I just stumbled on a piece of my own writing, published in 1997 in Seikei Forum, a magazine in which members of the School of Political Science and Economics publish their opinions about topics related to whatever theme the magazine is focusing on. In this case the topic was language teaching curriculum development. My colleague Koichi Nakamura very kindly translated it for me into Japanese, an arduous task that I’m not sure that I have thanked him sufficiently for.
What follows below is just an extract, but I think it is worth putting here because it talks about something that is absolutely fundamental for any organization that wishes to thrive, let alone lead, in today’s world: an explicitly stated mission statement and set of goals that members of the organization collaboratively create and welcome as a tool for success.
Approaching the Problem of English Language Curriculum Development
Kevin Mark Seikei Forum September 1997 (Extract)
The main thrust of this article is to suggest some very general principles and strategies for approaching the problem of curriculum development. To this outline of general principles I will add a brief description of the learner corpus project I am currently working on and the CD-Rom course my EPC students are using. I will try to use these as illustrations of the principles as well as to make specific suggestions that can only be touched on briefly in this article.
There is a tendency to think that in order to understand what is needed for curriculum development in a particular subject, specialized expertise is required more than simple common sense. In my own field I often come across articles related to English teaching that implicitly or explicitly assume that the specialized professional background of the writer is evidence in itself of the correctness of the ideas put forward. Yet I feel that the basic ideas I now have regarding curriculum development in language teaching in our department could have been reached by any non-specialist willing to approach the problems with an open mind.
The principles of English teaching curriculum development that I will outline below are simple and have always been underlying my thinking, but have only gradually emerged and assumed prominence as I have become better at two things:
- defining teaching problems not in terms of my own preferred ways of teaching but rather in terms of what students need;
- stepping outside of the “mindset” – ways of thinking and assumptions about what is important – into which the professional and academic literature has drawn me.
In relation to the second of these points, it is ironic that one element of curriculum development that seems fundamental and necessary to me now – a learner “corpus” or database of learner English – has been virtually ignored by language teaching specialists, and is only now barely beginning to emerge worldwide as an important tool for improving language teaching.
A Problem-Solving Approach
If there is to be cooperation or support among colleagues in the area of curriculum development we first of all need consensus about what problems we have. Too often, I feel, discussions of curriculum development are carried on in an unfocused way; or, when they are focused, are too narrowly so, without reference to a broader framework.
An example of the former pattern of discussion might typically be like this: a group of colleagues gathered together at a meeting state in turn what changes they would like to see in the curriculum. An example of the second would be each teacher stating their opinion with regard to a very specific proposed change, such as, “langugage classes should have fewer than twenty-five students.”
There is nothing wrong with either approach to curriculum issues per se, but they would be much more useful if we had agreement about what are the broad problems we are trying to solve. This is the “broader framework” we need. I thus use the word “broad” here in the sense of “superordinate.” Once these broad problems have been agreed upon they can then be discussed in more detail and systematically analyzed into successive levels of subordinate problems.
Let me give an oversimplified example to illustrate the principle. If we were to define one of the broad problems as “to improve the quality of the lectures”, the definition we give to “quality” might lead us to agree that at the next level of discussion two of the sub-problems are a) the classes are too large and b) the students are not interested. We might then agree, after considering the merits and demerits of other possibilities, that one strategy we should adopt is to divide students into levels of ability. We are thus left with a further sub-problem of “how to define levels of ability.” I emphasize that these are only examples.
My Proposals for Defining the Problems
I would like to suggest here, without making a detailed analysis, that we approach curriculum development in terms of three broad problems. I believe that it is possible for us to reach consensus on them, and that once we do so, we proceed to a systematic and more detailed analysis of the related sub-sets of problems. These are the three problems that I see as superordinate:
- We need to ensure that the average level of English ability of graduating students becomes higher than it is at present and that a significant number of students reach a very high level of ability.
- We need to help students to be more motivated to study English.
- We need to make the curriculum as attractive as possible to prospective students considering applying to Meiji University.
If we can agree that problem 1 is indeed one of our main problems, then it becomes very obvious that we need to define what we mean by “level of ability.” In other words, we have the sub-problem of finding relevant data to which we can refer in our discussions, because at the moment we have no objective or systematically gathered data concerning students’ performance. This of course also entails the related problem of how to analyze such data. The second problem, to do with motivation, calls for a distinction between intrinsic motivation (ie that arising naturally within the individual) and extrinsic motivation (coming from outside, as in the case of the need to pass certain examinations). The third problem is obviously linked to the first two in that improvements in these areas will gradually improve the reputation of our department, but there are some other possibilities I would like to mention in the following section.
(End of extract)
20 years later
Looking at this again twenty years later I can say that somehow we have muddled through and have achieved something in the area of 1. This has been partly through enormous effort by a small number of people and in spite of spectacularly inefficient use of resources. Most of all, probably, it has been because the times are changing: there is far more emphasis now, in Japanese society, on the importance of success in examinations such as the TOEIC. Changing social attitudes have also probably had an effect on 2. With regard to 3 we have a reasonably good reputation, partly because we are sending many students abroad, partly because of the reputation of our ACE program (of which the EPC program mentioned above was an early and much smaller precursor), and partly for the number of academic courses offered in English.
None of the improvements, however, have been due to anything remotely resembling a rational and disciplined approach based on a mission statement or collaboratively developed set of goals. Rereading what I wrote above about meetings, I realize that, probably out of deference to colleagues, I was at the time avoiding saying fully what I felt about these meetings. Now I feel able to be constructively critical in a less reserved and therefore perhaps more effective way. I should have added something to this effect: a consultative management approach that is limited to asking for each person to state in turn their position on an issue, can go nowhere without curiosity or an interest in exploring new ways of looking at familiar problems on the part of those involved. Lacking a mission statement in which everyone is genuinely invested, parties simply stake out, defend or seize “territory” and pay lip service only to agreed goals.
I have more than twenty years of experience of failure in interesting colleagues in discussing and exploring new curriculum possibilities, in overcoming their perception that examining what we are doing and setting clear goals for us as a team is a chore and an irritating waste of time. To be honest I am surprised by my own optimism and persistence as I continue to repeat, albeit with greater experience and maturity, the points that I have been making for all this time. patience (click)
My hope rests on what I know of the innate intelligence and good heart of colleagues, be they full- or part-time. After years of listening to colleagues and observing students, after years of personal experimentation, failures and successes in the development of innovative teaching approaches, materials and techniques — and reflective documentation of all of these — I can see that we have the resources to create an educational environment that not only breeds excellence but is also attractive, practical and plain fun.
Global problems and crises call for integrative, holistic and systemic thinking. These are not just words. It is possible to express them in practical terms, and to practically demonstrate how they can permeate a curriculum.
Without having to twist ourselves to become something different from what we are, it is possible to integrate language learning with the teaching of academic subjects, critical, creative and analytical thinking, while at the same time heightening awareness of global issues. Crucially, this can be done with less time and energy spent on unwelcome administrative and other tasks than is the case within our current mode of operation. An important key is to shift our emphasis from teaching to learning.
All this can be done while at the same time ensuring that we have more time to devote to research and writing. We have been held back by a huge and false assumption that research and teaching are in a trade-off relationship: more of one means less of the other. In this new global and digital age the opposite is possible: less time given to teaching can result in more learning and more time for research and writing.
We have also perhaps been held back by cynicism born of past experiences of innovations that have been time-consuming and brought little reward. We may also have been held back by a fear of change itself, or an unwillingness to be inclusive, to give serious consideration to the feelings and views of colleagues whose interests, perspectives, style and approach to work are different from our own. Or we may simply have been held back by a lack of confidence and understanding of our own potential.
Choosing to banish from our psyche the excuses and prejudices that prevent us from wanting to work together to achieve an educational and research workplace where all can contribute and thrive is a choice to transform, empower and indeed fulfill ourselves. It is a choice that would lead to a transformative and empowering environment for our students at this most dramatic time in human history.
Note: All of the ideas sketched out above will be discussed in much greater detail in coming posts.