“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?

6 comments

  1. robertjdickey

    Hey Mike,
    Yeah, you might be too harsh. I agree there is a middle ground. But having been one of those types of trainers who had never been trained to be a trainer (I only took the RSA/Cambridge, back before CELTA was its revised form), but who was reasonably reflective myself, I’m pretty aware of the challenges they faced:

    1. Lots of “input” from program supervision and students themselves to
    —- a) produce things the teachers could easily replicate for their classroom
    —- b) improve their language skills
    —- c) not require (much or any) “homework”
    —- d) model the desired “communicative” classroom for teachers who only knew lecture-driven assignment-style classrooms
    —- e) produce a “fun” class so trainee reviews would be both positive (for Office of Ed) and encourage other teachers to choose your school (in some provinces all these courses were outsourced to two or more providers, who competed to “fill their slots”)

    2. No support for materials (too many “trainers” were simply copying out of commercial coursebooks, not even using “photocopiable” activity books).

    3. Little time for prep (often assigned the specifics of the course only days before, and teaching massive hours in condensed timeframes).

    4. No support for training development, including organized peer-trainer exchanges (paid sessions), leaving only bits and spurts of time in the “trainers rooms” and hurriedly borrowed “hey, that looks good” materials.

    5. In many programs, “native-speakers” were supposed to focus on language skills of the trainees, while Korean trainers talked about methodologies.

    I do think an “activities-based” class is useful for those who need to improve their English and need ideas for things to do beyond the coursebook. But of course it would be improved if the students (teachers) understood what they were doing, why the particular activity was chosen, choices in modification, etc. And how they might use, or not, the particular (type of) activity in their own classes. Frankly, this (unrequested) type of reflection was the best use of my own RSA course. Regretfully, some of the less-skilled trainers in your course description were probably just grabbing activities to fill class-hours without thinking about the materials much. I have had teacher training courses were a large number of students couldn’t speak much English at all, and a fair number who weren’t interested in having a younger foreigner “teach about teaching” when the experience of the trainees was much greater. Some chose to not learn, they simply stole oxygen in the classroom.

    In your “those guy know” label, I’m not sure who are “those guys” — the trainers, or the trainees. I mean, most of my trainees were delighted to play Korean and global language games (even Ha_gman!).

    I also think *reflection can be a waste of classroom hours if students don’t buy in.* I do think there should be a wee bit built in, and that keeping a journal of training course experiences and reflections on past classroom experiences is invaluable. (Built when you aren’t allowed to fail anyone who has “perfect attendance” even if they (literally) sleep through most of your class hours…) On the other hand, we can build ebbs and flows of reflection, helping trainees get more comfortable. What was your least successful class, session, why do you think so? (allow L1) can be a useful first week assignment. In week 1 it’s most excuses. By week 4 there will be genuine reflection of things the teacher might have done better to meet the skills and expectations and current realities of their students.

    It is my understanding that most of the vacation-period compulsory English teacher professional development courses have ended in Korea.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Rob! Wow, thank you for the thoughtful comments!

      You write, “Yeah, you might be too harsh.” Fair enough! 🙂
      I really wanted to try not be harsh to those (those guys) actually delivering the course. You offered the behind the scenes reasons the “activities those guys know” course took the shape it seems to have taken. Actually, I had a few of these in mind but your list is much clearer and detailed!

      Your point that, “I do think an “activities-based” class is useful for those who need to improve their English and need ideas for things to do beyond the coursebook” is well taken as is the point that “But of course it would be improved if the students (teachers) understood what they were doing, why the particular activity was chosen, choices in modification, etc. And how they might use, or not, the particular (type of) activity in their own classes.” Thank you for adding this nuance here.

      With my full agreement on all that you wrote, I cannot help but think (as a former and sometime taxpayer) in the country we are speaking about that this money could be better spent than hiring “native speakers” who have no background in training to run training courses. Well, alas perhaps that goes along with your understanding that, most “vacation-period compulsory English teacher professional development courses have ended in Korea.”

      Something I think I’ve mentioned somewhere on this blog was a participant in a course that I ran saying something to the effect of “Wow this course is so great and amazing, it’s like night and day to what I had last year which was just a series of activities with no push to consider how to use them. Everything is so organized and all the choices seem made for a reason.” I was, understandably quite flattered (she was in fact talking about a training team) and then I thought that she and her peers deserved better. But again perhaps there is/was a place for the more activity focused courses.

      As a final thought, I got in touch with TJ last night and shared the post. He said something like “Yeah current TJ would be a lot less critical, probably.”

      Thank you again for the comments. Very much appreciated!

      Cheers,
      MG

      ps- You wrote, “In your “those guy know” label, I’m not sure who are “those guys” — the trainers, or the trainees. I mean, most of my trainees were delighted to play Korean and global language games” Thank you for this comment. I edited for clarity. Those guys was intended to mean those guys acting as trainers. Thank you also for not using the H-man word!

  2. Hana Tichá

    What I’m about to say may seem a bit off-topic but this is what came to mind while I was reading your post: when I first presented at a conference, I shared a collection of activities that had worked in my teaching context. It was a huge success. The room was packed with eager conference-goers taking notes. A couple of years later, I gave a talk called “Why should teachers blog” (or something along those lines) and only 5 people showed up (of which the majority were actually my friends). My point is that what happened to me (and what you described here) clearly demonstrates the demand out there. I should stress that, unlike the course you mentioned, the conference was totally voluntary, so this is probably what teachers themselves really, really want and think they need (or don’t want). So maybe the ‘other guys’ also think/thought that this is exactly what the teachers need most, for whatever reason. But I totally get your point and I agree, Mike.
    Before I sign off … I once attended a course (not for English teachers, though). For the whole weekend, we did one team-building activity after another so that we could later apply them ourselves. The result is this: today, I can’t remember a single activity we did back then plus I’ve developed an aversion to such activities.

  3. mikecorea

    Dear Hana,
    Great to see your comments here. They gave me two main immediate reactions. The first is that I actually have some similar experiences in terms of presentations. It’s actually not quite the same because I don’t think you complained about activities being such and emphasis and then do presentations/workshops solely of activities. Pretty hypercritical of me!
    (Here is a related write up: https://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/four-activities-i-wish-i-knew-when-i-started-teaching/) . I really appreciate you sharing your thought and experience here.

    You wrote, “So maybe the ‘other guys’ also think/thought that this is exactly what the teachers need most, for whatever reason” and I think that is fair. I really have no way of knowing their thinking. I think Rob’s comments above give some potential reasons for behind a course taking such a shape.

    My second thought was that Coca-Cola is super popular around the world and does tons of sales. It’s certainly not healthy. But maybe like “stuff those guys know” courses/sessions (straining the metaphor here) maybe it is exactly what people want at certain times. 🙂

    • Hana Tichá

      Absolutely! And you know what? Coca-Cola has helped me on many occasions when I was sick to my stomach or hungover (back in the days). But otherwise, too much of it is obviously poisonous. 😉

      • mikecorea

        Haha I somehow almost mentioned hangovers and Coke here as well! I think we onto something here where something that might not actually be the best for us can come to our rescue in a time of need.

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