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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?
12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2012 4:41 pm

    I remember on my course there were state school teachers, non native teachers (who had never got a CELTA) as well as completely newbies like me. I’m sure we all had different needs during the different input sessions. I certainly could have benefited learning about t-t-t (which came up during a feedback session after a pretty bad lesson). Thanks for the thoughts and bringing up some old memories.

    • June 16, 2012 11:35 am

      Thanks for commenting Chris, and I am sorry for taking so long to reply.

      I think this implicit teaching of alternatives has its place feedback sessions, which is another reason why these sessions shouldn’t be rushed(which they often can be due to timetable constraints).

      Glad I brought back some memories of your Celta. Sounds like mine was a little different to yours in that we were all native speakers and complete newbies, but tht’s what’s interesting about these courses, as the groups are different every time.

      Have a good weekend!

  2. June 10, 2012 8:57 pm

    I really support your approach to individualization but am somewhat puzzled as I don’t know enoough about the training system. Do the trainees take an entrance exam? In what way do you see the differences, personal learning styles, level of English or degree of experience teaching?
    Hear hear to your points on “control”!

    • June 16, 2012 12:01 pm

      Hi Naomi,

      Thanks once again for commenting, and I apologise for the delay in my reply. It’s been a busy week!

      I’ve see that Laura has briefly explained things over on your blog, but just to take that a step further:

      in order to get onto these pre-service courses (be it the 4 week full time or longer part time), people need to either be a native speaker or have near-native competence. They are interviewed, normally by the head of teacher training at the specific centre they are applying to. The interview aims to uncover if they will be able to cope with the demands of the course in terms of language ability, Language awareness, etc… There is no exam.
      If they are accepted, they complete a pre- course task (which in the case of Celta is provided by Cambridge). This includes an introduction to language analysis (basics only), and touches on classroom methodology (again, basic). in Hamburg, the Celta course I worked on insisted that the applicants had taken foreign language lessons as an adult before they started the course, but this is not a requirement. It is really left up to the centre to decide if they think a person is suitable or not.

      This process is not infallible. There are sometimes those applicants who get onto the course who perhaps don’t have the ability to pass. Most who start lack basic language awareness and this is one of the big challenges to overcome as the course progresses, alongside learning all the classroom methodology stuff.

      Trainees can differ in as many ways as you can imagine! Be it previous experience, which can either be a blessing or a burden. I’ve had trainees with over ten years experience in TEFL who haven’t passed the course because they. I’ve also had trainees who have had some experience, realised they needed to hone their skills and come to the course with an open mind and don’t assume they know everything just because they have sme experience.

      Some differ in language awareness. I find that the non-native speakers often have better language awareness than the native speakers. (perhaps not surprisingly) They may struggle with how to think of an item of lexis if put on the spot in lessons, or find drilling a real challenge, but ask them what a relative pronoun is and they will be able to tell you!

      Learning styles are a clear difference, as with any learning group, and courses should provide enough differently approached inputs etc… To deal with this. Again, this is centre-specific.

      There are many debates about these courses being a rather mass-produced way of creating new teachers. I have to say that sometimes I agree. But that is the industry model and demand for teachers is high, so if we expected all our teachers to fork out for a longer, more complicated course in order to begin teaching, we would shrink the industry. Is that a problem? Hmmm…. Difficult question. I think one thing that we definitely should expect is for our teachers to be experts in what they are teaching. This is why I get annoyed at the argument against Dogme that it is too hard for teachers to teach without a textbook! But that’s another story…

      Does that help Naomi? Let me know if you have any other questions.

  3. June 16, 2012 1:33 pm

    That helped a great deal! Thank you!

  4. July 3, 2012 2:36 am

    What a fascinating read. I don’t train teachers in a pre-service course, so rarely think much about their training beyond the role I have within the TESL organisation they are accredited through. I love the idea of having trainees observe different approaches to lesson planning and delivery. It’s always irked me that TESL courses her focus solely on the ‘easiest’ and ‘logical’ and limited, PPP.

  5. Anthony Gaughan permalink
    July 7, 2012 3:29 pm

    Slowly catching up with my bedtime reading (albeit at 3 in the afternoon…): thank you for writing this up, Jem.

    It would be fascinating, wouldn’t it, to stream a CELTA by ability – but those who seem stronger pre-course or even in the first week aren’t necessarily those who really fly by the end, so perhaps the idea of groups per se is the real problem. 121 teacher training – pity it is never going to be financially viable (how I loathe that adverb-adjective collocation…)

    I’d agree with you that modelling alternatives to approaches presented in input has lots of advantages. That said, observing a range of lessons and synthesising what was noticed in subsequent input sessions might be a way to square the circle. Trouble is, I suspect that most centres have input preceding any observation, thus killing off this potential. In general, I think there is far too little use made of observation, and would like to see a lot more of it, and a lot more time to discuss it afterwards. It’s the lack of time to discuss and explore that I think is the real limiting factor, which is what leads to centres choosing to narrow the focus to a very small set of techniques that can be controlled.

    But none of this explains where trainees get the idea from that they need to follow a “monkey see, monkey do” (or rather: “monkey not seen, monkey dare not do”) line. We can be as open to ideas and experimentation as we like, but if trainees don’t feel empowered or confident to do so, regardless of what we say, nothing will change.

    So for me the question is: how can centres and trainess as far as possible ensure that trainees feel this freedom and support as early as possible?



    PS: congratulations on your overnight century!

  6. December 28, 2012 3:44 pm

    6 months and no new blog post… I want to read something new from you!

  7. October 22, 2013 5:04 am

    I agree with you that we shouldn’t be hindered by our course syllabus or outline. We teachers should be free to customize when needed for our students. I had learners who are already in the advanced class but still they have not mastered the basic grammar concepts. So I had to reteach them again.


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