Trainee See, Trainee Do?

by Ben Naismith

After only a cursory glance online at initial teacher training courses, one recurring selling point immediately stands out: “Learn by doing!” As one website succinctly put it,

[Because] CELTA training is based on experiential learning, or “learning by doing”, teaching practice (TP) is at the heart of the course.

And who am I to argue?  As a CELTA trainer myself, I have witnessed firsthand the value of teaching practice and reflection.  Lately however, I have been pondering the experiential learning of the trainees, not when they are actually teaching, but when they are receiving input sessions from the trainers.

So ingrained in ELT is the value of experiential learning that, as trainers, we are constantly demonstrating activities, employing ELT classroom management strategies, and in general getting our trainees to ‘be the students’.  And I get this.  ELT trainers are first and foremost EFL teachers, so it is only natural that we transfer our skills.  But have we taken this too far?  I suspect that many of us, myself included, may have.  Accordingly, in an attempt to be more conscious of my own training practices, I have compiled a few factors for consideration on future teacher training courses:

Balance  When is ELT modelling most useful?

Right off the bat I suspect.  Thrown in at the deep end, new trainees with no teaching experience need something tangible to latch onto. At the outset, observing how the trainer gives instructions or elicits lexis can be invaluable and immediately applicable to teaching practice.  Certainly, it’s important that they consider the rationale for giving succinct instructions, but more important still is that they mimic their trainer and actually give succinct instructions right from the very first lesson.  At this point, the how is as, if not more, important than the why.

As a training course progresses however, and the trainees have (one hopes) acquired some survival skills, the need to see their trainer task check instructions wanes.  In fact, once the trainees get the point, is there any reason to be doing this?

The trainees  Who benefits most from explicit ELT modelling?

Tied in with the previous consideration, it seems that trainers sometimes forget to suit their training methods to the participants.  Many courses stress the need to cater to individual learning styles/preferences, yet this mandate is not heeded by the trainers themselves!

Likewise, there are unquestionably significant differences between a pre-service course for new teachers, and a group of experienced teachers taking an in-service course or another form of continued professional development.  Considering that seasoned teachers already have extensive experience to draw upon, would they not be better served analyzing and reflecting, rather than being flooded with more demonstrations of activities?

Reflection  What is the point of experiential learning anyway?

Sometimes it seems we get caught up in the most obvious aspect of experiential learning – the experience.  And yet this is only one of the steps of the Experiential Learning Cycle.  According to David Kolb’s model (1984), there are in actuality four stages:

  • Experience
  • Critical Reflection
  • Abstract Conceptualization
  • Active Experimentation

Thus, for our trainees, the experience stage could be both their own teaching practice and their experiences in the input sessions.  Likewise, the final active experimentation stage is also their teaching practice, where they can put into practice their newfound knowledge gained from feedback and reflection.

It is the other two stages, critical reflection and abstract conceptualization, which are sometimes given short thrift in our eagerness to always be moving forward to something new.  Describing these steps in his summation of Kolb’s theory, Kelly writes that,

[w]hereas in the Critical Reflection stage we ask questions about the experience in terms of previous experiences, in the Abstract Conceptualization stage, we try to find the answers. We make generalizations, draw conclusions and form hypotheses about the experience.

To my mind, it is in reality this crucial process of self-questioning and answering which is at the core of a teacher’s formation.  While there are obviously benefits to be gained from accumulating teaching experience, these gains are multiplied exponentially when accompanied by serious reflection.  All too often I observe experienced teachers whose lessons are brimming with wonderful activities drawn from a variety of sources, and yet their lessons lack any coherence or logic.  In contrast to these activity-driven lessons, there is always a palpable difference when watching a teacher who has really considered why they are doing what they are doing.

Teacher training options  How can we usefully promote experiential learning during input?

When trying to capture the benefits of both experiential input and reflection in teacher training, three techniques spring to mind; all have long been mainstays of teacher education, and with good reason:

Loop input

Pioneered by Tessa Woodward (1986), in a 2003 article she describes it as “a specific type of experiential teacher training process that involves an alignment of the process and content of learning.” Examples of loop input could include doing a dictogloss (the process) about dictogloss (the content), a series of reading tasks (the process) about teaching reading lessons (the content), etc.

So how is this different from the usual workshop activities?  Well, the primary advantage lies in the fact that there is no need to separate content and process.  Not only does this save time, but different trainees can benefit more, either from doing the activity or from the input, depending upon their own learning preferences.  It is important to remember, however, that a post-task reflection stage is imperative in order to give trainees a chance to digest what they have just participated in.

Micro teaching

Having trainees teach mini-lessons or language points to their peers might seem a little stilted or unnatural, but in moderation it does have some unique advantages.  As with loop input, micro teaching allows for two simultaneous processes to take place. Foremost, the trainee experiences semi-authentic teaching conditions and gains useful experiential practice.  At the same time, it is possible for the trainer or other trainees to interrupt the ‘lesson’ and give real-time feedback rather than the typical post-lesson variety.  As Thornbury points out,

The trainer’s role, as silent, impassive observer, noting every move, and delivering the feedback retrospectively, seems to run counter to what we now understand about skill acquisition. Cognitive learning theory has long recognised that feedback in ‘real operating conditions’—i.e. while you’re actually engaged in a task —is generally more powerful and more durable than feedback delivered after the event.

Handled in a sensitive manner, this process allows for immediate reflection and a chance to reattempt parts of the lessons (something most teachers have wished they could do at one point or another).  As a result, all four of Kolb’s stages of experiential learning can in reality take place within a single session.


Taking a slightly different tack, another experiential training technique is to demonstrate what not to do.  At first glance this may not seem to differ from a good demo in many regards, but I would argue that there is an appreciable distinction.  In addition to horrible demos usually being both highly memorable and entertaining, they also necessarily stimulate a far greater degree of reflection.  While it is possible after a good demo for trainees to perhaps pick up what the trainer was doing, memorize the stages, or intuit the rationale, this is by no means a given.  Conversely, following a bad demo, trainees are compelled to analyze why it was a terrible experience and how it could have been improved.  Based upon previous post-course feedback, it seems that these lessons learned about what not to do often leave the most lasting impression.

Final thoughts

In the end, the degree to which a trainer wants to model ELT in their training sessions is a personal choice.  For most, this will continue to be a balancing act between behaviourist learning theory (demonstrating and repeating the ‘correct’ way of doing things) and cognitive learning theory (contemplating and reflecting upon the process).  And of course to a great extent, the approach adopted should depend on the preferences of the specific trainees.  Whatever the decision though, it does raise the question, posed here by Anthony Gaughan:

Is it really as easy as all that to make such a close correlation between learning a language and learning to teach, and teaching to teach?

Author’s Bio: Ben is originally from Victoria, Canada and has spent the last 10 years working as a music and English teacher in Toronto, Thailand, Costa Rica and Dubai. Currently Ben is the Director of Studies at IH Dubai where he also works as a teacher trainer on CELTA and other training courses. He completed his DELTA in 2009 and is now working on his MSc in Applied Linguistics. Outside of language teaching, Ben loves spending time with his wife and dogs, playing music, and reading.

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