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Category Archives: teacher training

By Peter Preston, Poland

Teachers do calculate the average score from tests, but then nothing serious is done with it. Even when the average score is close to the pass mark little statistical comment is made about the glaring problem that this represents. For example, if the average and the pass mark are the same and the population is normally distributed around the average, this means that 50% of the students fail. Can it be considered acceptable for 50% of the candidates to fail an end-of-the-year examination or even worse an end-of-the-course examination?

In fact at our college the last third-year UoE exam failed 80% of the students. Now you would think that a statistically-minded person would immediately start asking questions about validity of the exam. Construct validity – did the items set test the points intended to be tested? Course validity – did the items tested figure in the course syllabus? Is there a proper tie-up between the course syllabus and the test specifications (if the latter exist at all)? Did the distribution of correct responses discriminate between the weak and strong candidates? Were the items either too easy [not in this case] or too difficult? Is there any objective reference to competence standards built into the teaching programme? To ask just a few relevant questions.

I would love to hear that other institutions do use statistical analysis of exam data and look at the variance between different exam sittings using the same exam or different ones, but I wonder if small institutes can ever bring together the required expertese to carry out such work either before the exam goes live or afterwards. It would be great to conduct a poll on this matter to try to assess the use of statistics in the analysis of exam data at as many institutes as possible.

Peter Preston's students in Poland

My own experience inclines me to believe that exams are in fact not so much an educational evaluation of the work being done as a policy instrument to give face validity to the programme. As such one does not need to worry about the quality of the exam since one can adjust the results before publication. Or in the case of my institute the exam can be repeated by order from above until the teachers get the message.

I do not like the cynical manipulation of exam data, so having good quality statistical information and quality control of all documents involved in the course would be the start to a reevaluation of the course and teaching methods. By accurate assessment at the beginning of a course it should be possible to predict the level students could get to after a given number of teaching hours, taking into account the realities of life. By keeping proper statistical records over a few years one would accumulate powerful information. This is what insurance companies do to calculate their premiums.

By Bob Gilmour – Programme Manager for In-Sessional English Language Programme, INTO Newcastle University, England

I read this, Teacher Most Likely To Succeed, with interest. Having not seen the New Yorker article before, it is interesting to see that they identified the same points as us.

Two years ago I took over the In-sessional English support classes here at Newcastle University (roughly about 70 weekly classes and 800 to 1400 class places in each Semester).

In the non-credit classes which are not part of students degree programmes, there has always been a problem of dropping attendance towards the ends of the Semesters. We started collecting online feedback from all students who had registered including those who stopped attending. We noted that there were particular teachers who commanded much higher attendances in their classes and analysed the feedback for those classes and talked to those teachers to see what made them different. We also compared that with feedback from other classes where attendance dropped.

What seemed to be the main issues? Engaging and challenging students; humour; taking the class seriously; passion; individual feedback. What was really interesting is that a less experienced, younger teacher is just as likely to be successful in terms of attendance and student feedback as the more experienced and higher qualified teachers. However, there are also limits and, in my experience, the limits seem to be that students expect to be taught by teachers with qualifications equivalent or higher to their own.

We then fed this back into teacher training and awareness raising sessions and attendance across the Semester improved significantly this year (although there’s still some way to go!).

Bob Gilmour website

>By Lesley Woodward, MA, M.Ed. – Cleveland State University IELP, Cleveland, OH USA

I have found that occasionally taping my own classroom teaching sessions was invaluable in determining my own amount of teacher talk. It’s hard to overcome both our own and students’ preconceived notions of what is good and bad teaching, and subjective evaluation is a skewed perception. By unobtrusive taping of segments of my classes, I had an objective account of how much teacher talk I actually generated.

In my own teacher training at Teachers College, I was lucky to be exposed to the FOCUS observation system which uses a descriptive observation system rather than the usual prescriptive checklist. I highly recommend the book, “Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching” by John Fanselow. When I first used this system, I was amazed at how consistently I did not practice what I preached. I found that I used the same strategies over and over again, that I talked most of the time, and that I tended to call on the same students. Taping segments of my own classroom teaching coupled with using FOCUS allowed me to expand and explore alternatives in teaching. By using a descriptive system, I could see my teaching in a broader conceptual framework.

I have also found that attending to “wait time” is crucial in reducing teacher talk and this is something that I have had to consciously work on throughout my long teaching career. It’s so tempting to finish student sentences, and assume that we understand what a student is trying to communicate before that student has really had time to complete his or her thought, much less express it. Over the years, I have learned to intuit when a student is thinking of how to say something and when that student is just stumped for an answer. It’s a fine line between waiting and embarrassing a student who just doesn’t know. Over time, I learned how to perceive the difference.

John Fanselow was a wonderful though quite eccentric teacher. His book “Breaking Rules” defies a cover-to-cover reading. You have to sample it and then reflect. Most important, he moved away from the prescriptive observations which were and are so prevalent and introduced a descriptive protocol which urges teachers to move outside their usual mode of teaching … to “break rules.”

Two examples: We came into a large methods class once and sat down and began chatting as usual. The time for class to begin passed. Slowly, we became aware that John was sitting in the rear of the class, watching. He finally spoke, and taught the entire class sitting in the back of the room. Then we talked about how interactions were different if the teacher sits and different if the teacher is not front and center of the room. He also like to put “T’s” on the board. He would put various aspects of pedagogy up on the board in one column, then we would be asked to brainstorm ways in which certain received wisdom was not good depending of variables. Or conversely, how practices which we thought bad could be good in certain situations. He was the ultimate iconoclast.

The last I heard, he was teaching on the Tokyo campus of Teachers College, and then that he retired. I’ll never forget his classes.

For more on John Fanselow, see: ESL MiniConference Online interview with John Fanselow

>By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui, China

In my first year in China I was really disappointed in how my students (mostly college freshmen) were doing group activities – or not doing them! I was stumped as to how to manage the classroom to achieve anything better. Various people gave lots of suggestions, and I want to say thank you again for all the help.

This semester all my classes are college freshmen – many barely able to say anything. This semester I got the college to get us the Cambridge Skills for Fluency Speaking (2) book, which I’m now using with them. It’s a task/activity book, unlike anything they’ve ever used or done before, and there are lots of group activities in it. I have 7 classes, all of 30 to 35 students. Each class is now divided into 5 groups, on the basis of their exam marks from last semester’s oral classes. Each group has a manager, a secretary, a monitor (responsible for collecting and returning any written work, etc), a timekeeper and a coach. For a couple of weeks this all felt a real uphill struggle, but suddenly they’re getting their heads round this way of working and the classes are working much better. I’m asking groups to do many activities ending up with a presentation to the whole class, which I tape and mark, and which they’re getting better and better at both doing and listening to.

During the activities I can spend a few minutes with each group, and a bit more time with one particular group. But what’s really nice is that I’m able to relate much more to the students as individuals this way – even though there are exactly the same number of students in the classroom. In their small groups, I can relate to them much more personally, and even though it’s only ever for a short time, it seems to have much more effect than when they were either in the whole class group, in pairs, or in changing groups (i.e. different people in a group from week to week). I feel that they’re developing a different sort of working relationship with me now, as well as my getting to know each of them better. This has been an unexpected bonus and helped me greatly to start to get my head around how to teach using group-work as well as using task-based activities as the dominant method.

This experience has also made me think about some of the recent discussion about our various training courses and qualifications (or lack of them). I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. On reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way. I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology – and I do wish I’d got more training, not less.

>By Leslie Sirag/R.L.”Seth” Watkins – Olympia, WA, USA

The first and most important thing we learned about China in our first year of teaching there is that everything we thought we knew was wrong. I don’t think anything can really prepare you–the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!

>Dick Tibbets – University of Macau, Macau

In my part of the ‘training’ and ‘qualifications’ postings on this list I’ve been concerned to say that it is the knowledge that is important and that organised courses are probably the easiest way to get some of this knowledge. The letters, well, they’re just for the CV.

If you take a course then you are accepting someone else’s syllabus and, to some extent, someone else’s ideas of how you should use that knowledge. You just have to hope that they know what they are doing. After all, this is what your students have to do. You are their ‘someone else’.

If you design your own course of self study then you need to know which topics will be useful to you. It can work but you are a little more in the dark.

As for my background, yes it’s helped me all along. When I left computer programming all those years ago, the post grad cert ed I took really did help prepare me for the classroom and once I got there a series of courses by Rinvolucri helped even more.

The experience I gained over the next 10 years teaching various types and levels of
English to learners from some 70 or so countries then fed into my MA and both the experience and the ‘extra’ knowledge from the MA helped when I came to Hong Kong and Macau.

I’d say that the experience is the most valuable part but it was those bursts of learning (I won’t call it training as a fair bit was independent) on courses that put the experience into contexts and made it all much more useful. Teaching in this part of the world IS harder than teaching in, say, Spain or Germany. Knowledge based experience was worthwhile for me.

>By Lesley Woodward, MA, M.Ed. – Cleveland State University IELP, USA

I have found that occasionally taping my own classroom teaching sessions was invaluable in determining my own amount of teacher talk. It’s hard to overcome both our own and students’ preconceived notions of what is good and bad teaching, and subjective evaluation is a skewed perception. By unobtrusive taping of segments of my classes, I had an objective account of how much teacher talk I actually generated.

In my own teacher training at Teachers College, I was lucky to be exposed to the FOCUS observation system which uses a descriptive observation system rather than the usual prescriptive checklist. I highly recommend the book, “Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching” by John Fanselow. When I first used this system, I was amazed at how consistently I did not practice what I preached. I found that I used the same strategies over and over again, that I talked most of the time, and that I tended to call on the same students. Taping segments of my own classroom teaching coupled with using FOCUS allowed me to expand and explore alternatives in teaching. By using a descriptive system, I could see my teaching in a broader conceptual framework.

I have also found that attending to “wait time” is crucial in reducing teacher talk and this is something that I have had to consciously work on throughout my long teaching career. It’s so tempting to finish student sentences, and assume that we understand what a student is trying to communicate before that student has really had time to complete his or her thought, much less express it. Over the years, I have learned to intuit when a student is thinking of how to say something and when that student is just stumped for an answer. It’s a fine line between waiting and embarrassing a student who just doesn’t know. Over time, I learned how to perceive the difference.

>“If anyone is likely to have accurate insights/judgment into the impact of particular techniques on a language learner, let us hope it is language teachers about their own past learning of other languages.”

Shouldn’t teachers have some special insights into the learning process derived from their own experience studying a language?

No.

In fact, this experience can be very harmful.

Some students are academically inclined. They read something, they remember it. The teacher says something, they remember it. They study the books in the library and they do everything correctly in class. Sometimes they even sit in the front of the class.

These people often become teachers.

They are remarkable people. We cannot criticise them, only admire them. As students they can smilingly sit through the most boring lectures and actually pull some jewels of important knowledge out of the verbage. They can study the most complicated texts, decipher them as well as any CIA analyst and file away the data into different parts of their computer-like brain and retrieve it later when the teacher demands and to his pleasure. (Indeed, such students make teachers feel like gods.)

The problem is the other 80% of the class, what to do with them?

Some of them have blank looks on their faces. Some of them just don’t get it. Some of them are bored to death. In extreme cases, some of them have slipped into a teacher induced coma on top of their desks.

When good students become teachers and then draw on their learning experience when dealing with their students they can make a big mistake. They can be tempted to believe that their students are like them and can learn like they did.

>

By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui

I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. In reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way.

I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology – and I do wish I’d got more training, not less.

>By Janet Kaback – Newark Public Schools, USA

In the past, the role of the teacher was the keeper of knowledge who was considered all-knowing, who would deign to deposit some of this knowledge into the minds of his/her students. This role fit in well with society after the Industrial Revolution. The vast majority of students did not pursue higher education and were trained to work in factories where they were responsible for a certain job. The industries needed laborers, not thinkers.

However, in today’s world, the ability to acquire and utilize knowledge and to apply it in various situations is the goal of the modern societies. The global economy, international travel, and the internet, shrink the world’s differences as we move to develop a fast-paced, technological society. No longer do the advanced countries seek to produce quantities of laborers, rather, we need the technological knowledge and the ability to think and problem-solve that schools must now produce.

Therefore, the role of the teacher needs to change in order to produce students who are able to think, plan, and act on their knowledge. As one teacher said, “Students have to learn to discriminate between useful knowledge and less useful knowledge and decide on their own language learning priorities.”

Advanced societies must change the way the schools teach to produce the citizens who will understand how to act, and how to activate in the 21st century. This includes teaching students how to seek out their own knowledge and how to discriminate between useful and extraneous information in the pursuit of a goal. It does not only come into play with language learning, but must be considered within all disciplines. Just holding a diploma with the knowledge that one was supposed to acquire doesn’t cut it in today’s world…using that knowledge in the correct manner and form to surge ahead in the changing world is what is needed.