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Out of the shadows

British teachers have been following their Continental counterparts. Bob Powell on what they found out. During the past three years more than 300 language teachers have had the chance to spending two weeks in a school abroad observing lessons and interviewing teachers and pupils. There's nothing astonishing about that, you may think. Thanks to European funding, there are many more chances for people working in education to get abroad and see life on the other side of the Channel.

But, so many of the projects which have been developed since the creation of Lingua (later Lingua-Socrates) have tended to promote group exchanges or links between those in management, administration or teacher training.

If teachers accompany groups of students on trips abroad, they are usually so preoccupied with organisation and security that any hope of sitting in on lessons and observing classroom life is quickly dispelled.

Where visits to foreign schools take place during organised visits, they tend to be brief, cursory and restricted to those establishments deemed worthy of scrutiny by the host authorities. Impressions risk being superficial and, dare I say it, preconceived stereotypes may still prevail over reality.

One project that allowed language teachers more scope to "do their own thing" is now drawing to a close. The project - called "Self-study professional development of language teachers through visits to educational institutions abroad" - was the brainchild of an international group representing language teachers' associations in 12 member states of the European Union. It is one of the largest European Co-operation Programmes so far developed.

The West European group of the Federation Internationale des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes (FIPLV) spent over a year writing the four dossiers of research tools, creating an organisational model, and submitting funding proposals to Brussels. Individual teachers taking part have been funded through the national Lingua bureaux and supported by their associations (for the UK: the Association for Language Learning).

In a nutshell, teachers were enabled, through the project, to spend a fortnight in a school abroad, either in a country whose language was the target one taught by the teacher, or in another country where the target language was taught also as a foreign language, for example, teachers of French and Italian in this country went to Grenoble to observe Italian lessons or to Milan to observe French lessons.

This second strand offered a bonus for dual linguists since they were able to refresh their main language while considering methodological issues through in-depth observation of the second language they taught. "Developing pupil autonomy" has become something of a catch phrase in the language teaching profession in recent years. However, for some teachers involved in this project - especially, it seems, those whose national education systems set rigid guidelines and national criteria - the task of negotiating one's own programme with foreign colleagues, selecting topics to explore from the various dossiers, organising a programme of observation and setting up interviews with pupils and teachers, represented a daunting challenge.

But what did British participants make of it all? A general reaction was that the status and working conditions of teachers in Britain are inferior to those in other European countries. Plenty of evidence was presented to support these claims: for example, "Timetables reduce with age and experience and are mainly concentrated in either morning or afternoon sessions; the right to leave school to take part in in-service activities with no requirement to set work to be marked on one's return; remuneration for taking pupils on extra-curricular visits; retirement pension at 90 per cent of final salary." It surprised foreign colleagues that all British teachers who took part used up some holiday time.

As regards classroom observation, the main conclusion drawn by many participants was that language teachers in the other countries, having generally fewer pastoral and other responsibilities, are freer to get on with the job of teaching. One British teacher visiting a Portuguese school reported wryly: "I saw lessons in which teaching was actually the main activity. " Conversely, a Finnish teacher who had visited Britain wrote: "It was very difficult to get to talk to the teachers because they seemed to be always so busy. And yet, I thought there was a lot of wasted time with organisation trivia that someone else could have said during lessons."

The effectiveness of various methods of teaching a foreign language will always be debated and the visits did not solve all the dilemmas facing the language teacher. Rather, they reinforced the idea that it is the enthusiasm and dedication of the teacher that inspires pupils rather than the method or approach adopted or imposed by the state.

In the words of a French and Italian teacher who spent two week in Greece looking at lessons in both languages: "What struck me most about this experience is what I always suspected to be true, that is, that the relationship between teacher and pupils is of paramount importance. If there is a genuine feeling of affection and mutual respect, then no matter what method is used, pupils will respond and learn. Enthusiasm for language learning is caught, not taught."

For those wishing to find out more about the project, ALL is publishing a report which contains contributions from many participants and the materials used during the observational visits. A video is also available. There is still a chance to attend an "end-of-project" colloquium in Oporto, Portugal, November 1 to 3, which will encourage wider discussion of the aims, means and potential for the continuing professional development of language teachers across Europe. A new project is already being prepared by the associations.

For details of both the colloquium and the publications, contact: Association for Language Learning, 150 Railway Terrace, Rugby, CV21 3HN. Tel: 01788 546443 Fax: 01788 544149

Dr Bob Powell is director of the Language Centre, University of Warwick and former president of ALL

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