Ten questions to ask foreign language teaching CPD providers

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Intro

I have attended lots of MFL PD sessions throughout my career dishing out lots of WHAT’s (i.e. activities) and HOW’s (i.e. their classroom implementation). What was usually missing is that quid that has the power to transform teaching, i.e. the answers to the following difficult questions that everyone attending such PD sessions should ask. In writing our ‘MFL teacher’s toolkit’ Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net and I are keeping these questions very much in our focal awareness throughout the whole process.

Ten questions to ask your CPD provider

  1. Why this approach? – What is the rationale for this approach? Why should I use the activities you are recommending? How do you know they are going to work? Teachers are rarely told this by PD facilitators. This is, in my view, the greatest shortcoming of all.
  1. Where is the evidence that this approach ACTUALLY works? – By this I do not mean ‘conclusive’ evidence with long lists of reference and statistics; but at least some indication based on classroom research, some objective data that the recommended approach has worked with at least some foreign language students. Teachers, in my experience, need some degree of ‘certainty’ that something they are expected to use in their classrooms actually ‘works’ in order to buy into a new methodology or technology.
  1. How do I sequence the great activities you are recommending? Why? – This is one of the most important questions for many teachers, as it affects the nitty gritty of their daily practice. Teachers are very busy people; as much as we want them to be reflective and work the ideal sequencing out by themselves, they want and must be provided by people running inset training sessions with some sort of reference framework.
  1. How do these activities affect students’ cognition and language acquisition? Why? – MFL PD facilitators usually tell you things like ‘This activity develops your students’ vocabulary. They are really effective and fun’; then they show us a video or ask us to try them out with our neighbours. But they never tell us what aspects of grammar or vocabulary learning they impact and why. This in my opinion is crucial in order to empower teachers with the all-important ability to use those activities effectively and flexibly across contexts in the future.
  1. How do I get my students to ACQUIRE the target language grammar, not just LEARN grammar rules? – As it usually happens in MFL PD sessions, you never get to hear about how to bring students from declarative knowledge (knowing grammar rules) learning to actual acquisition (using those rules automatically and accurately in spontaneous speech). You are at best shown ‘activities which aim at memorizing grammar rules and practise them (e.g. mechanical or gap-filling drills; fun games) but you are never told how one gets the students to use them correctly in real time communication.
  1. How do the AFL strategies and the assessment rubrics you are showing actually help me assess my students’ development in term of FLUENCY, COMPLEXITY, ACCURACY, VOCABULARY RANGE and DEPTH and COGNITIVE CONTROL in a principled, valid and consistent way? – the AFL strategies and the assessment rubrics usually shown by UK MFL consultants are usually very limited in their power to asses performance and proficiency and help teachers identify at which developmental stage along the language acquisition continuum MFL learners are located.
  1. How are language skills acquired? How do we scaffold and monitor skill acquisition? – More than often UK PD providers will show you tons of rubrics and how you should use (very simplistic) rubrics to scaffold skill learning. I wish language learning was that simple…
  1. How can I get learners to acquire the memory strategies you recommend and use them autonomously? – PD facilitators often show scores of slides with memory techniques but they regularly fail to tell teachers how you get students to use them autonomously without any teacher prodding. Strategy training in memory strategy requires a specific set of knowledge and skills that the average teacher has not received training in; moreover, it requires extensive training (lasting months) to be effective and intensive scaffolding. Teachers are rarely – if ever – told this.
  1. How can we ensure that PBL implementation actually integrate all four skills and develops and assesses effectively the development of fluency and cognitive control? – Crucial and challenging question everyone should ask anyone showing you great example of projects integrating emerging technologies. Yet, never had or heard of a PD session where this issue is effectively tackled
  1. Does the kind of differentiated teaching you propose actually work? Where is the evidence and/or theoretical rationale behind? – None of the PD sessions I have ever attended on differentiation has ever attempted to provide me with any research evidence that the recommended differentiation strategies actually achieved their intended purpose; or at least with a theoretical rationale for the approach. Yet, since differentiated learning is very laborious and time-consuming to set up one does expect these questions to be answered.

Conclusion

The above ten questions refer to only a few of the many shortcomings of PD sessions I have been involved in in 25 years of teaching. Bizarre how, despite so much research having been carried out in L2 acquisition and pedagogy in the last twenty years or so, lots of MFL PD in the UK seems to have been recycling the same old topics ad nauseam – the only notable additions being PBL and emerging technologies.

As I have often reiterated in my blogs, for MFL PD to be effective it has to empower teachers with the WHY of language acquisition and pedagogy and the WHEN. The HOW should focus more on the process of learning rather than on how to use an activity or App; i.e. on how language learning is impacted by each step we decide to take in our planning, execution and assessment. Take PD in emerging technologies, for instance: the facilitator comes in, shows you a few Apps and web-tools and how to use them; teachers try them out and…that’s it! How about: how do they impact the process of learning at different stages of proficiency and why?

MFL CPD providers should not presume that teachers are not capable of or interested in learning how MFL students learn. For transformational professional development to work, it must provide a clear and convincing rationale as to why the methodological framework or principles proposed have the potential to be effective. Teachers must feel a sense of empowerment which cannot simply be brought about by being provided with new teaching strategies; rather, first and foremost it requires an understanding of how language learning happens; how what we do in the classroom affects acquisition and cognition; what fuels and sustains the development of cognitive control over language reception and production skills; what the markers of fluency, accuracy and complexity are at the various stages of language acquisition; how we bring about learner autonomy, etc.

On the subject of learner autonomy, I find it scandalous that after thirty years of research in learner training (or learning to learn) UK PD providers’ knowledge of this area of research and pedagogy can be so inadequate, especially considering how some very well-known learner-training researchers are actually UK based (e.g. Ernesto Macaro, Vee Harris, Suzanne Graham).

Of course, another major pitfall of PD refers to its follow-up; how firmly the content of the training session(s) is kept by teachers in their focal awareness and implemented and self-monitored in their daily practice well after the PD event(s). But this is beyond the scope of this post.

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