A Ship on the Horizon? Written feedback to teachers in training

Roger Hunt

Article first published in IATEFL TT Ed sig newsletter.

I was recently involved in a discussion with a colleague who had just completed his training as a tutor for the Cambridge CELTA scheme; we were talking about written feedback to trainees following teaching practice (TP). He was worried that what he wrote during TP might not make a lot of sense to the teachers in training he was writing to. He used the analogy of a ship on the horizon. Someone standing on a cliff top might well see a ship on the horizon that is invisible to those standing on the beach; was he standing on a cliff top (his own many years of teaching experience) trying to make the people on the beach see what he could see, or should he try to find their line of sight and work within that? How could he best draw their attention to the ship on the horizon so that they could see it for themselves? It seemed to me that this was an analogy very much in line with Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): an invisible ship is merely that: invisible, until something causes us to perceive it, or how do we know what our own ZPD might be until we become aware of it?

My colleague and I then discussed the role of feedback, specifically written feedback, to trainee teachers and how this may be instrumental in helping them see the ship on the horizon; helping them into and beyond their ZPD by the use of questions and task types on written feedback forms.

The Front and the Back

Written feedback given to trainees on teacher training courses typically includes an overall evaluative comment along with points to work on in the future. These two sections are usually on the front of a pro forma document provided by the institution hosting the course, or are of the tutor's own design. What goes on the back?

Ticks (and crosses?)

Quite commonly what goes 'on the back' is a number of key words eg: boardwork; class management; monitoring; etc written chronologically, that is as they occur during the lesson, with ticks indicating this particular aspect of teaching was done well (as opposed to ticks, I've never seen crosses used on these feedback forms). A brief comment eg: 'really good drilling this time!' is often used as an alternative to ticks.

I once saw two trainee teachers comparing their feedback forms by counting the number of ticks on them; they didn't speak to each other about the key words preceding the ticks, just the number of ticks (and double ticks) overall. Perhaps that was how they judged the success, or not, of their lessons from their tutors' view points. It stopped me using ticks: I wanted my trainee teachers to read what I wrote.

Questions

Questions are a frequent inclusion on the back eg: 'Do you think they really understood what you were saying?' (the answer to this question is clearly 'No'); 'Do you think you helped enough with pronunciation?' (again, clearly 'No' is the answer); 'Why didn't you mark the stress on the vocabulary?' (means you should have); Why didn't you preteach the essential vocabulary in the text? (again, means you should have). Many questions are not really questions at all, merely veiled criticisms, as in the examples above. I am not suggesting we should not ask questions, but we should question ourselves with regard what we are trying to achieve with the questions we ask.

For example, to one teacher I wrote 'Why did you write everything on the board in green?' – I was interested to know whether or not the teacher had a rationale for using only a green pen. He had. He said he thought green was softer on the eye. I thought this a perfectly reasonable rationale, although I didn't agree with it myself. This teacher had considered why he would write in the colour he chose as opposed to using whatever colour pen happened to come to hand first. My point is that I asked a genuine question to discover the extent to which this teacher had considered his action, my question was not intended as a criticism (although I admit it could easily have been taken as one, possibly all questions could be taken as such). Consider the following questions; they are not intended as veiled criticism, but as genuine, open questions for discussion.

  • What do you think the relative importance of teaching structure as opposed to vocabulary is?
  • Why do you stand when you teach?
  • Why did you follow this particular procedure with the reading text?
  • What do you feel the balance between accuracy and fluency work should be in an average lesson?
  • What sort of approaches seem to work best with this group of students? Why so do you think?
  • To what extent do you think the teacher is a participant in class discussions, as opposed to being a monitor/corrector etc?

In using this type of open ended, discussion based question type I hope I am encouraging the teacher to consider a/his/her rationale which may underlie his or her thinking and consequent classroom behaviour. Maingay (1986) differentiates between 'Principled teaching behaviour' and 'Ritualistic teaching behaviour', 'principled' essentially means having a considered, conscious rationale underlying a classroom behaviour while 'Ritualistic' equates with going through the motions because that is 'how it is done'. Questions can be a powerful way of helping trainee teachers through this stage of their ZPD, or helping them perceive the ship on the horizon. The questions themselves, however, need to be phrased in such a way that they are not seen as threats and criticisms, but as answerable in discussion (even if no 'right' answers are resultant).

So, the back of my TP feedback forms includes questions of this sort, but not too many at once: perhaps we need help to see a ship or two before an entire fleet (?)

Tasks

Tom Sawyer realised the value of tasks when he got his aunt's fence painted by a gaggle of his friends whom he charged for the privilege and came away, not only with a newly whitewashed fence, but also a wide ranging collection of artefacts including marbles and a dead rat if my memory serves well. A task may be onerous to a young boy intent on idling as much as possible on a Saturday afternoon, but tasks can also be a way of helping trainee teachers into, and beyond their current ZPD; another way of noticing that ship on the horizon. Much as Tom Sawyer realised the remunerative potential of tasks, so can we transfer task completion to the teacher in training for ship sighting potential.

A task example

I recently watched a teacher in training use a listening text in TP. I thought the procedure she followed was not based on any particular rationale of her own or the result of her reading and so, on the back of my written feedback I put the following:

With this particular text that you have used with this group and for your intended focus on the language point you have chosen to highlight in it I, personally, would do the following:

  • Set the scene-get them involved in the topic
  • Check they understand the words (three key words from the text followed)
  • Set a preliminary task which focuses attention on the main content of the story
  • Let them listen
  • Get feedback on what they'd heard
  • Play sections of the tape again
  • Get more feedback
  • Replay with feedback until the students are happy
  • When convinced they'd understood the story, focus their attention on the language point

Task: identify my probable aims in using this procedure overall and for the individual stages I describe above.

I was not trying to suggest that my procedure above was the only procedure to use with a listening text, I was attempting to make this teacher aware of the fact that the way she might stage an activity should have a rationale based on considered aims in terms of how to best help the students with the matter in hand. In the feedback session following this it emerged that she had identified my aims and rationale very easily. I think she was able to see the ship on the horizon, particularly when she admitted she hadn't really seen how, procedurally, she might exploit this text to best effect for her students when planning the lesson. Importantly she saw this task as a generic: she could extrapolate the aims and principles discussed to the exploitation of other texts used for similar purposes. So, in terms of her ZPD she was a bit further on perhaps; a bit higher up the cliff.

Another task example

I observed a teacher trying to help her students with some vocabulary. Her approach was to write the words on the board and ask if anyone knew what they meant. The students did their best, but, as they didn't know the words, could only answer 'No'. The teacher then gave some definitions and asked the students to match the words to the definitions. Obviously, as they didn't know what the words meant, they couldn't do this either. The teacher, at a loss, then went on to give explanations of the words. I'm not sure if the students understood the explanations or not. I wrote the following little task sheet for her and she brought her answers to our feedback session.

  1. What do the following words mean: splink, fuitzkerlick, blanetch, bloimp, tront, plimp?
  2. Match the words to their definitions:
    · A sports car
    · A lorry
    · To drive quickly
    · To crash
    · To be badly injured
    · To be 'shaken'
  3. Now look at the following story and match the words to the definitions:

    Dick and Dora were splinking along the motorway in their brand new fuitzkerlick when a twenty five ton blanetch coming towards them went out of control and bloimped into their blanetch. Fortunately they weren't tronted only plimped.
  4. Questions:
    · What is the role of context in helping students understand the meaning of new vocabulary?
    · What is the problem with asking students what a word means?
    · What is the problem with giving students unknown vocabulary and asking them to match the items with definitions?

(Her answers were:
A student cannot define a word they don't know or match it to a definition. Context can provide significant clues that can help infer meaning. This is a useful skill for students to have.)

Nothing new in that of course, it just depends where you are up the cliff and which ships you can, or cannot see.

Conclusion

Ticks (and crosses) can be counted, but the extent to which they give guidance in terms of principled teaching, and training, behaviour is questionable. The front of a feedback form can be of use in as much as it can give an indication of how things stand at that stage of the course with regard an overall evaluation. It can also record areas of weaknesses that the teacher needs to work on: it can give direction. The back can be utilised equally powerfully: it can be used to help that teacher see the ship on the horizon, and even identify the ship as a schooner, luxury liner, ferry or submarine. Well considered questions and tasks can help inexperienced teachers into and beyond their ZPD, or, perhaps, just onto the next step up the cliff (as for us all).

References

  • Maingay, P. In Explorations in Teacher Training (Ed. Duff) Longman 1986
  • Vygotsky, L. Language and Mind. 1934 (Translated in 1969)
  • Twain, M. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

See also

Hot and cold feedback on pre-service teacher training courses

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