In the previous article, I spelt out what could be considered the tendency towards a ‘dumbing down of teacher training’, using the example of the overuse of jargon. However, I think this example is indicative of much deeper, more fundamental issues. Here, I will illustrate this phenomenon with further examples I have seen in practice on teacher training programmes, and suggest some possibilities for positive change.
What’s your problem?
The following chart summarises three problematic examples I’ve seen on different CELTA courses. As no discussion of classroom or training room issues is complete (or even justified) without some consideration of what the course writer’s inherent beliefs and assumptions about the learning and training process might be, I also speculate about these. In the third and fourth columns, I identify what exactly I think is problematic with these approaches and some potential results.
Don’t tell me your problems!
I’m not one to rant about my problems, so I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting some possible alternatives to the very same issues I’ve identified. See the chart in all its metacognitive glory.
You will see from the suggestions in the chart, positive change does not mean we have to cram in more into teacher education programmes (indeed, if done well, it can mean we can do less); rather, it requires a paradigm shift in our thinking and the way we go about doing what we do.
Resistance to change
Teachers are no strangers to resistance. When encountering suggestions to change in professional or institutional practice, we often hear some of the following types of resistance vocalised:
“They can’t cope.”
“It’s too soon.”
“They’re not ready for that.”
“There’s no room in the timetable for that!”
“But this is how we have to do it at our centre.”
“We’ve always done it this way.”
“They’ve already got enough to do.”
“I’ve already got enough to do!”
“Do as I say, and not as I do.”
“You going to pay me to do that?!”
To all these responses I say: “Excuses! Excuses!” What do we value more: a working understanding of principles of effective learning, or blindly demonstrating the techniques that attempt to facilitate them? Lower order thinking skills at the expense of higher? Training or educating? Assessment or development? The excuses above typically come from trainers who aren’t really experienced with how to do anything other than the way they usually do things, or the way they were trained (or even the way they think they were trained!)
Educator as practitioner and experimenter
We all know a good educator is a good experimenter, and a good reflective practitioner, so let’s let go of some of our excuses and our insecurities and realise that positive change:
- Does not mean more work for candidates or tutors
- Does not mean we have to reinvent the wheel
- Does not invalidate anything we’ve done up until now
- Does not discredit the techniques
- Does not discredit the notion or process of assessment
But we do need to make sure we don’t try and squeeze our training into a one-size-fits-all approach. And we do need to be willing to question our assumptions about stages in teachers’ development processes. Working with elements of needs analysis and managing differentiation are no longer understood to be things that teachers graduate to later in their careers, but are conceived of as so fundamental to the learning process that they are focused on and expected at the beginning of many teacher education programmes, especially in the primary and secondary sector (Gould, 2004). Naturally teachers will be better at these things at later stages of their development, but this is the case with many things in life. This is not a reason for ruling out focusing on such fundamentals at the earlier stages of teacher education, which are often the more crucial, formative stages. Teachers, like other human beings, ARE capable of higher order thinking skills.
Raising it up again: four general principles
I’ve looked and three specific case studies and suggested some alternatives specific to those particular issues. These same solutions could of course be used elsewhere and these suggestions are by no means exhaustive. I would conclude by suggesting that this general issue of the dumbing down of teacher training could be addressed in four general ways. These are:
1) Do away with assessment (criterion-referenced or otherwise) based on demonstration of techniques or methods (or jargon!) in favour of assessment (criterion-referenced or otherwise) which focuses on evidence-based quality of performance and quality of learning opportunities. (Of course, HOW we now measure learning of this is where the debate lies – and scope for a whole separate article).
2) Base courses on a principled approach to educating, i.e. the principles of effective learning rather than the demonstration of techniques and methods. After all, as Prabhu has claimed, ‘there is no best method’ (Prabhu 1990). There will naturally be some variation in what these principles are, but they can include principles such as: learner needs and differences, responding to emerging needs, managing differentiation, etc.
3) Facilitate a stronger and more rigorous focus on developing reflective practice skills in educators. These are ongoing and transferable skills which help the teacher become a more autonomous practitioner beyond the course and through their career. (This can include helping candidates make more informed choices about their planning and teaching. Also get them to consider how to apply and re-work what they’re doing in the one particular context of their one particular course, for teaching in other contexts, especially if they are already working teachers and work in very different contexts.)
4) As teacher educators, we must practise what we preach, e.g. facilitate some needs analysis to customise and adapt a course to suit course participants. They then get to see that we know what we’re talking about but they also get models of best practise consistent with what we’re training them in. (Actually inform them of what you’re doing in this respect, so that they are made explicitly aware of these embedded and exemplifying features in the programme, including changes that are made as the course progresses.)
We need to start conceiving of ourselves as ‘teacher educators’ more rather than ‘teacher trainers’; we want to upgrade ourselves, not dumb ourselves down any more than what we already have simply to satisfy the constraints of timetabling and assessment.
With regard to incorporating elements of needs analysis and differentiation into training programmes, I will always defend the position that the fundamentals are just that, the fundamentals: ‘I’m a fundamentalist teacher educator!’ Fundamentals should be our starting point, not something we graduate to at some later stage. Learning is cyclic rather than linear; give candidates opportunities to visit and revisit such fundamentals (with increasing degrees of complexity, proficiency, reflection, or critical thought) at key stages in their development across a course, including near the start, for these are often the most formative stages.
A CELTA course is only as good as the trainers who deliver it, and arguably, some courses ended up being better in spite of, not because of the trainers delivering them. No one wants to provide dumbed down training, and none of us should want to be dumbed down trainers. Let’s raise the bar.
Gould, H. (2004). Can Novice Teachers Differentiate Instruction – Yes They Can! Available: http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/Differentiated%20Instruction/novice. Last accessed 21/5/16.
Prabhu, N.S. (1990) There is no best method – why? TESOL Quarterly 24/2: 161-7
- Training vs Educating; The dumbing down of teacher training – by Jamie King
- Customisation in Teacher Training Programmes – Getting Teacher Educators to Practice what we Preach – by Jamie King
- The Cambridge guide to Second Language Teacher Education. Edited by Jack C Richards and Anne Burns. Cambridge University Press
- Column: Developing the Thinking Teacher – Reflections on Reflective Practice – by Jamie King
- Developing Teachers Column: A Critical Reflection of the CELTA – by Jamie King