Teacher Training: Organising Effective Reflective Practice

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The title of this post is a bit of a mouthful: try repeating the –ive ending of effective and reflective without stumbling over your tongue. The spelling and punctuation is a little bit tricky: should organise be with an “s” or a “z”? However, it is the notions behind the title which are most challenging for the Teacher Trainer, not only in terms of theory but also in practice. It therefore begs two fundamental questions:

  1. What is Reflective Practice? 
  2. Why is it a challenge for Teacher Trainers?

What is Reflective Practice?

In his book An A-Z of ELT, Thornbury (2006: 194) provides a thorough definition of Reflective Practice, defining it is as “reflecting on your teaching” with the aim of understanding “how to improve it further”. Thornbury also talks about how this feeds into Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, referring to “planning, acting and learning” as key stages of reflective teaching. However, an #ELTchat (2011) summary on the same topic provides a much shorter and perhaps more workable definition:

“Mulling over what worked, what didn’t, why and how to improve it”

In short, Reflective Practice is the process of pondering the causes of successful and not-so-successful lessons.

Why is it a challenge for Teacher Trainers?

Teacher Trainers are limited in number, resources and availability. Having someone by your side as you develop your teaching skills from day one to the end of your career would perhaps be useful but it is neither practical nor realistic. Teacher Trainers not only have to encourage teachers to be Reflective Practitioners because of limited resources but also because it leads to autonomous learning. Autonomy in learning is strongly encouraged in language courses, so it should also be encouraged in training course. It is the old adage of why give a man a fish when you can teach him to fish. The challenge, however, for trainers is showing trainees what areas to focus on.

The Three “Knowledges” of Competence in Languages Teaching

In a recent interview for the TEFLology podcast series, Scott Thornbury defined competence in language teaching in terms of three “knowledges”:

  1. Knowledge of the languagee. knowing how to speak and use the language
  2. Knowledge about the languagee. having the metalinguistic knowledge necessary to talk about the language
  3. Knowledge of Pedagogy e. having the necessary skills to teach the language

Looked at from a training point of view, these three areas could be a useful tool for pointing trainees in the right developmental direction. In fact, working on one knowledge area might well have positive effects in the other areas.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine you have a Newly Qualified Teacher who is a native speaker. They haven’t studied any linguistics, apart from the little Language Analysis they came across in their Initial Teacher Training Course. This teacher will probably call on their knowledge of language and pedagogy to make up for their short fall in knowledge about the language. As a trainer, this teacher needs to be encouraged to reflect on which linguistics aspects of the language they lack knowledge about, how they can learn more and how to apply it in lessons. Although they might have many flaws in their pedagogy, sending them off to observe a teacher with a task about Teacher Talking Time might be useful, but it would be more useful – and possibly help to resolve other problems in their teaching – to provide them with observation tasks specific to Knowledge About Language. This teacher might have a high Teacher Talking Time because they are trying to make up for their short fall in linguistic knowledge through talking their way out of it.

Let’s look at another example. Imagine you have a non-native teacher who has studied the language for many years at university. They are probably very confident in their knowledge of the language as well as about the language, but they perhaps have little pedagogical training. They might be very good at explaining or even setting up situations in which the learners can deduce meaning, but they might have poor pedagogical skills in managing the classroom or interaction patterns. Sending them off to see a more experienced teacher with a task about lesson frameworks might be useful, but giving them an observation task on interaction patterns in which they take note of who is interacting with whom, might pay greater dividends in their Continued Professional Development.

Meaning Observation Tasks

In short, sending a teacher off to observe a more experienced teacher on the basis they will gain something useful might be beneficial for the teacher. However, it would be even more beneficial if they knew what their weaker area of knowledge is and were given tasks to focus on that. As can be seen the examples above, focusing on a single area might pay huge dividends in other areas, too.


Thornbury (2006) An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: MacMillan

ELT Chat Summary

5 thoughts on “Teacher Training: Organising Effective Reflective Practice

  1. Having just read this blog and also “When The DoS Comes In” a few things have resonated. In the latter blog, a very good point was made about how teachers often change due to being observed, often delivering a very different style of lesson than they might ordinarily do. I think this is very true. Having recently returned to EFL/ESL teaching after a departure for many years (into teaching children with autism in mainstream primary) and starting a ProfGradCert in ed, as my TESOL cert. is very old, I’m due to be observed a lot. The course states that reflective teaching is to be central and I think that’s a good thing. It is very difficult to be perfectly objective about oneself. Ideally I’d love to observe myself through the eyes of the learner. They must surely have the best seat in the house, at least some of the time?
    My time in mainstream ed revealed a lot. Teachers seem more and more to be expected to plan and teach in a uniform way. That uniform way may change this way or that, depending on the latest big thing being hailed as innovative, or sometimes it could be a return to “good old-fashioned” values. But at ground level there were times when in my view, it stifled creative teaching. Some teachers felt they had to stick to the plan and couldn’t be spontaneous, even if the situation looked as tho all could have benefitted from a natural but unplanned departure. Teachers worried about not ticking tbings off as done. OFSTED visits brought fear, everyone running around making sure everything didn’t look like it ordinarily did! Obviously this last observation example is about as extreme as it gets.
    But I think it would be helpful for those observing teachers to never lose sight of the fact that teachers, particularly inexperienced ones, will undoubtedly be all too aware that someone is evaluating them and may perhaps over-plan, talk too much, or direct the students too much as a result, for example. I’m not used to being watched yet, but I’m going to have to be. I guess a way around this could be to get peers observing each other, or co-teaching, amything that would familiarize new/trainee teachers with having others in the room aside from their learners. That way teacher trainers might have a much more genuine and therefore productive observation. (Alternatively of course, we could just say “Get over it, and do what you do!”). I am however also looking forward to seeing what others can offer me by feedback and pointers. What teacher doesn’t want to be a good one?
    But I have probably digressed too much into the observee’s perspective (reading Marc’s blog above also got me thinking about those issues).
    I have understood this blog to mean that teacher trainers should look at the possible causes of any weaknesses/shortcomings an inexperienced teacher may have-that one or more areas that need strengthening may be because of another root cause. Address that and other things will improve too. Just teading this has made me think about my own teaching. Strangely, my experience teaching children with special needs made me realize that this is often the case with the learners I worked with. I was always reflective in that role, as I often faced new challenges. But reafing the above blog has made me think one step further, that any weaknesses I may see in myself, may be due to causes I haven’t yet seen.


  2. The pedagogy vs. linguistics is a big thing to consider, I think. Another thing, I wonder, is pedagogy vs. instincts. I wonder how many of our teaching instincts might be counter-productive or how much theory may be counterintuitive.


    1. Thanks for the comment Marc! It’s a good question and something I hadn’t thought about much before. You could give us an example of theory that is counterintuitive?


      1. Something that’s counterintuitive is that what is learned is not necessarily what is taught. Another thing is that what seems to be uptake in one lesson is used incorrectly in future lessons and built on. I suppose what I’m saying is interlanguage development is counterintuitive.


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