Look closer to home - why teachers develop best in their own classrooms
If you are an English-medium teacher working in a school, international university or IB / GCSE programme, your classroom is your own environment. We take a lot of time and care over the way we build our learning settings, making our job easier and giving our learners the stimulus they need to perform to their highest in our classes.
So why is it that when training events, CPD activities or development courses come around, teachers are typically removed from their classrooms and gathered in unfamiliar settings - staff rooms, different classrooms or halls, which do not reflect the features of the settings where they work every day? Taking teachers out of their natural habitat has been shown to reduce the impact of professional development activity, making training less sustainable and its impact shorter-lived than in-service development activity (Guskey 2002, Al Qasimi 2017, Ali Raza 2010) and development work which implements communities of practice based around teachers classrooms and the specific learner groups that they teach. These communities of practice must be based in teachers’ classrooms and should be informed by the contextual factors which define the educational settings where their students learn.
The learning setting is wider than the physical environment
The features of institutions, the expectations of teachers and learners about what education is, and the physical and digital resources available to teachers and students all affect how teachers teach and learners learn. In addition, this influences the ways that teachers develop their classroom practice. Removing teachers from their daily work can create an overly generalised, expert-driven development setting which does not relate directly enough to the areas which teachers need to develop in their own practice This lack of relevance can in turn lead to disillusionment and a lack of motivation to apply what has been covered in the training when they return to their daily teaching.
In order for teacher development activity to have an impact on what is done in the classroom, it must be sustainable, meaning that the changes in thinking which occur during training should wash over into the teaching and learning that happens in participants’ classrooms. The closer the development activity is to the teaching setting, the more relevant the activity will be to the teachers and their learners, and the more impactful the outcomes which result.
What about online learning environments?
With the increase in online education over recent years, a greater need has arisen for online teachers’ CPD. The Internet is awash with introductory videos, ‘how to’ webinars and guides to the more popular online learning platforms, but is this enough to provide online teachers with rounded development in this emerging specialism? Again, this kind of development resource often requires teachers to leave their regular online teaching environments to learn about new ways of doing things, and does not allow for integration of learned approaches into their classes as the development activity takes place.
As with professional development for physical classroom teachers, the best way to ensure that training is relevant and applicable to the real classrooms where the teaching and learning takes place, is for teachers to apply what they learn and reflect on the changes they are making to their real work.
Moving towards learner-centred development activity
The most important feature of a learning setting has to be the students themselves. Learners in any classroom represent the most varied and variable set of factors which teachers have to manage. This includes everything that learners bring to the educational setting - their assumptions about education, their preferred ways of doing things, their likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and a million other personal factors which set them apart from any other group of learners in the world.
Taking teachers out of the classroom to train removes them from what matters most: their learners. Without applying what is being learnt as it is being learnt, the integration of training activity, teaching and reflection is less possible, lowering the impact of the training and making change less likely to occur.
So what is the solution?
Truly sustainable, relevant and applicable development comes with this integration of developmental activity: the ability to learn about new ways of doing things, try them out with real learners, and reflect on how effective the experience was for everyone in the class. It is essential to evaluate methods, approaches, resources and materials in terms of their real impact on learning, in the real classroom where the impact will be felt by the students themselves.
This approach to development should be contextually-informed, and should involve continuous development focus from participant teachers, including communities of practice and teacher development groups which communicate beyond any individual training event, and go forward into participant teachers’ future practice.
Tom Garside is Director for Language Point Teacher Education, a training provider which is validated to deliver the new Level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification for online and classroom language educators with a language proficiency of CEFR B2 and above.
Al Qasimi Foundation, 2017. How to Run Sustainable Teacher Professional Development Programs
Thomas Guskey, 2002 Professional development and teacher change
Naziha Ali Raza, 2010. The Impact of EFL PD in UAE