Leaving a mark by Colin Barnett

淤泥 (Yu Ni) = a fertile sediment that builds up along river banks or at river deltas (silt)

SYLTs (Shanghai Yunnan Local Tutors) = one of the results of IH London‘s involvement in education projects in China, since 2005.

Origins of SYLTs

Back in 2010, the IHL-GP Shanghai team faced a number of challenges in connection with the distance TKT project we were due to start in Yunnan province, southwest China. While previous TKT training projects took a blended learning approach, the Yunnan TKT was almost entirely online. Additionally, the number of participants was significantly higher. Essentially the challenge was this: How do you mark and give feedback on monthly assignments from close to 5000 Chinese English Language teachers, with only two available IHL-GP trainers?

Two of the main tools selected to measure progress on the Yunnan TKT distance course were:

  • Individual Tasks: essentially multiple-choice progress tests linked to aspects of the TKT syllabus, which could be completed online.
  • School Based Tasks: learning tasks for groups of participating teachers working in the same school. The group response could be completed offline and later uploaded. These group tasks were designed to accommodate course participants with differing language proficiencies (A1 – C1), IT literacy skills, and pedagogic knowledge.

Every month, therefore, we were expecting thousands of individual and school based tasks. The monthly average of tasks to mark was, in actual fact, 3430 and 565, respectively. This was less than the total number of participants and schools enrolled but, nonetheless, a daunting task.

As the individual tasks produced responses that could be automatically marked, marking and giving feedback was fairly simple. Data generated trends in course participants’ answers which helped identify emergent TKT training needs.

The real issue was then how to assess the high number of School Based Tasks (SBTs) responses that the project was to generate. Furthermore, as these tasks were open-ended, they could not be automatically marked.

Enter the SYLTs.

Growing the SYLTs

IHL-GP had previously run a number of more advanced courses, such as ICELT and TT (Train the Trainer), in the Shanghai area. The graduates of these courses had demonstrated more than a passing understanding of the requirements of the TKT.
Following a recruitment drive among our pool of graduates, a team of eight was put together. The team adopted the name and role of SYLTs (Shanghai Yunnan Local Tutors) and training began.

The training the SYLTs underwent involved processes familiar to anyone who has done standardized assessment and use of descriptors, as well as how to craft feedback that was objective and developmental.

Additionally, SYLTs were required to report on global patterns and themes emerging from the task responses such as

  • to what extent the tasks were/n’t in line with the task input,
  • what topic areas (linguistic/ pedagogical) were/n’t being addressed in the task responses

Essentially we were adding another level to the IHL-GP scheme of teacher development: moving teachers into the role of assessors and diagnosticians.

How the SYLTs benefitted

From September 2010 to May 2011, the SYLTs, along with my colleague Paola Borella and myself, provided grades and basic developmental feedback on a total of 3957 School Based task responses that were submitted by the participating schools.

At the end of the project, we were curious to find out if and how our team of SYLTs had benefitted from being involved. A number of the SYLTs commented on how they refreshed terminology, concepts, process from previous course such as Li Yu Xiang…

“…During the project, I had a chance to review something that we had learnt in ICELT course.”

Others revealed more development in their skills, such as Shirley,

“...I did learn a lot from marking the tasks, one of which is how to give developmental or descriptive comments to the CPs. And also, my summarizing skills have also been practiced a lot. Really appreciated the project.” (‘Shirley’ Shen Hua)

One SYLT commented that,

“…, I learned a lot through the process of marking the tasks. The criteria of monthly tasks always reminded me of the important factors for effective teaching. What impressed me most is the input [the trainers] gave me on how to give positive and supportative (sic) feedback by written comments. After that, I applied it to the marking on my ss' written diaries and compositions, which shew (sic) great success. In the future, I may apply the skills for the work involving training others.” (‘Brook’ Huang Liqin)

Lessons learned

During this process of working with the SYLTs, I was reminded of the following:

  1. benefits of teacher education projects sometimes don’t reveal themselves until long after the initial trainings have taken place
  2. training people for a role slightly higher than the one they are currently in can have the effect that you are really after – change in the classroom

淤泥, Chinese characters for ‘silt’, is without negative connotations. It is a thing which rejuvenates the soil and ultimately contributes to growth. Hopefully our SYLTs will continue to do this.

This article is dedicated to Graham Holderness who supported us so much during this project and dedicated so much of his time and energy to helping people grow.

About the IHL-GP project

The IHL-GP project began in 2005 with the remit of providing teacher training to Chinese teachers of English.

During its time, the project has taught countless number of teachers in various provinces across China.

IHL’s direct involvement through the provision of trainers came to an end in December 2011.