Learning is one thing. Using what you learn is something else. Ross and Matt speak with Karin Xie about how to bridge the gap. Find out how to help students apply their learning, how teachers can apply what they learning on teacher training courses and what trainers and teacher educators can do to encourage teachers to apply more of what they learn in professional development.
Transcript - How to Apply What You Learn [with Karin Xie & Matt Courtois]
Ross Thorburn: All right. Hi, everyone.
Matt Courtois: Hey, Ross.
Ross: Good to see you again, Matt. Today we have on the podcast special guest, Karin Xie. Hi, Karin.
Karin Xie: Hello, everyone! This is Karin.
Ross: Do you want to tell us a bit about what you do, Karin?
Karin: I'm a teacher trainer.
Matt: Great. You work at a test prep school, right?
Karin: Yeah. The teachers in my schools, they help students get ready for studying overseas.
Ross: I think one of the interesting things about that, especially in the test prep industry, is we often see that students go to study English. They get prepared to take their IELTS or TOEFL. They go abroad and they can't actually speak English.
Karin: Yeah, they mention that it's really hard for them to apply what they learned in the classes here when they go to college overseas.
Ross: Yeah. We often see the same thing on teacher training courses, as well. We sometimes see people taking a CertTESOL, like an entry‑level qualification. Then, six months later, they're actually worse than they were when they finished. It's like they learned all this stuff but they haven't been able to apply it.
Matt: It's amazing. They would spend 120 hours studying something and not improve from it. I don't know how that would happen.
Ross: Absolutely. Today, let's talk about that and let's talk about how we can get people to apply learning. We have three questions. The first one is, how can teachers help students apply learning? The second one is...
Karin: How can teachers apply what they have learned themselves into their teaching practice?
Ross: And Matt?
Matt: How can trainers help teachers apply learning?
How Can Teachers Help Students Apply Learning
Ross: Cool. OK, let's start off with teachers helping students. The classic thing here is that we want students to speak. That seems to be the industry standard for are you applying it. You have to get students to speak as much as they can by the end of the lesson. What do you guys think of that? Is that a useful paradigm?
Matt: I always found it frustrating when I was a teacher to see my colleagues...I think a really common piece of advice is that you should study 10 new words a day or five new words a day. I know for me, with my Chinese...
Matt: ...I'm not very good at Chinese as you guys...
Ross: That's why I laughed. Yeah.
Matt: Maybe you guys, because you're much better at Chinese than me and your English is much better than my Chinese. I have always looked at the CEFR thing and what I can do and...
Ross: Order beer.
Matt: Yeah. I can...
Ross: Ask for the bill.
Matt: I can flirt with a girl for maybe one minute.
Ross: [laughs] That's all it takes.
Matt: No, I can take a taxi. I can order food in a restaurant. That's how I measure my ability in Chinese. Is that how you guys measure...?
Karin: I guess the reason that people quantify things like that is, as teachers, we need evidence of learning. If we have something like "by the end of this lesson, students would have learned these words," it's easier for teachers to evaluate their classes. They need to be aware that when teachers think they are teaching, there's not necessarily learning that's happening.
Ross: Yeah. That's interesting. It reminds me of that thing, the management quote of "What gets measured gets managed." This idea that if you measure sales numbers, if that's your quantity, that becomes the most important thing in the company, what everyone gets focused on. Maybe it's the same thing in the classroom.
If the easiest thing to measure is how many words can a student say by the end of the lesson, that's what the teacher ends up managing and focusing on in the class. Maybe that's not necessarily the best thing to do, right?
Karin: Yeah. It reminds me of Bloom's taxonomy because when we say applying, what do we mean? What would students need to be able to do when they apply? That's like a lot of words. For example, you have things that's remembering, understanding, then analyzing, evaluating.
When we want students to apply what they have learned, we could have them name things that they've learned. Name the five words that they've learned. We could have them compare what they learned in this class back to what they learned previously. We could have them evaluated, like their own learning.
Ross: Yeah. Interesting. This reminds me of something I heard on the Sinica podcast. They looked at one of the differences between American and Chinese education. They talk about how Chinese education tends to focus a lot on memorization whereas what I think a lot happens in the West is that we focus on getting students to apply things.
Tracy: What the Boston teacher was really great at doing is introducing a concept and then asking kids, what do you think about it? Not only that, let's apply what we just learned. The Shanghai classroom is really run very military‑style. There are 30 kids in a room and she's calling them by number, "Student number two, what is the square root of 9?" or whatever it is.
Kids are popping up and answering her questions. It feels like a drill. It's like drill and kill. If you actually talk to the experts, there are certain things in math that you need to memorize.
In Shanghai, at least, multiplication tables are being cemented to memory in something like the second grade. In the average American public school classroom it's not happening until a couple years later. These international math experts are saying that's a little bit too late.
Matt: Even Michael Lewis for the lexical approach is all about experimenting with lexes you know in different context and everything. Even he in his book believed in the early stages of learning. He said like, "You do just need to memorize a bunch of words or you can never experiment with language in different context."
Karin: I agree, yeah. There's a balance we need to have there, either the Chinese one that you mentioned or the Western one. What we need to is to remind teachers to have a variety in their classrooms so they could have the access to understand or to memorize things as well as things to compare or to evaluate.
Ross: Yeah, as Matt was saying, to apply that into role‑playing, taking a taxi or flirting with someone at a bar.
How Can Teachers Apply What They Have Learned Themselves Into Their Teaching Practice
Ross: Let's talk about how can teachers themselves apply what they've learned. I thought here, it might be useful for us, in an egotistical way, to talk about ourselves. We've all done a bunch of different certificate courses and diploma courses before. What did you guys find, as a teacher learner on those courses, helped you apply what you learned? Not everyone does, right?
Matt: I definitely found that I improved most as a teacher once I became a trainer.
Karin: Same here.
Matt: I always try to incorporate into my trainings, maybe I do it too much. I always get the trainees training other trainees.
Ross: I think, for me, one of the differences in our backgrounds is that more of my background is in teaching kids than teaching adults. I always find one of the big advantages of teaching kids is they don't really have a lot in the way of expectations of what you will do in class.
I found, when I was studying my diploma, I had so much opportunity to experiment in class. For example, I remember reading about the silent way and thinking, "I wonder if I could teach a class for an hour without talking." I tried it and I could.
I don't think it was a great class, [laughs] but it was a great opportunity to practice what times is it not necessary to speak and what different things can I get students to do that I wouldn't do otherwise. That's something you can never do with adults because you never really have those opportunity. If you did that in an adult class, you'd get complaints.
Ross: I wanted to ask you guys, how much were you able to experiment by teaching adults? For me, with kids, it was super easy.
Matt: I just think it's cool. I'm just thinking about feedback I heard from people who were taking the Dip. They would be reading about pedagogy and reading about all these classroom methods. Often they'd come to me and say, "Oh, this is fine but we're just reading about theory." I always found that so strange because it is theory about what you're doing.
Ross: It's theory about a practice.
Matt: Yeah, I think it's cool to hear that, as you were reading those books, you were actually applying the theories that you were reading. Often, myself included, I just read it as extra knowledge that I could have rather than something that I should be doing.
Karin: When I first finished my CertTESOL course, I felt that I couldn't find opportunities to apply what I learned because during the course, I had to design classes from scratch for group of learners, consistently.
When I went back to my own teaching, the classes were all made and I had to follow the classes. The flexibility of me adapting the classes is really limited comparing to what I did during the course.
Ross: On training courses, we often train people to plan a class from scratch and teach that class. At least in most of the places I've worked in, that's not the situation.
What people need to learn to do is not plan a lesson from scratch but follow and adapt a plan that someone else has made. Those are quite different skills. I feel that's an area where a lot of training courses don't really match up to the reality of teaching practice.
How Can Trainers Help Teachers Apply Learning
Ross: Guys, how do you think trainers or training systems and training courses can help teachers better apply their learning?
Matt: We were talking about before, with the DipTESOL that I think it is a really good system, overall, for the whole course because it does assess every aspect of ability to be a professional in this industry. Not only do you have to be pretty good in the classroom, but you also have to be able to do research and be able to observe other teachers and talk about phonology.
Ross: Yeah, and be able to answer questions about grammar on the spot, like you might get in the classroom as well.
Matt: Yes. I found that maybe before the Dip. I did have some strengths as a teacher before the Dip, but by going through that process, I also had some glaring weaknesses. I became much more well‑rounded as a professional in this industry because of that course.
Karin: It's really important for us trainers to encourage teacher‑learner autonomy and reflective practice because, at the end of the day, it's down to the teachers to decide how and when they're going to apply what they've learned.
At the beginning of the course or even before the course starts, we really need to deal with the matter learning side of it so that teachers are reflective and teachers are autonomous.
Ross: Yeah. I think that's a super good point. A lot of time, on courses, teachers do get all these opportunities to learn through peer observations, especially certificate‑level course, through observing their trainers, through teaching themselves, through getting feedback, through doing all these different things, doing research, interviewing students, blah‑blah‑blah.
We could do a much better job of making them more aware of why they're going through that process and then making that learning on a metacognitive level, really explicit to people. The reason we're doing this is so you now have the skill to observe someone else, who's also a new teacher, not a great teacher, and you can learn something about your own teaching from that.
Matt: Then that bit of the portfolio which, at the time, I think I didn't value very much...I bet all three of us, since we've started our new jobs and stuff, we've written our own rubrics for observing lessons. We were able to do that on that course, get feedback on it, test it out, try it and do it in a methodical way.
It wasn't the first time on my job where I was going through this process, or, I don't know, writing a survey to ask for feedback from a training session that I'd written. It's not the first time I've written a survey, either, because it was taken care of that course.
I mean, as I was going through it, I didn't value it. It wasn't really made explicit to me that these are skills that I will need in the future. As time went by, I look back at it and I appreciate that I went through that process.
What's Important In Applying Learning
Ross: To wrap up, I need some final thoughts on what's important in applying learning.
Karin: My advice is that you could do what Steve Jobs suggested. Take everything you do in your learning and your teacher learning as different dots and just bear in mind that those dots could be connected.
Whatever you do or whatever you learn, for example, training course that you attended, some classes that you observed, some students that you've taught, really see them as something that's relevant to each other and constantly look back to see if you could connect the dots.
Ross: OK, bye‑bye.
Matt: See you!
Karin: See you!