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Common complaints about TEFL workshops

… and how to respond to them.

As the number of workshops about teaching English I have attended and given is well over a hundred, I’ve heard and made a fair number of complaints over the years and tried to respond to those grumbles when planning the occasional workshops I give now. Below are some suggestions on how you can take the same approach to your own involvement in CPD:

1. Too much pairwork
This is an example of the largest group of complaints I have come across- that the workshop is too much like an EFL lesson. This general complaint could be because teachers are bored with things they do in the classroom all the time, or it could be because they think it is a sign of someone not putting enough thought into their workshop plan. In the case of too much pairwork, the person leading the workshop has probably instinctively used it as usual without necessarily thinking about its purpose- which in an English class is to expand the amount of speaking for each person, something that is irrelevant in a workshop. Good reasons for having pairwork in a workshop are to give people the time they need to think about something before you give your ideas, to give people who need warming up or are bored or unmotivated a break and change of interaction (only likely to be necessary if it is their second or third workshop that day), or to introduce pairwork to teachers who don’t use it in class. Bad reasons include doing it automatically, and just filling time. As in a carefully designed TEFL class, thinking about (and maybe writing down) the reasons why you have each pairwork stage and whether it is replaceable with something more novel or less time wasting should make sure that you avoid this complaint. You could also explain those reasons to the workshop participants and tell them how much time is worthwhile spending on that pairwork stage for those reasons. Otherwise it is best to find a way that is less time consuming and maybe newer to the participants, such as all of them taking the Student A role and you taking the Student B role, or one of them shouting out a question for anyone at all attending the workshop to answer. The same criteria work for justifying and avoiding mingle activities and taking part in songs, games etc that you are demonstrating.

2. Too much brainstorming
Again, the fact that TEFL teachers do this all the time in their classes and all the time in their workshops isn’t a good sign, or at least could be taken negatively. The actual negative effects could be that the workshop leader seems lazy or with no ideas of their own and that some people come out of a long brainstorming stage having learnt nothing new. One way of avoiding these negative impressions is to have a huge list of your own ideas ready to add a few to what everyone else has contributed while or after brainstorming. In fact, to save time you could just take one or two ideas from others before giving your own ideas. The problem with these approaches is that they can make any brainstorming seem like a bit of a sham, so another approach is to brainstorm as usual but tell them that you will give out a photocopy at the end of the session with your own ideas on the subject.

3. Too little input from the presenter
The complaint above is an example of this. Unlike some of your students, the people attending your workshop should be able to take every idea you give them and think about them and use them every day. Because of this and the fact that they might rarely get the chance to go to workshops and so have a long time to think about a few ideas (like students who are in that position with English- maybe those who use English at work and come for a 2 week intensive course) they need and want lots of input rather than lots of time to think about their own ideas. The exceptions are people who have had a lot of workshops that day or recently, workshops where you know that specific people attending will have a lot to contribute (and so the workshop leader is more like a chair in a meeting than a presenter) and internal workshops that are as much about sharing ideas (maybe to improve the school) as they are about giving new ideas. As the more demanding people attending your workshop will leave asking themselves “What did the workshop leader tell me that I didn’t know?”, look at the first draft of your workshop plan with this in mind. You might also want to prepare for every possible question and give plenty of time for Q and A, making sure you answer the questions yourself rather than usually bouncing them back to the other participants.

4. Too much eliciting
This could be an example of the point above, or another example of “just because it’s good in the TEFL classroom doesn’t mean…”, as people might need to speak to aid memory but they aren’t there for actual speaking practice. Too much eliciting- like concept checking, instruction checking or too much praise- can also seem patronizing to some people. It might also be less suitable for a large workshop where people don’t know each other and can’t necessarily hear people in other parts of the room speak than it would be in a small internal workshop. Even knowing all these things, it can be difficult to stop what becomes an almost instinctive use of elicitation for TEFL teachers. To get round this, put an effort into putting other ways of getting people involved into your workshop plan, e.g. matching, ranking, and agreeing and disagreeing with statements.

5. Too theoretical
The solution here is to make sure people who attend go away with something they can use in their classes the next day, or at least in the near future once they have had a think about the ideas. Ways of doing this include giving them photocopiable worksheets, lists of practical ideas such as classroom games, or at least a few suggestions for what kind of practical classroom activities your research findings could lead to if they turn out to be backed up by future research.

6. Not suitable for my classes
Ways of avoiding this complaint include making sure the workshop description makes it very clear what kind of classes its ideas are suitable for so that only the right kind of people attend, telling them what kinds of classes each idea in it could be used for so they don’t miss out on ideas they could actually use, finding out as much as possible about the people who will attend or have attended so that you can adapt the workshop to their needs (maybe writing this flexibility into your workshop plan), and making sure the ideas or variations on them are useable with a wide range of classes (either different ideas for different classes or ideas that are useable with many different kinds). Factors that make classes different to maybe take into account include level, how mixed the levels in each class are, class size, amount of technology available, room to move around, seating arrangements, ages, culture, syllabus constraints, discipline, needs and motivation.

7. Not for me
As well as being suitable for a different kind of class, the ideas in a workshop could be most suitable for a different kind of teacher, for example one at a different point in their career, with a different kind of teaching style, with a different teaching philosophy, or with different ideas about SLA. Again, try to make it as generally applicable for the people who could come to it as possible, and then make the limits of that range clear so that people can make an informed choice whether to attend or not. You can simplify this by writing down a perfect teacher for that workshop, the least suitable person for that workshop, and then deciding what a good dividing line between the two would be.

8. No new ideas/ lots of things I had heard before
This could be a case of misjudging the experience and background of the people who were going to attend, or of not giving enough information to put such people off- or in the worst case just of having no original ideas to share! Not having your own idea of how to change the world of TEFL is not, however, a reason to stop giving workshops. Ways of passing on ideas most people won’t have heard but that are not your own include borrowing them from a brand new book or edition of a magazine (obviously acknowledging the source), doing the same with something so old or obscure that it has been forgotten, and adapting ideas from your hobbies or another field you know well.

9. Good ideas in theory but impractical
Mention as many possible examples of them working in practice (or if they are new ideas, something similar working in practice or these ideas working in different contexts) as possible, mention your own practical classroom experience and impatience with airy fairy ideas to show that you don’t accept any old nonsense, make sure each idea and section of the workshop includes practical ideas rather than just tacking a few ideas onto the final part of the workshop, and/or start the workshop with practical applications and work backwards to the theory.

10. Didn’t have much impact on my teaching
This could be similar to the point above, or could be the opposite- I tried all the practical ideas out, but because there was nothing radical behind them my classes went basically the same as before. If the latter could be the case, try to make sure all the ideas tie together and have a fundamental concept behind them, either by starting with a radical and/ or new theory and seeing what practical ideas it could lead to, or by organising the ideas you want to include into ones that share common ideas and trying to find a theory or theories that justifies them and ties them together, rejecting any ideas that don’t tie in. You could also write this factor down on your workshop plan you make sure you have thought about it, e.g. “People attending this workshop should lead to their classes being more/ less…. This will be achieved by…”

11. It was just a set of unconnected ideas
Whilst a workshop on “my favourite activities” avoids all possible complaints about being impracticable, randomness does make the ideas difficult to remember and doesn’t help people come up with their own similar ideas. The tips for this are the same as “Didn’t make much impact on my teaching” above.

12. Couldn’t understand the workshop leader
This could be a case of language level (many outside workshops have a mix of native and non-native English speakers attending), use of jargon (what training people have had changes what kind of TEFL jargon they are familiar with- some English teachers don’t even know the word TEFL, for example), having complicated ideas, ideas that are only easily understandable if you have certain knowledge or a certain kind of brain (e.g. research based on statistics), or just be because of the workshop leader being unclear. Just as with an observed or other important lesson, you can write down as much of what you are going to say as possible and simplify it- and then throw that script away so that you don’t actually recite it and so lose all spontaneity. One good way of simplifying both language and ideas is to see if you can translate it into another language, or at least understand a translation of it.

13. It didn’t answer the questions I had about the topic
For example, “From the workshop title I expected to find out how to boost my students’ listening skills in a way that would improve their exam scores, but instead it was all a bit vague and mainly about listening when taking part in conversations”. This example suggests one solution, which is to make the title and any accompanying description of the workshop clear, informative and unambiguous. You can make sure that the information tells them what questions will be answered by writing the description that way, e.g. “This workshop will attempt to answer the questions…” Another technique is to start the workshop by asking the people who attend to write down what questions they have about the topic, and then get them to see which have been answered and which they would like to ask in the final Q and A stage near the end.

14. Too much taking part
I am one example of someone who is happy to act the fool in front of a class of kids, or even when I’m leading a workshop, but do not want to be picked out of the audience in a workshop or take part in action songs anymore than I would want to when I go to the theatre. From what I have heard other people say, I am not the only one who feels that way. Other reasons people might not be happy taking part is that they think it is wasting time, that being given a written description of it is more useful for the future than whatever you can remember from doing it, or that they learn better or quicker in other ways. If you really think demonstration is necessary to explain something properly or make it memorable, possibilities are to give them a less active or embarrassing way of doing it (e.g. sitting down, mouthing silently, choral drilling, shadow reading, doing the actions in a smaller way such as just with your hands on your lap), demonstrating with one obviously keen person or friend you have cued to do it, or showing a video or puppet show demonstrating it.

15. Treated like children
This is mainly due to the point above, but could also be because of excess eliciting, concept and instruction checking, or talking with classroom level language to a group of high level or native level English speakers. Try to avoid all of these- actually, I tend to try and avoid them in my classes too! One way of testing your workshop plan for this point, which works well for many of the points above as well, is to think “How would I change this if it was one of my (children’s) classes?” If the answer is not at all, you might want to think about changing it at least a little to make it more suited to its purpose.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net September 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

4 Comments

  • Melisa says:

    This post put into words many of the vague feelings of dissatisfaction I’ve felt over the years. I would add the complaint of presenters who insist that they have The Answer in the form of their trademarked method, textbook, or program which they claim will magically work for all students in all programs. And when they use the word “teacher proof” it’s hard to continue listening.

    Your post on what makes a workshop worthwhile was also right on. Good work!

  • José Ricardo says:

    I do agree on some of the common complaints, but if a TEFL professional relates to all of those complaints, I think that he/she is in the wrong profession. Getting effective training in pedagogy involves sharing information with others, brainstorming, eliciting, active participation, etc. The “too much” does not fit. I wonder if math teachers say that “there were too many problems to solve” at a math teacher training workshop. Get real people!!

  • Donna says:

    Hi Alex…
    Interesting post.

    Thanks D.

  • fabienne Gauthier says:

    Alex…

    i am in the process….i will be ready to teach in a few months.
    I found this info….fab.

    Thanks for all this info…wowser.

    fabienne

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teacher Technique : Common complaints about TEFL workshops