Trainee See, Trainee Do?

11 May

After only a cursory glance online at initial teacher training courses, one recurring selling point immediately stands out: “Learn by doing!”  As one website succinctly put it,

[Because] CELTA training is based on experiential learning, or “learning by doing”, teaching practice (TP) is at the heart of the course.[1]

And who am I to argue?  As a CELTA trainer myself, I have witnessed firsthand the value of teaching practice and reflection.  Lately however, I have been pondering the experiential learning of the trainees, not when they are actually teaching, but when they are receiving input sessions from the trainers.

So ingrained in ELT is the value of experiential learning that, as trainers, we are constantly demonstrating activities, employing ELT classroom management strategies, and in general getting our trainees to ‘be the students’.  And I get this.  ELT trainers are first and foremost EFL teachers, so it is only natural that we transfer our skills.  But have we taken this too far?  I suspect that many of us, myself included, may have.  Accordingly, in an attempt to be more conscious of my own training practices, I have compiled a few factors for consideration on future teacher training courses:

BalanceWhen is ELT modelling most useful?

Right off the bat I suspect.  Thrown in at the deep end, new trainees with no teaching experience need something tangible to latch onto.  At the outset, observing how the trainer gives instructions or elicits lexis can be invaluable and immediately applicable to teaching practice.  Certainly, it’s important that they consider the rationale for giving succinct instructions, but more important still is that they mimic their trainer and actually give succinct instructions right from the very first lesson.  At this point, the how is as, if not more, important than the why.

As a training course progresses however, and the trainees have (one hopes) acquired some survival skills, the need to see their trainer task check instructions wanes.  In fact, once the trainees get the point, is there any reason to be doing this?

The trainees Who benefits most from explicit ELT modelling?

Tied in with the previous consideration, it seems that trainers sometimes forget to suit their training methods to the participants.  Many courses stress the need for the trainees to cater to the individual learning styles, preferences and needs of their learners, yet this mandate is not heeded by the trainers themselves!

Likewise, there are, or at least should be, significant differences between a pre-service course for new teachers, and a group of experienced teachers taking an in-service course or other form of continued professional development.  Considering that seasoned teachers already have extensive experience to draw upon, would they not be better served analyzing and reflecting, rather than being flooded with more demonstrations of activities?

ReflectionWhat is the point of experiential learning anyway?

Sometimes it seems we get caught up in the most obvious aspect of experiential learning – the experience.  And yet this is only one of the steps of the Experiential Learning Cycle.  According to David Kolb’s model (1984), there are in actuality four stages:

  • Experience
  • Critical Reflection
  • Abstract Conceptualization
  • Active experimentation

Thus, for our trainees, the experience stage could be both their own teaching practice and their experiences in the input sessions.  Likewise, the final active experimentation stage is also their teaching practice, where they can put into practice their newfound knowledge gained from feedback and reflection.

It is the other two stages, critical reflection and abstract conceptualization, which are sometimes given short thrift in our eagerness to always be moving forward to something new.  Describing these steps in his summation of Kolb’s theory, Kelly writes that,

[w]hereas in the Critical Reflection stage we ask questions about the experience in terms of previous experiences, in the Abstract Conceptualization stage, we try to find the answers. We make generalizations, draw conclusions and form hypotheses about the experience.[3]

To my mind, it is in reality this crucial process of self-questioning and answering which is at the core of a teacher’s formation.  While there are obviously benefits to be gained from accumulating teaching experience, these gains are multiplied exponentially when accompanied by serious reflection.  All too often I observe experienced teachers whose lessons are brimming with wonderful activities drawn from a variety of sources, and yet their lessons lack any coherence or logic.  In contrast to these activity-driven lessons, there is always a palpable difference when watching a teacher who has really considered why they are doing what they are doing.


Teacher training optionsHow can we usefully promote experiential learning during input?

When trying to capture the benefits of both experiential input and reflection in teacher training, three techniques spring to mind; all have long been mainstays of teacher education, and with good reason:

Loop input

Pioneered by Tessa Woodward (1986), in a 2003 article she describes it as “a specific type of experiential teacher training process that involves an alignment of the process and content of learning.”[5]  Examples of loop input could include doing a dictogloss (the process) about dictogloss (the content), a series of reading tasks (the process) about teaching reading lessons (the content), etc.

So how is this different from the usual workshop activities?  Not only does this save time, but different trainees will derive greater benefit depending upon their learning preferences, either from doing the activity, receiving explicit input, or just from the reinforcement that this style of integrated input entails.  It is important to remember, however, that a post-task reflection stage is imperative in order to give trainees a chance to digest what they have just participated in.

Micro teaching

Having trainees teach mini-lessons or language points to their peers might seem a little stilted or unnatural, but in moderation it does have some unique advantages.  As with loop input, micro teaching allows for two simultaneous processes to take place. On the one hand, the trainee experiences semi-authentic teaching conditions and gains useful experiential practice.  Equally, it is possible for the trainer or other trainees to interrupt the ‘lesson’ and give real-time feedback rather than the typical post-lesson variety.  As Thornbury points out,

The trainer’s role, as silent, impassive observer, noting every move, and delivering the feedback retrospectively, seems to run counter to what we now understand about skill acquisition. Cognitive learning theory has long recognised that feedback in ‘real operating conditions’—i.e. while you’re actually engaged in a task —is generally more powerful and more durable than feedback delivered after the event.[6]

Handled in a sensitive manner, this process allows for immediate reflection and a chance to reattempt parts of the lessons (something most teachers have wished they could do at one point or another).  As a result, all four of Kolb’s stages of experiential learning can in reality take place within a single session.


Taking a slightly different tack, another experiential training technique is to demonstrate what not to do.  At first glance this may not seem to differ from a good demo in many regards, but I would argue that there is an appreciable distinction.  In addition to horrible demos usually being both highly memorable and entertaining, they also necessarily stimulate a far greater degree of reflection.  While it is possible after a good demo for trainees to perhaps pick up what the trainer was doing, memorize the stages, or intuit the rationale, this is by no means a given.  Conversely, following a bad demo, trainees are compelled to analyze why it was a terrible experience and how it could have been improved.  Based upon previous post-course feedback, it seems that these lessons learned about what not to do often leave the most lasting impression.

Final thoughts

In the end, the degree to which a trainer wants to model ELT in their training sessions is a personal choice.  For most, this will continue to be a balancing act between behaviourist learning theory (demonstrating and repeating the ‘correct’ way of doing things) and cognitive learning theory (contemplating and reflecting upon the process).  And of course to a great extent, the approach adopted should depend on the needs preferences of the specific trainees.  Whatever the decision though, it does raise the question, posed here by Anthony Gaughan:

Is it really as easy as all that to make such a close correlation between learning a language and learning to teach, and teaching to teach? [7]


Davies, Clara.  Learning cycle image.  University of Leeds.  Last downloaded May 2012 from

English Canada. Teacher Training: About CELTA.  Last downloaded May 2012 from

Gaughan, Anthony.  2012.  Comments on Jemma Gardner’s blog: Lead by Example.  Unplugged Reflections.  Last downloaded May 2012 from

Kelly, Curtis.  David Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and ESL. The Internet TESL Journal.  Last downloaded May 2012 from

Kurzweil, Joshua.  2007. Experiential Learning And Reflective Practice In Teacher Education. AYMAT Individual Thesis/ SMAT IPP Collection. Paper 5. Last downloaded May 2012 from

Smith, M. K. 2001. David A. Kolb on experiential learning. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Last downloaded May 2012 from

Thornbury, Scott.  2011.  P is for Practicum.  An A-Z of ELT.  Last downloaded May 2012 from

Woodward, Tessa.  Key Concepts in ELT: Loop Input ELT Journal Volume 57/3 July 2003 OUP.  Last downloaded May 2012 from:

[1] English Canada

[2] It can be argued that almost all new teachers already have experience in the language classroom, albeit as learners.  Although this previous experience is undoubtedly useful, it is highly improbable that many language learners are consciously analyzing their teachers’ pedagogical practices.

[3] Curtis 1997

[4] Davies 2012

[5] Woodward 2003:301

[6] Thornbury 2011 – It should be noted that Thornbury actually advocates this form of feedback during authentic teaching rather than as part of micro-teaching.

[7] Gaughan 2012

15 Responses to “Trainee See, Trainee Do?”

  1. Ben Naismith May 11, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    Just a quick note to please ask that if anyone has any suggestions regarding content, style, etc. to please let me know. I have been given the green light to have an article published in the upcoming IH Journal and would like to submit a version of this blog post. Feel free to be as critical as you like!

    Thank you

  2. Chris Ożóg May 15, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Great post, Ben and one I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I have decided to write a long and rambling comment to mess with your head. It’s not like you have anything else to do, is it?

    Your point about the experiential learning cycle being ingrained in ELT is certainly valid. It would be interesting to see what devout believers in learning styles, M.I theory or NLP make of that as an idea that is more or less seen as a given by many. Aren’t the trainees likely to react to experiential learning or modelling in the way that their learning preferences allow, one wonders?

    The idea about modelling what you want trainees to do is an interesting one and one which chimes with the name of the post. Is it in some ways not more remiscient of a behaviourist idea of learning – that we see, repeat and that we should not make mistakes thereafter? That may be an extreme interpretation, but the point is worth some consideration. If taking this approach, the trainer must be at pains to ask lots of “why” questions – why did I do my instructions like that? Why did I put you in groups like that? Why did I put you in groups? That way the trainees will be forced to actually think about the rationale behind the trainer’s approach, but they aren’t really part of the experience, as it’s the trainer who’s doing the work. There seems to be a parallel here with the teacher who puts a sentence on the board and then asks why it’s the present perfect, rather than allowing the learner to form the sentence themselves.

    Further to this, Scott Thornbury has written about the merits of the practicum part of pre-service courses. Thinking about TP and then feedback, he writes “Cognitive learning theory has long recognised that feedback in ‘real operating conditions’—i.e. while you’re actually engaged in a task —is generally more powerful and more durable than feedback delivered after the event” ( Would this not be a more appropriate model of experiential learning? If the trainees is actually going to learn through doing, why not throw them in from the off and counsel from the side as the trainer? As Scrivener (Learning Teaching p20) notes, in experiential learning the teaching can be somewhat peripheral, but it can come in many forms – guidance, support, demos, examples, feedback – at any point in the cycle.

    It’s interesting that you note that working teachers already have “extensive experience to draw upon” when comparing them with NQTs or pre-service trainees. While I obviously understand exactly what you mean (experience teaching in a classroom), let’s not forget that even the latter two groups have extensive experience of teaching, though probably from having been on the receiving end of it. They have already formed many opinions, had many emotional reactions and have a sense of what they think teaching is, though not necessarily from having done it themselves. And we can’t overlook this in terms of experiential learning – what they trainee brings with them in terms of their own life experience will shape how they react, connect, reflect and progress as teachers within a communicative framework. Just think of all those CELTA candidates that just never seem to quite get it.

    And wait, there’s more. The links between learning a language and learning to teach a language are quite blurry. The former is learning a means to an end – in this case communication – and the latter is the learning of subject knowledge, techniques and how best to help your learners to communicate. In this sense, is there really any link at all? On any training courses I’ve been a trainee, I’ve picked up most from watching my tutor and, if I like what I see, modelling myself on them and the same applies to observing working teachers. This would be in support of loop input, but it is only for me. I learn this way. Others do not. Again, if you think back to some CELTA candidates you’ve had, just think that for some who will remain nameless, no amount of loop input was ever going to help, as they simply could not transfer that to the classroom. They did, however, manage to transfer their speaking of English…

    And with that, I’m done. I hope at least one of those ill-considered points gives you food for thought.


    • Ben Naismith May 15, 2012 at 9:14 am #

      Thank you and damn you. Lots of food for thought which means I need to do some reflecting and revising at this hour (what are you doing up already?)

      About your various points:

      1) Learning styles – I would also be interested to see what proponents think. I imagine the argument would be that kinesthetic learners would like to do the activities as students, the auditory learners would like to discuss and reflect orally, while the visual learners would appreciate more written reflection or handouts, etc. If that kind of thing holds any weight with you of course…

      2) I like your parallels to behaviourism and I’ll need to add something to the article. Maybe I could use a bell and some candy every time a trainee gives their instructions before giving the handout? But seriously, I think this only reaffirms the need for post-experience reflection. Also, I would say it’s further evidence that our ‘horrible demos’ are probably useful (and not just amusing for us) as they force trainees to consider what not to do and how to do it differently. Might add that to the article too.

      3) I was also thinking about Scott’s practicum article. I remember at the time thinking that I would feel a bit awkward interrupting a real class, but I can see the logic. Should probably quote him too. I think I’ll just stick to semi-authentic peer teaching for now as a compromise though.

      4) I take your point about life experience and learning experience, even for new teachers. That’s why we do are little foreign language lessons after all isn’t it?

      Well, I asked for comments and suggestions and you’ve definitely come through. Back to the drawing board for the next draft.


      • Ben Naismith May 17, 2012 at 11:06 am #

        Have made a number of changes and updated the post. Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions.

  3. annforeman May 29, 2012 at 3:47 am #

    Hi Ben,

    Just posted a link to this on the TEachingEnglish facebook page – – if you’d like to check there for comments.


    • Ben Naismith May 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Thanks Ann, that’s great. Much appreciated.

  4. Shahram May 29, 2012 at 11:59 pm #

    I have been teaching English for about 26 years. Some of my teaching experience comes from observation of my teachers presenting different courses at both the teacher training center and the university (where I spent a valuable portion of my life). I do remember that the students ( would be teachers) naturally reflected on the methods and procedures that the teachers used to present their lessons. I do believe that observation of teachers could be an affective tool especially if the students are sensitized to the methods and procedures used by teachers. Note that some those procedures were unique, and I had never studied them in any methodology books.

    • Ben Naismith May 30, 2012 at 9:29 am #

      Hi Shahram,

      Thanks for sharing your own experiences. I’m intrigued by the unique techniques that aren’t found in methodology books – I want to know these secrets too!

  5. Shahram May 30, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    Hi Ben,
    I have shared some of those ideas in the British Council website and the one in facebook. I hope I am not giving the impression that the teachers had not adopted those ideas from methodology books books Perhaps they either created or adopted them. However, I did not come across most of them in methodology books. You may see and make judgments.

  6. Ben Naismith May 30, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    Sorry Shahram, I must still be asleep this morning. I’ll definitely check out your ideas on the BC website and facebook page.


  7. Ben Naismith July 10, 2012 at 5:35 am #

    Thanks too to @michaelegriffin for all his useful feedback!

  8. Noel Ihebuzor March 9, 2021 at 8:14 pm #

    Great Contribution – the method you describe has implications beyond ELT. I will be using it to facilitate a facilitation skills training where I intend to use tasks on facilitation to encourage reflection and appropriation of the essentials of facilitation skills

  9. Noel Ihebuzor March 9, 2021 at 8:17 pm #

    Reblogged this on visionvoiceandviews.

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