Initial teacher training: valuing and creating opportunities for critical incidents


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.

Image from page 145 of “Mental development and education(1921)” Internet Book Archive Images on flickr

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?

Professional discourse

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.


15 thoughts on “Initial teacher training: valuing and creating opportunities for critical incidents

  1. Nice stuff, Willy. I’m starting to read a bit about observation myself , in particular Allwright’s Observation in the Language Classroom. The idea was to prepare an investigative project observing a variety of teachers in different contexts. Maybe this is something you have actually done yourself? As it is, I got an extension at work, so I’m not free to start my project at the moment.

    Also you’ve touched upon a few things about observation that I’m hoping to talk and ask about in my mini session at the TDSIG PCE – I hope you don’t answer all the questions I’ve got by the time we kick off in Manchester!

    • Hey Mike
      Looking forward to what you have to say at the PCE.
      The project sounds interesting, I’d love to do something like that. You’ll probably notice that in some contexts teachers do not (or have never!) observe(d) their own peers. Maybe you can start the project at home? Observing some teachers in London. Then you take it to the road.

      Coming from ESOL you’d probably be amazed (not sure if positively) at some things that happen in EFL. And you’d see good stuff too of course.

  2. damo04 says:

    Great to see you writing again, Willy, and thanks for an interesting read. However, I feel I need to stick up for current initial teacher training courses somewhat.

    You ask, ‘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?’ I can’t really speak for other courses, as I’m not as familiar with them, but in the case of CELTA, this certainly isn’t the case. We don’t encourage trainees to follow the plan rigorously, though we do encourage a focus on the main aim. A big part of assessment on CELTA courses is actually how well trainees can monitor learners’ behaviour and adapt the plan accordingly. Assessment criterion 5.6a states ‘Successful candidates are able to monitor learner behaviours in class time and respond appropriately.’

    There is, in fact a lot of scope for exploiting critical incidents on a CELTA course. Criterion 1.3b, for example, states, ‘Successful candidates are able to demonstrate an awareness of the different roles teachers may adopt at different stages of teaching and in different teaching/learning contexts.’ followed by 1.3c, ‘Successful candidates are able to make practical use of this awareness in planning and teaching.’

    Later in your post you share four excellent ideas for encouraging work on critical incidents in training courses. However, the first two of these are already a regular feature of CELTA courses, through unobserved and unassessed teaching practice and encouraging trainees in the same TP group to film each other. The latter two are developed retrospectively, through feedback.

    Please don’t think I’m trying to rubbish your ideas here – quite the opposite, in fact. I think this is a really useful discussion to be having and one which I hope will ultimately improve the quality of mainstream initial teacher training courses even further. I just feel that the CELTA course does tend to come in for a quite a lot of flack, always by people not currently involved in delivering it, and not always completely fairly.

    • Hi Damian, thanks for your comment.
      I know different CELTA centres can vary on how they design/approach the syllabus and assessment, to an extent of course, provided they follow the guidelines. Then I also know that it is unfair to say the CELTA does and does not do this and that, as a generalisation.
      What I can say is that having analysed CELTA and CertTESOL’s syllabi as published by their accreditation bodies, and having analysed some assessment instruments from a few different centres, I do believe some things that trainers like yourself say they ‘encourage’ should in fact be ‘required’.

      You highlighted my first question and said this already happens – which is great. But the second question is equally important: how central is reflection and critical incidents? I agree with you, there is scope, but quantitatively speaking at least, how many courses give a lot of weight to these things. And how many readings are there of the criteria you highlighted? Which is the dominant one? Why? etc…

      Demonstrating an awareness of different roles, as the criterion states, leaves room for us to decide which roles are valuable and how much. Then they ‘make practical use of this awareness’ — ok, but what kind of use? Any use?

      In sum… all the usual problems of designing criteria and evaluating performance of something as complex as teaching.

      Your criticism that people not delivering CELTA make unfair comments about it (because they’re not ‘in’ it) could be improved if there was more on it for public access; if there was a greater interest on publishing peer-reviewed papers on it; on blogging about how one assesses TP; on explaining why it is 6 hours of TP minimum and not 5 or 10! and the list goes on… The things I say that do not seem fair are in part due to the lack of resources I can access to make an informed critique from the outside.

      But overall, just to recap, I wish we could use more the word “require” instead of “encourage” once we agree on some core principles and practices. For example, on ’emergent language’ you say it is developed retrospectively through feedback; I think it should be required/prescribed, with a lot of practice in workshops; with clear stages for it in lesson planning, with observation tasks, with an explicit criterion on the syllabus which is less vague than ‘adapt to students’ / ‘respond appropriately’ or something along these lines.

      Right…a lot more to say… but I guess this is a good start. Thanks again for drawing my attention to some things, it would be terrible if everyone agreed with me.

      • damo04 says:

        Thanks for taking the time to reply so thoughtfully, Willy. One thing that I think I didn’t express very well in my comment is that I don’t think your comments are unfair at all. I think CELTA does come in for a lot of unfair criticism by people without a good working knowledge of it – but I don’t think this is what your post does. I think you raise some important questions and I think your approach is to training is sound.

        I think you also raise an important point regarding the transparency of CELTA guidelines. A lot of these are only available to those with access to Cambridge English’s online documentation system. I wonder if this is at least in part due to competition with Trinity. I would love to see more research into this area, too.

  3. alexcase says:

    There is definitely room to move in this direction, but it seems to me that you are asking teachers on initial teacher training courses to do more than what is now included on the Cambridge Delta (where at least some flexibility is expected). How could someone possibly learn how to select forms to focus on and help students come up with useful generalisations when they currently have severe problems with that when they plan one point at a time? Personally, I learnt how to do it from years teaching from textbooks, and even now it’s not easy, especially with a nationality I haven’t taught before.

    • You’re right. But a couple of points:

      I think what I’m proposing is a feasible thing to do, and that it is more important than other things happening in similar courses / syllabi. So, what I need to do is to de-emphasise some things, for example PPP lessons, in order to create more space for projects +emergent language.

      Trainees won’t be able to select forms to focus as well as an experienced teachers, and they aren’t expected to. But we also don’t want them to “stumble upon” this way of teaching much later in their careers. Or wait til they take a DELTA, because less than 10% will actually take one (not my estimate btw, but I don’t have the reference now).

      Thanks for your comment, Alex.

      • alexcase says:

        Feasibility is definitely the key point. As many CELTA lessons already have a correction stage, what you seem to be suggesting is that at least two of the six lessons on the CELTA should show examples of trainees choosing language points to focus on based on student output and then producing some (semi)improvised focus on that for, say, at least ten minutes each. Presumably they’d then need to be able to justify their choice of that point or points and then how they chose to deal with it in the feedback session with the trainer (a critical point because bad versions of that such as trainees choosing random or too high level language points and just waffling on about them for ten minutes of course already happen).

        I look forward to more discussion of the manageability of that in future posts…

      • That’s right, Alex. And it’s really difficult for them to be able to select the language points using a method that is not random. The basic instruction at the beginning is that what they choose to focus on should be closely linked to students’ task achievement; so basically, we’re talking about mistakes which compromise understanding/communication. But still they don’t choose the points like a more experienced teacher would do. The second challenge is then what to do with; it’s very common that trainees just write the mistake on the board and ask students to correct it, then expand with a simple explanation. They learn later a few better things they can do.

        Overall, it’s very challenging. But I feel a lot of it can be tackled in course design and trainer-training. A lot of people have told me that this wouldn’t work because trainees are not ‘ready’, or don’t have the ‘knowledge’ it takes, etc.. Okay, but it’s unlikely to work if the trainers keep the same old roles, and the course is laid out like it’s always been – in some cases, of course, not a generalization.

  4. natibrandi says:

    I agree Willy, there should be room for critical instances in Initial Training courses and, most importantly, this should be encouraged by schools all over the world. I remember reading an article that talked about ‘a recipe-approach to language teaching’ which is mostly what I was taught in my initial training course and then DELTA. The difference is that my initial training course, lasted 2 years and I had to do a lot of reading, which made me understand the background theory behind some recipes. Reflecting seems essential but knowing the background theory, seems to be something that can add to reflection, so that we can do ‘principled’ reflection. while observing teahcers, I see loads of pair-work instances, but are they challenging ss to really share thoughts or solve problems together, or is it just another box to tick? Do teachers get the importance of dialogic education and exploiting intersubjectivity and the ZPD? Or do they get ss to compare sth in pairs, simply because it’s another box to tick? I think there should be room for criticism and room for a lot of reading too.

    • Hi Nati
      I’d love to include all that can contribute to developing better early-career teachers; e.g. more reading, like you suggest. And I think most if not all people involved in ITT would like it too. But the problem, as you can imagine, is how to squeeze it all in a 4-week course. Mike Harrison just blogged on this topic, the link is in the comment below.

      The reality is that this won’t change – or at least to my knowledge it is very unlikely to change. There are massive commercial implications if these courses become a 5 or 6-week course instead of 4. Or even a year-long course.

      I agree with you that background theory helps to have a more critical/informed reflection, but the available time needs to be spent on practice as much as possible I think. What I can do as a trainer is to be more critical of the pre-course reading and the resources available and recommended to trainees.. That means not automatically setting one of the two books almost every CELTA candidate is told to buy, and setting a couple of other ones… That’s something I’ll address in future posts.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • natibrandi says:

        Thanks Willy, will check out Mike´s post. Totally get what you mean, 4 weeks? not enough, and I´m sure it all comes down to commercial implications.

  5. […] Willy has written recently about Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in preparation for his talk at IATEFL in Manchester in just over a fortnight’s time. What’s he on about then? Well, it’s about these ITT courses that exist in the ELT qualification collection (the CELTA being one of the main two starter quals along with the Trinity CertTESOL). And it’s about what could be wrong with – OK, maybe that’s a bit strong – what may be lacking in these courses. There isn’t the space to really learn how to react to what goes on in the classroom (emergent language, learning opportunities), nor much chance for critical reflection on practice. […]

  6. […] Willy has written recently about Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in preparation for his talk at IATEFL in Manchester in just over a fortnight’s time. What’s he on about then? Well, it’s about these ITT courses that exist in the ELT qualification collection (the CELTA being one of the main two starter quals along with the Trinity CertTESOL). And it’s about what could be wrong with – OK, maybe that’s a bit strong – what may be lacking in these courses. There isn’t the space to really learn how to react to what goes on in the classroom (emergent language, learning opportunities), nor much chance for critical reflection on practice. […]

  7. […] more or less from where I left it, here’s the second instalment of my IATEFL warm up. I’ll present this one in six […]

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Events 2015

IATEFL Manchester, UK
10 April, 2014
TDSIG PCE: Challenges and Rewards
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IATEFL Manchester, UK
12 April, 2015
Talk: Initial teacher training: challenges and innovations in course design

23 March, 2015 - Kragujevac
28 March, 2015 - Belgrade
Theme: Assessment: who is it for?
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