Closing the loop: Simulation and Language Teacher Education

A flying simulation
Photo by Kristopher Allison on Unsplash

Before stepping into my post, my sincere thanks to those of you who have read, shared, and reached out to me about these standardized patient posts. I am trying to prevent my writing from getting rusty, and these experiences have been an opportunity to stay sharp. Naomi, I’ve enjoyed our exchanges and this post is partially a result of our communication.

When I began my job as a curriculum designer, the image above was the expectation I had of simulation. I attended the Global Summit Conference in October of 2018, and was exposed to a plethora of STEM tech sessions. I attended two simulation sessions – one was exactly what I expected – it was simulation in Praxis – a cloud sim training. Another session was by the Ontario Sim Alliance. I wasn’t expecting to use a GoPro and create a simulation on the spot, but we did.

However, simulation is not about technology and Second Life experiences. It involves people, human interaction, and lived experiences that provide educational experiences for others. Each simulation has a debrief and, at least where I worked, students have an opportunity for a do-over, followed by written reflection. It was my favourite learning experience this past year. The simulation provides students the opportunity to fail in a complex context with low stakes, so that it prepares them to manage themselves better when they do encounter situations such as these in practice.

I realized in my communications with some of you that not everyone knew I was not teaching English language learners in my curriculum designer role. My teaching in the past year has been in teacher education programs. My language education teaching has been online with the University of Manitoba, in their completely online TESL program. I’ve identified as an English language teacher for so long – what would I call myself now? A researcher? A teacher trainer/instructor/teacher/coach? A curriculum designer?

I am not ready to leave language teaching behind me.

It has taken a summer and an autumn of reading to finish writing this post, which I began in May. I have read a lot on reflective practice, mostly in a language teaching context, but some of it has moved into health sciences as well. Whereas Farrell writes about reflective practice and cites Dewey and Schön as inspirations, Finlay writes about them in the context of a historical perspective. Her exploration of debates surrounding reflective practice from a health sciences perspective challenges the assumptions of Schön and also challenges educators to consider critical reflection as a method to nurture effective reflective practice.

I have also spent time reading about language teacher education. I have read Johnson writing about a sociocultural perspective of learning in language teacher education.

“And for true concepts to emerge, teachers must have multiple and sustained opportunities. Defining a Sociocultural Perspective for dialogic mediation, scaffolded learning, and assisted performance as they participate in and learn about relevant aspects of their professional worlds. When teachers’ concept development leads to changes in the ways in which they think about and engage in instructional activities, a socio-cultural perspective allows us to turn our attention to the relation between teacher learning and student learning.” (Johnson, 2009, 4-5).

I wouldn’t say that this perspective surprised me, but I am still surprised that socio-culturalism and Vygotsky are regularly referenced by educators and administrators, but learning spaces like the one described above are not provided for faculty or pre-service teachers. Learning new things in school settings is often a top-down approach and content is mandated – teachers aren’t often challenged to change how they think about what they are teaching. I am jaded at the moment about opportunities for relations “between teacher learning and student learning” (Johnson, 2009, p. 5).

I quoted Johnson and wrote the paragraph above a year ago as a reflection for one of my courses. My opinion hasn’t changed. Practicums for language teachers are artificial: the students might be primed for the expereince, the observer has prepared, the materials have been pre-selected and pre-planned…just this week in my Twitter feed a teacher with a wealth of experience shared that the new class they were teaching didn’t go well for them. They had used pre-prepared materials that another teacher had shared with them.

How can we make things more real for pre-service language teachers? Simulation is used extensively in healthcare education; nurses are leaders in this area, but medical schools and other institutions teaching in healthcare settings provide uncomfortable learning experiences for their interns.

Tarrone and Allwright say that language teaching is different from other types of teaching because of the subject matter being taught: language (2005). There is a lot written about sociocultural education in language teacher education and with pre-service teachers, but the social is often missing. A practicum comes at the end of one’s language teacher training, usually, but what if language teacher education programs began the practicum as soon as pre-service teachers began the program? And what if, among the students, there were “planted” students, who might help provide pre-service teachers with the opportunity to fail?

Fail and learn, I mean. And learn in a low-stakes situation. In competency-based education, learners advance to the next stage when they demonstrate that they are competent at, for example, taking blood pressure correctly. Passing this type of hurdle allows students in health sciences to take an active part in clinic observations. There are a number of tasks a student is asked to perform before they can move to the next learning stage. Some are more easily encountered in a clinical setting than others, but the situations which do not readily present themselves in regular clinical experiences are the best lessons for learning. Simulation can provide students with the opportunity to fail in a situation where most make mistakes the first time they encounter a crying patient, for example.

I recall several instances early on in my teaching career when I made blunders, some of them still cringe-worthy with a 20-year-old lens. I never role-played how to talk to a student about racism, how to manage a classroom with refugees from different sides of a conflict, or classroom management in general. A low-stakes, English language teacher simulation where no one steps out of character is a dream of mine for language teacher education. And a certificate isn’t granted until a number of these simulations are completed and the teacher candidate demonstrates competency, with no journal reflection or eportfolio connected to this task. Instead, a student is given feedback at the point of action, and offered an opportunity to role-play again.

I have other dreams and plans, as well. Tomorrow, I take my first step in putting some of my ideas into action in my new faculty/instructional designer role. I am a language teacher again, and it feels good.


Farrell, T. S. (2012). Reflecting on reflective practice:(Re) visiting Dewey and Schön. Tesol Journal3(1), 7-16.

Finlay, L. (2008). Reflecting on reflective practice. PBPL paper52, 1-27.

Johnson, K. E. (2009). Second Language Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Perspective.

Tarone, E., & Allwright, D. (2005). Second language teacher education : international perspectives. In Diane J Tedick (Ed.) (p. 348). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.



  1. Wow, Anna – powerful words that hit the mark. The two points that resonate most with me are these:
    * Learning new things in school settings is often a top-down approach and content is mandated – teachers aren’t often challenged to change how they think about what they are teaching.
    I see that so often with colleagues and as a counselor.

    * “A low-stakes, English language teacher simulation ” where teachers-in-training can encounter difficult classroom situations in a safe environment, fail and redo, is truly something we need in the system. Perhaps there would be fewer teachers who don’t survive the first year.

    Thank you for your posts on this topic.

    Do keep us posted as to where they lead you next!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Naomi. I think we all can remember at least one moment in our teaching when we failed miserably – nothing had prepared us.

      Competency-based education in health sciences is good enough for medical doctors. Ontario, where I live, is transforming all medical schools to this education model. It’s old-fashioned and short-sighted to think that exams, assignments and portfolios as the main forms of assessment, measured with standardized rubrics, will adequately prepare teachers for a dynamic experience each time they step in front of a classroom.

      These have been interesting things for me to write about. I appreciate your interest and your sharing of my blog, Naomi.



  2. This is a fascinating idea, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about how it works in practice. I’m wondering whether it’s something we can experiment with at our school too, where I work with novice teachers and have to deal with the fallout when they are dealing with difficult situations in the classroom and things haven’t gone as they/we would have liked.
    Good luck!


  3. What an amazing idea to bring simulation into language teaching, Anna! If this is something that you can implement into this field, it would do wonders for teacher-trainers.

    I can still recall my practicum more than 20 years ago. It may have given me some practise of standing in front of a classroom and eased my nerves, but did it prepare me for the dynamic situations of my own classroom? Probably not.

    Not only for language teaching, but also from an instructional design perspective, I would say allowing learners to immerse themselves into dealing with real-world cases until a level of competency of reached is crucial for any discipline.

    I hope you have an opportunity to realize this dream and be the pioneer and change agent in language teaching.



Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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