Remote Teacher Education

COVID–19 has made remote teaching a necessity for educators around the world. Levels of preparedness for this sudden transition have varied, with the result that many educators have faced the challenge of adapting rapidly and learning by doing, while continuing to support their students as best as they can. One of my current projects focuses particularly on teacher educators and the competences they need to support teachers remotely.

While much has been written about the digital competences that teachers and students need, less work is available on the knowledge and skills that remote teacher educators require. Some sources I have found useful are:

One recurrent point from this literature is that working online is different, in terms of both educator roles and the skills they need. Another is that the direct transfer of face–to–face teaching strategies will not be effective in an online environment.

While frameworks such as TPACK and CoI were designed with teachers in mind, they are helpful in thinking about what online teacher educators need to know and be able to do. From TPACK, we can conclude that teacher educators will need a sound general knowledge of and familiarity with technology, a more specific understanding of the technologies that can support teacher learning and a knowledge of how to use these technologies pedagogically in a teacher education context. According to CoI, effective online learning environments are characterised by social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence. Online teacher educators, therefore, need to be able to create supportive social conditions, appropriately designed and facilitated teaching, and concrete, contextualised and deep learning.

In the project I have been working on (which was supported by the British Council) , we were particularly interested in in–service language teacher educators working in less well–resourced contexts. Over 400 respondents from 71 countries completed an online survey and told us about their experiences as remote teacher educators. Some key findings were that:

  • almost half of the respondents had their first experience as remote teacher educators in 2020
  • smart phones and mobile internet connections (rather than laptops and tablets) were the technologies that were most widely used to support teachers remotely (although the cost of mobile data was often a concern)
  • common remote teacher education practices among the respondents were online video meetings, live online workshops and social media group discussions
  • WhatsApp, video conferencing apps and e-mail were the tools teacher educators used most commonly to share content with teachers (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sharing content remotely with teachers (N=426)

When asked about the competences they needed to work remotely, the three most common answers provided by the teacher educators were ‘creating a positive online learning environment’ (89.2%), motivating teachers to be active in online groups (80.8%) and helping teachers improve their own digital competences (79.1%).

Reflecting on their experiences in 2020, these remote teacher educators were quite positive; most felt that working online had been challenging but also enjoyable. They also felt that they had access to the support they needed for this new role. One general challenge, though, was that among the teachers they worked with remotely, levels of digital competence were often modest.

While an interesting start at developing a better understanding of remote language teacher education practices and the competences that remote teacher educators need, surveys of this kind (and this other relevant report) are limited into the insight they can provide into important questions about processes, quality and outcomes. More work is needed, then, to examine

  • what exactly remote language teacher educators do
  • the factors that shape their pedagogical approach as remote teacher educators
  • the quality of remote teacher educator practices
  • what teachers learn through remote teacher education
  • the kinds of support remote teacher educators need.

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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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