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?