Tony Gurr

Should we be TELLing or ASKing TEACHers…about “their” classrooms? (Pt 03)

In Adult Educators, Adult Learners, Teacher Learning, Teacher Training on 28/11/2012 at 11:33 am

My bouts of bloggery have been few and far between this month…too much jet-settingtoo many tweets on the #eddies12 (but, OMG…have I found some great new blogs…or what)!

…I have also found some great quotes (on blogs I have also nominated for an #eddies12 award, too).

One of these is:

I loved this…so true!


So true, in fact…that I have decided to use it kick off one of the posts I promised ages ago – but never quite got round to doing. I put a great deal of time into the earlier episodes of this mini-dizi (not so you’d notice)…

…because the issue of TEACHer LEARNing (and REFLECTion) is something I take very seriously…more seriously than a heart attack or 3, less seriously than the #eddies12 (obviously)!


The point I was trying to get across in these two episodes is really what Gwynne was also getting at – dealing with the changes we have to “cope” with in education is all about our institutions and our emotions.

She goes on and elaborates a little:

Scott McLeod agrees – so much so he named his (wonderful) blog after Gwynne’s (equally wonderful) quote!


Our institutions very often think about observation and feedback in “dangerously irrelevant” terms – if they bother to thunk about them at all!

If they didn’t think this way, we wouldn’t see as many of the dumb-ass classroom observation protocols we find in so many of our schools, colleges and universitiesand we would see a lot more of the ASKing I was talking about in Pt 01 and Pt 02a LOT more!


In Pt 02, I proposed a few questions that we might want to think about using when ASKing TEACHers about their classrooms…about the things that happen in these classrooms…and how TEACHers “feel” (yes, I said “feel”…all you institutional effectiveness “experts” that want to boil classroom observations down into “neat little numbers” or “ticks” on checklists)…about the “business” they are in!

Yes, I STILL feel strongly about this…


I also promised (more fool me) to get you a transcript of how these questions might play out…the first time you use them with a real TEACHer!

What? You have one of these?

A full transcript…???


I’m wondering…

how many of you will “get” that little “blast-from-the-past”!


Now, this post is gonna be loooooonnnnnng…probably the longest I have ever got up on the whole blog…ever!


…but, if you are interested in this stuff – you might want to bookmark it and come back when you have a bit more time.


This is the transcript from the very first time that I went to see one of  “my-partners-in-crime”, Laurence, do his “thing”…TEACH, yani!

He currently works with groups of TEACHers-to-be here (in Ankara) at Başkent University – and this class was one of their “speaking courses” (designed to help develop their language skills as future ELL facilitators of LEARNing – OK…ELT TEACHers)!

Laurence is not an ELT Instructor (in the traditional sense) – but he is passionate about communication and the LEARNing of his LEARNers. He was keen to see (that’s an understatement…we actually put money on it) whether the types of questions I use in “feedback sessions” with other TEACHers could, in fact, help him become a better LEARNing TEACHer…

I’ll leave that for you (and him) to decide!


Are you sitting comfortably? Then…I’ll begin…


TG:  When was the last time you were observed by someone, Laurence?

LR:  People regularly come in to my classes.  I believe that being observed is an important aspect of any educator’s job, whether it be parents, guests, other teachers, learners, or whatever.  I believe that adaptation to any learning situation is a subconscious as well as a conscious process; if an educator observes the observer’s or the guest’s reaction to any given situation, they often adapt their techniques – especially if that reaction is overwhelmingly positive or negative.  I believe that educators are teaching life-skills in their classes, and one of those life-skills is to be able to react positively to public situations.  I was pleased with our learners’ reactions to your presence in the class; as you know, they might have just clammed up with a stranger in their midst. 

TG:  Cool – not many educators do this.  Look, the way I conduct this type of feedback session is this: I have a series of questions to structure our conversation.  They’re not intended to be judgmental, but designed for you to think through the process of adaptation in any learning situation.  Let’s look at the first of these:  what teaching outcomes did you have for the session?

LR:  I can’t really answer that, to be honest! I’m really interested in using materials to develop learner abilities; in other words, to encourage learners to think for themselves, as well as develop 21st century learning abilities such as resilience and openness.  Hence my decision to put them into groups of three or four, and ask them to do task-based activities, with the minimum of pre-teaching and/or explicatory lecturing from me. 

TG:  Well, there are certain models people use  for teaching and learning:  one of them is the PPP model, or the TTT model (Jang 2008).  Another model is the OHP or TBL model  You seem to use a TBL or a PBL model.  You give a task, allow time for negotiation, and then asked the learners to perform and reflect on what they had done.  Looking at the class in terms of these models might help determine its teaching outcomes:  what stages the learners undergo to complete the adaptive process – adaptation, in this sense, understood as learning something at the end of the lesson that they did not know or could not do at the beginning.  What do you think that learners learned from your session?

LR:  I think that today was an interesting situation, as learners acquired sufficient resilience to cope with strange situations: first, there were two sections who had been put together in one class for the first time in the entire semester; and second, that they had a guest – in other words, yourself – in their midst.  In terms of learning outcomes, they learned to adapt themselves – their body language, responses, communication – to this unaccustomed situation.  Call it “thinking on your feet,” if you like, as well as an ability for learners to shed themselves of that self-consciousness that inhibits communication, and adapt to a new situation. 

TG:  It didn’t seem to faze them that the two groups came together.  How did you know that this learning was taking place? 

LR:  They made great efforts to support one another.  When one group was performing, all the rest of the learners were concentrating on the performance, rather than doing their own preparation.  Even if that performance was not the best in the world, the learners took the trouble to watch it.  More significantly the learners enjoyed what they were doing, and signaled their enjoyment through laughter.

TGSo, wasn’t that your teaching outcome? 

LR:  But … I believe that sometimes a learning outcome cannot be predicted.  If we empower learners to think for themselves, then they might be able to achieve things that educators do not expect.  I think that was certainly the case with the Shakespearean undergraduates two years ago.  Maybe we oughtn’t to make any distinction between teaching and learning outcomes; they’re all part of a continuum.  

TG:  So let’s go back to the question: how do you know that learners learned something from the class? You’ve already talked about their reactions: was there anything else that convinced you that learning had taken place? 

LR:  I asked the learners to do a role-play, so as to emphasize the importance of nonverbal as well as verbal communication in any person-to-person encounter.  The fact that they undertook the task with such gusto suggests that they understood what the outcome of the lesson might have been.  But there was also the unexpected bit: some learners got involved in the activities far more than I would have expected them to.  I try to know my learners, but sometimes they can offer pleasant surprises. 

TGCan you explain that a little more?  How did the learners’ performance meet your expectations, and what were the unpredictable elements? 

LR:  I believe that the performance helped to develop learner fluency and confidence with the language.  By empowering them to draw upon paralinguistic as well as linguistic elements, they understand how communication takes place on several levels.  Even the quiet ones in the group seemed to get involved.  The unexpected element was that those learners whom I expected to be peripheral  in a group-learning situation actually assumed a more active role; in other words, they adapted themselves. 

TGHow do you think the learning evolved during the session?  I mean – learning by “listening,” “doing” or “reflecting”?  If you had to allocate a percentage – or create a pie chart – on those three elements of learning during the class, how you would you respond? 

LR:  Learning by doing would be the most important aspect.  However that can only be sustained through a certain degree of learning by listening: not listening in terms of listening to a lecture from the educator, but listening to each other.  My role in that listening situation is to move about the class, listen to what learners are discussing, and offering comments whenever they might be useful.  Call it collaborative listening.  Let’s say 45% learning by doing, 40% listening, and only 5-10% reflecting.  This is interesting, as I believe that learners only reflect on what they have done after the lesson has concluded, or they have acquired that understanding before the lesson takes place.  In other words, reflection is what is done before and after individual lessons; this is what lies at the heart of adaptive learning. 

TG:  I noticed that … your learners responded well to small stimuli or your classroom management techniques  – clapping hands, for example.  I saw that they were very engaged in the task:  the noise level was quite high.  A lot of that negotiation was done in Turkish to begin with, but as the task neared completion, their language changed to English, especially when they prepared for the performance.  Was that something you expected? 

LR:  Yes.  Referring back to the last chapter, I believe that any language should be used, so long as learners are comfortable with it.  You have to make them want to do the task; if you place too many constraints on them, they won’t do it. 

TG:  There’s one other question here.  As the learners were working, what did you do to improve their levels of fluency or accuracy?  Which of these was your primary focus? 

LRDoes it matter?  Second language speakers need to adapt themselves to the language, and they need the confidence to do so.  Do we want them to be accurate, or just to have the willingness to communicate?  It’s like riding a bicycle, or learning to swim: the way you improve is by doing it, and wanting to do it.  I think we’ve also got to reflect on what fluency means:  do we mean linguistic or communicative fluency?  What is not said often assumes more significance than what is actively said.  Hence my determination not to intervene too much: to empower learners to acquire their own adaptive skills.

TG:  Maybe that was one of your teaching outcomes; to give the learners an opportunity to empower themselves?

LR:  This is true.  In the learners’ educational contexts, they spend a lot of their time in teacher-centered situations, interspersed with presentations.  This involves reading out material copied from books, accompanied with PowerPoint slideshows.  In contrast what I want to do is to create a more fluid situation, so that learners can initiate adaptive processes for themselves. 

TG:  When the learners got to their performance, some of them were reading from notes, others were adlibbing.  Is this what you expected? 

LR:  Yes.  Learners can choose how they want to perform; this has to do with confidence in language communication.  Some are bolder than others.  The only way they can develop is to feel free to adopt whatever strategies they wish. 

TG:  So … and this is the big question.  If you could do the session again, what three things would you keep, and what three things would you drop or change?

LR:  Instead of doing a performance, I might do a creative writing activity.  I might also devise a prereading activity based on a text given before the lesson.  This might be more suitable for younger learners … I don’t know.  I’d also like to have some time allotted for reflection on the learning outcomes of the lesson; in other words, ask the same question of learners that you’ve asked of me. 

TG:  Interesting.  When you answered that question, you critiqued yourself first – and didn’t really talk about the things you wanted to keep.  Why was that, do you think? 

LR:  This is the point of adaptive thinking.  Ideas are seldom fixed, and you can use the past to reflect on present and future.  I’d keep the format of the lesson, as it was group-focused, negotiation-based and learner-centered, and had that unpredictable element.  This represents an alternative to their mainstream learning in the institution. 

TG:  This is co-creation, isn’t it? Let’s stop there and continue our chat later.


I did warn you all…

…cos we ain’t finished, yet – boys and girls!


I asked Laurence to jot down his reflections (between that chat and a follow-up chat we arranged for laters).

This is what he did:

The interesting aspect of this discussion was the ways in which Tony’s feedback questions prompted me to reflect on my teaching practice and the ways in which I reacted from moment to moment during the session.  Such reactions emphasize the capacity of any individual to adapt to any given situation.  This process was identical to that experienced by the learners, as they worked in groups to implement the activity given to them at the beginning.  This is what lies at the heart of collaborative learning… 

However, it is also important to stress that feedback and reflection are not finite, they are ongoing processes (what Tony describes as “reflective savvy”), it should be part of every educational interaction, so as to help educators and learners use adaptation to reshape their approaches to learning, shaped by the cultures they inhabit. 

The next section of our discussion bears this out; it was conducted five days after the first “feedback” session.

TGDid you feel that you needed space to think through some of the things we talked about?

LR:  There are two things there: when you reflect immediately after a class, the reactions are spontaneous, often visceral, perhaps more emotional rather than reflective.  However the five day break is a good way of thinking about how one might use the experience of that lesson as a means to adapt one’s existing pedagogical approaches.  You ask questions such as: did the lesson actually implement what I believe is most significant about the adaptive approach to pedagogy?  Did it help to sustain the kind of continuity something intrinsic to 21st century learning) built up over the previous twelve or thirteen weeks of the semester?

TG:  OK, let’s ask you that question: how does that type of reflection impact on your personal philosophy of teaching and learning? 

LR:  I think the answer to that goes back to my belief that adaptation studies, understood in this context as a process of mental as well as textual transformation, is a continuous process of reflecting on the past to determine one’s future belief.  When I started teaching nearly thirty years ago, I was very much wedded to the “sage on the stage” belief, because I copied what my teachers did in the university context.  I think it’s very difficult to undergo a complete overhaul of one’s teaching technique, as I believe I have done, and I think that the only way to achieve that transformation is through continual reflection.  If you want to feel confident in your transformative process, you’ve got to have the guts to put your knowledge and skills on the line and scrutinize them. 

TG:  And that’s precisely the kind of adaptive approach that Darwin advocated, all those years ago, when he discussed how all species become accustomed to new environments. 

LR:  Exactly.  And this reflection session is a good way of stimulating this process.  I have to look at classes in terms of what learners get out of it, rather than judging myself purely in terms of educator performance. 

TG:  When we talked in the feedback session a few days ago, I asked a series of structured questions.  Were there any that you found disturbing, and which do you think allowed you to think about adaptive learning in a deeper way? 

LR:  I don’t think any questions actually disturbed me.  

TGNot even the one about teaching outcomes? 

LR:  No.  Because I think the questions help me to structure my reflections, and hence learn how to adapt themselves.  The outcomes question needs to be addressed, even if you don’t necessarily like it. 

TGBut you did resist the question when we talked about it? 

LR:  This is part of that two-fold process I described earlier.  I think learning in an adaptation studies classroom encompasses immediate feedback plus a more considered reflection a few days later.  The considered reflection helps makes sense of those unpredictable elements that take place in any learning situation – for example, when a lesson plan doesn’t work out, or when learners react in ways that the educator doesn’t anticipate.  If you asked me now about what the teaching outcomes were of the lesson I did five days ago, I’d answer thus:  to develop learner capacities to transform texts in their own ways, and thereby cultivate resilience and problem-solving abilities.I think the time spent on reflection helps find a way of reconciling educator and learner interests;  to help educators understand learner needs, and to adapt their techniques as a result.  This is where I think adaptation studies is so important.  It represents an attempt to create new models of learning.  I think what we’re doing is trying to take the discipline out of its film-theater-literature context and apply it in a broader sense to issues of teaching and learning.

TG:  We might call it a more principled context.  In other words, not just pursuing something new for the sake of it – because it’s technologically hip or cool, but trying to devise a set of principles for adaptive learning.  Can we go back a bit and think a little about your answer to my first question a few days ago.  When I asked how long it was since you’ve been observed, you replied in a very nontraditional way.  It surprised me when you said that my classroom’s open: usually when people respond they say that they’ve never been observed – or not been observed  – “professionally” for a very long time.  That suggested you had a fair bit of learning consciousness.  Does that make sense?  Where did this come from, do you think?

LR:  I think this has a lot to do with my belief in feedback and reflection as the basis of adaptation studies, something which has become more pronounced since I did the Shakespeare course two years ago.  I think this can best be done by investigating one’s autobiography.  When I did my teacher training in the mid-1980s, I had a mentor teacher whom I never got on with.  This was a purely personal thing.  I remember one day she asked me a peremptory question after I’d done a sample lesson:  “what do you think the learners learned from that lesson?”  It was designed purely as a content-based feedback question – another example might be: what poems did learners study in the anthology today? 

TG:  In other words, were you ticking all the boxes correctly – or was she? 

LR:  True.  Ever since that time I’ve always believed that an observer is there not to judge, but to learn themselves, or to engage in dialogue. 

TGSo an observer can participate in adaptive learning as well?

LR:  Yes:  the observer might want to develop their own skills.  They might not only comment on your own technique, but participate in a dialogue. 

TG:  I also believe in getting feedback on my questioning technique.  Did you think I was leading or judging you through my feedback? 

LR:  Not at all …an educator should prompt reflection through feedback based on questioning.  This is what I found fascinating about our sessions: encouraging that two-fold response we talked about earlier.  The art of adaptive learning is to realize that the questioner is not out to judge, but to prompt self-adaptation.  

TG:  I purposely didn’t ask you one question in the previous reflection session , focusing on your own adaptive thinking: what will you do in the class, and how can you evaluate the success of the initiatives you want to introduce?  Do you think I was right to do so? 

LR:  Maybe it would have caused a defensive response: everyone will reply that their lessons are going to contribute to an overall course of action, because I want to be a better educator.  But if you leave it for a few days, I think you’re going to prompt the educator to review what they have done, and determine for themselves whether they need to change or not.  Maybe the passage of time is important there. 

TG:  Now you’ve talked about learning outcomes, I think maybe we can look at your lesson in this way.  Maybe you created the opportunities for learners to develop themselves (though planning the outcomes of a lesson); but maybe you can’t predict how they will respond to these opportunities.  Let’s go back to you for the moment.  Sometimes I do feedback sessions three, or even four times, so as to help educators in their reflective processes.  Do you feel that these two sessions have made a difference for you? 

LR:  Yes, because I think that these experiments stimulate individual educator reflection – a process that never ends.  Sometimes you need someone to bounce ideas off in order to develop your own ideas and techniques.  We’re not just talking about an isolated process here; this is the basis of collaborative learning – non-judgmental, non-threatening – where people feel they can be honest in what they are saying. 

TG:  Once educators recognize the rationale of this type of process, they can then use the same experience with their learners, asking the same kind of questions we looked at together.

…or NOT?


This “LEARNing conversation” is adapted from chapter 5 (entitled “Reflecting and Adapting”) of – a wee book Laurence and I have been putting together…every Sunday for the past year.

The book – ADAPTATION STUDIES AND LEARNING: NEW FRONTIERS (Scarecrow, 2012) – will be published by a tiny, boutique publisher in the US…and you will probably never find it…in any self-respecting book store!

…and don’t be asking me for a signed, free copy…our marketing budget is so small, we have had to borrow money from our mothers-in-law just to purchase our own copies!

BUTboth Laurence and I would love to hear what you thunk

“Comment zamanı, anyone”?

  1. Great post and one that I think demonstrates the importance of taking time out to reflect in a guided way. Tony, you did not say how long each session was (I was trying to pay attention honest but could have missed it), I ask because to me time reflects value, especially in education. Claiming or requiring time for the process is the first step in giving value to it.

    Earlier you mention emotions, what emotions were playing out during the interview I wonder? Having been through similar experiences I find they can range quite dramatically and it is only when you reach that calm centre ground reflection becomes focused. Perhaps that is why the ‘time out’ was so useful. It might be an interesting experiment to get staff to keep a diary of their thoughts during that period and use that as a starting point for the second session. Just an idea!

    I am glad to see you moved the focus back onto the teacher at the end. Too often I have seen a conclusion be little more than a tick in a box saying what standard your teaching is.


    • Hi Kev,

      GR8 to see you back 😉 Yes, the “journal” idea is süper…recently, I have been encouraging “younger TEACHers” (showing me age there) 😉 …to start up their own blogs…and a few guys have been doing an amazing job of “putting themselves out there” (and growing into role models for other teachers). This is brilliant…bloody brilliant 😉

      Time is always an issue with these things…esp. for busy teachers with busy schedules. I usually set an initial time-frame of about 60 mins for an initial session…and then let the “observee” decide what they want to do next. Some opt for a “blog post”…others want 10 hours in a coffee shop 😉 Choice is what matters and then we do whatever we can to make it happen.

      The session with Laurence was an interesting one for me…there were “emotions” there (he wanted to win the “bet”)…and as you probably saw I had to pull “some teeth” on the “teaching outcomes” questions (he is, in fact, a very “Dogme-type” humanities, adaptation studies and communications “lecturer” – who never lectures) 😉 BUT, it’s probably best if he chips in with his own thunks on that….LOL, my man? Where are YOU?

      Kev – thanks a lot for the comments. You take care, now 😉


  2. The sessions lasted 20-30 minutes each.

    I’m not sure these sessions involve emotional analysis necessarily; rather they are an opportunity to focus on one’s performance, just like an actor after a first night. The first reflection is a visceral one, concentrating on whether they managed to put the script into practice; the five-day break reflection is a way of revisiting that performance. I think both involve logical reflection as much as emotional reflection.

    I believe that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘expected’ answer to any question. Hence I think the metaphor of pulling teeth out is a little misplaced. Every individual responds to questions in their own idiosyncratic way, and it’s up to the questioner to bear this in mind, Educators are like actors; they give performances in different ways. I, for instance, am a very spontaneous educator; most of my classroom practice is developed in response to learners’ states of mind at any given time, rather than keeping to a lesson plan.

    And I’m sorry I’m an old fashioned film buff, I don’t understand the DOGME reference? Please explain?

    • Why thank you, Sir 😉

      Hey, I’m not so sure how much of an “old film buff” you are – more of a “spliced clone” of Statler and Waldorf 😉

      Thank you you, Laurence.

      Actually, with the “tooth pulling” (and anyone who has worked with a reluctant “observee” will know what I mean) it was quite funny with you. You have to be one of the only teachers I know that did not like that question – most teachers love talking about what their “goals” and “objectives” are. Hence, my reference to “Dogme” – that wicked, movement of ELT “evil-doers”. I know, I know….you are not a TEFL-head…but these guys are the new-kids-on-the-block these days!

      You would love them…and I see a lot of parallels in your preference for “emergent co-creation” in the classroom 😉 This is NOT a bad thing…

      Love and kisses, hocam!


  3. There’s a real reason why I don’t talk of goals and objectives. Because it doesn’t allow for the ‘messiness’ of a lesson, and it reeks too much of idiot so-called ‘planners’ of curricula and other frameworks designed to inhibit rather than encourage learning.

    • A Dogme-type reply, if ever I saw one 😉

      Mess is good…so is planning…both together – now, there’s a good “lesson” 😉

      I know how much you LOVE “wiki”:

      Dogme 95 was an avant-garde filmmaking movement started in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who created the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” and the “Vow of Chastity”. These were rules to create filmmaking based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology.[1] They were later joined by fellow Danish directors Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, forming the Dogme 95 Collective or the Dogme Brethren. Dogme is the Danish word for dogma.

      Mmmmmmm – could this be applied to ELL and ELT, acaba?


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