In 1987 Breen attempted to persuade the ELT world to make a fundamental change in direction by changing from a product syllabus, which concentrates on what is to be learned, to a process syllabus, which concentrates on how the learning is to be done. He failed, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong, or that the change he argued for isn’t still needed today.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the product syllabus flies in the face of generally-accepted findings of SLA, but here I’d like to focus on the roles of teachers and learners. My inspiration comes from the latest posts on 2 very different blogs:
(1) Rose Bard’s Teaching Journal, which highlights work going on in some primary schools in Brazil.
(2) Demand High, which gives a link to Scrivener’s “Demand-High Teaching” article
Before I discuss these two posts let me outline the differences highlighted by Breen (and by White, 1988) between the two syllabus types.
In the Product Syllabus the teacher implements a syllabus which has been previously constructed by a syllabus designer who determines the objectives, and divides the content into what are considered to be manageable bits. The syllabus is thus external to the learner, determined by authority (the syllabus designer’s boss). The teacher’s job is to deliver the course, making all day-to-day decisions affecting its implementation. Assessment of success and failure is done in terms of achievement or mastery, using external tests and exams.
In the Process Syllabus the focus is on how the L2 is to be learned. It involves no artificial pre-selection or arrangement of items and allows objectives to be determined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners after they meet, as a course evolves. The syllabus is thus internal to the learner, negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, emphasizes the process of learning rather than the subject matter, and assesses accomplishment in relationship to learner’s criteria of success.
The process syllabus recommends itself to all teachers who take a liberal, learner-centred approach to education, and who believe that education is about empowering students by helping them to develop both individual and collective solutions to their problems. The process approach helps people to realise that they have agency, and the power to change and control their lives. In ELT, a process syllabus has a far greater chance than a product syllabus of addressing learners’ needs and of providing the kind of communicative classroom environment most likely to foster fast development of the learners’ interlanguages. Furthermore, teachers implementing a process syllabus are, in my opinion, likely to find their jobs more rewarding than those implementing a product syllabus.
Rose Bard’s post has a video giving an account of the work being done by over 400 teachers working in some of the poorest areas of Brazil. Here, the learners are centre-stage; and dialogic education is the prime concern. This is what Rose has to say:
By talking and listening, and listening and talking, we go through the process of communicating that implies a certain need to comprehend and know the other person at the same time that you try to make yourself understood while both investigate reality, in other words, you can’t really understand what is going on without engaging in dialogue. ………………………………
Sitting as equals does not mean that we lose our roles in the process or who we are, but that we respect each other; and that by listening and understanding one another we contribute to one another’s development.The goal of the English class is to achieve a level of communication for one to become independent …………………
The goal of the educator should never be to create dependence, but to lead the way, to show how to become independent. And learners who understand the value of autonomy will lead the way for others. Therefore, that is why I honor dialogue in my class. I want everyone to know they can contribute.
Paulo Freire’s work has a big influence on Rose. Friere’s emphasis on dialogue strikes a strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education in Brazil and resonates with Dogme. Dialogical (or conversational) education emphasises cooperation and mutual respect. Education should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. Bad teaching, Paulo Freire argues, involves ‘banking’ – the teacher making ‘deposits’ in the learner.
When I read Rose’s blog, I notice
- the discourse: It’s informal; enquiring ; passionate; engaged; honest and sincere.
- the reach: It’s global. Rose talks to the world.
- the content: It’s packed with practical, detailed teaching suggestions.
- the principles: every line of the blog is suffused with a commitment to learner-centred teaching, and to the struggle against poverty and oppression.
The product syllabus is foisted on teachers by coursebook writers, by CELTA , DELTA, and assorted teacher trainers and examiners, and by bosses. All these powerful stakeholders in ELT find that chopping English up into chunks (which are placed in successive units of successive levels of coursebooks) makes it easier to sell, and the business easier to manage. In this approach the boss controls the teacher and the teacher controls the students. The teacher organises everything and learners are given no real say in decisions affecting what is done to them.
Scrivener, J. (2014). Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.
In his article (in the very undemanding EJAL), Scrivener urges teachers to awake from their complacent, self-satisfied slumber, demand high, and bring “quality and depth of learning” back into the ELT classroom. You might think that such an ambitious project would involve re-thinking the basic principles of ELT, or at least re-visiting the arguments for product and process syllabuses. But not a bit of it: Scrivener sees no need to look further than the model already presented in his own books 20 years ago. He simply assumes, as if it were a self-evident truth, that teaching can only take place inside the confines of a synthetic, teacher-led syllabus. Anything else is unthinkable and literally unmentionable.
Here’s Scrivener at the start of the article, explaining what teaching is for him:
What I mainly worry about is how tasks and activities will work, how I can run them, how I can give good and clear instructions for them.
I have done what I was trained to do. I have set the task, run it, monitored it, closed it, run feedback on it, and then moved on to the next thing….
But something was missing. Everything had become too automated, too easy, and after years of nagging worry, Scrivener’s epiphany finally arrived when he and Underhill realised that
…teachers who had become very competent at operating ELT tasks and activities…… were not pushing students, not challenging them to tangibly improve. ….. We started asking questions such as: “Are all my learners capable of more?”
Are all his learners capable of more? Well of course they are – but only if he himself is capable of taking off his self-imposed blinkers and ditching his preconceived notions of how ELT should be organised. If he were to drop his assumption that teachers must run the whole damn show; if he considered using something other than a Made in England coursebook with learners (whether they be “secondary school students in Hangzhou or preliminary year undergraduates in Tegucigalpa”); if he questioned the wisdom of teaching a pre-selected sequence of grammatical structures and lexis; if he stopped giving them Made in England tests and exams; if he just stopped telling them what to do all the time, invited them to plan and deliver the course with him, and allowed it to evolve unpredictably and dynamically, driven by real learner needs, well then maybe he would see just how much his learners are capable of. But, alas, that’s not going to happen, because none of it, absolutely none of it, is part of Scrivener’s stunted vision of ELT.
Scrivener’s aspirations for ELT rest on teachers doing the same old thing, inside the same old confines of the same old product syllabus, but “demanding high”. Teachers will still do what they are trained to do. They will still set the task, they will still run it, monitor it, close it, run feedback on it, and then move on to the next bit of the coursebook. But now they’ll “tweak” it so as to do it better. And that’s it! That’s the cumulative result of all those years of tea-drinking, heart-searching, blue-sky thinking sessions with Underhill: tweak the teaching! Demand-high is about the teacher doing things a bit better inside a framework which remains totally unchallenged. In Scrivener’s ideal ELT world, learners are still done to; learners still take no part in planning or decision-making; coursebooks are still used in such a way that impoverished language is served up in unlearnable chunks; objectives and assessment are still externally decided in advance.
Everything’s the same, except that teachers will use the coursebook more carefully, check comprehension more comprehensively; do grammar practice more thoroughly, re-cycle vocabulary more systematically, give feedback more challengingly; and so on. The unexamined, unquestioned reliance on the tired and bested product syllabus, and the resultant lack of vision demonstrated in this article is so wilfully negligent as to be puzzling, until you appreciate that Scrivener (in his own words, “best known as author of a number of popular ELT methodology titles”) is part of the current ELT establishment, an august body of important people who between them are drowning communicative language teaching under what Thornbury describes as “a grammar-driven materials tsunami”.
When I read Scrivener’s article I notice
- the discourse: It’s formal; pedantic; remote.
- the reach: It’s parochial. Scrivener might think he talks to the world, but his writing has the stamp of a culturally-bound Englishman all over it.
- the content: It’s tentative, confused; please-don’t-get-me-wrong; puffed-up, meta-methodology.
- the principles: I refrain from guessing what Scrivener’s principles might be.
I should make it clear that Rose has no part in this, doesn’t know I’m writing it. Needless to say, Rose Bard herself may not agree one jot with my criticisms of Scrivener, and in any case would most certainly not express herself the way I do.
My aim here is to challenge the hold of the coursebook-driven product syllabus, which is championed by Scrivener, and to recommend a learner-centred approach to ELT, which is championed by Rose Bard.
Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in syllabus design. Language Teaching (20, 02, pp 81-92) It’s in 2 parts.
Scrivener, J. (2014) Teaching Demand-High. European Journal of Applied Linguistics
White, R.V. (1988). The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.