Box-ticking or mind-mapping?

This is a joint post between Willy Cardoso and Divya Madhavan on questions about ELT professionalism.


We worry about the current box-ticking culture in ELT teacher training and development. We think this impacts how professional knowledge is valued and how it should be valued. And we’re really not sure this is a good thing. In the words of Gert Biesta “are we valuing what we measure? or measuring what we value?”

What is box-ticking culture? It…

-focuses on visible behaviour as the main form of evidence of professional knowledge

-assumes that a change in behaviour means change in cognition

-focuses on teachers’ techniques, classroom management and control, repertoire of activities, rationales for activities, etc; all of which should match externally constructed knowledge and their translation into assessment criteria (i.e. boxes to tick)

So, boxes are ticked based on demonstrable classroom behaviours. The artistry of teaching inevitably falls into the ‘additional comments’ section at the end as opposed to having a place in the core criteria. But the artistry is often what drives the creativity and ability to think on one’s feet that encourage problem-solving among teachers themselves.Image

Who ticks the boxes?

Is assessment ever a truly neutral thing?

Is ‘valid professional knowledge’ really something neutral and generalizable?

All these things are constructed within a discourse, which is inevitably value-laden: culturally and politically. Within these interrelated spaces there are power structures that will constitute the dominant mode of discourse, which can be emancipatory for some and oppressive for others.

There’s an interview with Paulo Freire towards the end of his life where he talks about dominant discourses; he says “who says that this or that way of speaking is the ‘cultivated’ one, if there is one that is considered cultivated it is because there is another which is considered as not”, this illustrates what we mean by power structures- it is not the case of a unified superpower that’s clearly identifiable, it’s not us versus the system, that would be a pretty gross oversimplification. It’s the everyday pieces of the puzzle when it comes to everyday things.

One of our reasons for problematizing ‘box-ticking’ is nicely summed up here:

The current modes of evaluation, with their focus on competencies and performance-orientation may give us a false impression of teaching as a coherent, linear process, “when in reality it is characterized by uncertainty, rupture, dissonance, tentativeness, provisionality and self-disclosure”. (Smyth, 1995, p.8)

Henry Giroux describes as the tension between course objectives with the pendulum swinging (sic) of the sixties where the “open-ended humanistic” trends were sharply contrasted only a decade later with the behavioural tendencies of the seventies and needed to “demonstrate with certainty”-this created a continuum, dichotomising educational aims between the accountable and the responsible, what we exhibit and how we grow.

There are two broad camps of perception: teachers are individual craftspeople who are full of practical wisdom and the other is the teacher who is the executive technician who dutifully carries out the industry imposed agenda. There isn’t enough in the middle. Where teachers can build their capacity for critical reflection and where the teacher as a professional combines the practical, technical and theoretical knowledge and gives weight and consideration for both. However, alongside the sustainable dismissal of ivory tower gatekeepers in the world of educational research, there needs to be an equally powerful and equally sustainable responsibility-taking on the part of practitioners.

Best practice depends on hierarchies and the agendas of the people talking about it…

At the same time the work of teachers and learners become more regulated and standardized; teachers are asked to reflect on practice and develop professionally.

If this was not paradoxical enough, the kind of reflection teachers are encouraged to engage with is focused on the practical and personal. Not on the values constituting their teaching, (which would then mean to reflect on the social and political)


If you’re work is mainly spoken in practical and personal terms then you are accepting a definition of yourself as you speak (Goodson, 1995). This means reproducing the status of teachers as ‘classroom technicians’ and giving away the intellectual work to others.

This very easy co-optation of something as powerful as reflection will NOT serve so much to “empower” teachers, but to give them a false sense of autonomy, one in which “privacy” becomes part of the ethos of teaching, which in turn makes collective (shared) concerns become individualised (private) concerns (Britzman, 1986); thus actually disempowering teachers.

What we suggest:


That you think about what your standard of best practice is:

-is it shaped by your institutions?

-is it shaped by the national practices where you are?

-is it protected by the international community of practice you engage with online?

-is enough of it defined by you?


That teacher training pays more attention to teachers’ disposition towards inquiry-based development and a problem-setting mindset (as opposed to a problem-solving one only). That would help us break out of a technical-rational model of teacher training which is still dominant but obsolete.


That professional development focuses on teachers’ active process of contesting, debating, and determining the ends of their work; instead of just adapting to innovations which focus on ends determined by others.

There has been a constant call for teachers to develop in the light of the ‘new’ – methodological or technological innovations. But many times what is really needed is development which focuses on renewal. A focus on renewal will pool the local expertise already present in a school and create conditions for teachers to collectively strengthen local knowledges arising from critical examination of their accumulated personal experiences (Eraut, 1994). In this case, teachers become central in determining the ends of their practice.

Our conclusion

How ‘we’ talk about teaching is not a mere reflection of the world of teaching; or the reality of teaching. The way we talk about teaching (i.e. our professional discourse) creates the world of teaching.

Some ways become dominant and more widely accepted than others; they may reach a point of dominance whereby they appear ‘neutral’ and ‘natural’. With this fabricated naturalness, certain types of innovation and change will present themselves as a ‘necessity’. But necessities are constructed; and our job is to deconstruct them – in order to critique whose purposes they are serving, which are very often not the teachers’.

Willy & Divya



Biesta, G. (2010) Good education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics and Democracy. Paradigm Publishers.

Britzman, D. (1986) Cultural Myths in the Making of a Teacher: Biography and Social Structure in Teacher Education. Harvard Educational Review, 56 (4).

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing professional knowledge and competence. London: Falmer Press.

Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy. London. Continuum.

Smyth, J. (ed.) (1995) Critical discourses on teacher development. London: Cassell


7 thoughts on “Box-ticking or mind-mapping?

  1. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts here. I actually just said an audible ‘yes!’ out loud while reading 🙂

    My involvement in teacher training mainly revolves around Delta courses, and I’m forever arguing the case that the main point of the course is not to dictate what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (after all, who’s to say, really, what’s right/wrong in all situations?), but to equip teachers with the skills and motivation to question, reflect and draw conclusions based on their own experience.


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