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?

Posted in grammar, presentations, professional development | 3 Comments

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?
Posted in professional development, teacher research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Making Educational Reform Work

One of the projects I am currently working is called English for Universities (EfU). This has been running for four years in Ukraine, with a dual focus on improving the quality of ESP teaching in universities and developing the English-medium instruction skills of lecturers in a full range of academic disciplines. We are now doing the final evaluation of the project and in the last two months I have spent three weeks in Ukraine visiting universities, meeting teachers and students, observing classes and discussing the project with Heads of Department. The results of the evaluation will be presented in February 2019 but I would like to reflect here on the ESP component of the project and on the factors which have shaped the considerable impact it has had on over 30 participating universities across the country.

In brief, as described in a baseline study by Bolitho & West (2017), ESP in Ukrainian universities was characterised by a narrow focus on teaching subject-specific terminology, reading and in-depth analysis of technical texts, limited consideration for the professional needs graduates will have in relation to English, and overall approach to teaching and learning which was teacher-led and non-interactive. EfU thus sought to promote a more contemporary approach to ESP.

The model for professional development embedded in EfU was not particularly radical; ESP teachers attended three five-day intensive blocks of training on different aspects of ESP (collectively, these blocks constitute the British Council’s CiVELT course). They returned to their institutions and were expected to ‘disseminate’ what they learned to their colleagues, but otherwise the approach to professional development adopted can be described as an intensive off-site workshop-based training model. I have written elsewhere about the shortcomings of such models and reviews of different approaches to teacher professional development have also suggested that, in terms of impact on what teachers do, workshops are often not particularly effective. However, the experience of EfU suggests otherwise and it is useful to consider key factors that have contributed to its success (as evidenced in the extensive impact evaluation data that have been collected) in bringing about practical change in what ESP teachers do.

Some of these key factors were:

  1. Systematic baselining. The baseline report by Bolitho & West (2017) was noted above. This described the state of ESP in Ukrainian universities before EfU and provided clear evidence of the need for change which acted as a stimulus for institutions to participate in the project.
  2. Institutional support. EfU did not work simply at the level of individual ESP teachers; Heads of Department (HoDs) were also heavily involved, attending dedicated training events and being tasked with the central role of facilitating among their staff the new approaches to ESP that were being promoted on the project.
  3. A new ESP syllabus. Early in the project a new ESP syllabus was adopted by all participating universities. This provided a template for the development of new ESP courses for different disciplines. The collective adoption of this new syllabus ensured that the changes to teaching and learning ESP teachers were being encouraged to make were aligned with the syllabus they were required to implement.
  4. Collective enterprise and ownership. EfU was characterised by a sense of collective enterprise and ownership, on a national level. HoDs and participating teachers formed an enduring community which persisted throughout the project and which will undoubtedly persist beyond its formal conclusion.
  5. Action planning. All participating departments were engaged in developing, reviewing and sharing action plans which allowed them to define the work they were doing to enhance the impact of EfU. This periodic engagement with their action plans meant that the profile of EfU was kept high and institutions were able to monitor the progress they were making in promoting change in the teaching of ESP.
  6. Dissemination. Some 300 ESP teachers were directly trained, but many more had indirect access to new ideas about ESP through workshops, presentations and similar sessions that those attending the training organised on return to their departments. This substantially extended the reach of the project.
  7. Teacher motivation. It is clear too that many ESP teachers were ready to change and keen to engage in the kinds of professional development EfU provided. Post-training, too, teachers returned to their workplaces with a new vision of ESP which they were keen to implement (and which their department supported them in doing so). In educational reform, teacher motivation is vital because it drives teachers to apply new skills and knowledge.
  8. High-quality training.  Finally, it must be noted too that the quality of the training during EfU was generally seen by teachers to be very high. High quality training does not guarantee that subsequent transformations in practice will occur. However, driven by the other facilitative factors noted here, high quality training provided an excellent basis for changes in teachers’ work and that of their departments more generally.

Of course, departments and individual teachers varied in their engagement with EfU and the impact of the project did vary across institutions. However, overall, EfU provides valuable insights into the factors that allow professional development to achieve practical change. In particular, the project highlights the key roles that institutional support, committed leadership, a sense of collective enterprise and teacher motivation play in bringing about positive educational reform.

Posted in ESP, professional development | 2 Comments

Systemic barriers to practitioner research

I’ve just attended a conference in China which focused on supporting teachers in becoming researchers. Most participants were university College English teachers and one issue I found myself reflecting on throughout the event was whether our concern was academic research (for publication and career advancement) or practitioner research (for professional development and enhancing teaching and learning). This was never quite clear to me and China is a great example of the tensions that exist for teachers between these two kinds of research.

Much has been written about the value of practitioner research (variously described as teacher research, action research and similar terms) as a way of helping teachers systematically study, understand and improve their work. I have promoted the idea for many years and continue to support it. It is, though, naïve to promote practitioner research without reference to the socio-cultural and educational contexts in which teachers operate. While as an outsider I want to be cautious in my analysis, my experience in China over several years suggests that there are many factors which actively discourage the kind of pedagogical, experimental, innovative, critical, small-scale, reflexive and often collaborative inquiry that practitioner research entails. For example:

• Teachers (at all levels but especially at university) are under pressure to publish in high-ranking academic journals;
• Quantity (of publications) is a key measure of success;
• Academic products matter more than the process of inquiry;
• The practical utility of the research teachers do is not a core concern;
• Teachers are trained in traditional research methods but not for practitioner research;
• Research is often equated with ‘writing papers’;
• Practitioner research does not further teachers’ careers;
• Mechanisms that facilitate the dissemination of practitioner research do not exist;
• Centralised curricula and assessments discourage experimentation;
• Time and other resources to support practitioner research are limited;
• A competitive environment can discourage collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

These factors are not in themselves problematic – they are clearly aligned with a policy to promote high levels of academic productivity among teachers. And some teachers, despite the challenges, have found ways of doing practitioner research and can provide inspiration to others. But, overall, the environment strongly favours academic research. It is no surprise at all, then, that many teachers understandably feel compelled to focus more on how to complete a publishable research project than on professional inquiry. And, given the current situation, while there may be value in creating an awareness of practitioner research, I am inclined in my continuing work with teachers in China to support them in doing well the kind of research they are required to do rather than to promote alternatives which currently may have limited perceived relevance or feasibility for them.

I’d be interested in comments from colleagues in China on my analysis and reflections from readers elsewhere who work in similar or contrasting language teaching contexts as far as practitioner research is concerned.

Posted in professional development, research, teacher research | 7 Comments