Workshops and Teacher Change

Recently I observed a training workshop that teachers of English were attending as part of a teacher development project they were on. The theme of the workshop was ‘Using Games’ and the teachers assumed the role of learners and experienced first-hand a number of different games, mostly focused on learning vocabulary. I am sure it was the type of practical workshop that thousands of English teachers around the world attend each year. Do such sessions, though, lead to changes in what teachers do in the classroom? I am quite sure that in most cases they do not. And teacher development work which does not impact on what teachers do is problematic, so let’s look at this example a bit more closely.

The experiential and practical approach taken during the workshop was a strength. Teachers were not just told about games and their value, but they played games themselves. Several elements which impact on teacher learning, though, were absent:

  • there was no prior discussion of teachers’ existing experience of using games – unpacking their prior beliefs, knowledge and classroom experience is important before engagement with new ideas. This is a basic principle not just of teacher learning but of learning generally (see the report How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School).
  • there was little critical discussion of the games the teachers played – e.g. no space to question how suitable they were for their learners
  • the games presented were not contextualized with any reference to the curriculum the teachers followed – e.g. there were no examples of how a particular game might be added to an existing reading comprehension activity in the course book
  • teachers did not see any examples (e.g. through video) of teachers using a game in a real classroom nor were they able to practise (e.g. through micro teaching) using games themselves
  • there would be no further discussion of this theme – the next workshop would move on to another topic.

It is likely, then, that by the end of the workshop (which the teachers clearly enjoyed) they were aware of some new language learning games. They did not acquire the skills, though, to adapt the games to their classroom contexts and to integrate them into their existing practices. And consequently I very much doubt how much of the workshop will have translated into enhanced teaching.

I can apply the same analysis to a 45-minute workshop I led recently for teachers attending a one-day conference. The workshop was reflective in nature, encouraging teachers to share examples of activities they found effective in their teaching and pushing them to articulate how they knew those activities were effective. The teachers engaged in these activities with interest, but is it likely that many of them subsequently applied in their teaching the reflective processes modelled during the session? Of course not, and that is not a criticism of the teachers but of the inherent limitations workshops have in promoting teacher change.

I do not want to dismiss the value of workshops for teachers. What is problematic, though, is the assumption (which I often encounter on teacher development projects) that workshops (simply by increasing teacher awareness and knowledge) lead to changes in what teachers do. They can support teacher change, but as part of a more extended programme of work where teachers have not only input but also, crucially, repeated opportunities to try out new ideas in the classroom, to receive skilled support as they experiment with change (e.g. through mentoring) and to reflect (including collaboratively – e.g. through peer observation) on their efforts. These critical elements are, unfortunately, often wholly absent or given token attention in teacher development work and it is therefore no surprise at all that limited change in what teachers do takes place. Repeated opportunities to engage with specific ideas are also typically lacking; in a 30-hour workshop-based course teachers might cover the teaching of all four skills, grammar, vocabulary and assessment, spending limited time on each; what they need, though, is many hours of supported theoretical, practical (in the classroom) and reflective engagement with one specific idea for this to be integrated fully and effectively into their teaching. This report on effective professional development makes interesting points in this respect.

If we know, then, that workshops of the type discussed above are not an effective mechanism for deep and sustained teacher change, and if contemporary alternatives are available (e.g. see the review in Teacher Professional Learning and Development), why is it that workshops (and the training model of teacher learning they are often based on) remain the core of so much of the English language teacher development work that takes place around the world? Teachers, teacher trainers/educators and project managers/designers, I am very interested in your answers to this question.

Posted in professional development, teacher education | 14 Comments

Do Teachers’ Beliefs Really Matter?

I’ve spent many years promoting research on language teachers’ beliefs, so the above question may come as a surprise, especially given that beliefs are such an established area of inquiry. But it is precisely because the status of beliefs as an important focus for research on teaching is no longer contested that this question is timely.  I am concerned that generally as a field we have become complacent, and much of the research on language teachers’ beliefs I read today is rather superficial.

Let’s start from the basic issue of purpose. How can research which seeks to understand language teachers’ beliefs be justified? Twenty years ago simply invoking ‘belief’ was sufficient justification because research of that kind was a novelty. Today this is no longer the case; the argument that we must study teachers’ beliefs about a particular topic because there is a ‘gap’ in research knowledge is no longer sufficient – there needs be some stronger theoretical and/or practical rationale for the work. Much recent work I have examined, though, lacks a strong sense of purpose. The study of beliefs is often motivated by researchers’ interest in a particular topic (whether the participating teachers are interested in it does not always seem to matter) and the purpose of the research is to analyse teachers’ stated beliefs on that topic. Why documenting teachers’ beliefs in this way is important is never fully explored beyond the need for ‘more research’.

Some studies go further by comparing what teachers say (stated, professed or espoused beliefs) with what they do. Typically, stated beliefs are first elicited then compared to what happens in a (normally small) number of observed lessons. Why such comparisons are of relevance or value, though, often remains undiscussed. Such studies often conclude (quite predictably) that teachers’ stated beliefs are not congruent with their observed practices. Again, why is this important and how does an awareness of this gap take the field of language teaching forward? For example, it could be argued that making teachers awareness of mismatches between stated beliefs and actual practices can stimulate reflection that enhances professional development (e.g. Farrell & Ives 2015).

In addition to a lost sense of purpose, research on language teachers’ beliefs remains methodologically unsophisticated. Questionnaires continue to be the dominant mechanism for accessing teachers’ beliefs, despite recurring warnings over the years about the limitations of this approach. The fact that the questionnaires used are often not well-designed simply exacerbates these limitations. It is well-established that beliefs elicited via short decontextualized Likert-scale items will often reflect what respondents feel is ideal, expected, or socially-desirable. And it should not be at all surprising that the beliefs elicited in this manner are not congruent with what teachers do in the classroom. In fact, the lack of congruence is so predictable that (in the absence of a clear justification) the value of such comparisons needs to be severely questioned.

The final point I want to make here relates to the manner in which the relationship between teachers’ beliefs and their classroom practices has been conventionally viewed. When we separate the two – first studying beliefs, then comparing these to practices – an unnatural separation is created. Through this separation, the complex, networked (i.e. beliefs as systems), situated and social nature of beliefs is grossly over-simplified. Much more natural is an approach which sees beliefs as one way of making sense of what teachers do, and from this perspective it is situated professional practice that should be the entry point, not belief. The attention beliefs have received over the years has perhaps created the mistaken impression they are what matters most.

Beliefs, of course, do matter and understanding teachers’ beliefs and the role they play in what teachers do and how they learn and develop will continue to be important areas of research. However, to avoid the stagnation that arises when an area of inquiry becomes a taken-for-granted bandwagon, we need to be much more committed to justifying why studying teachers’ beliefs is necessary, how the results of such work can be used to support education, and engaging critically with the conceptual and methodological developments which are redefining the nature of language teacher cognition research (the collection of articles in The Modern Language Journal 99/3 is an excellent starting point here).

If you are interested in contemporary perspectives on teachers’ beliefs I would also recommend Fives, H., & Gill, M. G. (Eds.). (2014). International handbook of research on teachers’ beliefs. London: Routledge.

Posted in professional development, research, teacher cognition | 4 Comments

From Activities to Reflection in Teacher Development

I’ve just returned from a visit to a project that is promoting mentoring as a strategy for the professional development of English language teachers. During the visit I observed English lessons in secondary state schools and also sat in on post-lesson observation discussions between mentors and teachers. Several discussions went something like this:

Mentor: How do you feel about the lesson?
Teacher: I think it was successful.
Mentor: Why do you feel that way?
Teacher: Because the students worked in groups, they did activities, and I finished all the activities in my lesson plan.
Mentor: Yes, I think the lesson was very nice.

Such conversations reveal the beliefs that teachers (and often mentors too) have about successful teaching. Earlier in the project the teachers had received training on student-centred, communicative, activity-based learning and it was clear in the lessons I saw that that teachers were taking on board many of the messages that had been promoted in this training and which their mentors were also encouraging them to focus on. For example, many lessons I saw were characterised by:

  • the use of laptops and projectors
  • asking students to work in groups
  • teaching aids such as posters and pictures
  • matching activities involving slips of paper (e.g. match vocabulary with meaning)
  • almost exclusive use of English by the teacher and students.

My presence as a foreign visitor inevitably meant that the lessons I saw were not always typical (see the entry for ‘reactivity’ in this glossary), but they did reflect teachers’ beliefs about what a successful lesson was. And on the basis of the lessons and the post-lesson discussions I saw a successful lesson was conceived as one where

  • students complete activities (rather than just listening passively)
  • students are placed in groups
  • students are encouraged to speak English
  • a range of materials or resources (including technology) are used
  • the planned activities are completed in the time available.

These are clearly positive beliefs for teachers to have, particularly in a context where language teaching has traditionally been very heavily text-based and teacher-centred. However, it was also clear that teachers needed ongoing support to help them develop more productive understandings of how the effectiveness of a lesson might be judged and in particular to focus more on what students were actually doing and learning during lessons. For example, although students were regularly asked to sit in groups, the activities they were assigned did not require group work and my observations suggested that very often one more able student did all of the work (these were thus physical groups rather than co-operative groups – more on this distinction here).  And to take one more example, while teachers knew how to implement various activities they had learned through their training, the links between these activities and the objectives of the lesson were typically not obvious. Lessons were often sequences of unconnected activities.

Relative to their practices before the training and mentoring project they were involved in, these teachers had I am sure made visible positive changes to their teaching. I was, though, left with a number of reflections on the choice of content on professional development projects for English language teachers more generally:

  1.  During training, a simple focus on new activities and techniques will not suffice in helping teachers improve the quality of English language learning that takes place – e.g. simply putting students into groups or using the projector does mean the students will learn more.
  2.  Teachers thus need support in developing a reflective stance on their work – not just thinking about the activities they will include in a lesson but also about why such activities are there and how they promote learning (and also appreciating that you do not need to have group work or use a computer in every lesson).
  3.  Teachers also need to understand how learning can be assessed during lessons and to develop strategies for doing so.
  4.  The ability to define clear objectives for English lessons and to devise a staged sequence of activities that address these objectives is also a fundamental competence that teachers require (see Professional Practice 1 in the new British Council CPD framework).
  5.  Overall, teachers would benefit from a view of good teaching and successful lessons which focuses very directly on learning rather than activities and resources.

So important questions arise here I think for the topics which are given priority during professional development projects. Teachers do need to develop a repertoire of new techniques and activities but what is more important is that they have the ability to use these critically, to sequence them effectively to fulfil specific objectives, and to assess the learning the takes place during lessons. Without these deeper forms of professional learning there is a risk that teacher development projects will achieve superficial gains without, though, having a significant impact on the quality of learning that students experience.

As always, I’d be interested in any experiences you have relevant to this post and of the kinds of professional development (especially the content) that can help teachers of English improve the quality of learning in the classroom.

Posted in professional development, teacher education | 23 Comments

English Medium Instruction in Higher Education – New Report

In universities around the world there is a growing trend towards English medium instruction (EMI). Many arguments have been posited in favour of EMI but there is also increasing evidence that implementing EMI is a complex undertaking and that unless suitable conditions exist the anticipated benefits of EMI are unlikely to be realized.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one context where EMI is being increasingly promoted in higher education and I was recently commissioned by the British Council to examine the perspectives on EMI held by lecturers in state universities in this context. The report of this work has just been published and is available for download at



Posted in English medium instruction, research | 1 Comment

Research Evidence and L2 Teaching

I have for many years been interested in one basic (but big) question: why do language teachers teach in the ways they do? This question has driven much of my work on teacher cognition, since understanding the knowledge, thinking, beliefs and feelings teachers have is key to understanding what they do.

In my discussions with many language teachers over the years, one constant has been that teachers’ explanations for their teaching are overwhelmingly practical in nature. This does not mean that teachers’ work is atheoretical or unprincipled; what it does mean is that formal knowledge (as codified in research findings and academic theory) is not seen by teachers to be an immediate influence on their daily classroom practices. Many of these practices can, of course, be traced back to some underlying theory, but such influences are typically implicit, indirect and mediated (e.g. through coursebooks) and thus not normally salient in teachers’ minds when they talk about their work. For example, no teacher I have spoken to has explained their approach to written corrective feedback by citing the extensive research on this topic or taxonomies of feedback strategies such as that in Ellis (2009). Rather, it more likely that that, although at some point in their career teachers did encounter this formal knowledge, what happens in their lessons reflects the practical knowledge they have developed through experience of what seems to work, what colleagues do and what coursebooks and curricula recommend.

So we have a contrast here between formal knowledge (academic research and theory) and practical knowledge (developed by teachers through experience). The latter influences what teachers do much more than the former. This is natural, and anyone who criticises research and researchers for not having sufficient direct impact on what teachers do needs to recalibrate such rather deterministic expectations (Hammersley’s work here is very helpful in discussing how research might relate to pedagogy).

Having said that, it is useful to consider why formal knowledge is not a source of what teachers do and I feel that the major contributing factor is this one:

Teachers’ experiences of research in both pre-service and in-service contexts fail to establish its relevance to their professional activity.

The problem is thus not with research knowledge per se but with how teachers experience it and I am firmly of the belief the belief that if teachers see research as a relevant resource, they will then engage with it more positively. The question for teacher educators, therefore, is the following:

How can research be positioned as a valuable resource (as opposed to inert knowledge) for teachers in pre-service and in-service contexts?

One basic requirement in addressing this issue is structured time and space for engaging with research. The nature of pre-service study (especially at university) means that it is easier to create conditions where student teachers engage with research. In in-service contexts, creating fulfilling encounters with research for teachers is more challenging. But teacher engagement with research will not normally occur spontaneously, and therefore structures to facilitate it (e.g. workshops, discussion groups, on-line forums) need to be created. Within these structures, here are some strategies which can have a positive impact on allowing teachers to see research as a useful professional resource:

  • engage teachers in a discussion of why a particular research topic is relevant to classroom practice (e.g. why should teachers be interested in studies of written corrective feedback strategies)?
  • present research findings as a stimulus for reflection on what teachers do and possible alternatives rather than definite advice on what teachers should be doing.
  • encourage teachers to respond critically to research rather than treating it as incontestable
  • ask teachers to collect evidence from their own classrooms and which can inform the discussion of  particular research (e.g. evidence of how teachers provide written corrective feedback)
  • engage teachers with research papers they are likely to find interesting and conceptually and linguistically accessible
  • provide user-friendly summaries of research which facilitate teachers’ engagement with it
  • position research as a resource that enhances teachers’ professional identity rather than being a threat to it (e.g. by implying that teachers should be pseudo-academics)
  • use practice as the starting point in the discussion of research, rather than working from research to practice in a way that suggests the former determines the latter
  • create structures (e.g. reading groups) where teachers select a research paper they want to read and collaboratively discuss its implications for their teaching
  • illustrate in practical terms what research implies for teaching and give teachers research-informed ideas they can take away and try out
  • expose teachers to research conducted by practitioners not just by academics.

In education generally (especially in the UK) much work has been done into understanding what factors might encourage teachers to engage more fully with research (e.g. Cordingley et al. 2005; Judkins et al. 2014). In L2 teaching, this issue remains understudied; I dedicate a chapter to it in Teacher research in language teaching while papers such as Rankin & Becker (2006) and Fenton-Smith & Stillwell (2011) are also relevant. Rod Ellis has also written about how SLA research might interface with pedagogy (e.g. Ellis 2010).

It is unrealistic to expect formal knowledge (academic research and theory) to ever become a dominant explicit feature of teachers’ explanations of their work. However, by creating suitable opportunities and positioning research appropriately in relation to practice, it is certainly possible to address the recurrent sentiment among teachers that research has no relevance to their work.

I’d be very interested to hear your views on this issue. If you are a teacher, what role does reading and using research play in your work? In pre-service contexts, how can the notion of research as a valuable professional resource be reinforced? If you are an in-service teacher educator, to what extent do you seek to engage teachers with research, what strategies do you use and how does this impact on teachers’ work?

Posted in professional development, research | Comments Off on Research Evidence and L2 Teaching