Own Experience?

About a week ago, this comment appeared on my blog:

Hi Anthony, I had an interesting chat with some other TEFLers and 1 person was positive that pre-CELTA teaching really helped him on his CELTA. This would fit in with reflection but do you think it’s important to only accept people with some teaching exp or even to recommend they get some before starting?


I replied that I thought prior language teaching experience was less important to me than prior language learning experience, and this post started life as an explanation of that view.

However, it also got me thinking about the whole issue of experience and the problems related to working with it.

The question of whether some prior teaching experience is useful in providing an experiential basis for reflection during short intensive training courses like Celta is an important one, and it relates to several other big questions doing the rounds at the moment, like the nature and status of ELT (is it a trade or a profession? – currently being disputed over at ELTMythTakes and at #ELTChat) and the theory of learning implicit in teacher training.

Why language teaching experience is less important to me than language learning experience

I spend most of my time these days working with people who are working towards the Cambridge ESOL Celta at our centre in Hamburg.  Some of these people have prior experience, some of them don’t, but they all have something in common: they have all tried to learn at least one foreign language as an adult.  They have this in common because we do not accept anyone onto our course if they haven’t done this.

Why do we have this policy?  Well, here are the reasons:

  1. Someone who wants to be a language teacher but who has not been in a language classroom as an adult has very little idea what they were getting into
  2. Someone who has never tried to learn a language as an adult probably cannot empathize with the challenges that their learners faces in learning a new language as adults
  3. Empathizing with learners, in the form of anticipating problems that may arise in the course of a lesson and fashioning solutions to deal with them, is a central skill – one that can literally make the difference between success and failure on the course

Looking back, it is clear that candidates whom we accepted without prior adult language learning experience had a harder time on the course – both in our judgement and in their own.

When it comes to prior language teaching experience, however, the picture looks rather different.  Statistically speaking, prior teaching experience does not correlate with high performance on our course (taking final grades awarded as an indicator).  People with no prior teaching experience have been known to receive top grades; people with years of experience have been known to fail or pass with extreme difficulty .  This begs the question: why is this so?  The answer may not be comfortable.

The student will learn from experience

Several voices out there online have suggested recently that an unplugged approach to teacher training could benefit from someone gaining some teaching experience before embarking on a course of training.  The idea is that this would allow the teacher within the person to emerge, preserving its native qualities.  Under the right conditions (i.e. the live classroom) with the right stimulus and feedback (i.e. the learners) and possessing the right mindset (i.e. an enquiring and flexible intelligence), a novice teacher could start to develop a conceptual framework and experiential base.

Equipped with this, they could come to a short training course such as Celta with much more robust knowledge about teaching and learning, making the training experience richer.  Scott Thornbury used his own grandfather as a case in point, as I recall, when debuting his talk Six Big Ideas (and one little one) in Berlin.

I certainly don’t deny that this is possible, though it does obviously rely on a person being highly observant, sensitive to changes in the classroom ecology, analytical, adaptable, and confident in their own judgement – all qualities, in fact, that would mark someone as being suited to teaching.

However, I do think that course providers (and I include myself in this) may not be making the best of what trainees with prior experience bring to a course like Celta.

“Some prior experience – may have trouble adapting”

The heading you’ve just read is a frequent comment to be found on interview notes made by tutors who screen applicants for courses like Celta.  I’ve written the same kind of thing many times over the years.  Phil’s comment made me question it seriously.

The implication is that the presence of prior experience may impede the candidate as a result of ingrained belief and habit.

Of course, there is much more behind the comment than that.  For example, there is the implication that the candidate should adapt their beliefs and approach in the light of experience and information gained during the course.  This further suggests that the interviewer already senses a divergence between the prospective trainee’s theory of learning and teaching and that of the course trainers’.  Put these two implications together and you come to this conclusion: the prior experience of the prospective teacher is corrupt and they would be better off as a blank slate.

Speaking from experience, I know how hard it is on a short intensive course with several candidates to take each individual’s learning needs and background fully into account while working with them.  As we are the ones with the syllabus and the criteria, and the candidate comes to train with us, it can be very easy to operate on the assumption that the onus is on them to “adapt”.  But where do we draw the line between “adapt” and “conform”?  And why should “training” be a one-sided exercise?

Jug ‘n’ Mug vs Drawing from the Well

Busy, overworked trainers on short intensive courses may, in their darker moments, pray for blank slates and some good old transmission training – the Jug ‘n’ Mug metaphor.  It’s quick, it’s efficient and it would ensure that candidates succeeded in the course with the minimum of stress.

But life isn’t like that and neither are people.  Even those who start a training course with no prior teaching experience are still deeply influenced by the apprenticeship of observation, so we are aways dealing with people with prior experience.  This being so, why single out those with a particular kind and consider them to have more work to do in “adapting”?  Isn’t it truer to say that it is we trainers who have more work to do in adapting our views and approaches to accommodate them?

The real question is: who “may have trouble adapting”?  The applicant, or the trainers?  That list of qualities that I think would enable someone to learn from their own experience and would also mark someone as being suited to teaching are also qualities that make such a person more effort to manage – which may too often be seen as a bad thing, instead of the opportunity for growth for the course leaders that it presents.

The counterpoint to the Jug ‘n’ Mug metaphor is the Drawing from the Well metaphor.  The people we work with on training courses are more like a well than a blank slate – they possess something essentially important for us as educators – their knowledge and experience and beliefs – just as a well possesses something equally vital – water.

But these assets are stored deep, out of easy reach.  We need to dig down, draw it out painstakingly, and bring it to the surface – for only there can it be put to use.  Just as water does us little good until we get to it, a trainee’s prior knowledge and beliefs won’t be any good unless they are drawn out and valued as an asset, as something that nourishes the act of development.

The question is: how best to do that?


The section heading “The student will learn from experience” was taken from Teaching clinical nursing. Hinchliff, Susan M. (ed.). Harlow: Longman Group UK Ltd, 1986, pp. 31-150. 2346 s-units., retrieved from http://corpus.byu.edu/bnc/ on 28 August 2011 at 12:13hrs CET


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