Language teacher development from inside-out: Some activities for professional awareness-raising (2023)

Note: This article is a shortened version of "Language Teacher Development from Inside Out" in Klapper, J. (2001). Teaching Languages in Higher Education (pp 35 – 55). London: CiLT.

Continuing professional development is about developing beliefs. Reproduced here are some examples of the theoretical ideas and practical techniques that I will present at a talk and related workshop during the 2004 JALT conference. The activities are designed to help uncover our tacit beliefs about teaching, as the starting point for reconsidering, and possibly changing those beliefs. The activities, which are suitable for teachers working on their own or informally with one or two colleagues, are presented at relevant points throughout the article. Although the activities can be used by a teacher working alone, it is preferable to work with a colleague who can give feedback and discuss the outcomes with you. As Gilpin and Clibbon (2000) point out, "it is not the task itself … but the combination of task and feedback" which encourages the restructuring of professional thinking.

Activity 1: Belief Statement Questionnaire

This questionnaire is included not just as an example, but is for you to try. It is placed here because it asks you how you believe people become good language teachers, and it would be interesting to do it now and then again later to see if your reading has caused you to change your views, and if so, in what way, and why (not)? You could also give it to a colleague so you can compare notes and discuss any differences you may have. Doing the 'before and after' comparison and explanation, and / or the comparison and discussion with a colleague is important, as it is this stage which helps you really become aware of your beliefs.

How do you believe people become good language teachers?
Tick the appropriate columns below.
I believe that to become a good language teacher you need to ...
DefinitelyProbablyProbably notDefinitely notDon't know
1Develop a high level of proficiency in the language you teach.
2Learn a lot about grammar, phonology etc.
3Learn about second language acquisition theories.
4Be able to reproduce in a lesson techniques you have been shown on a training course or workshop.
5Be able to apply theory of language learning in lessons.
6Learn a wide repertoire of teaching techniques.
7Learn to select appropriate teaching techniques from your repertoire for a specific lesson.
8Attend good training courses.
9Be able to plan lessons according to the model(s) you have learned about in training.
10Be able to critically evaluate methods and techniques.
11Be able to act on feedback from students, colleagues, or trainers.
12Be able to develop your own ways of teaching.
13Be your own critic.
14Be able to justify the way you teach.
15Be able to explain the theory that underlies your teaching approach.
16Other(s) (add your own).

Knowledge and Teacher Learning

The role of background knowledge in individual comprehension of text has been extensively discussed in second language learning literature (e.g. Brown, 1994), and this process is equally applicable to the interpretation of events experienced by teachers. Background knowledge structures (also referred to as schemata, scripts, conceptions, preconceptions, and images; see Woods 1996) play a crucial role in the way people decide to act.

Knowledge structures are also crucial in determining how people interpret events. Every new experience (including formal learning experience) is interpreted through the filter of existing knowledge structures, which in turn may be modified to incorporate the new information. When someone experiences something new that challenges the way they think the world is, they may ignore the new information that seems not to fit, or decide that they actually heard or saw something else (That can't be right! It must have been like this … ). Alternatively, they may try to stretch or even completely reconstruct their understanding to find a way to accommodate the new experience.

With respect to language teacher development, teachers' existing conceptions of language and teaching may provide either a positive or a negative filter for the new knowledge they encounter. Conversely, teachers' views about language teaching and classroom events are influenced by "the ways in which they have interpreted what they have learned as they became teachers" (Woods, 1996, p.58). I would also include what they have learned in the thousands of hours spent in the classroom as a student (Lortie, 1975). We all come to teaching with our own unique pedagogical baggage, some useful, some not. The danger is that unless we unpack this baggage, we may unconsciously adopt practices that are not useful, and that we would choose to avoid if we had thought about them.

Activity 2: The Winding Road

On a sheet of paper, draw a bendy line from top to bottom, like a winding road or river. The line represents your life. Each bend represents a turning point in your life when something happened that had an influence on how you are as a language teacher today. For example, one bend might represent "school exchange trip to France/Germany/Spain", an event which ultimately played a role in your becoming a French/German/Spanish teacher. The events don't have to be momentous occasions, and they might not even be physical events, in the sense that they could be private, internal moments of realisation. Others might be quite formal occasions, like attending a training course. They could be single moments or quite long periods of time. Anything which you feel is important counts.

Add notes by the bends to say what happened. Then explain how each event has contributed to how you are as a language teacher today, in terms of what you do and what you believe. (Many people like to do this with a colleague, and talk each other through the bends rather than write everything down.) For example, the impact the school exchange trip had on your attitude to French/German/Spanish might mean that you now endeavour to bring the language you teach to life by bringing a little bit of France/Germany/Spain into your classroom whenever you can, through your own anecdotes, through realia or by inviting in visitors from those countries. It seems you believe that to be a successful learner of the language, you need to have an appreciation of, and positive attitude towards, the target culture, i.e. integrative motivation. When you have done this for each bend, read back through the account. Is there an occasion when you met an idea on a training course which struck a strong chord with your own life experience as a language learner and teacher, or conversely, one which you felt uncomfortable with because it did not fit with your experience? Which of your beliefs were being reinforced or challenged on that occasion? Did your beliefs change at all as a result?

The Importance of Beliefs

Williams and Burden (1997) report "a growing body of evidence to indicate that teachers are highly influenced by their beliefs, which in turn are closely linked to their values, to their views of the world and to their conceptions of their place within it" (p.56). Pajares (1992) goes so far as to claim that teachers' beliefs are more influential than their knowledge in determining teaching behaviour. Williams and Burden (1997) reiterate this: "Teachers' beliefs about what learning is will affect everything that they do in the classroom … deep-rooted beliefs about how languages are learned will pervade their classroom actions more than a particular methodology … or coursebook" (p.56-7). In terms of teacher development then, beliefs may be difficult to change. As Williams and Burden (1997) report, beliefs "tend to be culturally bound, to be formed early in life and to be resistant to change. Beliefs about teaching, for example, appear to be well established by the time a student gets to college" (p. 56-7). Furthermore, much information processing and development of understanding goes on at a subconscious level, and there is a danger on intensive teacher training programmes where new ideas and experiences come thick and fast, that teachers will subconsciously reject or fail to absorb potentially useful material. This does not mean that teacher education is redundant, however. If given time and encouragement to consider new material and experiences, teachers may adapt their understanding, and learning will take place in a deep sense.

Planned Behaviour

How does a teacher's belief-knowledge system translate into observable behaviour?

One model for explaining action sees decision-making primarily in terms of plans, intentions or goals. Much of a teacher's conscious decision-making occurs at the lesson planning stage, although it can also occur during and after lessons. Decision-making is also often subconscious, especially during lessons. As Kennedy (1999) points out, "routines and tacit or intuitive plans of action" (p. 108) are influential; indeed, it would be mentally exhausting to try to consciously consider every action we might take. But intuitive action is still based on underlying, tacit knowledge and belief structures, and from time to time it is worth exploring these. This point will be discussed further below.

Woods (1996) draws on ideas from cognitive science to develop Miller, Galanter, and Pribram's (1960) recursive model of planned action:

Language teacher development from inside-out: Some activities for professional awareness-raising (1)

For example, a teacher might plan to introduce a new structure to their class by showing an example, explaining the rule, and then asking students to invent more examples using the same structure. During the class (the action or event) the teacher may quickly discover that after explaining the rule the students look confused – the plan has not gone as anticipated. After the lesson he or she may reflect on what happened and change his or her views on how to present new structures (developing understanding). This could mean reinterpreting the presentation stage to include extra example material, and / or clearer and simpler explanations, or it could mean a much more radical reinterpretation so that this way of teaching structures is abandoned, perhaps in favour of a more inductive approach, where students try to work out the rule for themselves. This new understanding / interpretation will then inform the next planning session that the teacher undertakes.

Of course, most experienced teachers think on their feet, or reflect-in-action throughout the lesson, and react as soon as they see the students have a problem by deviating from the original lesson plan in an appropriate way, perhaps by quickly introducing more examples or explaining again in a simpler way. The point of reflection-on-action which takes place after the lesson is a) to help inexperienced teachers develop their ability to reflect-in-action in future lessons and b) to encourage more experienced teachers to occasionally reappraise their approach. The assumption that awareness-raising can result in the restructuring of intuitive knowledge is not uncontentious (see, e.g. Atkinson & Claxton, 2000), but convincing arguments have been presented in its favour (e.g. Gilpin & Clibbon, 2000).

Developing conscious knowledge and beliefs through reflection-on-action can help to develop intuitive knowledge that allows reflection-in-action to come into play in the real-time classroom. Intuitive action is based on tacit beliefs and knowledge; if these are developed as a result of awareness-raising then it follows that the nature of intuitive action can be changed.

Activity 3: Why, Why, Why?

You know how children go through a stage when they incessantly ask "what?" and "why?" about everything? Try to see your own teaching through the eyes of such a child. To do this, look over a lesson plan shortly after you have taught the lesson, while it is still fresh in you mind. Alternatively, make an audio or video tape of a lesson and play the tape back to yourself. The point is to jog your memory of all the details of the lesson ('stimulated recall'). Try to 'relive' the lesson in your head, but imagine that small child is standing beside you throughout the lesson. At which points of the lesson will he or she ask, "What's that for?", "What are they doing now?", "Why did you say that?" and of course, "Why, why, why?" What are your replies?

Alternatively, get someone else to observe one of your lessons and take notes to act as a reminder of what happened. After the lesson, he or she should quiz you in a childlike "playing dumb" way about what you did and why.

Note down your answers. Identify the occasions when something unplanned happened and you made a decision. Why did you decide on the particular course of action? What alternatives were there? Why did you not choose these at the time? If you had anticipated the event, would you have acted differently? Why?

If you repeat the exercise two or three times you will probably begin to see clusters of responses that seem to relate to the same general area. For example, there may be three or four answers that explain actions on the grounds that they encourage or help the students to work out a rule for themselves. This cluster seems to point to a principle: that students should learn inductively. See if you can draw up a set of your own language teaching principles from your observations. (Adapted from an idea suggested by Mike Breen.)

Uncovering Beliefs

A number of different methods have been devised by researchers to try to elicit directly from teachers what they believe about teaching and learning languages, and these have been adopted and adapted for administration by teachers for their own, and their colleagues', professional development. Inventories of belief statements are readily available (see, for example, Richards & Lockhart, 1994), and are fairly quick and easy to administer (or self-administer), but the problem with this approach is that the range of beliefs included in the questionnaire is pre-selected, and may therefore miss important beliefs held by the respondent. Furthermore, it is not enough for a teacher just to complete a questionnaire: the point is to promote reconsideration of beliefs. Richards and Lockhart (1994) deal with this by following small clusters of questions with discussion points, so participants can compare their responses and try to explain differences, and in doing so, critically reconsider their own beliefs. In the example given in Activity 1, you are asked to do "before and after" versions or work with a colleague to achieve this.

Less restrictive alternatives to a questionnaire are procedures like Activity 2 ("The winding road"), or Activity 4 ("Tell me a story"), which elicit narratives about language teaching and learning experience that reveal beliefs. The open-ended interview is another technique that does this (see Woods, 1996). However, these are all techniques that have to be followed by further activities which promote reflection (see Activities 2 and 4) if they are to be useful for teacher development. The next activity gives a further suggestion for this.

Activity 4: Tell me a story

For this activity you need to work with a colleague. Be ready to take notes and / or record the interview. Ask your partner to tell you about their experience of learning a second or additional language. If they have learned more than one, you could ask them to compare the different experiences. Then ask whether this experience influences on they way they teach. Add follow-up questions if you want to. You can then answer the same questions for your partner, who will record your responses.

Next, go away to "analyse" your partner's account to see if it reveals any explicit or implicit beliefs about language learning and teaching. Write these down. Your partner should meanwhile do the same for you. Exchange analyses and discuss how accurately you think your analyses of each other are.


Richards recently wrote, "Teaching involves both thought and action, and the interaction between the two forms the focus of recent approaches to teacher development" (in Gebhard & Oprandy, 1999, p. xi). In this article I have attempted to explain the nature of this thought—action relationship, and how it is influenced by an individual's perceptions of external, contextual factors, both social and physical. I hope that reading this has challenged your conceptions, or schema, of what happens when a teacher learns—whether through a formal training programme or informal, self-directed development. I also hope it has given you a few practical ideas as to how we can all – trainers, experienced teachers and novices alike – push forward our continuous professional development by exploring what it is "inside our heads" that drives the way we teach.


Atkinson T., & Claxton, G. (Eds.). (2000). The intuitive practitioner. Buckingham: Open University Press
Brown, H. D. (1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.
Gebhard, J., & Oprandy, R. (1999). Language teaching awareness: A guide to exploring beliefs and practices. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gilpin, A., & Clibbon, G. (2000). Elaborated intuition and task-based English language teacher education. In T. Atkinson & G. Claxton (Eds.), The intuitive practitioner (pp 122 – 134). Buckingham: Open University Press.
Kennedy, J. (1999). Using mazes in teacher education. English Language Teaching Journal, 53 (2), 107-114.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Miller, G., Gallanter, E., & Pribram, K. (1960). Plans and the structure of behaviour. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Pajares, M. (1992). Teachers' beliefs and educational research: clearing up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, 62 (3), 307-332.
Richards, J., & Lockhart, C. (1994). Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, M., & Burden, R. (1997). Psychology for language teachers: A social constructivist approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Woods, D. (1996). Teacher cognition in language teaching: Beliefs, decision-making and classroom practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Corony Edwards is a senior lecturer and one of the Course Tutors for the MA TEFL/TESL Open Distance Learning programme at the University of Birmingham. She has worked as an English language teacher and teacher trainer since 1986 and has run training workshops in the UK, Hong Kong, Argentina, Hungary, Canada, South Korea, Japan, and Sri Lanka, and is a member of the ILTHE and IATEFL. At Birmingham, Corony also teaches on the full time MA programmes offered by the Centre for English Language Studies, and is currently Director of Learning and Teaching for the School of Humanities.

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