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Each To Their Own.

June 10, 2012
It’s fairly typical to have different levels of learner within language schools. Whether or not you agree with the thinking behind this, it is common in most contexts. However, I doubt there are many/any teacher training centres which divide up their trainees in this way. (Please correct me if I am wrong!) It would be near impossible to make such a venture profitable, as most training centres do not have the luxury of endless hoards of applicants etc…
This puts the teacher trainer in front of a group of trainees that will undoubtedly have different levels of experience, knowledge, understanding and ability, which throws up some questions:

Is this a problem? Does this mean some trainees will miss out? How can we deal with this differentiation?

I don’t think this is a problem as such, but rather a challenge for the trainer because they need to ensure that they are providing the right type of challenge to the right type of trainee at a time which is most likely to result in development, rather than confusion. On typical four-week intensive courses, stress is common (for both trainee and trainer!), and it becomes part of the trainer’s job to lessen the impact of this on the trainees. Therefore, when helping with teaching practice preparation, the trainer must be careful not to overload the trainee with ideas that they will not be able to digest in the (often short) time allotted, but also they should be helping each trainee reach their potential by helping them to try out new ideas of their own devising, develop those ideas, critically analyse the approach they intend to take in the lesson, etc…
To each according to ability.
It is a fact that some trainees are more capable of going through this process than others, so as trainers we need to be aware of the capabilities of each trainee and guide them accordingly. This is fairly simple when dealing with individual lesson preparation, but what about when designing the input schedule?
Of course a pre-service teacher training course needs to deal with the basics first, but at what stage should the course offer trainees alternatives to the concepts already presented?
In feedback recently, when asked how he would solve an self-identified problem with teacher-fronted-ness in his lesson, a trainee told me he had originally planned something different (namely a Task-Teach-Task lesson shape), but had decided that it wasn’t “the right way” because it didn’t follow the lesson shape which he had been shown in input sessions. It was, however, the perfect solution, and would have seen him working with emergent language whilst also gauging the existing knowledge level in the room and teaching accordingly. Of course, he could have run this T-T-T idea by me and I would have told him to go for it, but he didn’t because he didn’t think it was “the right way”. What a shame, I told him, I would have loved to have seen him try out this idea.
Who’s in control now? 
I don’t think that holding back ideas is productive or that it will help trainees become the best teacher they can be. I think offering alternatives and suggestions is a necessary feature of input, preparation and feedback sessions. By witholding ideas, we are retaining a lot of control over what takes place in teaching practice, and this could be potentially harmful to a teacher’s development both during and after the course. I would suggest that allowing trainees the chance to experiment with their own ideas as early on as possible, and during the relative safety of the course, will help them to translate this experimentation into their future teaching careers. Of course, this needs to be done with due care, as too many ideas could lead some trainees to the point of confusion and thereby mean they deliver a substandard lesson, but this doesn’t mean we should avoid it completely.
Time is of the essence during these teacher training courses, so how can we build in more information on different approaches? Not an easy task… But definitely possible. A standard feature of pre-service courses is observation of experienced teachers. How about using this time to introduce some differing approaches to the ones covered in input? I realise that in some centres, the trainees are almost randomly sent to different classrooms to observe lessons, in some they observe their tutors teaching learners and in others they have to go and observe at different institutions. It would take a bit of extra organising, but I think it should be possible to liaise with the observed teachers, or for the tutors to be observed teaching learners and to provide time for reflection on the lessons that have been observed with regard to how they compare to those lesson shapes/teaching styles/approaches that have been presented to the trainees already.
Is this a preposterous idea?
Just as I believe we shouldn’t hold back on teaching the future perfect to a pre-intermediate learner because it is in the domain of the upper intermediates, neither should we hold back on using different task types in teaching practice just because they haven’t had an input session on it or because it is not part of the course.
Do you agree?
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