Customisation in Teacher Training Programmes – Getting Teacher Educators to Practice what we Preach

by Jamie King

What is this article?

How much do teacher educators (TEs) practise what we preach by adapting/customising programmes to suit the needs of candidates in their context/s? Here I will explore this notion to counter the danger of the ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Who cares?

TEs should, that’s who. In asking ourselves the question, ‘How well do I adapt my training to the needs of my candidates?’ we will be in a better position to:

  • Better understand and respond to the training/development needs of a more diverse range of candidates in a more diverse range of contexts
  • Equip ourselves with better means of differentiating and diversifying our own instruction
  • Provide better models of best practice for candidates
  • Stop ourselves from dying of boredom/endless routine

Where does it all come from?

Shulman (1986) coined the term ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ to describe where subject knowledge meets pedagogical skills, but in doing so becomes a distinct form of industry knowledge in and of itself. One of the features of this field is knowledge of educational contexts and of the purposes of education (Shulman, 1987), which is essential for situating teaching content and making it meaningful in a given historic time in a given local context.

To think that we can deliver a course with a group of British/American candidates who know nothing about English grammar, and deliver that same course to a group of Russian speakers who have been studying English grammar since they were children, is not sound.

To think that we can deliver the same course to a group of young backpackers in South-East Asia as we can to a group of career teachers in India who teach primary or secondary learners is also not sound.

Naturally, candidates come onto these courses with diverse backgrounds, foregrounds, knowledge, and skill sets. So rather than expecting the same course for all candidates, let’s look at differentiating aspects of the course within the constraints we have.


A key concept to my proposition is the notion of differentiation. According to (Hall, 2002, p.1):

“To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities… The intent is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he/she is, and assisting in the learning process.”

Education in non-ELT sectors increasingly emphasizes the planning for and management of differentiation as a fundamental principle in successful and inclusive learning. As a fundamental, it is brought to the forefront of initial teacher education as a starting point for training (Gould, 2004). This is in distinction to the older viewpoint where recognizing learner differences and even managing actual learning were considered advanced teaching skills that were acquired later (Fuller and Brown, 1975).

Any intuitive TE is good at on-the-ground, grass roots differentiation (or at least they should be). By this I’m talking about what happens in the training room every day, either delivering input, assessing performance or providing feedback, e.g. adapting the delivery style of feedback to reflect how a candidate might be feeling about their lesson. What I’m proposing is a much more methodical approach to managing differentiation and customizing training at the whole course level to complement this intuitive, day to day accommodation of differentiation.

What’s your problem?

 My problem is this: why is incorporating differentiation and customisation not more prevalent in ELT teacher training programmes? I think the answer can be found in a few factors:

  • TEs don’t know what it is or how to do it
  • TEs really do believe that one size does fit all, fuelled by a universal standard of assessment against which candidates are measured
  • Lack of exposure to a variety of teaching/training contexts
  • Especially for full-time TEs (those on the factory-line training centres) principles of economy/efficiency are very important and one must learn to be as efficient/effective as possible, and to work quickly. Routine is often the solution – the alternative is often burnout

A classic example of what I am talking about here is repeatedly using the same, fixed Teaching Practice Points (coursebook based snippets of teaching usually 40-60 minutes in length which determine what candidates will teach). Using the same TP points, for allcandidates, for all learners, for all courses, for all time, clearly contradicts all notions of differentiation/customisation.

Don’t tell me your problems!

 Lest I be accused of pointing the finger and not assuming any professional responsibility, allow me to present some ideas I’ve observed and which work for me in my professional practice.

Needs Analysis

Find out who the candidates are in terms of:

  • Backgrounds (cultural/educational/professional)
  • Motives for doing the course
  • What contexts they teach/will teach in
  • What are their strengths/weaknesses from the application/interview
  • Personality differences, etc.

We typically do this as part of the selection process, and then what do we do with this information? Often nothing! Whereas, we could be reviewing this data to inform decisions about adapting the selection and content of input sessions to suit. For example:

  • Give the course of Russian experts in English grammar less input on language awareness, and give the Brits/Americans more. If there’s an even mix of both such types of candidate on the same course, differentiating into elective streams might be an option, or different workstations within the same session.
  • If most of the teachers on the course are experienced primary school teachers in their countries, how relevant is it to have a token session on teaching YLs? Conversely, if they are all primary teachers, there might be an argument for incorporating a number of YL sessions into the programme, especially towards the end of the course (provided this isn’t at the expense of the syllabus).
  • If candidates will only ever teach in their own monolingual environment, show them how to use L1/translation effectively, e.g. instructions.
  • In contexts with minimal-to-no resources, teach them to work with minimal-to-no resources.

This type of needs analysis needn’t be systematised into formal procedures or documents; it may simply mean a more systematic review of the information already available to us via the selection process, rather than extra work – music to any teacher’s ears!

Naturally, in course design we need to consider our constraints. In programmes like ours, these include: assessment, syllabus and administrative requirements. These are largely fixed and make the award what it is, so naturally any decisions we make regarding customisation must work within these constraints, lest the award become something it’s not. TEs must exercise their discretion in this regard.

Reactive Customisation

Also customise reactively. Trainers should never be afraid to change their timetable as a course progresses.

  • If it emerges that candidates need more input on classroom management, then give it to them.
  • If it emerges that they don’t need all the input on language awareness after all, then cut it and give them something more relevant.

Actually warn candidates of this likelihood and then tell them of any changes to the timetable; this way they see us practising what we preach and we model how to respond to emerging needs. Some trainers like to give candidates the timetable on a week-by-week basis to facilitate this.

Candidate Consultation

Acknowledge that candidates are a valued part of the training process; that as stakeholders, they too have some say in how their course takes shape. Many centres incorporate a ‘review’ session at a few key points in the course. It’s an opportunity for candidates to raise issues that may not be apparent to trainers, to deal with questions/issues, but also for trainers to provide further support/clarification in areas of need that have emerged. It can also help identify potential changes to the upcoming timetable. Personally I like to call this a ‘troubleshooting’ session rather than a ‘review’ session as I feel that better encapsulates what I want them to achieve. In my experience candidates are highly appreciative of these as they feel their (perceived) needs have been directly targeted.

Another means of collecting such data is asking candidates via their self-evaluation tasks, or in the Lessons from the Classroom assignment if it’s embedded continuously through the course (i.e. through a weekly journal instalment). Again, this provides the candidates with an opportunity to see responding to emerging needs in action.

Empowerment and Goal setting

Empowering teachers to become better educators is essentially what we do. This includes helping candidates identify and achieve what they want to achieve as a result of the course, and particularly if they are already experienced teachers, to identify and develop the aspects of their professional practice that they want to work on (much like the Professional Development Assignment on Delta Module 2). The impact of salient goal setting on learning outcomes is well documented in educational literature (Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd, 2009) and there is no reason why this cannot be instituted on any training/development programme. With an informed awareness of why candidates are doing a course, and which areas they’d specifically like to develop in, TEs can make informed decisions as to course content and how to adapt the course. This could be done at any stage, incorporated into any of the previous suggestions above. For example:

  • If it emerges from the selection process that a large cross-section of the course wants to learn how to motivate teenagers, then respond to this…(and learn about it yourself if you have to!)
  • If everyone has realised halfway through the course (during a review session) that they want to improve their practical techniques for teaching pronunciation, then consider providing the input.

Again, candidates not only see us practising what we preach and get a model of responding to needs/wants, but they also get an example of more personalised, differentiated instruction which, in this case, is directly empowering them towards their own personalised goals.


“We always do it like this.”

No, you don’t.  Stop trying to fit that square peg into a round hole, and assuming one size fits all – it doesn’t. Rather, indulge in the satisfaction of better customising courses to the people doing them, and the contexts they are or will find themselves in. Many good trainers do this instinctively, at the micro-level, but it will be of great benefit to language teacher education to situate our practice within the greater discourse of education by more methodically incorporating needs analysis, the management of differentiation and customization of programmes into our practice at the whole course level. Like a coursebook, no course can ever be everything to everyone, but the suggestions here provide some feasible means of incorporating a more differentiated and customized approach to course management. Explore them. Keep practising what we preach. And keep engaged with what we do by breaking the monotony of routine courses. After all, it’s so much more rewarding when we know meaningful learning has happened, even more so if our candidates recognise this too.

Author’s Bio: Jamie is a consultant teacher educator. He has an MA in Mis-Applied Linguistics/TESOL and large numbers of IH schools and other such institutes around the world have been blessed with the misfortune of his work. He works primarily in the delivery/assessment of teacher training/development programmes such as Cambridge CELTA and Delta and in course design/curriculum development in a variety of teacher education projects. He works globally and is often to be found in more than one place at once!


Fuller, F. & Brown, O. (1975). Becoming a Teacher. In K. Ryan (ed.), Teacher Education (74th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gould, H. (2004). Can Novice Teachers Differentiate Instruction – Yes They Can! Available: Last accessed 21/5/16

Hall, T. (2002). Differentiated Instruction. Available: Last accessed 21/5/16.

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M. & Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why – Best evidence synthesis iteration [BES]. New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Shulman, L S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching. Educational Researcher. 15 (2), 4-14.

Shulman, L S. (1987). Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Educational Review. 57 (0), 1-22.