IATEFL – Hands tied or hands-free? Using constraints creatively in teacher development

IATEFL – Hands tied or hands-free? Using constraints creatively in teacher development

Have you ever thought about the freedom of a teacher? Are we free enough? At the following conference held by IATEFL 2019, Rose Aylett – a teacher trainer and CELTA teacher, speaks about how teachers can benefit from the constraints and limitations of time, language and resources in teacher education. Rose defines constraint as something that controls what you do by keeping you within particular limits. It is something that limits the range of your personal actions or freedom.

In our everyday life, many people speak about constraints as something negative.  Of course, constraints might have a negative connotation. However, we actually apply constraints in life and across society all the time. Sometimes working in time limits may even bring you to create some magnificent pieces of work.  

We also use constraints in language learning. We impose constraints on our students, we ask them to complete controlled practice activities with a limited number of possible responses, we might limit the time of the completion of speaking or listening activities. These are all examples of constraints applied in ESL classrooms.

Why use constraints?

According to Rose, there are four main reasons why we should use constraints:

  1. They protect teachers against themselves. Teachers need protection against overplanning and anxiety. Students also need protection from teachers, from over-enthusiastic use of an interactive whiteboard, from overuse of photocopy materials, reliance on the coursebooks, too much TTT.
  2. Constraints can also support by providing a really clear structure or framework which teachers can work within. Limiting freedom can actually result in confidence-building and support better decision-making.
  3. The next thing is preparation. The future proofs us for future scenarios –  the classroom with no whiteboard, the lesson you might have to teach during a power cut, etc.
  4. The last thing which is really very important is that constraints can really challenge us as teachers. They can force us to problem-solve creatively, overcoming barriers can lead to innovation. And as Phil Hansen states: “The ultimate limitation may become the ultimate liberation”.

What are the limitations of teachers?

Rose Aylett distinguishes between three constraints in teachers from which teachers can actually benefit. These are time, materials and language.

The very first thing that she considers is time. She states that providing teachers with a context and giving them a time limit, will make them come up with some creative ideas and practice lesson plannings within the restricted time limits. To practice more you can reduce or increase time limitations. Apart from that, to improve teacher’s planning skills, Rose offers the following time constraints:

  • No planning less than a week before the lesson
  • No planning at all
  • Only 2-minute lead-ins
  • Only 1-minute plenary stages (especially for those teachers who are afraid of their TTT)
  • No less than 15 minutes on pronunciation/grammar/speaking, etc (when you feel it is necessary for the student to pay attention to some aspect of the language more than the others)

Using constraints in materials is the next step where you can find usefulness. According to Rose Aylett, teachers can challenge themselves when they have a limited number of materials to use in the classroom. To prove this idea she has once sent clear instructions to teachers to come up with ideas on how to base the lesson only around one certain object in the classroom. In fact, her statement turns out to be true, as a lot of teachers sent their suggestions on how to use this or that object creatively. Here are some other examples of material constraints:

  • No/only the coursebook
  • Only one A4 side of the paper
  • No text. Only visuals
  • Only poems
  • Only songs/song lyrics
  • Only five slides
  • No tech. Only tech
  • Only student-generated texts
  • No coloured boardwork
  • Only student boardwork
  • No materials
  • Only authentic materials
  • Only live listening materials
  • Only materials from sources you wouldn’t read or watch

The last type of constraints the speaker points out is the language. She believes that when teachers make some limits in the use of the language, they develop their teaching skills. Here are some ideas on language constraints.

  • Only L1 for part of the lesson
  • Only continue after all students have responded
  • No on-the-spot/delayed error correction
  • No negative feedback
  • No praise
  • Only board emergent language
  • Only accuracy/fluency
  • No grammar
  • Only board language in chunks
  • Only silent correction using phone chart
  • Only plan in L2

To sum up, it should be mentioned that applying constraints to your teaching can be an experimental process, aimed at pushing you out of a comfort zone, and challenging with your newly qualified experience. Hence, you should not be afraid of constraints, just vice versa, you should apply them creatively developing your teaching skills and broadening your experience.   

Here you can watch the whole talk.


Вероника Аветисян

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