Although much has been written, discussed, and forwarded as
regards both teacher training and the role of teacher cognition in
English language teaching, it still surprised me to hear one qualified
teacher state that, in relation to young learner English language
teaching, she had to unlearn everything she was taught on her training
course. I heard yet another qualified teacher indicate that you just
need to do what they tell you on the course. These two statements
suggest that a lack of coherence and continuity still remains between
what teacher trainers and educators promote in young learner teacher
training courses and what actually occurs in the teachers’ classrooms.
The reason for this discrepancy between taught theory and learnt
practice has already been shown to lie in the realm of teacher
cognitions (Borg, 2006) although this research has mainly concentrated
on adult English language teaching.
Formation of Teacher Cognitions
Teacher cognitions have been shown to influence teachers’
practice in the adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)
classroom in a variety of ways (Borg, 2006) and, more recently, in the
young learner classroom (McLaughlin, 2012). These cognitions consist of
the combination of beliefs, knowledge, and understanding that have been
acquired by teachers over many years. These beliefs are initially based
on what is referred to as the apprenticeship of observation (Lortie,
1975). This indicates that by the time s/he has finished both primary and secondary schools, the average student has completed 13,000 hours of observation of teachers teaching. This provides students with a
sufficient amount of time to form concrete ideas on the characteristics
and behaviour of a “good” and “bad” teacher. Thinking back to childhood,
most of us can recall one of our good teachers and the teachers we
liked or disliked. As a result, when we begin teaching, our natural
practice is to emulate those good teachers. These concrete beliefs about
what makes a good teacher and good teaching practice are brought in
their entirety to initial teaching training courses irrespective of the
type of training course.
Cognition vs. Classroom Practice
The underlying value in carrying out a comparison between
cognitions and practice is not done to check whether teachers do what
they claim to do. It is researched in order to try to understand the
effect of cognitions on teaching practice. Information in this area
helps to shed light on whether teacher trainers and educators can help
develop an awareness of cognition among trainees and if this awareness
can then aid teacher development.
The Role of Teacher Trainers and Educators
As aforementioned, trainee teachers bring their firmly cemented
beliefs about teachers and teaching to their initial training courses
and programmes. Teacher trainers, teacher educators, and course tutors
are the people who deliver these initial teacher training courses, and
therefore, they are the people who are faced with these accumulated
assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge based on experience. The onus is on
the teacher trainer to try to have trainees and teachers address their
beliefs in order to reevaluate them in the light of proven evidence from
both theoretical studies and practical research. The teacher trainers
and educators must make teachers aware of what cognitions are and how
they can become both aware and in control of these. This, although
straightforward on paper, is a difficult path to walk—the line between
teacher cognition and teacher practice. When this is examined in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
context, the task becomes even more difficult given that many training
courses (e.g., Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
[CELTA], Certificate in English Language Teaching to Young Learners
[CELTYL]) take place over a 4- to 5-week period. Given that teacher
cognitions are formed over a period of at least 12 years, it is
optimistic to assume that these can be fundamentally examined and
altered over a 4-week period (Hobbs, 2007).
Therefore, teacher educators and trainers must bear in mind the following points:
- Trainee teachers tend to use course information as a tool to
validate their beliefs rather than as a tool with which to reevaluate
and assess their existing beliefs (Kagan, 1992).
- Trainee teachers can complete a 3-year teacher training
course without having their beliefs shaped in any way by their training
- EFL teachers are reluctant to adopt the teaching practices
forwarded by their teacher trainer if they fundamentally disagree with
the approach. They willingly adopt those learning styles that they can
identify with and incorporate these into their lessons without
difficulty (Urmston, 2003).
- EFL teachers may understand that in order to pass the course
they must teach in a specified way, but this changes once they enter
their own classrooms and are no longer supervised or observed (Almarza,
1996; Senior, 2006).
- EFL teachers interpret information presented to them on their
training courses based on their own experiences, which may differ from
the intentions of the teacher trainer (DaSilva, 2005).
Relevance of Cognition Awareness for Trainers and Educators
Although the importance of introducing trainees and teachers to
the role that their cognitions play has been highlighted, teacher
educators and trainers must realize that there is not a
one-size-fits-all solution. Each trainee and teacher must work through
the awareness-raising process individually given that they have had
their own individual experiences that have shaped their cognitions and
subsequently their teaching practice.
If trainees and teachers can be taught to identify areas of
tension between their beliefs and practice, they can work towards
resolving these tensions through reflection and continuous professional
development. Teacher trainers and educators can help both trainees and
teachers identify and understand what their actual classroom practices
are and why they do what they do. This in turn will reduce tensions and
lead to greater awareness, which
ultimately will lead to better teaching in young learner classrooms.
Implementing this in our own teaching environments means
looking towards a programme of continuous development through
questioning and reflection and awareness raising. It means ensuring that
trainees and teachers understand the origin of their beliefs and how
these can unintentionally interfere with teaching practice in their
young learner classrooms. It also means avoiding the trap of accepting
that the completion of an initial teacher training course means that
what we say is what we do in practice.
Almarza, G. (1996). Student foreign language teacher’s
knowledge growth. In D. Freeman & J. Richards (Eds.), Teacher learning in language teaching (pp. 50–78).
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Borg, S. (2006). Teacher cognition and language
education: Research and practice. London, England:
Da Silva, M. (2005). Constructing the teaching process from
inside out: How pre-service teachers make sense of their perceptions of
the teaching of the four skills. TESL-EJ, 9(2),
Hobbs, V. (2007). A brief look at the current goals and
outcomes of short-term ELT teacher education. Research Notes,
Kagan, D. M. (1992). Professional growth among preservice and
beginning teachers. Review of Educational Research, 62, 129–169.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological
study. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago
McLaughlin, L. (2012). EFL teacher cognition: Beliefs
and knowledge of teachers regarding young English language learners:
Four case studies. Saarbrücken,
Peacock, M. (2001). Pre-service ESL teachers' beliefs about
second language learning: A longitudinal study. System, 29, 177–195.
Senior, R. M. (2006). The experience of language
teaching. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University
Urmston, A. (2003). Learning to teach English in Hong Kong: The
opinions of teachers in training. Language and Education,
Louise McLaughlin currently works as a teacher trainer
for the International House World Organization. She holds a PhD in
applied linguistics, an MA in English language teaching, and a DELTA.
She is the author of ELT Teacher Cognitions. Her
areas of interest are young learners, teacher cognitions, and ESOL
teacher training and development.