Hong Kong secondary curriculum renewal: Challenges and successes

Since the handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong has revised its school curricula (with a knock-on effect on universities as well).

I was present during the process from 2007 onwards. From 2013 to 2015, I was working in a university and was therefore in a good position to follow the progress of students from secondary to tertiary education.

In the Prezi below, I report reactions of school principals to the processes of introducing the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum, the perceived challenges and successes.

http://prezi.com/xyul9fqz4yjz/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

To clarify the last part of the presentation, which refers to the connectivity between secondary and tertiary education, I have observed that Hong Kong universities do not really value students’ portfolios of other learning experiences, they are much more concerned about academic results. Secondly, the learning objectives of first-year foundation programmes at universities in terms of the development of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, too closely resemble those of the core NSS subject Liberal Studies. Also, IELTS seems to be supplanting NSS English because the latter is not yet firmly established.

Key research findings about Differentiated Instruction

A model of differentiation like Carol Ann Tomlinson’s (click here for more information) contains numerous instructional strategies which may be employed independently or in concert and in many possible combinations. This makes such a model very difficult to research and evaluate. Saying that, below are some fairly recent findings that I found interesting, and I hope you will, too.

Tiered ability grouping combined with differentiated learning materials increases the gap in achievement between lower and higher ability students.

Lower ability students’ achievement is enhanced through collaboration with higher ability classmates.

Schofield, J.W. (2010). International evidence on ability grouping with curriculum differentiation and the achievement gap in secondary schools. Teachers College Record, 112(5), 1492 – 1528.

The concept of ‘learning styles’ is insufficiently clear or evidenced, and therefore should not be a deciding factor when differentiating instruction.

Landrum, T.J., & McDuffie, K.A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18(1), 6 – 17.

Differentiated Instruction has a positive effect on student engagement and motivation.

Konstantinou-Katzi, P., Tsolaki, E., Maletiou-Mavrotheris, M., & Koutselini, M. (2012). Differentiation of teaching and learning mathematics: an action research study in tertiary education. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 44(3), 332 – 349.

Educational technology shows promise as a means to make the differentiation of instruction and provision of individualised formative feedback more feasible and practical.

Scalise, K. et al. (2007). Adaptive technology for e-learning: principles and case studies of an emerging field. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58 (14), 2295 – 2309.

Many teachers report that they lack “the time, the skill and the will” to utilise DI strategies. This situation could be ameliorated through support from curriculum developers and publishers of educational materials.

Hertberg-Davis, H. (2009). Myth 7: Differentiation in the regular classroom is equivalent to gifted programs and is sufficient: Classroom teachers have the time, the skill, and the will to differentiate adequately. Gifted Child Quarterly, 53, 251-253.

 

 

Loop input: A valuable training strategy

First off, I want to thank Tessa Woodward for the idea of loop input. She introduced the concept in a 1986 article in The Teacher Trainer journal and articulated it again in her 1991 book, Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training: Loop Input and Other Strategies.

Since reading about this training strategy, I have experimented and found it to have the distinct advantage of making the content of professional development workshops highly memorable.

So what is it? In short, with loop input the message of the training and its means of delivery coincide. This is best understood through examples, and in this post I would like to present a couple that I have developed. This has been done before, for example in this entry on John Hughes excellent blog elteachertrainer. However, the additional contribution I would like to make is to provide examples beyond the language teaching profession. Below are two examples of loop input for trainers of all disciplines.

Example 1: An opening activity to introduce the topic of thinking skills

I was tasked by a secondary school to provide a staff development session on the topic of developing students’ thinking skills. When I was writing the materials for this session, I decided that I needed a dynamic, interactive opening activity that would also serve to introduce the topic. My goals for this activity were mainly to engage the participants, but following its completion I wanted to be able to provoke initial reflections on different ways of thinking. This would then lead into more detailed consideration of the ways of thinking that are needed for success in different school subjects, e.g. history or mathematics.

As I was searching for inspiration, I recalled an entertaining language activity in Jill Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games that I had used many times in ESOL lessons and had always proved a winner. It is called Detective Work and is a card game designed originally to practise reporting past events. Students work in small groups, turn up one card at a time from a pile, and discuss the clues to the murder that are on the cards. In the process, they should use several verb forms.

I adapted Detective Work in two ways. Firstly, I changed the context of the murder to the school in which I was leading the professional development session. Seeking approval beforehand, I made one of the vice-principals the victim and one of the teachers the perpetrator. This was the cause of some hilarity in the session. Secondly, after the task was completed and the groups had all solved the murder mystery, in plenary I posed the question, “How did you solve the crime?”. This led to a discussion of the distinctions between deductive and inductive reasoning. Having just directly experienced deductive reasoning themselves, teachers appeared not to confuse it with inductive reasoning, as could easily happen. Moreover, sometime later teachers from this school remarked upon that task to me. Their recall was partly due to how much they had enjoyed playing the role of detective and competing with other groups to solve the murder. My hope is that they also recalled the message of the activity.

Example 2: A complete development session on the topic of learner autonomy / self-directed learning

My overall goal for this whole-day staff development session with 70+ teachers at a secondary school was to help teachers grasp the importance of scaffolding the process by which students become more independent. I also hoped that the outcomes of this session would dovetail with earlier professional development at this school on the topic of differentiating instruction.

So, instead of leading a conventional training session, which typically would include input on research findings from me followed by discussion work on how to apply those findings in the school’s distinct learning environments, I opted to give the participants more freedom of choice.

At the outset, I helped teachers to synthesize a plausible working definition of “learner autonomy” from several that had been sourced from the literature. Then, I provided eight possible learning objectives for the session and invited teachers to select two or three that were most relevant to their individual needs. They also selected the sequence in which they would try activities designed to bring them closer to their chosen learning goals. These activities had been designed as self-access materials with accompanying instructions. The teachers were aware of a prescribed, overall time limit and managed their time accordingly.

At the end of the time limit, teachers came together and reflected on whether they had chosen learning objectives wisely, what they had actually learned, and whether they had managed their learning appropriately. Participation in this process led participants naturally to the apparently paradoxical conclusion that independent learning still needs to be guided by teachers, at least until students’ metacognitive awareness has developed sufficiently.

Conclusion

I have found loop input to be a useful addition to my training strategies repertoire. It is not always appropriate, but sometimes combining the message and the process is potent and memorable.

Hadfield, J. (1990). Intermediate communication games. Nelson.

Woodward, T. (1986). Loop input – a process idea. The Teacher Trainer, 1:6-7. Pilgrims.

Woodward, T. (1991). Models and metaphors in language teacher training: Loop input and other strategies. Cambridge University Press.

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 2)

In part 1, I made the recommendation that identifying the purposes of lesson observations is vital and clarified several common purposes. I also highlighted the importance of establishing and following quality processes to enable worthwhile outcomes from observations.

Now, in part 2, I look in detail at the skills required by observers and observees at different stages of lesson observations.

Before the observation

Communicate /Listen actively

One of the main purposes of a pre-observation meeting is to establish the context. Therefore, the observee should endeavour to provide the observer with as a full a picture as possible of the learning environment. If the observer is already familiar with the school/department, then discussion can focus on the nature of the learners, their relative progress, any factors that hinder or help learning, etc. The observer can listen and ask for clarification if the observee is not clear enough or makes assumptions about the observer’s prior knowledge of the situation.

Design suitable observation instruments

For appraisal, there is likely to be a standard observation form, but for professional development and action research, the observer and observee can work together to narrow down a focus and design an observation instrument accordingly.

Lessons are complex events and there are many possible aspects that can be observed. Here are some examples:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Learning outcomes – transparent and achieved?
  • Effectiveness of learning materials
  • Learning-teaching strategies
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Behaviour management
  • Motivation of students
  • Questioning skills
  • Interaction patterns

For example, if the observee was concerned about student participation and the balance between teacher talking time and student talking time, then a simple instrument to quantify participation could be designed. The observer could be provided with the class seating plan, and, when observing, tick the teacher and students’ names on each occasion that they made a contribution to a class discussion.

Online there are many sources of observation instruments, which can be used as they are, or adapted to circumstances. There also examples in Brown, Jones and Rawnsley (referenced in Part 1 of this guide) and Scrivener (2005), amongst other published guides to teaching.

During the observation

The observee will be busy teaching (and reflecting in action), of course, so the skills I list here are for observers.

Remember what to record

The observer should keep in mind the agreed foci. It is easy to become distracted and start commenting on other aspects of the lesson. I think each observer has preconceived notions of “good teaching” and it is tempting to focus on what the observer considers important rather than what was agreed before the observation. For example, it is a pet hate of mine, as an observer, when teachers omit to check comprehension of concepts before proceeding to practice tasks. However, if the agreed focus is something else, then I need to ignore that perceived failing.

Write two kinds of notes

When the observer makes notes about what takes place during the lesson, then the notes can be of two varieties. Firstly, notes that are a “…non-judgmental description of classroom events…” (Gebhard, 1999). I would recommend using past simple tense when writing such narrative notes, e.g. ‘The teacher gave clear verbal instructions for the learning task together with a quick demonstration.’ If the observation is for research or professional development, arguably narrative notes are sufficient. However, if appraisal is required, then alongside narrative notes the observer can write evaluative comments, e.g. ‘Most learners understood the learning task from the teacher’s explanation and demonstration, but two groups started off doing the task in the wrong way, implying that the teacher had needed to check instructions.’

Be as unobtrusive as possible

Observers commonly sit outside the line of sight of most of the students. This is done to reduce distraction and the effect of the observer being present (known as the Hawthorne Effect). The observer can select a seat to view the outcomes of the observee’s actions and student activity can be seen and heard well. Probably, the best position will be indicated by the focus of the observation.

Sometimes, the observer may need to stand up and walk around to see the work that students are doing, or move closer to be able to monitor a particular group. It is a good idea to make sure that students are prepared for this eventuality before the lesson. A simple technique to reduce the inhibitions students may feel is for the observer to look at one group while really listening to another group.

I would also recommend that observers and observees agree beforehand not to make eye contact during the lesson, so as not to influence the teacher’s confidence. Observers should also be mindful of their facial expressions in case the lecturer/teacher does look their way.

After the observation

At the post-observation meeting, both observers and observees will need to exercise numerous skills to get the maximum benefit from the experience, especially in formal appraisal situations:

  • Building rapport and developing trust
  • Active listening
  • Neutral questioning to elicit observees’ uninfluenced views on their lessons
  • Giving and receiving constructive criticism calmly and professionally
  • Counselling and conflict management

Specifically, observers should:

  • be accepting of alternative teaching strategies as long as learning objectives are met successfully
  • focus on actions and results of actions (rather than character traits)
  • be as specific with praise as they are with criticism, and support opinions with evidence
  • use concrete vocabulary when describing what was observed
  • comment only on behaviours that can be changed
  • ask questions that provoke reflection, but not leading or loaded questions
  • suggest concrete action points for future development

Meanwhile, observees need to:

  • give an honest and balanced self-evaluation
  • support the self-evaluation with evidence
  • be open to alternative strategies suggested by the observer
  • use the observer as a resource to plan future development in a practical, concrete way

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79

(Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Gebhard, J.G. (1999). ‘Seeing Teaching Differently Through Observa­tion’, in Gebhard, J.G. & Oprandy, R. (eds), 1999, Language Teaching Awareness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers. Macmillan ELT.

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 1)

The purpose of this short guide is to help teachers/lecturers and their managers to:

  • be precise about objectives in observing or being observed,
  • follow lesson observation processes accordingly,
  • raise awareness of the skills sets of accomplished observers and observees, and thereby
  • set about participating in lesson observations with increased confidence.

(My apologies if this guide sounds rather dogmatic. I have, however, based it on relevant literature and my experience as a teacher trainer.)

Objectives of lesson observations

  1. Performance appraisal
  2. External inspection
  3. Development of teaching skills
  4. Action research

1. Performance appraisal / 2. External inspection

It is common for teaching staff to be evaluated once or twice a year on their teaching performance through observation. The observer may be a department head or school vice-principal. Some would question the reliability of this form of appraisal, particularly in the case of inspections. See this article by Nick Morrison on Forbes for the arguments against and further references: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2014/03/19/lesson-observations-are-no-way-to-grade-teachers/

However, for many teaching professionals it is still a reality to be faced. So, it is important to ensure that it is done as carefully as possible. There are many ways to conduct a lesson observation, but I suggest a three-step process based on reflective practice:

Reflection for action (Cowan, 1998)

    • Before the observation

Reflection in action (Schön, 1983)

    • During the observation

Reflection on action (Schön, 1983)

    • After the observation

Before the observation

Ideally, there should be a face-to-face meeting beforehand to clarify several matters. As Brown (1993) said, “It is not enough simply to devise a universal checklist and send line managers out to do it.”

    • The teacher tells the observer about the learners and the lesson objectives
    • The observer takes note of any special considerations
    • The teacher & observer agree on the observation process and focus
    • The teacher & observer make sure they understand the appraisal criteria & standards in the same way. For example, what does “maintains good pace of learning” mean?

During the observation

    • The observer tries not to distract the learners or the teacher
    • The observer pays attention to all criteria that were selected
    • The teacher focuses on the learners and learning and teaches as normally as possible
    • The observer summarises impressions by the end of the lesson

After the observation

    • The teacher completes a self-evaluation before forgetting the details
    • The observer considers the teacher’s self-evaluation and adjusts appraisal or feedback accordingly
    • The observer and teacher exchange views on how well assessment criteria were met, or on the focus of the lesson observation
    • The observer and teacher decide upon future priorities and concrete action points

Professional development

By contrast, this type of lesson observation is characterized by the following terms: voluntary, forward-looking, formative and constructive. Such an observation can be beneficial for lecturers/teachers at any stage of development.

Frequently, the observer is a peer, or possibly an external consultant without vested interests. The role of the observer is to act as a trusted colleague to assist their partner in reflecting on their teaching. The observer does not need to be more knowledgeable about learning-teaching approaches.

I would argue that written impressions by observers should not be recorded and stored in teachers’ records. Otherwise, there is a danger of them being used to inform decisions about contract renewals or promotions.

“The process of observation should be developed between those staff involved.” I suggest that the three-step process above could still be helpful, minus the appraisal element.

The focus of observation is also negotiable. For example, lecturers teaching the same subject could witness alternative ways of presenting the same content, or developing the same skills in students. Alternatively, a lecturer could experiment with a revised learning task and get a second opinion on its design and effec­tiveness. In order to ensure that the observer’s attention remains on the selected focus, an observation instrument can be devised.

Action research

Action research observations are similar in nature to professional development observations in that they are non-evaluative of the lecturer/teacher. They are distinguished by, for instance, their greater formality, use of more precisely designed observation instruments and pre-conceived ways to process collected data. Findings are written up for publication or presentation and may inform revisions in learning/teaching practices or curricula design.

In part two of this mini-guide, I will provide more detail about the skills of participating in lesson observations.

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79 (Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.

Reasons why teaching in higher education could be better

In this entry, I would like to give reasons why it appears to me that the quality of university teaching, overall, is not high enough. Let me qualify that I only have experience at higher education institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK.

Reason #1: The design of professional development programmes for university teachers

The goals of such programmes are (a) to familiarize them with the learning environment, with which I heartily agree, and (b) to develop them as teachers, about which I am skeptical.

The problem as I see it is not so much the scope, duration or content of these programmes. It is the design. The programmes consist of interactive workshops on relevant topics, plus various other activities such as a single lesson observation by a more experienced teacher, or reflective writing about their teaching.

This programme design is not suitable for either pre-service teacher training or in-service teacher development. For the former, it is not substantial enough and the connection between theory and practice is too weak. One would need multiple lesson observations combined with multiple opportunities for reflection and multiple instances of expert feedback to really see development. For the latter, the workshops are too basic and the other activities redundant when the teachers in question already have a teaching qualification.

Another issue is the pedigree of those who lead such programmes. Frequently, they have no teaching qualifications themselves. For me, this means that the main focus becomes talking about teaching rather than teaching itself. They are academic programmes rather than professional ones.

Personally, I would recommend that all university teachers  go through a pre-service teaching practicum as do school teachers. They are paid for teaching and therefore owe it to their students to be skillful in the classroom and sensitive to their learners. Adult learners may be different in nature than children, but they still deserve consistently capable teachers, even though those teachers may adopt different roles than a school teacher. By skills, I am not suggesting anything elaborate. I mean, for example, the skills of setting up learning activities clearly, of checking instructions, of making learning goals explicit, of monitoring students’ progress, etc. I am aware that “quality teaching” is a debated concept and may vary according to context, but the classroom skills I refer to are, I contest, uncontroversial.

If university teachers were professionally trained in this manner, I think it would be highly beneficial, not only for its immediate impact on learning, but also for its impact on the quality of educational research. With more consistency in classroom management practices, for instance, a significant variable would be removed. Then, whatever teaching intervention the research was focused upon, the less of a distraction would be the differences between teachers in this respect.

Reason #2: The ways in which student feedback is administered and utilised

Student feedback on teaching does have it purposes. When I look at feedback from students, for example, I am very interested in what they have to say about certain aspects, e.g. whether I managed to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning, whether the pace of learning was appropriate, whether the content was relevant and specific, or whether my presentations were sufficiently clear to them. However, I must qualify this by explaining that I seek feedback during a course.

In universities it is more common for written feedback to be elicited formally at the conclusion of courses, and, because it can also have an impact on the performance appraisal of teachers, it therefore becomes summative in nature. It simply serves to certify whether that teacher and the course met the students’ expectations. Sincere teachers may proceed dutifully to incorporate student feedback into adjustments to the design and delivery of the next run of the course. However, this will not benefit the students who had provided the feedback.

My view is that it would be more useful if the feedback was sought at an early stage of the course so that the teacher would have time and opportunity to make adjustments. This would be formative feedback, i.e. no grading involved and no repercussions for the teacher. Its purpose would be to inform what the teacher does next to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Formal written feedback could still be sought at the conclusion, too, but for a different purpose.

Unfortunately, this does not entirely solve the problems with student feedback. It can also be argued that, in responding positively to student feedback, the teacher is merely satisfying the learning preferences of the majority of students in that cohort. This can become confusing for teachers, for example when they have attended professional development workshops extolling the virtues of a constructivist approach and have done their best to make their course student-centred, interactive, collaborative, reflective and experiential in nature, yet the response from the majority of students on that course reveals that they would have preferred a traditional, didactic approach. Teachers are thus caught on the horns of the dilemma of either guessing and satisfying perceived learner needs (and hopefully getting more positive rankings on the final feedback form) or resisting this to teach in a principled manner and thereby risking lower overall student appraisals.

Reason #3: The lack of understanding of assessment principles and practice

David Boud (1998) * gave a presentation at the University of Queensland reporting on his observations of university teachers’ assessment misconceptions and malpractice. Even now, in 2014, I encounter examples of assessment “bloopers” in higher education. My sources are students (who come to me for counselling on their learning), hearsay from professional peers taking part-time postgraduate courses, and study of curriculum documents. Let me provide examples to see whether you also conclude that all is not well.

  1. The intended learning outcomes for a course are not properly expressed as outcomes. Instead, they are descriptions of the learning activities in which students will engage, e.g. “You will discuss X and Y.” or “You will examine case studies.”
  2. Norm-referenced assessment is taking place, i.e. students on a course are being ranked, when the published assessment scheme deceptively indicates that the assessment is criterion-referenced.
  3. Language quality is assessed in term papers and oral presentations when there has been no language support or instruction  during the course. Also, the concept of language quality has not been properly defined, and interpretations of “language quality” vary between markers.
  4. The assessment criteria for a course are not accompanied by descriptors and standards.
  5. Students are asked to acquire content knowledge independently and are assessed on their recall of that knowledge before they have received the benefit of expert instruction.
  6. Even on taught master degree courses, a high proportion of marks is awarded for lower-order thinking tasks.
  7. Formative feedback is provided only once, and then there is no further opportunity for students to practise before they are assessed and graded.
  8. First drafts of project work, written assignments, oral presentations, etc. are assessed summatively.
  9. Assessment is used as a threat to motivate students. This is in the context of adult learning, when the learners have freely chosen what to study, are paying for the course, and should have high intrinsic or instrumental motivation.
  10. Intended learning outcomes are written to express positive changes in personal values (towards the desired attributes of university graduates), when such changes are very difficult to measure.
  11. Feedback on learning tasks consists of numerical or alphabetical grades. No information is provided to the learner on how to enhance performance and thereby move closer to the learning goals.
  12. Computerised adaptive language proficiency tests that are designed to inform learning are also employed for summative achievement tests. The tests are administered at the beginning and end of a course, and the improvement recorded. Moreover, students are not prepared specifically for the content/skills of this test during the course.
  13. The belief that comments on student work such as “satisfactory or “very good” are descriptive, qualitative and helpful for development.

* Boud, D. (1998). Presentation to the TEDI Conference: Effective Assessment at University. University of Queensland, 4-5 November 1998.

Reason #4: The lack of excellence of teaching excellence awards

Having award schemes to recognize and honour good teachers in universities would seem to be both positive and uncontroversial. It would also appear to raise the profile of quality teaching. However, I have noticed a few problems with these awards.

Firstly, they appear to contradict a commonly advocated shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. If they were in tune with this shift, wouldn’t they be called awards for promoting learning instead?

Another difficulty is that it is often asserted that teaching quality is hard to define, a debated concept, yet criteria are needed for selection of award winners. How are such criteria identified? Some institutions opt to refer to an external benchmark such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in the UK. But it begs the question how the NTFS criteria were derived. Others conduct internal research to identify best practices of excellent teachers. Of course, the latter approach is circular. How do researchers select excellent teachers in the first place? They are the ones who have been given teaching awards!! It amazes me that there is even a book whose authors employed this research methodology:

Kember, D. and McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Routledge.

Another significant consideration in deciding who receives such awards is nomination by students. This raises a serious issue. For example, a teacher may be popular because they have, for example, been so supportive that the course became insufficiently challenging. I envision this happening very easily in an enquiry-based mode of learning, where one of the aims is to foster students’ self-direction. Students seek help from their teacher, but it is not always forthcoming, deliberately so. The teacher who provides more help than is optimum may receive praise from students, but has not helped them towards the goal of greater autonomy. In short, implicit criteria that students have for quality teaching are not always aligned with factors identified in educational research that are known to have a positive impact on learning.

Finally, teaching excellence awards have an image problem. I hear snide remarks that, if a professor has won awards for teaching, it must be because he or she is not an able researcher.  It is the case, in Hong Kong at least, that research is viewed as much more important than teaching. Research output raises the status of the institution and attracts funding. Perhaps in some countries university applicants do pay attention to teaching scores in league tables, e.g.,

The Guardian newspaper’s in the UK: http://www.theguardian.com/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013

However, I witness that old attitudes prevail; the status of the university as a research institution matters much more, even though undergraduates in particular may not need top researchers to instruct them, but rather great teachers.

Reason #5: Questionable assumptions about the capacities and support needs of today’s university students

In reaction to negative feedback on the quality of their teaching, I have noticed that some professors defend themselves by claiming that it is not their responsibility to teach well; university students have a responsibility to manage their own learning and should not expect to be spoon-fed as they were at school. After all, when those professors were students themselves, they managed to excel in spite of really awful instruction, or a total absence of instruction. (I am not attempting to present a straw man argument here. I have really heard, and heard tell of, such comments.)

There are a few points that can be made in response to any professors that have this attitude.

Firstly, the situation in higher education has changed drastically since those professors were students themselves. The proportion of the population enjoying the opportunity of higher education has increased markedly. Those professors, at the time they gained entry to universities, were in the top band of academic achievers. This makes it evident that they had, rather wonderfully, developed effective study strategies by themselves. (Well, strategies appropriate for success in that era of education anyway…) However, now that the diversity of learners has increased, a greater variation in learning proficiencies and preferences can be expected. Readiness to study at undergraduate level is not a given, and I believe that one of the roles of university teachers is to scaffold the transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Secondly, with renewed curricula at secondary/high schools, spoon feeding is no longer a viable strategy in that sector of education. School-leaving, or university entrance, exams require much more than regurgitation of subject content to achieve high grades. Higher order thinking skills are tested, which has a backwash effect on the selection of teaching strategies. For example, for the compulsory subject of Liberal Studies in Hong Kong, students have to undertake an independent enquiry study (with teacher support and guidance). Moreover, student-teachers following a BEd programme or PGCE/PGDE learn to design and deliver interactive lessons that promote application, evaluation and synthesis of concepts as well as understanding and recall. In other words, teachers are trained differently nowadays and have a range of teaching strategies. They do not subscribe to the transmission model. Perhaps those professors are remembering their own school education some decades ago and are assuming that nothing has changed.

Lastly, those professors seem not to be aware that even the most autonomous learners can be helped to greater achievements through selective and skillful interventions by a teacher. They would do well to study Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s theory of instructional scaffolding, and make alterations to their teaching practices accordingly.

Reason #6: Issues with the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL)

SoTL can be described as a movement to enhance the learning of tertiary students through formal enquiry by lecturers and professors of all disciplines. Many universities have units or centres for the promotion of learning and teaching quality which provide support to academics who engage in small-scale educational research. There is also extrinsic motivation since, in performance appraisal schemes, there is sometimes a category “pedagogical research”. Participation in this kind of research can be significant for contract renewals and promotions.

This all sounds very positive and commendable. However, SoTL is not free of controversy.

One of the issues is that professors who are not in the Social Sciences have to adjust to a research paradigm that is distinct from the one to which they are accustomed. For example, consider the case of a physicist who is used to hardcore, laboratory-based, quantitative research with severely constrained variables. This scientist will have to “unlearn” past assumptions and beliefs about effective research if they are to investigate an aspect of learning & teaching successfully.

Secondly, when university teachers are expected to conduct educational research on top of research in their own disciplines, this can represent an increase in their workload and in my view runs the risk of diluting their overall research output.

Finally, there is the issue of research scale. An individual professor’s investigations may promote quality within the narrow confinements of a particular course, or may for example lead to the development of superior learning materials. Yet this sort of research is not that useful to other educators in other learning environments. Because of this lack of relatability of research findings, I doubt whether those findings are worth disseminating through publication or presentation.

 

 

Learning-based Learning

LBLDuring the years that I have worked in higher education I have witnessed several passing methodological “bandwagons” onto which educators have jumped, and a little later jumped off (or surreptitiously slipped off ). For example, in recent times Flipped Classroom has become very trendy. A few years ago, there were high hopes for Second Life Virtual Learning.

For your reference, here is an A-Z of methods, or “Learnings”:

Action Active Adventure Applied Case-based Challenge-based Collaborative Community-based Competency-based Computer-assisted Concept-based Content-based Context-based Crossover Digital Discovery E-Enquiry/Inquiry-based Experiential Exploratory Flip (or Flipped Classroom) Game-based Hands-on Holistic Humanistic Incidental M-/Mobile Mastery Online Problem-based Programmed Project-based Second Life Virtual Service Situated Skills-based Student-centered Task-based Team-based Technology-based Web-based Work-based

Have I missed any?

I asked myself why such methods could hold attraction for educators and on what bases they should be selected.

One can see the apparent attractions of employing a method for teaching and learning. Both teachers and students should become comfortable with the routines and processes involved. Teachers should feel happy and confident because they know their chosen method was carefully designed to be consistent with à la mode learning theory. Institutions should feel happy because they can advertise their use of modern, scientifically proven, methods. The creators of the methods should be delighted with their influence on the quality of learning (and the royalties from sales of their methodology books).

The problem though is that so far no single method that has been proposed is able to suit all learning environments. Particularly with those methods that are based on something, e.g. problems, cases or skills, by adopting one method the educator is immediately restricting options.

Here however, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I make the bold claim that my own method – Learning-based Learning or LBL™ * overcomes this difficulty by encompassing all of the other “Learnings”. LBL is amazing because it eliminates the need to think of the other methods as mutually exclusive, rival solutions.

In LBL, teachers are aware of all the above “Learnings” and select elements of them according to their judgment of the needs in particular learning circumstances, and for particular learners.

LBL is complemented by another method – Teaching-based Teaching or TBT™ – in which the capability to adopt LBL by untrained teachers, for example the majority of university professors, is enhanced through the requirement that, besides attending workshops about learning and teaching, they also progress through a substantial and rigorous teaching practicum. Thus, the connection between pedagogical theory and practice is strengthened in their minds through the inculcation of career-long reflective practice. Those teachers gradually become more sensitive to what is going on in their classrooms and better able to teach reactively, to teach in response to learning environments that are in constant flux. Armed also with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the methods, they can pick and choose from them in an informed and effective manner.

*LBL and TBT are not really trademarked

Life after CELTA and CertTESOL: Effective online professional development for novice ESOL teachers

Comments like the one below from Dave’s ESL Cafe’s Teacher Training forum prompted me, back in 2002, to investigate the instructional design and content of an online course or resource to help novice ESOL teachers continue their professional development. By ‘novice’ I mean teachers in the first two years of full-time work following completion of a pre-service certificate such as the Trinity Cert TESOL or Cambridge ESOL CELTA.

CELTA course inadequate

Posted By: Teaching in Korea
Date: Monday, 29 October 2001, at 3:36 p.m.

I finished my CELTA course in Australia this year and am now working in Korea. While the course was useful for a general overview, it was too fast-paced and it overlooked a lot of the practical realities of teaching e.g. level testing, how to teach exam classes, how to cope with discipline problems, how to set tests etc etc.

A four week course is not long enough to learn about teaching ESOL!!! I still have a lot of questions that need to be answered. I think the course should be at least 3 months full time to adequately cover what we will need in the profession.

I was aware from my own experience as a teacher and trainer that, after earning their certificates, newly-qualified ESOL teachers typically receive no additional professional guidance from training centres (except perhaps when these teachers immediately get a job at the language centre where they trained). Instead, it’s up to the first employers and the teachers themselves to continue professional development. This leads to disparity in the amount and quality of professional development opportunities in which new teachers may participate.

For novice teachers who have not yet had a chance to become practised at being reflective practitioners, or who work for an institution that provides few or no opportunities for professional growth, the result can be the sense of isolation described by Holmes (2000), ‘Teaching can seem a lonely career, with many new teachers feeling that they must cope with the job alone.’ Holmes wrote this about newly qualified state school teachers in the UK. The problem of professional isolation, I suspected, is likely to be more chronic in the world of TESOL because of greater distances and the lack of a statutory induction period and support overseen by bodies such as the UK’s Teacher Training Agency (TTA).

ESOL teacher trainers on pre-service certificate programmes, however great their efforts, are not really able to prepare new teachers for the tremendous diversity of TESOL contexts that can be encountered. Teaching situations may range from one-to-one business English, to playing educational games in English with pre-schoolers, to lecturing to over a hundred university students, and more. ESOL teachers encounter a broad range of cultural and educational heritages, learner expectations and motivations for learning English. Work ethics vary considerably from place to place as well as between public and private sectors.

There are factors that, traditionally, have limited the provision of continuing professional development in TESOL. Teacher educators are not expected to remain involved after the conclusion of certificate courses. In fact it states explicitly on the back of my own certificate that:

Successful candidates at this level will continue to need guidance from their employers to help them develop their potential and broaden their range of skills as teachers.

It is, however, not the intention that this guidance should be provided by the original training centre. Training centres are commercial, and have fulfilled their obligations by the end of the pre-service course. Another restricting factor has been that newly qualified teachers disperse all over the world and are often physically distant from their training centres. So, the amount and quality of guidance that these teachers receive is normally dependant upon their choice of first job, the willingness of senior colleagues to act as informal mentors, and their own ability and enthusiasm to reflect on and learn from experience.

My suspicion was that ESOL teachers need greater provision of professional development opportunities after a pre-service certificate. In particular, such opportunities began to seem necessary as preparation for the challenge of an in-service diploma course or MA a few years later. Moreover, improved continuity in professional development may benefit students and schools and promote the credibility of TESOL as a profession. Reducing disparities in professional development would also make it easier for potential employers to compare ESOL teachers who have the same number of years of experience. Such professional development opportunities could be provided online and made globally accessible.

I decided to verify my suspicions and to investigate how online professional development might fill the perceived gap. I conducted research on suitable professional development content for ESOL teachers in the first few years of their careers, on a suitable synthesis of online learning models and on the technical means to deliver professional development online. The research process involved both direct investigation and a review of relevant literature.

My direct investigations began with a pilot questionnaire of a small group of recently qualified ESOL teachers (who were my ex-trainees). Feedback on this questionnaire informed the design of a wider anonymous Web survey of 109 novice ESOL practitioners around the world. In addition, I conducted interviews with 11 ESOL teacher educators. Surveyed novice ESOL teachers’ suggestions for professional development topics were coded according to Cambridge ESOL DTEFLA syllabus divisions. Some valuable insight was also gained from feedback on the trial version of a Web site. I designed this resource, called the Certified English Language Teachers’ Improvement Centre or CELT-IC for short, in accordance with the preferences of those ESOL teachers who answered the pilot questionnaire.

I came to several conclusions as a result of the literature review*:

  • The evidence for a genuine need for online professional development opportunities for novice ESOL teachers is indirect.
  • There are many, many possibilities for the content of an online resource for ESOL teachers at an early stage of their career.
  • Models of online learning most recommended currently are inspired by cognitive or social constructivism.
  • Adult learning theory and reflective practice may be integrated without conflict into an overall constructivist approach.
  • There is a wealth of data and advice regards online course design, but relatively little for online resource design.
  • A voluntary online resource presents challenges for the successful use of online discussion forums because a healthy level of participation on such forums is only ensured when their use is a compulsory part of a course. The implication to me is that either the topics for discussion must be so interesting that users cannot resist contributing or online discussion forums should not be made a central feature of a voluntary resource.

The literature review revealed that direct investigation was required of the following:

  • an indication of the size, scope and extent of novice ESOL teachers’ professional development needs;
  • novice ESOL teachers’ preferences for professional development content;
  • whether the stated professional development preferences of teachers are what they really need;
  • suitable methods of instruction/learning;
  • the degree of direction required from the teacher educator who manages the online resource;
  • novice ESOL teachers’ preference for either an online course or online resource.

I analysed the survey and interview results and compared my findings with the literature review. Keeping in mind the modest sample sizes as a basis for making generalisations, I reached the following conclusions:

  • The professional development needs of novice ESOL teachers are sufficient reason for the development of online resources.
  • The surveyed ESOL teachers were strongly in favour of acquiring skills of self-management that are relevant to the workplace.
  • The highest priority for professional development topics was for resources and materials, followed by classroom management, TESOL theory and language awareness.
  • The teacher educators most frequently suggested language awareness and ICT skills as topics for professional development.
  • There appeared to be a preference amongst survey respondents for learning independently of other learners, but a design fault in a survey question put this conclusion into doubt.
  • Training modules consistent with a transmission model of learning (such as those at ICT4LT) and guided discovery tasks were the most favoured ways to learn online.
  • There was evidence of novice ESOL teachers preferring to learn from and through communication with authorities on TESOL rather than from and through communication with their peers.
  • The discussion of cultural issues and workplace difficulties could be beneficial in two ways – to promote reflective practice and to provide opportunities to develop skills to adapt to new work environments.
  • A majority of the teacher educators recommended strong direction for novice ESOL teachers in their professional development.
  • An online resource was much more popular than an online course, which has implications for the successful use of online discussion forums.
  • Guided discovery tasks appeared suitable to meet the demand for both clear direction and the preference for an online resource.
  • Download times should be kept to a minimum to reach as many novice ESOL teachers around the world as possible.
  • Some teachers suggested the use of video in online learning but this was brought into question by long download times in some parts of the world.
  • Web site navigation must be of a high standard to promote maximum usability and accessibility and to avoid user misinterpretation of the learning philosophy of the site.

Recommendations

To sum up,

  • Teacher educators deciding to design and manage an online resource for novice ESOL teachers should consult the particular      group about their security and privacy preferences. It is possible to have different levels of openness in different areas (pages) of the online resource. For example, on CELT-IC the training modules are completely open but joining the mailing list is subject to approval by its owner.
  • ESOL teacher educators embarking on the design, implementation and running of an online resource or course should assess      their own skills and develop new Web design, materials design and online moderating skills as necessary.
  • The content priorities are just that – priorities. If the online resource grows sufficiently, then a greater range of professional development topics can be included.

Additionally, I recommend the following research in order to determine:

  • the proportion of ESOL teachers preferring either solitary learning or learning with others, together with an investigation of the reasons for such preferences;
  • why novice ESOL teacher survey respondents favoured training modules and guided discovery tasks as ways to learn online;
  • how to accommodate the use of digital video and visual learners on an online resource when download times are a      constraining factor in certain locations;
  • effective ways to introduce users to online educational resources.

Large TESOL organisations interested in providing online professional support or ESOL teacher educators with financial support could investigate:

  • the logistics and financial considerations of larger scale provision of online professional development for novice ESOL      teachers;
  • the issue of course/resource recognition in providing online professional support in TESOL;
  • the attributes of various Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as WebCT or Moodle in order to choose one suitable to facilitate the promotion of novice ESOL teacher development and to simplify the authoring process for teacher educators.

Note

*This review included journal articles (e.g. Burt and Keenan 1998, Hawk 2000, Lloyd and Draper 1998, and Skinner 2002: 271) and books (see especially Holmes 2000, McVay Lynch 2002 and Salmon 2000).

References

Burt, M. and Keenan, F. (1998) Trends in Staff Development for Adult ESL Instructors. Eric Digest. URL: http://www.cal.org/caela/digests/TrendQA.htm

Cambridge ESOL DTEFLA Syllabus. URL: http://www.cambridgeesol.org/teaching/dTESOLa0104.pdf  

Dave’s ESL Cafe’s Teacher Training Forum. URL: http://eslcafe.com/discussion/dz1/

Hawk, W.B. (2000) Online Professional Development for Adult ESL Educators. Eric Digest. URL: http://www.cal.org/caela/digests/pdQA.htm

Holmes, E. (2000) Newly Qualified Teachers. The Stationery Office Books.

ICT4LT. URL: http://www.ict4lt.org/

(A Web site devoted to training language teachers in relevant ICT skills)

Lloyd, C. and Draper, M. (1998) Learning interactively at a distance: supporting learning, teaching and continuing professional development using information and communication technology. Journal of In-Service Education, Vol. 24, No. 1, p.87-97.

McVay Lynch, M. (2002) The Online Educator: A Guide to Creating the Virtual Classroom. Routledge Falmer.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. Kogan Page.

Skinner, B. (2002) Moving on: from training course to workplace. TESOL Journal, Volume 56, Issue 3, pp. 267-272.

Questions for teachers and teacher educators

Do you agree with my findings? Has the situation changed since this research was conducted?