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.

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14 Responses to Workshops and Teacher Change

  1. Malba Barahona says:

    In general terms, I agree with your analysis! Meaningful learning experiences that lead to teachers´change in their classroom are not necessarily based on workshops or seminars described above. It takes much more than that!

    To answer your question, 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? I think, this model is still popular because it´s simpler, easier, cheaper and serves well to publishers and other funding members. What can we teacher educators do in this context? 1. Make it clear, as you have done, that these workshops are ineffective.2. Design new types of teacher development programs, 3. Research on teachers´learning and devlopment

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you Malba. Yes, I agree that workshops are popular because they are seen to be easy to organise and relatively inexpensive (especially when a publisher provides the funding). They can also reach large numbers of teachers – a strength in terms of providing wider access to professional development but still limited in terms of supporting meaningful change. I want to continue to stress that I am not saying workshops have no value; we just need to be realistic about what they can achieve. Raising teachers’ awareness or expanding their knowledge are desirable goals that workshops can achieve. But ultimately we want professional development to go further. You mention new types of teacher development programs. Could you describe an example?

  2. Dr.abdullah alghamdi says:

    Well, this remains as an opinion, Simon. Iam still surprised how do you decided that ” little change” has taken place after workshops of this type. Can you please give more insight on how do you measure “change”?

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you Dr Alghamdi for commenting. Please review some of the reports cited in my post, they provide evidence that supports the point I am making. Also, in my position as educational consultant I evaluate several projects around the world each year and these too provide evidence that stand-alone workshops, even a series of them, do little to change classroom behaviours. In one project we compared project teachers and a control group who had not attended a series of 10 workshops and it was difficult to see any differences between their classroom teaching. I am not saying that there is no value in workshops; but it is clear that workshops alone are not an effective way to promote meaningful and lasting change in what teachers do.

  3. Thanks Simon

    for asking the billion dollar question…. An attempt at a simplified answer..

    I think the reason that so much INSET provision continues to be provided using what we know to be ineffective formats is largely due to one main factor- the political and hierarchical nature of national education systems- meaning that policy makers / those who commission INSET within the systems, almost always lack first hand experience of / relationships with schools-teachers- classrooms, or much understanding of the complexity of learning/teacher learning/teaching.

    They also change role and position frequently.

    What WE think we know about the nature of helpful/supportive PD does not reach decision makers…. or if it does it fails to ‘sink in’ to the system before key decision makers move on elsewhere…

    Their inadequate personal experience /understanding of the visible and invisible aspects of their national educational contexts perpetuates three other misconceptions.

    1. since they have no idea of where teachers’ personal/professional starting points are, INSET policy makers are likely to be oblivious to the practical challenges that even something as apparently ‘fun’ as using games may pose for teachers in many contexts ,

    2. having no idea of the challenges that the ‘games -promoting’ INSET goals pose, they can (in the accountability-driven environment in which much bureaucracy today operates) feel that the purely rational response of trying to train the most teachers in the least time for the least money is the responsible approach to take

    3. again having little idea of the challenges posed, or of how teachers learn – they view the content and process of PD as an activity that is more or less identical to ‘teaching a class’- and so have no reason to realise that facilitating a workshop is a skilled activity, that itself requires trainers to be well trained. Instead they assume that anyone who is labelled as ‘a good teacher’ will also be a suitable ‘trainer’ .

    Hence the experience that prompted your post and your question??

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Martin for the detailed analysis. One key point you mention relates to the understandings of professional development and teacher change held by decision-makers. Misconceptions at this level about what teachers need (e.g. new techniques) and how best to bring about change (e.g. workshops where they learn about these techniques) are often the starting point in decisions about professional development. The challenges teachers face in implementing new ideas and practices are totally under-estimated, support for this process is not provided, and limited change takes place.

  4. Imdad Khan says:

    Simon, thank you for sharing some useful insights about possible reasons of ineffectiveness of intensive teachers’ training porgrammes. The question raised at the end of your blog can be answered differently depending on contextual reasons for designing as well as financing of teachers’ training programmes. However, I assume one reason holds true in many, if not all, situations for approval of training programmes which do not conducive to translate effectively into practice. Lack of an ‘inclusive’ consultative process at the planning phase of training programmes is, I believe, a significant negative factor. At this phase, it is crucial that a wide range of input is taken into account and built into the structure of the programme. Stakeholders such as teachers and education scholars who have better understanding of how teachers practices are linked with their beliefs, knowledge and thinking should feed into the design of the programme. But, I believe, is rarely done.

    In my country, for example, it is not unusual for teachers to come to know that government has launched a new training programme for which they would be asked to submit participation forms. However, the teachers are rarely asked to be part of such programme at the formulation phase. The task of formulation is usually done ‘for them’ by administrative staff, usually composed of two kinds of people – representatives of a donor agency and of a government department.

    It is important to include teachers and education specialists in formulating the design of the training because no matter how senior or well-meaning the administrative staff of an organisation/institution may be, they simply cannot have a nuanced and ‘multilayered’ understand of the process of teachers professional development. Such lack of understanding about the complexity of the process of teachers’ professional transformation can result in entertaining simplistic beliefs about the effectiveness of training workshops. Generic headings like ‘teacher professional development workshop’ are not uncommon in my country, which could have been tuned into a more focused and effective workshop as Simon mentioned in the blog. Behind such initiatives, i think, is the implicit belief of the administrators that any professional development activity is ‘good’ by itself because it is supposed that it would eventually translate into some improvement in teachers’ classroom practices sooner or later.

    Knowing firsthand what teachers do, how they do it and how that interacts with their cognition should be the basis of formulating an effective teachers’ training design.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Imdad. ‘Ownership’ is the key issue you raise and it is an important one that affects teacher motivation to participate in professional development. I am also sympathetic to the view that workshops are better than no professional development at all and in many contexts where the professional development culture is still emerging then workshops may be a legitimate starting point. What is needed, though, is a realistic understanding of what workshops alone (without any other kind of subsequent support) can achieve – Increased knowledge? Yes. Enhanced awareness? Yes. Motivation to change? Yes. Positive, effective lasting change in the classroom? For most teachers, no.

  5. Smt.Manjusha Shamrao Sagrolikar says:

    Thanks a lot Simon Sir for giving your inputs here,we are now on the way of new change, where were we? And at what stage we are? That difference shows our development. We need lots of force,support from our system that’ s true,

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you. Yes, institutional or organizational support is an essential element in a strong professional development strategy.

  6. Thank you, Simon. Workshops remain the most pospular mode of teacher-trainer/supervisor interaction simply because they are cost-effective. Moreover, they allow the gathering/huddling of a large number of workshopers in a limited time and in a given space for hands-on activities which may provide not only practicle tips but food for thought as well. Debates and discussions emanating from within also allow teachers to socialize and construct/build up their professional network.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you Khalil. The factors you mention are important reasons for the popularity of workshops. The social dimension of them is a real strength, as teachers enjoy the opportunity to meet and share experiences. But as my own example in the blog illustrates, exposing teachers to new ideas and giving them opportunities to discuss these will not – without any further support – normally result in significant change in what teachers do in the classroom. This is the big challenge – how to sustain in schools the professional development that workshops initiate. It is also possible to approach the challenge from a completely different angle, starting from the classroom rather than the workshop.

      • Dr.abdullah alghamdi says:

        Hi everyone. Iam still senestive and cautious when using the word ( change) even when we we go from teachets practice to their professed belifs. The tension or congruence we see between their bs and ps is mostly superfacial and consequently doesn’t reflect the ( change) we hope to see nor the congruence we like.

        I always tell researchers who want to do further scrutiny in the area of teachers’ bs & ps that having deep understanding of the psychology of their participants is quite crucial in this regard + doing this type of tesearch over a period of not less than 5-6 yrs. We need more than ELT to say that we started to understand how teachers think then do things.

  7. Thank you Simon for responding to my reply. It is true that without any support to the input which a workshop may provide, there are little chances for change to occur. The role of demo-lessons, however, is to put into practice what has been suggested and or recommended by the workshop insuing report(s).

    The reports which the teacher supervisor issues after class observation must draw links between observed teaching/learning behaviors and the suggestions or recommendations mentioned above. In other words, the supervisor needs to soft-soap and urge teachers to implement what has been deemed of value and worth trying.

    Approaching the challenge from the different angle you are suggesting is, in fact, an alternative to starting the development from the workshop. Tailoring workshops in the light of observed teaching inadequacies, however, may be considered more of a clinical supervision technique than a teacher continuing professional development apparatus. I would plan my workshops according to observed fauly teaching techniques or strategies if I were offering in-service training to teachers who have been parachuted into language clasrooms and have had no courses in methodology.

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