From Experience to Expertise (with Alan Maley)

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By Ross Thorburn and TEFL Training Institute. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

From Experience to Expertise (with Alan Maley)

Ross Thorburn: Alan, I've heard you say before that teacher training, too often, maybe focuses on skills and knowledge at the expense of attitude and awareness. Why is it that attitude and awareness tend to get neglected in teacher training?

Alan Maley: Why are they neglected? Well, because they're more difficult, I think. I say easy, it's not easy. It's relatively easy to concentrate on knowledge, because knowledge is knowledge, and you can transmit it in some senses.

It's relatively easy to develop basic pedagogical skills. When you come to the area of attitudes, and things like that, then it is obviously much more nebulous, if you like. People veer away from it because it's not so easy. That's one reason, anyway.

One of your questions here is, why are experiences a good starting point for personal and professional growth?

My answer to that is, where else would you start? If I can just digress a moment. At the moment, I'm editing a new book for the British Council, which should come out later this year. It's called, "Developing Expertise Through Experience."

It's based on Phabhu's idea of the teacher's sense of plausibility. In other words, whatever you do, however you train a teacher, whatever training they undergo, they make of it what they make of it.

In other words, they don't just replicate it, they incorporate it somehow into their own existing frameworks of beliefs and values, and so on. According to Prabhu, this is not something you do once, you go on doing it.

You're constantly, in a way, mediating whatever comes in through the lens of your own values, presuppositions, and experience. Would this work with my law in my class? If so, how would it work? Then modifying whatever input in the light of that.

This book that I'm doing has got 20 people worldwide. Most of them, quite well‑known, reflecting on their own career paths, and the people who have influenced them, the ideas that have influenced them, the experiences that have influenced them.

There's a very interesting texture of stuff there. One of the interesting things to come out of this is how important early experiences were even before going into a classroom, or becoming a teacher.

Early experiences with language, for example. People who've grown up in a household where three or four languages are used or, at least two. People who have had interesting learning experiences. People who have had disappointments, as well, and what kind of disappointments.

If I can give you an example from my own experience. Well before I ever knew that I was going to be a language teacher, I was in a primary school in England. We had, at that time, a test, which was called the 11‑plus, taken around about the age of 11. This was one of these psychometric tests, multiple choice, and all the rest of it.

This was an important test because it decided whether you would go on into the stream of education that would take you eventually to higher education, or you went into the other one, which meant you went into the rubbish bin. I failed this exam, this test. I had no idea what it was even. The test failed me. I didn't fail the test.

That affected my view of testing, quite profoundly, and still does. Because after being failed, I went on to get a scholarship to Cambridge. Now, either there's something wrong with the test or there's something wrong with me, and I don't think there's anything wrong with me.

These are profound influences that happen to us and affect the way that we view things. There are others. There are many positive things, as well. When I was learning French at school, I had a genius as a teacher, and he arranged to me to go on an exchange when I was only 12 years old.

The place that I went to in France, nobody spoke a single word of English. For a month, I had to either sink or swim, and I swam. That was a profoundly influential moment for me because it was opening a window on the world I had no conception of before.

A lot of these people who are writing in the book that I was talking about are also telling stories about their earlier times before they even became teachers.

What I'm getting at, I suppose, is that our sense of plausibility is based on a whole series of experiences that we've undergone. We mediate whatever comes to us later in the light of this.

Ross: I suppose that no teacher starts their career as a blank slate, do they? Because everyone has this experience of being a student.

Alan: I think we need to pay more heed, perhaps, to previous experience and to validate it. People, as you say, they're not coming into teacher training as blank slates. They have already got a lot of experience, of one kind or another. Discussing that can be very helpful.

Ross: To go back to the teacher's sense of plausibility that you mentioned earlier, is there a similar thing there with teaching? Maybe, students don't always learn what the teacher teaches. Is this teacher's sense of plausibility a similar idea in that the trainee teachers don't necessarily learn what their trainer trains?

Alan: Yeah, I suppose so. It goes for any learning experience, doesn't it? Whether it's in the classroom directly, or whether it's in the training setup. There are fundamentally two kind of views on this, which is perhaps oversimplifying.

On the one hand, we have the kind of algorithmic view of education. Which is, here it is, if you do this, and you do this, and you do this, then you will...The result will be that, A plus C plus B equals 0. That's how it will be.

Then on the other hand, you have a view of education, which is the plausibility one, if you like, where that's not the case. It's much more of a heuristic.

You go in. You deal with what there is in front of you, and you deal with it the best way you can in the light of your experience and whatever training you've had. There are no guaranteed outcomes at all, then. The idea that you can train people and that they will all come out pretty much the same, is ridiculous and it's sad, really.

Ross: To pull all that together and go back to the start, what would a teacher training course based more around teachers experiences look like?

Alan: Please don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that you should throw away all the stuff on...People need knowledge, and they need skills. I think more space could be made in training programs for discussion of experience, and reflection.

I would put a much more emphasis, for example, on training teachers in presentation skills. For instance, in use and maintenance of the voice, something that I've banged on a lot about. Also, then looking at improvisational theater games, for instance, which is a way of getting people to react in the moment to what's going on.

I don't know if you've ever experienced clowning. I don't mean circus clowns. I mean, clowning, theater clowns, people like Mike Leacock, for example, in Paris, and people like that. What happens in clowning is very, very interesting, because in order to be a proper clown, you must not have a plan.

A plan will kill the clowning, so you must have no plan. What you have to do and what a clown does is to simply wait until there is something to react to in the audience. Then they begin to react to things. They deal with things as they come along. They don't have a preset plan.

Now, I know this sounds all very wimbly‑wombly. There is a very interesting account of this in a book by a man called Peter Leutscher. He conducted an experiment in Germany. He's not German, he's American. Where a group of teachers ‑‑ these were in Steiner schools, the Waldorfschule ‑‑ they underwent a complete course in clowning.

Then, he followed them up a couple of times after that. The results were very interesting that in terms of the way that the people who undertook the clowning got to understand themselves a lot better, and the effect that it had on their teaching.

Interestingly, he also asked the students what they thought. He asked the student's parents what they thought about the changes in their teaching style after they'd done this course. Things like clowning would be an excellent way of preparing people for the unexpected.

That's what happens in classrooms. The unexpected thing that you cannot simply deal with, but that you can turn to your own advantage.

I often quote this, so excuse me, if you've heard it before. There is a very interesting book called "Teacher Man," by a guy called Frank McCourt. He was teaching in a pretty rough school in New York. He'd been to Columbia. He'd just emerged from the Teachers College.

It was his first job, and his first class. In his first class, the first thing that happened was that one boy threw a sandwich. They were a pretty unruly lot. This boy threw a sandwich, and he didn't know what to do.

He said professors at Columbia University didn't talk about that kind of thing. They talked about theories of education and child‑centeredness, and whatever. They didn't talk about sandwiches being thrown. "What do I do?" he said. "This was my first pedagogical act."

What did he do? I picked up the sandwich, and I ate it. This changed the whole ecology of the classroom, because all of a sudden, the other kids in the class found this hugely interesting and amusing. Whereas, the boy who had thrown the sandwich was absolutely outraged. The class was, all of a sudden, on the side of the teacher.

After that, he could do almost anything with them. You get these incidents, these moments where something happens, and you must deal with it. It's being in a state of readiness for what you cannot expect that matters.

Of course, it's very, very difficult to train people in this. To some extent, you can't, but I do believe that things like training and theater games and improvisation activities.

There's a very good book I'm just reaching for now, by a man called Robert Poynton, which is called, "Do Improvise ‑‑ Less Push. More Pause. Better Results. A New Approach to Work (and Life)." He has some very simple activities there which help to develop this kind of improvisational capacity.

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