New Research on In-Service Teacher Educators

Given the important role that in-service teacher educators play in education systems worldwide, the volume of research that studies their work remains surprisingly scarce. One reason for this is that the role of the in-service teacher educator itself is not always officially defined in different educational contexts. Another is that the specialized knowledge and skills the role calls for are often not sufficiently understood (and so, for example, in-service teacher educators are often seen as simply more experienced, qualified or capable teachers). Clearly, though, the quality of professional development teachers receive is affected by teacher educator competence, and improved teacher educator effectiveness is an important element in the broader goal of improving educational outcomes.

The British Council has in recent years expanded the dedicated support it provides for teacher educators globally through a range of self-access and more formally organised resources and activities – information about these is available here. At country level, too, the British Council commissions research into the work of teacher educators and a recent study I conducted in Nepal with my colleague there Prem Prasad Poudel has just been published. Entitled, ‘The practices, perspectives and professional needs of in-service teacher educators in Nepal‘, the study focuses on teacher educators (referred to locally as trainers) who deliver in-service courses for Provincial Education Training Centres (PETCs). One defining feature of these teacher educators is that the vast majority of them work on a ‘roster’ basis – i.e. being a teacher educator is not their primary role in the education system (most are teachers) and they deliver courses for the PETCs periodically when called upon. The purpose of the research was to understand the experiences of these teacher educators (across a range of subjects) and to make recommendations for improving in-service trainer capacity and effectiveness in Nepal.

This study took place between October and December 2023, and evidence was collected from teachers, trainers and PETC officials in all seven provinces of Nepal through the observation of training sessions, face-to-face and remote individual and group interviews and an online trainer survey. The results highlighted strengths of the in-service training system in Nepal (such as motivated trainers) but also several factors that limit the quality of their work (such as lack of opportunities for professional development). These are discussed in the report, along with 20 recommendations for concrete measures that can be taken to strengthen several dimensions of Nepal’s in-service training system.

This study is of more general relevance to educational systems where centrally organised in-service training is the main form of professional development that teachers have access to.

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Making Assessment a More Positive Experience

I had the enjoyable experience last week of speaking to a group of school and university language teachers on the theme of how to make assessment a more positive experience for students. I built on themes I have discussed in previous blogs on assessment, such as this one and this one too. Here’s a summary of some key points.

Most teachers would agree (i.e. stated beliefs) that assessment should serve positive functions. The 69 responses below collected through an in-session poll reflect this, with higher levels of agreement on the two positive items:

In practice, though (i.e. enacted beliefs), the ways in which assessment is conducted often do not reflect these positive views. This becomes clear when assessment processes and tasks are analysed and especially when students’ perceptions about assessment are explored. Here’s what a secondary school student said when I asked him whether there was anything pleasant about his assessment experiences:

To be honest, it’s pleasant because you’re done with it. You know, you get your mark and you don’t have to worry about that anymore.

A key question for teachers, then, is what adjustments to assessment will give students the best chance to show what they know and make assessment a more motivating and constructive process for them? We can consider this question at different stages of the assessment process:

For example, at the preparation stage, giving students clear information about what is to be assessed and the possible assessment tasks can help them prepare with greater confidence. Effective (i.e. valid) assessment design also gives students better opportunities to perform well. And, especially when students do not perform well, feedback can play an important role in encouraging students to sustain motivation and continue learning.

Many students, though, do not experience motivating feedback of this kind. I asked my student informant what feedback he gets when he does not do well on assessments:

Well, then they don’t really say anything. They just say, ‘oh, you didn’t do well’.

Teachers who write lengthy feedback highlighting what students did wrong may feel they are working hard to support students, but students may not feel this is helpful. Here’s a further extract from my conversation with the same student:

How do you feel when you get a page of writing back and it’s all red?
Annoyed mostly.
Why annoyed?
Well, because if you got the answers wrong there’s nothing you can do about that on an essay. No, there’s no need, like you make a mistake once and then she writes a whole paragraph. ‘Why did you do this?’ and fills up your whole page.
So that kind of detailed feedback doesn’t make you feel good?
No, because it’s not feedback, it is ‘you did this wrong’.

The key messages from the talk were:

  1. Assessment affects student motivation towards the subject.
  2. It does not have to be an unpleasant experience for students and can be motivating.
  3. Small adjustments at different stages of the process can improve students’ ability to prepare, perform, and continue learning afterwards.
  4. Improving teachers’ assessment literacy is a key factor in the process of allowing assessment to serve a more positive function.
  5. Evaluating assessment (stage 6 above) involves reflecting on how effective it was and can be informed by feedback from students.
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Planning Teacher CPD – Key Principles

This post is linked to yesterday’s webinar on key principles in planning effective CPD for teachers. A recording of the webinar will be available soon on the TeachingEnglish website, but here is the final summary slide with the 10 principles that I presented:

(Borg 2023)

These are 10 (rather than the 10) key issues to consider when CPD for teachers is being planned and implemented. Some approaches to CPD lend themselves more easily to these principles, but, generally, attention to these issues can enhance the value for teachers of organized CPD – both smaller-scale (such as school level) or on larger programmes seeking systemic change in an education system.

The list could be extended. For example, a principle about the importance of evaluating the impact of CPD could be added.

Another issue relates to teacher autonomy – though the principle here is not that teachers should always be given the freedom to take part in CPD and to make decisions about what and how they learn. These are desirable features of CPD but in many contexts (and especially where large-scale educational reform is being targeted) giving teachers too much choice will not generate positive results. The principle, then, might be that decisions about how much choice teachers have in their CPD should reflect the goals of the programme, the educational culture and teachers’ readiness to exercise autonomy.

Teacher motivation is another vital component in CPD, but it is not explicitly addressed in the above list of 10 principles. While attention to these principles (such as making CPD an active and relevant experience for teachers) will enhance their motivation to participate, the issue is probably important enough to merit a principle of its own – for example, ‘teacher motivation to engage in CPD is a key element in its effectiveness’. I must stress, though, that teacher motivation alone is insufficient for CPD to lead to positive changes in teaching and learning – effective opportunities for teachers to develop are also required, as suggested by the original 10 principles.

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Initial Teacher Education in ELT

Back in May I wrote about what matters most when education systems are trying to improve levels of English among learners. I concluded that the qualiity of initial teacher education is vital. Studies of high-performing education systems often refer to the emphasis that is placed on attracting the best candidates to teacher education programmes and on providing initial teacher education that equips graduates with the knowledge, skills and other attributes that underpin teacher competence. But it remains the case in many countries that graduates qualify to become teachers of English without doing a programme that is specific to English and, even where it is about English, without doing many courses that have a teaching focus (as opposed to literarature, linguistics or education generally). A recent report on ELT in India, for example, noted that

There are few opportunities available for initial teacher
training designed specifically for aspiring teachers
of English or for newly recruited teachers of English.
Whatever training they receive is in the form of limited
input on teaching English as part of courses or training
programmes meant for all teachers teaching at the
primary level
. (p.34)

In Iraq, English programmes in Colleges of Education have traditionally been dominated by literature and lingustics courses (though reform is taking place), while a report that has just been published about Nepal also raises questions about the quality of initial English teacher preparation. For example, one B.Ed. English programme contained 45 courses but the first ELT course was the 24th. A course on ‘An Introduction to SLA’ was the 39th. Assessment on the programme was also found to focus largely on the recall of factual information.

While different contexts require specific approaches, insights from the international literature can provide direction for the design of initial teacher education programmes in ELT. A discussion is provided in Section 3.1 of this report while further insight is also available in broader discussions of the competences teachers need, such as the ‘Global Framework of Professional Teaching Standards’ proposed by Education International and UNESCO. Frameworks from our field provided by the British Council (CPD Framework) and Cambridge (English Teaching Framework) are also important sources of guidance for programme content.

This list can without doubt be extended (please make suggestions). Overall, though, initial teacher preparation programmes for teachers of English will be more effective (i.e. will produce graduates who are well-equipped to support the learning of English) when they

  • are based on clearly defined and sound standards for teacher competence
  • guided by principles of teaching and learning which are consistently applied across courses
  • model effective pedagogical and assessment practices
  • support the development of graduates’ English language abilities
  • develop high levels of teaching knowledge (specific to English and more generally educational)
  • focus deeply on subject matter pedagogy (teaching English)
  • make learning to teach (often in a particular context) the central concern
  • emphasise the development of students’ identities as teachers from the outset
  • provide insights from and experiences of real classrooms throughout programme (not just a practicum in the final year)
  • involve student teachers in a range of assessments, including those of a more performative, inquiry-based and reflective nature.

It is also important to stress the importance of teacher educator competence in effective pre-service programmes; programme reform must also often involve professional development for the teacher educators themselves (see this CPD framework for teacher educators for one analysis of the competences teacher educators need).

It would interesting to hear about pre-service programmes in different contexts and comments on what makes them more and less effective in preparing teachers of English.

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What do ELT Consultants Actually Do?

Several months have passed since my last blog, where I promised to follow up the discussion of what matters most in rasing national standards of English by discussing some features of effective pre-service teacher education programmes. I will post that blog today. But I thought it would also be interesting to first review what it is that has kept me away from my blog for so long.

One of the hardest questions my family get asked is ‘what exactly does Simon do’? My daughter tends to blurt out something about ‘teacher cognition’ (see here for an important early paper) and this remains an area of interest; for example, colleagues at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences are studying metalinguistic awareness in Norwegian primary schools and I am leading the part of the study which examines teachers’ understandings of metalinguistic awareness and how they promote it in their lessons. But I am not a full-time academic and the bulk of my work these days involves consultancy work. But what exactly does this involve? Recent projects are listed here but let me provide more detail about some of these to explain how I spend most of my time.

The status of teacher education and development in Nepal (Aug 2022-Feb 2023). The report for this project was actually launched today (read it here) at an event in Kathmandu and due to the time difference I did a Zoom presentation about the report at 0600! With support from colleagues at the British Council and the local research team from Vertex Consult, this project examined current approaches to initial teacher education and CPD in Nepal. Qualitative case studies from three provinces in the country were compiled, and along with a a national teacher survey, provided the basis of 32 recommendations for improving pre-service and in-service teacher education in the country.

Review of pre-service teacher education in Iraq (Sep 2022-Mar 2023)
This project was mentioned in my last blog. Building on research I carried out with Tony Capstick in 2021, I have been working with representatives from the Ministries of Higher Education in Iraq to revise the pre-service teacher education for English teachers. Most of the work has been conducted online, though I was also able to visit Erbil for a two-day workshop in December. The goal of this project is to move from a curriculum which has traditionally placed more weight on literature and linguistics to one which has teaching English as its main focus. The working groups have submitted proposals for revised curricula and this afternoon we are meeting to discuss these.

Professional inquiry for foreign language teachers in higher education (Jul 2022-Mar 2023). This has been a very interesting smaller-scale and more localised project. In 2020 I was invited to the Language Centre at the University of Bochum to run a workshop on professional inquiry (which is now my preferred term for practitioner research). The Language Centre wanted to promote this further as a new form of professsional development and I have been supporting five teachers as they design, carry out and present their own professsional inquiry projects on mediation in language learning, the flipped classroom and online writing tools. We are all looking forward to the final presentations at an event in Bochum next month.

Evaluation of the British Council’s ELTRA scheme (Nov 2022-Mar 2023). Much of my work as a consultant involves evaluation, most commonly evaluating the impact of CPD programmes (answering questions such as ‘what do teachers learn from CPD?’ and ‘does CPD lead to any change in what teachers do in the classroom?’). Occasionally, though, evaluation work has a different focus, such as in this project. With my colleague Nicky Hockly, we are looking at the impact of a research scheme – what kinds of impacts on knowledge, policy and practice do the ELTRA research projects funded by the British Council have? We are surveying researchers, interviewing them, and looking at their research reports to seek anwers to these questions and make recommendations for how the impact of research on teachers and policy makers can be strengthened.

These are just four examples of projects that keep me busy as a consultant. Perhaps I should share a link to this blog with my family so that next time they are asked what I do they have some answers!

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