C is for Critical incidents

In input sessions on teacher training courses, trainers may sometimes be guilty of presenting an ‘ideal’ view of the classroom where  everything runs smoothly. It’s a world where all students love pair work, a well-presented timeline always clarifies a new tense and no students ever give you a hard time. Certainly, this is the danger of ‘input’ on initial training course and it’s only once you get into the nitty-gritty of teaching practice that things often unravel.

So, ‘Critical Incidents’ are a useful tool. I first saw them used in management training.  They are like mini-case studies where you present trainees with a real situation and they have to suggest a solution. Ideally they are based on real situations. So when you are planning a session, say, on teaching young learners, you write a short description of something that happened to you. The trainees get into groups, read it, and discuss possible ways of dealing with it.

Critical incidents can be used at any stage of the training: at the beginning as a warmer, in the middle to illustrate a point or perhaps at the end so trainees can apply new knowledge or skills to a real-life like situation.

Here is a critical incident from an input session on motivation. Trainees looked at different ways to motivate and then had to arrive at strategies to handle different situations.

Critical Incident 

A teacher has a business English class with pre-work students at a business school. It is the first week and one of the students is clearly not enjoying the classes. He is not being disruptive, but he isn’t participating during the lessons. The teacher asks to speak to him at the end of the lesson. He explains that his parents have sent him to the business school. He wanted to go to university and study for a humanities degree but they wouldn’t pay for that. They would only pay if he studied business. He thinks business is boring and doesn’t want to discuss it. The teacher finds out that in his spare time he likes skateboarding and is trying to set up a skateboard park in the town with friends.

For incidents based on real situations, an answer card outlining what the teacher in question did can also be prepared and handed out at the end, if appropriate, for comparison. Here is an answer card for the situation described above.

Possible solution 

The teacher set up a project where the students worked in groups to design a business plan. The student described was put in charge of his group. Their task was to research and write up a business plan for a skateboard park in the town. They had to contact local suppliers, cost the project and give a presentation at the end. As a result of this series of lessons, the student actually went on to create the park designed by the class, which still exists to this day.

Another variation on the Critical Incident idea is to have a set of cards with short descriptions of different teaching contexts. See a set you can print, cut out and use below. The cards can be handed out in different ways, such as one per trainee or three or four per group. Here are some of the tasks you might set using these cards:

  • In a session looking at different types of syllabus, the trainees (working in groups of three) receive three cards and choose an appropriate syllabus type for each context given.
  • The trainee has evaluated a coursebook and must now decide which context this book would be appropriate for. The trainee presents his or her reasons to the rest of the group.
  • The trainees are asked to design a first-day needs analysis questionnaire for the group on their card.
  • The trainees are asked to make a list of difficulties they might personally have with the type of group described on the card. They have to say what training they would need to deal with such a group.
  • Complete cards 10, 11 and 12 with three more teaching context cards based on your experience or designed to reflect the type of contexts your trainee teachers might be about to work in. Course participants with previous teaching experience could also write their own and swap them with a partner.


1 A one-to-one course for a businessman. No fixed end date has been agreed. You meet either once or twice a week. He often cancels at short notice. 2 An intensive exam preparation course for four weeks. The final exam contains four papers in reading, writing, speaking and listening. 3 A group of ten newly-arrived refugees from the same country who will be living in the USA. They are beginner to elementary level.
4 An open general English course lasting nine months. The level is intermediate with lessons twice a week for 90 minutes. Some of the students are interested in taking an exam at the end. 5 A nursery school setting with three to four year olds learning English once a week for 20 minutes. 6 A monolingual class of around 50 grouped by age (14 and 15) in a state school. They have been learning English since the age of nine and will continue until they leave. They have an exam at the end of every term.
7 An intensive two-week course entitled ‘Holiday English’. Six students have enrolled. Their levels range from elementary to pre-intermediate. 8 A three-week summer school course for a group of 11–13 year olds. Classes are from 9 until 12.30 with trips and activities in the afternoons. 9 A class of eight adult students from different countries at intermediate level. They start and finish the course at different times with new students joining every week.
10                     11                       12


 Photocopiable (c) John Hughes 2011   www.trainingelteachers.net

Categories: Teacher Training


3 replies

  1. Very good point on the training end, but isn’t he answer to your particular example still idealized? How many troubled or disruptive students are brought into the fold with such a quick and obvious fix?

    I really like this idea, but I think presenting ideas that teachers tried and failed and discussing the whys could be more productive.

  2. Good point Nick. The solution given is a real situation but I take your point about the need to look at failures as well as successes and look into why; the point being to look at real life teaching.


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