Thursday, 6 November 2014

Continents apart: Training new teachers in the UK and Africa

Merv Lebor and Dr Paula Green used to work together teaching English as a second language in centres in inner city Leeds in the mid-1980s. Both now work as teacher educators – Merv still in Leeds, Paula in Malawi and South Africa. Here they discuss preparing teacher trainees for working in literacy classes in these two very different contexts.


Merv: So Paula, how do you prepare trainees in South Africa for entering the classroom for the first time? Are they quite nervous about being alone with the students?

Paula: My experience over 20 years in South Africa has been almost totally in in-service teacher training and support. The attitudes have obviously been diverse and broad-ranging but I would say that on the whole, teachers have been keen to learn strategies for teaching early grade literacy. It is often the least experienced teachers who are allocated to the lower classes, yet teaching children to read is complex and more difficult than teaching young people who have already grasped the skill. Does this have any resonance for you in your context?

Merv: My work is also in-service, mostly in West Yorkshire, helping trainees get their PGCE or Cert Ed while they are teaching older students literacy or other subjects. Trainees are working in a wide range of institutions, but we are finding that one of the greatest barriers to learning is the attitude of students. Our trainees often have to cope with disruption, distractions from mobile phones or just a lack of engagement in the subject. What are the main barriers to learning for your teachers?

Paula: In my experience, class sizes can range from 30 to 80 in South Africa, and in Malawi where I work at present, because of the success of strategies to get children into schools, they are regularly in excess of 100 students. So one of the main barriers is of course class size, but also where classes are this large, there are often no or few resources, with children seated to learn on the floor. 

Cell phones, ha-ha! Though having said that, cell phone ownership is widespread in both rural and urban areas here, and SMS messaging is increasingly being seen as a means of reaching teachers in remote areas for follow-up development and support. The only stumbling block is the cost of calls.

Merv: Our disruptive students are sometimes just disengaged from the learning process... it is not to do with numbers. I have observed classes of just eight students with a teacher and support worker in the room where considerable disruption was taking place, including ripping up of fellow student’s work, shouting out, some physical tussles, occasional violence and a general refusal to carry out tasks. Students were sitting in a small, windowless computer room with a table in the middle. They were supposedly doing literacy skills, but a couple had mobile phones and were engaged in calling friends… Needless to say, the session was later thoroughly dissected in the training class and the trainee had to be re-observed. 

But how do you prepare trainees for going into sessions? 

Paula: The training takes the form of workshops, lasting two to five days at a time. The training that seems to be most successful in terms of translating into changed classroom practice focuses on a specific methodology in which teachers are trained. If the training is good, it involves group work and many opportunities for micro-teaching, both with participants role-playing as learners and sometimes with real learners. 

There is debate about the fact that this type of lock-step training fails to address knowledge development with regard to underpinning theories of literacy pedagogy. However, I have found that where training is more theoretical or not tied to a specific methodology, teachers are less able to apply what they have learnt in a general context. 

Merv: What is ‘lock-step’?

Paula: A ‘lock-step’ methodology is one which is controlled by the teacher, with responses from the learners. The feature of lock-step occurs not only in the classroom methodology, but also in the teacher training. We give teachers five days full-time training on how to implement the methodology – the training focuses more on implementing the methodology than on the underpinning theories. 

The most traditional teaching situation associated with a teacher-controlled session is ‘lock-step’, with all the students doing teacher-directed work, mostly at the same pace, engaged with the same activity.

Merv: But what about student-centred learning? How do we know whether students have internalised anything?

Paula: When I first went out to South Africa in 1993 and first encountered this ‘lock-step’ type of training, I was not impressed, and found it very limiting. However, over the years, and now with a more nuanced understanding of the context, I realise that a highly scaffolded approach is appropriate for the context. Confident teachers can interpret and adapt a methodology, while less confident and competent teachers are given clear and definite guidelines as to how to implement what and when. 

When this 'recipe' approach is followed and teachers see improved learner performance, they then become more confident and ultimately able to deviate from or adapt the 'recipe'.

The context which you describe is almost 180 degrees different from the one in my experience. It’s interesting to note that both are described by the same term, ‘teacher development’. One feature though I think is probably the same in both instances is that there are challenges. And that to surmount these challenges the teacher needs the commitment to, and also I think love of, the young people they are working with. Would you agree?

Merv: The content of our training for in-service teachers is a focus on theories and practice of learning – which includes Humanist, Constructivist and Behaviourist approaches – then we tend to look at legislation, inclusivity, assessment and analysis of individual learners. Trainees also write a series of essays on curriculum and professional practice, keep reflective journals, undergo observations, lead actual lessons and attend a specialist conference. 

The students come to us one day a week for two years where the central concern is supporting them in their current teaching role and discussing how theory relates to what is happening in their classes. We often explore what is going on in their classes in terms of difficulties and challenges and how can these be met. Quite often, we look at case studies of what has happened to individual teachers during that week and then the class acts like a support/focus group trying to help resolve that trainee's difficulties.

I find this is a brilliant way of creating a supportive, non-competitive environment in the class, but can also operate as a safe place where trainees can work through problematic aspects of their role under supervision, but also role-play difficult situations until the trainee feels confident enough to go back into the situation and re-face a difficult or challenging class.

‘Love’ of the students or young people we are dealing with usually doesn't particularly come up in an overt way because we are very aware of emotional boundaries. However, feelings of empathy, warmth or trying to enter imaginatively into the world of the trainees and their students is critical – commitment is crucial. 

But how do your trainees cope with knowing individual students in classes of 100 pupils? It would be really useful if you could describe what happens in these classes where there are so many students. How does the teacher check that there is learning going on?

Paula: Firstly, these are very young learners, and so they are crowded into a fairly small classroom, which means that the teacher's eye can quite easily be cast over the whole class, seated as they are either on the floor, or jammed three or four to a desk. 

The teachers are unsung heroes indeed, because most of them do manage to maintain a modicum of order in the lesson and in most cases, most learners remain mostly engaged. Of course, in a class of this size, there are always some learners who are either not following because they don't understand or because they are bored, or possibly hungry. 

Most of the teaching is lock-step, following a particular literacy methodology. The lesson is pretty much teacher-directed, with a great deal of chorusing and whole class echo reading, where the teacher reads a phrase then the learners read the same sentence.

Merv: We no longer use chorusing here. Even primary school classes involve teacher instruction, but then young people work through reading or workbooks and often research projects themselves individually on computers. There is also often circle time or facilitated discussion, depending on the age or level of students for expressing themselves.

Paula: By way of contrast, I see the value of prescribed programmes highly centred on lock-step methodology. This is because teaching learners to read is complex. It requires an understanding of reading pedagogy, an ability to reflect and evaluate the impact of one’s teaching, and to make adjustments accordingly. It also helps to have a variety of resources and a lot of reading material for learners to practise with. 

In South Africa, even now, the teaching of the early grades is often seen as less important than upper grades, and so these classes are usually assigned to the least experienced students, or are even seen as a demotion by teachers who prefer to teach in the upper grades. So, in this context, the provision of a highly scaffolded programme that provides the script for the teacher and all the necessary resources makes a lot of sense. Weaker teachers benefit from following the scripting, and more competent teachers can use the scaffolding and amend or add as they think is helpful. 

The other benefit of the scripted approaches I have worked with, is that they are effective, and this raises teachers' interest and motivation, when they can see the positive impact of their efforts. 

Merv: Obviously, there is a completely different cultural and economic context between where you work and our assumptions of individuality and questioning that is supposed to underpin education in the UK. But how do competent teachers deal with students who can't keep up or are struggling? Here, theoretically we have support assistants or where resources available, extra classes. 

Paula: Competent teachers will have assessed learners and placed them in pace groups. (I don't like to use the term 'ability groups' as it is too much of a label for learners so young and new to school, i.e. a slower learner can easily become a faster-paced one and vice versa). He/she is then able to provide attention at least at the level of each group. This can take place on a daily basis if the class is of up to 50 learners in number, but for a larger group, the work has to be largely whole-class work and then differentiated group work only on one of the five daily lessons in the week.

Merv: Is there any sense that some students can be stretched? 

Paula: Certainly. The above method of grouping learners can ensure that all learners are stretched to their own capabilities. Even a less competent teacher who does not manage this, admittedly difficult in large classes, can stretch the brighter learners, possibly at the expense of the average and weaker ones, by focusing more attention, and pacing the lesson at the level of the brighter learners.

Merv: What do teachers do about students who are not concentrating or are disturbing other students? 

Paula: This very much depends on the level of competence of individual teachers regarding classroom management. I have seen some who are amazing at retaining involvement of all learners with quiet competence and others who shout a lot and still struggle to maintain order. At this stage, children really cannot concentrate for more than about ten minutes at a time, so able teachers vary the activity and intersperse activities with action rhymes and songs, which the children love.

Merv: Do teachers ever question students individually? 

Paula: Yes – those we have trained in more learner-centred methodologies are aware of the importance of asking challenging questions and getting learners to respond as individuals. Teachers who are more wedded to traditional transmission methods appear to ask questions but they may just be getting rote responses from the learners.

Merv: How do teachers know whether students have learnt what they are supposed to learn?

Paula: Teachers have different means of observing and assessing progress. There has been a lot of emphasis on formalising assessment in most of the countries in Africa that I have worked in, and a great deal of emphasis on methods of continuous assessment in the lower grades, which is supposed to be the prime means of assessing progress. That said, I think that a lot is still down to teachers' gut feeling, or professional judgement – which, if the teacher is experienced and able, is a valid albeit informal means of evaluating learner progress. 

In South Africa, the emphasis on assessment has taken the form of introducing Annual National Assessments (ANAs) of all learners in all grades. This has generated much focus on preparing learners for the types of tests they undergo in the ANAs and many teachers give their learners ANA-type tests. 

Merv: We have been through much similar written assessment via Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) at various stages, but now only aged 11 and then GCSEs later… In Africa, is this a written assessment or is it carried out orally?

Paula: The ANA is a written test only. There is also wide interest and implementation of an oral reading fluency test in many African countries. There are a range of versions of one-to-one tests but it generally involves letter sound knowledge, decoding skills, fluency and comprehension. 

Merv: You keep mentioning competent and non-competent teachers – what is the difference in this context from your point of view?

Paula: Gosh, that is a difficult question, though I realise I have been using these terms quite a lot. I would say that the indicators of a competent teacher of early grade reading are as follows: prepares well for sessions, displays effective classroom management skills, understands the underpinning theories of what has to be taught/learned, has teaching/learning objectives, uses appropriate teaching and learning materials, is a reflective practitioner (that is able to assess learning and adjust teaching accordingly) but most important, the teacher must have a love of teaching and the learners.

Merv: Yes, that sounds pretty comprehensive… I would probably add excellent subject knowledge, which the teacher can effectively communicate to learners so that they are engaged, can enjoy or explore their learning and if necessary, produce required tasks or assessment.

Anyhow, this has been a fascinating discussion of differences between systems and cultures. Many, many thanks. Good to speak to you again after all this time!

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