what best practice is.  The term – and its close relation, good practice – have been with us for a while, and while they are ubiquitous, they seem to be rather empty concepts: no one I know seems to agree on what best practice in ELT, let alone education more broadly, might look like in concrete terms.

This is perhaps unsurprising if we take a side-step into the domain of English as a Lingua Franca. David Graddol, at the BESIG Conference in Berlin back in 2007 drew out an intriguing and unsettling analogy: English was a wheel and the various regional varieties to be found world-wide were like points on the rim. This suggested that there were held in place by notional spokes running out from some posited standard English hub at the centre, typically imagined to be some idealised form of RP/Southern British Standard.

This view of language is clearly comforting for those who belong in the hub but it may not be accurate. In Graddol’s view, it was just as easy to imagine those who imagined themselves at the hub actually to be occupying a rim-position along with everyone else, and the concept of English as an identifiable language was held stable not by some regulating dominant group to which all others were tethered, but rather the self-organising centripetal force of millions of speakers negotiating meaning on a daily basis over time.

This suits the view of language being situated in and responding dynamically to time, space and culture. Similarly, best practice seems to be simply a term for the void created by the centripetal pressure of self-regulation. Across cultures, time and local circumstances, teachers find the best way to operate in the classrooms in which they find themselves – or rather, they should. Those who succeed in this process of adaptation are likely to achieve higher performance but they will never represent a central hub of best practice as this is a value judgement extremely circumscribed by its situation.

So does this digression into ELF justify modelling on initial teacher training courses or doesn’t it? Does teaching demo lessons for trainees simply perpetuate the myth that the tutor is the paragon of excellence and the trainee has merely to imitate? Or can teaching in front of trainees in a live environment lead to principled imitation?


Hockly, N. Modeling and ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ in teacher education in ELTJ (2000) 54 (2): 118-125, Oxford, OUP


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