Teaching Competitions. #Winning?

Jeremey Harmer (@harmerJ) just posted an interesting blog post about teaching competitions and lesson polishing.

At the end he asked three questions.
One of them was, “Are teaching competitions a good thing? And if so, for whom?” 

I (@michaelegriffin on teh twittters) said that such competitions are very popular here in Korea but still “bad”  terrible and @harmerj wondered why they are so popular if they are bad.

My speculation is that teaching competitions  are thought to be useful as a way to share ideas and techniques with other teachers. I can see some truth and possible benefit in this. I also think they are a way to gain prestige for the school, principal and teacher as way to validate all the hard work that teachers do in trying to develop professionally. I believe that teachers who win such competitions can some points for their career and the prestige that goes along with winning.

(A very interesting and multi-thread conversation starting from @harmerJ’s post and tweet  arose. I favorited all the related tweets, including my own(!) so you can see what people were saying).

Even though I mentioned some potential benefits and reasons for the continued existence and popularity of teaching competitions I think there are major problems with the idea. The first is that students and learning are very easily brushed aside for the purpose of flashier, teacher-centered, and attention grabbing moves that don’t have much to do with student learning.

One thing that I have heard a lot about in Korea for such classes is how they are very well rehearsed. I find this equal parts interesting and troubling. In a place were teachers often complain about a lack of time and the need to “cover” vast amounts of material there is somehow enough time to practice and rehearse such lessons.

I also think the tendency towards “look at me” activities, long turns from the teacher, and flashy powerpoints is another good way to forget about students.
It probably also bears mentioning that there is a tendency to simply judge the teacher based on his/her English ability (which in turn can lead to the teacher talking more and more).

So, on the subject of teaching competitions, here is an example of a winner.
This is a high school lesson focusing on food/diet and other things.
Have a look. The lesson itself starts at 1:22.

When I have shared this and other similar videos some teacher trainers new to working with Korean public school teachers the trainers typically said this is something they should have seen before coming to Korea. I think it is especially telling because this is the model of what  “good” (championship winning) teaching looks like and what some teachers might be striving towards. I have seen more of these lessons (in person and on video) than is probably healthy and can see quite a few parallels between those that tend to win.  guess to me the whole thing is just about priorities that are very different from what I believe to be important (namely student LEARNing).

So, to answer the above question if competitions like this are a good thing I’d have to say mostly not.

Please note:
I have been conflicted about posting the above link for a long time and I want to emphasize don’t mean any disrespect to the teacher who bravely taught this lesson (or anyone who has taught a similar lesson or under similar circumstances) . I felt it could be instructive for teachers around the world to see what a winning or model lesson looks like in Korea. As I just mentioned to a friend, “If you don’t want me to share it then please don’t post it on my internet.”

In terms of  comments on this post and the desire to be as sensitive as possible I would like to request that comments not include judgments or attacks on the teacher. Descriptions of what you see in the clip are more than fine, as is speculation about why things might have been done the way they are done. Thanks for reading!


  1. eflnotes

    thanks mike, that’s a fascinating video, have loads of Qs – i would think great a grt resource for training purposes? do teachers there use these videos as input to their own practice? any more details on the format of the competitions? are these competitions held regularly throughout the year? local and national levels?

    i think “competitions” can have a place provided the goal is improving one’s teaching (or as mentioned in jeremey harmer’s post “polishing”) and in a time limited, live context (so that the issues of rehearsal that you mention may be mitigated). i am thinking of fields such as programming and webdesign where the notion of building a program or website in real time, a short space of time is common and is viewed as a part of normal practice. the “feedback” not only benefits the “winners/losers” but also the “judges” (other programmers/designers).


    • mikecorea

      Hi Mura,

      Thanks for the comments. I am glad you found the video interesting. I was hopeful that it would provide some insights to people in and out of Korea.

      You asked about the logistics of the competitions. I did’t really have the chance to ask anyone and get specific information but my understanding is that they start out at the city or regional level ans expand from there.

      I remembered a foreign friend telling me about how he did the same lesson a bunch of times in such competitions.

      YOu asked some great questions. What else? “Do teachers there use these videos as input to their own practice?”
      I think sometimes but more on a casual and solo level. It was a bit of a surprise when I used such lessons in my training sessions. By surprise i mean unusual. 🙂

      I like your thoughts about possible benefits and situations were such competitions can be useful. Good points, well made. Ta for that.

      I didn’t know where to place it so here is something from someone on the #KELTchat facebook page.

      I did talk to two Korean English teachers, both at public school in (region) Both said that until a year or two ago, teaching competitions were mandatory for promotion to the Vice Principal level. One teacher, a man around 40 said that he found them to be mostly positive. He said it was the only time he could critically watch classes he had recorded. He felt that helped him grow a lot as a teacher. The female teacher, who is around 50 said that teaching competitions are both good and bad. She appreciated how they helped her grow as a teacher but said they added too much stress to her life. She was quick to mention that she chose to bring the stress by entering the competitions. She said she felt that the competitions were a bit frivolous because most people knew enough to “read between the lines” and create a lesson that would fit the current buzz in the provisional office. She said she spent a whole year preparing a lesson (including a 100 page “justification” for her lesson which was due 6 months before her demonstration) and felt that was a lot of work for a 40 minute show. She also mentioned that she had built a solid reputation over her career and that it could all be gone if she screwed up.

      I thank the kind soul that asked around for me.
      I also thank you again for reading and commenting!

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    • mikecorea

      Great question…I’d say my issue is with the idea itself more than what sort of stuff tends to win. I mean if you want to have a “presentation” or speaking competition that is fine but my belief is that a large part of what I consider to be teaching involves the students and student learning and this set up seems from my view to ignore them in more ways that one.

      So, a mix of both?

      Thanks for reading and asking!

      I wonder if you have had positive experiences with such things?

  3. Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

    I don’t know Mike, it still comes across to me as a problem with who/what is winning. I mean, if the winner had of been a lesson that involved the students and student learning, what would your complaint about the competition be?

    • mikecorea

      Good question. I guess my problem is the romantic one that Jeremy Harmer referred to. I think that teaching is more of an art than something to compete over? I don’t know. I realize there are poetry and movie competitions and the like.

      I guess with teaching I don’t really think we can see much in a 40 minute block and I don’t think we need to make a big show of it.

      YES..the big show of it is inherent in the competition. This is not a wet Wednesday in Wonju. This is a well oiled and practiced lesson. I can’t see a competion without it.

      I guess I also have logistical concerns about the competion itself. I am wondering if it is inherently unbalanced (to those that speak English better? to those with better students? to those with more flashy gear? To those with better PPT skills? To those with more time to prepare?)

      So i am thinking my problem is sort of about the idea and all that it means. The winners are the end result of a process and idea that I think is flawed to begin with.

  4. Hello Kitty

    I think a good English teacher needs to speak English well. While that is not the only criteria, someone who can’t speak English well won’t be able to teach proper English. I understand your concerns about having a competition on teaching; but I do think that this teacher/lesson is very effective in engaging students and encouraging students to speak up (which is different from pedagogical teaching usually used in Asia). I had expected to see an awful video with the teacher droning on and on while the students looked glazed over. Instead, I saw a lively class with a wonderful teacher and engaged students who seem to be learning.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Hello Kitty,

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting.
      I appreciate your perspective.

      In terms of speaking ability required to be a good teacher perhaps we have a different view. Some of the best lessons (in my view of what makes a good lesson–actual unscripted student interaction) that I have seen as a trainer were from teachers that were not the strongest at English but instead created a time and space for students to use and develop their English). I have also seen too many lessons where the focus seemed to be on the teacher proving that their English is good. Of course this is not every time.

      As for the lesson in the video, I am sorry if I misled you about the lesson you saw, I didn’t mean to imply anything about the lesson. You said that it was a lively class with a wonderful teacher. I guess my question for you might be “What makes you say she is a wonderful teacher?” Perhaps we have different beliefs on this and I am not really interested in criticizing the lesson we saw. I simply wanted to share it with people who might be interested and surprised to see that this was the model/winner/champion lesson.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      • Hello Kitty

        I think teachers who speak broken English end up having students who speak broken English. I am not saying that all teachers who speak English perfectly make the best teachers; far from it as some of them are horrible at teaching. But I do think that a teacher needs to know what he/she is talking about, and if he/she can’t speak proper English, he/she can’t teach proper English.

        What I like about this teacher is that she asked for student input. She asked questions and played games that allowed students to take interested in the subject matter. As a kid in Korea who attended Korean schools before immigrating to the U.S, I guess I was expecting a teacher who just lectured the entire time about grammar. So, seeing this teacher ask students to speak up was rather refreshing. My question to you is – why don’t you think this is a model/winner lesson? What could she have done differently to make it better?

      • mikecorea

        Thanks for the response and dialog.
        Very interesting.

        Again, I appreciate your perspective. I can see how I might have led you to believe it was going to be a lecture.

        You asked about why I didn’t think it was a model or winner lesson. The fact is that this was a winner lesson. 🙂

        The reason I thought this might be interesting or surprising to some of my readers can probably be summed up in a few questions.

        What were the objectives of the lesson?
        (How) were these objectives met?

        How much (unscripted, unrehearsed) speaking did the students do? How did this compare the amount of time the teacher talked?

        How much need was there for students to
        communicate with each other? (without the teacher repeating what they said?)

        As for the point about English perhaps we will have to agree to disagree on this one. I am convinced that teachers that speak “broken English” can be excellent teachers and that students will not always pick up the English (mistakes or otherwise) from their teachers. I also believe that the more important thing is giving students time and space to practice language. I think there are plenty of sources/models for English these days and that teachers don’t need to beat themselves up for not speaking perfectly (whatever speaking perfectly means).
        Thanks again for the comments!

      • Barry White (@ESLBarry)

        Hello Michael,
        (long time reader, first time commenter)
        With all due respect, I have to say I think you were more than a bit overly gentle in your response to Mr.Ms. Kitty above. She says it was a great lesson. You have already mentioned the English factor so won’t say anything about that except to say that I have worked with a variety of coteachers and I can say that English ability did not predict anything other than English ability. I saw some atrocious lessons from teachers who were fluent. Speaking of not great lessons I’d like to turn my attention to the lesson you shared. The previous commenter said the teacher was great. I have no idea what made them say that. Yes, the students talked a little but I didn’t see any creative use of English. Everything was through the teacher (who talked for the majority of the time.) I have no idea what the objectives were nor if they were achieved. To my view, the students were slightly more engaged than if they were sleeping but slightly less engaged than trained robots. The comments said the students seemed to be learning but I have absolutely no idea what they were supposed to learn. What was the point of the games or the video? I am very confused.

      • mikecorea

        Hi Barry!
        Thanks for the message. I have to say it was pretty close to meeting the iron fist of censorship. 🙂 I think you raise some interesting points here and I wonder if your thoughts would be common among foreign teachers in Korea. I have to admit that I also wondered about the video. My perhaps simplistic and cynical take was that there was a check box for use of video or tech or something and the teacher felt it was better to just use it. I want to highlight for you and everyone that my intention was not to trash the teacher or the video or the competitions or anything but just to share some thoughts on it and to let people know what the winners might look like. From there readers can make draw their own conclusions. Again, thanks for the comments and see you on Twitter.

      • Hello Kitty

        Not sure what you mean by “gentle” or “censorship”? Am I not allowed to disagree with your viewpoint here? Did I say anything antagonistic other than simply state my view and disagree with your negative opinion of this class? Not sure what the point of discussing anything is if we’re only supposed to come here simply to agree with you.

        In response to Barry, I never said people who speak fluent English can teach well. I don’t disagree with your statement that fluent English speakers can teach atrocious lessons. Rather, I said people who cannot speak English well cannot teach English well, which is a totally different point. The feeling I get from a lot of native English speakers is this sense of superiority over how English should be taught without really understanding the Korean mentality. Most Korean students don’t like to be put in the spotlight because they don’t want to lose face (if they don’t know the answer) or appear arrogant (if they do know). Also, people are not likely to disagree with each other publicly so that pretty much undermines critical thinking dialogue in a class this size where people will be reluctant to speak up. My point is not that this class is perfect. But I do think that this class was probably better than most of the other classes just because the teacher at least attempted to engage students and asked them to speak up rather than a boring lecture, which many Korean teachers are likely to do. Perhaps, to prove your point, you can do a video demo of your ideal class and upload it for all of us to see. That may make me change my mind.

      • mikecorea

        Hello again,
        It is nearly 2:00 so please forgive me if I am not at my most coherent. I wanted to clear a few things up so I can sleep peacefully.
        When referring to censorship I was talking about Barry’s reply. I really didn’t want the comments to turn into people trashing the teacher and I thought he was dangerously close to that. Sorry for the confusion. You are more than welcome to disagree as long as you are respectful and think you have been extremely respectful (and not antagonistic in the slightest). So I thank you again for that and for the continuing exchange. I’ll have to recheck what I wrote to see if I actually said anything negative about the class in my original post. I thought I just said that it might be surprising and interesting and that I hoped people would refrain from criticizing the lesson in the comments.
        (I said that teaching competitions can lead to teacher-centeredness and such but I don’t think I said anything specifically negative about the lesson we are talking about)

        I think Barry accused me of being too gentle (his words not mine, right?) on the lesson and not being critical enough. I wanted to share the video because I thought it might be eye opening for those not familiar with things here in Korea.

        There is a lot to think about (thanks!) in your response so I will have to save it till later. I just wanted to be sure that you didn’t think I was attacking you in any way. I really appreciate the comments and thoughts.

        And a final thing…A video demo of my ideal class would probably be terribly boring to watch because it would be a bunch of students doing things.

        Take care and thanks again.

      • Hello Kitty

        Thanks for the clarification! I think Barry meant that you were gentle in your response to me; which made me wonder just what I had said that he interpreted as antagonistic. I actually would love to see a demo of an ideal class (from the perspective of a native English teacher). I would like to see how Korean students react to more open ended questions and critical thinking questions. If they respond positively, I think that’s very promising and I think you can really use this as a selling point to transform the way Koreans learn English. It’s not that I disagree with you (and you are right that you weren’t trashing the class to begin with). I am just wondering what an ideal class should be like and would love to see one to see how students are engaged.

  5. Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

    HelloKitty, what are you basing this statement on?

    “Most Korean students don’t like to be put in the spotlight because they don’t want to lose face (if they don’t know the answer) or appear arrogant (if they do know). Also, people are not likely to disagree with each other publicly so that pretty much undermines critical thinking dialogue in a class this size where people will be reluctant to speak up.”

    Maybe you would allow me to correct this statement for you…?

    “Most Korean students are rarely given the opportunity to put themselves in the spotlight because it is safer for teachers to produce teacher centered lessons. With the correct scaffolding and support, however, Korean students thrive when given the opportunity to show off their English skills. Also, students are rarely afforded the opportunity to LEARN HOW to think critically in Englsih or discuss issues in English in ways which do not involve disagreeing with each other publicly, because their teachers decide for them that they are not able/willing to do this. Again, if given the correct scaffolding and support, Korean students are more than able to discuss ideas in groups even in large classes.”

    Just think about it, if all lessons are teacher centered, how do you know any of the statements you have made to be true?

    Gan (2003:43) “researchers argue that the extent to which cultural values are internalised in the learning process of Asian students in general has been overstated, and the EFL students’ learning attitudes and strategies in particular have mainly to do with situation-specific factors such as language proficiency level, TEACHING METHODOLOGY and ASSESSMENT PRACTICES” (emphasis added)

    And so I ask again, what are you basing your statement on? Watching teacher centered lessons or the one off lessons that aren’t teacher centered, put students in the spotlight without the correct experience, support or scaffolding and then don’t work, and everyone says “see, Korean students can’t do critical thinking or produce and create the English language.It just doesn’t work in Korea!”

    • Hello Kitty

      I base it on me having once been a student in Korea, knowing Korean kids, knowing Korean culture, observing EFL classes where that was the case, reading about native English speaking teachers at hagwons complaining that that was the case…. For example, I was managing a tutorial of a Korean EFL student the other day and after I got tired of observing a Korean teacher who was only asking yes and no questions, I interjected and threw out a few critical thinking “why” questions that required the student to say a few sentences. All of a sudden, she looked confused and said she was tired and shut down. But I see this happening a lot even with Korean kids who visit me in the U.S. They just act agreeable and say yes and yes and yes and then look flustered when asked any open ended question — especially when asked “why” of something. It is as if the word “why” doesn’t matter to them.

      I think it would be wonderful if Korea had the kind of lively discussions you see in the classrooms here in the U.S. Kids here love to voice their opinions, disagree with the teacher and their fellow students… because kids are told that their opinions matter. But kids in Korea don’t feel that way. They are told that only their “spec” is important and so they just end up focusing on acing exams instead of trying to really enjoy learning the language. I think the Korean culture emphasizing harmony, conformity, status all play a role in making students feel this way (along with parents, teachers… and even students themselves end up espousing this view because they are told this so many times.)

      So I think it would really be an eye opener (and a welcome one) to see a demo of a class where a teacher really engages his/her Korean students like Robin Williams does in Dead Poets’ Society. I think all classes should be like that. I am just not sure most Korean students can handle that right now. Perhaps, someone should take up this challenge and do a demo and circulate it among the blogosphere and see if the Korean press picks it up. Maybe it will be an eye opener for them, too, and it can help a lot of students really enjoy learning English.

      • Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

        “once been a student in Korea” – how often did your teachers present opportunities for critical and creative thinking in English class?

        “knowing Korean kids” – how do you know what every Korean kid wants out of their English class, have you surveyed them all?

        “knowing Korean culture” – please refer to the research I have quoted above.

        “observing EFL classes” – how many classes did you observe where the Korean students were given the chance, regularly, to develop their creative and critical thinking skills in English class?

        “reading about native English speaking teachers at hagwons complaining that that was the case” – NEST? Not sure how that is relevant but anyway, how were they structuring the lessons? How were they creating a supportive environment in which students couldn’t feel free from the restraints placed on them in their standard English classes? How were they scaffolding the activities? How were they adapting the teaching methodology to suit their individual student needs?

        “I interjected and threw out a few critical thinking “why” questions” – had you prepared the students for this? Had you pre-practiced answering such questions? Did you allow them to practice answering such questions with peers first in a more supportive environment? It sounds to me like you did exactly what I described above, throw a student unprepared into a critical thinking situation in front of all their peers and then, when they (unsurprisingly) couldn’t do it concluded that Korean students aren’t able to think critically.

        Where is your evidence that Korean students can’t thinking critically or creatively if they are properly supported and prepared in such techniques?

      • Hello Kitty

        When did I say Korean students couldn’t think critically or creatively? Of course they can, especially if in a small group setting or with a one-on-one with a teacher. I said they don’t like to be put on the spot in front of a big group (because they said their words escape them); not that they couldn’t do such a thing. I’ve explained and supported my points. You haven’t explained or supported yours other than to cite to one thing I’ve never even heard of. What is it? What do they base their conclusion on? Was a study conducted? If so, what were the controls and who were the test subjects? If you can show me a demo of you teaching a class with engaged Korean students and show me that this is the norm across Korea, I will stand corrected. Until then, your insistence that it has nothing to do with the students and that it’s all the teachers’ fault isn’t that persuasive to me.

    • Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

      Gan (2003:43 emphasis added) “researchers argue that the extent to which cultural values are internalised in the learning process of Asian students in general has been overstated, and the EFL students’ learning attitudes and strategies in particular have mainly to do with situation-specific factors such as language proficiency level, TEACHING METHODOLOGY and ASSESSMENT PRACTICES”
      Littlewood (2001:21) has concluded:
      1. Most students in all countries question the traditional authority structure of the classroom.
      2. Most students in all countries would like to see themselves as active participants in the classroom learning process.
      3. Most students in all countries have a positive attitude towards co-operating in groups in order to achieve common goals.
      Cheng & Dornyei (2007:171) “motivational strategies are transferable across diverse cultural and ethnolinguistic contexts”
      Littlewood (2000:33 emphasis added) “The stereotype of Asian students as ‘obedient listeners’ … does not reflect the role they WOULD LIKE to adopt in class. They do not see the teacher as an authority figure who should not be questioned; they do not want to sit in a class passively receiving knowledge … [they did not believe] the teacher should have a greater role than themselves in evaluating their learning. The results suggest that… [these claims] are more likely to be a consequence of the educational contexts that have been or are now provided for the, THAN ANY INHERENT DISPOSITION OF THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES”

      Littlewood (2000:34) concludes…
      “They want to explore knowledge themselves and find their own answers. Most of all, they want to do this together with their fellow students in an atmosphere which is friendly and supportive”

      • Hello Kitty

        What the students want (which is what you noted above) and what the students have resigned themselves to (which is what my point is) are two different things. I never said students inherently weren’t critical thinkers or creative; which is what you keep getting at. These students became this way through years of testing what they learned through rote memorization. You seem to think that a teacher can make all the difference. My feeling is that a teacher can only do so much. You have to change the attitude of the student and you can only change the attitude if you change the SYSTEM – that includes testing; spec-oriented job placement; attitudes of parents; attitudes of teachers…. If I were the Minister of Education of Korea, the entire college entrance exam portion for English woud be open-ended essay questions and a video interview. NEAT is trying to move away from Seneung but it’s still not enough. Now, kids are going to hagwons to memorize materials for NEAT. I’m not sure why you think my point about NEST is irrelevant. Many of them have commented that students just want to be told the answer instead of trying to learn communicative ability, which is my point, exactly. Very rarely do you find students in Korea who truly want to learn English. Many of them just want to ace the English test so that they can get into an Ivy or SKY.

        Not sure why you’re being so antagonistic. First, I never threw a “why” question in front of an entire class. It was just one student, one teacher and me monitoring it. And that is just one example. Second, my point about “why” is based on my observation from having thousands of conversations with kids in Korea in a casual conversation with family members such as “why do you like your school playground.” Was I suppose to provide scaffolding for that, too?

    • Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

      Support? oh but ye, sorry, you threw some ‘why’ questions at a completely unprepared student in front of the entire class and concluded from the reaction that Korean students think ” the word “why” doesn’t matter to them.”

      • Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

        All you are doing is reeling of excuses as to why Korean students can not thrive in a student centered learning environment, which is simply creating a place for teachers such as the one in the video to hide behind. It just takes time and effort on the part of the teacher. I can’t teach like that because of Korean culture, I can’t teach like that because of the students’ attitudes, I can’t teach like that because of the parents. I’m sorry but the research and the work of my students in my classroom does not back that up. The only one of those that is vaguely true is the examination system, now that is something we agree on.

      • Hello Kitty

        To the contrary, I am actually all for student centered learning and have a business doing exactly that — getting Korean kids to express their opinions about classic literature and debating ideas with the teacher. My original point was merely that this teacher wasn’t so bad compared to the average teacher in Korea who uses only pedagogy because at least this teacher attempted to ask her students to stand up and speak up here and there (because I don’t recall my teachers in Korea asking one student for his or her opinion at all). And even when teachers want to engage students through lively discussions (as many NESTs want to do), they are confronted with disinterested students who are more concerned about acing exams than speaking up and expressing their opinions (because that is what the SYSTEM demands of them).

        If you can teach a class that engages students as well as help them ace the seneung, I am sure parents will be lining up to have their kids take your classes. I say flat out I couldn’t care less about exams. We teach students who want to study in the US — we teach them how to analyze literature, organize their writing, develop their argument…. I think it’s great that you are really passionate about engaging students. So am I. We have the same goals. I think we just have a different perspective on how Koreans are; perhaps my view is more cynical and pessimistic having grown up in that environment.

  6. Pingback: stories about aims on the board | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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