An esteemed colleague of mine once talked of the ‘dumbing down’ of teacher training, citing the excessive use of abbreviations and acronyms (e.g. ICQ, CCQ, etc.) on CELTA courses as indicative of this in that they tended to “…discourage critical analysis of techniques and… limit trainee options” (Hazell, 2015). It is an example of a training technique which makes “life easier for the trainer at the expense of truly effective training.” (ibid.)
This article will explore this notion of dumbing down further, taking into consideration examples and causes of this phenomenon.
What is this dumbing down effect?
The overuse of acronyms and abbreviations on teacher training programmes is just one example of this dumbing down effect. It relates to the idea that loading a training programme with easy-to-remember jargon and catchy acronyms, encourages candidates to remember the labels rather than the content behind them, and denies them the opportunity to think critically about them. In other words, it’s a focus on terms rather than their principles, on form rather than meaning.
Candidate: “TBL, yeah I’ll do a TBL lesson. TBL great!”
Tutor: “What’s TBL then?”
So while catchy, easy-to-remember terms are just that, easy to remember, perhaps that’s all they are. Educators constantly using, and expecting candidates to use jargon such as: ICQ, CCQ, PPP, ELT, MPF, etc., can result in a very superficial understanding of the principles behind these, and easy misapplication of the terms. We also don’t then have any way of checking whether candidates really understand them. It’s a bit like expecting language learners to understand and use language when we haven’t checked that they’ve understood that language sufficiently. Rather than expecting candidates to employ and memorise potentially empty terms, why not get candidates to describe what they’re doing in their own words so the trainer can more genuinely check that the candidate understands the principles behind what they’re doing, or give them an opportunity to work through to an understanding of those same principles by virtue of the process of verbalizing it (Larsen-Freeman 2000: 183). The right term can always be added by the tutor afterward.
Here’s another example of what I mean. I sometimes present my candidates with a set of sentences like the following and ask them what’s THE SAME in terms of meaning for ALL of these sentences:
‘I’ve lived here for 8 years.’
‘I’ve been to Egypt three times.’
‘She’s broken her leg.’
‘They’d left by the time we arrived.’
‘They will have finished redecorating by June.’
There’s usually 2-3 who will proudly shout out: “They’re all perfect!” or “Perfect Aspect!” or “Present Perfect!”. To which I say: “What does that mean?” This is typically followed by either silence, or an incoherent rambling about what they think perfect aspect is, usually an ad-lib guess, and usually wrong. (Candidates familiar with the grammars of other European languages often misapply or overgeneralise their understanding of the perfect aspect from those languages to English.) In other words, the candidates are able to identify examples of the perfect aspect when they see them, but they don’t necessarily understand it, at least for English.
Remembering, or even using a term appropriately is not necessarily a good measure of comprehending something, nor of the ability to analyse it; it can be empty. Reducing potentially complex methodological principles and concepts to a mere acronym, abbreviation or term often does those principles a real disservice and we do a disservice to the candidates in terms of helping them develop their own ability to think about these concepts and principles. In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, we are only getting candidates to employ lower order thinking skills, and neglecting higher order thinking skills, hence a ‘dumbing down’ (Bloom, 1956).
Any teacher educator who wants to do a better job and wants to ensure they’re not doing the world of language education a disservice, that’s who.
The problem with this dumbing down of teacher so-called ‘education’ to its bare reductive minimum, is that it also results in what one of my other esteemed colleagues referred to by extension as ‘the dumbing down of teacher trainers’! As a result of lowering our expectations to what is easily remembered, easily demonstrable and fits within the constraints of assessment, syllabus and timetable, we too end up dumbing ourselves down to a bare minimum, and even training new teacher educators into the same reductive habits.
Where does it all come from?
I believe this pitfall typically come about as a result of the following constraints which face us as teacher educators:
- Factory line conditions
- Having to work by principles of economy and efficiency
- The imposition of assessment and standardisation
- Not understanding principles of effective learning as educators ourselves
- Lack of suitable examples or mentoring for how to train any better
- The ‘This is the way we always do it’ mentality
As a result, we often get:
1) too much of a focus on teaching rather than learning (or on techniques and methods instead of the principles of effective learning)
2) too much of a focus on assessment rather than development
3) too much of a focus on training rather than educating
In other words, these three sins of teacher training if you like, are the result of negative wash back from having to work under such training conditions and constraints.
In the boot-camp, factory line conditions of intensive training courses we tend to train candidates to perform in the conditions of the course, rather than function in a more authentic teaching context. We’re constrained by the need to make learning and assessment as measurable and achievable as possible in as short a time as possible. As a result, we have what I consider to be insufficient implementation of a principled approach (Richards and Rogers 1986, Brown 1997, Larsen-Freeman 2000). Here, we’re talking about understanding and using principles of learning as the basis for effective teaching rather than the techniques or methods themselves. (These can include principles such as needs-based learning, learner-centredness, dealing with meaning before form, etc.). In other words, it becomes training rather than educating. We become sports coaches driving for improved results in performance rather than educators helping to facilitate opportunities for genuine learning and development. ‘Correctly’ using terminology is an easy way of showing this; it’s a great time-saving mechanism and a convenient hoop through which to jump. And in the process we’ve subconsciously convinced ourselves into thinking that everything we do is helping the candidates demonstrate proficiency with everything we’re trying to teach them, when often we’re simply helping them become better hoop-jumpers. We’ve fooled ourselves into believing the hoops are the same thing as teaching and learning. Even worse, we can be blind to our own hoops or believe we don’t have any. (We all have them, but they can vary from one trainer/centre/course to the another.)
For what it’s worth, I think hoops are probably an inevitable and necessary part of the training and development process, but we need to set up the right kind of hoops, and teacher educators need to have a bit of critical self-awareness about what hoops we set up.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that often the easiest way to assess teachers is by their demonstration of classroom teaching behaviours and techniques. And it’s just this that we tend to map assessment criteria to. To me it’s a form of trying to make quantifiable, something that is essentially qualitative; it’s very much a cop out in the process of assessment. (Although this is perhaps cause for a whole article in itself.)
The result of the above conditions and constraints I think we end up with too much of a ‘Teaching for Dummies’ type of approach. I’m not saying this approach can’t be useful, but do we really want to be reducing educating to its ‘dummy’ element so much? In the next article, I will consider further illustrations of this issue and explore some ways to approach this situation.
Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.
Brown, H. D. (1997). Teaching by principles. New York: Longman
Hazell, T. in Henriques, G. (2015). Can you relate?. Available: http://www.celtatrainers.com/forum/thread?thread=1646. Last accessed 20/3/17.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richards, J. C., & Rogers, T. S. (1986). Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (352, 353)
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