“Activities those guys know”

Some time ago a friend and colleague invented the term that serves as the title of this post. I thought it was a brilliant turn of phrase and it captured a lot for me in just four words. I’d like to dive into what the term means for me and share some thoughts on it. But first, the backstory.

In a Northeast Asian nation famous for it’s pop music, spicy food, 12-step skincare routines, and fried chicken my friend was working as a teacher trainer. This friend (let’s call him TJ) is a seasoned and skillful trainer who was working on a training course with a strong focus on reflection and experiential learning. I’ve described the course as something like “CELTA-light with lots more emphasis on reflection.” The participants on the course were current public school teachers receiving government-funded professional development during their summer “break.” The course featured practice teaching and was notoriously rigorous in terms of the reflective component. Sometimes potential participants tried to avoid this course if they could. Luckily (?) there was another course running simultaneously right down the hall.

There was the Other Course, run by “those guys.” It seems the Other Course was wholly focused on simply doing activities for language learning. That is, doing language learning activities as students. When one activity was over they’d move on to the next activity. This is to say that there was no time built in for reflection or for considering how these activities could be used or adapted in the training course participants’ real classes. There was no explicit time for thinking about how to implement activities or principles into real-life teaching. There was only activities and more activities.

Who were “those guys?” They were not, to my understanding, folks with previous experience in teacher training and development. They were foreign teachers hired by the ministry of education as “‘native speaking’ assistant teachers.” I don’t blame them for the courses they happened to run and I don’t suspect they had much say in the content or course design. [Please see Rob’s excellent and thoughtful comment below for more on potential reasons the course took the shape it did.] I presume these teachers (trainers?) did their best and were well-prepared and hard-working. It is not my intention to bash them or judge them in any way. With that in mind, I might have to tread carefully here, especially since much of what I am writing here is based on hearsay and second-hand evidence. In additional to being second-hand my information is not based on careful observation of the course but rather just glances into classrooms. I did try to glean some information about the Other Course from those who experienced it as participants but it’s quite possible my information is not completely accurate. I still think there is plenty of fodder for reflection here even if I’m imagining some things or missing some details.

When I heard about the Other Course and it’s sole focus on activities I must admit that some smugness seeped in. Perhaps it was the smugness that only a recently qualified trainer can feel. I thought the Other Course sounded pretty much like a waste of time. I figured teachers can find activities when they need to. I also thought those guys were no more likely to have the good activities than the course participants (again actual schoolteachers) themselves. I thought that it’s much better to help participants develop a sense of what makes activities work and consider the hows and whys of activities rather than just doing activity after activity.

Now with the benefit of time I suppose improving the language competency of the participants is a noble goal. I suppose that giving participants experiences to reflect upon for their own teaching could be valuable and that those who want to seize the opportunity might do so. I suppose seeing and hearing how proficient users of English set up activities could be quite valuable for teachers who might not be so confident in this. I suppose the rigorous reflection course that TJ worked on is not for everyone so it’s nice that there were other options. I suppose that it was a good thing to offer courses which tried to meet the teachers where they were and/or offer what the teachers expected.

With all that said, from my view “activities those guys know” is not a good way to conceive of nor conduct a course. I believe there is potential for middle ground between hyper reflective and just zooming (pun intended?) between activities. Having some “ties that bind” and some “connective tissue” between activities done and delivered seems like an important consideration from here. There can be a tendency for teacher training courses to turn participants into “activity collectors” and I feel this is a shame because there is so much more to learn and consider. I think a training course experience can be much richer than “just” doing activities as language learners.

My current questions include:

  • Do you think a course where the whole point is to do activities would be productive in terms of teachers’ professional development? If so, how?
  • Do you think I am being too harsh on the guys and the activities that they know?
  • Does an “activities that those guys know” course meet your definition of a teacher-training course? Does it matter?
  • Assuming they want to, how could teacher trainers avoid courses that give off that “activities those guys know” scent?
  • How (besides sharing this magnificent blog post with them) could stakeholders be convinced that “activities those guys know” is not a strong basis for a course?
  • How can participants’ expectation that the purpose of a training course is primarily as a supplier of activities be altered?

[Guest Post] Reflection FAQ

This time on ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections we have a guest post and it’s one I am very excited about sharing. There are many reasons for this but two of the main reasons are the topic and the author. The topic is one that is important to me (and in fact part of the name of this very blog). The author is a friend and mentor who in fact helped me develop my own skills in reflection. As he notes below, this post will eventually be translated into Uzbek and used in training programs in Uzbekistan. We thought it might be interesting to share it here first. I liked how he was able to add some powerful points in this accessible FAQ (a response to frequently asked questions.)

Readers are, of course, welcome to make any comments. My own questions for readers might include: 

  1. How would you try to introduce reflection to the teachers in the context that Thomas describes? 
  2. What are some benefits of reflection not explicitly mentioned in the piece? 
  3. What models of reflective practice have you found helpful? 
  4. Which of the phases described do you think it is the most difficult to follow? Why? 
  5. What additional tips for effective reflective practice would you add?

I hope you will enjoy this post as much as I did. I enjoyed it so much I even allowed him to sneak in some Canadian spellings.
Okay then, enough from me, let’s turn it over to Thomas!

So hey there guys!  For the last few months I have had the pleasure of helping to design a large and comprehensive continuous professional development programme for a number of secondary schools in Uzbekistan. The local teachers, especially those who do not speak English, have up to this point had quite limited opportunities to learn about “modern” teaching methodology.  An old Soviet-style training regime is still in place for public school teachers, lots of bureaucracy but not a lot of relevance. Fortunately the government has seen the need for reform, so there is a lot of movement for change lately.

Our training program aims to be quite progressive and is focused on teacher empowerment.  So how to introduce the ideas of reflection, learning communities, empowerment, and action research when these are all quite new and radical ideas?  Baby steps, let’s start with a 101 level FAQ.  This will eventually get translated into Uzbek, but maybe the wider world of internet English speakers could find some use in it too?   

REFLECTION – FAQ

What is it?

Reflection is, to put it in the simplest terms, “thinking about what you have done.” In the context of teacher professional development, it is the process of considering your actions as a teacher, identifying areas that were or were not successful in your lessons, and trying to identify the reasons why things did or did not work. After doing this, we are able to make more general conclusions about what does or does not lead to success, and to plan future actions accordingly.  

Why is it so important?

In some teacher education courses we are told what to do –given a lesson plan to follow exactly, or given rules about how to operate in the classroom.  This can lead to success, but it limits us as individuals practicing our craft.  In order to be the best we can be we need to think about why things do or do not work and we should not take the advice of others on blind faith.  We can rely on others’ experience and guidance, but always filtered by what we experience ourselves in the classroom, the results we see with our own eyes.

In this sense, becoming a reflective teacher is a tool for personal empowerment.  We learn and grow based on our own analysis and making our own conclusions, and being willing to experiment and try new things with an open mind. We do not do things “just because,” or because somebody else told us that this is the right way to teach.

Reflection leads to personal empowerment, personal responsibility, as well as growth and development as a professional.

How to do it?

First of all, we need to set aside time to reflect.  As teachers there are many needs both professionally and personally competing for our time, and making the time to reflect is a commitment.  Setting aside even a little bit of time when you are trying something new in your teaching – 15 minutes, shortly after your lesson, is a good start.

You should get in the habit of writing your reflections down. This is the main purpose of keeping a learning journal.  Almost all of us reflect spontaneously and naturally on what we have done, it is a normal psychological process.  But doing it “naturally,” just thinking inside your head, is not as effective as making it a formal and intentional process.  By writing in your learning journal, and following a series of specific steps when reflecting, you can become more effective at it. After all, reflection is a skill, something that you can develop with attention and practice.

Kolb’s Reflective Cycle?

One model for reflective practice often used in teacher training is the “Experiential Learning Cycle,” first described by Kolb in 1984.  There are many different models, and if you are interested you can read more deeply on this subject. But for the purposes of this article, as an introduction to the reflective process, we will use this 4 stage model.

This model is a “theory of learning”, meaning that we are supposing that this is actually how our brains naturally develop in learning any skill.  This model breaks down the learning process into 4 stages, like this:

The Concrete Experience is us actually practicing the skill we are developing (in this case, teaching).  We go and do the thing we are trying to develop our skills in.

The Reflective Observation phase is when we consider carefully what we have done, the details of what happened, identifying specific points of success or failure, etc.  At this stage we want to note as much detail as possible, almost as if we are replaying and watching in our head a video of what happened, or reading a transcript.  At this point we are trying not to jump to value judgement, but just noticing details, trying to identify cause and effect, trying to understand as richly and deeply as possible what happened and why.

In the Abstract Conceptualization phase, we try to make general conclusions about our teaching, based on the specific previous experience.  These can be thought of as hypotheses about teaching generally – “If we do X, then Y will happen,” or “we should try to avoid X because then Y.”

Active Experimentation involves planning our future actions, based on the new “theories” that we have developed in the previous stage.

This is called a “cycle” because it continues on in a cyclical/circular pattern, indefinitely.  Our new action plans inform our next teaching, which then becomes a new Concrete Experience for us to reflect on. In the next trip through the cycle we might continue to revisit the same areas or sub skills, or move on to new and different aspects of our teaching. As we go we build up new strength and confidence in the skill of teaching.

Some Tips for Effective Reflection

1) Write it down. It makes your learning and development more intentional, and it also gives you a record to look back on in the future.

2) Do not jump to conclusions too quickly.  It is common to say right away, when reflecting on a lesson, things like “my students were bored” or “they did not enjoy my lesson”.  Doing this is short-circuiting the process of reflection, and stops us from exploring in depth.

3) Try to keep emotion limited.  Sometimes, if a lesson has gone poorly, we will tend to “beat ourselves up” and think that we are bad teachers.  It is fine and normal to have an emotional reaction to your work, but also leave some space for more “scientific” analysis.  Some people find that there is a big difference between their “hot” perceptions, right after they have taught, and their “cold” perceptions, after some time has passed.  Be open to using both “hot” and “cold” reflection to see what works for you in different circumstances.

4) Become a part of a learning community of your peers, and reach out for feedback on your reflections with others.  Many people find that sharing their reflections on their teaching can help to strengthen the process and make it more effective.  Knowing that you are not alone, that other people are facing the same challenges that you are, and sharing advice and support, can all help you to become a more successful and happy reflective practitioner.

About the Author:
Thomas Topham has been an international educator and teacher trainer for over 25 years, in multiple countries around the world. 

REPRINTS and SHARING: Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Can mini-essays by fictional frustrated personal trainers help students work harder in Zoom breakout rooms?

Well, can they? I have no idea but let’s start with a fictional mini-essay from a fictional personal trainer.

I love my job. I really do. It gives me a chance to put my hard-earned knowledge and experience to use. I also enjoy helping people and I think I can be a positive influence. Of course it’s also great that I can often see the results of my work. Sometimes it’s quite dramatic and the changes come quickly. My work as a personal trainer is generally rewarding but it does sometimes leave me wanting more.

My biggest frustration is when my clients waste their time and money. Specifically, it’s frustrating and disheartening when I give clients exercises to do and things to work on between our sessions and they don’t do them. Believe me, I know when they haven’t done the work.

Some trainers told me that I shouldn’t care about this because I get paid no matter what the clients do or don’t do outside of class.. I can understand this but I still find it saddening. I mean, they paid the money and took the time to book a lesson. Then, when it’s time to work on their own they suddenly lose motivation.

Honestly I feel bad for my clients but also for myself because I truly want my clients to succeed! I wish they would seize the day and make the most of their time and make progress towards their own stated goals. I think everyone knows that the benefits from just meeting with me a few times a week are marginal compared with actually doing the assigned exercises and making sustained progress. I think clients know that I choose the exercises based on their fitness, challenges, progress and overall goals. I spent a lot of time learning about the human body and this field and . 

It seems clear they want to improve but I cannot understand their thinking when it comes to not putting in the work between sessions. These are not children. They are adults who made a choice to change their lifestyle but can’t seem to follow through. The notion that they’d devote the time and money for classes but not put in the work outside of classes is odd to me. I am not sure I can understand where my clients are coming from.

Perhaps I should be, or should try to be, more empathetic. This workout stuff comes pretty easily to me (unlike, say, algebra). Maybe my perspective is too narrow? Maybe they don’t actually care about progress as much as I assume they do? I know it’s ultimately up to them. 

In any case, it’s quite frustrating and disheartening. I don’t really have any ideas or strategies for dealing with this situation, which is also frustrating. I am at my wit’s end. 

My idea was to use this text as a sort of a way into the discussing issue of students not being so active in breakout rooms.

I might give students a gist question about the trainer’s issues before some specific questions (and maybe even some language work. .I’d be sure to ask students to think about solutions to her problem. I’d also ask what they might say to the clients, if anything.

I’d collate the suggestions for the trainer and comments for clients. Then comes the big reveal. Some of these ideas could be related to our current situation. Which advice for the trainer applies to the teacher? Which comments for the clients apply to this group of students. Discussions of these final questions would likely and ironically occur in breakout rooms.

Notes:

  • Not that it really matters but this has not been a huge problem for me as yet.
  • If you find any language that seems off in the “mini-essay” it’s either because of my own bad writing or I tried to shoehorn in some terms that students in a particular class might be studying soon.
  • I thought including such terms could make it seem a bit more like a language learning activity and not a drawn-out way of expressing frustration.
  • I realize some might say, “Hey man don’t worry if students are not active in breakout rooms during a pandemic” and I get it.
  • If anyone tries this or a variation, I’d love to know how it goes!

Questions:

  • Do think the text is a bit too preachy? Too blamey? Too whingy?
  • Do you think students would know the reason for introducing the text before that reason is revealed?
  • Would you consider doing something like this if you were faced with students who are inactive in breakout rooms?
  • How might you modify or expand on the sequence?
  • Can mini-essays by fictional frustrated personal trainers help students work harder in Zoom breakout rooms?