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.





One of the tougher variables to account for when seeking out the best avenues to learning is motivation.

Motivation is talked about everywhere. Conference abstracts promise new ways of motivating students. Publishers sell their textbooks with new and improved tasks or culturally relevant material. Teaching offices are filled with lamentations regards the lack of motivation in the classroom along with plenty of prescriptive advice from colleagues.

Students need to be, at least partially, intrinsically motivated to successfully learn languages.

This post will argue, however, that motivation alone will not do the trick. Motivation, like a delicate flower, will bloom and wither away or be crushed without the appropriate care (or input). I myself have attempted to learn a number of languages and had all sorts of intrinsic motivation to do so. Each time ended with a whimper and frustration.

In my own failed attempt to learn language, I often lacked direction, which (by the way) is where a good teacher comes in really handy. Who knew?

I also lacked any way of interpreting the contextual nuances of the language I was attempting to learn. As any teacher knows all too well, Google translate is not yet meet the standards of the Babel Fish that helped Arthur Dent navigate the galaxy with his trusty towel.

As Google translate proves, understanding the nuts and bolts of a language (vocabulary and grammar) does not bring forth useful or often even understandable communication.

Considering that linguistic knowledge alone is insufficient, what is a teacher to do? To begin, it is critical to understand grammar as more than mere form. Diane Larsen-Freeman has a very useful article titled ‘Teaching Grammar’ in which she describes how linguistic grammar can be taught via a three dimensional understanding of grammar as: form, meaning and use.  Rather than merely focusing students on grammatical form, Larsen-Freeman advises that students be exposed to the meaning and social contexts in which different grammatical elements are utilized.

This idea of a semiotic understanding of language was developed by Michael Halliday’s. Halliday’s systemic functional linguistic (SFL) model of language sees language as a system. By seeing language as ‘a meaning-making system through which we interactively shape and interpret our world and ourselves’, (Derewianka & Jones, 2012) the systemic functional model demands far more of learners than merely becoming acquainted with the pieces of a language.

Context is critical. In order to understand linguistic context an interlocutor needs to understand the channel of communication (mode), who is involved and how that affects linguistic choice (tenor), and what is happening in the interaction and how the external environment may be playing into it (field) ((Derewianka & Jones, 2012). Considering the fact that mode, tenor and field are constantly shifting in the real world, how might a language learner possibly begin to account for the seemingly infinite variables that may affect their choices?

I believe that this complexity is exactly what feeds learner motivation. Teachers need to help learners lean into the challenge. Learners need an appropriate guide that can help dissect and analyze linguistic encounters. By not shying away from the complexity and assisting my learners in disassembling the language they encounter, I have found engagement in the language learning process far easier to cultivate and maintain.

Engagement = Motivation * Context 2


In an ESL world, finding meaningful interactions and experiences for students is a bit easier. The EFL world, however, is a far different story. EFL students learn English as an abstract concept. Teachers, parents, school administrators and governments impose English on them. Often this occurs without students ever really understanding why they are learning the language. The amount of times I have been forced to ask some variant of “Why do you want to learn English” and heard the canned response (almost verbatim – across two continents and multiple age groups) “because English is a global language that I need to blah blah blah” is depressing.

If students don’t know why they are learning, how will they maintain whatever motivation they have? If learners are working with decontextualized and meaningless linguistic knowledge how can they be expected to engage and succeed in the difficult and complex process of language learning?

One of the most difficult tasks (especially) for a native speaking English teacher in the EFL world who does not speak the learners L1) is communicating effectively and gathering enough input from the learners to know how to connect their language learning with their lives outside the classroom. If I do not know the how or why or what about the English speaking world my students are interested in, how can I expect them to stay engaged with such a process as mentally taxing as language learning?

In an excellent interview titled “How Teachers Can See Students’ Identities as Learning Strengths“, Dr. Christopher Emdim talks about his idea of ‘reality pedagogy’. He states that, “the fundamental principle of co-teaching in reality pedagogy is that the neoindigenous student is the expert on the best way to deliver information to others who are part of their culture.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my friend Alex Grevett (who has a wonderful blog that can be found here) and his 2012 presentation entitled “Make Your Students the Experts“. In other words, hand over the classroom to the learners and let them use the language being worked with to explain and/or discuss matters of personal interest to them and their lives.

Mind Map 2.0

Another way of working with meaningfulness and context is to think about content. What will the learners need the language for in their immediate and daily lives? What are their goals and interests that might lead to motivating them to learn now for the future?

The picture to the left is the result of a conceptualization exercise I did prior to beginning a course. I took what I knew (generally) about the students I had worked with at my school in the past. I then envisaged a window. I pictured myself as one of my students. How might they see the English world.

Home became a metaphor for the comfort students feel in their own language and culture. The window to the ‘English World’ outside became a passage through which they had to navigate the multiple stakeholder demands of their education, as well as an indicator of the skills they would need to successfully immigrate to ‘the English World’ on the other side of the window.

The ‘English World’ included everything I knew that interested my former students about the English World outside. At the moment, I teach only male students, so football and cars are always dominant and popular themes. Twitter is a large and ever present influence in their daily lives. As is TV and movies, travel, future employment, family obligations, etc.

By completing this exercise I had a platform from which I could draw meaningful content. I also had a good idea of how much more I wanted/needed to know about my students!

Knowing what pupils are interested in is critical to making the language presented to students meaningful, thus providing a reason to be motivated to learn it. Further, being aware of the contextual scenarios students will or might encounter provides the necessary information to help pupils develop pragmatic understanding (i.e. what are the appropriate [or less-than-appropriate] linguistic choices available to them when confronted with such scenarios).

When students are provided with content that is meaningful and the contextual understanding necessary to make informed choices, their engagement with their learning is usually more sustainable.





the provisional nature of the self

“A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything that we saw in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage of discovery, the only real rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is” (Proust, 1933).

My perception of the reality of I is both self-driven and socially constructed through contextualized life experience. Being at least partially socially constructed, my perception of I cannot ascertain aspects of self that are hidden from me – hidden both in the perceptions of others and in the void of the unknown that is hidden both to myself and to others.

The Johari Window

Being inherently subjective, self-reflections cannot serve to illuminate this gap: they are ‘clothed’ in the same senses that drove my initial perceptions.

Further frustrating this search for who I really am is the temporal nature of the I, which constitutes a dynamism and complexity in continual flux. So being, the finish line in the pursuit of our ‘true’ selves is perpetually out-of-reach, a thought that can lead one to see the endeavour as fruitless. I would argue though, that it is the search itself that provides the reasoning for continuance.

In conducting the search for my ‘true’ self I must seek to gain some insight into the universes of those in which my socially constructed self coalesces. Partially seeing myself through others eyes helps to correct for the subjectivity bias’ of my own perceptions.

Accessing bits and pieces of the ‘Blind Self’ sheds light on the perceptive universes of the other, and brings in to sharper focus the reality of the ‘open self’. Through this parallaxic research comes greater understanding of who I provisionally was, at some point in time and within a defined context. It also brings greater understanding of the other present at that time.

As a teacher, greater awareness of self leads to a more informed decision making process as the perpetual search consistently raises up, questions, and challenges the values, beliefs, and experiential understandings that guide my thinking.

As an EFL teacher, this greater awareness serves to come some way in alleviating potential misperceptions and misunderstandings of the resident culture and society that partially define the students I teach. In undergoing the struggle to find my own ‘true’ self I consequently discover aspects of the universes of others, which helps define the questions a teacher poses in order to make better decisions.

Considering the provisional and complex nature of a single individuals understanding of self, a teacher may be best advised to “focus on wholes, relationships, open systems, and environments…seeking out patterns and phenomena that emerge from the multi-dimensional and dynamic interactions of the classroom” (Cochran Smith 2014).

Through the prism of complexity theories, a teacher can begin to take stock of the complex whole of the classroom, which is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Reflecting on the patterns and phenomena that become evident through the use of complexity theories helps guide a teacher’s decision-making; creating a more defined path to greater learning opportunities for one’s students.

Effective teaching, I posit, is best achieved through the relentless pursuit of the answer to the question, who am I? Armed with a perpetually updated sense of who I am allows a teacher ‘see’ with greater effect, helping to illuminate the patterns and phenomena of the complex system of the classroom – the key source data on which we rely.


Cochran-Smith, M., Ell, F., Grudnoff, L., Ludlow, L., Haigh, M., & Hill, M. (2014). When complexity theory meets critical realism: a platform for research on initial teacher education. Teacher Education Quarterly, 41(1), 105.

Pippin, R. (2005). The persistence of subjectivity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Proust, M. (1993). The Guermantes way. New York: Modern Library.