Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.
It is fair to say that teacher training is one of the central pillars of ELT. Anyone who attends an ELT conference is likely to hear about teacher training in one way or another – maybe in a talk or presentation, or maybe through marketing information and advertising. If we browse through an ELT book catalogue, we will find texts which discuss teacher training. The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) has a Special Interest Group focused on Teacher Training and Education. ELT Journal publishes articles about it. And, of course, the majority of teachers have experienced some teacher training at some point, maybe on a pre-service course before taking up a job, or maybe on an in-service programme in the course of their working lives. Alongside, for example, materials writing, testing and assessment, and, of course, teaching itself, teacher training is one of *the* core activities of the ELT profession.
At this point, we should distinguish between the kind of teacher training being talked about here, the more formal kind which tends to involve participating in a course and contrasts with teacher development, which can be characterised as informal, collegiate, probably independent of any formal qualification or programme of study (although it may be coordinated by workplaces or teacher associations) and so on. And obviously, training courses for teachers vary enormously. Pre-service programmes might range from degree-level programmes lasting a number of years to short taster courses lasting a few hours or days; in-service courses can vary from a day’s training on a specific aspect of pedagogic or professional practice to a month or even year-long course involving observations, reflective discussions, further study and written assignments.
Yet what teacher training seeks to do is to equip teachers with the skills and abilities they need to help them, or help them develop, in their work. If we are talking about beginner teachers, these skills and abilities could perhaps be labelled ‘professional competencies’, perhaps the ability to analyse and explain language, or key techniques and approaches for managing classrooms (we should note, however, that the label ‘professional competency’ arguably has a discourse of its own, conveying an impression of teaching as a body of knowledge and activities that can be learned – see below!). More experienced teachers might develop reflective skills as well as ‘higher level’ insights into classroom practice.
And yet… although many people assume that a training course is an important – even essential – preparation for and part of professional English language teaching, does training really help or is it just a waste of time and money? Don’t we learn much more through experience, and by reflecting on what we do in the classroom? How can a training course, which inevitably will be one-step-removed from our teaching, capture the diversity and complexity of classrooms which we might eventually or currently teach in? Is teaching ‘just’ a body of knowledge and competencies that can be passed on in a course? Aren’t teacher training course, by their very nature, going to be somewhat prescriptive, pointing us towards certain ways of teaching and of thinking about teaching, rather than truly encouraging us to think through for ourselves the full range of possibilities for our classrooms?
These are some of the key concerns which surround teacher training, and many readers and bloggers will have valid responses and retorts to these questions.
But the issues will be discussed and debated again and in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham (UK) on Thursday 14th April, 2016. There, Peter Grundy will propose the motion ‘This house believes that teacher training is a waste of time’; Penny Ur will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.