My bedtime reading for the past couple of weeks has been Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku. In between revealing to me that people have actually teleported stuff, the book is a reasonably easy introduction to quantum mechanics. To my rather squishy brain, these steely-minded scientists attempt to figure out the very small (subatomic particles) and the very large (the universe(s)) and the connections between them. Not much room for the inbetweeners (us humans) in there you might think, but actually the role of consciousness is an important factor in quantum theory, and provides one resolution for Schrödinger’s cat.
To draw a heavy-handed parallel between stuff that I don’t really understand (quantum physics), and stuff that I like to think I understand (teaching), recently I’ve been able to change some of the small things that I do by consciously examining the much bigger picture. I mentioned in my moan a few weeks ago that I was studying curriculum design for my previous module and that it had helped me a lot to see approaches and methods in terms of the bigger picture of a course. I’ve realized now it’s also made me think on a wider scale about where a course might fit into a person’s language learning over a lifetime, and so what small changes a teacher/course designer (often the same person) can make at the micro level in order to best influence this.
For a lot of Korean learners English will be a lifelong pursuit, and not always one that that they desire to undertake, beginning in elementary school or even before and extending well into their career where proficiency test scores mean better career opportunities. At the moment at least, most of the high-stakes achievement testing (and therefore the teaching) is based on reading and vocabulary memorization, well past the tertiary education stage. All of this is not news to people working here. It does however mean that we can make some useful generalizations about our learners in the process of designing courses, like they will probably be incredibly sick of memorizing lists of vocabulary.
A question that I have asked myself as a less experienced teacher is “How can I teach this student English?” In asking this question I was making a few assumptions. Firstly that students learning path was linear and straight. Secondly, that my job was to teach English as a whole, with no thought to the interaction of the content with past learning or current learning in other situations. Thirdly, I naively assumed that I could teach students’ English this way when a lot of other teachers had already tried with not great results. Writing that third point was incredibly uncomfortable, as it really highlights the arrogance of that viewpoint. Hopefully I have learned a little since then, and I have adjusted my question so that it is now more like “How can I best make a contribution to the learners’ overall English development?”
It was not just an inexperienced I that made these assumptions though. The same assumptions seem to underpin most coursebooks, most of which are attempting to be the sole source of language learning for learners, and whose courses assume a fairly linear progression in every area of language learning, from vocabulary to speaking. This seems a necessary assumption in order to try to meet the needs of a world of paying customers, but also one based on an outmoded paradigm where the book and the teacher actually were the only access to the language. In the internet age this is no longer really valid, as the language learning world is much smaller in terms of accessing the language, and much larger in terms of the amount that there is to access. I also feel like this assumption rather devalues the role of school education, especially of the kind found in Asian cultures. It is this kind of assumption that leads to Long’s (2005:3) claim that “general English courses almost always try to teach too much”.
In Language Curriculum Design, Nation and Macalister (2009) provide a useful suggestion for making sure that a course is providing a good balance of activities. They call this the “four stands” of curriculum design, and suggest that learners should have an equal balance of meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-based instruction and fluency development. I think this is a nice way to impose some checks and balances if you’re designing a complete language course from beginner to advanced, but not of much use to me in deciding what to teach in about 40 hours of contact time.
Where it is useful, however, is applied to the learning lives of students as a whole, and when I examine them I find that there has been a surfeit of language-based instruction and a fair bit of meaning-focused input (mostly as a vehicle for more language instruction). It’s no surprise that most of the level one students that pitch up in my classes struggle to put a spoken sentence together but readily identify almost any word that I write on the board. In Widdowsonian/Hymesian terms, there’s a lot of knowledge about use and not a whole lot of ability for use.
While these insights are not exactly revelatory for anyone with experience of Korea, studying curriculum design has allowed me to develop them into a much clearer framework in my own mind, and has given me the confidence to make some small (and not so small) changes to what I do. This semester I’m attempting not to teach too much in the way of new language, giving one day out of three entirely over to meaning and fluency based work (with almost no teacher interference), and where I am focusing on language it will mostly be in the form of trying to automaticize some chunks, do some rudimentary pronunciation work, and do a lot more text-level work like dictogloss and reconstructing texts. I’m hoping that the students will learn a bit more implicitly and not so much explicitly, and I’m working on some tricks to try to encourage this.
I’m calling these small changes as they are things that I have been trying to do before, but the key factor this semester is that I feel a bit like I am working with my institution rather than against it. Having been uncharacteristically vocal at a few of our planning meetings this year, and finding that my similarly quiet colleagues felt mostly the same way, we successfully lobbied for a change to the exams. We now have a 50% speaking examination, and the written section is a free choice of questions. No longer will I have to write disastrous grammar questions that all the students get wrong, nor include reading passages well below their level that they all get right.
All in all then, I’m feeling pretty cosmic about this semester. I’m a lot more secure in what I’m doing, and where I fit with my students and my institution. This has made me feel a lot more confident in the classroom too. While I recognize that institutions need a degree of control, giving teachers their head is important. Those small changes that they make might just lead to big differences.
Long, M. H. (2005) Second Language Needs Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, I. S. P. & Macalister, J. (2009) Language Curriculum Design. New York: Routledge.