staff development

Teaching Teachers – Just remember number 4.

In the last eight or nine years I have spent a fair amount of time not just teaching students but also training and developing staff, and for a short while that is pretty much the whole job. Except there’s a bit of a problem with the word training because really, what I have been, and will be doing is teaching. I say this because we tend to dress up this sort of explicit teacher development activity with a phrasing which suggests a degree of parity between those being developed and those doing the developing. So we talk about “trainee teachers” not “learner-teachers”, and we say “teacher trainers”, not, well, just “teachers”.

But this is just semantics, right? Different labels to take account of the change in perceived power relationships, but actually what happens in those settings is more or less the same: as a “trainer” and as a “teacher” you have some people  in the room with you who want to /are supposed to learn something, and it’s your job to make that happen in some way. The problem with the labelling as training is that this acts as a justification for taking a “do as I say, not as I do” mindset. Thus you get one size fits all activities about differentiation, workshops on what teachers already know about stretch and challenge, straight powerpoint presentations on engaging students with varied activities, assessment for learning sessions which completely fail to assess anything about the attendees, or sessions on digital technology which don’t actually make time for attendees to use said technology.

So what follows are the things I try to remember when I am planning training for teachers.  I make no claims to being a great trainer, indeed, I make no claims to being a great teacher, but I know that these are the ideas that have informed most of the training I’ve run, although many of these are also reactions to memories of bad training I’ve had to sit through. You never know, it might be useful.

Rule 1: Demonstrate as well as explain. Sometimes referred to as “loop input” you essentially teach a new strategy by using that strategy. This is about credibility and nothing gives your ideas credibility than an open demonstration of belief in that idea. After all, if you think it’s so great, then why aren’t you using it?

Rule 2: Challenge and Differentiate. I learned this the hard way after running sessions which managed to exclude both the really inexperienced teachers and the very inexperienced teachers, thus only really being of use to two or three people. Think about who you are training and try to find out / predict what they might already know.

Rule 3: Use the teachers. This is by far the easiest way to include the challenge and differentiation needed. If they are working teachers, ask them to contribute what they know as a starting point. Include things for all the teachers, and try not to use your experienced teachers only as resources for less experienced teachers. Use that experience, by all means, but remember they would like to get something from the session too.

Rule 4: Be Practical. Actually this should be the first one, the biggy, the humdinger. If you are running any kind of staff development activity, be it a ten minute micro-training session at the end of a staff meeting, or a full hour of CPD activity, the things you tell people about have to be useful. It simply doesn’t matter how passionate you feel about the training, nor how important it is that all staff are aware of the retention and achievement data which is such an integral part of your managerial role. Neither does it matter about the legal requirements of whichever random government policy it is now best practice to embed. What you need to do to make your staff training activity work is make sure it includes something which teachers can take away and use in their daily practice. If it doesn’t you might as well stick your PowerPoint slides in an email so they can find it when they need it.

Rule 5: Be realistic about your expectations. No matter how dedicated the teacher, it’s a big ask for them to take on a bunch of different ideas or methods from a training session. Aim for just one or two, but present the teachers with lots of things to choose from. That way you are not only being practical, but also allowing teachers to pick and choose ideas is much more likely to meet their needs.

Rule 6: Proofread. This isn’t just because you’ll look unprofessional if you have errors on your slides and handouts, however important that is. A howling typo on the first page of your presentation, for example, can give that crotchety, arms-crossed, know-it-all-but-actually-doesn’t old geezer a whole load of ammunition to justify disrupting the session.  I know it should go without saying, but it’s easily done.

Rule 7a: Teach with integrity. One of the perennial agonies of the teacher-trainer/developer is the requirement that you have to sometimes deliver training on a theme you don’t always entirely believe in. (I could come up with a list, but if I say “SMART targets”, that should be enough. I’m pretty sure people have stopped asking me to do training on that one). Sure, it’s not necessarily a good plan to come out with this during the session, but rather use your … disaffection… to inform your session plan. What would you say if someone was trying to tell you about this idea, and what could a trainer say that would make you feel better?

Rule 7b: Be honest – you can’t be an endless wellspring of new ideas – if you steal an idea, acknowledge it, and refer the teachers to the original source. There’s no shame in that – after all, as an ESOL teacher, you didn’t make up the rules of grammar, did you, and you’re quite happy to share them.

Rule 8: Go easy on the handouts. Most teachers have a clear-out every year or so, and in that clear-out will go a big pile of PowerPoint printouts from training sessions. Yours will probably go into the big recycling bin in the sky, so think really carefully about what you put in. Thinking back to your expectations – if you have given that teacher one or two new ideas to try, and they have tried them successfully, then the chances are they won’t need to re-read your handouts. I’ve trimmed down hand outs to a single sheet for a lot of training I’ve led – “something I’ll definitely try…. something I might try… something I could share…” that sort of thing. You can always share presentations and links via email after the event.

Rule 9: Follow up. This isn’t always possible, for example if you are delivering something at a conference or somewhere you don’t usually work. However, if you can follow it up, do so. Even ten minutes of colleagues talking in groups about the strategies you shared at a staff meeting can be enough to either provoke reflections and adaptations, or simply to prompt the odd one or two into trying it.

Rule 10: Get feedback. This may include negative comments, especially if you’ve forgotten the stuff about making sure it’s practical and useful. You will, I assure you, only focus on the negative feedback, and this is OK – learn from anything you can learn from, and ignore all the stuff about how hot/cold the room was, the lack of time to put the ideas into place, the lack of coffee, whatever. Remember as well that some people will grouse whatever, especially if they’ve been told to come.  Do look at the good things people say about it. If you like, put some structure on your feedback, and ask people to circle words – how many people circled “informative” or “useful” or “a good use of my time”? Remember that 16/20 positives is pretty good going, especially if the negatives are about things beyond your control.

Rule 11: Relax and enjoy the ride. Teachers are teachers, and most of them understand how it feels to be new at something. If you’re nervous, think of the session as if it were a lesson and the attendees are your students. The nerves will vanish after a few minutes anyway, and your teacher instincts will kick in.

***

In essence, then, plan for a training session like you would any kind of lesson; except the rewards can have a much more immediate and obvious impact. As with any learning, it’s always terrific when someone comes up and tells you they tried something you suggested, and it worked for them, or you happen to overhear your name when someone is discussing how a lesson went (“I tried…., like Sam said, and it was great.”) You might hear from their line manager about how a teacher tried something which was really good, and you know it was your session when the idea came up. Perhaps a teacher heard an idea from you, tried it in class, embedded it in their practice and then their observer (who wasn’t at the training) comes up to you and say how amazing this idea was. That, in fact, is the best. Not just because you have passed on a great idea, and improved that teacher’s practice, or whatever, but also because they have taken that idea and made it their own.

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Too much Teacher Talking Time

TTT vs STT: easily one of the great CELTA shibboleths, and excessive TTT is by far one of the most common problems for both new and experienced teachers of ESOL, and therefore it’s very easy to say “reduce TTT” as an action point. 

I’ve not written it as an action point for literally years, however, because, when you think about it, it’s really rather useless as an area to develop. 

The trouble is “reduce TTT” completely fails to get to the root of why the excessive teacher talk is happening, and therefore fails to address the actual problem. Far more useful is to think about why excessive, unnecessary or distracting teacher talk happens. 

The obvious one is explanations. This is particularly true of new teachers, or of teachers who have a background in first language medium education. I blame the reductive nature of Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) as well, where the word “presentation” is inevitably interpreted as droning on about auxiliary verbs with some natty graphics via PowerPoint. The trouble is the limiting nature of this kind of “telling people stuff” – more often than not, ESOL classes are conducted in English, and with the exception of particularly high level classes, the students don’t always have the language to process the explanation. Even where students do have the language and the meta-language to cope with explanations, the input needs to be monitored and checked to make sure that the students are actually taking the language on board. Ten minutes of waffle followed by a gap fill is highly likely to be pretty ineffective. Ten minutes of clear presentation engaging students with questions and checking, however, is much more likely to improve the students’ language. Alternatively there might be some sort of carefully constructed guided practice task, allowing students to analyse language in context then make generalisations about that language, forming theories about language and structure and reformulating interlanguage. 

Then there are instructions. Even speaking the same language can make for mistakes in instructions, but again, giving instructions in English to students whose English is developing is far more likely to result in miscommunication. This tends to lead to a polite uncomprehending silence, which novice teachers like to fill with repeated instructions, rephrased usually just in the right way to add to the confusion. This, naturally leads to deep, horrible silence which only grows as the teacher gets frustrated and embarrassed. In the worst examples of this, the teacher gets cross with the students for not understanding, projecting their own frustrations on the students. Instruction checking questions rarely help, I think: a silly idea that does more harm than good. Teachers are usually better off by breaking the task down and explaining one step at a time, rather than explaining the whole task all at once. Even where students do understand the task, there is sometimes a brief pause while students process the instructions, and it takes a bit of skill and experience to resist the urge to fill in the time. And sometimes the silence occurs because the task is simply badly designed, or cognitively unfamiliar or complex: even a simple crossword takes some training, regardless of the simplicity of the vocabulary. 

The other TTT sin is filling gaps in speaking tasks, where the aim of a task is to practise speaking but the students don’t actually speak to each other. You don’t deal with this by reducing your teacher talking time, but rather by asking yourself why they aren’t speaking and making changes accordingly. It’s rarely because of excessive TTT but more often because of the quality of the task. Perhaps, and this is definitely a novice teacher mistake, the task lacks communicative structure and focus: “just talk to each other about [insert topic here]” rather than “find out 3 things about your partner”. The students aren’t talking because “just talk” is a dumb activity. 

The problem, then, is not reducing TTT, but rather lies in where the teacher talk restricts or limits the opportunities for student talk. If we say “reduce TTT” we need to consider what will replace this, and hopefully this is Student Talking Time, and developing opportunities to increase student talk time: instead of a teacher led presentation with individually targetted questioning, what about some sort of peer driven guided discovery task which allows students not only the chance to work out new language for themselves but also to interact using current language, consolidating that language and developing speaking  skills. Use calm clear instructions and, yes, wait a second to give the students chance to get on with the task. Devise practise activities that give students opportunity to speak communicatively, with a purpose to that speaking, and again (I will repeat this til I die) “just talk about X” is not purpose. Even in a dogme-ish unplugged setting, perhaps especially so talk has to have purpose, even if the language coming from the talk is not strictly planned. Include peer checking of practice activities as standard: it should be part of the routine, to the extent that you may not even have to give the instruction. 

“Reduce TTT” in and of itself remains a useless area for development. It suggests that if you shut up a bit, everything else will follow. But TTT is not all bad, and “too much” can be dangerously subjective: it shouldn’t be about the quantity of TTT, but rather the quality. It’s a fun developmental experiment to walk into class, sit down and reduce TTT to zero, and say nothing, but it isn’t going to automatically create lots of student talk (until the complaints start, of course…). We need to think about how our activities increase student talk, improve student talk by maximising those chances. Talk, as they say, is work in the ESOL classroom, and the more and better the students are talking, then the more likely you are to reduce your TTT to what is needed and nothing else. 

The “Just Been to a Conference” Post

You know, this academic year I have attended a whole bunch of training. Some of it external, but much of it internal. Now, I have to admit that I don’t often get to engage with internal training events as a participant so I feel like I miss out sometimes. I’m a bit of a subject specific snob sometimes too – as soon as someone starts to share or discuss a technique which is highly linguistically demanding for learners then I’m afraid you have more or less lost me. I try, and I want to try, but you know, if I can’t see how I can apply the idea as is to my practice as soon as possible, then I’m really going to struggle to engage. Someone once observed that I was “too much of a specialist” but you know, I rather like being an ESOL specialist. It’s never going to score me much by way of a career, perhaps, both in and out of college, but I don’t think I really care. Becoming too generalised in mindset feels to me like selling out, in some weird, undefinable way.

So anyway, this all means that I rather like going to a subject specific conference, as I did on Saturday at the NATECLA National Conference, where I get to talk and think all things ESOL. There are a lot of people I on it ever see at these things, which is lovely, of course, but it’s also good when there is no need to filter concepts into an ESOL friendly format. Instead, I find myself taking on a whole bunch of new ideas and concepts, or realigning ideas, or just having ideas for simple classroom activities that I can do stuff with.

There were some recurring themes in the sessions I was able to attend, and indeed linked to my own. One of these themes was around reformulation. This is taking a learner’s inaccurate or incomplete utterance and repeating it back to the learner in the correct form. It is a fairly instinctive, natural method of error correction and functions as a sort of “on the fly” input for students

S: I make my homework.

T: I do my homework.

The session I attended by Richard Gallen from Tower Hamlets College was on that very theme, and around the ways in which classroom conversations can lead to specific learning, and fairly early on he established that the simple act of reformulation considered on its own is largely ineffective. I’m sure, as well, that this wasn’t news to me, but I can’t remember where i picked that up from.However, it does make sense to suggest that simply repeating back the language to the learners is unlikely to lead to anything useful – there’s nothing there to encourage the learner to act on the reformulation, there is no follow up for learners. No, the point is this: for reformulation to work, we need to make things explicit to the students – make sure that the learner notices the reformulation and actually attempts to assimilate it. The phrase that kept coming up during the session was language upgrades, which distinguished nicely for me this kind of conscious improving of language in situ rather than simply correcting errors. Richard suggested a number of ways to introduce this – recording the language on the board, then getting students to revisit the language in a follow up lesson, perhaps using a slightly different context. If you record all the language reformulations, you can then turn these into simple gap fills, for example, as an activity in the following lesson – to use my example above:

“I always ______ my homework after class.”

There were other things too. Timing is crucial for these language upgrades – it’s no good getting the upgrade too late – and it needs to be just at the periphery of awareness: conceptually familiar, perhaps, but not completely linguistically familiar.  In short, if you get the upgradewhen you need it “just in time” and “just right” then the language is more likely to stick.  Richard quoted here from Leo Van Lier: The Ecology & Semiotics of Language Learning, which I am adding to my reading list. There may be a confidence / fluency payoff here – such immediate upgrading is surely going to interrupt the flow of a learner’s speaking, but if it makes the language stick, is this a worthy sacrifice? To interrupt fluency like this is a tough call for a teacher whose main focus is often communicative effectiveness, of which fluency is a major part.The challenge, I guess, is making that judgement call in the lesson, and this would depend very much on the learners themselves. There were some interesting insights into learner practices – students who took on the new vocabulary offered in an exchange tended to use that language with some sort of qualifying definition or statement. It was a genuinely interesting thing to see the transcriptions of the classroom conversations, and I really did wonder how practical such a thing might be for me to try one day.

There were plentiful other insights from Richard, things like the notion that learners grouped by similar ability, rather than mixed ability is more likely to lead to learning because of the quality of upgrades they can offer: the lower level learner in a mixed pair is less likely to act on the upgrades offered, and is also unlikely to be able to offer appropriate upgrades to the higher level student.

What else? learners remember more lexical feedback than grammatical and in fact generally ask more questions about vocabulary, although this sort of questioning does tend to be at higher levels rather than lower. The other humdinger moment for me was the revelation that our learners should be aiming at developing around 12-15 words a lesson in order to progress appropriately.

So I found myself thinking, as one does at these times, about my own lessons. I reckon that I’m pretty good at reformulating and am definitely one for letting language emerge “on demand” in the lesson rather than being overtly dependent upon “input” language. I’m also fairly good at recording the language that arises, usually informally, I think: the day before the workshop I was revisiting an old IWB file with a colleague and found myself wondering how a whole bunch of words had appeared on the slide, which appeared to have only the most tenuous links to the main information. Where I know I need to do better, then, is the follow up work, the consolidation, if you like, something I want to be much much better at next year. I think I do it in the lesson, and I’ve noticed students doing this sort of conscious application of new language in the moment, but as was discussed in the workshop, teachers need to actively promote this kind of emergent, negotiated language in order to enhance learning  – students need to know that the language is there and do something with it.

This is, of course, going to appeal to me as a piece of research, and I guess when you sign up to sessions at a confenrence it is often a bit of an echo chamber – I’m unlikely to be going to sessions on, say, SMART targets, or engaging learners with learning outcomes, because I’d rather scoop out my hear with a spoon than listen to someone extolling cheap performance managed behaviourism, but I’m likely to be battering down the door to a workshop on conversation and emergent language. But then you go to conferences to find out more about things you are interested in, I guess: it’s not a comprehensive education, so to speak. I’d have been deeply disappointed to find out about Richard’s workshop second hand, whatever happened.

I’ve just seen the wordcount in the bottom corner creeping up towards 1500, so I think I should probably stop. This doesn’t mean I’ve nothing to say about storytelling from Jamie Keddie, just that this post is getting ridiculously long! In a lot of ways Jami’s talk on storytelling and ways to exploit videos in line with this was similar – after all, these kinds of activities often build on language that emerges in reaction to, or as part of the story – opportunities are presented for emergent language which can be capitalised upon and exploited in just the same way.

So it was a good day, and a good event – I’ve got a serious batch of ideas for next year, which is sort of the point, isn’t it?

An Adult’s Learning

bicycle

 

I finished traditional formal education at the age of 21. In that time I attended primary school, secondary school and university, plus a brief incomplete stint at my local FE college. It’s hard to quantify the impact of that learning on the rest of my life, with most of my memories of those experiences being social and interpersonal rather than but in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot of stuff I can pin onto direct educational experiences.

For one, of course, there is my entire professional learning. Learning how to be a teacher, and developing as a teacher. All of that process occurred fairly late on, as I did my Cert TESOL at 24, the DELTA aged 26, and then turning that into a formal FE qualification at the ripe old age of 31. There has been a whole bunch of other stuff as well – the e-guides training which I did back in 2007, the various funded research projects I’ve been involved with, various conferences and workshops, training days and other such things all of which have conspired to contribute to my development. Tracking that, of course, is a more challenging task – a straight course is nice and easy to fit into a measured pattern of development but the reality is that with the exception of the Cert TESOL & the DELTA, my main development as a teacher has been incremental and ad hoc: learning which occurs in little snippets on a need-to-know or perhaps on a want-to-know basis.

Much more interesting, however, is all the other learning I’ve been doing in that time. I’ve learned how to wrangle a computer, and developed a fairly high level of brazen confidence, if not actual skill, in using various forms of digital technology. I’ve learned to be a passable baker of bread, and can knock out some pretty decent biscotti (although like my fellow former resident of Wessex, burning cakes is a bit of an issue.) I’ve learned confidence and road skills on a bicycle that make many of my nearest and dearest wince when I mention them (“Yeah, obviously there’s room and time to get through that gap and beat the lights”), not to mention a developing skill set in the actual repair of bicycles. This last is the most surprising – I am pretty inept when it comes to practical things, so the fact that I am developing an ability to do something like bike repair is pretty impressive.

What unites all of this learning is motivation. Sometimes this is “professional”, in the sense that I want to know more about how to do my job, or how to do it better, or exploring an aspect of my work.  Sometimes it is a combination of frugality and curiosity as it is with the bike maintenance, extrinsic motivation that I can save a bit of money, along with the satisfaction of being able to do a thing which I would have previously considered to be beyond my skills and abilities. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but for someone as maladroit as I, it’s incredibly pleasing that I have stripped a rear wheel hub and put it back together (and been able to ride it for a while too), removed and refitted a bottom bracket, and a number of other tasks. I’m certainly at a point now where I will consider doing a job myself rather than taking it to a bike shop, including even stuff with cables, although they still unnerve me. In short I want to learn those things either in and of themselves, or as a means to a specific end, and for me that is one of the things which typifies adult learning.

The other interesting thing is the absence of formality in much of this. This is learning without planning and often without, or in spite of, teachers (we’ve all had those training events, right?). The formal input for much of the learning, including the “professional” stuff has been primarily self-selected, using things like books, websites, and online videos as demonstrations, and in some ways the self-selection has been more effective than if the content had been selected for me. When you learn on a need-to-/want-to-know basis you ignore the non-essential information and focus much more closely. If you come on a course, inevitably, some of the content will be taught but not immediately applicable, and therefore unlikely to stay fresh. (As an aside, consider this: if I attend a training session and “achieve” the learning outcomes within that session, does that mean I have permanently learned those things? Unlikely, I think, unless I can apply or re-practice those skills. Otherwise that learning will only remain temporary and within a short span of time, perhaps even only a week or so, I will no longer remember how to do it. So the point of the learning outcome was what, exactly?)

Learning informally on a need-to/want-to-know basis does have its drawbacks, mind you. For one you end up with gaps in your knowledge – my IT knowledge is made up of lots of little bits of very precise, clear understanding mingled with whole chunks of stuff I have no clue about: I can knock out all sorts of crud in MS Word, but give me something like Publisher and I’m floundering. 

Sometimes the inevitable trial and error process means that things can take longer (even if you perhaps learn them “better”) and that sometimes that sense of success doesn’t happen. Sometimes the source of learning is flawed or inappropriate – I almost destroyed the threading that held the bottom bracket cartridge inside of my bicycle frame because I was following the wrong instructions, which would have very possibly had to lead to some very expensive work by a professional. Certainly the brakes on my old bike are decidedly dodgy as a result of incompetent fiddling.

Whatever. The fact remains that adults do and will continue to learn, and this is very often in spite of considerable barriers. Formal bike maintenance is not currently offered at any price at any of my local FE colleges, although there are bike shops in the area who sometimes run courses at a cost. Formal, certified training would cost upwards of £300. To be fair, this is pretty niche, but if I wanted to gain formal training to bring my IT skills up to a more acceptable level, then I would be looking at significant cost in both money and, of course, in time. These are, of course, among the toughest barriers for an adult to overcome when it comes to learning. If I want to do an MA to advance my career, for example, I’d be looking at a huge cost which is simply impossible for me to imagine. Would any potential benefit justify the debt? Unlikely. Is there a course that is intrinsically motivating alone for me to do? Not that I know of. But learning to fix a bike can be wedged in around the rest of my life, and indeed has immediate positive benefits.

The benefits of riding a well maintained bike are easy to see and predict, as are the benefits of a specific training course, but the benefits of adult learning are far more than the base and pathetic economics of current FE priorities. When I can learn something I relax, I switch off: bike repairs and baking are fundamentally different to my professional life, so participating in those things helps me to switch off in a much more profound way. Learning to repair a rear hub was frustrating and fiddly, but the total engagement with working it out and then doing it was absorbing in a way that even the best entertainment can manage. Entertainment helps you block it out, but it’s so often a transitory sensation which merely masks rather than refreshes. Learning something new and different helps you to reset completely. 

This sort of impact is hard to see and to evaluate because it is complex. But naturally when the current education system is controlled and managed by those who see FE, indeed all education, as a simple input-output system creating wealth for the wealthy, something as complex and socially beneficial as adult learning doesn’t stand a chance. 

Language & the ESOL image problem

Three things this week came together quite serendipitously. First was walking past a British Sign Language class, and seeing the tutor not only teaching BSL, but also using BSL to communicate ideas. The second was a conversation with two non-ESOL teaching colleagues about the SOLO taxonomy and the notion of using “higher order” questions. The third was a tweet from Scott Thornbury, “The problem with EFL/ESL teaching is that, unlike maths, history etc, there is no subject. So the language itself becomes the subject.”

So this set me thinking. You see I think ESOL in further education setting has a bit of an image problem. There’s a perception in some corners that we should fit in to everything else, that something which applies to sixteen year old joinery apprentices can be applied without modification to a group of beginner ESOL students, and that our reluctance to do so, or questions asked about it in order to make sense of it in ESOL terms is seen as ESOL teachers and departments being awkward, stroppy, and obstructive. Don’t get me wrong, mind, because like any teacher, ESOL teachers can indeed be stroppy and obstructive, and I get that. However, there is a serious point here: there is a single and profound difference between ESOL and, with the exception, perhaps, of my colleague teaching BSL, every single other subject teacher in a college can communicate directly and unambiguously with their students.

Let’s take questioning as a good example of this. When teaching a subject through a shared language, one quick, effective way of challenging students is to ask questions which probe deeper into the subject, moving from straightforward knowledge of details (“Name three types of…”) to more complex, evaluative and critical questions (“what might happen if…”). This is generally seen as good practice, and, I think, quite right too. When I think of CELTA, for example, I might ask students initially to identify how to use the past simple, and then challenge them to analyse the problems faced by second language learners in using it, or what the barriers might be, or to compare how the past simple is used as a simple,e past reference ce and how it used to describe a narrative. This sort of range of questioning or task-challenge works to push students into thinking beyond just knowing a fact. (For the record, however, you do need to know the fact before you can start to go beyond this. What is commonly referred to as “lower” order questioning is not necessarily worse or less important – if anything it is the most important type of learning without which all the rest is impossible.)

Trouble is, all of this, every element of this, is entirely language dependant. It assumes on the part of the speaker and the listener a shared language with a fair degree of linguistic complexity. Don’t let snobbery get in your way here: my fictional joinery apprentices have access to an astonishing array of linguistic talents, even those ones who failed GCSEs. The fact that they can understand a question like “what might happen if you used an alternative timber for this?” is a demonstration of a fair amount of language skill.

So we have to consider carefully the value of time spent in training or reading about this when you remove that language skill. I simply cannot reliably ask my students “how would you change the verb if it is irregular?” Instead I have to get there a different way. The primary way I use questioning is not to expand in this way, but to apply successive “lower order” questions to build complex knowledge. “Read this sentence: I visited my sister. Am I visiting my sister now? Tomorrow? Before now? Good.” Then the next day I come back and start up irregular verbs, checking and eliciting concepts again using simple questions.

None of this means that ESOL students are incapable of thinking in those terms. Remember these are diverse classrooms on a scale incomparable in FE, with teachers, doctors, university lecturers and civil servants sharing a room with hitherto uneducated housewives, farmers and factory workers, none of which can be used to make assumptions about language learning aptitude. To use terms associated with higher order thinking, synthesis, creativity, evaluation and hypothesising are required of ESOL students from the get go when they are challenged to use language in new and unique situations. It’s just that we, as teachers, can’t use the language as a means to get there.

So we have to critically evaluate everything that a generic trainer says. Teachers are pragmatic people, after all, and would like something useful that we can use in our day to day classrooms, and an interesting curio like the SOLO taxonomy has limited, if any applicability. Ditto Bloom, although it could be used for task design, perhaps. Ditto Socratic questioning, flipped learning,  negotiating learning targets, sharing and self assessing SMART lesson outcomes. These are language dependent concepts, and this is the key to everything.

Until you’ve taught an ESOL class, none of this will make sense to you. I’ve seen it in CELTA teaching practice where a qualified teacher in another subject tries over-complex questions to a low level class and suddenly realises that they might as well have just whistled and farted for all the good it’s done. The good trainees are the ones who realise that they do have to change their paradigm, and alter their classroom behaviours accordingly. Because that is what we are talking about: for a generically trained teacher of a vocational subject, the nature of the ESOL classroom in a UK setting is radically different.

And this can indeed make ESOL teachers seem obstructive when it comes to implementing college-wide initiatives or training opportunities, but they are simply trying to make sense of it all, to take those initiatives and challenges and make them work in their context. And that context is different, profoundly and radically. It’s also what makes ESOL such fun to teach.

Observation: Reactions and Purpose

Hey ho. It’s observation week this week, so it’s time to dust down the lesson planning forms, polish up various forms of supporting paperwork, and generally pull up my socks. I don’t mind, especially as we have done away with the pointless process of graded observation: there have been compromises but then that was inevitable. However, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that process here, and anyway, if we’re going to have observation for primarily performance management purposes, as opposed to having it for primarily developmental purposes, then hey, compromise is going to happen, isn’t it? I’d like to have a formal observation by a specialist of me teaching my specialism, which hasn’t happened for a couple of years, but as is normal in these cases, this is highly unlikely.

I always find people’s reactions to the announcement of observation fascinating.

There are some people, for example, who react like they have been asked to show their dubious tax dealings, even when you have just suggested an entirely informal and non-critical peer observation on a reciprocal basis. They bluster and fluster, suggesting that you are an entirely unwelcome intruder on their sacred space, impertinent to suggest that there might be other people in the class apart from themselves.

Then there are the swans. Externally, everything is fine, and they sail to the observation serenely and calmly, hiding the fact that underneath this, they are panicking, planning, preparing resources and generally being quite anxious about the whole thing. Occasionally there may be moments, flashes of stress, the odd sigh, perhaps, but this is quickly covered up with jokes and comments. They probably post blase comments on Facebook about how they are chilling with a glass of wine and a movie, but in reality they are mainlining espresso and throwing an all weekend planning bash.

While on an avian theme, then, let us not forget the ostriches. Yes, I know full well that a frightened ostrich doesn’t bury its head in the sand – they may not look the smartest of birds, but evolution would rapidly do away with a species of bird which chooses not to run away when danger approaches. That’s not the point, anyway, because there is such a thing as a teacher who sticks their head in the sand, carrying on regardless, doing whatever they normally do for their observations. La la la, they sing, their heads buried safely away, the observation isn’t actually happening to me, no no, not me.

There is, perhaps, a small, horribly organised and naturally confident minority who embrace the whole thing because they cut no corners, and have everything in place. These are also people who do every lesson by the book: SMART learning outcomes aligned to individual targets, shared and carefully selected “real life” resources of the “Mrs Khan goes to the doctor” variety, with differentiated workshoppy elements to the lesson, all of which is closed up with the students doing a neat reflection at the end. These people do this every single lesson, every day of the week. And yes, I hate them, but take solace in the fact that so do their friends and family, who almost certainly never see them.

At the opposite end of the scale you find the serial winger, Seat of the Pants Simon, Last Minute Laura, or simply Jammy Jason. A weird hybrid of the Ostrich & the Swan, these people have the knack of pulling it all together at the close of play, buoyed up by a natural instinct for the job and an ability to pull together a few decent lesson plans and drag their paperwork into place just in time.

The gamer is a new variety, or at least has had their job made far easier in recent years with the introduction of electronic diaries and timetabling. The gamer spends a portion of their time not planning but marshalling data about their observer’s timetable and planned meetings and triangulating the most likely time for an observation. They see the whole process as a system to game, even down to thinking about a potential observer’s preferences and peccadillos, and carefully planning lessons around these. 

But why do these reactions occur at all? Why the fear, the panic, the gaming? I guess we have to go back to the main purpose of observation: assessment. Graded or not, there will be expectations and criteria to be met, and consequences to those criteria not being met. These range from the severe, linked to capability procedures, to the pleasantly useful, developing as a teacher. The more severe those criteria, the more an observation becomes a summative process: a final exam showing all the development work you have been doing in the last year. You are on display, naked, and entirely at the mercy of the observer in a way that you never are in any other aspect of your professional life. Even though you are just as exposed to your students, the relationship is a completely different one, and one which does change when that relationship becomes critical and evaluative, when students are unhappy with the lessons, for example. 

Losing the grading system goes a way to reducing this, but not completely, by any measure. However, and this is really important, that’s OK. As long as the tensions induced in any observation are acknowledged; that a manager doing an annual evaluative observation is clear that the purpose of that observation may have an impact on the teacher’s reaction, or that a teacher trainer takes on board the nerves of their trainee, or that a peer observer recognises the impact that their presence might have; then that’s fine. It’s hard not to see the process as a challenge to a professional set of judgements: it’s what the teacher and the observer do with that challenge that counts. 

It’s all about the plan.

It’s been a while since I blogged about planning, but it’s one of those things that comes back again and again. After all, planning is one of those things that suffuses every part of our jobs, it’s just that teachers, and their observers, have a habit of conflating planning lessons with “filling in forms appropriately” which are two different things. Remember, the primary purpose of a plan for a reasonably experienced teacher during any sort of formal observation is to show that the events in your lesson are not happy accidents, but things which happened because you wanted the students to achieve a specific learning aim (remember what I was saying about half-assed definitions of student-centred?) Keep this in mind, and things get a whole lot easier.

Anyway, by way of structure for a post, I thought I would work my way left to right across a “classic” lesson plan, covering the various things which people need to think about during planning. Consider this not so much as a how to, or a top tips, but rather as a series of roughly linked ramblings. After all, I don’t really do Best Practice, indeed, rarely do I go for good practice. I just go for  “practice” and hope for the best.

LEARNING OUTCOMES/OBJECTIVES/WHATEVER

These tend to come at the top of the page, and heaven knows I’m critical of the obsession with performance goals over learning goals, but still, there does need to be a point to the lesson. These can be things like practice a set of skills, for example, or learn a language point, whatever, as long as you remember, once decided, to rephrase them as SMART outcomes in order to keep those who believe in such things happy. I always think there’s a bit of a weird conspiracy cycle here where everybody says “do smart outcomes because my manager thinks they’re good” probably all the way up several tiers of management until you find someone who actually thinks that “write five sentences using present perfect” is evidence of learning anything. Still, it’s a hoop through which we must jump, so let’s work with it. If you are struggling with this, my tip, unofficially, of course, is to start with an aim or two (practice reading for gist and detail, say, or use present perfect for experience) then write the lesson plan out. Once this is done, and this is crucial, you identify where in the lesson you ostensibly show that the students have learned those things. From there you create your specific outcomes: will be able to read a text and identify at least five details (don’t make it too specific, mind you…. Yes, I know, I know), will be able to answer five questions using present perfect to describe experience, and so on. It’s a cynical manipulation, perhaps, but hey, it works for me.

TIMING

I’ve got to admit, this section is probably my most pointless section, and absolutely always done for the observer. I used to time lessons CELTA style, (3 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.) but have long since abandoned this in favour of clumping together groups of task into 30-45 minute chunks. This is largely psychological: I know, consciously, that if I write 10 minutes on a plan, then this is not tying. However, on a subconscious level this makes me anxious, and I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter, which makes me more anxious, and I slowly retreat into an internalised vicious circle of worry. So I stopped with the whole ten minute timing thing. (But don’t do this on CELTA kids…) The paper planning, if you like, was getting in the way of the actual planning, so I stopped.

PROCEDURE

Sometimes this is divided into teacher activity and learner activity, sometimes it’s just “teaching and learning activity”. Personally I prefer the latter, because when I have the two columns I tend to write “teacher sets up activity” in the first, then actually write a description of the activity in the second. My top tip here is to write the lesson plan from the point of view of the student. Training courses tend to concentrate on teachers, because duh, developing teachers is what training courses are about, and some teachers need to write extensively about what they will be doing during a lesson (bloody narcissists, always writing about themselves!) However, I know that for me, I always write about what the students will be doing first, then fit in my bits round that. I do get moments of fear when I see someone planning a lesson which has things like teacher does X, Y, Z, shows this, explains that, etc. but then says “students listen” or (on a beginner lesson plan) “students listen and take notes”. Don’t get me wrong, I know telling people stuff can work, just not when you aren’t interacting with them, which rather neatly brings me to the next column.

ASSESSMENT

Sometimes this is assessment for learning, which ought to give you a clue. Top of my facepalm moments here is when someone writes Q&A. I mean really? What does that actually mean? To me, it means “I have no idea what to write here but it was OK on my non-specialist PGCE, so I’ll sling it here. Asking some sort of concept checking question, perhaps, with some built in peer discussion before managed feedback, then absolutely. But actually this is terribly straightforward: if you are walking the room, checking what students are doing, giving feedback as appropriate, then duh, that’s assessment. If you are asking students to check answers with a partner that’s assessment. If you are taking in work and marking it, that’s assessment. Piece of cake. And if you thing teaching is just telling people stuff from the front without checking it, then you don’t deserve to be doing it.

RESOURCES

I’m going to be controversial now and say these should be the very last thing to worry about. Whenever I’ve coached people and they’ve started off with “well I want to use this resource” I just want to curl up and die.  You know that they are not going to take kindly to suggestions like “why don’t you change that activity” because that will mean the agony of perhaps not relying on a handout designed to be as homogenous and dull as can be imagine. This is how you do it: three simple questions, in this order:

  1. What do I want students to learn?
  2. How can this best be done? What activities might enable this?
  3. What resources do I need to help me?

More often than not it goes the other way round. which is so very very wrong. I’m not saying that a published resource might not give you a better idea, or an interesting new slant on the activity, nor that published resources are rubbish. You just select the resource to match the lesson.

CURRICULUM REFERENCES

Really? You still have to put this? Sorry, nothing I can do to help you, except encourage you to make up a couple of new core curriculum references, just to see if anyone is checking.

BUT WAIT:

NONE OF THIS MATTERS

None of the paperwork, the planning,  the careful trackers, the schemes, absolutely none of it matters unless what you plan turns into a useful, meaningful and effective chunk of teaching and learning. Look at this way, if you get pulled up on skimpy planning this is an easy if frustrating fix. Get pulled up on shonky learning, and you’re looking down the barrel of a long and probably stressful process, especially if your institution hasn’t been able to move out of the Dark Ages and still grades lessons. Quite frankly, you’re far far better off planning light but planning well: just write what you need to remember, maybe add a couple of bits for an observer to show you’re not winging, then go and teach a lesson. Spend time thinking about the students, thinking about creative & engaging lesson ideas, thinking about careful assessment, and useful, relevant content. Don’t waste a disproportionate amount of time (i.e. ten minutes) thinking about the myriad bloody boxes in a word document.
Because when it comes to planning lessons, it’s not about the plan, it’s all about the lesson.