One-Size-Fits-All Workshops? Bah Humbug!
03rd January 2020
By Greg Abrahams
Greg is an American English language teacher and teacher trainer currently based in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
He has taught and trained teachers in a variety of contexts over the last 12 years in South Korea, Ecuador, China, the United States, Turkey, Morocco, and Myanmar. He has taught general English to young learners, Academic English at universities, and communicative English to Ministries of Education. Also, Greg has several years of experience teaching courses and training educators in low-resource contexts. Most recently, Greg worked with the US State Department as an English Language Fellow in Myanmar, where he trained teachers, designed curriculum, and laid the foundations for new English for Ministry Staff courses.
One-Size-Fits-All Workshops? Bah Humbug!
Much to Mother Earth’s chagrin, I’ve circumnavigated the world twice over the last four months, training teachers in Myanmar, Brazil, and Tunisia. At surface level, all three countries share common problems in the classroom and education systems. Under-trained and underpaid teachers, low resources, unreliable or unavailable technology, lack of teachers’ English skills, and outdated methodologies are just a few of the challenges that Myanmar, Brazil, and Tunisia each face. However, I found that leading workshops in each country, city, and institution often led to very different results and, therefore, very different modifications.
For example, one of the workshops I led in seven cities in Brazil concerned the flipped classroom. I felt that the workshop was practical and allowed space for adjustments according to varying degrees of technological access. Having done some cursory research, I had expected that many teachers and students might not have ideal access to technology and online video, a key component of the flipped classroom technique. As always, I left time at the end of the workshop for a Q&A session, expecting to address many of the common problems with similar modifications. What I didn’t expect was how different the problems would be in each institution or city, with varying combinations of institutional technology, student access to the Internet, student motivation, and school regulations, among other problems. While the workshop was ultimately well received in each institution, I faced new situations, new questions, and new on-the-spot problem solving in each city.
Of course, while making tweaks to your workshops as issues arise is important, it is inconvenient or even impossible to adjust your workshop every time you lead your workshop in a new context. You cannot predict every country’s, institution’s, or teacher’s specific contexts, and worrying about changing your slides and materials before every single workshop is a waste of energy. Often, a trainer can make their life easier by leaving time for Q&A at the end to address teachers’ problems and offer modifications based on their specific contexts.
However, one lesson I’ve learned as a trainer over the last four months is that while leaving time for Q&A is important, it is VITAL to allow and even encourage your trainees to interrupt your workshops and presentations to raise concerns and ask questions. There are two main reasons for this thinking:
Some of your participants might not have the English skills to comprehend the speaking rate and lexicon you are initially using. Encouraging your students to interrupt and ask you to slow down better informs you of their English listening skills, and the effect is the teachers’ better comprehension (and hopefully future implementation!) of the material you are presenting.
Inevitably, some or even several of your participants will not be able to apply your material exactly as you are presenting it. If you do not allow for questions and modifications until the end, some participants may tune out throughout the workshop, thinking that they will never be able to apply the material to their own contexts. If you allow participants to raise their concerns during the workshop, you will be better able to address those needs throughout your presentation, and thus you will likely have more a more engaged audience.
(It’s also important to note the cultural context when encouraging teachers to interrupt your workshop. I found that participants in Brazil and Tunisia didn’t have much of a problem interrupting me to ask questions, but the Burmese tended to be hesitant to interject.)
The ultimate lesson: “Everything Works, And Nothing Works”. Teaching and training methods and techniques are guides, not holy documents, and it’s important to tell your teachers to accept, reject, and adjust as well.