Thom Kiddle, Director of NILE, talks about Teaching and Assessment

Thom Kiddle has a Master’s degree in Language Testing from Lancaster University and the Cambridge Delta. He is the Director of NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education). His role at NILE involves strategic and organizational management, training and consultancy in a range of areas including testing and assessment, learning technologies, materials development, and language teaching methodology.

  • You are the director of NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education). Tell us a few things about the school.

NILE is a specialist language teacher education institute, so we’re slightly unusual as a school in that all of our students are teachers! Many teach English as a subject in schools around the world, and an increasing number teach other subjects through English, either in English-Medium Instruction or CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) contexts. We also have a major online language teacher education portfolio, which we launched in 2014, with everything from English for Teachers courses to a full Master’s programme which currently has over 200 participants. It’s a great place to work as we get to learn about new educational contexts every day, and work with motivated and inspiring teachers from all round the world, either online, here in Norwich, or at one of our NILE Language Teacher Education Partners across Europe and Latin America.

Text by: Anastasia Spyropoulou

  • You started your career as a teacher and then you moved to teacher training. Was it a big step? What challenges did you have to overcome?

It was actually quite a gradual step for me. I was involved in mentoring teaching colleagues on the Cambridge DELTA programme when I worked at British Council Thailand, and then I moved to Chile where I was teaching English to trainee teachers at the Chilean-British University. That meant that my major remit was language teaching, but it was also interesting to talk about the principles behind the activities and approaches with the trainees in a more informal teacher-training way. I find teacher training and teacher development really fascinating, and everyone you work with has a wealth of their own educational experiences and beliefs to draw on, whether that’s their own experiences as a teacher, or their experiences of being taught. That gives you as the trainer so much to explore with classes that you can make learning completely co-constructed, which is harder to achieve in a language class.

  • Can teachers be masters in everything e.g., teaching young learners, teaching adults, teaching exam classes, etc., or is specialization necessary?

For us at NILE, we need our teacher trainers to be specialists in one or two main areas, as I think it’s too much to cover the theories, principles and practices of all the different kinds of language education we work in. I’d be very nervous about someone who claimed to be an expert in everything from pre-primary education to EMI in Higher Education, for example. For teachers, I think there are different kinds of specialization, and for many teachers they will need to work on different course types, with different learners, at different times in their career – sometimes by choice, sometimes as a matter of necessity. I do think there are certain key skills and knowledge, or teacher competences, which all teachers need, however, and I will talk about some of these in my plenary presentation at the Foreign Languages Forum in Athens in March. Some of these competences have been part of good teaching practice for a long time, but the importance of others has become evident more recently, such as our understanding of learning differences, for example.

  • During the pandemic online learning boomed. Teachers and so-called ‘teachers’ advertised their courses on the Internet. Who checks the qualifications of the teachers who appear on screen? Is this another fraud?

I think the rise of online teaching - due to widening internet access generally, broader acceptance of eLearning, and of course accelerated by the pandemic – provides a huge challenge for traditional models of accreditation and quality assurance. Previously, we would have placed the responsibility for accredited quality on the physical institution where the learning takes place – the language school, for example – or left the decision to learn outside these settings (with a private one-to-one tutor, for example) in the hands of the learner. In the online space, however, the boundaries are blurred, and the lack of accreditation systems for individual teachers, coupled with issues of identity and verifying claims and qualifications, is a minefield for learners looking for quality education. There are huge marketplaces for online language learning which claim to take on this responsibility for verifying the credentials of the teacher, and of course there are the online institutions with their own accreditation, such as the AQUEDUTO members (www.aqueduto.com) in online language teacher education, but it’s still very difficult to discern the quality among all the offerings available.

  • Is online teaching as efficient as teaching in a physical environment? Is it also cheaper?

Well, there is massive variety in the way language is taught in physical environments too, and I don’t think the physical vs. online environment distinction is necessarily one which determines efficiency. We might also challenge or question whether ‘efficiency’ is the measure we should look at, or how we could hope to measure it, for that matter. I think it’s certainly true that for educational providers, the cost of providing a high-quality physical learning environment is greater than providing a high-quality online learning environment, but that doesn’t mean that their teaching costs are, or should be, lower. For learners, I think there are more, cheaper options available online, but the same factors of quality, access to qualified and experienced teachers, ratio of teacher to students, support services, etc. will still mean that cheaper is rarely better!

  • Many teachers have strong beliefs about education practice and principles and say ‘These are my beliefs’, ‘This is the way I teach…and it’s efficient’; ‘Show me what I can do better within my own framework but do not ask me to change and try new approaches’. How would you respond to this?

Yes, it’s a very understandable reaction, and I think strong beliefs are a good thing, and not easily changed. You can’t begin a teacher development programme by trying to undermine or attack teachers’ beliefs. I believe that beliefs can change over time, but this will most probably be as a result of practices changing first, then principles, and finally beliefs. What we can do is offer alternative ways of looking at current practices, and new ideas to include in those practices, and then encourage reflection on these. It is also useful to acknowledge teacher beliefs and make those deeper-held ideas visible. As I said earlier, in most teacher development contexts I’ve worked in, teachers’ own experiences and understanding of their professional and educational contexts are going to be far greater than the trainer’s, so we have to use their beliefs, principles and practices to co-construct the professional development content and approach, in order for it to have any lasting impact.

  • Is teacher observation a powerful tool for teacher development?

Yes, one of the most powerful tools, I fear. There’s nothing more frustrating than an approach to teacher development which is based entirely in the abstract, without looking at the implications for what this means in the classroom. This would certainly include self-observation, peer observation, and observation of more experienced educators and each will have its own benefits, but all should contribute to the idea of principled reflection on practice. I also think the concept of the Johari window (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window) is an important way to approach observation, so we’re not just observing, but also thinking critically about what we observe, and verbalizing that to see if others see it the same way.

  • Have you been influenced by other teachers?

I often say that all my most effective classroom practices and my reasons for confidence in the classroom are the result of observing other teachers over my career. And going beyond the observation to talk things through in the staff room, borrowing and stealing ideas to try out in my own classroom! I’m really fortunate at NILE to have always been surrounded by genuine pioneers and leaders in language education, so it’s a very rich source of informal professional development every day.

  • Your area of expertise is testing and assessment. The majority of teachers equate assessment with examination. Is it the same thing?

It’s fine to look at examinations as a part of assessment, but not the only part. I do believe, perhaps contrary to many teachers, that there are strong reasons for having fair and valid examinations at certain stages in education. One of the most important of these reasons is to ensure meritocracy – avoiding educational opportunities only going to those with better connections or more resources. However, this is just one end of the spectrum of what assessment can and should mean in practice. At the other end of the spectrum we need to recognise and respect that all teachers are assessing their learners all the time. Every time we make a decision in the classroom – when to stop an activity, whether follow-up is necessary, what kind of feedback to give, what to do next, etc. – we make the decision based on our informal, often intuitive, assessment of the learning that is taking place at that moment. This is a crucial part of good teaching practices and it’s important to make that visible to teachers, and help them feel confident that they are getting the right picture to make these decisions effectively. At other points on the spectrum between very informal observation of learning at one end, and formal examinations at the other end, we would include students’ self-assessment, peer assessment, alternatives to tests such as portfolios and projects, classroom quizzes, different kinds of test and ways of providing feedback, formal assessment tasks deconstructed into communicative activities, and many more. One of the most rewarding aspects of my own specialism in language assessment is helping teachers feel empowered in all these aspects, so they are not seeing external exams as the dominant component of assessment. 

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