Friday, September 13, 2013

The Terrain of Teacher Training

My background is military, specifically as a sergeant in the combat engineers.  I have mentioned before that much of what I have learned about training methods comes from the U.S. Army.  I find that many have misconceptions about the training and management style of the armed forces.  There is considerably less yelling, cursing and threatening than outsiders believe.  Not only are non-commissioned officers continuously trained on motivating, coaching and mentoring methods, but they are also used continuously in practice.

But the focus of this article is simply to draw connections between military training and ELT teacher training.  Originally, this was to be a comment on a recent post by Chia Suan Chong on the English Teaching Professional website.  But I quickly found that I had too much to say for a comment block.

In the article, Ms. Chong rightly states that teacher training methods fall along a continuum between prescriptive input/evaluation and a guidance-driven method based on exploration, critical thinking and creativity.  My position is that introductory teacher training should include both.  Fundamental and routine tasks should be taught and practiced to the point of 'muscle-memory'.  Then higher tasks should emphasize responding to the environment appropriately and decision-making.

As an example, let's look at how the military teaches land navigation.

Step 1 - Know Your Tools

During the first steps, the new privates are methodically taught how to use a compass and a map.  This includes testing their knowledge of marginal data on a map, symbols, colors, etc.  They are also taught to identify the ten major and minor terrain features like hill, ridge, valley, cliff, spur, etc.  They must also find accurate grid coordinates on a map.  This is very basic stuff, but also very important.  These simple skills are augmented by more advanced skills like intersection and resection to determine a point on the map from two other known points.  Finding accurate grid coordinates is the key to calling for air support, medical evacuation, sending reports and directing artillery.  These simple 'mini-tasks' of navigation are practiced repeatedly until the failure rate is near zero.

The tools of the trade.
Source: Quique251, Wiki Commons
Step 2 - Plotting a Route

This step again teaches fundamental navigation but adds in an element of critical thinking.  The privates are given a point A and point B to plot and told to draw a route on the map which will take them there.  When plotting a route there are right and wrong answers.  For example, sometimes the straight line route is the best method.  Sometimes 'hand-railing' (following a linear terrain feature like a river) is best.  Sometimes, the best route is a series of determined checkpoints which avoid impassable areas or keep the group on the best tactical ground.  The privates must be able to justify why the route is the best.  If they fail to see the problems with their route (it takes the group over a cliff, it goes through an open field, it takes too long, etc.), it is wrong.

Note, at this point no one has even stepped foot in the forest.

Source: FM 3-25.26 Map Reading and Land Navigation,
U.S. Dept of the Army, approved for public release

Step 3 - Following and Deviating from a Route

The final step is to go into the forest and actually move from point A to point B.  Using a planned route, the soldiers start moving.  At this point they are using the 'muscle memory' skills to ensure they are correctly following the route.  They are constantly checking to ensure they are on track.  In fact, during a movement, one soldier will continuously keep the pace count (how far) and another will repeatedly check the compass (direction).  But here's the thing...  The terrain is never identical to the map.

Most maps are drawn with 10 meter contour lines.  So, many small depressions, swamps and ridges do on appear on the map.  This is where the privates learn how to read micro-terrain.  They will need to go around small clearings, minor cliffs, etc.  They will also need to continually keep the group in a defensible position.  So the movement should always have places for cover (large rocks, small ditches, etc.)  The ability to read micro-terrain is life saving.  Foot patrols in Afghanistan are supreme experts at this skill.  But it is taught starting in basic training.

The key to deviating from the drawn route is to constantly know where you are... within 10 meters.  Once you have 'lost your grid' it can take quite some time to find it again and you can no longer call for help.  This is a very dangerous situation and causes the whole patrol to become nervous.

Reaching the destination is a combination of several key elements.  They properly conducted key prescribed tasks, they made a correct plan based on the terrain, they deviated from the designed route to respond effectively to unexpected ground, and they always knew where they were.

Can you spot the micro-terrain?
Source: Oliver Herold, Wiki Commons
Okay... back to English Teaching

I believe that beginning teachers should be taught how to 'navigate' a classroom.  At the beginning this includes several fundamental skills which can be repeated in a variety of situations.  They should understand various types of activities, what they are for, and how long they take.  They should be able to spot errors and lacks (finding grids).  They should also be able to identify needs at a larger level (terrain features).

Next, they should be able to make a lesson plan to navigate through the terrain.  Note, in the military we don't make a route for every footstep, that is handled in the basic compass/pace counting skills.  The teacher trainees should also learn that there are several ways to get from point A to point B but some are wrong.  The technique of hand-railing is useful in land navigation but is sometimes dangerous, just as using a linear terrain feature (a course book) is not always the correct answer in the classroom.

Finally, the live practice teaching sessions should be used to train and assess how the teacher responds to the micro-terrain of the class (emerging language, unexpected gaps, unexpected topics/wishes).  Teachers should be taught (just as soldiers are) that deviating from the route is necessary as long as they constantly know why they left their planned course and where they are.  Watching a teacher 'lose their grid' in the classroom is just as painful as watching a patrol lose their way in the forest.  They start going in all directions at once and charging up mountains to find their way.  At the end, everyone is exhausted, frustrated and confused.

So, let's teach new teachers the art of class navigation.  But here's a reminder for some... we never taught privates navigation by simply taking them to the forest and telling them to start walking.

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