53 comments on “Teaching competitions and lesson polishing: would you do them?

  1. 1) Who’s to say? I wouldn’t enter one…
    2) I think it occurs naturally for all teachers (maybe not the dogme buffs, eh?)
    3) We polish until it’s time to retire the talk.

    Polishing seems to me to be a very obvious thing – it happens in all professions.

    • I agree with you Gavin. In my experience a “lesson” is a dynamic … participation and strategies change from one moment to the next, and polishing is part of the process. Just be a bloody good teacher and forget competitions …

      • Hi Tom,

        quite a mantra! I don’t think I would want to enter a competition because, well, how would it help students? Except that if I WON my teaching would improve immediately, I think. The effect of success can be powerful.


    • I wouldn’t enter a competition either, Gavin. I’d probably lose, and who likes that?!!

      I was hoping not to mention the D-word! But of course I guess you could repeat bits of a Dogme lesson, the setting up parts. In other words you could polish ‘bits’?

      You are absolutely right about retiring talks. I wonder how/when we decide. Is it just when we get tired of them ourselves?

      Yes, polishing does happen in all professions, but I’m not sure it’s a feature of teacher training – and that interests me.


  2. What immediately comes to my mind (and I’m sure yours too) is all the research on the benefits of task repetition. I guess what doesn’t sit so well, is the idea that the lesson continues to be the same regardless of the students.. But perhaps there’s a good middle ground? Teaching a similar lesson at two different levels on CELTA is something I’ve tried to get trainees doing. This might be similar in terms of language content, in which case they get to see how to pitch the level of lessons and what students might know at different levels. Or doing a similar type of skills work at different levels, to see, for example, how vital instructions might be at a lower level and so on.

    • Hi Rachael,

      yes, task repetition does come to mind doesn’t it.

      I like the ‘similar lessons at different levels’ idea. But that’s a slightly different task isn’t it (though very insightful for trainees)?

      I should have said that Jun Zheng said, of course, that the repeated lessons are with different groups. And that raises an interesting question of how much is genuinely repeatable!


  3. Hi, Jeremy.
    While the thought of teaching competitions makes me wince, I quite like the idea of lesson polishing (assuming the same lesson is taught to different students, of course).
    1. I’m a big fan of retrial. One of the criteria I use to assess teachers’ effectiveness in oral feedback is the degree to which students are given an opportunity to try things out again – which maybe explains why I’m not too crazy about delayed feedback.
    2. One of the things I like most about the CELTA/DELTA (and the defunct COTE/DOTE) is the fact that tutors can establish focal points post-observation and that candidates should be able to show that they’re making headway in those areas – so, again, skill sets that teachers pay ongoing attention to.
    3. Task repetition is pretty much in vogue these days and I can totally see the logic behind it: try it once, get feedback, get better at A, devote more attentional resources to B, get better at B, devote more attentional resources to C and so on. So when teachers are asked to re-teach a lesson, they’ll be better able to free up more attentional resources to the non-predictable variables (students’ profile, students’ reactions, emergent language, errors) as the process unfolds.

    In practical terms, though, we’d need to make sure each teacher has at least 3 groups of the level to be observed, which is not always easy.

    • Hi Luis Otávio,

      thanks for coming along.

      I am wondering now whether the whole purpose of a diagnostic observation (as in the DELTA exam) is a kind of polishing. But of course the one thing we DON’T do is get students to re-do the SAME lesson.

      Like you and Rachael (above) task repetition is entirely attractive (to me). But the practicalitie4s are worrying (your comment), and the students will be different. But in every other walk of life (as Gavin suggests) polishing of this kind of almost a ‘given’. So why not here?


      • As a manager, I’ve watched many teachers going through the DELTA or DipTESOL. A number of them found ways to do trial runs of their observed lessons with different classes, and I always found it a bit odd. As a lesson can go very differently depending on who the learners are, it doesn’t seem that useful to “practise” it on another group. I suppose you might be able to see if there are any seriously fundamental problems and then make wholesale changes – but then that’s not exactly polishing, is it?

  4. Early on in my teaching career I found I had a job where I taught the same lesson 6 or 7 times in a week. I naturally ‘polished’ this lesson so by the 3rd or 4th time I taught it I was very happy with it. By the 5th or 6th time I was getting bored with it, and the lesson had lost it’s polish.

    But I think as teachers we have all taught the same grammar/lexical lesson over our career and naturally polished it to improve on the previous time we taught it. We then remember how we polished it the previous time and in theory keep improving it.

    I remember when I completed my DELTA a fellow teacher said our DELTA assessed lesson was our X-Factor, with the assessor being Simon Cowell! However China has taken the teaching X-Factor to a new level.

    Would I do it? Why not if you’re confident in your ability? It will help to lift the profile of teaching and show non-teachers the amount of work and stress that goes into teaching.

    • Hello Carl,

      thanks for coming along.

      I am interested in your observation about getting bored with lessons (we’ve all been there). Perhaps, then, the effect of over-polishing is that we start doing things almost ‘by rote’ – and that’s not a good thing is it!

      Still not sure I agree with you about doing the competition, though!!


  5. 1) The mere thought of teaching competitions makes me cringe… It goes against what I believe to be a core aspect of teaching (yes, call me a romantic) which is an environment of sharing and support, where competition can be counterproductive. But maybe it’s just because I’d be terrified from taking part in something like that. If teachers don’t always feel at ease while being observed (because they’re being evaluated even if for positive, constructive reasons), how can we possibly like that?

    2) I was in the pre-conference event with you and Penny Ur, and I was very impressed by what Jung Zhen said and the whole concept of polishing. As people who commented before me have said, the concept is not new to teaching (as Gavin puts, it occurs naturally to (most) teachers), or at least it shouldn’t be (I can’t possibly imagine someone who teaches the same lesson to different groups and doesn’t make changes – however small – to improve, maximize learning and adapt to different learners’ needs. However (and for me that was the real catch while listening to her explain it), it isn’t an official practice. It’s not something we’re trained to do, at least not in Brazil (or not in the training courses I’ve participated / conducted). Well, maybe we are when we reflect on our practices or when we are observed and asked how we would’ve done things differently… But it’s not something we are formally trained – or encouraged – to do. It’s just “accepted” that it’s done. I believe making it a regular practice, having it as part of teacher training courses would be a valuable thing.

    3) As a presenter I think we all polish our presentations, before delivering it again… In my eyes, presenting is a lot like teaching (but to a – usually – more informed, better prepared audience :-)) I think that it’s something we do it anyway, maybe more systematically than polishing lessons. maybe because we are more intimidated about presenting to peers as opposed to students?

    • Thanks for leaving your comments here Cecilia.

      I share your ‘romantic’ vision of teaching and, as a result, feel queasy about teaching competitions. But I guess if it motivates some people? If it gets people talking about what good teaching is? We allow competition in other areas of life so why not here? (I’m just trying to convince myself!)

      Re-doing the same lesson isn’t part of most teacher training that I know. It presupposes, perhaps, a view of teaching which is at odds with things we believe in (see Scott Thornbury’s comments below). But I am loath to criticise practices which may be culturally rooted and which may, in those realities, have some success.

      ‘Polish your presentations’ – now there’s a subject for a new log post perhaps!


  6. I think I polish all the time–any time I teach the same point twice. Every time I give the same presentation, it gets better (well, almost always…). First term with new materials is always the hardest–but once you’ve tried stuff out, you make adjustments, you get to know the timing of things. Of course, it’s always different because you have different students. But I do think you get better. You can, of course, over-memorize something (in music, or in teaching), and sort of forget your audience as you plod through your routine, but …. you know that’s something to watch for.

    The competitions thing made me laugh. “So You Think You Can Teach!” “Teaching with the Stars.” I suppose I could see a competition based on presentation, or delivery–but how do you control for the students at the other end? Seems that would make a real ‘competition’ too hard to judge.

    • Hi Dorothy,

      so pleased you’ve come along.

      I am sure that ‘polishing’ works in terms of ‘bits’ of teaching – how to explain a grammar point, how to put stduents in pairs etc. But I have exactly your worry. If the students are different, what then? And if they are the same? Well there IS value in repetition, I uess, but still…


  7. Hi Jeremy,
    Interesting post!
    I graduated last year as a teacher of English so I’m kind of new as far as planning is concerned.
    Curiously, this year I teach in three different courses in a private academy and all kids share the same coursebook. At the beginning, I was afraid of teaching the same lesson to all groups but then, I decided to give it a try.
    On Monday, I teach the first lesson of the week so, if something wasn’t planned properly, I immediately get to know it. On Tuesday morning, I have already bettered some things about my lesson but, I have to change some games on the spot because this group gets bored easily. Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, I teach my best lessons of the week: all problems are solved and I’ve got extra games, just in case.
    Personally speaking, lesson polishing really works with me!

    • Hello Florencia,

      thanks so much for your interesting comments.

      You describe exactly what Hugh Deller (see the post) said about how teachers polish their coursebook lessons! And it certainly makes sense the first time you teach or the first time you teach a new lesson from a course book, for example. Of course it might be better if you were observed and the lesson commented on before the next ‘go’ at it?


  8. I happen to have taught such demonstration lessons and been involved in the process, when I was teaching in China. In my experience, it was not just the teacher polishing their own lesson: they were repeating it again and again with the same students! By the time the demonstration came, the lesson was a farcical play in which students and teachers performed roles which were timed and paced exactly. Bearing in mind that my poor students were only four years old, I thought it was bordering on child cruelty!

    I actually like the idea of teaching competitions. I would enter one. I think it would be fun and challenging, as long as you weren’t taking it too seriously (there’s no objective measure of how good a lesson was, anyway). It might produce some interesting discussion and generate a bit of passion.

    I have some lessons which I have ‘polished’ over time. Mostly, these are learner training workshops, for example there’s a two hour lesson I have on using an English English dictionary which I teach to every class I get. But day to day, I don’t keep my lesson plans or try and repeat lessons because I generally find that when I repeat lessons, I end up teaching it the same way as I taught it before almost whatever the learners in front of me are doing, which is obviously not good!

    • Hi Jonny,

      thanks for your comments. Most interesting.

      Your repeated-with-same-students lesson reminds me of a country where I have worked where state tecahers get a once-a-year observation. They know the date in advance so that by the time the inpsector comes along teacher and students have rehearsed the encounter to perfection! That doesn’t do it for me – though of course we could never know exactly what benefits the students might, genuinely, get from such a procedure. It’s a thought.


      • From my experience, any benefits in terms of language acquisition (they did, at least, memorise a score of new sentences) were fa outweighed by the demotivation factor. I always felt a large part of the job of teaching very young learners was getting them to enjoy English, by making learning English a positive experience. Ideally, we want very young learners to love learning English so much that they develop a lifelong positive association with the subject.

        The repetition of lessons and the expectation of perfection made the lessons virtually mind numbing. And if you want to get young learners of any description to act ‘perfectly’ like that, you are going to need a level of discipline which is neither fair nor reasonable: an effective abuse of power (your authority should be used for your learner’s benefit, not yours own!).

        Basically, for me, there are enough negatives, and such strong ones, that I don’t think the positives are even worth a considered examination.

  9. I am an English teacher in Korea.We also have that kind of teaching competition. I dont agree with it. Teaching style is all different. How can only 2observers judge the teaching?it is just show. I have to put many effort only focus on that lesson plan. It is riduculous.But we still have that competition and superviser push us to be on.

    • Hello Jengah lee,

      I’m very grateful to you for giving your comments. I wonder what your supervisor(s) think(s) you will gain from entering such a competition. Is it motivation for you? Or the fact that it makes you concentrate a lot on what you are doing? Or prestige for the school?

      But (as I have said above) maybe it does at least make people think about teaching?


  10. Hi Jeremy,

    Lots of valuable things to think about regarding the promise of “polishing”. During my time in Korea as a teacher trainer, I hosted many of these huge teaching competitions and participated in a ton of “performances” that were considered normal ways to evaluate a teacher. Fortunately the teaching culture is changing but very slowly.

    My own thoughts/questions –

    1. This points out a very distinct difference regarding collectivist vs individualistic cultures vis a vis teacher and teacher development. We should be sensitive to this. I think your post was.

    2. Is the competitive nature of these competitions really what we’d like to promote in and out of the classroom? Asian culture is very competitive when it comes to education – but so are we in our marking A’s and B’s etc…. Lets look at ourselves/the west too.

    3. I like the aspect of repetition and think there is validity in it. What I don’t like is how much time it takes from regular class to practice, practice. And how especially for language, it goes against what we most have to prepare students for – ambiguity tolerance.

    4. What happens when a teacher “wins”? Do they just go out to pasture and rest on their laurels? I think many do and I’ve witnessed this.

    5. Teaching is transactional in nature. There is so much ever changing, we never step in the same water twice. The promotion of polishing doesn’t help.

    6. These kinds of lessons do help teachers who have a weak ability to teach English in English. This is the proper place for them, in my opinion. But they should be labeled such and contained in that kind of wrapper.

    Ok, that’s my 5 cents worth! During my time in Korea, I remained respectfully of their teacher training practices while trying to enact changing softly, slowly. It’s a lesson every teacher working overseas has to learn.

    • Hello David,

      nice to ‘see’ you again!

      Thank you for your experience, and for reminding us that most of what we do, especially in education, is culture-bound. When Jun Zheng presented to us she was certainly a passionate (and very compelling) advocate for what she was describing and I found myself reflecting that her world is not one I currently work in – but that if I did I would not go barnstorming in with my own culture-bound thinking.

      And thank you, too, for the suggestion that novice teachers might gain a lot from constant ‘polish’ repetition.


  11. 1 Are teaching competitions a good thing? And if so, for whom?

    Personally, any form of subjective competition has no appeal for me. How could you judge the quality of these lessons in any meaningful way related to student benefit? I agree with what jeongah said above, “It is just a show.”

    That said, I can see the benefit, and would be interested in participating in, a showcase of great lessons or even lesson ‘parts’. Seeing a variety of approaches to teaching language forms and skills would be wonderful. Selections could be based on a variety of different factors: novelty, creativity, use of materials, use of no materials (Dogme!), tech in the classroom, cutting-edge/avant-garde-ness and the like.

    There is a great video companion to Diane Larson-Freeman’s book on methodologies that shows examples of different methods in action. Similarly, Jeremy, your book’s latest inclusion of video demonstrations was a welcomed addition. Frankly, with both, they were so intriguing, I was left wanting more!

    Back in to the brick and mortar world, I would love to walk through conference room after conference room, watching new and variant methods other teachers have to helping students learn. Afterward, it would be great to sit and discuss with them their views and principles alongside experts and researchers in the field. The benefit to my own teaching practice would likely be substantial.

    As an interesting contrast to competitions, teachers in the West tend to favor conferences, in which we never actually see teaching! It is like a car show, without cars. In this sense, I applaud what the Chinese are doing. They have placed the role of actual teaching in a classroom as an activity of respect and great social interest.

    In the end, I would like to see a balance. The next great conference in my mind, would include a substantial portion of the schedule devoted to the observation of teachers in action with a follow-up feedback/Q&A session.

    2 Could lesson polishing be a good approach to pre- or in-service training in your environment?

    This post reminds me the book “Task for Teacher Education: A reflective Approach” (http://amzn.to/11xiZm2). It uses a micro-teaching approach to teacher training. When using it with a group of fellow teachers a while ago, after receiving peer feedback, if a teacher felt they wanted to give the micro-teaching-task another try, they did. It seemed, at the time, like the natural extension of how we teach in our classroom. We allow students to make rough drafts of their work, and then polish it up again after getting some constructive criticism.

    That was just for parts of a lesson, I could see the benefit in using it for an entire lesson as well. It would show if teachers were able to reflect upon and implement feedback. It would be supportive and offer the chance to build upon previous work and understanding. It would relieve a great deal of the burden and stress that naturally comes from the observation process by keeping the teacher’s focus of the lesson on familiar ground. It would help the observer/tutor better understand the learning difficulties the teacher may be having in order to foster better professional development.

    I am left wondering, what is the rationale of not having teachers re-present/polish the same lesson? Does it have anything to do with the major teacher training courses (Cambridge and Trinity) being developed by exam boards? Are the expectations of the level of performance teachers must display during these exams such that rough draft work is unacceptable? Do the constraints of time/money discourage or even preclude investing in individual teacher development? Is teacher development the actual goal of these courses?

    3 How we feel (= presenters) feel about polishing? A good idea? Or something we do anyway?

    I hope we do it! Though, I am certain some people choose otherwise and simply present the same lesson/material/speech in the exact same way until people stop showing up.

    Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers” certainly makes the case that the level of expertise in any activity is reached only after thousands of hours of meaningful practice. I can only assume that such practice must necessitate a great deal polishing.

    Another great post Jeremy, and thank you everyone for sharing.


    • Hello Patrick,

      thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

      Funnily enough, last year’s IATEFL Poland conference had exactly what you are suggesting – demonstrations lessons followed by discussion with the people watching. I got away with it by teaching an advanced lesson to the teachers themselves so it was a bit of a cheat I guess. But the other teachers I watched? Well, a bit artificial, but there was always something to talk about.

      You are right to worry about people going ‘stale’ – doing the same thing again and again. That’s certainly a themes that has cropped up in these discussions quite a lot.

      Thanks for mentioning Gladwell’s book and the thousands of hours of practice. You are helping me dovetail my various interests at the moment! Because the question is not so much how many hours you do, but HOW you practise. What you actually do when you practice. And that might be the next phase of this discussion. It’s not that you polish, it’s HOW you polish!


  12. 1. I think this depends on the criteria used for evaluation/assessment/feedback. Above all else, what is being “judged”? Is it teaching or learning?

    Recently a trainer colleague and I were trying to tease out if it is possible to distinguish CELTA/DELTA/post-DELTA lessons. We came up with notion that as teachers become more experienced, they are able to attend so much more to the learner and to affordances for learning given that they have the flexibility to react to the needs and wants of the learners rather than focusing on what they are doing as “teachers”. Doesn’t that mean that part of the competition should focus on how well the lesson adapts in each of its iterations to the needs of the learners each time the lesson is taught. Does anyone know what criteria are used for judging the competition?

    2 Doesn’t that happen anyway? I’m a CELTA trainer and I see much of my role as being a facilitator of trainee reflection, helping the trainees to identify wider as well as discrete strengths and weaknesses and to set SMART action points to begin to address issues. This may sound atomistic but we try to work holistically; either way polishing does seem to occur even if the materials/lesson focus in TP changes. Poor concept checking in one lesson is polished in subsequent TP sessions. Likewise, on a recent CELTA with a group of university undergraduates, we had the luxury of 90 mins of lesson preparation each day; trainees devised a lesson, had it critiqued two days before it was due to be taught (with peer critiques becoming more and more insightful as the course progressed), worked up the detailed plan based on that FB the following day and only then taught it. After TP FB, they devised strategies to develop their practice to feed in to subsequent lessons.

    3 Something we do anyway. My classroom teaching is EAP-based and I am currently running sessions for pre-Master’s business students looking at referencing, Search Engine and database searches and source evaluation. Each time I run the sessions I tweak them. Sometimes I retire them and do something completely different and hopefully better.


    • Hello Neil,

      thanks so much for coming along and commenting.

      attending to students, responding, listening…those are certainly the marks a good (and usually experienced) teacher. It might be quite difficult to run a competition on that basis, however. How do you know, how do you judge? Well, I guess that’s like most trainers really. They have to evaluate that.

      I love the plan and perfect the plan approach you are talking about. That’s a kind of ‘polishing’ I think, though not the same kind. It’s not just a repetition of a lesson, it’s a kind of process planning, and if polishing is like that, well then maybe we all do/want to do it.

      Yes, we do all tweak, don’t we. To make things better, more efficient, more appropriate, more successful. It seems to me, now that this topic has come up, that training teachers how to ‘tweak’ might be a really good idea!


  13. Nice topic for a post, Jeremy. My two p:

    If your metaphor for a lesson is a staged performance (rehearsal, script, audience etc) then repeating it lots of times makes perfect sense. This doesn’t mean that every iteration is exactly the same: professional actors and musicians will (I’m sure) attest to the fact that no two shows are identical. Nevertheless, the margin of variation is relatively narrow. There is a script after all, or a score.

    If, on the other hand, your lesson metaphor is more like a game, like football or chess, then you can, of course, get better at the game by playing it often, but every iteration of the game will be different, and the margin of variation will be relatively wide. You cannot play the same game of football twice. And the chances of playing the same game of chess twice are infinitesimal. Indeed, if you tried to do so, your opponent would probably lose interest.

    So, is teaching like a performance, or is it like a game?

    • Hello Scott,

      yes, you’ve identified the kind of underlying doubt that runs through this westerner’s response to what I saw.

      It was in your blog that you quoted Claire Kramsch’s ‘utterances repeated are also utterances resignified, and I used that in my blog (and now my talk) about drilling https://jeremyharmer.wordpress.com/category/drilling/. It makes a lot of sense in terms of theatre and, er, drilling.

      But lessons are more ‘organic’ than that. However plugged or not they are deverythingdepends on the here and now, doesn’t it, and that makes repeated routines a bit of a problem.

      However, whether it’s football or chess, we do polish our moves, don’t we? I’m thinking aloud here. Maybe that’s the kind of polishing – rather than whole-lesson polishing – that makes sense. I said, in a reply to Gavin Dudeney at the beginning of this thread that even a truly unplugged teacher may repeat polished bits (starts, conclusions, drawings out) even though a totally repeated lesson would ruin the concept.

      I am really grateful to Jun Zheng for starting this whole thing off. I hope she’ll be able to get to wordpress somehow – something that’s difficult for people in China.


  14. 1) I hadn’t heard of teaching competitions until I read Mike’s blog and watched the video he posted of a Korean teacher participating in one of those events. http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/teaching-competitions-winning/

    A few previous posts highlight possible benefits of having these competitions (teaching mostly in English, polishing lessons, generating interesting discussions); However, I think teaching becomes much richer and much more fun when we engage in collaborative practices -not competitions. If there’s one thing I dread about any work environment is comparing yourself to others and talking about who is a “good” or a “bad” teacher. These competitions remind me of being in high school.

    2) I would love to have some element of lesson polishing if it were possible for an in-service training. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to teach the same lesson twice, but I when I did I always felt there was something to be learned from the changes I’d make that second or third time around -or even from the way different groups responded to similar lessons.

    • Hi Laura,

      thanks so much for coming along and commenting.

      I am impressed by your ‘collaborative’ comments. And especially how different teachers achieve their effects differently. There was a wonderful article by Crouch years ago in ELT Journal (can’t find the reference right now – I’m sitting in a hotel in Georgia) which showed 2 different trainees having success on teaching practice in Madrid, but getting there in totally different ways.

      But Jun Zheng (below) is powerful in her advocacy of this kind of thing. I have some questions for her. Maybe I am just being culturally biased?

      Polishing? That’s a different matter.


  15. Hi Jeremy –
    I’m really pleased to see that the talk I dragged you off to has resulted in this post and the array of fascinating responses. I’ve forwarded a link on to Jun herself, who I’m sure will be delighted by this, though I fear she may also have problems accessing WordPress in China.

    I felt very lucky to get Jun as a mentee and to be in on such a thought-provoking talk, which in all honesty really required almost no mentoring whatsoever!

    Anyway, here’s my tuppence worth.

    Being one of life’s natural show-offs, as well as an eternal optimist, were a competition to be held where I work I fear I may well end up persuading myself to enter. Doubtless, though, I’d be livid were I to lose! With the Chinese context, I basically got the impression that the competitions were only partly about winning – though I think I’m also right in saying that the winner did get offered better work and had new options open up for them – but that it also serves very much as a vehicle that encourages and fosters the MOKE itself, and that with the MOKE, it’s the group of observers who take part in discussions about polishing and learn in conjunction with each other, thus developing a real team bond during the competitions that are the basic ‘prize’ for all, surely.

    I can understand many teachers’ aversions to the very idea of such competitions, but we’re deluded if we don’t believe that we’re all in a competitive field all the time. Just eavesdrop when students are chatting over cigarettes or coffee and the endless popularity contests are laid bare. In many ways, the Chinese competitions seem fairer to me as they’re more overt and explicit and – presumably – judged according to particular criteria, whereas in any private language school or university or whatever, popularity has to do with all manner of other things apart from a teacher’s competence in the classroom, as we all know.

    Call me a cynic if you must.

    In terms of whether polishing could work pre-service, I think it makes way more sense than the current CELTA model, where all too often trainees are taught to experiment and improvise before they have even the vaguest ideas of the norms and routines they’re being encouraged to deviate from; where we value creativity and ‘art’ over craft and routine; where the role of repetition is chronically underplayed; and where you’re urged to make your own materials and lessons before you become literate in the field of materials in any meaningful way.

    Plus, as I said to you at IATEFL, and as others have noted above, polishing in the MOKE sense is really just a saner, more focused and guided version of what many teachers stumble through themselves anyway, as you teach and re-teach and re-teach again the same book in the early years of your career. The fact it’s guided by more experienced observers, has a different focus at each stage AND involves peers makes it a very clever and – contrary to western stereotypes of China – very democratic process.

    In terms of presenting, or performing in other ways, of course polishing is what we do all the time. As Ive ranted about elsewhere, repetition and polishing are, rather than being the enemy of creativity, actually its root.

    Anyway, thanks again for blogging about this.

    Oh, and it’s Dellar – with an A!
    Not Deller.

    • Hi Hugh,

      well as you have seen, I am also very glad you dragged me along to the talk – though we both felt that, the moment Jun Zheng started, it was well worth being there.

      Yes, you heard what I think I heard (see my comments to Jun Zheng below). That the winners got a lot out of winning, but that not winning was OK too. And I could see the logic of the first part of that, but had my doubts about the second. Just like you, I wouldn’t like losing! Luckily, of course, I’m not a show-off. Oh, wait a minute, yes I am!

      I don’t think your comments about competitiveness (who’s the best teacher? Who’s the best trainer? Or – let’s be frank – who’s the best speaker at this conference) are cynical at all. Everyone thinks about that all the time, but it’s hidden, and not discussed in the public arena in the way that, say X-Factor /Strictly-come-dancing etc judges publicly praise and criticise their competitors. And the audience enjoys the sport of seeing people being torn down, raised up etc.

      That’s what I’ll ask Jun Zheng about below.

      Polishing? Yes, that has got all of us (you, me, the commenters here) thinking, hasn’t it. I guess I’d say that CELTA, for example, tries to polish little bits rather than whole lessons, and I wonder if that’s better or worse. For if you teach the same lesson to different groups is it the same lesson? And once your lesson has been satisfactorily polished, what then?

      I love it when the questions keep going round in your head (as they are for me in this instance).


  16. The cultural aspect of all this is really interesting. The existence of teaching competitions in Chinese schools should come as little surprise to those who have experience of teaching in them. In fact, every aspect of (state) Chinese education is saturated with competition of every sort. Foreign- owned private schools too have adopted the approach as a way of meeting the expectations of students (and their parents!) Olympiads for teachers as well as students are part and parcel of a cultural perspective on education that can be linked to the historic importance of Civil Service exams in Chinese society.

    • Hello Tristan.

      Great to see you here!

      Well yes, and I am so pleased that Jun Zheng has managed to get onto the site to explain (better than I have done) what she thinks everyone gets out of the systems she mentions. But (as I keep saying in my comments here, I am mostly pleased that listening to her in Liverpool (and reading the conversations here), I have had my thinking about many teaching/training practices challenged!


  17. Hi, Jeremy,
    You really understood what I was presenting at IATEFL about Chinese styled lesson polishing and how we have turned it into in service teachers training. No misrepresenting at all. Thanks a lot for blogging about it. Here are the brief replies to your three questions on the basis of my personal experience. I will post my answers separately. Here is the answer to your first question: Are teaching competition a good thing? And if so, for what?

    I think , for the purpose of classroom teaching improvement, teaching competitions are a good thing, both for the teacher who conducts the lesson and those who observe the competitions. Considering most people don’t doubt about the help the polishing can bring to the teacher, I want to talk more on what people worry about being judged in front of the public,The teacher himself, though unavoidably suffering pressure of winning or losing as well as the stress of performing before the peers. She or he “luckily” gets an opportunity to challenge his ability of showing the best of himself under a less comfortable circumstances, which I believe can be regarded as an essential quality of being a good teacher.In terms of the peers who observe, they will naturally assess or comment on the performance, taking themselves as judges. As long as they do this , they will see and think from a different perspective. The observation offers them a change to be a thinker, an assessor rather than merely a teacher, a role that they rarely play in their everyday classes and that change will certainly brings the reflections and thus help the observing teachers to look at teaching from a different way.

    • Hi Jung,

      Your rationale for competitions has given me pause to reconsider my own personal aversion to them. I was more in favor of showcasing, and as Jeremy mentioned this can lead to performances/lessons that are somewhat less than impressive. The extrinsic motivation brought upon teachers as a result of having to show their best under the pressure of winning or losing is compelling, and I think likely to result in a higher quality of performance than simple showcasing. So I can see and take your point.

      In all, thank you for sharing your research and experience, it has proven to be a great opportunity for professional reflection.


  18. Hi, Jeremy, here is the answer for you second question.
    Lesson polishing definitely is a good approach to in-service training in ELT. As I said at TTED of SIG, China is undergoing a national education which includes the reforms of classroom teaching, though not exclusively. It is a reform led by the government and affects almost everyone in the whole system. It is both fast and by far the largest ever in scale considering the fact that China is such a big country with a huge imbalance in both teachers qualities and quantities. As a result, we are badly in need of batches of teachers who can catch up with the nation’s education reform, which introduced a new national curriculum standards and a whole new sets of textbooks, including one written by Simon Greenall as a coeditor.
    Polishing their classes means a hand on assistance to those teachers facing the sea change of the reform. And it has been a very successful program in our school for the past few years.
    Lesson polishing can benefit more experienced teachers too .For many times I happen to hear teachers with 5 -8 or so years of teaching experience fussing about teaching routines repeating day after day. They are those who know the howtos of teaching, but who have lost the desire to go further. Some of them, if put on the stage and to be polished, can have their full gift of being teachers cultivated, thus becoming a much better teacher. So from this point of view, lesson polishing can also benefit those who are going through a temporary but crucial patch, which will help them to overcome the fatigue caused by the routines and boost them in both confidence and teaching skills.

    Moke, can also be a good approach for pre service teachers in China too, for another reason. The would-be teachers( students who are to graduate to become teachers) only have one or two months’ inter -ship, during which their main job is more like students’ assistance rather than a teacher. Or I’d rather say it’s far fetched from a real classroom teaching., No wonder a new teacher feels it hard to adjust when they start teaching in real classes. If a lesson polishing could be done in pre-service training, both the trainers and trainees would have a easier time.

    I understand things are different in different countries, even different schools for that matter. I don’t mean lesson polishing can be the best way to train teachers in all situations. However, I do hope this Chinese style of Moke, or lesson polishing could contribute some inspiring experiment among ELT professional outside China.

    • Hello, Jun Zhneg,

      I am so very pleased that you managed to get on to the site to leave your comments. Thank you for coming along.

      You will see, from the comments above, that your presentation has generated a great deal of interested 9and interesting) comment. That seems to me to be the mark of a really successful session!

      In your comments here something stands out for me. The idea, perhaps, that the teacher in a competition is like a team captain. That if everyone has been working on the polished lesson – e.g. the teacher and that teacher’s colleagues – then maybe he or she is not so alone?

      I think I want to ask (again) some questions, even while I understand entirely the desire to drive up teaching standards in China – what a laudable aim:

      1 Many commenters on this blog want to know what it feels like NOT to win! I guess many of us are reluctant to be 2nd, 3rd or 4th best…..in truth, what’s your feeling about that.

      2 Some people here have worried that lessons can be too polished. That they then become performances, rather than ‘proposals for action to be adapted on the basis of how a class responds’.

      These are not hostile questions in any sense. On the contrary they come from a kind of cultural ignorance (cultural = methodological/societal etc).

      Congratulations again.


      • Hi, Jeremy
        Very interesting comments, both yours and others. And a lot of thanks for forwarding the comments to me. It takes me longer time to get to wordpress in China, so I hope you guys can excuse me for not replying so soon.
        I have noticed many people who commented were concerned about winning or losing the teaching competition, which is more or less , they think is like X factor. Well, I guess I need to make some clarification here about our style of MOKE, or lesson polishing, which is part of the MSBTT (Models for school Based in Service Teacher Training)
        MOKE for teachers training is different from for competitions, though it stems from MOKE for teaching competition. Though Moke, or lesson polishing-for teachers training (MFT) and Moke for teaching competition, (MTC) share something in common: they both require the teacher to conduct the same lesson a couple of times, however, and the teacher will be observed and receive comments from the observers, the two types of Moke are fundamentally different. First of all, they are different in purposes: MFT is to improve teaching skills while the purpose of MTC is to win a contest.
        Secondly, When doing MFT, the so called “same” lesson can not be exactly the same. Each time the teaching group agree on what needs changing, the next “same” lesson will reflect how the changes are made, both in teaching plan and classroom activities. The crucial difference, is MFT is to focus on the flaws, get them corrected next time so as to improve teaching skills. But MFC is trying to perform as practiced, presenting to the judges the best side of the lesson, a showcase, which means the MFC process will focus on what is best technics or activities to show off, instead of finding problems. Therefor, the observers of MFT will try to identify problems and ways to improve, while MFC commentators will notice the problems, and figure out how to hide them, instead of improving. Another difference is the students. For MFT, the students are different each time the same lesson is taught, for each batch of them, the repeated lesson is new lesson for them. Compared with competitions, however, the students are not necessary different. Sometimes, if the class of students from which school are to be on the stage can be settled in advanced, there can be rehearsals. Like one of the comments said, this is a showcase, for setting up a model for teacher learners to follow. Finally, and not least importantly, is that the MFC is conducted with the head teacher and few senior teachers to help the candidate with the lesson plan, teaching material, etc. The head teacher plays a dominate role. On the other hand, an MFT is attended by all who are interested without consideration of seniority and during an MFT, supervisor only functions as a conductor of the process. He is only monitoring, making sure each step is going smoothly. He can give suggestions but never tell or ask the teachers to do what he thinks right. Everyone is equal, and feedbacks and comments from all parties are treated equally. The MFT is a relaxed,comfortable, grassroots process, while the MFC, is highly stressful and with little input from peers.

      • Hi, Jeremy, I will certainly respond to your two specific questions later on, sharing my true feeling of not wining and if a lesson can be too polished to be performances rather than a real class. In fact, some Chinese teachers object strongly to showcase lessons for exactly the same reason.

      • What is mentioned in the second question is whether lessons can be over polished and become performances rather than proposals for action to be adapted on the basis of how a class responds. I personally think demo lessons, or polished lessons should not be show case performances with little relevance to real classroom situations and make them difficult for other teachers to adapt. The teacher should follow the students, feel them , observe them and adjust to even an unpredictable situation even when he or she is in a teaching competiton. This is especially true of lessons conducted every day. Imagine if the teacher finds his lesson plan can not accomplish due to the slower responses of the students for whatever reason, he or she should promptly make changes,such flexibility in class is crucial to effective teaching.
        Even well- polished lessons are more like performances, and I quite understand that but I’m happy to see more and more judges in teaching competitions turn their attention to the response of the class rather than how good the teacher’s one-man show is. This is the outcome of China’s national wide curriculum reform,which can be regarded as a turning point of of China’s assessment on classroom teaching : a shift from teacher centered tradition to students center model. And such a shift has been adapted in the criteria used in teaching competitions.

        Another noticeable change in the teaching competitions is that the observers or teachers attending these contests are given more and more opportunities to get involved. In stead of just being “leaners” to learn from the contestants “performances” they are offered changes to share their comments and even, in some cases, the voting power too.

  19. Hi, Jeremy and all who are interested in teaching contests in China, here is what I think would happen to those who are not winning in a teaching competition. I guess “mixed feelings”, would be an appreciate way to put it, as the loser does have to experience both defeat and delight. Defeat means to after being assessed by the judges as well as a crowd of audience, maybe colleagues in and outside the school, they are declared non winners. No one wants to be the loser and every one likes to win. I wouldn’t hide my disappointment and depression if I did not win. So it may sound weird to say a loser may feel delighted with experience the feeling of defeat. Suppose a teacher, or rather a contestant, after a several rounds of contests, finally makes it for the final. In China, it makes only a slice of difference whether he is No. one, or two or three. Just a little different in prize bonus. What counts is that he appears on the stage for the final around, beating all the others, be it a national contest, prize, or provincial prize or municipal prize, even a school prize. Once he makes it, he is provided with a broader and higher platform , becoming a sparkling rising star. Of course, for those who fail to pit into the final round, things may not look that promising. But every one knows becoming a star is at the cost of suffering the bitterness of being a loser.
    There is another reason why Chinese teachers pay more attention to participating competitions of various levels than to the outcomes. In China, if a teacher wants to get promotion in terms of professional ranks, he is officially required to have conduced some demon classes, or taken part in such teaching competitions.
    So, personally, I respect those who are courageous enough to go for a competition.
    Having said all these, I must add one more thing, a lot of teachers take winning or losing as an experience. They think even a failure can lead them closer to the next possible success.

    • Hello Jun Zheng….I am so so sorry that it has taken me a long time to answer your comments here. I blame being ‘on the go’ here in Turkey for an inability to concentrate on my blog!!

      Thank you very much for coming along and leaving your comments. I think, in the end, just as another friend has been appearing on TV in China as a judge for one of these competitions, that I still have equivocal feelings about the whole thing. I DO like the idea of a group of people working on lesson ‘polishing’ (in the way that you described in your IATEFL presentation). Provided a lesson does not become ‘over’ polished that looks pretty good to me. Or, at least, I understand the potential of the procedure to help newly qualified teachers think carefully about what they are doing.

      On the issue of competitions I am slightly less enthusiastic still! I agree with you completely that the people who enter have courage, and the people who win get a lot out of it. I am pleased if the judges focus on students response rather than teacher performance, of course! But (and maybe this is my own psychological problem!!) I worry about the motivational damage of not even making the short list. On the other hand, a teacher who receives a fairly negative observation report, even when it is not a public event, might feel the same sense of disappointment. Hmm.

      What I want to do now is come and witness one of these competitions. Now how can I manage that?!!


  20. Great discussion! Thanks for the information about teacher competitions… it’s the first I have heard of them. I’m still pondering on if I think I would enter one. I imagine not, as even though I would try to take it in the right spirit, a crushing defeat (thinking about getting BUZZZZZED off stage the moment you ask the participants a question and nobody answers…. a witty anecdote or grammar explanation falls flat) would be hard to get over. Perhaps I am putting my western feelings into this picture though – thanks to Idol or X-Factor type TV shows.

    It all depends on the context… the idea of being observed can be extremely useful, especially with targeted feedback. It reminds me of having a few lessons video recorded and than watching them at a later date and reflecting. It can be uncomfortable at the time of recording, but definitely was worth it at the end of the day. The most interesting thing about those recordings is having the chance to go back, years later, and see the changes that have been made. (or not).

    Perhaps competition can bring out the best in people. However I’m somewhat a sceptic of that, as I’ve seen too many standardized tests create competitive environments that can be very unfair for a teacher. There is never really a level playing field, or an easy way to judge who was the “winner”. Is the winner the most entertaining? The one who gets the most “grammar” across? (how can you measure how long it’ll be remembered as well?) The one who helps the learner’s build the most confidence? The one who inspires a love for the language through a memorable story or positive experience? It seems so difficult to judge 🙂

    The idea of polishing is great. We all do it when we rerun an old lessons with small adaptations and fixes along the way. The further we run them, the more experience we get with what works and doesn’t… depending on the group… thus leading to better adaptation to the group in front of us and basic comfort – which the students pick up on.

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Matt,

      thanks for coming along and commenting.

      I am struck by something Jun Zhen says above, “But every one knows becoming a star is at the cost of suffering the bitterness of being a loser.” I get what she’s talking about, of course, else why would anyone go in for competitions anywhere? And yet, like you, I can’t quite get past the idea of someone feeling pretty down when they lose. On the other hand having a group plan for the competition and then elect a ‘champion?’ Hmm. Maybe?

      And I’m also quite open to Hugh Dellar’s idea above that competition between teachers exists in all school: students are always comparing. ‘She’s the best teacher in the school’. Yes, but what about the others, then?!

      However, lesson polishing seems to be getting a good press here!


  21. Excellent topic, Jeremy.

    1. Are teaching competitions a good thing? And if so, for whom? It sounds very scary to me, and my answer is No; for nobody. It’s very interesting to see the responses to your questions, and I kind of get the idea, but to me, it’s horrible. You’re a very experienced teacher trainer: would you organise a competition like this? I wonder how Stevick, Rinvolucri, Fanselow, Richards, even Nunan would react to such an idea. Teacher observation by experts, if done well (and you should know) can help a lot, but why turn up the pressure?.

    2 Could lesson polishing be a good approach to pre- or in-service training in your environment? Again: No.

    3 How we feel (= presenters) feel about polishing? A good idea? Or something we do anyway?
    I always felt when I was presenting that the more I tried to “polish” the worse the results were. I think you need to prepare your Powerpoint slides well and then just try to talk as naturally as you can through them.

    • Thanks Geoff, for your definite comments!

      To answer your question: no, personally I wouldn’t organise a teaching competition – although, of course when trainees watch each other micro teach on a CELTA course??

      Actually I think it might be fun to do (if one could find willing volunteers) just to see what it feels like. Then I’d know whether my fears (and yours) were justified!

      I am very ‘impressed’ by your reaction to lesson polishing – that spontaneity is all. On the other hand, if your faced with a large audience of teachers it feels great to have done the talk a couple of times before so that you know how to pace it. With a workshop (such as the one I am going to do in two days) that may not be the case, however.


  22. Hi. Here in Peru we “kind of” have a system like that in the public sector. Teachers need to take exams and prove their teaching skills against each other in a sort of competition to get to work in certain schools and of course to get a better salary. I don´t know if it is the same in China.

  23. In high school drama, all of our scenes had to be perfected in a similar way, with constant critique and tweaking of small details. Putting that same principle to teaching, though, seems strange. It makes it feel like class time would feel more fake from the student perspective if it is rehearsed too much. That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t prepare, but I feel that there is such a thing as being TOO prepared for a presentation.

  24. Hi Jeremy,

    Your post is really interesting and it has specially called my attention since I now understand why it is that haven’t been able to find a suitable translation for “concurso de antecedentes y oposición” for a post I’ve just written. Just as you mentioned about Spain and as Gustavo mentioned about Perú, these “competitive examinations” (the best translation I’ve been able to get, from Wikipedia) are the way teachers are able to get a job at public universities in Argentina. For the rest of public schools, in general the “concursos” only consider “antecedentes” that is, qualificactions + seniority (how long you’ve been a teacher in formal educational settings):

    In my case, I left my job at a private language institute (non-formal educational setting) four years ago and I had little seniority, so I decided to take the plunge when I learned about a contest for a high school that belongs to Rosario University (escuelas preuniversitarias) . So far I’ve taken part in several competitive examinations and I’m now a tenured teacher (profesora titular) at two “escuelas preuniversitarias”. The process is generally like this: first we submit certified copies of our qualifications, then the topic for the examinations is chosen through a public draw (out of three topics that have been preselected by the examination board). Finally, the “oposición” consists of lesson you have to teach before the examination board only or a topic you have to develop and a brief interview. All participants are then given a detailed score and feedback on their performance. All the scores are added up and a kind of “ranking” (escalafón) is established. Teachers are then offered the available positions in order. The teacher who comes first is offered all the positions (courses) and once he or she choses, the second one is offered the remaining courses and so on. If the process is fair and transparent, then I think it’s a valid way of getting a teaching job since you get the opportunity to show your teaching skills in action, in addition to your qualifications. Of course, there are sometimes problems in terms of transparency so we always have to be on the alert.

    In the private sector, however, the decisions are just made by the employer. In general you submit your CV and then go to a job interview . The employer makes a decision without giving further explanations

    I had no idea this was a “Spanish tradition”. In Argentina, these contests were one of the achievements of the University Revolution of 1918: “Selection of faculty through open, competitive examinations in order to counteract nepotism and patronage, and promotion of professors on the basis of merit and achievement rather than seniority.” Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_Revolution

    I wonder how this is done at university in other countries….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s