Whose lesson is it anyway? Examining trainer interventions in lesson planning and feedback

By Arthur Laing

Recently, despite growing in experience as a trainer through my work on CELTA, ICELT and other in-service teaching projects, I have become uneasy about my role in lesson planning and feedback. Lesson planning sessions can be intense, and many trainers believe that some of the most important work in teacher training is done here.

However, trainers need to be careful that they do not enforce too many changes or behave dictatorially, otherwise the lesson they are planning becomes their lesson, and not the trainee’s. On the other hand, as with any high-stakes assessment like CELTA, I believe there is an ethical imperative not to let the trainee fail if a trainer can see a plan is unworkable. This leaves the trainer with questions: How much do I intervene? How do I intervene? Whose lesson is it anyway?

Prescriptive approaches to training

The training and development of novice and experienced teachers alike is widely viewed as a prescriptive act, where “teacher educators are often viewed as authority figures who are expected to prescribe what teachers should do to be effective.” (Gebhard, Gaitan & Oprandy in Richards & Nunan 1990, p.16). In his discussion of the trainer’s role within a culture of linguistic imperialism, Holliday (2009, p.42) suggests that the profession of TESOL has taken on “cultural icons”, one of which he identifies as the teaching of the “four skills” (listening, reading, writing and speaking). “[Establishing] ‘the four skills’ as part of the naturalised routine of the institution of English-speaking Western TESOL is a major aim of training programmes which seek to initiate novice teachers into the culture.” If trainers believe strongly in these cultural icons, there is a danger they will consistently prescribe what is acceptable without an empirical basis for doing so.

Echoing Holliday’s point, Freeman discusses the danger of viewing good teaching within the confines of “walled in” and “walled out” practices. “The prescriptive categories of what language teachers should know and be able to do have supplanted descriptions of the work they do and how they learn to do it.” (Freeman 2016, p.66). Most trainers or DOSes will have had some experience of prescribing best practice to less experienced teachers in lesson planning and feedback sessions, for example:

  • Clarify meaning before form; students won’t be motivated to know about the language if they don’t know what it means.
  • Remember to peer-check: one by one nomination of answers is inefficient, and doesn’t test comprehension of the whole group.
  • Don’t model and drill while students are looking at the written words on the board; they won’t be focusing on natural pronunciation.

As detailed in the common examples above, trainers may have very principled reasons for the directions they give, but approaching training in this way can cause problems.

Freeman’s framework for trainer intervention

In his chapter in “Second Language Teacher Education”, Freeman identifies three options for intervention that a trainer may use in the feedback process, and these can all easily be applied to lesson planning as well:

  • Directive approach — telling the trainee what to do, what they did well, or what they should have done.
  • Alternatives approach — giving the trainee two or more legitimate options for dealing with a particular stage in a lesson.
  • Non-directive approach — helping a trainee teacher, through discussion and negotiation, to clarify their own attitudes and beliefs (1990, pp. 103-17).

Freeman mentions that relying excessively on the directive option can lead to “learned helplessness” (1990, p.107), where a trainee always seeks approval for what they plan to do, have done, or asks what they should do. Nevertheless, on initial teacher training courses, where trainees are learning new teaching techniques, a directive approach often feels necessary at first.

Using an alternatives approach, a trainer can give two or more options without expressing a clear preference. For example, a trainer could suggest either pre-teaching vocabulary before reading, or getting students to deduce its meaning from the context of the text. This approach helps “develop the student teacher’s awareness of the choices involved in deciding what and how to teach” (Freeman 1990, p109).

A non-directive approach moves away from prescribing solutions to describing what is happening in the class, as a means of “clarifying the trainee’s perceptions about what they are doing in the classroom” (Freeman 1990, p112). The trainer, can also share from their own experience in a non-judgmental way (e.g. “with eight or ten minutes left in a lesson, I often wonder if I should transition to the next practice activity, or let the current one run longer, and save time for feedback.”).

Implementing a variety of interventions

This summer, having read up on the approaches above, I explicitly focussed on my approach to lesson planning and feedback on an intensive CELTA course at International House Tbilisi. There were several advantages of examining my approach on this course.

  • There were 18 candidates registered, with diverse backgrounds (some with a lot of teaching experience; some with none).
  • The course was experimental since there was minimal scheduled input in the timetable, and much more time for lesson planning and feedback, so I was able to give much more thought to my interventions with each candidate.
  • The self-evaluation forms designed by the Main Course Tutor had space for the trainer to write questions specific to each lesson, which trainees answered after completing a generic evaluation task. The course tutors agreed this encouraged greater depth of reflection.

Throughout the course I identified several approaches which I used with the trainees, largely informed by my reading of Freeman. The remainder of this article examines these in turn.

1. Directive + display questions for elicitation

With trainees who were struggling to proceduralise task cycles, or maintain effective pace through their lessons, I would tend to make comments on the evaluation form such as:

“You set up the kinaesthetic activity successfully — well done. Why was it effective?”
“You nominated individuals to give answers to all the detailed reading questions in open class feedback, and this took a long time. What could you do to make your feedback more efficient?”

I found this approach worked well, as the use of display questions began to foster some teacher autonomy, while I was still prescribing best practice through the initial comment to support these teachers. Without this support, it is not clear that the teacher would have been aware that a certain activity had been successful or less successful.

2. Encouraging balanced reflection in feedback

I would give balanced feedback about the varying degree of success with which trainees managed different stages or executed particular techniques, without telling them precisely what I thought was most or least successful:

“You showed evidence that you can set up activities very clearly and effectively, but this is not yet done consistently — do you think that’s fair?”

In discussion with their peers they would then identify the most and least successful examples from the lesson, stating why they felt this way. This approach helped to develop greater autonomy, and move towards self-assessment rather than trainer assessment. In almost all cases, I was able to agree with what the trainees had said about their own classes.

3. Giving options in lesson planning and reflecting on these options in evaluation

When a trainee was invested in a particular course of action in lesson planning, which I saw as problematic, I would give another option of how to tackle this stage, tell the trainee to decide what to do, and mention that we would discuss it in feedback. As Freeman mentions in his discussion of the alternatives approach, I made sure not to indicate that one course of action was more legitimate than the other. On the reverse side of the self-evaluation sheet, I would then ask a question related to this:

“we talked about whether to a)……… or b)………, and you chose to do b). Are you happy with your decision? Why/Why not?”

This approach felt very positive, particularly from the third or fourth lesson onwards, and I enjoyed the sense of coherence and unity it created between lesson planning and feedback. It also helped to frame teaching practice as an experiment rather than an assessment. I found I was able to lessen the pressure of the TP and feedback process using this approach.

4. Problematising in lesson planning

Having listened to a trainee go through their lesson from start to finish, without interruption, I would choose one or two problems that I felt were likely to occur. I would make these explicit, and tell the trainee to think about how to solve these problems before they teach the class. These issues would then be covered in self-evaluation and feedback:

“If you teach five words after the lead-in and before the students read a text, this can weaken the context of a class. How can you ensure context remains strong all the way through?”
“In a lesson plan language analysis, we demonstrate everything we know about the Meaning/Use, Pronunciation and Form of a language item, but the students don’t necessarily need to know all this too. How can you select the key points that the students need clarified in the lesson?”
“I have seen many receptive skills classes where teachers set up activities well, regularly peer check, follow the tasks in the course book well, but students do not appear engaged in reading. How can you prevent this from occurring in
your class?”

There is a clear link between lesson planning, evaluation and feedback here, and the trainee is the agent of problem-solving. On the course, with less prescription from the trainer, this allowed for creativity and independence, and pleasant surprises when watching the TP.

5. Metaphor and simile

With stronger trainees, there is less need for guidance during planning, and the trainer spends more time with those who are struggling. I have found it useful with these candidates to make a brief statement about effective teaching, rather than focussing on a particular class, often using an accessible metaphor or simile:

“By the end of the lesson the board can tell the story of the whole class.” (to a trainee who approached me to talk about how he could improve his board work).
“The lesson plan is like a menu. You can pick the best practice activities from it.” (to a trainee who talked about changing her plan while teaching).

I feel I have had several key successes with this approach, as it is often what stronger candidates need. If a trainer can find a metaphor that really speaks to them, they may then keep it in mind for all their classes as they progress. This approach moves away from the mechanics of how to manage each individual stage or lesson, and moves towards the development of broader teaching instincts and attitudes.


Several important points emerged from my identification of the different approaches I used in ALP and feedback, and my conscious attention to how and why I used them.

  • No one approach detailed above can become a default, and all of them can be used at different times based on the needs of the trainees at different times.
  • Moving towards interventions which offer options for the trainees, or problems for them to solve, builds confidence and allows trainees to develop their own instincts and attitudes towards teaching.
  • Linking lesson planning and reflection closely, by explicitly stating that problems raised in planning will be revisited in evaluation helps to frame Teaching Practice as an experiment, rather than a test of what trainees can or can’t do, thereby relieving stress.

Ultimately, by giving trainees more autonomy, and more opportunities to decide how to manage classes, training can become a more rewarding process for the teacher and the trainer, where the trainer can learn from seeing the trainee do things effectively, even if they disagree with them. In this way the lesson is shared, “our lesson” rather than the trainer’s or the trainee’s alone.


Cambridge CELTA Syllabus and Guidelines, 2017

Cambridge ICELT Syllabus and Guidelines, 2017

Foord, D., The Developing Teacher, Delta Publishing, 2009

Freeman, D., Educating Second Language Teachers, Oxford University Press, 2016

Holliday, A., The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language, Oxford University Press, 2009

Richards, J. & Nunan, D., Second Language Teacher Education, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Author's bio: Arthur Laing has been teaching English as a Second Language since 2003, and training ESL teachers since 2013. He currently works as a CELTA and ICELT trainer, training mainly in China, Singapore, Vietnam and Georgia. The majority of his ICELT trainees are C1 speakers of English from China, and his CELTA trainees come from a diverse range of linguistic backgrounds.