Helping teachers develop in their local contexts: A summary from IATEFL 2019
Of the many excellent talks, presentations and workshops held at IATEFL 2019 last week, one theme was noticeable in anything connected with teacher education and development: the need for a more bottom-up, participant-centred approach to the field. My own presentation, delivered late in the week, was informed (meaning revised and rewritten several times in the four days I was in Liverpool) in light of talks and showcase events that I attended, and served to consolidate many of the themes which were being discussed. This article will summarise those themes, and suggest how current developments in the thinking behind teacher development courses can inform our practice.
Traditional, ‘expert-led’ teacher development is simply not sustainable
The traditional form of teacher training and development activity, where an ‘expert in the field’ arrives at the school or training centre, delivers a week or so of training input to local teachers and then disappears at the ned of their contracted time has been shown to be ineffective in the long term. This ‘Jet-In-Jet-Out Expert’ model has several drawbacks:
It typically assumes a ‘deficit’ in the local teaching setting, implying that the educational environment, methodologies and resources suggested by the visiting expert are somehow better than those used by the participant teachers in their everyday setting. This reduces the power that participant teachers have over the realistic everyday challenges that they face.
Without significant amounts of groundwork prior to the training event, it is likely that the visiting ‘expert’ will not understand the challenges that participant teachers face, and so training will often not feel relevant to the teachers who attend.
Top-down training in contexts outside English-speaking environments will often push Communicative Language Teaching as a fix-all approach without taking into account local assumptions held by teachers, students, education authorities, parents and other stakeholders that participant teachers have to report to, directly or indirectly, in everything that they do. The conflict between CLT and other educational paradigms is one which was made brutally clear to Jim Scrivener in his debate with a representative of a large Chinese education organisation at a previous event.
The final, most pervasive feature of JIJOE training is what Holliday (1994) terms ‘tissue rejection’, whereby new methods and training content are rejected by the host teachers as they do not fit the existing paradigm within which they work. In terms of sustainable impact, this is the biggest barrier to development in teachers who attend traditional training events of this kind.
Teacher-centred development works best
Just as good teachers should listen to their students, and put their students at the centre of what they do, so effective teacher development needs to consider the needs of participant teachers above all else. Understanding the beliefs, assumptions, chosen methods and routines of teachers in specific TESOL contexts around the world is no simple job. Considering that most of the English teachers in the world work in public schools, teaching classes of upwards of 35 mixed-ability students with limited time and resources, while adhering to a strict, often very exam-oriented syllabus, and that every local educational paradigm differs in its priorities, there is a lot of groundwork to do before a teacher development project is put into action. In addition, the average language proficiency of English language teachers around the world is typically between CEFR B1 and B2, meaning that content needs to be planned in a graded way that will be understood during the training itself. Rather than taking a ‘jet-in’ approach, visiting trainers should rather ‘stroll in’ slowly, asking the teachers themselves to lead the way. Listening to the participant teachers from the very beginning of a development project’s conception is the only way to ensure that training activity is relevant and will be engaging for participants during the training event.
An added benefit of teacher-centred training is that participant teachers take a position of power over the content of the project, as it is their ideas, current practice, setting and roles which will inform what content will be delivered and how. Empowerment is an essential feature of any development activity, and should be a key objective of any trainer visiting a host context.
Teacher development needs to be planned with the local context in mind
Aspects of the local context which need to be considered include: teachers’ typical timetable, physical resources which are at their disposal, the culture of work for a teacher in that setting, the assumptions of the local educational paradigm (ie what is valued in education in that region), and what are defined as challenges for the participants in the specific setting where they work. This information will add relevance to planned content, ensure that teachers are respected for what they do rather than what they do not do, and help them to build on the positive aspects of the job that they do every day.
Again, the best way to find out this important information is to ask teachers directly, giving them the power over the training that is designed. After all, in reality it is they who are the experts in their specific settings, and the trainer who is more likely to be the novice, never having worked day-in and day-out in the workplace where participant teachers operate.
The best example of teacher-centred development projects was presented by Tilly Harrison of the University of Warwick, who showed how teachers in Ghana were encouraged to share positive practices, materials and resources which they used, helping their peers to develop in the low-resource settings where they worked. The star of the show was a teacher who led an ultra-engaging substitution drill / prediction game using a spinner he made out of discarded cardboard and a blade of dried grass. He held the room and gained the role of peer-trainer, leading to more sustainable impact on the participants than any JIJOE expert could achieve with Western-paradigm assumptions about the communicative classroom.
Solutions: Towards an effective teacher development system for teachers, no matter where they work
To draw together the best training and development practices for contextualised, empowering teacher development, I suggest that a truly sustainable training event in a local teaching setting should be formed of three stages:
1) Pre-course information gathering, where teachers are interviewed about the challenges they face in their daily work, and the successes that they feel in the job as they do it, and the trainer is trained in the features of the local teaching setting. This should be delivered in a plurilingual mode, enabling teachers to communicate their feelings in their L1 if they wish. Pre-course flipped content should be designed for participant teachers to have a choice of areas to focus their development, and are offered reading, tasks and video content to provide some background to effective theories of teaching and learning prior to the training event itself
2) The training event / course itself, which should be led by the wants, needs and best practices of the participants, including peer sharing, upgrade and alternative methods suggested by the visiting trainer in the context of participants’ setting.
3) Follow-up activity led jointly by trainers and ambassador teachers from the group, who can oversee continuous development activity through communities of best practice, peer-hosted meetings and focused observations, research and other sustained activity focused on key areas from the training itself.
In all, an effective period for teacher development activity should be between six months and one year, as shown by recent research by Silvana Richardson and Gabriel Diaz Maggioli performed in conjunction with Cambridge ESOL for their Principles of Best Practice for Effective Professional Development.
These solutions are far from the traditional, top-down approach to teacher development which has been the norm for too long. A contextually-informed approach is evident in many emerging teacher development frameworks and courses being developed by institutions such as Trinity College London.
For more information on how to organise a sustainable training event at your centre, or to incorporate development activity into your local context effectively through curriculum design, delivery and other consultation services, contact Language Point Teacher Education Ltd.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.