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


  • Really interesting post, Anthony. It got me thinking back to my Celta and the comparisons with ours. I never saw my tutors teach a class of students because we watched other teachers in the school, meaning we saw a wider range of styles and approaches, and a wider range of students. Did this brevity mean that I learnt more from it than if I had seen my tutors teach the same class that I had to? I don’t think so. That’s not to say it wasn’t useful to go into different classrooms and see the way these people did their thing, but I think on our course, we provide a more focused example which can be reflected upon, rather than spreading the observation experience so thinly that there are too many variables to make it digestible.

    Did the fact that my tutors never actually taught the same students as me also change the way they viewed my lessons? I know that in my feedback this week for our trainees, I have been able to empathise strongly with certain occurrences because I’ve had to deal with them too, meaning we have been able to discuss these happenings and the approach I chose to take. I don’t feel I was promoting a “monkey see, monkey do” attitude, but rather I was able to explain my thinking at the time, and why I chose to deal with that situation in that way, and then discussing further options that would suit the group’s teaching styles, thereby giving them some insight into the decision making process that teachers have to continually go through in class. This is something that I didn’t get to learn on my Celta to such a degree. Any occurrences in the classes we watched went un-discussed, because we never had access to those teachers again.
    Surely by putting ourselves as tutors in front of the same students our trainees are expected to teach, and letting those trainees watch us, we open up channels of communication and provoke further reflection upon what happens in the classroom?

    • Thanks for the comparison with your initial training experience, Jemma. Clearly, a combination of both approaches would be optimal, but seems often to be (for us at least at the moment) organisationally fraught. I also really appreciate the “reality check” that working with the same TP group as my trainees gives me – even if you are holding up a regular teaching schedule outside the course, there’s nothing like working under exactly the same conditions for breeding empathy. Of course, just because I see it as a levelling experience doesn’t mean that the trainees do!

  • Good post Anthony. In fact you’re no1 on my blog bookmarks and I wouldn’t miss one of your posts for the world. I get more from posts like yours, Scotts and Dales than I do from the average journal and the interactivity enables you to engage with the ideas, something I think Scott is talking about over at his.

    Hope the ALTEFLGURUS is amusing, you had such a great idea I was motivated to take it further. Feel free to suggest any characters or situations. Yoda will be appearing soon in an EFL test.

    Re: Modelling lessons for trainees.

    It really helped me at the time but also pidgeon-holed me into this TEFL teaching style which some put on along with the sometimes slow and basic speech. Yes, we should pitch our language and speak clearly but after a few years after I went home even my wife used to say “yes, I understand, you don’t need to check” or “you don’t need to speak soooo slowly”.

    Perhaps supplying a wide range of teaching lessons as models would be best. Anything from Gen Eng, to BE, to ESP and exam classes. All I seem to remember is seeing low level classes with typical games and teacher-led activities. Then when I got a job and was asked to teach everything but GE I was a bit stuck.

    • Thanks Phil, I love your work (whether it be of the hilarious alternativeeflgurus type, or your apposite comments (and now posts) on those blogs you mention.

      I think your experience is a fairly predictable consequence of entering a profession after a very short introduction (which is typical in our field). We may be survival ready but we are hardly rounded at that stage. Once the pressures of a full timetable kick in, falling back on what we have seen to work rather than stretching boundaries becomes common. Dale asked me recently what the main challenges for recent grads from programmes like ours were, and I think this is definitely one, so I hope he’s reading 😉

  • Very interesting.

    On my CELTA our tutor taught us, as a class of pretend students, at 3 different levels – preint/int/upper. Half the class were Ss and half were observers.

    We also had the opportunity to observe I think 3 other classes being taught at the school by other teachers.

    My tutor is in fact renowned and highly regarded in the EFL world, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see him teach (even though we were the Ss). However, did I end up imitating his style for years to come? Absolutely. And honestly, it was difficult for me to break away from that experience and find my own style of teaching (I never had much opportunity to observe other teachers before doing the delta).

    So… Good or bad?

    Well, as one of my delta tutors responded to a question on lesson planning during an input session: “there was a lot you weren’t told on the celta!”

    So this seems to be the point – there’s so much you are not told during your initial training. There’s also no rush to develop your own teaching style, it seems like a rather long term aspiration to me.

    In summary, were I to do my celta again, would I want those model lessons from my tutor?

    Unequivocally yes, every time. It certainly heavily influenced my teaching style for the first few years, but better that than no influence at all or influence from watching other teachers less experienced.


    • Thanks for commenting, Oli. I’m glad to hear you found the modeling on your CELTA to be useful – and your tutor’s idea of splitting your group is a good way of getting round the observer/participant conflict, so I’ll be borrowing that one!

  • Although I was uniformly impressed with my tutors on the CELTA, I wouldn’t describe any of them as a “paragon of excellence”. To start with, aside from being very good, and having very refined ways of being in the classroom, they weren’t at all similar. I recognized early that I wasn’t going to be able to be like any of them with any degree of authenticity. However, that didn’t stop me from borrowing some of the craft they presented which happened to catch my attention, seemed very effective, and was something I thought I could pull off with a degree of authenticity.

    I don’t think we got to observe and analyze nearly enough lessons during the CELTA. Good lessons, bad lessons, average lessons. In retrospect, it strikes me as odd that my CELTA training didn’t seem to borrow much from the ESL classroom. In the classroom, we present models, situations, analysis, contexts, do role-plays, critique text, repair text, scaffold, work in the ZPD, etc. Doesn’t that all reasonably apply in (m)any guided learning situations? Shouldn’t that all inform CELTA training too? If you move your questions into another context, out of a CELTA classroom, and into an ESL one, how do the answers change?

    I’m sure my students don’t see me as a “paragon” of anything, and I think in spite of that, they do try to imitate me to some extent. But mostly I think they try to find their own voice. I think it would be useful for each teacher to leave the CELTA with at least a voice even if it is (partially) not their own.

    • Thanks, Chris. Your blog is one of the most voiceful I know, so I am sure your students get a lot of support from you in finding their own voices. I agree that there should be a lot more time for observation and discussion of those observations on a CELTA course. But 6 hours is what we’re allowed and (contrary to what some may think) that’s an upper limit from Cambridge (I have that in writing – so there!)

      Bit surprised you feel your course lacked the approaches you list, though – but not having been one of your tutors, I certainly won’t gainsay you. When I was in Berlin, all the things you list were features of the course, though.

      It’s relieving when your students don’t view you as a paragon, I can tell you: but for man cultures the teacher is exactly that: a paragon of excellence. So while in your context your learners may be comfortable in taking what they can from you (as you did from your tutors), I am left wondering how to handle other contexts.

  • But would that voice help you pass the course? My tutor said “do what you want after but now do what we say”. There were also people trying to ‘crack the test’ so to speak. They found out what they had to do and got high marks. They ran through the motions and the tutors ticked all their boxes. Most of them have quit teaching now though while other like me who didn’t do so well continue to try to improve. I’ve come across a lot of this “I was an EFL teacher” or “oh yeah, I did that course and then went to XXX for a summer”. This then opens up the can of worms that is long or short-term TEFLers.

    • A can that I’ll try to keep the lid on for now 😉

      But this does highlight the difference between flattering imitation and heartfelt appropriation (as Chris refers to in his comment) – how can a trainer distinguish one form the other? Hmm…

  • Hi Anthony, I’ve finally found the time to catch up with your blog and some of the comments. By the way, thanks for the extra point slyly hidden amongst the comments. I’m thinking of making the question into an online poll for some research. I wouldn’t be sure how one does it though, any ideas?

    One thing I’d like to add to observation dialogue is that I’m not sure how useful observing a teacher who’s not in a classroom with authentic students, i.e. learners of English. A number of things are lost in translation:

    1. Trainees are deprived of the opportunity of seeing a teacher deal with emerging difficulties and unexpected turns in the lesson, a valuable experience for a trainee in my opinion.

    2. Good practice, or whatever we chose to call it is dependent on the context most suitable for it. Exchange the context (those learners in that classroom) for a group of trainees and they don’t see the application of idea to practice, however good the may be at imitating pre-intermediate students.

    3. It must take a bit of courage for a trainer to stand up in front of a number of trainees and put their teaching skills to the test. On one level I’d say this builds a lot of trust between trainer and trainee. Not only this, but observing a great lesson is an affective experience, in my case it is anyway. I haven’t quite decided how this effects trainees, but I’m pretty sure it’s positive.

    I observed teachers during CELTA and DELTA but not once my trainers. It would have been a great privilege to, so I guess I envy your trainees for this.

    • Thanks Dale, I think you sum up neatly my issues with simulations. I can also tell you that it does take a bit of courage to teach for real in front of your trainees – it isn’talways a glorious success and it is always humbling!

  • Hi Anthony
    I agree with Dale, it would be helpful to be able to watch a trainer teach while you’re learning. I haven’t heard of it being done much, really. In my DiplTESOL, one of our trainers presented just an activity, which out of context frankly did not impress us as being a good model – so any trainer is taking a risk. In my observation project, I asked eperienced friends to let me come in and observe them, and that was absolutely fantastic. Some of them are CELTA trainers, but here they were just teachers. Also, while we were giving our diploma lessons, the CELTA trainees would come in and watch us. No problems there, either.
    Also, overall, could it that when teachers are wearing their trainer hat, they can’t switch back to being a teacher easily? That it becomes contorted and unnatural? Does our mental chemistry change in some way?

    • Thanks Anne, I think your observation project was (is?) fascinating and would have loved to have been part of it. I think there is a bit of trouble in shrugging the tutor mantle off ones shoulders when teaching to an audience – call it a heightened sense of one’s responsibilities. But I’m slowly getting used to acknowledging that this is actually just my ego talking and I should just shut up and play me guitar, as it were! Did you discuss this issue with those teachers you observed?

  • I would say that given you model everything anyway, just in your manner with trainees and the way the course you run is structured, what the problem with a bit more?
    Every time we teach/converse with someone about teaching our assumptions and values around learning are shown up for what they are. This sort of makes the ‘best practice’ argument pointless if you ask me, as of course we model what we consider to be best practice on a fundamental level. How could we model anything else?

    • True, but don’t you see a qualitative difference (from the trainee’s perspective) of intuiting what “good practice” may be from closely scrutinising a tutor in input etc, and that tutor explicitly setting out to model such behaviour?

      But I certainly wouldn’t say that everything I do in a classroom is what I would consider good practice, due to, ahem, day form 😉

    • Thank you for riding to our defence, Naomi!!! To be fair, though, any “criticism” has always been measured and in the interests of professional exchange 😉
      I am looking forward to reading your post in more detail over the weekend!

  • Just doing some reading for the masters, and it appeared to be relevant for this discussion – the book is: “Preparing Quality Educators for English Language Learners” by Tellez, K. & Waxman, H. C. (2007). (Eds.). In particular the bottom of p.4 and p.5 (I’m readin it on Google books preview 😉 ) is interesting:
    “in one of the most scathing judgements of language teacher education…Ada (1986)…is sympathetic to the view that teacher educators failed to practice what they taught…’they encouraged us to be good communicators but the classes they taught were deadly'” (p.5).
    Deadly – I love it 😉

    • I know one of those who would say “we talked about….” and “they talked…”, “they discussed”…. She said she was all about student communication but when I observed her she just talked to them, interrupted them and often forced her opinions on them. On the other hand teachers who considered themselves as traditional lecturers did give space and opportunities for discussion.

      • Ah yes, what we say we do and what we really do are – speaking from personal experience – all too often very different things 😉 Perhaps this is why observation is so important?

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