Do you think someone can really teach another person how to teach?


May 19, 2010 by Willy Cardoso

This sinister question has frequently crossed my mind as I’m preparing Forget teaching, focus on learning (Humanism and Complexity), talk at BRAZ-TESOL Convention.

The main point in pondering over such a question is not whether teacher training courses and conferences are helpful, I have no doubt they are. My point is whether in the end everything a teacher ‘knows’, s/he knows because of classroom experience followed by reflective thinking, regardless of being taught how to do it or not.

For the last three years, I have run weekly workshops in my institute, it might not sound like a big deal if you aren’t an autonomous in-company teacher in São Paulo, but this is something the whole school is proud of. However, when I think about the outcomes in terms of teachers’ performance in the classroom, I can’t clearly see how much these workshops made them better teachers. On the other hand, the few teachers who had the interest and motivation to prepare and deliver a training session seemed to be the ones who learned the most.

Another interesting situation is that I have recently started a coaching-like program with one teacher; she’s studying and developing oral/fluency/speaking tests and the most interesting part is that I don’t teach her anything. In the beginning, I was simply a resource and someone with whom she could confirm her findings were ‘right’, if only to build her confidence. Now, I’m just someone with whom she can share thoughts about the things she finds out by herself and also to give her some problems to solve, to which I don’t have the ‘right’ answer. In the past three months she has probably learnt more than all training sessions she had attended in two years.

In sum, I think I’m less useless when I’m not tagged as ‘teacher’ or ‘trainer’, or something like that. As a learner, I feel more engaged when I have a question of my own to study, maybe find an answer, apply that somewhere and self-assess the whole thing.

diagram 1

Limiting these ideas to learning teaching, even though I feel it’s applicable to any type of learning, the examples above might seem like experiential learning, but I still think it’s something else. Experiential learning methods, like the one shown in diagram 1, can hardly be emulated in a trainer-trainee relationship in the way we generally see it. Firstly, because there will be someone in control and this person is usually not the one who is learning, with it comes judgment based on a hierarchy of who’s more knowledgeable, another fallacy. Secondly, and in case this cycle does happen, this type of teaching and learning would be too linear to yield the expected results. As chaotic as I can demonstrate with my limited graphic designing skills, I’d say learning how to teach looks more like diagram 2, which is unlikely to happen in a training course.

diagram 2

I’m not going to talk much about all the other things I’ve seen that made me question the role of a teacher trainer because I really want to know your thoughts about this question.

Do you think someone can really teach another person how to teach?


17 thoughts on “Do you think someone can really teach another person how to teach?

  1. As to the question you pose at the end, I’ve always felt the only form of “teaching to teach” can happen in the form of inciting self-awareness, reflection and self-development. Give a potential teacher/educator space for practice, perhaps guided practice at first, and (self-)reflection, and the results will follow.
    A certain magical kind of “osmosis” happens when a teacher trainer with the right kind of attitude cooperates with tutors, or with other teacher trainers. We can find and provide inspiration on so many levels and in so many intended and unintended ways that to me it seems a very autonomous and intuitive process that can hardly be planned or measured.

    • Thanks for your comments Marian!
      I agree with many of the things you said, and your thoughts reinforced my idea of total subjectivity in this matter, which will hardly produce a ‘method’. Once you don’t have a method you’ll have to rely on inspirational trainers and magical osmosis, and as you said that can’t be planned. Then how can a certificate that aims to standardize things be valid under these circumstances? Hard to imagine.
      Do you think you were made a teacher because other people inspired you and incited your self-development? I believe that is possible, but that was not my case, that’s why I’m maybe too skeptical about it.

      • Well, I realise I might be in a minority. Without wanting to sound arrogant. I really feel many fellow language teachers take their job “objectively”, as something you “do” as a “job”, as opposed to something you realy immerse yourseelf in, try to improve and reflect on. But that’s more about personality and general attitudes to life, than about teaching.

        I have a feeling even totally opposing approaches to teaching can bring similarly positive results – I have no idea what attitude is the right one.

        Generally, we can say we all should strive to develop our potential, but there are many teachers who’ve never looked at their own teaching with the intention to change anything – and are good at what they do anyway.

        I don’t think any objective assessment of achievement in teacher training would truly reflect the real quality of teaching (not even feedback from learners).

        At the same time, as you say, there should be something we can get a certificate for. So, despite of what I said above, I think the best means of evaluating are things like “personal teaching diaries”, reflective essays, or “motivational” letters, where a certain objective form can be given to subjective attitudes and achievements.

        Anyway, sorry to ramble on, but it’s a very inspiring debate you’re leading here..

        Final thought: I became a teacher because I enjoyed English and always found it natural and easy to enjoy everything I liked in my life thanks to it – I’ve never made a conscious decision to be a teacher, but ended up choosing it for university, where I’ve never had to “learn”. That’s why I’m most thankful to any tutor who made me reflect on it – made me realise the underlying principles that can make us want to learn, while some colleagues hated any such stuff and wanted grammar exercises, carefully and neatly written lesson plans, systematic homework……

        So, how were you “made” a teacher?

      • “I have a feeling even totally opposing approaches to teaching can bring similarly positive results” <– I hate to say this is true.
        I've seen it, in my own staff, time and time again. And that's another reason why I posed this tricky question.
        Can you really teach, or in the end it's the person's effort or lack of effort, or luck, or good spirits, or natural skills?
        A real example:
        The best teacher in my staff (according to students' feedback and test results), was never trained to be a teacher. Till recently, he didn't know the difference between a phrasal verb and an idiom. what makes him good? He was a soccer coach in US for about ten years I guess, his coaching skills and ability to motivate adult learners along with his enhanced self-discipline to prepare the best lessons he can were proved better than any EFL teaching technique, technology, techwhatever.

      • P.S.: I’ve just read all the discussion here and your reply to Nick about what motivated you, so feel free to ignore my last question. 😉

      • I’d like to add something to that.
        – When I finished high school, the only thing I knew was English. To get a place at a public university I needed to know History, Geography, Math, Physics, Chemistry, etc, quite well. I was not up to it and thought it was a waste of my time when in fact I wanted to be a musician and an English teacher. Since here in Brazil you can teach English in the private sector without having a degree or certificate or sometimes you don’t even have to speak English well (what a shame), I immediately started doing the only two things I liked that could eventually pay my bills.
        – I had taught for six years before I got any formal training and without being too worried about the ‘ELT world’. I can’t say I was a very good teacher, but I’m sure I wasn’t bad either, plenty of opportunities came my way for whatever I was at the time.

  2. This has really hit one of the issues I’ve been dealing with a lot right on the head. We also do weekly workshops, but I only see a small number of teachers incorporating the ideas into their lessons.

    I have also tried challenge lessons, where I ask the teachers to teach only using one piece of paper for 3 hours for example and share sessions. I found the challeneges have been a really good way to get teachers to experiment and learn about teaching and their students. The feedback sessions have always been interesting.

    I’ve also found demoing lessons and activities in a real class is really helpful. Teachers seem to take more from watching the real thing than from running through the same activity in a workshop.

    I like the mentor role and learning through experience. Like you said, just kind of be available to answer questions and give guidance when asked for. The teacher’ll come to you for what they need when they need it.

    I’m still really struggling to find a good balance of all these things that helps teachers the most. I’d love to see more posts on this subject and what conclusions you come to.

    • Hey Nick, it’s good to hear from you!

      I liked the idea of challenge lessons and demoing, I’m sure these are helpful. However, one of the points I’m trying to make here is to avoid directing the development of others for their own benefit. This is tough, I mentioned two successful examples on the post, but there were dozens of failures. I’m here, at school, 10 hours a day available to mentor whoever walks in, two or three out of a twenty will do that. Our philosophy is that we offer all suport in the world for a teacher to grow in her career, but it’s non-directive, it has to come from the individual, we tell them roughly what to do once or twice and then we wait for feedback, most of the times there’s no feedback. The interest to develop has to be mutual and genuine.

  3. That’s interesting. I think encouragement is important too. I strive to create a culture of development at the school and I think that holding or helping out in various ways does that. I for one definitely started on my path to develop because of inspiration I got from workshops and observations at a previous school.

    I can certainly say that schools I’ve worked in that provide development have a much more serious and professional set of teachers. I think teachers gravitate towards certain types of schools and the cultures already in place encourage others to join in.

    I agree that the desire needs to be mutual and genuine, but I also think we can provide that spark and nurture the flame once it’s started.

    • Very good points. I myself was really inspired by the school’s environment and overall passion for teaching, but at the same time it wasn’t a culture of development and I wasn’t trained up or anything, it was more the energy, spirit, good mood, these things that are naturally born.
      I feel very tempted to mention other things that influence teacher development such as, types of contract, differences in privileges between native-speakers and non native-speakers, career planning, and the list goes on… I’ll leave it to another post maybe, a bit out of context at the moment, but definetely worth some attention.

      One very interesting thing I’ve just stumbled upon is this guest post by Andy Hockley on Lindsay’s Six Things, where he talks about ‘outreach’.
      ” Particularly for managers in “offshore” schools (…), outreach is an excellent way to kill two birds with one stone – develop your teachers and be more a part of your community. READ MORE

  4. Rick says:

    Hi Willy,

    Very interesting question, and I guess many teacher trainers have already felt like that. Its so frustrating when you set up a course, or try to run a workshop, or make yourself available for mentoring, and only one or two, at best, show up. It’s just as if everything else gets in the way of professional development.

    I do believe that training, or to put it better, development, is an important an effective way to further one’s professional career. However, just like teaching, there’s no magic solution or one-size-fits-all option. The best way to do it is to observe and listen carefully to the trainee in order to identify the areas where improvement is needed. After that, comes the really difficult part: how to get to the trainee. How to motivate him or her to pursue professional development?

    I don’t believe in training methods that say that if teachers do A, B, or C, they will be good teachers. I do believe in helping teachers become more resourceful so as to know what to do in class when the time comes.

    Always a good topic to be discussed. Thanks!



    • Thank you Henrick! You seem to have captured how I’m feeling at the moment. I’m really frustrated. I had scheduled three workshops to present awesome stuff I got at IATEFL and thought that teachers would appreciate that. First session, 5 people showed up, on the second only 3, and I canceled the third. There are 20 people in my staff for heaven’s sake!
      You asked: How to motivate professional development? At the moment, I’m really confused amidst this self-reflection and self-assessment of my job, I don’t know the answer.

  5. […] Can someone ever teach someone else how to teach? by Willy Cardoso […]

  6. Maureen says:

    Teachers take too much credit for a student’s learning. If a student is focused and disciplined, he can learn what he wants to learn. Teachers make demands and discuss course outcomes; however few teachers understand how to systematically help a student learn anything, and the best that most teachers offer is to demand that the student adopt and emulate the teacher’s thinking process, learn by modeling the teacher’s thinking. Most teachers lack the generosity to focus and support a student in developing the student’s thinking, that is too much like work.

    It is liberating for a student to discover that there are many resources available to help a student learn anything. Teachers are becoming irrelevant.

  7. Hi, Willy
    Yeah, we’re sort of on the same page here. Except that perhaps I might be slightly less skeptical of the whole “teaching how to teach” issue than you are.
    Workshops seldom work, I agree. They might stand a slightly better chance, though, if the process of the training session somehow mirrors its content (e.g., session on task-based learning conducted in a task-based fashion). But, still, I think it’s feedback on performance + reflection + opportunities for retrial that will trigger the sort of change we’re after.
    Having said that, though, looking back on the very first teacher training course I took in 1989, I think it’d probably be fair to say that novice teachers can profit from some sort of “teaching model” to imitate. This particular 40-day pre-service training course I took REALLY taught me how to make it through my first few months in class. I knew all the “moves” by heart and that, in a way, freed up enough attentional resources to allow me to pay attention to students’ output, reactions etc. Later on, when I was developmentally more mature, I engaged in teacher development of a more reflective / theoretical nature, which I don’t think I would’ve profited from as much if it hadn’t been for that 1989 course.
    But, again, having said that… The world has changed and students have changed. Maybe, even for novice teachers, learning how to proceduralize a number of classroom steps and deliver them no longer cuts it. Maybe even novice teachers have to be better equipped to deal with the unexpected, non-coursebook-bound questions, short attention spans etc.

  8. […] a post a few years ago, one that inspires my thoughts here, Willy Cardoso (2010) questions whether someone can really teach another how to teach. His comparative experiences of […]

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