Teacher training and development: Whose knowledge is it anyway? (part I)

What’s the difference in your development as a teacher between engaging in:

  • Formal, assessed training
  • Less formal workshops or INSET (in-service training)
  • An ELT conference
  • Planning a lesson
  • Thinking about a lesson you taught, what worked and what didn’t.
  • Reading books, journals, magazines in the field.

?

 By engaging in any of the above, or in none of them, consciously or not you are structuring a knowledge base that will permeate and influence your teaching in a historical manner. By historical I mean each action being influenced by previous actions; each idea being influenced by previous and actual mindsets, yours primarily, and other’s secondarily (in fact, where other’s finish and yours start is pretty blurry).

Let’s suppose that after 10 years teaching you have formed a very clear idea of what good teaching is. Even if you often revisit and challenge your own ways of thinking about teaching, there are probably some rooted conceptions that will make you stand where you are. And let’s say that these roots are what gives you a sense of identity as a teacher (and as a person, why not?).

You’re then faced with a new challenge: to teach following someone else’s guidelines, principles, ideas, etc. Maybe because you moved to another country, or you’re taking an assessed training course, so you have to fit in the box; but the box is full of things you don’t believe.

You’re a bit confused now – the course has somehow changed your beliefs, and you started to agree with many things you would’ve considered ‘wrong’ before the course.

The body of knowledge that the course is offering you (or imposing) is validated by an external organization, delivered by more experienced professionals, accredited by top universities, and recognized in the market place as the best measure and screening device for recruitment and pay scale. Moreover, the body of knowledge offered there has a price, a timetable, a certificate, and other administrative qualities.

Now, your knowledge, if you are technically undertrained (though you might be ultra-developed) was acquired by ‘mere’ practice, and it doesn’t have any of the above. Who accredited your 10 years experience? No-one.   Therefore, your knowledge has a much lower value, if any.

In practice, we know it is not true. What we learn by doing is indeed priceless and timeless.

So, the question is:

how do we validate, or legitimate, the individualized knowledge we have about teaching?

The most basic answer is: you talk about it, you make it public.

How you do it and what you get from it will depend on an array of factors, of course. I’ll address a few in the next post.

In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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9 Responses to Teacher training and development: Whose knowledge is it anyway? (part I)

  1. phil wade says:

    A very good point Willy.

    I think I’ve heard every excuse in the book relating to undervaluing or not accepting experience ranging from “it’s not experience of teaching in this country” to “you don’t have the right certificate to validate your experience”. I’ve also had people bluntly say that without X certificate you will not be taken seriously and are not qualified to teach/write/speak to other teachers. Well, I know plenty of people with only a few years teaching experience who have learned and developed far more than those collecting diplomas.

    This brings the old ‘if you can’t teach then teach teachers’ issue out. What I mean is that I’ve sat through enough talks by people who very clearly haven’t taught in a real classroom in a long time, if ever. A seasoned teacher, however, knows the score and can teach and survive. It is these qualities that make him/her valuable and the experience which led to this current ability is priceless. Not to mention a track record of developing students and helping them improve.

    I went for an interview last year and whilst waiting I spoke to another applicant who was 25/6 and had just finished a Phd and had never ever taught in her life. In fact, she had no teaching qualifications and looked younger than her future students but she got one of the positions I was applying for. No matter where you work if you don’t have the right qualification needed to tick a box nothing else is useful.

  2. Hi Willy,

    I agree, and disagree, with you at the same time.

    Qualifications are not the be all and end all. There are many reasons why teachers have not taken a qualification such as time, money and availability. There is also the problem that as some of the these qualifications have spread there is also the issue of their level diminshing.

    Experience is one of the most important ways of learning anything, but my main problem with using experience is how do we know they have the ‘right’ experience? Anybody can exagerate in an interview, or put on a great one-off class for the purposes of gettng that job.

    I suppose what is best is experience coupled with some attempt at gaining some form of qualifications. These qualifications might be formal; university, teaching board, or informal; attending conferences, workshops.

    • Hi Stephen

      And I agree with you!

      How do we know a teacher has the ‘ right’ experience? as you asked.

      What if teachers kept a portfolio? I interviewed one teacher once who showed me some activities she had designed and walked me through them with clear rationale, aims, learner profile, etc. I was quite impressed, although I couldn’t say in practice how she taught, at least there was some evidence of good work.

      Would you consider students’ testimonials? For example, an interviewee with a handful of feedback sheets or recommendation letters from students (instead of only from school directors)?? — I’d be interested to know if anyone has done that and what happened.

      I think there are ways of ‘proving’ one can do the job even if without formal qualifications. But I don’t know many people who do it, or many employers who would consider it.

  3. TEFLTEACHER says:

    I also agree and disagree…I am currently a teacher undertaking one of those qualifications you are talking about…

    I wanted the theory though, as I had 6 years of practice. Has it helped-yes, it has given me added reasons for doing the things that I already do well, and made me think about some more advanced areas which I could teach better. Yes, I could have read these in a book, but I’m not sure I would have understood them quite so well; writing an essay does tend to heighten understanding.

    Does all this knowledge make you a better teacher? I’ve come to the conclusion sadly not…If that was the case then all the lecturers on the course would be brilliant teachers as Phil Wade points out.

    However, surely knowledge when utilised correctly and reflected upon should enhance the skills of a good teacher? I suppose the question should be ‘Is all knowledge put to good use?’

    • you say, “writing an essay does tend to heighten understanding”. I agree.

      But then you say it doesn’t make you a better teacher; which got me a bit confused, because I’d say better understanding leads to better teaching in general, although I do mean understanding as more than regurgitating someone else’s theory.

      My answer to your last question, as expected, is ‘no’. I may know very well how to teach the best class I can, but I may decide not to if I’m unhappy with my wages for example. So, for me, teacher development means also professional development, and why not, profession development, which is something EFL/ELT is a bit slow to realize.

  4. Pingback: Teacher training and development: Whose knowledge is it anyway? (part II) | | Teacher Training BlogTeacher Training Blog

  5. Gabriel says:

    This is a great discussion. However, I cannot help but feel we are oversimplifying the arguments by setting the context as an either/or dichotomy when in actually it is an “and” situation. If we take a sociocultural and historical approach to analyzing the issue we need to concede that learning precedes development. Hence, we must necessarily have a knowledge base (determined by the profession) in order to be able to develop above and beyond intuition. It is true that our “everyday” concepts can grow to become “scientific” concepts IF (and only IF) the right form of mediation is available. While experience is important, the validation of such experience needs to be made by making reference to what the full-fledged participants in the community of practice consider legitimate knowledge. We could talk about having ten years’ experience (or one year’s experience repeated ten times!) and being “expert” at doing teaching. However, if we are to gain the status we deserve (in contrast to the one we are afforded in many social settings) we need to make explicit the standards for excellence or even recognition. Historically speaking, remember when the only requirement for teaching was being a native speaker. I agree with Willy that sharing is important, but sharing is a two-way process where one shares and one is willing to receive that sharing. So, in the end, we are not very different from other professions…we do have gatekeeping mechanisms and these give us an identity. So, we should advocate for qualifications AND professional development.

    • Willy says:

      Thanks for your contribution, Gabriel!

      I agree with everything you say, in principle; we may (or may not) disagree on how to achieve it, or as you say on which the more conducive mediational means are. The only thing I’m afraid you might’ve misunderstood me is that after re-reading the article I couldn’t find any hints of an either/or dichotomy. On the contrary, I added one thing to another (see the paragraph “You’re a bit confused now…”). Nonetheless, I admit my intentions/positioning are not crystal clear in the article.

      In part II, I outline three ways by which I think teachers can integrate in the profession as something (to the profession) greater than their classroom activities. Neither of them include formal courses, and the main reason is because by producing knowledge, instead of only consuming it, teachers not only become more empowered but also more actively responsible for the discourse and knowledge building of their profession (‘scientific knowledge’), and once the grounds of their practice are made public, they stand better chances of being validated (or not). So, by opening up new spaces, such as blogs, and recognizing their importance and validity, we are as well expanding the dialogic/mediational spaces within our profession – which in the case of blogging has become stronger everyday. Since you speak of full-fledged participants (although I’m not sure if I agree), the social network activity of your faculty colleagues, Thornbury and Harmer, is a great example of this.

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