Does your school have a teaching philosophy?

having a bit of a ponderOne of the questions I often ask participants on the IDLTM course is whether their school has a teaching philosophy and, if so, what that philosophy is.  I haven’t kept accurate records of the responses, but in probably about 15% of cases the response is that there is one and that is stated somewhere (usually in the marketing materials). And in the vast majority of other cases the response is that there is nothing written down, but there is something unwritten which is understood.

We then, usually, get into a discussion of how it is understood, by whom, and how something like this which is unstated can be adhered to (and monitored).

So, what about your school?  Do you have something written down?  If so it’s likely to be somewhere in your marketing materials (or possibly, but rarely, in your mission statement(s)).  It probably uses words and phrases like “student-centred” and “communicative”.  There may be something in your brochure/website that says that classes will involve group work or similar (for the benefit of students so that they know what to expect).

If you don’t have something written, then do you feel like you have a teaching philosophy?  If you observed a teacher delivering a 30 minute lecture on some finer point of meta-language for example, how would you respond? What would tell you (and the teacher) that this was going against the unwritten rules?

So, if you’ve bothered trying to answer these questions, then you’re probably responding that the adherence to and the understanding of the teaching philosophy comes from some combination of the recruitment policy, the professional development that is offered, and observations.  It’s possible that the coursebooks or other syllabus and curriculum documents come into this process as well.  Is that about it? (Please leave comments if I’ve missed something out).

But let’s question this. Not because I think the student-centred, communicative, etc etc approach that we all sort of accept is the wrong one.  But because Senge et al in the various work on the learning organisation, ask us to unearth our mental models and challenge them.  And it seems to me that there is no more pervasive mental model in ELT than this one. (Though obviously, having held your mental models up to the light and examined them, you can decide that they are still good).

It’s probably not the work of this blog to start coming up with alternative methodologies and teaching philosophies (not least because I wouldn’t know where to start), but the biggest single factor in perpetuating the current way of doing things through language schools (as far as my conversations with DOSs and the like show) is the hiring policy.  And the way hiring decisions are made is very often dominated by one single acronym: CELTA.  Which is to say that the CELTA (especially) is so ubiquitous as the dominant entry level qualification for EFL teachers, that the cycle is constantly perpetuated.

Now I’m going to start attacking the CELTA here, that’s been done elsewhere, and I think it (the CELTA) does what it does pretty well. But because it’s the de facto pre-service qualification, its influence on “the way things are done around here” is very deep-rooted. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. New teachers come into the profession through CELTA and in time, down the line, as they become managers, they look to hire CELTA qualified teachers.  [Though to be clear it’s not every job market which is so dominated – in many countries hiring foreign teachers is out of the question financially, so it tends to be local university qualifications that hold sway]

As managers, when we’re looking for new teachers, particularly in a market where there is no shortage of teachers looking for work (which for many schools is currently the case), we are going to look at people we can trust to do the job. In a perfect world we would have a lot of time to review candidates and interview at length with various different techniques to really get at whether that teacher is going to be an asset to the school and fit in to the staffroom culture.  But we don’t live in that world, we live in this one.  The one in which we tend to have to make fairly quick decisions on new staff without a great deal of information.  In the instance, the CELTA is invaluable – if we’re looking at a relatively new teacher those 5 letters tell us that he/she can probably survive in the classroom and engage the students.  The trouble is that our lack of time, and need to do these things quickly, means  that other qualifications get overlooked, because perhaps we don’t have the time to investigate and discover what having such and such a qualification tells us about the teacher we are looking at.

So,  your school probably does have some form of teaching philosophy, and it is, by default, the one articulated on the CELTA.  So, what is that philosophy?  Well, I’ve just been on the Cambridge English website to see if I could find out, and actually I can’t. The marketing materials all promise that, among other things, the CELTA will “teach you the principles of effective teaching” (page 4).  The syllabus is a little more detailed as you might expect, but still doesn’t really nail its colours to the mast.  I should stress that I don’t have a problem with this, as it seems to me that the course really should be making teachers reflect and question and think critically, rather than telling them that there is one way of doing anything.  But I think we are all basically aware that regardless of the openness of the presentation, most teachers emerge from the CELTA with a view of effective English language teaching which is contained within certain limits of general belief in what is effective and what is not effective.

I’m not a second language acquisition specialist, nor am I steeped in research into effective teaching methodology.  I too hold the CELTA (or the RSA Certificate, since I’m old), and the DELTA (or DipTEFLA, because, well, ditto), so I come from the same tradition, and believe the same things broadly.  And of course this is also true of the majority of people making those hiring decisions, and curriculum and course development decisions.  I’ve worked with Cambridge English (or UCLES as it was then) on the IDLTM, and I know they put a massive amount of work into these things and are constantly updating them as they go.  So, like everyone else, I do tend to assume that a CELTA qualified teacher is likely to be one who can succeed.   

So, should we challenge that? And how, given the pervasiveness of the CELTA in everything we do and everything we are, could we even start doing that?  I’m not sure I have an answer to this (well, I do believe we should challenge it, because I believe we should always seek to challenge the mental models we take for granted, but I’m not sure how we could do that)

I feel like this is going round in circles and getting nowhere, party because it’s moving into an area I don’t know enough about to comment with any authority on (though that hasn’t necessarily stopped me before), and partly because I feel like this is all getting lost somewhere in the interesction on the Venn diagram between teacher training, language teaching and learning theory, ELT “policy”, and language school management.  And it is in that latter area where I want to address this and not the others (though of course they are all connected).

To focus though on ELT management: How can we challenge some of our assumptions, how can we unearth those mental models?  And what does this mean for our recruitment policy, our PD offerings and our course and curriculum management?  (Or to put it another way, you’ve read all this way, only for me to repeat the questions I started with)

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Reflections from Transyvlania

[I bet you thought that people in Transylvania didn’t actually have any reflections didn’t you?]

Anyone who has ever been a teacher knows the value of reflection. What did I observe in my lesson? What did the students do/not do? What conclusions can I draw from this? How will this inform future lessons? This rough cycle of questions is (or should be) familiar to all teachers, and will certainly be familiar to anyone who has taken a valid teacher training course. It is, I hope, a given that reflecting on our practice in this context is an extremely valuable thing to do, and will ensure that we focus on the students’ learning and that we continue to develop as teachers.

But it is not just teaching and teachers that benefit from this process. Reflecting in and on action (as Donald Schon and later Peter Senge termed it) is valuable for all of us, in whatever field of endeavour. I would like to suggest that managers of language teaching organisations should therefore consider two specific courses of action. Developing the reflective skills of and building in reflective time for their staff, and, also, for themselves.

I’ll start with managers themselves. Every week you do loads of managementy things. I won’t list them all here, but obviously there are tons of different tasks you do in the week – some planned, others responding to circumstances. Do you ever take a moment to reflect on what you did? To sit and think through a series of questions which might help you learn from the experience (in a fairly structured way)? Probably not. We tend to assume that there is too much to do. All of our (expanding amount of) work is crammed as tightly as possible into the time available. How would we ever find time to reflect on top of all that? Yet somehow, though there are always more things to do, and new tasks that we have, we always do seem to find the time. So, if necessary, think of reflection as yet another vitally important management task. Because it is one.

If it helps to have a plan laid out to structure this reflection time, here is one: First, decide when you are going to reflect. One option would be at the end of the week, since that works in the looking-back-at-what-I’ve-done sense. The downside is that if you set 4pm on Friday as a weekly reflection time, there’s always a danger that it will get shunted back by other things, until it’s too late and it gets dropped as being less important. This is really only something you can work out with the knowledge of your own schedule and your working approach. I find that it works for me to set two times a week as reflective time – at the end of the Tuesday, and at 111am on Friday. I do everything I can to keep these times fixed (and treat the times like predetermined meetings with myself). If it is really impossible to avoid scheduling something else at 11am on a Friday on a particular week, then obviously do that and move the reflective “meeting” back a couple of hours. To start with put aside an hour for each such “meeting”. When the time comes, make it clear that you cannot be disturbed for that time, and turn off your computer (at the very least make sure you are not distracted by incoming emails – for me actually turning it off is the only way I can really do that).

Start by brainstorming a list of all the things you’ve done since the last time you reflected. Note them all down. Some of the things will be easy as they will have been scheduled, others may be harder to recall since they may have been short and unplanned. But try as much as possible to remember everything you did in the week. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order. Now take a look at your list. Is there anything that stands out? Something that didn’t go well? Something that went very well? An event or activity that seemed to contain a critical incident or other learning moment? Take that activity and break it down, asking yourself the following series of questions:

  • What exactly happened? What did I do? What did others do? (What, not why. List everything you can remember, no matter how trivial, just in case it turns out to have relevance)
  • What possible explanations are there for these events (what I did, what others did, actions, reactions, etc)? Make a list of any or all that you can think of.
  • Which of these explanations are most likely to be factors in what happened? Can I draw any general conclusions from this? What can I learn about management, my own management style, and about the needs and styles of others?
  • Based on this, is there anything I could have done differently, more successfully? If some similar situation arises in the future, what do I want to make sure I remember?

Obviously there’s nothing earth-shattering about this set of questions, they are a standard set of questions designed to take one around Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. But by doing this in a structured way it’s more likely that you’ll get something valuable out of it.

There’s one way of doing it better though, and that’s to involve others. Get their input into how things have gone, get their input into the way you’ve handled things. The more feedback you can get and the more opinions you can accumulate the fuller your view of things will be. But now we’re getting onto feedback, another of my little obsessions… and for now, this will have to do.