From Teacher Training to Teacher Education in Second Language Education


Arman Abednia

English Language and Literature Department, Allameh Tabataba’i University


In this article, a brief introduction to second language teacher training will be presented, and it will be argued that it does not do the complex nature of teaching justice, tends to look at teachers as implementers of others’ ideas, and is mainly focused on short-term and immediate goals of ELT. As an appropriate alternative, I will argue for teacher education since it tries to contribute to a continuous process of intellectual and experiential growth of teachers who are believed to have the potential to think critically and act creatively. Following the comparison of these approaches in terms of their philosophical principles, I will make some suggestions as to how to run teacher education courses in line with its underlying principles.

            Key words: teacher education, teacher training


Teacher Training

        Many teacher education programs that are currently conducted around the world are believed to be training-oriented, meaning that they focus on teachers' responsibilities which are of immediate concern, such as how to manage cooperative activities or how to teach grammar inductively (Richards, 1989, 2008; Wallace, 1995). Therefore, they mainly build on short-term and immediate goals, which, regarding the above examples, can be preparing teachers to conduct cooperative activities effectively or developing necessary skills to teach grammar inductively. These goals, which form the basis of training programs, are mainly determined by a number of experts who are believed to possess the essential technical knowledge and skills of teaching and, therefore, can transfer such knowledge and skills to trainees through some prescriptions externally defined and delineated in methodology books (Freeman, 2001; Richards & Farrell, 2005). Some other examples of training-oriented goals are “learning how to use effective strategies to open a lesson”, “using effective questioning techniques”, and “techniques for giving learners feedback on performance” (Richards & Farrell, 2005, p. 3).

        Teacher training is mainly aimed at training teachers to develop and display teaching behaviors which match those of effective teachers. That is, there are certain behaviors that have been empirically shown to characterize effective teaching, and, thus, teachers need to develop them if they want to be considered effective in their profession (Cochran-Smith, 2004). Such behaviors form the basis of the content of the program. That is, the content of teacher training programs consists of skills and techniques that are generally determined a priori by teacher trainers based on a clear theoretical rationale;, address those aspects of teaching which are observable, teachable, and measureable;, and are related to specific situations. The effectiveness of the program can then be evaluated based on measurement of the differences made in teachers' expertise between the pre-training and the post-training stages (Richards, 1989). Teacher training is underpinned by a number of major philosophical principles, some of which are discussed below.

Teacher Training is Positivist 

        Positivism treats knowledge as factual, residing outside of human interactions and conceptualizations, and to be discovered rather than constructed and made sense of in personal and social ways. Thus, passing and transferring rather than questioning and reconsidering information are the main goals of education, as perceived by positivists (Hanley, 1994). In the context of teacher preparation, it seems that the same ideology has colored the nature of teacher training, the procedures used in such programs, the interactions that happen between teacher trainers and student teachers, and the ways in which teachers are evaluated. 

        More precisely, teachers are not necessarily expected to act creatively and to incorporate innovative and alternative strategies based on the particulars of the local context in which they teach. Instead, they are mainly required to follow a more or less prescriptive curriculum/method which, at times, "actually dictates every teacher-spoken word during instruction" (Imig & Imig, 2006, p. 289). In other words, they are mostly expected to play the role of passive technicians who, through modeling, practice others' orders and norms presented in the training program content (Kumaravadivelu, 2003, 2006). This prescriptivist approach has its origins in the establishment of policies which are in line with dominant market values such as raising students' scores on high-stakes tests (Cochran-Smith, 2004) and, therefore, discourage reform initiatives (Bartell, 2001). This resultant market orientation is called instrumentalism, another principle of teacher training explained in the following.

Teacher Training is Instrumentalist

        Teacher training programs are basically designed and implemented so as to help meet the demands of the market, such as certification standards (Bartell, 2001; Carson, 2005; McKibbin, 2001). This concern leads to teachers' exclusive focus on technical issues such as class management or implementation of instructional strategies which can help students obtain a high score on, say, an IELTS test. Instrumentalism, which is based on a "what works" mentality (Mockler, 2005), supports policies which are meant to fully align educational programs with the priorities of the labor market (Helsby, 1999) and changes educational programs, teacher education included, into agents of economic prosperity (Ben-Peretz, 2001).

        To make this happen, teacher education programs cannot and should not prioritize teachers' autonomy in developing their own theories of action since they may decide to focus on goals other than economic and functionalist ones. Therefore, the only room for maneuver provided for teachers is within a technical scope. That is, they are just allowed to decide on techniques to meet pre-defined and unchangeable ends (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Goodlad, 1998). This approach is generally referred to as technocratic rationality, the focus of the next section.

Teacher Training is Technical-rational

        Due to its positivist and instrumentalist nature, teacher training mainly concerns itself with practical and technical aspects of teaching (Bartolome, 2004), and, in keeping with delivery models of teacher education, it aims at producing larger numbers of teachers and training them in "requisite" and "relevant" skills (Bartell, 2001). This technical-rational discourse builds on classical and practical views of professionalism which reflect adherence to an existing body of technical skills and knowledge already developed in an empirical and evidence-based manner. In keeping with this technical view, student teachers in TESOL training programs are mainly exposed to some very practical techniques of teaching different language skills and components;, there is not much serious dialog about the rationale behind them and whether teachers think of them as the most appropriate techniques to use in their own local setting, and teachers are not encouraged to gain theoretical insights into them. This view ignores the artistry and unpredictable nature of teaching (Mockler, 2005).

        With regard to the practical usefulness of the technical-rational discourse of teacher training, Singh and Richards (2006) lament that this approach is bound to be defective as it more or less fails to affect language teachers' classroom practices since it ignores "how human learning is emergent through social interactions, and where context and identity play crucial mediating roles" (p. 150). In this regard, Dewey, back in 1904, also warned all educationalists against exclusive focus on short-term interim instructional objectives which essentially lead to a myopic treatment of long-term educational goals in teacher education (Beyer, 2001).

        In light of the above, I’d like to conclude that teacher training cannot do the complex and dynamic task of ELT justice due to its tunnel vision, which leads to a narrow look at the technical side of the story and neglect of its intellectual and creative essence. In the following section, I will discuss a more transformative, critically-oriented, and reflection-based approach to the professional development of teachers, i.e. teacher education.

Teacher Education

        Due to the shortcomings of a training approach, teacher preparation has been expanded to encompass the reflective and critical dimensions of teaching as well (Richards, 2008). This expanded framework, which is usually called teacher education, is based on principles of sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) and critical theories of education such as critical pedagogy and transformative education (Freire, 1972). The main aim of teacher education is to prepare teachers who have the ability to critically reflect upon different aspects of the teaching profession, propose their own theories-in-action, and bring about positive changes (Kumaravadivelu, 2003; Williams & Burden, 1997). Quite opposite to teacher training, which focuses on short-term objectives, ELT teacher education programs aim at a continuous process of intellectual and experiential growth and prioritize long-term goals such as “understanding how the process of second language development occurs” and “developing an understanding of different styles of teaching” (Richards & Farrell, 2005, p. 4). Moreover, unlike teacher training, which requires teachers to follow experts’ views, in teacher education, the theoretical basis is just a starting point rather than a prescription since teaching is considered to be a personal and intuitive response to what goes on in the classroom. In the following section, some of the main principles of teacher education are explained.

Teacher Education is Constructivist

        Mere focus on teaching behaviors and techniques which have been handed down to practitioners by some theoreticians has given rise to many professional organizations’ developing a common system of values and norms, conveying the imperative that teachers are expected to "either get better at teaching or get out of the business" (Cochran-Smith, 2001, p. 263). Due to widespread dissatisfaction of many teachers and teacher educators with this positivistic attitude to effective teaching, teacher education has been expanded to take into account how teachers make sense of their teaching profession and develop their own theories of pedagogy (Freeman, 1995; Singh & Richards, 2006). This constructivist approach encourages the belief that there are alternate ways and styles of teaching (Cochran-Smith, 2001) and, therefore, that teachers should come up with their own theories of practice based on their background, knowledge, and experience rather than wait for some experts to do so for them (McMorrow, 2007). In other words, it is assumed that, while the methods and techniques presented in methodology books have been put there because the authors have found them useful and appropriate in their own contexts, they will not necessarily prove to be as useful and situationally appropriate in the settings where trainees are going to teach since they are going to teach a particular group of students who have particular needs and objectives within a particular culture (Kumaravadivelu, 2003).

        Of course, this doesn’t mean that in teacher education student teachers are not presented with useful technical information as to what to do in different situations. Rather, different ways of teaching a certain language aspect or skill or conducting a certain task are discussed, and student teachers are encouraged to deeply reflect on different techniques and how useful they might be in a given situation and for a given group of learners.

Teacher Education is Critical and Transformative

        Mockler (2005) clearly asserts that, in the face of the competing demands imposed on teachers such as efficiency, measurability, and accountability to a set of established standards, the best type of teaching and, by the same token, teacher education, is the one which contributes to the formation of critical human beings who can act creatively and change society for the better. If a teacher education program really strives to develop teachers who qualify as transformative intellectuals (Giroux, 1983), teachers' criticality must be given a high priority since action without critical reflection results in mindless activism (Freire, 1972). Teachers need to develop a critical consciousness of themselves and their environment and, accordingly, transform them (Kincheloe, 2008). Therefore, in teacher education teachers are motivated to develop self-questioning habits so as to appreciate their strengths and recognize and transform their personal biases (Baldwin, Buchanan & Rudisill, 2007). They also need to develop critical thinking skills which can help them “problematize” what they observe and experience around themselves.

        In teacher education programs, these habits are usually developed through tasks such as writing critical reflective journals, sharing ideas and experiences with each other in dialogical activities such as group discussion and dialog journal writing, and reading texts critically (Singh & Richards, 2006). When teachers develop a critical attitude to themselves and their environment, they can act transformatively since they are able to recognize problems and limitations and, thus, can come up with appropriate solutions which contribute to the development of individuals and society.

Teacher Education is Theoretically Oriented

        In teacher training, the highly complex process of teacher development is reduced to the development of certain necessary skills for meeting predetermined objectives at the cost of developing teachers' theoretical knowledge of and insight into teaching. That is, teachers are not presented with theoretical issues to think about and make sense of based on their own local experiences, nor are they encouraged to develop their own personal theories. To bridge this gap, which some refer to as “deskilling” teachers (Kincheloe, 2008), advocates of teacher education have attached a lot of importance to involving teachers in theoretical discussions as well as providing them with the a space for developing their own theories of action in a reflective, critical, and situated manner (Hedgcock, 2002; Leistyna, 2007).

        If teachers are just given techniques to implement in their classes, they are highly likely to get confused and fail to act appropriately and innovatively when they are faced with different contexts and students since the set of techniques they have mastered in teacher training courses, no matter how exhaustive, does not necessarily guarantee their appropriateness and effectiveness in every context. However, when teachers develop in-depth insight into teaching and its subtleties, they are no longer limited to others' recipes since their knowledge of the different dimensions of teaching helps them make decisions in different situations in an autonomous, creative, and context-sensitive manner (Bax, 1997).

        Despite the above apparently dichotomous manner in which teacher training and teacher education have been compared, I’d like to emphasize that there is almost no program of teacher preparation which fully represents either teacher training or teacher education, and it is more realistic to consider these two approaches as two extreme poles of a continuum which can be depicted as follows:

Teacher Training

Teacher Education




Critical and transformative

Technical- rational


Concluding Remarks

        In light of the above comparison of ELT teacher training and teacher education in terms of their underlying principles, the position that this paper tends to adopt is that, while we should consciously avoid ignoring the advantages of teacher training and incorporate them into programs of teacher preparation, teacher education generally seems to provide a more appropriate framework because of its more reflective and transformative orientation. Although marvelous writings have discussed at length how to conduct second language teacher education programs (e.g. Farrell, 2007; Richards & Farrell, 2005), I’d like to conclude this paper with some suggestions as to how to put the above principles of teacher education into action.

        First of all, if teacher education aims at helping teachers develop their own understanding of second language teaching rather than passively consuming others’ ideas and understandings, the construction of student teachers’ professional identity, i.e. their definition of their teacher selves and professional responsibilities, must be a priority in the process of learning to teach (Smagorinsky, Cook, Moore, Jackson, & Fry, 2004). If trainees are merely given information and hands-on activities about techniques of teaching grammar, managing collaborative tasks, etc., they leave the training without having made deliberate attempts to develop their professional identities (Richards, 1989). Although they may be very good at implementing certain techniques of teaching L2, they may not have thought about why they are teaching and what other ways of looking at teaching exist. However, focusing on teachers’ professional identity construction in teacher education helps teachers take the initiative to question their unexamined beliefs, gain insights into new ways of looking at and practicing teaching, and, thus, act reflectively and creatively. To this end, they must be provided with ample opportunity to reflect on their own ideas as well as exchange ideas with each other, challenge each other’s beliefs, receive feedback from their peers and the educator, and, therefore, revisit their understandings. Writing reflective journals can encourage teachers’ critical reflection on proposed theories and techniques as well as their own understanding of issues. Dialog among teachers through pair, group, and class discussions as well as peer assessment (such as peer observation) can provide another opportunity for teachers to share their personal ideas and question each other’s teaching beliefs and behaviors. An immediate result of these tasks will be teachers’ becoming better prepared to teach reflectively and creatively and to contribute to such challenging tasks as preparing materials rather than merely teach what they are told the way they are told.

        To prepare teachers who can act reflectively and autonomously in their classes, they should also be encouraged to contribute to content and tasks provided in teacher education programs which then have a negotiated syllabus. In many teacher training programs, syllabi are designed a priori and in line with institutionally defined objectives and standards. What is practically ignored is that teachers are different and, thus, have different needs, interests, styles of development, and even purposes of teaching, and that they are going to teach people who are different in unpredictable ways. In addition, even during a teacher education program, needs and priorities may change. Thus, especially in in-service programs where teachers are already familiar with the basics of TESOL, only a general framework should remain in place, and, therefore, course details cannot be decided on a priori. Rather, different aspects of the course, such as content and instructional and assessment procedures, should be negotiated with student teachers and even renegotiated throughout the program. In this way, the program becomes dynamic, student teachers feel like co-owners of the course, and their motivation for learning and development is improved. However, to avoid undue confusion, instead of throwing them in at the deep end, teacher educators should show student teachers how to contribute to the process of course development and materials production and selection. Generally, a tangible outcome of this approach is that student teachers will be able to contribute to decisions that go beyond the typical responsibilities of an implementer of others’ ideas.

        Finally, improving student teachers’ theoretical knowledge of ELT must be a priority. As mentioned above, in many training programs, teachers are mainly expected to practice others’ theories through certain techniques and strategies. This approach fails to prepare teachers to think creatively and develop innovative strategies in new situations. Since teachers are expected to become informed, critical, and creative practitioners, they need to gain adequate theoretical knowledge and insight in order to act appropriately in different settings. To go beyond spoon-feeding teachers with some practical techniques to solve predictable learning problems, a teacher education program should incorporate critical reading and analysis of theories. In this way, student teachers can develop insight into many different aspects of teaching and, accordingly, can introduce innovative strategies when they face new situations. At the same time, since teachers are often too busy to read, teacher educators need to think of and incorporate appropriate solutions. For example, in an in-service teacher education course, I assigned some of the short papers published in the “Key Concepts in ELT” section of The ELT Journal as course readings. This section publishes very short and simple definitions of key issues and concepts in English language teaching such as focus on form, feedback, and noticing. The student teachers found the readings interesting since they were about a wide range of important topics related to teaching a second language and were short and written in clear and accessible language. Also, they found them practically useful since the pieces generated in-depth reflection and discussion about the situations and challenges they faced in their own classes and how they could deal with them.

        Preparing second language teachers who can think critically and act creatively appears to be an extremely daunting task as we are experiencing “an era where teacher professionalism is under assault” (Kincheloe, 2004, p. 50). However, much better than a fatalist mindset which makes us sit and desperately wait for a miracle is a utopian attitude which encourages us to step up, take action, and make small but meaningful changes in the status quo. Fingers crossed and sleeves rolled up!


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About the author:

Arman Abednia is a sessional lecturer at Allameh Tabataba'I University, English Language and Literature Department. He is interested in critical pedagogy, teacher education and needs analysis. He can be reached at