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:
- 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.
- 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).
- Teachers also need to understand how learning can be assessed during lessons and to develop strategies for doing so.
- 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).
- 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.