Young learner teacher cognition and teacher training

by Lou McLaughlin

Although much has been written, discussed and forwarded regarding teacher training and the benefits of reflection as regards teaching skills, it still surprised me to hear two qualified teachers state that “I had to unlearn everything I was taught on my course” and “you just need to do what they tell you on the course”. This prompted me to examine the area of teacher cognition in more depth, focusing on young learner (YL) teaching in EFL. This article details some of the findings from the study which was carried out and shows how teacher cognitions still predominate on teacher training courses.

The study began by interviewing four experienced young learner EFL teachers working with 6-8 year olds. In-depth interviews were followed up with classroom observations and further stimulated recall interviews. The collected data was extensively analysed for emerging teacher cognitions in terms of the teaching of young learners and the tensions which appeared between these cognitions and classroom practice.

Understanding the origins – what ‘makes’ a teacher?

Each teacher has their own beliefs and knowledge referred to as ‘teacher cognition’. These beliefs are built on the foundations of experience, training and teaching context. Initial experience of teaching and learning takes place through the ‘apprenticeship of observation’. This apprenticeship indicates that, by the time we have finished both primary and secondary school, the average student has completed 13,000 hours of observation of teachers teaching. As a result, all students, possible future teachers, have already formed concrete opinions on the characteristics and behaviour of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers. Most of us can immediately recall from our childhood years a teacher we liked, a teacher we disliked, a teacher we considered to be a ‘good’ teacher and those we considered to be below standard, and as novice teachers we tend to emulate our own teachers. These ingrained beliefs regarding teachers and how to teach are brought, in their entirety, by trainee teachers to their training courses.

Teacher training vs. Teacher cognition

Difficulties arise from the fact that the trainees’ opinions are based on the actions of the observed teacher rather than actually knowing the teacher’s thoughts or plans. In addition, these beliefs are influenced by the personalities and personal qualities of the teachers as opposed to their teaching expertise or skills. As a result, on teacher training courses many trainees have their beliefs called into question or encounter theories which run counter to their own learning experience. In the EFL teaching context these teacher training course are likely to be the CELTYL or the IHCYLT, and on these courses trainees may often be expected to override their own personal beliefs when it comes to teaching practice and approach and adopt those presented on the course.

Difficulties facing teacher trainers

Teacher trainers and course tutors are the people who deliver the courses and address the accumulated assumptions, beliefs and knowledge of the trainees. They aim to have trainees address their beliefs in order to re-evaluate them in the light of proven evidence from the YL classroom. Although on the surface this may appear to be an easy task, there are many obstacles to overcome when examining the area of cognition. These difficulties have been detailed through a myriad of studies examining training courses. Within the EFL context, a further difficulty is the fact that training courses take place over a four/five week period. Given that teacher cognition is formed over a period of at least 12 years, it is optimistic to assume that these can be fundamentally examined and altered over a four week period (Hobbs, 2007).

Implications and considerations for YL teacher trainers

When delivering a YL training course, trainers/tutors must bear in mind that:

  • Trainee teachers tend to use course information as a tool to validate their beliefs rather than one with which to re-evaluate and assess their existing beliefs (Kagan, 1992).
  • Trainee teachers can complete a three year teacher training course without having their beliefs shaped in any way by their training (Peacock, 2001).
  • EFL teachers are reluctant to adopt the teaching practices put forward by their teacher trainer if they fundamentally disagree with the approach. However, they willingly adopt those learning styles that they can identify with and incorporate this into their lessons without difficulty (Urmston, 2003).
  • EFL teachers may understand that in order to pass the course they must teach in a specified way but thischanges once they enter their own classroom and are no longer supervised or observed (Senior, 2006; Almarza, 1996).
  • EFL teachers interpret information presented to them on their training courses based on their own experiences which may differ from the intentions of the teacher trainer (DaSilva, 2005).

A working example: acknowledged course influence

The results of the study confirmed that the cognitions of each of the four teachers, in terms of teaching young learners, were firmly rooted in their experience, training and teaching context. Although some of these cognitions were challenged as a result of their initial teacher training qualification (CELTA and Trinity TESOL) the majority remained firmly intact. All four teachers cited their YL training course, the IHCYLT, as being very useful and helpful for the classroom. The one common belief which they all acknowledged as adopting from the course was their new-found awareness of the variety of learning styles in the EFL YL classroom. Each of the four teachers commented on this and explained how important it was for their classes.

A working example: what I say vs. What I do

When the cognitions of each of the four teachers were analysed alongside their YL classroom practices, it was found that tensions existed between their cognitions and their teaching practice. This indicated a mismatch between what they believed and what actually took place in the classroom. Given that these tensions emerged through data analysis it could be concluded that the teachers were not necessarily aware of these tensions. The reason for the existence of these tensions was the fact that some of their beliefs formed in their early childhood had not been addressed or evaluated, despite having successfully completed teacher training courses which addressed these issues. A particular example is that all teachers believed they allowed for a variety of different learning styles when teaching, however, when introducing vocabulary they all adopted a visual approach throughout each observed lesson. This reflects a continued lack of awareness on the part of the teacher regarding the extent to which their cognitions influence their lesson planning, activity choice, L1 language use and actual classroom practice.

Relevance for young learner EFL teachers and teacher trainers

Young learner EFL teacher cognitions play an important and influential role for both teachers and for teacher trainers and tutors. If teachers can be taught to identify areas of tension between their beliefs and practice, they can work towards resolving these tensions through reflection and continuous professional development. Teacher trainers will benefit from being aware of the common YL EFL teacher cognitions and can then focus more specifically on these areas during the courses, observations and teacher reflection. They can help the teacher identify and understand what their actual classroom practices are and why they do what they do. This in turn will reduce tensions, lead to greater awareness which ultimately will result in better teaching.

Implementing this in each of our own teaching environments means looking towards a programme of continuous development through questioning and reflection and awareness-raising. It means ensuring that trainees understand the origin of their beliefs and how these can unintentionally interfere with teaching practice. It also means avoiding the trap of accepting that the completion of a training course means that what we say is what we do in the YL EFL classroom.

Author’s Bio: Lou has been working in ELT as a teacher, teacher trainer, DOS and Director for over fifteen years. She has worked in Ireland, the UK, Turkey, Italy, and Russia and has been in Spain for the last seven years. Her areas of interest are teacher cognition, young learner teaching and online learning. She is the author of “EFL Teacher Cognitions”. She currently works as Director at IH Sabadell as well as being an online tutor and a face-to-face tutor for the IHCYLT. She is also a member of the IATEFL YLT SIG, delivering sessions at their yearly conference. She holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics, an MA in ELT, BA in English Language & Literature as well as the Cambridge DELTA.
Feel free to follow her @McLaughlinLou

Almarza, G. 1996. Student foreign language teacher’s knowledge growth. In Freeman & Richards (Eds.), Teacher Learning in Language Teaching (pp.50-78). Cambridge: CUP.

Da Silva, M. 2005. Constructing the Teaching Process from Inside Out: How Pre-Service Teachers Make Sense of their Perceptions of the Teaching of the Four Skills. TESL-EJ 9, 2, 1-18.

Kagan, D. M. 1992a. Professional growth among preservice and beginning teachers. Review of Educational Research, 62, 129-69.

Hobbs, V. 2007. A brief look at the current goals and outcomes of short-term ELT teacher education. Research Notes 19, 7-11.

Peacock, M. 2001. Pre-service ESL teachers’ beliefs about second language learning: a longitudinal study. System 29, 177-195.

Senior, R.M. 2006. The Experience of Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Urmston, A. 2003. Learning to Teach English in Hong Kong: The Opinions of Teachers in Training. Language and Education 17, 2, 112-137.