Back in September, I was honoured to be invited by Varinder Unlu to give a short talk for her colleagues at International House London about unplugging teacher training.
IH London record these sessions and so – thanks to their efforts and the magic of the internet – I can share this with you all!
Huge thanks to Varinder and all of her colleagues who showed up, took part and made me feel welcome.
You can also find the video and a short synopsis over at the IH London Blog.
Fascinating stuff, Anthony. True, I have my qualms about how well this would go down in my own teacher training context (I’m a celta tutor as well), but, on the whole, I found myself nodding in agreement with most of the principles you seem to advocate. Anyone who’s taught an input session knows how hard it is for “the new stuff” to cross over into teaching practice. Very often it’s via post-lesson feedback that the new input starts to make sense and I’ve often wondered why we can’t adopt a “deep-end” model like the one you’ve implemented, which sits so comfortably with the sort of experiential learning John Dewey used to advocate back in the day: teaching practice (concrete experience) then recollections and reflection (reflective observation) then new input (abstract conceptualization) then further teaching practice (active experimentation). What you said about listening to teachers and trying to tap into their own personal theories of learning also struck a chord with me and it’s something a course like the CELTA could do a little more with.
There are, it seems, two “unplugged strands” running parallel in this course: (a) the training sessions themselves and (b) the real lessons with students (I almost referred to them as “practice lessons”, but what you said about them being formally assessed from the get go immediately talked me out of it!). While I agree that (a) seems like a the sort of paradigm-shift that teacher education has been (silently) yearning for (processes mirroring content, concrete experiences before input, subconscious beliefs being articulated), (b) raises a few questions – questions that I can’t answer right now, of course, but that your video has encouraged to me think about. One, to what extent is the teacher’s command of the language a stumbling block in his or her ability to “deal with what is there?” My instincts say the lower the level, the more book-bound (s)he’ll tend to be, but I myself am not entirely convinced. Two, unplugged teaching seems very heavily dependent on the teacher’s ability to listen, but being a good listener is a bit of a personality trait, isn’t it? How much can we truly develop in that department? This is a genuine question – I’m not trying to make a point. Plus, good listening in an unplugged lesson is even more challenging because the teacher needs to listen “in dolby surround” (as it were) and juggle two very different things simultaneously: use one ear to focus on meaning, keep the conversation going, smile, nod, show interest and, at the same time, use the other one to zero in on mistakes, missed opportunities, gaps and so on. Very few teachers I know have that kind of skill and they’re not novice teachers. I wonder if I’d ever be able to pull this off with a CELTA group. But then again, maybe if so few teachers are adept at the sort of dolby-surround listening I’ve just described, maybe it’s because we’re training them wrong – and this is where your model comes in.
Best blog post I’ve read – well, watched – in a while. Thank you, Anthony.
Thank you for the thoughful and thought-provoking comment, Luiz, and of course for taking the time to watch the talk in the first place! I’m happy that it raised more questions for you than it answered, and thank you for posing some of those questions here, so I and others may consider them as well.
I think I agree that the ability to work on unplanned language (or emergent language, or “what is there”, as you put it) is a function of a teacher’s general language awareness. Perhaps “awareness” is an unhelpful term, connoting as it might ideas of conscious and explicit declarative knowledge about the language, with all the attendant terminology and off-pat pedagogic rules of use. What is needed really is something closer to what I would call sensitivity – teachers need a sense for language. They need to have a sense for how things may be said in a given language, and how they can’t be, and how something might be recast so as to convey the same meaning in a different form.
One implication of this is that the less of a sense for language a teacher has, the less able they will be to employ it in their teaching. This is an obvious point but, as you suggest, it has consequences. One such consequence is larger reliance on courseware and reduction of the scope of teaching to that which is manageable without this sense for language, meaning lots of highly controlled activities and no exploration of why given answers are “right” or “wrong” beyond reiteration of whatever pedagogic rules have been included in the courseware.
I think you are also right to raise the issue of this sense of language being predicated on the further ability to listen appropriately (which is to say, accurately, appreciatively, non-prejudicially and flexibly.) I wouldn’t agree that being able to do this or not is a personality trait (in the sense of personality being somehow genetic, as we now know the majority component of personality is), though it is obvious that some people display stronger ability to do this than others, and that this is easier when the listener is not especially personally invested in what they are hearing. It certainly isn’t an easy thing to develop in a short period of time, and even less so when you compound the problem by adding in a whole lot of other stuff to be learnt (like the rest of the Celta course!)
So this leaves me thinking that I would say that stronger candidates for training to be teachers on a short initial course emphasising the things I do would possess a strong sense for langauge informed by a strong ability to listen. Candidates with less ability, by definition, would simply be better served by training arrangements which allowed them more time to develop these skills. In essence, I suppose this all means that short intenive courses like Celta, if what we are aiming at is producing effectively functional teachers within such a short time frame, require stronger basic pre-requisites than longer terms training settings necessarily would. So much, so uncontroversial.
Now, I would still say that, if someone decides they want to become a language teacher, and if they decide that they have to do this quickly (i.e. within a month), then if they want to do more than simply obtain a certificate and actually be a half-ways capable teacher by the end of it, they need to submit themselves to a progaramme of training which emphasises the two things good teaching (as I understand it) requires: an ability to listen coupled with a sense for language. You are right to ask the question “how much can we truly develop in that department?” – and I don’t know. But I think that we have no option but to work as if it were possible to do so, if for no other reason than the fact that this is the work that our goal of becoming (or producing) effectivel language teachers is asking us to do.
Thanks again for your comment, and apologies for the lengthy reply!
I had the following offline conversation with a trainer in Australia called Scott Clare, who has agreed to my placing it online here, in case it is of interest to anyone following this post:
Long time reader, first time emailer 🙂 I work as a CELTA tutor in Melbourne, Australia. I just watched your latest video from IH about your course in Germany and (shameless backslapping) love your ideas…
However, my main question regards trainees’ levels of language awareness. In Australia, the average trainee knows the basic parts of speech and has a tenuous grasp on the tense system. That’s it! To me it seems that the better a trainee’s language awareness at the beginning of the course, the better their teaching is. Perhaps they can put more effort into the methodology and practice without having to spend as much time and energy/stress in prep/class worrying about language. But the majority of trainees need to spend a lot of time and effort working on their language awareness and their teaching techniques at the same time. It’s common for trainees to say in feedback that they still don’t feel comfortable or even that they are still confused with the language. In your video, you mention removing language awareness input sessions so there is more time for practice. So I was wondering, at what point does language awareness input take place? When prepping at home? Before peer teaching? Or, do trainees in your neck of the woods have a sound level of language awareness to begin with? I’m asking this as we feel that there needs to be more language awareness on our course, but your video, much of which rings very true with me, suggests otherwise.
Thanks for any advice you can share,
Thanks for taking the time to write; as most of my readers appear to be the “strong, silent type” (i.e. they don’t comment very much), it’s nice to get some concrete response to chew on!
I’ve just replied to a related comment on the video where I make some general points about language awareness, so here I’ll try to limit myself to your specific questions though I will need to start with a bit of a general point.
I think “language awareness” is often construed to mean “explicit technical declarative knowledge including terminological knowledge”. I reject this definition and prefer to construe it as something closer to “a working sense for what works and what doesn’t within the language”. As soon as you grant this, you notice that the real barrier to dealing with language for most trainees is not “language awareness”, but rather the ability to mobilise this “sense for language how language works” in a teacherly way.
This is to say that virtually all trainees I’ve encountered can correct or recast an utterance given adequate context. They can also state explicitly in lay terms what they did in recasting it (“this bit is in the wrong place, this is the wrong form of this word” etc.). What they lack are the skills to work students to a point where they see this for themselves. In other words, it’s a teaching techniques deficit, not a linguistic knowledge deficit, that holds them back.
Further, unless you tailor your language awareness sessions (which generally mean teaching trainees the explicit rules of a discrete item of grammar, like a session on conditionals) to the same language that trainees will be teaching in their TP, then you are wasting their time on an intensive course, for reasons I hope are obvious.
If, however, you do tailor in this way, then you may as well take the next logical step and place it not in input, where it is relevant only for those who will be teaching it, but rather in the TP prep stages, where it is relevant not only for the one trainee teaching the lesson, but probably the colleague following and perhaps also others. And once you do this, you realise you need more time in your schedule for this close work with candidates on preparing them for the lessons they are actually going to teach, and thus you need to allot more time to TP prep.
So I’d agree that my message is to drop discrete item language analysis sessions from input, as the pay off is low in comparison to more focus on practical techniques for planning and executing language focus and correction.
I hope that halfway answers your question – may I have your permission to repost your email (edited and anonymised if you wish) together with my reply on my blog, as I suspect others would benefit from reading your questions?
All the best,
Scott then replied (from here on, I have interlaced my comment s in italics with Scott’s)
Thanks for the reply. You make some interesting points. I can see how having declarative knowledge of the language and an ability to help students reformulate are quite different. I guess the focus of most language awareness sessions are on increasing declarative knowledge, which may suggest to me why I don’t often see trainees even offering a missing word or quick reformulation of a sentence to keep the flow of a conversation going.
Yes, exactly what I have seen and think too.
Perhaps by focusing too much on declarative knowledge, they realise how little they know and freak out at the thought of dealing with any language in class. In fact many a trainee has said they were afraid to raise something as they were scared of questions they can’t answer from students.
Yes, because they think they have to couch this in technical terms, which they don’t.
However, in a very dogme-like way, or where someone learns at the point of need, if the focus of input/language awareness is about helping students to say things in better ways, then trainees will start to come to grips with the language through looking at how to help students. It’s a two-for-the-price-of-one deal. Whereas pure language awareness sessions help language awareness but little else.
Finally, your comments on the timing (or focus) of language awareness sessions are spot on. We’re going to look at the timetable for the first course next year and work out how we can shorten some input sessions and allocate more time for trainees to work on their lessons together, in particular coming to grips with the language they will be teaching and how they’ll deal with it in class (TP points still reign…baby steps!).
Good ideas – and there’s nothing wrong with baby steps!
In addition, language awareness sessions will be time for trainees to workshop/research/practice language in upcoming TPs. We’ll see what happens.
Oh, and cut and paste away to your blog. I probably should have started there. Pop this reply on there too if you’d like.
Lovely, thank you!