G is for Grapple
No, I’m not going to be weaving a well-constructed post about an apple posing as a grape (pictured above) as a metaphor for an ELT issue–the operative word being “well”–nor am I beginning a series of posts that will piggyback off Scott Thornbury’s well-known blog format (ok, maybe just this once). Instead, two of his recent posts on coursebook/syllabi approaches, P is Postmodern method and C is for Critical Pedagogy, have given me that little nudge to write about the grappling with curricula and coursebooks I undergo every summer. (By the way, they also have inspired a desire to incorporate vivid metaphors into my posts, which will continually manifest itself somewhere, some way. You wait!)
When reviewing or writing a curriculum, I find the level of suitable flexibility to be problematic. It seems there are three ways to really go about planning: prescriptive (you’re told exactly what to teach each lesson), flexible (you create your own lessons based on outcomes to achieve within a certain time frame) and open (you figure it all out as you go). Given that the majority of teachers I’ve asked which they prefer eliminate either end of the spectrum immediately (and that seems a natural choice), it comes down to making a curriculum flexible. That sounds easy, but flexible does just that: flexes from more detailed to less depending on the needs of the students, the experience of the teacher, the dynamics of the class and events that unfold.
On the more detailed end of flexible, the curriculum incorporates a coursebook for guidance as to the progression expected throughout the program. Outcomes are often highly compatible with its table-of-contents so as not to mix up the intentionally building content within the units. Sure, it may not be a day-to-day syllabus, but in many cases, it’s expected that one coursebook will be used for one program’s length.
This amount of freedom (which is truly little freedom at all, let’s face it) comforts teachers who may not be at their prime (professionally, economically and/or autonomously), students who know no different and administrators who rely on what they’re told. It takes little beyond a placement test into account for what the class of students will truly benefit from by “bulldozing a path through the diversity, spontaneity, unpredictability and general messiness of the classroom jungle.” (just one of a plethora of these inspiring metaphors I mentioned earlier, 2012P) Though most students will improve different areas of their proficiency during the class, it will have little do to with this curriculum itself. Of equal concern, it reinforces to publishers that coursebooks are the money-makers over one-off niche titles (but let’s save the economics and the safety of their content for another post).
What suggests flexibility here is the fact that the curriculum does not require teachers to use everything within the coursebook itself, but rather create replacement or supplemental activities for selected items deemed boring or useless or poorly constructed. In this way, though the coursebook is the driving force behind the outcomes, its content use seems at the teacher’s discretion. Ooooer, flexible. Not. Is this type of flexible curriculum inevitable if a coursebook is involved? Is it really useful for teachers or students?
Based on the above, the seemingly less detailed end of flexible would include a curriculum that does not require a syllabus or the guidance of a coursebook, but descriptors of skill achievements that progressively gain complexity over time (e.g. “Can follow simple short predictable phone messages.” > “Can follow short predictable phone messages on familiar matters.” > “Can follow clear and coherent phone messages on unfamiliar and non-routine matters.” from Canadian Language Benchmarks, 74). In this scenario, students are given a diagnostic, which helps determine which descriptors to start from. Teachers create materials however they see fit to facilitate student achievement of the next descriptor in the series. These types of descriptors have much in common with the flaws of coursebook promises introduced early on in Thornbury’s post (2012P). Admittedly they focus on more manageable teaching chunks, but still suggest a mastery of X skill by the end of a course–a declaration that is challenging to quantify. So I wonder: is this progression of descriptors really anything different than a coursebook without the materials? On a practical level, is it really that useful for teachers either?
Where a coursebook should remain in the flexible curriculum is in the background with other available resources (methodology books, photocopiable books, previously used teacher materials, student-generated/sourced material, etc.). A coursebook is just one resource among many, not necessarily worse or better, but definitely not the focus. Having students purchase one is also not a bad idea, so long as items practised in the book are relevant enough to be referred to for preparatory reading, self-study or homework.
A perfect example was my EAP reading/writing class last year. We chose to use Writing Academic English as the primary text and divided chapters into different weeks of the first term. Quite early on, I felt so restricted. I felt like I had to use the exercises in class rather than my own. I hated it. In second term, we decided to give sections of it for self-study, related to outcomes we’d introduce in our own ways during class. We left parts for autonomous extra practice, feedback given during office hours if chosen. This worked out so much better for everyone: instructors decided how to use it, students had automatic resources for self-study and extra practice, publishers and writers continued to make earned money. Proof it worked best outside the classroom, we exploited this text far less in class than ideas and samples from other directly relevant texts, videos, blogs, real essays from 1st-year students and students’ own writing. Further on, students were tasked with sourcing their own texts on topics from readings we’d done and with regard to their chosen research topics and it was these texts that could be manipulated for practice. Matched with the variety of other sources for practice materials in this way, the coursebook was given the amount power and influence it deserves in our curriculum: minimal. (This also lessens its ideological influences on the students–2012C–but that’s also a post for another day.)
Still, we could just abandon the whole concept of a curriculum altogether and go with out guts, our initial diagnostics and the emergent needs that spring up in class with materials found out of class. But then, it wouldn’t be much of a marketable program nor the level of flexibility expected, would it? And so I continue to grapple, not “grape-L”…