What Is Teacher Development?

A recent discussion of teacher training / teacher development on Twitter started with Cecilia Nobre objecting to untrained teachers giving training courses. I chimed in with this:

Why don’t trainers start with how people learn an L2? Why train teachers to use a syllabus which contradicts research findings? Why not question coursebook-driven ELT? Why assume that explicit teaching of bits of grammar & lexis -> communicative competence?

I admit that this was a deliberate attempt to hijack the discussion and move it towards my own hobby horse, namely the refusal of those involved in teacher training and development to question the domination of coursebook-driven ELT. Few bit the bait, but David Deubelbeiss couldn’t resist (bless him!) and it led to the following exchange:

David: Let’s remember that most of what a teacher trainer does (or should do) is help skill up teachers in the “how” and art of teaching. Not teaching theory and / or curriculum design nor defending educational beliefs

Me: 1. You ignore the syllabus & what’s taught? Skilling up teachers in how to present and practice bits of grammar and lexis is OK, even tho SLA research findings show it’s ineffective? 2. TDs don’t discuss educational beliefs? Really?

David: There is a big difference between teacher education and teacher training.

Me: How are they different? Into which category do the CELTA course, Dellar’s course on teaching lexically, and the SLB course on TBLT fall? How can ANY educational programme focus on “how” and ignore ‘what’ and ‘why’ issues?

David: Of course you don’t ignore them but theory isn’t central to the job. In general education, a trainer is someone who works with teachers inservice. The problem with ELT is we have teachers without any formal teacher education. We should fix that.

Me: What counts as “formal teacher education”? Can inservice teacher training include advising changes & improvements? If so, what informs the advice? Is reference to holistic approaches; cognitive load; distributed practice; implicit learning; saliency; schema; priming; etc allowed?

That was as far as it went. I like David’s approach to ELT a lot; he’s one on a very short list of teacher trainers who I consider both well informed and progressive. But just look at what he’s saying. I find it depressing to see this view of training versus education so blatantly articulated. It’s just one more expression of the view that the focus of teacher training in ELT should be to equip teachers with the rudimentary skills needed to deliver a syllabus that is fundamentally flawed, ignoring the basic question of efficacy.

Surely, we MUST address the question of how efficacious it is to base ELT on a syllabus that’s based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2. Learning an L2 is not the same as learning geography, for example, because learning an L2 is about procedural not declarative knowledge. We know that learning an L2 is learning by doing, it’s practice, practice, practice as Amy says. We know that teachers using a coursebook to study bits of grammar and lexis is not efficacious and yet teacher trainers continue to tell their trainees to do it. They carry on with the pretence that presenting and practising bits of language in the way coursebooks force teachers to do will lead to communicative competence when all the evidence shows that it doesn’t work.

Why do teacher trainers persist in this mistaken approach to ELT? Because education has become another commodity, and cousebooks exemplify the commodification of ELT. Teacher trainers teach teachers to teach McNuggets. Assessment of proficiency is based on knowledge of these McNuggets. The CEFR levels are used to describe where students are in their accumulation of these McNuggets. Thus, this Frankenstein model of proficiency is reified – these levels are treated as if they were real, as if they reflected communicative competence. But they don’t. The whole edifice is built on commercial convenience. It ignores the reality of language learning and imposes an inefficacious way of teaching.

Coursebook-driven ELT has led to our losing sight of good, wholesome ELT practice, based on learning by doing, on helping students work the L2 code out for themselves by involvement in meaningful tasks, on scaffolding their learning and giving them the help they need to do it. We go further and further away from good educational principles; we give in to commercial pressure and teach what we’re told to teach by teacher trainers who turn a blind eye to the mountain of evidence which highlights the inadequacy of coursebook-driven ELT.

Meanwhile, those who make a living from teacher training and development ignore the elephant in the room – the fundamental question about the efficacy of coursebook-driven ELT – and take cousebooks as the given starting point. They design courses like CELTA which simply accept that coursebooks will be used, and they tour the world giving courses devoted to how to do coursebook-driven ELT better. TD groups in IATEFL and TESOL give scant regard to questioning coursebook-driven ELT, preferring to agonise about teacher identity, dealing with stress and burn-out, and all that other modern floss which has replaced any robust interrogation of what they’re actually doing in the classroom. And before these modern TTs accuse me of making fun of serious issues, let me make it clear that I’m talking about priorities.

Here’s  what you’ll find on the IATEFL TD website:


Blather, blather and more blather. TD is interaction; it’s like growing plants; it’s moving forward; it’s about being in this life and moving forward; it’s empowerment; it’s being more aware; it’s reflection, it’s bla bla bla.

Look at the TD plan for the 2019 IATEFL convention. Serious issues are tackled, but where’s the critical analysis and reflection of ELT teacher training practice? Where does the TD address questions like “What are we training teachers to teach?” “What do we tell trainees about how people learn an L2?” “How can we assess the efficaciousness of our teaching?”

ELT is a huge business with a global turnover of hundreds of billions of dollars – see the Pearson 2017 report and the British Council 2016 report for details. Cousebook-driven ELT is the result of commercial pressure, not the result of any regard for research findings on instructed SLA, all of which suggests that coursebook-driven ELT is not efficacious. ELT teacher trainers are responsible for how hundreds of thousands of teachers approach their work. In my opinion, most of them are doing a bad job.


One thought on “What Is Teacher Development?

  1. The author has strong views against course books (which we call in India textbooks). However, I disagree with him. To teach English as Second Language we need course books in India. They tell us how to go about. Otherwise we would be wayward. In computers, someone writes a user-friendly programmed menus. The user unfolds and uses them to his benefit. Similar is the case with the course books.

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