In this article Tessa Woodward discusses interactivity, defined as our capacity to seek communication and engagement with each other and to create environments that foster successful communication.

In the introductory article in this series we looked at teacher educator self-awareness, what it is and why it is important in our work. I offered a couple of ideas for self-observation which is a starting point for self-awareness. In this article I will explore the idea of interactivity as a feature of self-awareness.

It's not this…!

If we are versed in new technologies and hear or see the word ‘interactivity’, or look it up, we tend to think of human to computer (or other machine) interaction and messaging. This is not the meaning of the word interactivity dealt with in this article!

It’s this…!

In this article, I am going to take interactivity to mean the capacity that we humans have to seek communication and engagement with each other and to create environments that foster successful communication.

The best laid plans…!

We teacher trainers, teacher educators and mentors try hard to plan and prepare for our encounters with teachers. When observing teachers, we help with lesson plans, hold pre- and post-observation meetings, write careful lesson notes and negotiate sensitive feedback sessions. When giving workshops we find out what teachers want and need, do our research, reading and thinking, prepare session materials, encourage experienced teachers to share what they know. We write agendas for meetings, order the tea, coffee and biscuits, try to chair the meeting well. There is hardly a single facet of our work that does not involve actively seeking engagement and communication with others. We meet teachers. We get teachers together. And yet, however hard we try to be open and conscientious, sometimes things do go awry; people storm out of meetings, get angry, burst into tears, stonewall us, are rude or unsympathetic to each other, fail to turn up or to participate, forget what they promised to do, or look singularly unimpressed during proceedings. ‘Human nature!’ we say to ourselves as we trudge home, ‘Well, I can’t be the right trainer for absolutely everyone. It stands to reason.’

Understanding why things go wrong

Many years ago, a feedback session after a lesson observation, organized to take place in a pleasant and private space, blew up in my face. After a few minutes of conversation, the teacher told me he didn’t think he had anything to learn from me, ended the encounter and left the room. No amount of reasoning with myself … that it was because I was younger, or female, or he was a head of department, or that I came from a different country, or I hadn’t been clear enough … nothing made me feel better. That bad encounter pulled me down for days. And taught me a LOT!

Sometimes we need to feel really ghastly before we can learn what we need to learn.

Soon after this unfortunate encounter, I came across a book by Thomas Gordon called ‘Teacher Effectiveness Training’ (1974). In it was a long passage about things that can get in the way of good listening in conversations. Gordon called them the ‘roadblocks to communication’. I read the list of roadblocks with their explanations and realized that I was pretty gifted at quite a number of them! Here is a taste of Gordon’s work.

Roadblocks to communication

Roadblock 1: Ordering, directing, commanding

(Do this, Don’t do that, You have to….)

Messages encoded in orders, directions or commands tell our communication partner that they are expected to comply, and that their own needs, feelings and expertise are not important.

Roadblock 2: Warning, admonishing, threatening

(If you do that, you won’t get a good grade/pass the course)

These messages imply negative consequences and can make someone feel fearful, submissive or resentful.

Roadblock 3: Giving advice, suggestions or solutions

(Why don’t you? If I were you, I would)

Such messages may be taken by the teacher as evidence that the trainer does not have confidence in their ability to find their own solutions. This may also lead a teacher to become overly dependent on the trainer. (What do you think I should do?)

Roadblock 4: Lecturing, giving logical arguments

(The facts are.., Let’s think this through, logically,)

Messages like this imply that the teacher has not thought things true and is not being rational!

Roadblock 5: Moralising and preaching

(You should, you ought to)

This language invokes an underlying moral code, one that the teacher may not share.

Roadblock 6: Judging, criticizing, disagreeing, blaming

(You’re wrong. You’re being unprofessional…)

These messages can make people feel inadequate, inferior, or stupid. Not great for communication.

Roadblock 7: Praising, agreeing

(I think you’re exactly right, that’s what I would do. You’re really good at..)

I was surprised that this was considered a roadblock. But I see now that the message implied here is that the trainer sanctions or approves of the teacher’s behaviour. It implies an unequal relationship and one that can also involve lack of sanction or approval on another occasion!

Roadblock 8: Name-calling, ridiculing and shaming.

(That’s a stupid thing to do, How could you..?)

The disapproval here is overt, a kind of shaming. A real roadblock.

Roadblock 9: Reassuring, sympathizing, consoling, and supporting.

(Don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of it. It isn’t all bad…)

This one was another surprise to me! It’s not a bad thing to want to help someone feel better but it is not listening. It stops the flow of the conversation.

Roadblock 10: Probing, questioning, and interrogating.

(Why are you going to do that? So, you feel X…?)

This is the roadblock that I am best at! But I understand now that asking questions directs the speaker towards what I am interested in and does not allow them to develop the talk in the way they would like.

Roadblock 11: Withdrawing, distracting, humouring and diverting.

(That reminds me of….They say it’s going to rain later, Let’s talk about that another time)

In an attempt to take the other person’s mind off something, we divert the communication, implying that their topic is not important or should not be pursued.

Reading the passage in Gordon’s book certainly made me more aware of the language I used in training sessions and in post-lesson observation feedback sessions.

Listening well

It also reminded me that my own utterances, whether skilled or unskilled, were taking up valuable time that I could use to listen to my conversation partner. And that, in turn, made me wonder how I could improve my listening skills in other ways. It will come as no surprise that, via the internet, these days we can access helpful videos of TED talks on how to listen well, and come across lots of tips for being a good listener, tips such as:

  • to face encounter, turn to face the speaker and maintain eye contact.
  • Be attentive, but relaxed.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying.
  • Don't interrupt and don't impose your solutions or parallel anecdotes.
    (Roadblocks 3 and 11 and others!)
  • Wait for the speaker to pause before asking clarifying questions.
  • Ask questions only to ensure understanding.
  • Give the speaker regular feedback.

Of course, reading this list of tips, we are now on the other side of one of Gordon’s roadblocks, being given lectures and exhortations by the advisor who came up with the tips!

But as teacher trainers, teacher educators and mentors we will want to improve our interactivity, our capacity to seek communication and engagement with each other and to create environments that foster successful communication. Whatever reading we find useful, whatever tips we take on board, whatever utterances and behaviours we try out, our aim is to build trust with the teachers we work with so that we can have constructive encounters.

Further reading

Teacher Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon (1974). Fodor's Travel Publications Inc., U.S.A.

About the author

Tessa Woodward is an ELT consultant, teacher, and teacher trainer. She has trained teachers in Japan, Switzerland, the UK, USA, and in many European countries. She is the founder editor of The Teacher Trainer journal (Pilgrims), Past President and International Ambassador of IATEFL and founded the IATEFL Special Interest Group for Teacher Trainers (now the SIG T Ed/TT). She is the author of many books and articles for language teachers and teacher trainers. Tessa is also the founder of The Fair List.

The other articles in this series discuss ways for teacher educators to develop:

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