The Teacher Trainer Diaries – Experimental activity and reflection

This post is part of a reflective series called The Teacher Trainer Diaries, in which I write about my experiences as a teacher trainer.

Anyone who has done Delta has completed the Experimental Assignment which makes up part of the Professional Development Assignment, and sees candidates planning, carrying out and reflecting on a lesson involving a specific methodology, approach, technique, activity, etc. that they are unfamiliar with and/or interested in exploring as part of their development. (You can read about my experimental with Suggestopedia in this post). But this type of development activity need not be restricted to diploma-level courses; on the contrary, I believe it should be an integral part of any development programme. In this blog post, we will briefly look at the reasons why I think this activity, which I will call an experimental, is so important, how we can integrate it into the programme, and some ideas for teachers.

The reasons why…

Why should the experimental activity and reflection be a core part of any development programme? Let’s take a look at a few reasons:

  • It is appropriate for both inexperienced and experienced teachers. Inexperienced teachers can be guided with more challenging activities while experienced teachers can be pushed to explore other activities and techniques that they can add to their teaching arsenal.
  • Sometimes we come across methods, approaches, activities, etc. that sound excellent in theory, however we have no idea how to implement them. Experimentals can provide that safe space for teachers to trial while getting support (Legutke & Schocker-v. Ditfurth, 2009).
  • It encourages teachers to experiment AND reflect, which in turn helps create an ethos of reflection within the teacher and the institution.
  • It builds teachers’ pedagogical awareness and confidence.
  • It helps teachers’ build an understanding of their teaching approach, philosophy and areas where they might like to develop further.
  • It helps make teacher cognition explicit, which in turn can provide opportunities for teachers to bring their teaching beliefs and what they actually do in class in line (Borg, 2009, pp. 167).
  • Lays the groundwork for further teacher-led Action Research.
  • It encourages teachers to collaborate and seek out information from other sources.
  • Highly economic (time vs. teacher reward). The time teachers put in is fully devoted to their own teaching practice and developing their own teaching abilities – all the feedback they write or are given is going to directly benefit them. Experimentals fall within the first, You, and second, You and your students, circles of Foord’s (2009, pp. 14) circles of development.
  • As they are experience-based, they are more likely to have a significant impact on teachers’ development than many other development activities (Foord, 2009, pp.15).
  • It helps build teachers’ development portfolios that they can take wherever they go.

Getting it into the programme

Experimental activities are, in my opinion, one of the easier development activities to integrate into the programme. That being said, there are some things to consider, which we will cover momentarily. Reflecting on my own experience in the academies I have worked, experimentals are something that have been one, negotiated with teachers, two, planned in, and three, documented. Generally they occur in terms two and three, and are follow-ons from observations and mentoring sessions. Feedback I have received from teachers that have completed experimentals as part of the programme has been extremely positive, something which is really important in keeping teachers ‘on-board’ – after all, they are devoting their own time to this, so they need to feel good about it!

Now, what about those things we need to consider before going experimental-crazy? Let’s take a look:

  • Negotiation is key: Teachers need to have agency in their development and so if they have an activity or technique pushed on them, they are not likely to invest as much time and effort in it compared to when they are given free choice. If teachers are mentored, the experimental is something that should be spoken about in these sessions. If there is no mentoring programme, then the trainer or DoS should take the time to sit down and chat about what the teacher would like to experiment with.
  • It’s not always easy to choose: This follows on from my last point, in a way. Have you ever gone to the shop looking for something specific, only to find that when you get there, they have a hundred different brands and types of the one thing you were looking for? And then, you’re stuck there wondering which to get? If you’re like me, sometimes you are there for far too long. The point of this analogy is that when teachers are asked what they want to experiment with, many of them, experienced or not, will draw blanks. This is why it is a good idea to have these as follow-ons from observations – you can use feedback to give them ideas. But let’s pretend that you haven’t done any observations, and they are interested in trying the activity, but still no ideas – this is where presenting teachers with a range of ideas can help. Give them plenty of time to think about what they want to choose!
  • Just the right amount of help: The degree to which the trainer should be helping depends on many things: teacher’s experience with the topic, confidence in teaching, scale of the task, etc. Teachers need to be provided with trainer assistance, however we need to step back and let teachers go on their own as well. One thing I like to do is give notice about the experimental activity and reflection period (usually a few weeks) and encourage teachers to think of ideas. Then we schedule in a mentoring session and talk about all the normal things plus the experimental. From here the guidance given is focused on brainstorming appropriate ideas for the teaching, and answering any questions they might have. Once teachers start, our assistance should only be given if the teachers feel they need it.
  • A safe environment: Teachers are experimenting. Experimenting. That means that things can go a little sideways. Teachers need to be made aware of the fact that it is OK if this happens. Obviously we want to help avoid this (my next point looks at this), however there should be no stigma regarding ‘failed’ attempts at the activity or if the lesson goes poorly. What needs to happen is the teacher must be encouraged to reflect on this critical incident and identify why it went wrong. In fact, I would say that this is the most important part of the whole process – sometimes it’s even better if there is something that goes wrong as this can lead teachers to consider the implications for teacher as well as challenging their own assumptions regarding the activity, material, etc. (Richards & Farrell, 2011).
  • Instructional documentation: If you ask teachers to just choose a new activity and then write something about it, you are going to get a whole range of different responses, some better than others and some way off the mark. In supporting teachers, it’s important that they are provided with templates that they can complete, but ones that also contain guiding instructions and ideas.

An example

With COVID-19 shaking up how English language teaching is carried out around the globe, now is perhaps the best time to be doing such experimentals. In the academy where I work, myself and other teachers have each completed an experimental activity and reflection with an online tool or teaching technique. I covered Flipgrid, a great online tool for recording spoken responses. Feel free to take a look at what I wrote:

The other teachers each decided to do something different. Here are their ideas:

  • Using dictogloss in online classes to encourage learner participation with regard to working with content, and to reduce the teacher-led conversations surrounding content that often dominate online teaching.
  • Using videos with YLs to support learning and increase engagement.
  • Integrating TED talks into classes.
  • Hot Seat with journalists to reduce teacher-led opening discussions and allow for more listening and speaking practice.

As you can see, you can pretty much experiment with anything. What is important is that there is a clear reason for experimenting with it and that reflection takes place. If you would like a copy of the template I have created, you can download it here below:

Some extra ideas

So, for those of you looking for ideas for yourself or your teachers, I have tried to write a list of possible experimentals here. If you do undertake any of them (or your own ideas), please let me know how it goes. I would love to hear your thoughts on experimentals, how you use them, and what you think you or your teachers can learn from the experience.

  • Methods and approaches: Most teachers teach eclectically these days, however why not try experimenting with a specific method or approach?
  • No coursebook: Ah, just the thought scares teachers. I personally believe coursebooks are reducing teachers’ abilities to create their own materials as well as understanding why such materials and activities are used in the first place. I also think they encourage this ‘Do this. Now this’ approach to lessons. Why not do a week without it?
  • Activities: Loads of things here – dictogloss, jigsaw reading, picture dictation, etc.
  • Classroom management tools: Things we can use to control classroom behaviour, reduce L1 or simply keep learners on tasks. Some ideas might be star charts, Smart classroom management, learner teachers, etc.
  • Classroom tools: Kahoot, interactive whiteboard, Kialo, breakout rooms in Zoom, etc.

If you have any extra things that should be here, try adding them to my Trello wall!

References

Borg, S. (2009). Language Teacher Cognition. In The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Foord, D. (2009). The Developing Teacher – Practical activities for professional development. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Legutke, M.K. & Schocker-v. Ditfurth, M. (2009). School-based experience. In The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J.C. & Farrell, T.S.C. (2011). Practice Teaching – A reflection approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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