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Time for the bubble to burst

March 17, 2013

The Secret DOS recently posted about how he/she (what gender is the Secret DOS?) allows/insists on almost total teacher autonomy in terms of identifying levels, selecting course content and assessment. He/she relies on his/her teachers’ “professional judgement” to ensure that the students get correctly placed, taught what they need to be taught and appropriately assessed. The Secret DOS’s role is therefore to provide guidance when required, helping the teaching staff to make choices rather than imposing a course on them.

This approach has the obvious advantage of flexibility, allowing the teacher to first identify learner needs and use this to inform course content and outcomes. The result is a course that covers the language the students want to cover and develops the skills they need to develop. Any assessment can be devised as a result of the content selected, rather than content being selected to prepare for the assessment.

That’s all very nice, and I’ll relate it to my own context later. But first I’d like to raise some issues that could be used to present a counter-argument to the Secret DOS’s approach:

For a start, there’s the work involved. Teachers are a busy lot, and having to design a new syllabus or plan a course as well as individual lessons only adds to the workload. Even if you do trust their professional judgement, this additional responsibility does add considerably to the job requirement, and makes the whole process very different from just ploughing through the coursebook. Busy/overworked teachers tend to end up teaching from lesson to lesson, and there is a danger that the course can become a bit rudderless.

Then of course there’s the issue of evidence and standards. Most language schools are accountable to some body or other. We are visited by HMIe and the British Council on a regular basis. Inspectors like to see syllabus documents, and the more detailed the better. HMIe expect to see a pack of materials that is used on each course, and tend to take a rather dim view of arguments in favour of a less prescriptive syllabus. It’s true that having the flexibility of meeting learner needs gives the potential for the course to be as relevant and useful as it can possibly be, but there is no guarantee that this is actually happening. For all the inspectors know the teachers could be in there doing all kinds of crazy things. They don’t trust anyone’s professional judgement until they’ve seen evidence, and if you can’t present the evidence on their arrival, alarm bells start to ring.

There are also issues with reliability. Teachers inevitably have different styles and approaches, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, allowing teachers the freedom to design a course as they see fit can lead to huge variations in content. So you can end up with two classes running at the same level and with similar students, but doing very different things.

Finally, it’s important to consider course outcomes. It’s all very well designing internal assessments that reflect course content, but once the course has finished what do they mean? If a student comes to me (or an employer, or another educational institution) with a certificate to say that they successfully completed a course in upper-intermediate English at the Something-or-other Language School in Brighton, and that the student studied the things the teacher there thought they needed to learn, this isn’t very helpful. It would be far more useful if the course provided certification from an awarding body that can verify the achievement of clear outcomes. Having clear outcomes in place before the course starts also makes it much more marketable. These outcomes may not directly match the learning outcomes that individual students feel they need, but in many ways they help to validate the course, particularly if the outcomes lead to an externally-accredited qualification.

So, does this mean I am against allowing teachers (and students) autonomy in selecting course content? Well, yes and no. If you take the language classroom in isolation, and consider it as an environment whose only role is to maximize the learning of the students who happen to be in it, then clearly the best way to do this is to find out what the students need to learn first and work from there. In this “classroom as a bubble” context, the only people you need to please are the students – if they go away feeling their English has improved as much as they wanted it to, assessment isn’t even necessary. They can assess or evaluate their own progress. This seems to be the environment that Scott Thornbury operates in, if this post is anything to go by. Describing a syllabus as “needs-based”, “organic” or “negotiated” makes it sound great, and I have always really relished opportunities to teach courses in this way.

However, students are learning English for reasons that exist outside the bubble of the language classroom. They need outcomes that people other than themselves can recognise. Language schools and colleges don’t exist in a bubble either; they need to be able to declare what students will learn and achieve on their programmes.

Externally-imposed requirements are very much on my mind at the moment. Where I work, we’ve always taken pride in the fact that we develop courses and materials with learner needs very much in mind. Like the Secret DOS, I’ve been happy to trust in the professional judgement of my staff, knowing that lessons they design for their specific students are bound to be more effective than lessons designed for nobody in particular. Up until now our syllabus has been very flexible and I’ve been happy for staff to deviate from it as long as they can justify this.

However, our department is currently under pressure to reduce the flexible, student-driven nature of its curriculum and increase the number of accredited outcomes our students achieve. This in itself requires a lot of work, as new content needs to be introduced and materials will inevitably need to be developed. But more importantly, it’s going to require a change in mindset. Rather than eliciting learning needs from the students, we’ll be imposing learning needs on them.

But is that bad, or just different? OK, the course content may not be exactly what they need in terms of language and skills, but at least it’s specific and measurable. And not only that, it leads to more qualifications that make them more employable and/or capable of progressing to further study. If you ask our students if they would like their course to lead to more qualifications, nearly all of them would say yes.

Preparing students for externally accredited outcomes entails less flexibility of course content. But if we deny opportunities to gain these outcomes, maybe that’s the worst kind of inflexibility.

  1. TheSecretDoS is either above or below gender categories, but is happy to be referred to as “she”. Happier still if it’s “she who must be obeyed.”

    You make a valid point about our approach to teaching putting a great deal more work onto teachers. And it is not always work that is accepted by them. But the fact of the matter is that students where I work are paying a great deal of money. There’s a whole argument about whether or not it is fair to ask too much of the teachers if the bulk of that income is going into somebody else’s pocket, but for now, I am going to sidestep that argument.

    What I ask is that the teachers work with a guiding syllabus. It is modelled on the Common European Framework of Reference and teachers are expected to identify which level of the syllabus is most appropriate for the students they find in front of them. Once this is done, teachers are expected to prepare some sort of assessment (whether it be portfolio-based or whatever) for their students.

    The thing is, anything else is utterly artificial. We can shoehorn learners into the curriculum of external exam boards in the interests of marketing; we can overlook student needs in the interest of following the schemes of work; we can let ourselves be seduced by the notion that if we teach it, the learners will learn it; we can convince everyone that the spectrum of ability in language use can be broken into finely graded states of intermediateness. But these are just different bubbles.

    What we offer instead is a clearly referenced syllabus: we try to identify students on the CEFR and we pitch our teaching at that broad level. Teachers are given a core syllabus that breaks the goals into skills-based competencies and are expected to be informed by these goals when planning the lesson. We don’t keep too much of an eye on the demands of an externally-written exam-based curriculum because there is the idea that if exams test your language skills, all that you need to do is to enhance these same skills. A bit of exam practice is invaluable, but as I don’t believe that you CAN actually break a language into tiny little sub-skills, I am all in favour of broad brushstrokes being applied.

    This means that teaching is mainly concerned with weaving a coherent narrative from a chaotic and emergent phenomenon. There’s nothing wrong with teaching from one lesson to another if you have the skills to help the learners look back and see the path that has been taken. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that just-in-time teaching like this is more likely to deal with learner needs than any sort of pre-planned rigid syllabus that feels the need to drive relentlessly from Point A to Point B.

    So, am I a moral champion while others sell their pedagogical values for a handful of certificates and job opportunities? No…I don’t think so. I am lucky enough to be flying below all sorts of radar at the moment. If truth were told, students would probably be a lot happier if we were to give them a much more clearly delineated learning experience with predicted timescales for progress etc. However, the company I work for has designed a course that resists any attempt to structure it and to meet these student wants. Not for the right reason, either. We run a continuous enrolment but are limited in the number of classes we can run. At the moment we have the whole spectrum of language abilities condensed into four classes and four rooms. No more resources are made available. In one class you may just as easily find a complete beginner and a weak pre-int student. It is not cost efficient to open up a class with a less optimum number of students. Far from being a moral champion, I am complicit with a model of teaching that puts profits before pedagogy. I have devised a pedagogical argument to allow me to do this. To my shame…

  2. Thank you, Secret DOS, for your honest reply, and also for revealing your preferred pronoun.
    I agree completely with your arguments in favour of the syllabus you use. The fact that it can be compared against the CEFR and yet still manages to be flexible enough to meet learner needs is commendable. In fact, it sounds very like the syllabus I designed that we are currently using, which explains why I think it’s so great.
    However, one thing our students are asking for is for more qualifications to be built into the programme in order to improve their employability and/or allow them to progress to further study. If students need qualifications, and the syllabus doesn’t include them, how can we argue that the syllabus meets the students’ needs?
    OK, I admit that the push for more accreditation is coming more from the top (the government, in fact) than from the students, but still. Being squeezed into this situation, and being the glass-half-full kind of guy that I am, I’m starting to think that focusing on externally-accredited outcomes could end up meeting student needs more closely than the flexible, organic approach we currently take.
    The challenge I now face is to design a syllabus that manages to include the language and skills the students actually need as well as allowing them to meet the performance criteria to achieve the external outcomes.
    I’m sure I’ll be letting you know how I get on with this.

  3. I actually like the security that exams and qualifications offer. And I get entirely the student desire to see some reward for their effort. Learning a language is not always the easiest of tasks. Why not have a certificate at the end of it that proves to others that you are whatever it says you are?

    Exams also offer teachers some security inasmuch as they require exam practice: easy lessons to plan and relatively easy to turn exam tasks into “meaningful” games. In language teaching -perhaps more than any other curriculum area- it is difficult, if not impossible, to teach to the exam. If the exam is worth anything it will seek to test the candidate’s proficiency in language. The best way to prepare for that is to develop your language skills. So, aside from some exam practice to become familiar with the question tasks, well…anything goes, it seems to me.

    I will be looking forward to reading how things go!

    • Thanks, Secret DOS. In terms of manageability, perhaps a good thing about the assessments we will be offering is that they are administered and delivered internally. The qualification comes from SQA but we do the majority of the tests in the class.
      This means we have a lot more control over the circumstances of delivery, though of course we still need to meet the assessment conditions etc. See my post “SQA and the art of knitting jumpers” for more on this.
      it could in fact be argued that a lot of what needs to be covered in order to gain these qualifications is stuff that we cover anyway, and that by not including the qualifications we’re actually selling ourselves short.
      I think the biggest concern we all have is the possible increase in workload, to begin with at least. We’ll see.

  4. I want to to thank you for this great read!! I certainly enjoyed every little
    bit of it. I’ve got you saved as a favorite to check out new stuff you post…

    • Thank you very much, and I’m glad to hear you’ll be looking out for my posts in future. Feel free to comment on the other posts I have up here as well.

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