«We are all ‘on the edge of our learning’»

Adrian Underhill, whose work as teacher trainer is well-known internationally, says that «students and teachers, we are all ‘on the edge of our learning’ so learning becomes a collective and social event».

Underhill will be with us at the University of Seville on December 13 for the seminar «Four Encounters that Changed my Teaching» which is for teachers from any educational context. At Language and Cultural Encounters we have been fortunate to interview Adrian.

We are looking forward to your workshops in Seville on December 13. What would you say that we can expect to encounter there? 
I hope we will encounter the experience that learning is not just a transaction, it is a transformation in which we change ourselves. That is why we do it full time as babies and small children, and why we like it so much whenever we truly re-contact it as adults. It is its own motivation. The thrill of rediscovering ourselves as ‘learning beings’ for whom the reconnection with learning gives us real meaning is literally and obviously ‘life changing’.

You have been involved in many contexts related to language teaching all over the world – from addressing many hundreds of teachers at conferences such as when you were president of IATEFL to speaking individually with teachers in Ushuaia, a town called “The end of the world” at the southern tip of Argentina. What would you consider your most exciting adventure related to language teaching?
It is simply my own experience of being on the same side of the learning fence as my students, learning with them at the same time. They are learning the language, or learning how to teach, while I am learning them, which enables my spontaneous working with their actual learning moves in the present moment. We are all ‘on the edge of our learning’ so learning becomes a collective and social event.

Adrian Underhill works as a freelance ELT consultant and trainer

Adrian Underhill works as a freelance ELT consultant and trainer

As a trainer and consultant you have worked for many years with professional development for language teachers – could you say if there is a best route?
I advise work on three levels at the same time.  First level: Knowing the language better and better. Second level: Ever experimenting with teaching methods. Third level: Constantly attending to one’s facilitation skills: empathy, non-judgmental listening, curiosity, playfulness and personal presence. The third level is often the most urgent, since it is the least attended to.


You are also well-known as a jazz guitarist. Has this had an influence on your teaching in any way?
Today there are many studies, including from the neurosciences, about the connections between music and language. I think music helps us listen to speech also –how people articulate, use rhythm, emphasis, pitch, etc. Also when playing jazz, often we make “mistakes” – they are a part of performance and in language teaching we need to help students not to be afraid of making mistakes. Gattegno said that mistakes are a gift to the class.

In Spain today there is a lot of activity related to CLIL –Content and Language Integrated Learning. Will you be addressing this area in the seminar? 
My interest and focus is on education, regardless of subject. I intend that these four encounters could also apply to the teaching of any subject through English and invite people to ask questions from their perspective during the workshops.

In the world of education it is clear that as teachers we don’t work best in isolation. How can one go about facilitating or leading teacher teams?
The most important single thing is that the team is a learning team, that is, it does whatever it does through learning. It learns as it goes, learning is its way of getting things done, of developing the content of its training, of reflecting on its experience, of using and even relying on the differences between people involved.

Underhill in International House Directors of Studies Conference 2013

Underhill at the International House Directors of Studies Conference 2013

In teacher training we often hear about engaging the “whole” person, not just the cognitive but also the affective. Can you give any principles related to this?
Well, engaging the whole person is one of my aims when working with learning. To do so, I try to be really aware of what is going on, to “see the learners learning”, to look closely enough to make learning visible. When I can see the inner moves of learning, it helps me to know what to do next. This involves first planning and then improvisation. In this process, I try not to be a slave to the plan, and this way, I am learning and growing too. I don’t find it useful to consider myself the one who “knows” and the learner merely as “the one who learns”. I generally feel that how much learning I do in a way determines how much the learners learn.

You have spoken many times about reflective practice for teachers. Do you have any advice about how to become involved in this?
It isn’t complicated – if teachers just take a little deeper interest in seeing their presence affecting what is going on in their classes, in noticing the impact they and the class situation have on the students. And if you look at learning as an adventure, at times you may want to try doing things in a different manner in your classroom, exploring ways to make the learning experience more productive for you and for your students. We’ll see more about this and related issues in Seville in December.

Language and Cultural Encounters is offering on December 13 the seminar «Four Encounters that Changed my Teaching» with the ELT consultant and trainer Adrian Underhill. It will be held in the Facultad de Filología de la Universidad de Sevilla (Calle Palos de la Frontera, s/n). There will be four 90 minute workshops. A certificate for the six hours will be given. To register send an email to info@lceseville.com. Places are limited.

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