IATEFL 2011 – talk

These are the notes I made for a talk I gave as part of the Dogme: Doing More With Less Symposium at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, UK.  I was in the estimable company of Candy van Olst, Howard Vickers, Luke Meddings, Scott Thornbury and about 250 (anti)Dogmeticians. 

You can read my summary of the talk part of the symposium here.

Candy gave a blazing talk which left me at a loss for how to follow her, especially as she had unwittingly stolen my idea for a warmer!  However, her talk – about stories and life stories and journeys – made me think about how I had got to be sitting there at that moment.  I plan to write about this for the IATEFL TDSIG newsletter in more detail but for now suffice to say that it al has something to do with a pair of Scott Thornbury’s socks…

On with the talk:

Dogme for Beginner teachers: Lesson #1

Some time ago I visited another school, and watched a trainee teacher teaching their final lesson.  The lesson was based on course-book material provided by the training centre.

The “aim” of the lesson was to get the students to write a letter of application to appear as a contestant on a well-known TV reality show.

OK, what potential problems with this lesson can you imagine?

OK, so what did you think?  Yes, that’s what I thought too.  What if the students hadn’t heard of the show?  Or worse, what if they had, but hated it?

As soon as the students realized what the teacher wanted them to do, they resisted.  None of them liked the show, and none of them wanted to even pretend to like it.

During the feedback session following the lesson, the trainee teacher said that he had had doubts about the suitability of the material for his learners but had used it anyway because:

  • That’s what he had been given;
  • He saw it as his job to make what he had been given work.

A little later, one of his colleagues had this to say about the material that the lessons had been based on:

“I think it’s insulting to the students that they have to read or listen to stuff like this”

On the way back home, I thought about recent lessons I’d seen.  We give our trainee-teachers ideas from Luke and Scott’s book as a starting point for their first lessons.

They meet their learners on day one, and spend much of day one and toying with these lesson ideas:

They pull them apart, then put them back together.  Some of the trainees put things back basically “as-was”; others change them radically, or come up with their own alternatives.  Then they teach for the first time.

For this first lesson, we give the trainees a solid framework for a lesson – material, actually; for lesson two, on the other hand, we give them nothing.  We ask them to give the students something interesting to read or listen to, and give them a good reason for reading or listening – but that’s all.

Next day in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil, a trainee said to me:

“I’m looking forward to my 2nd lesson much more than my first one”. 

This surprised me a bit.

I thought that creating a lesson from scratch would have seemed more difficult – and therefore more stressful – than adapting someone else’s material, but here was someone saying that it was actually a relief to have less support provided.

So I said:

“really? Why’s that, then?”

What do you think her reason was?

She said this:

“It took me ages to get my head round that Thornbury bloke’s ideas – to work out what he wanted.  This time I can think things through my way from the start, and that’s easier.”

And that’s easier…

A different trainee on the same course came to me to talk about a lesson. I asked him if he’d like me to suggest some published materials to look at for inspiration or ideas.

“Umm, no…”, he said eventually, “I think it’s easier for me to make sense of my own ideas than someone else’s”

It’s easier for me to make sense of my own ideas than someone else’s”…

When trainees don’t get given materials as a basis of a lesson, their learners get more of a look-in (even if this is just because they run out of stuff!)

When they start with published material it’s like the students are the turkey and the course-book activities are the stuffing – and we all know what that means.

For example, my colleague Izzy watched a lesson where a trainee from Australia just told his class about his country.

The students asked questions and he answered, giving them the vocabulary support they needed to ask what they wanted.

The trainee and the students all enjoyed the lesson and you could hear them recycling the language they had picked up for days afterwards.

What did the trainee learn? Maybe you don’t need a falsified “celebrity footballer and pop star wife” in the classroom when you have real people and real stories.

Then there was that memorable lesson where a trainee teacher spontaneously used the whiteboard to convey the meaning of “lamb’s testicles” while talking about exotic foods.  What did the trainee learn?  Not sure, to be honest – maybe how to keep a poker face…

And what did I learn from that trainee’s sense that she would be happier with less material support from us as tutors?

Well, one thing I’ve started to question is whether trainee teachers need us to provide the kind of support for even lesson #1 that we have done up to now.  Maybe given the right conditions, they don’t need this either?  It’s a thought.

And what do I think this all has to with teacher development?

Julian Edge once said that:

“You can train me and you can educate me, but you can’t develop me: I develop”

This tells me that teacher development lies, or should lie, in the teacher’s hands, even from day one, even on an initial training course.

If we accept that, then we have to accept the consequence.

In order for trainee teachers to be able to take up the work of their own development, then teacher-trainers need to establish the conditions under which the trainees are free to do that – and this may mean giving much less than we are accustomed to.

Because, as we have seen, if we give too much, we actually take things away, like freedom to choose, and freedom to think.

Now this may make it seem like at our teacher training centre it’s always sunshine and roses.  Let me assure you, it isn’t.

Some trainees would feel much more confident working from a coursebook and we need to be sensitive to that and support them in it.  That said, I think the number of people who feel this way is less than 5% of everyone we work with, based on the conversations we have.

I’d like to leave you with a lesson from one of our trainees which didn’t work.

A trainee had decided that her group would benefit from work on their writing skills – which was broadly true – but her idea for the lesson was to have her learners write highly formal wedding invitations – “the parents of Ms.So and So most cordially invite you to attend …” etc.

Both Izzy, my colleague, and I thought this wasn’t the best use of the student’s time and we said so.  We strongly recommended that the trainee reconsider and choose an area to focus on which had clearer relevance for her learners based on her observations.  She “cordially declined” our invitation, you might say…

When the learners realized what the trainee wanted them to write, a student looked up, caught the trainee’s attention and said:

“You know, I think that you want to get married”

The teacher laughed this off and said, no, she didn’t want to get married herself, then tried to re-focus the class on the task.

The student continued to look shrewdly at the trainee and replied:

“Oh yes, I think you do.  I ask myself ‘why else ask us to do this?’”

Later, we met up for feedback.

During feedback, the trainee pointed out her planning error before anyone else had raised the issue. She talked about the conversation with the learner during the lesson, but then she told us about something that none of us had heard.

Do you want to know what?

In the coffee break, the learner from earlier followed her into the kitchen and said:

“You know, I like you as a person, but I didn’t like your lesson.”

The trainee had no one to pass the buck to; how do you think she felt?

Well, she actually felt extremely positive.  She agreed with the student – but she could still feel happy.  Here’s why.

Her earlier lessons were certainly not perfect examples of student-centred teaching with her learners calling the shots, but they had all been based on something that she knew from observation that the students either really needed or really liked.

This time, she had planned a lesson without thinking about this – she based a lesson on her materials and not her learners, and in doing so, she had not done her job.

And the reason she could feel positive about this experience is because she could look back on all her other lessons and say to herself:

“I can do better than that”

And she could be confident that she was right in saying that, precisely because she had had the opportunity to do better than that for herself from day one.  This trainee was developing during this feedback conversation, and in doing this, she was doing her job.

Throwing trainees back on their own resources rather than throwing resources at them may have drawbacks, but as I see it, there is one crucial advantage:

It requires and it empowers trainee teachers to be real teachers from lesson one, by placing their development where it belongs: in their hands.

That’s all I have to say.  Over to you.  Thank you.


Want to return to the rest of the summary of the symposium? Your wish is my command…


  • Anthony, I’m coming to this party late, but just wanted to add something small to your corner.

    I can’t see how it’s any less irresponsible or dangerous to be setting trainee teachers up as over reliant on course books and published ELT materials. I know you know this, but just wanted to express my support. I really like the sound of what you’re doing with your teacher training. More power to you!

    • It’s never too late to party on this blog, Mike 😉 Thank you for the vote of support. I need to crack on with Part II: the Q&A, so I can make clear that I think the person who said that simply didn’T really know what we were doing – which was my communication failure as much as anything, a function of the time limit. Candy may be TED Talk ready (see Willy Cardoso’s blog review of the event) but I’m not 😉

  • Sorry to have missed this one Anthony.

    “Dangerous” (lol) that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in a while!

    • I can laugh about it now, though it was shocking at the time. He had a legitimate concern, though – and I certainly take the concern seriously. I just think it was misplaced!

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