Review: Beyond Training – Jack C. Richards

I first picked up Richards’ Beyond Training about two or three years ago. I remember reading it and thinking it was an interesting read, but now, a few years, on I decided to pick it up again and see if there was anything ‘new’ that I could gain. Well, I can say that, one, I remembered probably about 40% of what I read last time (and I’m probably being generous there), and this time I actually took notes on/highlighted some very different ‘points’ from the book. I thought it was really interesting to see how what I ‘valued’ in the book, changed over time. Anyway, I’m babbling. Let’s get into the review.

“This book concerns the beliefs, theories, knowledge, and practices of second language teachers and how these can become the focus of teacher education”.

Richards, 1998, p.xiii

Three-sentence summary

Jack C. Richards’ Beyond Training looks at a multitude of aspects in the second language teacher education world, from types of knowledge teachers possess to the effect that ‘training’ has on first-year teachers. It is hard to pinpoint one main teacher education focus, as the book deals with a number of important aspects of training and development, often going into detail about certain models as well as studies, but a common theme that does pop up is the idea of teacher as a critical thinker, with much of the book encouraging teacher educators to rethink ‘training’ – pushing us to think more about teachers’ values, attitudes, beliefs and experiences. If you’re looking a teacher training book that provides insights regarding moving into teacher training, then this is not the book for you – this book is for those that already have an idea of what teacher education looks like, or for those teachers/trainers looking to take their understanding of critical reflection further, especially in a training/development context.

Three takeaways

“There is no general consensus on what the essential knowledge base of conceptual foundation of the field consists of. Perhaps this is inevitable with a field that draws on a variety of disciplinary sources, including linguisics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, and education”.

Richards, 1998, p.1
  • Six content domains: Richards (1998, p.1) writes that there are six “domains of content” that make up the core knowledge base of second language teacher education (SLTE) (see below). Each of these have their own level of importance, and in fact many of them ‘overlap’.
    • Theories of teaching: Here we look at the view of teaching that the SLTE course takes on. We also think about this from the teacher’s perspective as well. Richards points out that there are plenty of theories of teaching out there (e.g., behaviourist, cognitive-development, etc.), but three that I think are worth mentioning are didactic (essentially transmission), discovery (we develop knowledge by working things out, discovering, etc.), and interactionist (teachers come with their own ‘formed’ ideas, and these interact with other teachers’ ideas, observations and curriculum content). One important point raised is that teachers also bring with them their own implicit theories of teaching, which, Richards writes, of often used to filter content from SLTE programmes. Implications? Well, pretty much we need to be working from these, and looking to move from a model of ‘transmission of ideas’ to ‘critical reflection’.
    • Teaching skills: These are essentially those “discrete behaviours” (Richards, 1998, p.5) that we associate with teaching (e.g., selecting learning activities, using drills, checking instructions). These are often viewed as the ‘technical’ aspects of teaching, and much training and development focuses on mastering these. Although, Richards points out that using these skills and knowing when to use them effectively are essentially two different things. One focuses on the actual skill/technique, while the other involves higher levels of thinking and decision making (and here is an example of where one content domain overlaps with another).
    • Communication skills: This one is fairly clear cut. Basically, how we communicate ideas. Richards speaks more from a ‘teacher’ view than a trainer here; however, he (1998, p.6) points out that “few SLTE programs include general communication skills in their curriculum”. I think many teachers in my context would feel a little ‘insulted’ to have a session focused on communication skills if framed as ‘this is a session on communication’; this being said, it is plainly obvious from observations that even experienced teachers may need to spend time on looking at how they ‘deliver’ messages within the classrooms because, as we know, what teachers think they are ‘sending’ it not always what learners are ‘receiving’. I should also note that under communication, Richards write about language proficiency, which is something that as trainers we should be thinking about. Many language teachers are NNESTs, and may still be developing certain classroom language skills. In preparing such teachers for the classroom, Richards write that programmes should include language sessions that aim to develop their abilities at a specific set of speech acts and functions that are applicable to the local classroom (e.g., politely requesting learners to do something). Again, the conversation in this part may have been focused on NNESTs, and while there is a need for language proficiency to be focused on, these speech acts and functions are a must for all teachers.
    • Subject matter knowledge: This refers to “what second language teachers need to know about their subject – the specialized concepts, theories, and disciplinary knowledge that constitute the theoretical basis for the field of second language teaching” (Richards, 1998, p.8). Here we are thinking about phonetics and phonology, discourse analysis, etc. and with respect to training, it’s easy to see how a focus on these is important, especially pre-service. Interestingly, Richards (1998, p.9) quotes Freeman, saying that he “argues that SLTE is confused about its subject matter base because the profession has failed to appreciate the distinction between language teaching and the areas of inquiry won which it is based”.
    • Pedagogical reasoning skills and Decision making: In essence, Richards writes that these are the ‘thinking’ skills of being a teacher. As mentioned before, know a skill is one thing; knowing when and how best to implement it is another. He talks mainly about interactive decision, i.e., decisions “that are appropriate to the specific dynamics of the lesson they are teaching” (Richards, 1998, p.11).
    • Contextual knowledge: This focuses on the social, physical, etc. environment of the classroom. This knowledge affects how teachers teach, how learners react to certain teaching, etc. One line that I love from this section is: “…teaching methodologies that are not responsive to contextual issues are likely to be irrelevant and ineffective, and that SLTE programmes need to equip student teachers with the ability to identify and understand relevant contextual factors in their own teaching situations” (Richards, 1998, p.12).

“The making explicit of beliefs, principles, and values can be an ongoing focus of teacher development programs, since as Clandinin and others have demonstrated, teachers’ images and perspectives often have a powerful and lasting influence on their thinking and practice, and may also create resistance to alternative modes of thought and action”.

Richards, 1998, p.61
  • Making explicit teacher maxims and personal teaching theories should be a primary focus of SLTE: This is a common theme within many training and development books that I’ve read (e.g., Wright and Bolitho’s Trainer Development). A substantial amount of this book emphasises the need for SLTE programmes to work from teachers’ maxims and personal teaching theories, because at the end of the day these are what teachers work from. We really can’t hope to ‘change’ a teacher’s practice, if we don’t know their thoughts – and more so if they don’t know what they think. Chapter 3, Teacher Maxims, was really interesting because it showed that at times teachers may state that they follow a certain maxim (e.g., teach communicatively) but then do something different. Interestingly, Richards states that a major cause of this is environmental factors (e.g., learner expectations), and largely doesn’t speak about the fact that a teacher may take on/verbally borrow beliefs because of industry ‘trends’ and thinking, although may actually feel quite differently.

“While it is generally assumed by teacher educators that the content of teacher education programs provides knowledge and skills teachers can employ during teaching, whether they do in fact make use of such information when they enter the profession is seldom explored. Teacher education is thus often built upon unexamined assumptions of considerable significance. As teacher educators we need to ask, for example, in what ways courses on sociolinguistics of language use, pedagogical grammar, second language acquisition, or second language reading are likely to influence teachers’ thinking and practices in teaching and the extent to which they contribute to teaching expertise”.

Richards, 1998, p.86
  • Teaching experience, level of subject matter knowledge and professional training all influence how teaching takes place: In Chapter 5, Exploring pedagogical reasoning skills, Richards take the reader through a fascinating study that looked at how a group of teachers teach using literature. There were three groups in the study: Group A – Literature majors with experience teaching literature, Group B – Literature majors with no experience teaching literature, and Group C – No literature training and no experience teaching literature. In short, they found that those that had experience and knowledge approached teaching literature or using literature in the classroom is vastly different manner to those who did not. What I found really interesting is that even the teachers who we would call ‘experienced’ although had no experience or training in literature, went about using literature is what seemed to be a much less pedagogically sound manner, focusing more on language (using a TALO approach) rather than looking at literary devices, opinions, inference, etc. (TAVI or TASP). What this tells me is that if we want teachers to use, for example, literature in the classroom, then ‘experience’ teaching is likely not enough – they need some training. This, I feel, is a huge implication for our industry!

What I liked

  • A different kind of ‘training’ book: If you’re looking to get the ins-and-outs of training, then this book is not for you (in my opinion). This looks more at the deeper issues surrounding training and development, and that made it quite interesting. For example, there is a whole chapter dedicated to how course books affect teaching, teaching knowledge, etc. and the implications this has for training (amazing chapter, by the way!).
  • Some cool ideas: Right, this is not so much an ‘ideas’ book, but there are some interesting ideas spread throughout. For example, one that I am definitely going to be trying in the first term next year with teachers is that of the ‘three-way’ observation. This is an observation that involved three ‘observers’: the teacher being observed, the observer, and the learners themselves. Each of these parties has a task. For example, the teacher needs to complete a post-lesson reflection task, the observer needs to complete a task that focuses on trying to identify goals and learning objectives from the lesson, and the students need to answer a questionnaire at the end of the lesson, trying to again identify learning goals, etc.
  • Quick read: Some of the books I’ve read took me a while to finish, but this book, at 208 pages, is fairly light. I have to say, though, that Richards writes, for me at least, in a way that I find easy to ‘understand’ (unlike some other writers).
  • Pushes teacher reflection and working from values, attitudes, beliefs, expectations, etc.: The whole focus of this book is looking at how SLTE can help develop teachers to become more ‘reflective’, and I really loved the emphasis on working from teachers’ personal teaching theories. As mentioned, this is echoed in pretty much all the training books I’ve read as well as in my own experience, i.e., I’ve found that doing this leads to better teacher buy-in, engagement and motivation.

What I didn’t like

  • A little superficial: So, I said that this is a selling point, but it is also something that goes against it. Some of the chapters are REALLY interesting, but I wanted more. I wanted to go a little deeper. Of course, I know that I need to go away and find stuff myself, but I thought that some of the chapters needed a little more fleshing out (e.g., working with teachers and course books).
  • A lot of studies: Don’t get me wrong, I like reading studies at times, but perhaps for a book, there could be room to cut down on a lot of the procedure, etc. as I found myself thinking ‘ok, let’s get to the implications/conclusion’. This being said, as we develop as teachers and teacher educators, we should be looking to look more at the conclusion of research AS WELL AS the methodology behind the research so that we can critically evaluate the study. So, I am not advocating skipping over 70% of articles (as I know most of us have done many times!); all I’m saying is that in this book, perhaps there could have been room to reduce this.
  • Reflective tasks: While Richards does pose a number of questions throughout the book, I was a little upset that a book aimed at raising awareness of how to develop critically reflective teachers didn’t include any reflection tasks. I’m a huge fan of these, and even if I wouldn’t necessarily do all the tasks in a book, I would certainly engage in a number of them. I think that as this book didn’t go too deep into a lot of stuff, the inclusion of a number of guided reflection tasks would have been a great addition.

Applying to practice

There are a whole load of things that I want to take away from this book, but I’ll keep it down to two for the time being.

  • Identifying teachers’ maxims: So, in one of the chapters, Richards talks about teachers maxims, and goes through examples where he identifies teachers maxim based on their actions/pedagogic decisions. I would like to try this with teachers and observations. So, perhaps I could take a section of a recorded lesson, and ask the teacher to watch it and identify their thoughts and reasons for the decisions they made (stimulated recall). I would do the same and then we could compare. From here, we could brainstorm what their maxims were for this lesson, and then compare this to what they feel their maxims are for teaching in general. I think this would work really well after having carried out the ‘bricks’ activity from Beaven’s article.
  • Three-way observation: As mentioned, I think this is a brilliant tool to use. I will be looking to use this type of observation in Term 1 as I think it is a good way to get data on what teachers, learners and the observer feel could have been different, and work these ‘perspectives’ into the individual teacher’s development.

Who should read this book

  • Teacher educators: Anyone within teacher education would benefit from reading this book. Maybe I’m being a little rash here, but I’d say that if you’re an ‘early-career trainer’, then maybe wait until you’ve got a number of sessions under your belt, so to speak, so that you’ve got some experience to draw on. This being said, even if you consider yourself ‘junior’ or inexperienced as a trainer/educator, you will still find some value.
  • Materials writers: Ok, so not the whole book, but DEFINITELY Chapter 7, Textbooks: help or hindrance in teaching?. This is an eye-opening chapter, and I think that anyone involved in the creation of course books should have a read. Plus, it’s not very long!

Final notes

Beyond Training is not your usual training and development book, but it does provide a lot of insights into the thinking behind ‘training’ that looks to create reflective teachers. As I mentioned, parts of the book felt superficial, giving only a ‘taster’ of what could/should be explored more. Perhaps this was the purpose though, otherwise the book would’ve turned out to be a tome. This being said, I feel that any trainer/educator looking to develop their understanding of some of the intricacies of SLTE would benefit from reading it.

Obviously, I’m not the only one who reads books. I imagine you read all the time (well, I hope you do!). Have you read Richards’ Beyond Training? If you have, join in the conversation and let me know your thoughts!

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Book details and references

Book title: Beyond Training

Author: Jack C. Richards

Pages: 208

ISBN: 9780521626804

Richards, J.C. (1998). Beyond Training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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