Are Current Teacher Training Methods in ESL/EFL a Waste of Time?

This morning I got a text message from a friend attending a ‘teacher training’ conference that resonated with a lot of my experiences with ‘teacher training’:

“guess what? Yet again all the activities they are telling us to do are for high level, motivated kids, what a surprise”

Personally I’ve had very mixed experiences with teacher training, only last week I had a great experience (thanks to @michaelgriffin), but more than its fair share has, unfortunately, been very negative. I feel that ELT as an industry suffers from genuinely believing that there is a ‘best way’ of teaching, and that many of the training courses, such as the CELTA (which I will probably unfairly focus on here as it is the benchmark of entry level teaching qualifications and something I have firsthand knowledge of), compulsory teacher training workshops and ‘assessed lessons’ amplify this problem.

From my experience it seemed to me the entire point of the CELTA and similar courses was to train teachers to teach in a certain way, to lesson plan in a certain way, and to deal with students in a certain way. You are set up with a group of no more than 20 adult students and asked to deliver a lesson that allows the examiner to tick a certain number of boxes and then tell you afterwards in the ‘feedback’ session which boxes you did or didn’t tick and why. Well that’s great and I learnt a lot of great techniques, if for the rest of my career I’m going to be in exactly the same situation. But how about when you leave your one month training course and the teaching methods you’ve been trained to use don’t work? What about if your first job is in a public school with 35 1st grade Korean elementary students? And, what if I didn’t tick those boxes? Does that make me a bad teacher that doesn’t deserve an entry level qualification? I could have a very good reason for wanting to deal with a situation differently to my CELTA instructor, but that wouldn’t matter, it wouldn’t have been the ‘CELTA way’, at least this was my experience.

It’s not that I necessarily dislike the CELTA or other similar course, or that I don’t think they teach some excellent techniques for teaching in certain contexts, but it, as all training courses, have a responsibility to make it absolutely clear to the participants that this is ONE way of teaching, not THE way of teaching. These highly regarded qualifications are completely misguiding their customers and the industry in sending them away from the course with the belief they have just learnt the right way to teach, and there is no wonder this misinformed idea is then getting passed on to other training seminars such as the one my friend has attended above and I’m sure almost every other teacher in the industry has attended at some point. For me, what these courses have a responsibility to do is encourage reflective and post-modern practice as being absolutely essential to the teachers’ further development once they leave the course, and this is where they are shirking their responsibility.

Reflective practice encourages teachers to question what they are doing in the classroom and why they are doing it. By doing this it helps teachers find their own answers, become their own expert and develop their own pedagogy to fit their context. Something I’ve really enjoyed about my M.A course (with University of Nottingham) is that it has never suggested that there is a best way to teach, but has challenged us to consider our own teaching beliefs. For me, if a teacher can become competent in reflective practice they will continually develop and improve. I was lucky enough to attend a reflective workshop seminar with Dr. Thomas Farrell last month in which he challenged us to question how we teach and why we teach the way we do, he had us question the very concept of method and even (but this was beyond me) second language acquisition. It helped us draw on all the knowledge we have as teachers, knowledge from our classroom, knowledge from reading blogs, knowledge from training courses, knowledge from research and knowledge from our instincts and experiences to create and continually develop our own pedagogy. We were encouraged to try new things, who cares if they weren’t in a trainers ‘core’ textbook, if it doesn’t work at least you tried it and can learn form it.

I think my feelings and experiences strongly resonate with Kumaravadivelu (2012) when he described the methods such teacher training courses, compulsory workshops and assessed lessons advocate as being’

“non location-specific, not derived from their classroom; it is artificially transplanted into it; it can not be implemented as is”.

We are the only people that really know our true teaching context, and so for me teacher training should be about training ourselves to improve ourselves, it literally drives me mad to be at compulsory workshops such as the one my friend was at today with someone I have never met preaching to me what I should be doing with my students that he or she has never met. I absolutely agree with the work of Kumaravadivelu (2012) and the 5 statements he makes about current teacher training:

a) any meaningful, context-sensitive pedagogic knowledge can emerge only from the classroom;

b) it is the practicing teacher who is well placed to produce and apply that knowledge;

c) current approaches to language teacher education are mostly aimed at preparing teachers to become consumers, not producers, of pedagogic knowledge;

d) the fast evolving global society with its incessant and increased flow of peoples, goods and ideas across the world is placing huge responsibilities on the shoulders of student teachers, practicing teachers and teacher educators; and therefore;

e) we need to re-view and re-vision language teacher education if we are serious about helping language teaching professionals become strategic thinkers, exploratory researchers and transformative intellectuals.
(Kumaravadivelu, 2012).

Do the people that design the CELTA and other similar courses know my students, my school, my materials or the learning goals of my institution? I believe teacher training should concentrate on providing the skills for teachers to create their own pedagogy, not follow that of others. Courses such as the CELTA and compulsory training sessions such as the above can undoubtedly and essentially increase a teachers’ knowledge as to the options available to them as teachers, but they are shirking their responsibility to the industry by failing to inform the participants that this is only one way of doing things, not necessarily the right way of doing things.

What have your experiences of teacher training been? Do you think we need to develop the way we look at teacher training or have I been waaaaaay to harsh? I welcome all comments!

If you like, or I guess dislike, this, you can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

01/06/12 – Some minor edits as I feel I had unfairly tarred optional teachers conferences, paid for training courses and compulsory teacher training workshops with the same brush. For me, optional conferences are exactly that, they are a chance for teachers to choose to hear another teachers opinion on a certain topic and learn from that, and as such I should have distinguished them as separate from paid for training courses and compulsory seminars/workshops throughout this blog.

References:
 
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2012a) Language Teacher Education for a Global Society: a modular model for knowing, analyzing, recognizing, doing, and seeing. New York/Abingdon: Routledge.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2012b) The Word and the World. Marcoele Revisita de Didáctica [online]14: 1 – 9. Available at http://marcoele.com/descargas/14/kumaravadivelu-interview.pdf

Comments

CABS
31/05/2012 04:03

Okay I’ll bite
Firstly I think you miss understand what CELTA tries to do. I often compare it to a learning to drive. In my driving lessons I learnt to reverse around a corner, (a skill I have never used since) but I didn’t learn to drive on a motorway, (a skill I needed to teach myself.)
Initial training courses are exactly like that. Intended to give you an introduction and some basic skills.
Secondly you ask – Do the people that design the CELTA and other similar course know my students, my school, my materials or the learning goals of my institution? and say teacher training is training ourselves to improve This implies to me that teacher training should only come from within one specific environment. It is extremely closed minded and not opening the eyes to other environments we can learn from.
Thirdly i run a lot of teacher training and I admit that when demoing an activity a lot of it is ‘perfect world’ scenario. But I also question the participants and challenge them to think how it is best applied to their own teaching environments.

Reply
31/05/2012 04:58

To answer your comments, I’d first like to address your analogy, when you learn to drive and you pass your test you are made fully aware that you are by no means a fully competent driver, you are expected to display a green P sign (at least in the U.K), I don’t take any issue with the skills that are developed during the CELTA course, I am myself thankful for them and still regularly choose from the knowledge I have of teaching some of those techniques if upon reflection I feel they fit the context.

What I do take issue with is how many courses advocate it as often the best way to teach and thus discourage reflective practice in the future. Teachers need to be trained in how to instantly reflect on what is happening in their classroom at that time. It is certainly a way to teach, and often an effective way to teach, but participants have, in my opinion, to be made aware that there are other methods that may be more suitable and the skills in choosing the said methods be developed. This in turns allows continual professional development throughout their teaching career. In this I find myself in agreement with Tomlinson (2002) that such courses can result in participants either being “so convinced of the value of their new wisdom that they rush back to their schools with revolutionary zeal and unthinkingly impose methods and materials from their in-service course on their bewildered students before having to revert to their “old” approach when the received supply of materials and ideas runs out; OR become total converts to the new approach and fail to see the inappropriacy of some of its aspects to the realities of their teaching situation.”
Tomlinson (2002: n.p.)

Regarding your third comment, I wish you were my trainer during the CELTA course I took many years ago and the many teaching workshops I have attended since, I was told during my course that in absolutely no uncertain terms should I question my CELTA instructor about whether the methods I was being told to use were really the best for the given situation, and one other person on my course was warned that he may be asked to leave for doing so. However I believe that most teacher trainers are in no way like this.

But please don’t get me wrong, I learnt some valuable teaching tools during my CELTA, but I wish they had made me aware there were more out there.

Reply
31/05/2012 05:08

Sorry the comments system knocked off the top of my reply I just posted, I think I need to fix my website a bit!!! Anyway it started like this…..

Hi CABS,

First of all thanks for taking the time to read and post such constructive comments on my blog, it’s much appreciated.

Reply
31/05/2012 04:40

I’m taking CELTA this summer to open my eyes a little. I’m not new to teaching obviously but I think it’s about time I got some criticism from people that want me to present material in a different way to hoe I normally would– I know I need better CCQ awareness, I’m also taking CELTA outside of Korea where I can’t rely on my Korean crutch in the classroom when my teacher talk gets lost in translation.

Reply
31/05/2012 04:46

(comment box is not mobile friendly…)
My experiences with teacher training have been varied.
– My undergrad TESOL was vague but allowed freedom and constructive feedback.
– My grad school primary education was rather more rigid and I disagreed with a lot of the rigidity and lack of freedom to conduct leasons how we see fit… I gather this was because I marginally experienced so ‘thought’ I knew what was best….

Reply
31/05/2012 04:49

– My masters program was basically a full-time version of the Farrell workshop… so, you can imagine having a close network to question you and bounce ideas off everyday.. best educational experience of my life!

Andee
31/05/2012 04:51

Oh, and I learnt to reverse around a corner and drive on a motorway during driving lessons, and use them both almost daily 🙂

Reply
31/05/2012 05:13

Hi Andee!

Really nice to have a teacher of your experience commenting here mate!

I completely agree in that I think most teachers have had mixed experiences, I think a lot of it might depend on the trainer involved. During your CELTA you might have an instructor that encourages questioning why he advocates the use of certain methods for certain contexts. Unfortunately mine very much didn’t!

Regarding the M.A I completely know where you’re coming from, when mine finishes I’m going to feel completely lost to be honest, I might ask if I can retake and the other optional modules! Despite my rant above I’m also strongly considering doing the DELTA as I’ve heard good things about it.

I hope you weren’t reversing round a corner from a minor to a major?!

Reply
Jason
03/06/2012 19:49

Hey Alex,

This is Jason, living here in Malaysia. I remember well when we did our CELTA together. I thought that I was coming out of that program ready to tackle the world. But on first opportunity….useless!! Well, I shouldn’t say that. The CELTA method is for what you described, the “dream scenario.” I’m now doing teacher training myself here in Malaysia and agree 100% that reflective practice is needed. Many of teachers have no idea why they do things, they only know that’s what’s expected of them.

Great blog and observations!

Jason

Reply
06/06/2012 16:46

Hi Jason,

It’s great to hear from you mate! I had exactly the sentiments upon leaving our CELTA course, and I also agree that when I entered a Korean high school classroom most of it was quite honestly useless for my context.

How are you enjoying Malysia? There is a possibility that I might be looking to leave Korea in the next year or so, so I’d be really interested to hear what you have to say about it. Maybe you drop me an email? walshy210284@gmail.com.

Really nice to hear from you,

Alex

Reply
Manpal
14/06/2012 22:01

Teacher training workshops by nature be can’t be very specific since teachers are coming from different schools and no two teaching contexts are exactly alike. I think the problem may lie with how the teacher trainer presents his/her ideas to the workshop participants. If they show an activity and say “this is an awesome activity and you should do it this way” then I agree they are at fault.

Teacher trainers would serve their audience better by showing some activity/method/technique, discuss why it can work well and also disclose some potential pitfalls, and then get the participants to discuss variations on how they could adapt and use the ideas in their particular teaching contexts.

For your friend who said:

“guess what? Yet again all the activities they are telling us to do are for high level, motivated kids, what a surprise”

I would say “Ok, do you have low level, unmotivated students? How do you think you could adjust the activities to make it possibly work in your classrooms?”

Many people say they are “adaptable” in job interviews… perhaps they should prove it in teacher training sessions.

I agree that reflection is lacking in many teacher training courses around the world (particularly CELTA). I wish more administrators would see the benefit of reflection and make it an integral part of their programs.

I can understand the frustrations of going to teacher training workshops and feel it was a waste of time. I’ve been there before as well. But if we truly believe in reflection, we don’t we try to be uber reflective and reflect on how we take the trainer’s ideas and mold them into something viable for our own teaching contexts?

By the way… in case you were wondering I saved Michael Griffin’s career.

Reply
14/06/2012 22:45

Hi Manpal,

First of all thanks for such a specific and constructive comment.

I believe we are thinking on very similar wavelengths here. Regarding the teacher training workshops, the one I have had with my current employer (who you know) used a process very similar to what you have described, and it was very productive. Unfortunately, my experiences with my previous employers (who you also know!), which was the same employer as who organised the workshop my friend was attending, did not provide such opportunities for reflection on how they can make the activity useful for their context.

Often such workshops are for entry level teachers who may not be aware of the benefits of, or trained in the skills needed for, reflective practice. For me, this makes it the responsibility of the trainer/employer to guide the participants into reflecting on the ideas being shared with them.

Regarding the CELTA and other similar courses, something I’ve found very interesting is that a lot of them (including the CELTA) claim to be reflective due to the nature of the ‘feedback’ sessions. For me, this isn’t the true nature of self reflection, as, in my experience it was forced reflection to try and say the right things to the trainers who often encourage a certain way of teaching and thinking. I was wondering what you think about such courses claiming to be reflective in nature?

Oh and just so you don’t have to worry about him, I’m saving Michael Griffin’s career as we speak, someone has to!

Reply
30/07/2012 22:54

I have read the article, and I want to say thanks to you for exceptional information. You have provided deep and easily understandable knowledge to us.

Reply
Russ
13/09/2012 04:18

If you can get hold of swan’s article “why we need methods” you might enjoy it.

Reply
AlienTeachers
25/09/2012 19:53

Hi Russ,

first of all thanks for the taking the time to read my blog and also thanks for the recommendation, I’m going to try and find it now,

Alex

Reply
Siow Chin
20/09/2012 08:43

You are speaking my language! Recently, my school went into this ‘revolution’ of teaching method and our current methods are being viewed as outdated. I am utterly puzzled by this expiry date issue of teaching method.

I totally agree with you on reflective practice. This is definitely one of the most effective ways of improving our teaching. Our audience changes constantly and not one method we can apply exactly the same way. Only through our own reflection can we realise the actual need of our teaching.

Interesting to note that you did your masters with University of Nottingham. That is what I am currently doing and struggling. I started my course in June this year at the Malaysia campus. After 20 odd years of absence from academic study, I am struggling to complete my first assignment mainly due to the horrific workload caused by the ‘revolution’ in school. My biggest difficulty is finding and reviewing literature. Again, I asked myself if this is really what I want to do as I find it very theoretical. From your positive remarks about the course, perhaps, you could give me some advice regarding this.

Thanking you in advance.

Reply
AlienTeachers
25/09/2012 19:58

Hi Siow Chin,

That’s really interesting regarding your institutions decision, did they back it up with a reason or evidence as to why they thought the current methods are ineffective?

Regarding the M.A, I haven’t quite finished yet, but ye at the beginning I also really really struggled with time management and lack of practice with formal academic writing etc. I have to say it has got much easier now, so hang in there! I’m on my last optional module before starting the thesis and I actually find it quite relaxing these days which is a huge change to how I felt in the first couple of units/modules.

Regarding the theoretical side of it, again, I felt exactly the same as you at the beginning of the course, I’m very practical in the way I think about teaching and the way I think we should speak about teaching, I don’t see SLA as an answer to our classroom problems, and this did bother me, but it does get more reflective in nature, although it would have liked a more practical side to the course myself.

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, I would love to know more about your situation at your institution,

All the best,

Alex

Reply

Really very good and I appreciate it. It’s hard to sort out between good and bad sometimes; you write very well which is amazing. I really impressed by your post.

Reply
20/10/2012 04:18

Thanks for your interesting post. I agree that initial training such as CELTAs may be problematic in many ways, but I’m not sure to what extent this is due to lack of reflection. I mean, it seems to me your friend reflected on the teacher training session he received – that it wasn’t for him / low level learners. Is that ‘good’ reflection or not? I don’t know. I also find the quote from Tomlinson amusing becuase, although I actually agree with some of his views on materials, he always strikes me as quite a dogmatic and self-referential writer. Is his beef simply that the ‘new wisdom’ that is imposed is not his own?! What would an initial training which encourages divergent reflection look like – especially when the teaching practice is in one context (for which presumably the chosen pedagogy works) and where trainees have limited knowledge of ELT? These are genuine questions which I’m trying to find an answer as I’ve been developing an alternative course to CELTA myself. At the moment I’m wondering if we should just abandon the idea of reflection and just me more upfront that a) this is one way, though it’s shared by others and b) be clear on the rationale which may be later challenged.
In contrast, for me the biggest issue with these four-week courses is that they persist with a grammar-dominant view of language and consequently they don’t teach enough about giving good examples of vocabulary in use, noticing patterns, asking questions to students that generate more language etc. This is compounded by both the shortness of the course itself and of the individual lessons which inevitably lead trainees to be reluctant to engage with students and language.
However, even if we had courses that were better at this, the real, real problem is not with the initial training course, but with the schools who believe that a four-week course is sufficient training. Cambridge makes clear that a pass grade at CELTA (approximately two thirds of the candidates) means that teachers require further training and support: they are NOT independent teachers. Yet how many receive that support?

Reply
Khudri
14/11/2012 08:12

Well said! Of course, we can’t deny that every one of us would have totally different classroom environments and students. Because of this, there’s definitely NO best teaching method. But yeah, we’re from Gen-Y (I’m 26). So, I can imagine learning reading comprehension in secondary school (for example) would be very boring when my teacher would ask the whole class to read for 5 minutes and find the answers. From my observation in a few schools and universities, teachers would apply conventional methods to teach, mostly chalk-talk. Well, no. It should be marker pens and talk. I realized something bad about myself – I could see myself doing it! So I chose ‘teaching reflection practice’ for my M.Ed.‘s project paper to ‘repair’ myself.
OK, maybe schools or other learning institutions nowadays already have their own evaluation system or something like that. But, the way I experienced it, it’ll just become another habit in a day’s work. Teachers would fill in the progress reports/analysis/etc. at the end of the day/week and do nearly nothing to improvise. Another factor would be Malaysian school system is highly exam-oriented. So, improvisations will only take place during the intense preparations for exam-taking skills rather than proper L2 skills. So I came up with my own reflection checklist, fill them up and analyze them every time I ended my classes, and construct countermeasures for my problems a.s.a.p. I’d ask for help from my colleagues and not from conferences or trainings, simply because ONLY WE KNOW how our students are like. Just like how you stated it.
That is why for now; I’d definitely incorporate the use of technology in my classes whenever possible because they love it! It’s the most suitable countermeasure so far. They would instantaneously pay attention/think critically/engage in discussions the moment I ask them to take out their handphones to be described with adjectives or used with verbs/tenses, or compare-contrast on two latest models of laptop to initiate academic argumentative skills, or discuss about the latest Japanese comics’ (scanned-and-translated manga) development, or even if it means only a minute or two of browsing/skimming the highlighted news at Yahoo.com. They hate books and speaking out loud in class; I don’t blame them. I can’t blame them, in fact. Maybe it’s a family/tradition thing, culture/religion thing, personality thing, who knows. I don’t have the time to do research on every student comprehensively. So the best way is to do research on myself.
p/s: Don’t really know about other countries, but most Malaysian teachers who came out from national teacher training colleges will definitely use conventional methods. This is because one of the compulsory requirements to become a lecturer in these colleges is they must have at least 5 years of teaching experience in government schools. Say you taught in universities for years, you have Master or PhD, but you had never taught in a government school for full 5 years, then you won’t be accepted. Simply put, the conventional cycle doesn’t end. Most teacher trainees are hardwired with conventional methods passed down from the conventional ex-teachers in teacher training colleges.

Reply
26/12/2012 03:38

Hi Alex,
And here I was thinking I was the only one ranting and raving… especially in my “left to hang” and “empty vessel” posts. Diverting from plans and what one is taught is kinda frowned upon. And in my course, nothing about CPD or Reflective practice was mentioned at all. I enjoyed the course more than I enjoyed learning to drive 🙂 but still lots can be done to update and improve the programme (mentioned in my empty vessel post and subsequent comments).
Cheers,
Chiew

Reply
31/12/2012 02:56

Hello Alex,

Great post. Thanks so much for the mention as well. That workshop seems like it was ages ago. I guess it was. I now noticed there are lots of great comments here so I worry that I don’t have much to add.

As you know, I was not a super satisfied CELTA customer. I think part of it came from the idea that the trainer knew and had “the way” of teaching and our job was to follow and discover this way.
(I fully realize that not all CELTA courses are like this or that all trainers are like this. That was my experience. As you know, I felt that questioning this way (which I know believe is a great way to learn) caused me to be perceived in a less than favorable way.

This is actually one of the reasons that I am such a believer in the SIT TESOL certificate (permit me to share a link? http://www.sit.edu/graduate/6882.htm

I think it is wonderful that reflection is at the core of the course.

I think you have already seen this article but a lot of it hit home with me http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/3242/1/WRAP_Mann_2_Copland_Ma_Mann_rev.pdf

Anyway, I think that part of what you were talking about is the problem of trainers (or presenters) presuming to know the way and trying to pass on this knowledge wholesale to trainees/audience members. Of course there is a a lot more to it!

I also think that the idea of simply sharing activities in workshops is problematic in this regard as well..

Ok I will stop there before it becomes 2013.

Thanks so much for the insightful blog posts throughout the year.

Cheers,
Mike

PS1- That interview with Kumar is great. Thanks for sharing.
PS2- I didn’t manage to find the article that Russ mentioned. (Did you?)
PS3- Nice alien logo. Very nice.

Reply
Kate
21/04/2013 09:49

OMG i’m sooo glad to have come across your page. Okay, I gotta calm down here.
I have had exactly the same feelings and opinions. I’m doing Tesol, and now i’m in the TP part and I’ve decided to call it a day. While I had enjoyed the methodology part, I think it gives me more options and more variety of different ways to teach, but if you ask me to follow exactly the procedures of each lesson type, to ‘perform’ the checkpoints for the sake of the checkpoints- I just can’t do it- I feel so artificial and forced on a personal level as a teacher. Tesol is based on idea of SLA, and who says SLA is unquestionable? Anyhow, thank you for your article. I’m glad I read it now I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way!

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