Communities of Practice

Several teacher development projects I have worked on recently have adopted a communities of practice (CoP) model. In the context of education, this places great emphasis on creating a network of teachers who learn together and from another, over time, with a common focus on improving their competence as practitioners. The British Council uses the term ‘Teacher Activity Groups’ (TAGs) to describe groups of teachers who engage in this form of collaborative professional development. One recent example of a TAG project is ‘English for the Community’, which was delivered in Romania by the British Council in partnership with the Romanian-American Foundation.

Over two years, some 150 primary and secondary teachers of English formed nine TAGs that met monthly. Each TAG was supported by two facilitators. Participation was voluntary and during their meetings the teachers engaged in various kinds of activities, such as sharing experiences from their classrooms, reading and discussing texts about aspects of language teaching and watching and reflecting on videos of teachers conducting classroom activities. At the end of each meeting teachers also did some action planning, thinking ahead to what new ideas they could try out in their own classrooms. In between the monthly meetings the teachers and facilitators kept in touch through WhatsApp and Facebook groups.

The evaluation of the project indicated that it was effectively delivered, highly appreciated by participants, and, above all, transformative in its effect on teachers’ understandings, confidence, attitudes and classroom practices. One aspect of TAGs that teachers consistently valued was the manner in which they reduced the feelings of isolation that teachers often experience. As one of the facilitators put it

“The TAGs were informal meetings, we all had the opportunity to talk, to share our ideas, just to share experiences and I think it was very important for us as teachers to see that other teachers struggle with the same issues that we do, we are not alone”.

The sense of belonging provided by TAGs also had positive consequences for how participants felt as teachers. One teacher explained that

“Another change was the boost in my confidence and motivation. I realized that I wasn’t alone in my struggles with the difficulties every teacher has to go through”.

Increased confidence and motivation also meant that teachers were more willing to innovate in their classrooms – in the words of another teacher, “I became not so afraid of trying out new things”.

Effective CoPs can bring about a transformation in teacher identity; in this project, teachers who initially saw themselves as isolated, uncertain, unable to effect change and often helpless in the face of pedagogical challenges developed new identities as valued members of supportive groups and who were willing and confident in their ability to make their lessons more enjoyable, motivating, interactive and productive for their learners.

Several factors (such as its extended nature, competent facilitators, teachers’ motivation to develop and practical and relevant content) contributed to the effectiveness of this project and these are pertinent to the design and implementation of teacher development initiatives more generally. Of utmost importance too was the positive, open, supportive and non-judgemental professional learning environment that TAGs created. The relatively modest scale and voluntary nature of this project may have also contributed to its success; CoPs through TAGs, though, are also being applied on a much larger scale elsewhere, for example in India and Egypt and there is evidence from such contexts too that teachers see much value in being part of sustained professional development networks.  

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Teacher Appraisal

I hope you have all been keeping safe.

A couple of years ago I was commissioned by the British Council to write a literature review on teacher evaluation in ELT. This was published in 2018 and is available here. Late in 2019, the Regional Center for Education Planning (RCEP) invited me to produce an updated and expanded analysis of teacher appraisal more generally (i.e. not specific to ELT) and this has recently been published. There are two documents:

Teacher Appraisal Working Paper
Teacher Appraisal Policy Brief

The Working Paper is a detailed analysis of the theory and practice of teacher appraisal worldwide while the Policy Brief provides a more concise overview of key issues.

Teacher appraisal can be defined simply as the process through which judgements about teacher competence are made. Factors that enhance this process are analysed in the reports, leading to this definition of effective teacher appraisal:

A multidimensional but coherent process which acknowledges the complexity of teaching, is grounded in sound standards, employs a range of good quality measures, utilises input from a range of appropriately prepared stakeholders (including teachers themselves), has discriminatory power, facilitates fair decisions, gives teachers at various points of their careers appropriate levels of support, and contributes to teacher professional development, career advancement, positive school cultures and improved student outcomes. [Borg, S. (2019). Contemporary perspectives on teacher appraisal: A working paper. RCEP, p. 2]

While the field of teacher appraisal is characterised by a large theoretical and research literature, concrete accounts of how teacher appraisal systems operate in language education contexts around the world remain limited. Evidence is also scarce about the effectiveness of language teacher appraisal systems – i.e. how far they support professional development, career advancement, positive school cultures and improved student outcomes.

One reason that evidence of this kind is important is that while it is possible to design what looks (on paper) like an effective teacher appraisal system, it is only through the systematic evaluation of what happens in practice that judgements about effectiveness can be made.

I would be interested in hearing about your experiences of teacher appraisal around the world, for example:

  • Do you work in a system or institution where teachers are appraised?
  • How often does appraisal take place?
  • What criteria are teachers appraised against?
  • Who conducts the appraisal?
  • What kinds of evidence are used to assess teacher competence?
  • How are the results of teacher appraisal used?
  • What benefits does teacher appraisal have for teachers, institutions and students?

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Education in Focus Podcast Series

One of the projects I recently completed (with my colleague Rob Lewis) was a podcast series about key educational issues.  The podcasts (which were commissioned by the British Council) focus on South Asia, but, as you will see from the list of topics below, the series is relevant to educators more generally.

In each episode different experts both from and outside South Asia discuss a particular theme, looking at research evidence and, very importantly, what it means in practice for improving the quality of education. The following episodes have been released so far and you can click on any of them to listen via Soundcloud (for other platforms see below):

Episode 1: Features of successful education systems
Episode 2: Raising student learning outcomes
Episode 3: Inclusive education
Episode 4: 21st Century Skills
Episode 5: English Medium Instruction (EMI)
Episode 6: Educational Planning

Episodes are released every two weeks and these topics will be covered in the rest of the series:

  • Technology in education
  • In-service teacher development
  • Teacher networks

The podcast is available on all the major podcast platforms including Soundcloud (which is the main hosting site), iTunes / Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Castbox, PlayerFm and Stitcher.

We hope you enjoy these podcasts. Please share them with your networks.

Posted in English medium instruction, podcasts, professional development, research | 1 Comment

Designing In-Service Workshops

I had the opportunity recently to do a workshop on grammar teaching with a group of around 90 mostly secondary school EFL teachers in Slovenia. This was a good opportunity for me to revisit some of my workshop design principles and how they might be translated into practice. Here’s a summary of my rationale and approach.

I’ve not received any feedback yet but the session (which I repeated twice which groups of around 40-45 each time) seemed to work reasonably well. In terms of personalisation, using teachers’ answers to a short pre-workshop online survey (which 84% of them completed) worked particularly well; to take one example that provided a focus for discussion (see the figure below – survey statements were longer), while 96% of the teachers agreed that learning grammar is more memorable when it is fun, only 29% agreed that their students enjoyed learning grammar. We then focused on how conventional grammar activities might be made more enjoyable.


What teachers think about aspects of grammar teaching (% agreeing – 82 responses)

What teachers do after the session is of course entirely up to them. I did include at the end of the handout advice on several options: read, experiment, share, review, reflect, design, and search. There was also a design task (transforming a conventional grammar activity into something more imaginative) which we did not do together but which teachers could do later, alone or with colleagues at work.

One additional way in which I might have further personalised the workshop would have been to ask teachers – either before or during the session – to look at a unit from their textbooks and to examine how grammar was approached there (it is important though to keep pre-workshop tasks simple). Or I could have included some examples from their textbooks in those that we discussed during the workshop.

If you organise workshops for teachers, I’d be interested in hearing about your design principles and your reflections on mine. If you are a teacher, are these principles the right ones for you or are there other concerns which those who plan workshops for teachers should pay more attention to?

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Perspectives on Teacher Research

In recent weeks I’ve run workshops on teacher research in two quite different university contexts. It was interesting to see how participants in these two contexts responded to the idea that teachers can, as a valid form of professional development, carry out systematic investigations of their own work and use these to improve teaching and learning.

In the first context several questions and comments arose about teacher research. Here are some examples, roughly paraphrased:

  • ‘Research must always start with a hypothesis’.
  • ‘This seems to be a form of adventurism’.
  • ‘How can teachers do research that is valid and reliable?’
  • ‘What about the control group?’
  • ‘How is it possible for teachers to do research with small samples of students?’
  • ‘How can teachers get their research published?’
  • ‘Teacher research is not academically sound’
  • ‘How can teachers study themselves?’

Many of these issues were addressed during the workshop, but they highlight one common obstacle to teacher research: adherence to one particular view of what research is. Concerns about hypotheses, control groups, sample sizes, academic soundness, publication and validity and reliability all stem from what might be called a conventional academic definition of research. Such issues are of course central to certain kinds of research, but productive engagement with teacher research requires a broader more inclusive view of systematic inquiry which accepts that:

  • it can be reflexive (we can study our own professional practices)
  • it can be practical (and feed back into practice)
  • it can be small scale (and very often benefits from being so)
  • it can be largely qualitative (without excluding the scope for quantitative work)
  • it does not have to adopt an experimental design
  • academic dissemination is not a primary goal (though sharing is certainly desirable)
  • conventional notions of validity and reliability are not the only criteria for judging teacher research (see Anderson & Herr 1999 for some alternatives).

Over the years I have found that an initial step in introducing teacher research is to give teachers and teacher educators time to explore their understandings of what research is to and begin to consider, where necessary, broader perspectives that are conducive to teacher research.  

The second context I visited recently has a strong culture of research-based pre-service teacher education and early on in the workshop I was reminded that ‘all our graduates have studied research methods’. This led to me think more about the relationship between research methods training on pre-service programmes and subsequent engagement by graduates in teacher research. I am not sure the connection between the two is as straightforward as may be assumed.

In this context, as in many others, all final year pre-service student teachers must complete a research project. In preparation for this they study research methods and become familiar with key concepts in the design and conduct of educational research. However, these projects cannot be called teacher research – the student teachers are not in schools and cannot study their own practices. Rather, they complete more conventional analyses of educational issues (for example, the role of music or games in learning or the features of a particular textbook). Student teachers are obliged to complete these projects and cannot graduate without doing so. Their motivations are thus likely to be primarily academic – i.e. passing the course. The results of their work have no immediate (and perhaps no subsequent either) implications for their teaching. And the work is most likely assessed according to typical university assessment criteria. While such projects introduce student teachers to educational research, they do not prepare them to see teacher research as a professional development activity they can engage in during their careers. In some ways, compulsory research projects of the academic kind (because of the demands they create) may even engender negative views of research in student teachers and make it less likely they will see teacher research as a rewarding form of professional development.

These two experiences leave me with two questions:

  1. What dispositions, knowledge and skills are conductive to graduates’ subsequent engagement in teacher research once they join the teaching workforce?
  2. How can pre-service teacher education foster in graduates these dispositions, knowledge and skills?
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