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How to help teachers develop new practices in the classroom
As teacher educators, assumptions are often made about the impact training will have on teachers without really considering the difficulties/challenges for the teachers once they try to implement new techniques in the classroom.
This article explores some of these difficulties in relation to the British Council’s Continuing Professional Development Framework for Teacher Educators.
One of the professional practices included in the framework is:
Demonstrating effective teaching behaviour.
An element described in this practice is:
An explicit analysis and articulation of the processes involved during specific demonstrations of classroom practice and professional behaviour.
As teacher educators, we need to understand exactly what is going on in the classroom so we can break it down (analysis). This then enables us to explain the process to teachers (articulation) in order for implementation of a new technique to take place.
How do we do this?
A few years ago, I was working with a group of teachers who had had little or no formal training and had grown up in a traditional learning environment consisting mainly of rote-learning. It was a low resource environment and often learners had to share books.
I had run a workshop on teaching vocabulary, a workshop that was designed with my own context in mind. There are a number of different methodologies available to us but it is important to note that the context drives the design.
We had covered areas such as how many new words to teach, eliciting new vocabulary, practising the pronunciation and checking meaning followed by production of the vocabulary in context with personalised sentences. I thought it had gone very well with groups of teachers practising the steps. I was excited about seeing the teachers in action in their own classrooms.
The following week, I was in the classroom with Mr Y. He was teaching a grade four class with about twenty learners in the classroom, with partitions separating different classes. It made for a rather noisy learning environment and often the teachers relied on choral drilling to overcome the noise levels of the adjacent class. I eagerly awaited evidence of the training session. However, most of the lesson was spent drilling the vocabulary.
A wise teacher educator friend of mine once said to me that teaching is a collection of moments. This struck a chord with me. What are these moments and how did I, myself, know how to execute all the moments of the vocabulary lesson that we had covered in the workshop? Why wasn’t it an easy transfer to the classroom for the teachers? Perhaps something was missing in my workshops.
I started from the beginning. I wrote out the steps of the very same vocabulary lesson that I had covered in the workshop. As I was doing this I realised that there were a lot of teaching moments that we had either not covered in the workshop or where I had made some assumptions.
The first step in the vocabulary lesson was:
Hold up a flashcard and elicit the word.
A learner-centred classroom is defined by the learners having more autonomy in the classroom. One aspect of this is the teacher asking questions rather than telling the learners the answer. Such a question might be ‘What’s this?’. Learners retain the vocabulary item because they have increased their interest by being involved in the learning process. If the learners are being told a word that they already know, they will not be interested in listening to the teacher and their motivation will decrease, inhibiting learning. There is a tiny amount of uncertainty in this moment, a tiny amount of control offered to the learners.
In a teacher-centred classroom the teacher is in full control for the whole lesson. Looking at this issue of control, I realised I was asking Mr Y to begin the lesson by relinquishing a little control when asking a question such as ‘What’s this?’.
He did not know what the learners would say. What if they already knew the word, should he take out that flashcard and not teach it? What if they say a different word – should he then say the word on the flashcard? Should he ask other learners? When does he say the word? Are all the learners shouting out or is it only one or two? Does he notice? How many times should he elicit before telling them the word?
There was a lot going on even in this initial step. As teacher educators running workshops, we are focused on the learner and the learning. It can be easy to forget the learning process of the teacher when moving from a more teacher-centred style of teaching to a learner-focused one.
Keeping Mr Y in mind, I continued breaking down the steps of the vocabulary lesson from the point of view of Mr Y. It became clear that there are a lot of decisions to be made and questions to answer during a teaching process or even moment.
Where to begin?
Using the vocabulary lesson from our workshop, I looked at the starting point of Mr Y: choral drilling. There is a lot of control for the teacher. This makes the classroom feel safe for the teacher because there are no unknown elements. What could I do to introduce a little change while still maintaining control for the teacher? My aim was to slowly start introducing tiny steps that would reach the goal of this first step: eliciting words from the learners.
This is what I came up with. The first box is the starting point, what teachers I was working with usually do. The final box is a small step forward towards a more learner-centred classroom.
I changed my subsequent workshop plans and we focused on the small, incremental steps, practising each one together. Each time, the teachers tried one step in their classrooms. Within a week, there was a transformation. I realised that the teachers needed to keep strong control at the beginning, so we kept a very teacher-centred classroom, the familiar environment. I introduced more interaction among the learners, an unfamiliar environment. Keeping some familiar territory while building in an unfamiliar aspect enables teachers to try something new from the stability of the known foundation.
This built up to eventually eliciting words from the learners. By this stage the teachers were comfortable managing different ways of choral drilling and could see the enjoyment of their learners. This in turn gave them confidence to elicit a few words from the learners before beginning the second box of varied drilling. They could then make decisions about taking out some of the flashcards the learners already knew.
I visited Mr Y in his classroom a few weeks later. The difference was remarkable. We could talk about why it is important for learners to say the words themselves first, now that he had visibly seen the effect. Relating the theory to practice is an important aspect of a teacher educator’s role and I could help Mr Y see the practice relating to the theory.
Returning to the British Council CPD framework, we can see that as teacher educators, we need to be able to analyse and then explain the teaching process in order to demonstrate effective teaching behaviour both for ourselves and those of our teachers.
Let’s look at another example. A common technique in a training session is think-pair-share. Again, when we break down the steps, there is a lot going on. Here is the first one.
Teacher asks a question, tells the learners to think for a moment (wait time).
Giving waiting time to think is a new concept for many teachers and again means the teacher needs to give up a bit of control. What does the teacher do while the learners think? Even if it is five seconds, this is five seconds of teacher unemployment, being at a loose end.
Learners tell their partner.
How long does the teacher give them to tell their partner? How does the teacher know when to nominate a pair? What does the teacher do while the learners are talking? Are the learners used to talking to each other? What if they get it wrong? What if they speak in their own language, is this OK?
These are all questions that are unknown and therefore create anxiety in the teacher as they are moving from the familiar (teacher-centred control) to the unfamiliar (learner-centred, less perceived control).
So what are the steps leading up to think-pair-share?
Starting from the beginning, what do the teachers usually do? They ask a question and some learners shout out the answer. Let’s start there.
Following these small steps, and practising each one in a training session, we get to the final step. By asking a row, the learners automatically want to check together. This enables the teacher to transition to then asking a pair to check together. Slowly the teacher is getting used to some wait time. At this point, I give the teachers a small job to do so they do not feel unemployed. When the learners are checking together, I tell the teacher to count how many rows there are and make a note in their book. This is enough time for learners to check together. Once the teacher has experienced a few seconds of not being the talker and is comfortable with these few seconds, I slowly start introducing wait time after a question. Of course, even in the final step there are some mini-stages but usually these are covered by the time we get to this step.
It takes a while but the result is long lasting and embedded.
An oft-cited teacher comment is ‘I know I should be more learner-centred, but I don’t know how’.
This process of analyzing teaching is also part of our own continuing professional development as we increase our awareness of the teaching process.
Think of a teacher you work with. Visualise them in their classroom.
Identify something you would like them to develop. This could be including more learners, giving clearer instructions, using more questions, using authentic material, for example.
Complete a steps diagram, like those in the article. Write the current teacher behaviour on the left. Write the ideal behaviour on the right. Identify some small steps the teacher can make in the classroom, in order to move closer to the ideal behaviour.
Work with the teacher to implement the steps.
About the author
From her first group of learners in 1991 in Athens, Greece, Karen Waterston has taught Young Learners, Teenagers, Adults, Business and Academic English and exam preparation classes. Karen started working with teachers in Senegal in 2001 and has worked with teachers on four continents, learning all the time. Karen has a Master’s degree in ELT and Educational Technology. She is particularly interested in the teaching moments that create change.