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 this entry for ‘reactivity‘), 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.

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23 Responses to From Activities to Reflection in Teacher Development

  1. Amol Padwad says:

    Very insightful observations, Simon! But isn’t this a common shortcoming in many teacher training projects – they focus more on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the implementation, neglecting the ‘why’ side. Your observations seem to vindicate my argument at the end-of-the-project symposium (that you just returned from!) that the project participants learnt a lot about what to do and how, but not much about why they should do what they do. It remains to be seen how deep the professional learning has been! Thanks for sharing your perspective!

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Amol. Yes, I think the issues I raised are relevant to teacher training and development projects more generally. One challenging question is how to balance the need for practical tips with attention to the deeper understandings that underpin competent professional practice. My recent experience of different training projects suggests that while teachers do take new techniques back to the classroom, these are often not used critically. So how do we help teachers move from, say, no awareness of group work, to a willingness to use group work in the classroom, and then on to a critical appreciation (through reflection on practice) of why group work might or might not be a suitable pedagogical option?

  2. Iraís Ramírez says:

    Your post came at such an adequate moment! In my school, we are designing an instrument to assess undergraduate teacher trainees and of course we are emphasizing most of the practices that are mentioned in the British Council framework which I think is ok for our population which is preservice teachers but it seems to me that one way in which we can promote teacher development and reflection beyond the use of current practices is through collaborative action researh projects. Of course, that’s easier said than done due to the work conditions most English teachers face, at least in my context, such as working for different schools because they have no tenure, extra work demands like tutoring, administrative tasks etc.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Iraís for commenting. Where do you work? Yes, I am a firm believer in the value of collaborative action research as a way for teachers to examine what they do, why, and what students learn, but as you say the conditions need to be conducive. Where teachers work in multiple institutions and have a substantial teaching and administrative workload it is hard to see where they can find the time, space or energy to stand back from their work and to reflect. If educational systems are serious, then, about teacher development, they need to create conditions which support it. Teachers must also take the initiative, but it is difficult for them to do so when they feel the system they work in does not support or recognise their efforts. School leaders can play a key role in mitigating some of the conditions that hinder teacher development.

      • Iraís Ramírez says:

        I work at the ELT program of the University of Tlaxcala which is the smallest state of Mexico.

  3. Why is there so little effort put into helping teachers know ‘why’? (Amol)- why is the ‘tips’- understandings balance so difficult to establish? (Simon) – Is it because we are almost always trying to fit too much into limited time? – Is it because the current global norms underlying the idea of ‘training ‘ are of trainers as ‘tip-dispensers’ (especially in ELT)? – Is it because despite a lot of lip-service paid to the idea of the teacher as an active thinker about/developer of her own practice, the funders and planners of training still see teachers as people who are only capable of following strict routines? – Different combinations of these ( and other reasons) in different contexts I imagine- but if we really want to help teachers understand the ‘why’ behind the what and the how , don’t we need to really reconsider our concept of ‘training’ … which of course then leads to many more reconsiderations…

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Martin – plenty of deeper questions to consider there. Thinking about some of the projects I am currently involved in, limited training time is I think often a factor which leads to a focus on practical techniques, but irrespective of time the choices that are made about what to prioritise will reflect underlying views about what teachers need in order to become more competent. Also, there are always other stakeholders, such as Ministries, to satisfy too and they often see less immediate or tangible value in helping teachers become more critical and reflective.

    • Muhammad Asif says:

      Fully agree that the teachers should not be considered dummies that follow the prescriptions, there should be some way out of the tight schedules, lesson plans and strict observance of instructions. Something needs to be done to make teaching more flexible.

  4. Krishna Kalyan Dixit says:

    Thanks a lot Simon for the thought-provoking post. Thanks also to Amol Padwad and Martin Wedell for their equally making-one-think-deeper comments. I’m particularly interested in how teachers were and still are conceptualised by the people who use teachers’ services. I think (my thinking is thinly supported by a little reading in the history of education in modern India) teachers are always concepulised as ever existent entity ready to follow the dictates of experts. They are considered as a mechanical workforce. That is why often teachers in my working context say that ‘they’re just teachers’ who follow what is told. They are conditioned in such a way that they should not look upon themselves as thinkers. In general policy makers and pre-service education and school/institutions in particular attempt at ‘de-skilling’ (apologies for using strong words) teachers in thinking. Besides, the notion of ‘safe-talk’ is already there!

  5. Hello Krishna

    I wonder what you mean by ‘safe-talk’?

  6. Muhammad Asif says:

    Simon, I know your expertise in the field; and precise tool kits that you prepare and share are really appreciable. Keep sharing your thoughts and findings as not everyone gets opportunity to be part of CPD programs always. Thanks

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Asif. Even where the training is designed to help teachers become more reflective it is often the lack of good quality follow-up support that limits how much this will occur. When teachers are viewed mechanically from the outset then of course there’s even less chance of deeper development.

  7. Dr. Juee Kulkarni says:

    Namaste Simon sir!
    Thanks for your detailed, transparent expression. No doubt, there are some common short comings; but as a matter of CPD, I think this as a step. One must cross this step and then will definitely try for his own development….. With support of expert mentors like you and BC authorities. But I do agree that at most of the times, we get focussed on the activities rather than their connectivity and aims-objectives.
    According to my experience of managing such activities, I often feel that students enjoy, get engaged, learn something on their own; but it didn’t happen upto the mark that our education system demands for. And one more thing that they do, but very little scope for own thinking, brooding over!!! I believe in ‘learning’ more than teaching. So I think that scope brooding , self- reflecting must be there on this secondary level.
    Thank you so much. Felt very free to share. Hope I haven’t outspoken.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Juee for sharing your experience. I agree that teacher development is a process and learning about new techniques is an important part of that process for many teachers, who are naturally attracted to practical ideas they can use in their classrooms. The challenge is how to help them go beyond that – to understand that techniques can only take you so far in your professional development and that a deeper analysis of what we do, why, whether it works, and how we know is important for sustainable teacher growth. Supporting that kind of analysis should be a key goal of professional development initiatives.

  8. Ghazala says:

    Thank you Simon & Wedell for very insightful discussion. I think much of the quality of learning is water in haste of showing results event in some cases results are concocted.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Ghazala. I think ‘haste’ is often the result of various factors which determine the shape that teacher development takes. One factor though is probably that those responsible for teacher development (very often Ministries) have unrealistic expectations about the time needed for classroom practices to change. Some research suggests about 50 hours of learning and practice by teachers are needed.

  9. Malba Barahona says:

    Thanks for this. I agree that CPD in ELT has been focused on the what and how and delivered by experts to teachers mostly as top down initiatives. This has been changing in the last decade. However, There is still a need for not only engaging teachers on critical reflection, but also to empower them to make their own professional decisions and develop their own CPD initiatives a lording to what matters to them and their students.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Yes, giving teachers ownership of CPD is an important principle. In practice, doing this productively though is much more challenging than delivering CPD in a top-down manner – both facilitators and teachers need advanced skills and understandings if CPD that is truly teacher-led is to work well, and school-leaders need to be supportive too. So while I fully support this principle, in many contexts the conditions for it (including human resources) to work are not in place. If your context is more favourable it would be interesting to hear more about what makes it so.

  10. Ana Garcia-Stone says:

    I think your observations describe accurately what happens on most teacher training/development courses and are the frustration of most teacher trainers, including myself. I think the key is having teachers understand any planning or lesson from their learners’ point of view and once they can gain that perspective, things seem to fall into place. However, even that’s not easy sometimes! I’m going to try giving a short course where teachers explore their own practice (not exploratory practice) and reflect on the impact of small changes but as you say, having the time and interest is key. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible.
    Thank you.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Hi Ana. A focus on planning is I think a good way to address some of the concerns I highlighted in the original post. I’ve worked on projects recently where planning is one of the topics covered and teachers do become more aware of the importance of objectives; beyond that, though, the challenge very often is helping teachers develop a sequence of activities that are carefully staged and which work towards those objectives. And that’s probably difficult to achieve unless there is time for teachers to have (repeated) opportunities to plan lessons, teach them and have space for feedback and reflection. It will be interesting to hear how your course goes.

      • Ana Garcia-Stone says:

        Thanks for the comments Simon. These discussions could go on indefinitely as they’re the core of teacher training: planning, reflection, critical skills, self-awareness, context etc. However, what is clear throughout is that both employers and teachers need to commit time to CPD and that is often limited so we do what we can within those constraints.

  11. Hi Simon,

    What you have described is, in my opinion, the product of initial teacher training -and subsequent CPD – that focuses much more on teaching as ‘activity management’, based on keeping the students engaged and ‘having fun’ than on relevant and deep learning.
    At Bell we wanted to challenge this rather superficial conceptualisation of learning and to focus more and more deeply on our learners and their learning, so we did a number of things. First, we – and when I say ‘we’ I mean teachers, trainers, academic managers working together – identified, articulated and agreed on a set of principles that underpin our practices. We were really lucky to be supported by Professor Mary James during this process, as we benefited hugely from her expertise as a researcher. The outcome of this work was The Bell Way, a set of six evidence-informed educational principles that help us shape and inform our work. All the principles are relevant to learning and learners (for example, ‘high expectations’, ‘clarity of learning’ and ’assessment as learning’ – these are just the ‘headlines’, but each principle is summarised in a sentence and then explained in a longer statement). These principles are at the heart of our Education Plan, our CPD plans, and our Quality Assurance framework, but more importantly, they are becoming embedded in our practices, and interestingly enough, when teachers take part in ‘CPD Choice’ activities more often than not they align their choices to specific areas that are encompassed by the Bell Way. A lot of our ‘CPD Directed’ interventions were focused on teachers learning to be better ‘observers of learning’ in their practice, and on helping learners achieve more quantity and quality of learning. This was, I think, what triggered the shift of focus, as teachers became more interested in and more skilled at making learning visible, and eliciting evidence of learning in different ways. Alongside that, observers’ practices also changed. We moved from a focus on the teacher to a focus on the learners and learning in the way we conduct observations – for example, observers are encouraged to consider carefully where to sit (if they sit at the back, they focus on the teacher, and they miss much of the learning ‘close-up’ ), what to do to assess whether and to what extent deep meaningful learning is taking place (this requires an observer who moves about and gets ‘dirty’ looking at students’ work, listening in on pair work and group work, asking learners what they are learning, and why they are learning it, etc.), and how to capture evidence. This enabled post-observation feedback discussions that focused on learning rather than teaching.
    This shift did not happen overnight – it was a big challenge, and there’s a lot that still needs to be done, but there is a sense that in our schools we are beginning to experience a turn. And that’s very exciting.

  12. Simon Borg says:

    Thanks so much Silvana for sharing your experience. Inspiration and ideas there for other institutions I am sure.

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