A Change of Approach: Providing effective INSET for ESL teachers

Mike Heath. October 2017

As an academic manager at an international language school in the U.K. I had to participate in government inspections of the school. During one such occasion, a baffled inspector asked me (paraphrased)...

“Your school has so much support for teachers, focus on professional development and a good framework for assessing needs, why then is the teaching quality not improving?”.

This was the most challenging question I had to face from my first Independent Schools Inspectorate interview. He had a point, at the school we ran weekly training sessions (CPD), had a mentor scheme, regular standard class observations, access to detailed and thorough student feedback and involved teachers in deciding quarterly CPD focus and sessions. The devil, as always, is in the detail.

During my recent study, I wrote an assignment looking at a blended learning CPD system for the aforementioned context. As with any blended learning system, context is key to achieving the desirable training outcomes and any blended learning approach must consider the “goals and constraints” within a context (Shaw & Igneri, 2006, p.3). As I considered the context, I started to appreciate more fully the complexity of the task of running a truly effective CPD programme for language teachers in any school.

Firstly I considered the teachers. As in many language schools in the U.K., there is a mixture of full and part time teachers, who often have families to take care of at home and all who work on different weekly schedules. Because of the seasonal nature of ESL, some teachers stayed at the school long term, but many only came to teach over the summer peak. There is also a range of teaching experience from freshly initial cert qualified up to many years in the industry. Secondly I considered the trainer and resources, normally the DoS and any Senior Teachers/ Assistant DoS that may be present. Although teacher training and quality is considered a key responsibility, much of my own time was focused on teacher management, schedule management and student service, and, from talking with other DoSes this experience is normally repeated in many schools.

Although we had always analysed teacher needs before when planning CPD, I realised the approach was similar to  Lim & Wang's (2016) description of “episodic training of instructional delivery techniques” (p.189). Feedback from teachers suggested that professional development needs to be more responsive to the individual needs. Quite a challenge with such a diverse group. Furthermore as this is ongoing CPD, I am really talking about what Borg (2015) refers to as ‘in-service teacher education’ or INSET (p.37). In his analysis of the Cambridge DELTA course, Borg sets out some principles that determine good practice for INSET. The principles outlined show the need for reflective, iterative and relevant learning in context and show that collaboration and human interaction is very important. It is also clear that the teacher is central to driving their own development and this ‘learner centred’ and ‘autonomous’ approach is preferable to a top down ‘prescriptive’ approach (p. 37-44).
My own answer came in two parts.

Move core CPD content online onto a VLE.

Despite the impression that use of VLEs has been disappointing, being mainly used to “store and disseminate course materials” (MacAvinia, 2016, p.2), this feature of VLEs is in fact crucial to my need for flexible content which is ‘chosen’ by the learner (Collis & Moonen 2002, p.220). By moving the core content online and enabling self-access, learners can select the most relevant content to work on and plot their own professional development course. Through action plans from observations and performance reviews, the DoS can still oversee, guide, inform and give feedback on this development, but the learner is much more empowered to make decisions.

Redefine the trainer and trainee relationship.

The concept of flexible learning is well established when talking about blended learning, (Collis & Moonen, 2002), however ‘responsiveness’ is less well established in terms of teaching practice and is often linked more to personal and moral development than effective pedagogy (Blum, 1987; Sherman 2004, 2005). However, I believe the concept can be useful when considering nature of the teacher-learner interaction and how this might lead to better learning outcomes. Certainly, it can be seen that the concept of responsiveness includes focus on individual learner needs and that decisions made by a ‘responsive’ teacher are “primarily driven by the student’s needs” (Sherman, 2005. P.125). I proposed introducing tutorial sessions, as oppose to instructor led sessions would free the DoS, along with other experienced teachers, to take a facilitator role as oppose to an instructor role and focus more on responding to learner needs as they arise.

Other considerations included getting the right VLE, access to data on module sign up and completion is really useful and also maintaining a human element through mentoring or other regular support. The latter is particularly important considering that poor mentoring, support and a lack of opportunities are identified as barriers to successful INSET (Harrison and McKeon, 2008. P.151) while flexible induction programmes and learning conversations with key colleagues are seen as helpful (p.151).

But, is it really as simple as that?

The kind of approach I've described above could be described as “a fundamental re-conceptualisation and reorganisation of the teaching and learning dynamic” (Garrison and Kanuka, 2004, p.97). As such, it is highly likely to run into opposition both from established staff and from financial managers worried about initial outlay. These are real concerns, but I would take heart from the call made by Gabriel Diaz Maggioli in his 2017, IATEFL plenary speech which implored school directors everywhere to invest in teacher development. I, for one, believe that this kind of investment can only improve teacher satisfaction, student outcomes and lead to repeat business and positive word of mouth.


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