Kirstin Plante in the Netherlands speaks out about teacher training

kir2I want to share this article by Kirstin Plante of TPRS Academy. Since 2008 she and Iris Maas have been training teachers in the Netherlands to use TPRS. Many teachers see how effective TPRS and Comprehensible Input methods can be, but struggle to put them into practice. Seeing is believing, but seeing people like Carol Gaab, Jason Fritz and Linda Li at a workshop doesn’t guarantee that we can get the same results in our classrooms with our students, who are often much less cooperative than the teacher-students at workshops. Here is what Kirstin has to say:

“It’s interesting to think about the best ways of training teachers to use TPRS. Our teacher training course has developed over the years, from simply copying the workshops we attended in the US to a course that reflects our experiences in these past eight years and the knowledge about brainlearning we have gathered. Check out this blog post to learn about the choices we have made so far.

“On the MoreTPRS-list, there is an interesting discussion going on about whether to teach TPRS in a holistic manner or skill by skill. I (Kirstin) think this is a very interesting and useful discussion, and I’m looking forward to discussing it further on a more philosophical level, which may lead to changes on a practical level. So far, here’s a summary of the choices we have made for our teacher training course, based on our experience. This is not the end of the development, but this is where we are now.

“One side is the, let’s say, theoretical discussion about whether TPRS is a skill that is comparable to the skill of speaking a language, and can therefore be acquired like language. I agree that TPRS is not the same as a language – it is more like playing sports. I like the analogy of playing basketball, but I’ll compare it to soccer, since I’m more familiar with this game (it’s the Dutch national sport, apart from ice skating). Kids who learn to play soccer, learn many separate skills during the trainings. They also play a lot of games, in order to integrate the separate skills and learn all the complicated integrative skills you need in the interaction with a lot of players and a set of fixed rules. So they learn both things. Kids who do not go to trainings but learn to play soccer in the street, will be seen shooting the ball over and over against a wall, or practicing zigzagging with the ball, or other separate skills they will need when playing the game. For me, the analogy shows that the ideal way of learning TPRS might be a combination of learning  and practicing separate skills and ‘playing the game’ in order to integrate all the skills.

“Second, when we train teachers, we have some practical things to consider. One of them is time, another one is the different ‘learning styles’ of teachers, a third one is where teachers come from, and finally, the situation in which most teachers work.

“The time aspect is a very clear one. Most TPRS-teachers will attend a workshop of one, maybe two days, or if they are lucky, a five day conference. Our teacher training course takes 6 months (!), but also with only 5 days where we meet for training. So for teachers to have something ‘to start with’, it can be (and is, I think) very useful to have some concrete steps, or skills, to hold on to. To capture the whole game in such a short time is too much for most people. We have seen that. It just is too much.

“The learning styles is another thing. There are some teachers who will see a TPRS example and just jump into it and experiment and try and practice. I think they are comparable to the ‘4-percenters who can create language out of grammar rules’. I mean to say that there are just very very few teachers who can do that. Most teachers will need more guidance, steps, skills, practice and feedback to get to the point where they can, or where they dare, to play the game as a whole. We have seen this, and see it all the time in our training sessions.

“Where teachers come from, is mostly a non-TPRS environment. They learned the language in a traditional way, and are used to thinking about language in a traditional way. They need much more than to just ‘play the game’. They need to know why the game is played in such a manner, and what is the use of the different skills. Often, they are scared to lose what they have when they aren’t yet confident about what they are learning. For their own security, they need to hold on to what they have (their traditional way of teaching) for some time while they are practicing the new skills. They want to implement TPRS step by step in their classes, because that is what feels safest to them. And all the while, they need to feel that what they did before wasn’t ‘wrong’ (even if we, hardcore TPRS’ers, may think so). It is a thin line between fear and hope, and one of the things we can do as teacher trainers is give them step by step tools to walk that line on the side of hope.

“This is closely connected to where teachers work. Many discussions on this list are about confrontations with uninterested or even hostile colleagues or administrators. I’m going to exagerate a bit here: They see a teacher that jumps into a game without thorough preparation and without being able to explain what (s)he does other than ‘it just works’. So for teachers it is useful to know the separate skills that build the TPRS game. It is useful for them to be able to explain what they are doing. And I feel, as I said before, that it is useful for them to know why they do it. The difference between declarative and procedural memory, for example. Knowledge of this type of information is crucial, not only for the TPRS-teacher herself, but also for her to be able to explain why she has chosen to teach this way. This is one of the reasons why we extended our teacher trainings from a two-day training with one week in between to a 5 day training course over 6 weeks. The 6 weeks are to read and process the information on brain learning and language acquisition (and also to practice and receive feedback on real life classroom practice, and do some peer exchanges). Since we started this extended course, hardly any of ‘our’ teachers are having trouble with their colleagues in school anymore. It helps.

“Sorry, that was going a little off-topic. Anyway, for me personally, the challenge is to find the perfect equilibrium between holistic and skill-by-skill training. In our development as teacher trainers, we have passed several stages. We started with short trainings, where we would do a full demo, then tell them ‘this is circling and now just do it’. Again, I’m exaggerating. We found that teachers were enthusiastic but confused. A clear working memory overload. So we tried to show just a part of TPRS, and break down the practicing steps (not the skills themselves), and thus it became easier for them to practice . BUT they also sort of lost sight of ‘the whole’. They would practice a skill and not see where it would lead to. So we went back to continuously showing them the connection between what they are doing and the actual TPRS game. We also, thanks to Laurie Clarcq’s coaching from the heart, focus on the essentials (CI and relationship) when we practice separate skills, so even when we are only ‘dribbling’ (circling), we focus on the final goal (CI and relationship). So I feel, and I hope, that we have become much better at addressing both needs, but as I said, we’re still looking for the perfect equilibrium, and that’s why I’m so interested in discussing this topic.

“I like to think of teaching as a craft, rather than an art. For most people, I think it is a craft. And like in all crafts, some develop it into a real art. Just some. Most just enjoy the craftmanship and make beautiful and useful things. I feel that what I can do as a teacher trainer is to teach a craft. Some of the teachers will take what they have learned to a higher level, and I thoroughly enjoy watching those gifted teachers. But I also thoroughly enjoy watching the craftspeople do their jobs as best as they can. They are the majority, and they are as important to language education as any other CI/TPRS teacher.”

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