An Interview with Antony Atkinson - Head of Teacher Training, Perth
This month, Antony Atkinson, teacher and CELTA, CELTA Assessor and Delta Trainer, based at the Vincent St CBD training centre in Perth, Australia, reflects on his teaching practice with fellow teacher developer, Emma Pratt.
Antony's is teaching journey began in New Zealand. Like many young Kiwis, Antony left his homeland seeking adventure. He got into English language teaching through completing an initial certificate in Ramsgate, Kent UK in the early 90s. He completed the course with his wife Linda and later spent two years in the former Czechoslovakia - the first year in Nove Zamky, Slovakia and the second in Litomysl, Czech Republic.
It was during this period, that Antony gained a real appreciation of how to teach with minimal materials and how to use the positive relationships developed with students to drive the class. He also gained an appreciation of the slow tourism aspect of teaching abroad and becoming part of a community.
They later moved back down-under where life took them to Perth. And he's been based there pretty much ever since.
CELTA, Delta, Teacher Training and Innovation
Teacher training is Antony's passion. Antony loves working with new teachers and helping them to find a way or their way into language teaching. And within the CELTA course itself, Antony is keen to get creative: "I'd love to have a go at a model I discussed with Beth Grant, for a Celta in which the focus is on the lesson planning throughout the day with the lessons taught at the end of the day. The benefit being that rather than the rather hurried TP prep-time and then going home to polish and develop your lesson at home (and to fret into the wee small hours) tutors are on hand top guide and as a resource."
Antony currently runs the Delta course as well as teacher development in China and South East Asia:
"Delta delivery is challenging and hugely beneficial at the same time. It is interesting helping experienced teachers to know what they know and what they might want to find more about. I have also gained a huge amount from working with established English teachers in our wider region - I’ve made several trips to China, Thailand, Hong Kong and Cambodia to work with English language teachers. We have developed blended programs involving in country work, online and then teachers visiting the academy in Perth. During these programs we've investigated such aspects as modern teaching methodologies including the Flipped Classroom and alternative ways to assess students. I've been listening and learning in the spirit of sharing ideas and experiences."
In China, Antony has encountered a common problem with teaching development where methods and realities don't match. While teachers enjoy the methods they are being trained in, they argue that because their curriculum is so loaded, they are unable to do anything but be teacher-centred.
This is where careful listening and observation comes it to find out what the problems really are and investigate innovative ways for when, where and how content is delivered. This includes how technology might be able to play a part, and reinvestigating the purpose of the classroom (as harmer has challenged). Antony argues that the classroom is "a place with the space to develop ideas, reflect and apply learning to meaningful tasks."
To Dogme or not to Dogme*?
Australia is seeing the classic General English course taking a back seat to pathway studies for University entrance. This naturally has its effect on how teaching happens and course development.
Antony: "We need to give our trainees a good appreciation (within the timeframe) of areas such as developing writing skills, assessment and presentation skills. But I would guess from my work in Asia that we are just catching up on this. I spend a lot of my time in Academic Management now counselling pathway students about their progress towards their goal and the reaching of their magic goal (our students' goals are expressed as CEFR outcomes) and there is big pressure for teachers to ensure the students attain this goal. This loops back to responses from teachers I have worked with in Asia whose careers depend on the successful progress of their students. And I think we need to be upfront and creative in dealing with this expectation and fight against the natural tendency to retract and limit the range of tools, techniques and approaches we use in the classroom."
Incorporating the Flipped Classroom, Dogme, Demand High Teaching and Learning** and fighting the Intermediate Plateau have been part of Antony’s own teaching development and what has been informing his work as a teacher developer. He has met with both enthusiasm and resistance to his experimental, negotiated curriculums.
While many in the ELT international community have been challenging the overriding structure of the grammar-driven curriculum and coursebooks for some time, Antony has been finding a certain resistance among his students to give it up entirely. After all, if grammar has been the framework of your language learning experience ever since you were little, it’s a difficult framework to let go of.
The first language learning experience I had as an adult was through attending Te Reo Maori classes in New Zealand that made use of Caleb Gattegno’s Silent Way. I had little prior language learning experience or expectations, so I took to it like a duck to water. My classmate however, who was German and had extensive experience with language learning was desperate for someone to start teaching him the grammar. He quit and found a book.
Change is hard. We'd far prefer to live with some benign or even toxic status quo than step into the unknown. A “gently, gently” approach is necessary, much like managing any kind of change or habit forming, adequate scaffolding, steps and negotiated stages are required.
Of his experience with the flipped classroom and negotiated curriculum, Antony says: “For the students based in Perth at our academy, there was perhaps less commitment from students to do a lot of content work out of class, and in many ways they proved to be more traditional in what they expected from being in the classroom - they wanted a clearly signposted course and plenty of direct grammar teaching. Still, my view of technology and blended learning is that the classroom should, as much as possible, reflect the world outside, so use your phone to look something up - let's look at a quick YouTube video that explains something. I guess I think in this, there is greater opportunity for transfer."
"At different times I polled the students regarding their feelings about classes not governed by a coursebook. Each time, the students said they enjoyed not following a coursebook all the time, it was ‘cool to get emails with our homework’.
As students stayed on in the class, some made mention to Antony of the lack of solid focus on grammar and writing and they were aware that coverage would be more consistent in a textbook driven course. His current class largely came down on the side of using a course book some days and authentic materials on others, a balanced approach. There was not sufficient rigour, according to student feedback, in the grammar sections of the program. Given that grammar was supposed to emerge from tasks the students were doing, it made the “when and where” of its appearance unpredictable.
As Antony points out: "The grammar of a negotiated curriculum isn’t as neatly linear as a grammar syllabus set out in a coursebook. I tried to counter this by having regular grammar ‘breakouts’ in which a language point was covered in depth."
And he's not alone in that. Kirsten Campbell-Howes, Head of Education at busuu, an online language learning startup, said recently, while taking part in ELTjam’s ELT in the Digital Age Q&A online discussion, that grammar still held sway:
"I assumed when I began with busuu that the users would want cool tech features. That's not the case. It's a case for our minority. What I find repeatedly when I ask people what they thought about the product, they'll say it was great, but can I have more grammar?”
Principled Eclecticism: A Fine Balance
Antony reflects that since returning to more coursebook use, he’s noticed that he’s freer to work with things that emerge in the classroom: “This is because we have started the lesson from a solid basis and have identified more universal needs that the whole class can relate to. I have been integrating coursebook use with authentic material, active use of the eboard and requiring more from the students in answering and dealing with materials to meet Demand High aspirations. I believe strongly a major purpose of being in the classroom is for students to learn how they can learn themselves, therefore, it is useful to spend time in class on activities and resources that the students can use in their own time.”
"The E Boards allow the teacher to mirror from their devices using Apple TV – this means teachers can prepare video content or visuals … and seamlessly integrate them into their lessons. You can also use the browser to go directly to websites and a USB with prepared worksheets. With the E Board you are able to use writing tools to highlight features of texts making it a very useful tool for writing and correction. In terms of Dogme, this is excellent because it gives a very immediate way of dealing with emerging language."
Antony has come to see that a varied diet is what works best with his students, based on their feedback and needs analysis: "Jeremy Harmer talks of 'principled eclecticism' and from what I've seen, read and heard to this point in my teaching career, I think it's a good description of what I believe. Context and identified needs will often inform the teacher.”
ELTjam's "ELT in the Digital Age Q&A"
**Demand High Teaching is a term used by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill to challenge teachers to consider how they might have ritualised their teaching methods and aren't focused on where learning is happening: See Emma's interview with Jim Scrivener to find out more