March 23, 2015 by Willy Cardoso
This is the first post in a series on initial teacher training that I’ll be writing between now and IATEFL Manchester, where I’ll have a talk titled ‘Initial teacher training: challenges and innovations in course design’.
The first thing I’d like to discuss is critical incidents, and the following passage was what made me want to write about it.
As a result of reflecting on the various critical incidents that occurred in their team teaching sessions, the trainee language teachers that participated in this case study were better placed to face the realities of teaching in that they have come to realize that there are no single cause/effect solutions to the various dilemmas they may encounter in a language classroom (Thomas S. Farrell, 2008: 10)
Realizing that there are no single cause/effect relationships in learning-teaching situations (or if there are, they are rare), or basically realizing that teaching does not straightforwardly cause learning, while likely to be ‘obvious’ to the experienced teacher, may not be so to the novice.
Critical incidents are by nomenclature unplanned events, and there is very little doubt that reflecting on them is a valuable form of professional learning, especially in crafts like teaching. So if critical incidents are important for professional learning, it seems essential that teachers should create opportunities for them to happen often. In fact, awareness of and action over critical incidents can be argued to be a core teaching skill.
If so, how are initial teacher training qualifications preparing trainees to handle, explore and open up for critical incidents?
What is the centrality of reflection on critical incidents in teacher training courses?
I would suggest it can be a neglected area due to at least three aspects:
If in training courses teachers have to write detailed lesson plans and follow them relatively rigorously in order to be judged on how efficient the plan was, how much openness to critical incidents and their developmental power is there really?
Considering there is space for critical incidents when lesson planning is seen as a map and not the territory, how much of this principle is also present in the assessment of the trainee teacher? That is, is the ability to reflect on critical incidents and learn from them given as many ‘points’ as the ability to execute a successful lesson (plan)? If not, why would trainers encourage this practice and why would trainees even take the risk?
There have been many attempts to put critical incidents and what you can do with them at the core of teaching (see for example discussions on Dogme ELT), and whereas constructs like emergent language have gained some clout, they still features low – if at all – at the core of initial teacher training qualifications. The amount of space in lessons which are given to published materials (mainly coursebooks and worksheets), and sometimes the obligation to ‘cover’ them, coupled with an emphasis on communicative an interactive activities also contribute unfavourably to a professional discourse in which ‘good teaching’ can be misconstrued as ‘keeping students busy’. Limiting, therefore, teachers and students’ opportunities to reflect-on-action; that is, to have a little pause during or between activities to reflect on how they are learning, on the many possible causal relationships between what is being taught and what is actually being learned. This, in my view, is not at the core of our professional discourse, much less in initial teacher training – and I think it should be.
Some ways I try to address these issues as a trainer and course designer:
– At the early stages of the training course, I observe trainees without seeing their lesson plans. Usually, they just have some notes, and because they didn’t submit the lesson plan they will be more likely not to worry if they decide to tweak some things based on what is actually happening in the lesson. Also, this is positive in post-lesson feedback and reflection, as there is more space to discuss critical incidents (unplanned events) in a less defensive or self-deprecating way on the part of trainees, and a more formative approach on the part of the trainer.
– By watching video recordings of their lessons with peers or trainers, trainees can be better trained to ‘see’ stuff for themselves, as opposed to always having the trainer point out what worked and what didn’t from his/her notes, and the trainee to reflect from memory of how the lesson went. This is something I should try to do more often.
– A bit later, when they do write detailed lesson plans, they must include two paragraphs which are headed Learning Opportunities and Planning for Understanding. I will write about these later, but both constructs are drawn from Dick Allwright’s paper ‘From Teaching Points to Learning Opportunities’.
– Trainees are required, in not all but most lessons, to create opportunities for and to work on emergent language; and to an extent to allow for emergent topics. Basically, the idea is that if they haven’t successfully taught a couple of lessons in which some focus on form/grammar input is done reactively (i.e. not preselected) then they fail the course.
Overall, in order to create more opportunities for critical incidents – or in fact, for trainees to be able to see them, because they will happen anyway – trainees and novice teachers need space in their lessons to take a step back, breathe, take another look at what is going on, bring to a conscious level whether they are making sense of the situation, or not. Then carry on.
Allwright, D. (2005). From Teaching Points to Learning Opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39(1), pp. 9-31.
Farrell, T.S.C (2008). Critical incidents in ELT initial teacher training, ELT Journal 62/1.