Autonomy and self-direction in teacher training


January 31, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

A couple of months ago over in Thornbury’s T is for Teacher Training comment thread, I expressed the following opinion.

I don’t see teaching as a body of knowledge to be mastered and tested. I believe in a Dogme-like teacher development program, content drawn from teachers’ needs, interests and contexts, by themselves and for themselves, dialectically; not canned values from UK ELT or elsewhere for example.

And later I briefly described what I would like to see more in teacher training programs. Below is a tweaked version of the comment.

What if teachers, instead of being told ‘plan a lesson’, ‘teach’ and ‘reflect’, were driven to a kind of action research process.

For example, teachers ask themselves a How do I… question. ‘How do I improve students’ attention and participation during a grammar presentation/introduction/whatever’, this is a good starting point I believe, focusing on the actual teacher development instead of content/material development and delivery.

They can use a model like this:


  • What is my concern?
  • Why am I concerned?
  • What will I do about it?
  • How will I gather evidence to show that I am influencing the situation?
  • How will I ensure that any judgments I make are reasonably fair and accurate?
  • What will I do then?

(Whitehead, 1989)


  • What could/did I do?
  • What evidence could I produce to show how my actions were influencing my situation?
  • What conclusions did I draw from my evidence? How did I judge my own effectiveness?
  • How did I show that I took care that my judgements were reasonably fair and accurate?
  • How did I modify my practice?

(Mhurcú, 2000 after Whitehead’s action plan)

By trying to answer those questions they might decide for instance that they’ll need more peer feedback or to look for some academic reference, but these aren’t givens. The support teachers will need are mainly decided by themselves,  it’s all very self-directed, not top-down. That way, the heavy stuff, the learning, comes from a perceived need for change and improvement evoked by hands-on experience.

My point is that self-direction for teacher autonomy can be structured, organized and responsible, affordance is key and a let go of ‘trainer-knows-it-all’ is also welcome too.

That was what I wrote two months ago regarding how I would idealize some TEFL training. I have developed some more ideas and hope to share them here soon. For now I have some questions for you and would love to hear what you think.


> Have you ever been trained in a similar way? How was it?

> Would you like to join a program whose approach is similar to what I described?

> What do you think would be the benefits of it that one wouldn’t find in more conventional training?

> Can a bottom-up approach to TEFL training work well? If so, why aren’t there more of them? If not, why?

> Can this framework work in pre-service training?

(so many questions…)


4 thoughts on “Autonomy and self-direction in teacher training

  1. Alan Tait says:

    Very thought-provoking, and very optimistic post too. Sadly I wasn’t trained like this. I may have had the next best thing though: fresh from university being left alone with some learners without any supervision.

    (At least it worked for me, but then I already had an inkling that I’d rather teach than spend my life answering phones in an office.)

    • Great post.

      My feelings are very much like Alan’s… as well as my experience. I enrolled in the “crash and burn” university of life. That being said I did have quite a passion for language learning behind me, so I understood the process and knew in which directions to take with my first students. Over time, experience, a few key books and my PLN brought more success to the classroom.

      I like how you framed lesson-planning temporally with structured questions: Before 1,2,3… After 1,2,3… Anytime you provide as much reflection in an organized manner before, during and after activity, you are ensuring improvement.

      Look forward to following u here. Cheers, Brad

  2. Thanks! I try to be optimistic once in a blue moon.
    Actually, I’ve never heard of anyone trained like this however interesting it seems at a first glance. That’s one reason I posted it, to know if it’s real.

    I’ve mentored a teacher in a similar fashion and got some amazing results. I’ve talked about it somewhere else, will try to repost it here soon.

    Your last sentence gives me the feeling that the born vs made debate is still unsolved. Did this work for you because you felt you had what it takes to be a teacher regardless of your university degree?

  3. crazykites says:

    Look at my last comment on your other post and you’ll see that it took me a while to “let go”. I left the CELTA course feeling very able and I applied what I learnt to my “real” lessons and got a shock to find that even though you put in your reading for gist stage, pre-teach vocab stage, gave a more detailed task, then activation t, CCQ’d and ICQ’d (ticked all the boxes there) were observed with a “met standard” etc, the students still weren’t happy. So I’d done it correctly from a CELTA point of view, but something was amiss, the element of fun or a confident teacher or something. I’ve learnt on my own to take the students feelings more into consideration and forget the formal training a little bit. I think teaching teachers to be autonomous would better prepare them for the real world of teaching and give them the idea that the trainer isn’t the fount of all knowledge.

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