Designing a Curriculum for Learning

Like an old tome found in the back of a library, I’m dusting off my observation glasses and ready to kickstart this old blog back into gear!

What could’ve brought me back into the fold after such a long – and presumably permanent – hiatus? A very fortunate happenstance – catching the newish blog post by THE Tony Gurr over at allthingslearning by the title –

So…What Exactly Should Curriculum Planning Look Like – for 2017/18? (Part 02)

It struck a chord because it speaks directly and succinctly to the core of what I’ve been haphazardly trying to express to my teachers for the past six months. Let’s let go of the textbook! Take our teacher hats off and put a student hat on. Reflect on what the students learned. Find evidence to back it up. Be creative and experiment! Try new ideas. Break the rules.

Lots of head nodding, backslapping all round. We were going to make a difference, flip the script!

But for all the good theorizing we did and no matter how much I’ve proselytized – the textbook continues to be the first place to turn.

Students need content!

I can’t do my job well if I don’t know where I’m going.

I don’t know what we’re doing here.

I sympathize greatly with these perspectives, for while we (as the ESL field in general) do a fair job of theorizing and creating highfelutin methodologies, on-the-ground implementation of English language classes (especially those of the ELF variety) continues to tend to revert to ‘follow the book…creatively’ curriculum reality. It exasperates some teachers who see their motivation sucked away by endless testing schedules and grammar-driven curriculum demands.

So…Why is it so hard to implement student-led curriculum?? Why do so many EFL contexts rely on textbooks?

  1. Turnover – academies and institutes generally see yearly turnover of their faculty. Providing teachers with books to follow cuts down on the need for…
    1. training
    2. trainers
  2. Keeping a book at the heart of things gives parents/students concrete understanding of what is to come and what has been passed (or in the common language – learned)
  3. (controversially perhaps, but true to my experience) Books provide a crutch for those with less-honed grammatical understandings.
  4. Textbooks lend legitimacy. Oxford or Pearson are names that most people know of, and thus trust. A school striking out on its own without a book needs some other authority figure to back up the curriculum.
  5. Textbooks can be a nice little income earner.

Now, don’t get me wrong, textbooks are grand. They are a super resource for teacher and student alike. The problem is that they can quickly become a magnet of focus for all stakeholders involved.

So what’s the solution to EFL curriculums?

A start would be to read Kathleen Graves’ excellent book, Designing Language Courses.

In short, there’s a process that we must go through. It’s not onerous, and the process itself is highly illuminating. But as with so much in life, without putting in the time to do it right, the result won’t live up to expectations.

Before starting anything, it’s critical one gets to the heart of their pedagogical beliefs. Take a critical eye to them. Play devils advocate. Tease them out.

Then, define the context. Describe every possible detail about the school, classroom, class, students, admin demands, anything that could possibly have an influence on the class should be included here.

Set SMART goals. This takes practice. And then more practice. And then you practice some more. Make them Specific. Make sure they’re Measurable. Make them Achievable. Make them Relevant. Make them Time-bound.

Assessment can then be done by gathering evidence and measuring.

It’s all about Goals.

Goals (or outcomes as Tony referred to) help us reorient our perspective away from the content and onto the students. What exactly do we want to get out of the students in this semester? This month? Week? Class?

At my school, the administration provides the SMART goals for the program as a whole, as well as level specific goals. The teachers use the curricular goals as guidance for developing a scope and sequence to their class, which allows the production of more specific, fine-tuned goals that coherently scaffold students learning from day-to-day.

Implementation then relies on how well the goals (or outcomes) are stated or designed.

Which will have to be the subject of another blog post. Here’s hoping it won’t be another year+ before that comes along.