Training Contradictions: Fostering Meaningful Learning in CELTA Candidates
by Lee Mackenzie
As a Director of Studies, it is part of my job to observe teachers. One particular observation was of a teacher – let us call her Jill – who had recently completed her CELTA. Jill had previously worked at the school, so I was familiar with her teaching style and preferences. In this particular observation, I was happy to see her applying what she had learned during her CELTA course. Her task-setting had improved, as had her language grading, and her tasks and materials were also better prepared, more professional, and more relevant to her lesson aims, which were more clearly formulated and appropriate. Her clarification of the meaning and form of the target language had also improved, and she used eliciting and concept checking to good effect. In short, there was clear evidence that Jill has acquired a “toolkit” of classroom skills (Stanley and Murray 2013: 109) during her intensive four-week teacher training course.
Despite such positive improvements, I also noticed a more perplexing change in her teaching: when it came to a clarification of the pronunciation of the target language, she erased the structures from the board, and told her students to repeat after her the marker sentences, which she had memorised. Drilling the structures in this way had several consequences. Firstly, the structures would have to be rewritten on the board if Jill wanted students to be able to refer to the form during the controlled practice activity which would follow her language clarification. Secondly, as one of the structures was quite long, the students – who had not memorised the structure – struggled to repeat it back to Jill accurately. Thirdly, no features of pronunciation such as assimilation, liaison, weak forms, sentence stress and elision could be visually represented. And finally, it is possible that in taking away the written scaffolding, there was increased anxiety on the part of learners (Kerr, n.d.) who were trying to reproduce the structures correctly and with the correct pronunciation.
Drilling from the Board: Conflicting Views
Roberts (1998) has highlighted the importance of excavating teachers’ existing beliefs for reflective thinking to occur. So during the feedback session that followed the lesson, I asked Jill why she had rubbed the structures off the board, and the consequences she thought this might have had. Her response was that she been “told to do so” by her CELTA tutors since students, the argument went, should not see the written form when the target language is being drilled.
As a CELTA tutor myself, I was aware that some of my colleagues viewed drilling from the board as anathema, while I knew of other colleagues who had no issue with this. Kerr, (n.d.) sums up the two differing approaches:
Some teachers always write a word or a phrase on the board before they drill it. Some teachers never write anything on the board before they drill it. There’s something to be said for both approaches. Some students assume that when they’ve seen a written word (and copied it down), they ‘know’ it. They may think that pronunciation is not very important (perhaps pronunciation is not tested in their school) and pay little attention to any drilling that is taking place. For students like this, it may be a good idea to hold off providing the written form until you’ve drawn their attention to features of pronunciation. Some students, on the other hand, may feel very anxious if they don’t see a written form. It’s probably better to allay their anxiety than to insist they do something they don’t want to do.
Clearly, there are problems with both approaches, but the lack of consensus on this issue is indicative of a more general lack of consistency in CELTA training methods.
A Plea for Moderation
I would suggest that if there is widespread disagreement among teachers or tutors on an issue, then it is of questionable value to advocate too strongly for one particular approach, especially when no clear rationale is forthcoming. Extreme views can also lead to increased tensions between tutors and trainees, as a former CELTA candidate, who we shall call Jack, revealed in an interview with me regarding one of his teaching practice tutors:
There were some of <name of tutor>’s it seemed like personal maybe ideas that really were significantly different from what I’d done before and that I didn’t really…see erm…it for me personally…even if it’s different from what I believe if I can understand the reason for it I’ll do it. But if I don’t that for me is read as a critique or whatever on me then I I’ll have a hard time doing it or I won’t. So I think that that was kind of a problem there.
Each trainee enters a CELTA course with pre-existing notions about teaching. These are developed over a period of years observing teachers during their own education, a phenomenon which Lortie (1973) famously called “the apprenticeship of observation”. Consequently, CELTA candidates, although in many cases lacking in practical teaching experience, are not tabula-rasae but rather thinking individuals who “filter” new information – in Jack’s case the tutor’s “personal ideas” – through pre-existing knowledge or experiences (Roberts, 1998:26). In the case above, the new knowledge appears to have been rejected since no rationale was forthcoming. That is to say: little or no learning took place, and as a result Jack had great difficulty implementing the techniques, which he viewed as “non-negotiable” (Hobbs, 2007:4). As one would expect, the subsequent rationale given by teachers for a particular practice becomes “because my tutor told me so”.
As Kerr points out above, the appropriacy of any one approach depends on the learner, and, by extension the particular learning context. Teaching CELTA candidates the importance of catering to different learning styles, while at the same time having a “non-negotiable” stance on a particular issue, even if this is to the detriment of some learners may appear contradictory to some trainees. How is it, a confused candidate might ask, that this student-centred methodology I am expected to practise takes no account of learners’ preferences when it comes to drilling?
As Jack made clear in my interview, the acceptance or understanding that there are “different ways” was clearly important for him, as he explains when describing his experiences with the other CELTA course tutor:
<name of tutor> had a rationale that for why certain things were done and…I think <name of tutor> also had perspective that there are different ways… <name of tutor> learned that’s better you know and I thought I bought into it a bit more.
Suggestions for Teacher Educators
Perhaps the takeaway from all of the above is this: if we are to excavate other teachers’ assumptions about teaching, we should “practise what we preach” by also analysing our own. As such, it might be useful to regularly ask ourselves the following questions:
- Are my beliefs about teaching based on my own “apprenticeship of observation” as a language learner/student?
- Are my beliefs based on a body of academic research?
- Are my beliefs borne out by my teaching experiences?
- Can I clearly and convincingly articulate my rationale for proscribing or recommending any particular method or technique?
- Do I think in terms of one “best practice” or several “good practices”?
This last question might raise some eyebrows since the term “best practice” has become common usage in many ELT circles. But in light of the fact that a) our knowledge of how languages are learned is still incomplete and b) several at times conflicting techniques might be more or less appropriate in any given context, perhaps it is time for teacher educators to file this superlative away alongside our audiolingual coursebooks and embrace the post-method era once and for all.
Author’s Bio: Lee is currently working as a freelance CELTA tutor in the Americas. He has been working in EFL since 2004 and in teacher training for the last 4 years. He completed his DELTA at IH Barcelona in 2009 and his MA at Sheffield Hallam University in 2015. He has taught and trained in many countries around the world including Austria, Switzerland, China, the U.S., Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela, Vietnam, India, Czech Republic, Spain, Qatar, Colombia and Peru. He has also worked as a translator of German.
Hobbs, V. (2007). A Brief look at the current goals and outcomes of short-term ELT teacher education. [online]. Research News (21), 3–5. Last accessed 9th August 2015 at: http://resig.weebly.com/uploads/8/1/4/0/8140071/issue_21-final.pdf.
Kerr, P. (n.d.). Minimal Resources: Drilling. [online]. MacMillan Publishers Ltd. Last accessed 21st February 2017 at: http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/minimal-resources/vocabulary/minimal-resources-drilling/146558.article
Lortie, D. C. (1975). School-teacher: A sociological study. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
Roberts, J. (1998). Language Teacher Education. London, Arnold.
Stanley, P. & Murray, N. (2013). ‘Qualified?’: A Framework for Comparing ELT Teacher Preparation Courses. Australian review of applied linguistics, 36 (1), 102-115.