The prospect of training in Inner Mongolia was a heady one, conjuring up images of semi-arid grasslands where one could envision Genghis Khan-types galloping on horseback across the windswept terrain, of smoky yurts and of rosy-cheeked brown-skinned folk. Sadly, aggressive and overly–optimistic development in the area of Ordos, where TTT had been invited to give a series of demonstration lessons and workshops, had long replaced any trace of such a landscape. Instead, there was a sea of modern yet largely empty, sometimes incomplete and often simply abandoned infrastructure, earning it the accolade “The Ghost City of China”, making one feel as though they were on the set of a post-apocalyptic zombie film. It was eerie to drive along roads with no other cars, and walk along pavements with no other pedestrians. The newer cities visited later, however, showed real signs of progress and inhabitation, with grandiose five-star hotels, shopping malls and a plethora of restaurants.
All the schools, however, were full of typically school-like, delightedly noisy, bubbling life. Here were large concentrations of people; in each one curious, happy students and genuine, welcoming teachers, giving the visiting trainers a warm reception. The classrooms were usually bright, and comfortably heated to combat the 5-degree (at most!) outside environs. Many were well-equipped, with some even having interactive whiteboards.
Two TTT trainers spent two days at each school, each trainer taking one group of up to 50 teachers for one day and then swapping groups on the second day. Each morning began similarly, with a local teacher teaching one demonstration class (or in a few cases, two teachers taking a class each), followed by the trainer teaching one Primary 4 class and one Primary 5 class (with one trainer teaching Reading and Writing to both levels, the other teaching Listening and Speaking). Both the local teachers and trainers used the same materials from the students’ workbooks. Those not teaching observed the classes being taught.
The purpose of this exercise was to contrast and compare how the local teachers and trainers used the same materials in their classes, but with different methodology. The local teachers seemed to favour repetition and rote memorization of the role-plays and language featured in the workbooks, whereas the trainers focused on communicative use of the language, adapting the materials so that the students could use the language in a personalized (and therefore authentic) way.
Demonstration lessons over, the local teachers and trainers then took turns to talk through their lesson with the observing teachers, commenting on what they felt had worked effectively in their classes, and what they had learnt from watching a different methodology being utilized. Observers were then invited to ask both the local teacher and the trainer questions about any aspect of the lessons taught.
The local teachers were pleasantly surprised to see how real communication and student-to-student interaction could be facilitated even in a class of as many as 60 children. This was largely due to their exemplary behaviour, as well as their readiness and enthusiasm to speak with each other during the lesson, but also with the simple interaction patterns that could be applied to enable students to speak with their various partners in a manageable way. In turn, the trainers were impressed at how much detail and time the local teachers had put into their teaching materials (many had produced some extraordinary PowerPoint presentations), but noted that the children could have benefited from more student-to-student interaction. It was therefore quite a novel experience for the children to speak to a variety of their classmates during the 40-minute demo lesson taught by the TTT trainer. Some local teachers, however, raised concerns that such communicative activities would not adequately prepare students for exams, where they believed rote learning would be more effective. A fusion of the two methods would be an effective solution.
Workshops for the local teachers were scheduled in the afternoons: one on “How to Teach Reading and Writing” and another on “How to Improve Speaking Fluency and Accuracy for Teachers”. These were designed to be not only informative, but lively and interactive as well. Many of the teachers, some initially apprehensive about having to attend a workshop held by a native English speaker where they themselves would have to participate in English, mentioned to the trainers afterwards how much they had enjoyed the experience. In addition, they commented on how their confidence in using English had increased over a mere two and a half hours.
There was much shuttling around between towns and hotels, with the trainers et al visiting six schools in six different towns over ten days of training, but TTT were consistently greeted and taken care of with the same warmth and enthusiasm in every school visited. There were often cheery invitations to join the school principal and other senior teachers for lunch, sometimes their local “entourage” took them out to restaurants or back to the hotel, but without fail there would always be an extravagant feast waiting for them for both lunch and dinner. Mutton featured heavily on the menu, but trainers were also treated to a variety of meat, fish and exotic vegetables that were a specialty in the region.
Despite a few setbacks – for no trip to China would ever be complete without them! – the trainers were extremely well looked after during their fortnight in Ordos.
Acknowledgement and our heartfelt thanks go to all the participating teachers and students, and especially to the very hard-working team behind the trainers to smooth over the bumps inevitable on any work tour, let alone one involving six schools, six cities, six hotels, hundreds of teachers, and perhaps in total eight hundred students. No mean feat – perhaps rivaling in strategy and organization an attack by a Khan-led horde. We at Train The Teacher are grateful for the unforgettable experience.