#ELTHeroes Interview: Phil Dexter

This time in our #ELTHeroes series, we are talking to Phil Dexter. Phil is the English Language Teacher Development Adviser for the British Council.  Phil is currently responsible for development of the workshop modules for the British Council Teaching for Success CPD framework approach and, in particular, on special educational needs and inclusive learning. Phil has a Master’s Degree in English language studies from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne and a Diploma in Special Educational Needs. Phil is passionate about ensuring that every learner has the opportunity to show their ‘special talents’ in aspiring and achieving to the highest standards.

1. Tell us a little bit about your career in ELT. Phil dexter

Before joining the world of ELT I worked in a huge ‘pensions factory’ in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England. This was the kind of work you either stay in for your working life or you go for the ‘great escape’. ELT was my route out of a safe but less than interesting job. I completed my usual CELTA type initial training course and then, ‘unusually’ went straight into a Masters in English language studies. This was a correct route for me as it gave me time to think what I wanted to do and more importantly understanding of ELT.

From there my journey began…..Seven years in Bulgaria working at an English language medium school and then managing the programme for three years, two years in the Czech republic and pre-service initial teacher training at a pedagogical faculty where I developed lots of understanding and skills about observation and mentoring followed by four years in Slovakia supporting in-service teacher training. From there, though staying in ELT, I changed track working on what was called the British Council Peacekeeping English Project in Croatia and Libya which was interesting – to say the least – working with militaries and especially the military in Libya!  In between Croatia and Libya I worked on an interesting vocational training project in Saudi Arabia. In almost all these projects and countries there was a theme I developed around approaches to independent learning and set up self-access centres.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to return to the UK with responsibility as Global Teacher Development Adviser (my current role) mainly in developing courses and resources for primary and secondary and advising our countries globally on professional development. I actually travel more now than I did when I worked outside the UK and have done lots of work across the world. This then takes me on my journey into special educational needs and inclusive learning. I suppose I’ve always felt that teaching and learning needs to be differentiated to different ways that we all need to learn and also the importance of recognising the rights of every learner to achieve at the best of potential as an equality and quality issue. I have retrained and qualified in special educational needs and am pleased that I can make contribution to this field.

2. What advice do you have for teachers when they’re developing their skills and knowledge in the professional practice ‘Using inclusive practices’?

Using inclusive practices is about good teaching and learning and understanding your learners. The first thing I would say is look at what you and other teachers are doing already. I am certain that there are lots of ‘inclusive practices’ in what you are doing. Look at what you think is working well and do more of that, especially ways that you are engaging with your learners as that shows understanding of your learners and is likely to make the biggest impact on their learning.

Secondly, inclusive practices is less about what models of teaching and learning we have in schools and much more about what teachers and learners do.   My work is very much connected with special educational needs (SEN) and my strong advice for teachers is not to be engaged with a medical approach and diagnosis of SEN. This type of support is for professionals to do – whether it’s a diagnosis of someone identified as being on the autism spectrum or having dyslexia, social and emotional challenges, attention deficit hyperactive needs or needs associated with mental health. Of course, a diagnosis may be helpful for everyone – parents, learners, teachers, schools and can help understanding of where learning challenges come from. However, as teachers the focus is on learning needs. This is what we teachers are trained to do. These needs might be expressed through different things that we can notice as a teacher. Is it connected to certain ways learners go on, take part in or complete tasks? Is it connected to ways our learners interact with others? Is it about following instructions connected with memory? What can we notice about behaviour?

A colleague of mine, Marie Delaney, gave some advice recently on a useful way of approaching understanding our learners’ needs, which includes asking questions such as:

  • What do I notice about what my learners are doing?
  • What is interesting about what I notice?
  • How can I change what I do to improve my teaching and to support their learning?

Asking and answering these questions will take us into all the skills and knowledge we need in developing inclusive practices.

Thirdly, good CPD practice is very much about ‘try and learn’. This is equally applicable to using inclusive practices. Try out what you learn on courses in your classrooms keeping in mind what will be meaningful for your classes and individual learners. Adapt for your learners needs, try things in different ways and share ideas with colleagues. Something that works one day may not work the next day so be patient but persistent. Very few learners, if any, do not want to learn – it’s about find the right route(s) for everyone. Above all have high aspirations for everyone.

3. In what ways can teachers find out whether or not their classrooms are inclusive?

Asking and answering the questions on what teachers can notice will begin to answer the question. One of the main issues we all face is that classroom learning itself is often one of the barriers to inclusiveness. Usually our curriculum, our textbooks and too often our methodology is one where, though we talk about our learners being different, our practice has learners doing the same or similar activities. For some learners, classrooms are a good place to learn but for others they are suffering in silence, are just not connected with what is happening in the classroom or just bored. Part of the reason for this – and this is not to blame teachers who are doing the best they can – is that much of classroom learning is abstract and we need to make our lessons and classroom more concrete and meaningful where understanding, and therefore, meaningful learning can happen. Rather than an over focus on whether our classrooms are not inclusive I would concentrate on the positive – how to make then more inclusive.

How can we do this? As with everything in learning there are no ‘magic dust’ answers – but there are solutions.

A key issue is that all learners are working towards the same learning outcomes – whether this is working on learning some item of grammar, vocabulary in context, some topic, a story or whatever. We all have learning preferences (this is not about learning styles) and preferred ways of working. We need to think about how we can maximise these preferences in supporting learning.

i. Focus on what learners can do rather than what they can’t do. Do more of that as this will build confidence and promote positive learning. Nothing succeeds like success!

ii. Scaffold and differentiate learning – scaffolding puts ideas in context and structure to support learning. Start from what learners know already and build on that – this is a form of scaffolding. Differentiation is about presenting, practising, production and assessing learning in a variety of ways – through text, visual, auditory, kinaesthetic. Again this is not about locking learners onto specific learning styles but presenting teaching in a variety of ways. We all use our senses in life and let’s use them in learning.

iii. Take this a stage further – give options on how learners might present their ideas – through text, a visual presentation such as a mind map, more oral than in writing, using technology, through building a 3D model and/or explaining through a medium of the learner’s choice. This is called differentiation by response and learners are basically doing the differentiation.

iv. Group learners not according to ‘ability’ that may prejudge outcomes but in different ways – gender, colour or style of hair, items of clothing, special interests, combination of different preferences in same group etc.

v. Take the same approach with assessment. We want to test knowledge, understanding and skills – how they demonstrate that can be optional.

4. What can teachers facing challenges such as large classes and syllabus constraints do to make their classrooms more inclusive? 

Of course, all the above is easier said than done – especially in large busy classrooms but through ideas like the above, you will be able to see how learners are involved. It’s important to realise and understand what you can change and impact on and what you can’t. Work on what you can change.

i. In a large class you may not be able to move desks or other furniture that is fixed, but you can usually move people even if this means just turning round to work with someone.  Can you change where you seat people or how they do an activity on different days?

ii. The syllabus may be fixed but can you use these variety of options mentioned above (and others) in how learners work and respond?

iii. In a very large class you cannot get everyone presenting in whole group/class all the time, but can you use group work much more and choose a few groups each lesson/day to feedback to the whole group?

iv. Can the learners assess each other from time to time – this requires practice and understanding criteria but can be very powerful. This is called an assessment for learning approach.

v.  A learner’s behaviour can be challenging and difficult for all sorts of reasons. Remember you may not be able to change a learner’s behaviour but you can change your attitude to their behaviour and help with your own wellbeing.

5. How can teachers move beyond the notion of inclusion that is only associated with learners with special needs?

This is a really important question. Special Needs in itself is not only about ‘weak learners’. There are many learners who are identified as ‘gifted and talented’ but are under performing due to be under challenged and underwhelmed situations in a class. These are the learners who may finish quickly and then are bored. They require what is called curriculum enrichment. This could be achieved through more or very challenging activities, high interest content, ways of working such as seeking out more information through various media, inviting subject specialist guest speakers or arranging visits to businesses or universities where lots can be learnt.

Moving on from SEN the answer is also about understanding access and engagement. Access is about getting the learners into the class and school. This could be about ensuring that girls can be in school. It may be children from marginalised groups who don’t see the benefit of education or it may be ensuring there isn’t a high dropout rate from school. Engagement is about what learners actually do in class and school. Teachers can ensure that the lesson is engaging, stimulating and participatory and leads to good outcomes. In some respects forget all about SEN and ensure that the focus is on learning needs. We have high aspirations for all our learners and in that sense we treat everyone as special. If we feel included then we are included.

6. What tips do you have for teachers to help them cater to the needs of a mixed-ability classroom?

I would try and move away from the concept of mixed ability and towards one of multi-level. All learners have a mixed profile of strengths and areas less developed. A few learners have a very strong profile in all skills but some are more likely to achieve in some more than others.

Without repeating the ideas above ensure you group learners in different ways so that a mix of strengths and areas to develop are present in groups where everyone can share their skills. Do activities that are multilevel. One example is to ask the class (not everyone, of course, in a large class) to draw some items on the board – a house, a river, trees, people working/playing, animals. You can then work with the drawings, for example, use the vocabulary, create a story, work on prepositions, ask when the scene takes place – last week, now, next week – etc. Ask simple what, where and more why questions linked to critical thinking skills. In this way everyone works with the same text but can be doing different activities at different levels of complexity. Learners have actually decided the text, which helps to increase motivation as it ‘is theirs’. And by the way, you don’t need to spend hours preparing the resources – just good valuable thinking time on how to use the visual/drawing text. That’s an example of inclusion for both teachers and learners.

As I say above – it’s all about trying and seeing what works with your learners and with other teachers. Have fun experimenting. There is no perfect solution on inclusion other than the contexts that you and your learners create themselves. All of this will help us meet the objectives of our curriculum, syllabus and lesson plans that we all need to meet. In the UK we use the term that teachers work with ‘best endeavours’.

Good luck and make time for yourself in your busy teacher’s life.

Find out more about using inclusive practices and creating an inclusive learning experience for English language learners with specific needs.

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