I suggested in my last post that a real paradigm shift in ELT would involve throwing out the coursebook and standardised tests and replacing them with a process-driven approach which concentrates on the “how” more than the “what” of teaching. So far, so good. But I went further, and in fact, I went rather too far, and I now have to make amends. I suggested that the alternative paradigm was fundamentally defined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners, and that’s not so. I didn’t actually spell out what this negotiation amounted to, and neither did I make it clear that there are some very good alternatives to the present coursebook-driven paradigm which don’t involve any such “fundamental” negotiation.
For example, Mike Long’s detailed proposal for task-based language teaching, while it’s certainly learner-centred, and while it rejects the “product” or “synthetic” or “Type A” syllabus and hence the use of coursebooks and standardised tests, doesn’t include negotiation with learners about what tasks will form the content of the course, since these are determined by an external needs analysis, and then converted by teaching experts into peadagogical tasks. Various forms of task-based syllabuses, including many designed for business, or academic, or nursing, or other special purposes, while they are neither synthetic nor coursebook-driven (relying on their own materials), do not actually fit the “negotiated syllabus” brief. Even Dogme expects the teacher to be responsible for most of the important decisions about course content and methodology. So I need to explain the negotiated syllabus here, before finally presenting my own suggestion for an alternative to the present coursebook-driven paradigm in ELT.
The negotiated syllabus is the most extreme alternative approach to ELT, the one which most radically challenges assumptions held by most teachers today, the one which really turns everything on its head. Not only does the negotiated syllabus throw out the coursebook, it throws out the traditional roles of teacher and learner too. What follows is a brief summary, which relies heavily on an article by Sofia Valavani from the Second Chance School of Alexandroupolis.
Second Chance Schools
Facilitating the fight against illiteracy of adults, the Adult Education General Secretariat implements programmes through which adults who have dropped out of schools have the opportunity to improve their academic and professional qualifications, so that they can get more easily integrated in the labour market or have a second chance for the continuation of their studies. This action addresses adults who were not able to complete their initial compulsory education and aims at offering them a second chance for the acquisition of a study certificate of the compulsory education.
Second Chance Schools is, therefore, a flexible and innovative programme, based on learners’ needs and interests, which aims at combatting the social exclusion of the individuals who lack the qualifications and skills necessary for them to meet the contemporary needs in social life and labour market.
Valavani cites Freire’s view of adult education (Freire 2000: 32) that personal freedom and the development of individuals can only occur mutually with others: Every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world in a ‘dialogical encounter’ with others. In this process, the old, paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome. She adopts Friere’s pedagogy and his “education for freedom”, and proposes a Second Chance Schools syllabus which provides “grounding for a learner-centred syllabus, reintroducing the SCS learners as the key participants in the learning process.”
Following Breen and Littlejohn (2000), teachers and students negotiate together so as to reach agreement in four areas:
- Why? The purposes of language learning.
- What? The content which learners will work on.
- How? The ways of working in the classroom.
- How well? Evaluating the efficiency & quality of the work and outcomes.
These four areas of decision-making are expressed in terms of questions. The questions are listed in a questionnaire (best format probably multiple-choice or Likert-scale) and the answers are negotiated by the teacher and the learners together-
The Negotiation Cycle
The negotiation cycle is illustrated below (Breen and Littlejohn (2000, 284)
The syllabus identifies different reference points for the negotiation cycle in terms of levels in a curriculum pyramid. The figure below (Breen and Littlejohn, 2000, 286), illustrates these levels on which the cycle may focus at appropriate times.
Decisions range from the immediate, moment-by-moment decisions made while learners are engaged in a task, to the more long-term planning of a language course (and in the Breen & Littlejohn model, through to the planning of the wider educational curriculum). Together, the negotiation cycle and the curriculum pyramid represent a negotiated syllabus as negotiation at specific levels of syllabus and curriculum planning. Breen’s figure (ibid: 287) illustrates this, with the negotiation cycle potentially being applied to a particular decision area at each of the different levels in the pyramid.
In order to implement this design, a number of tools are needed, among them, the 4 below.
- Tools for establishing purposes: Initial questionnaires to learners, learning contracts, planning templates.
- Tools for making decisions concerning contents: A learning plan developed jointly by a teacher and learners; learner-designed activities; a materials bank including a wide variety of tasks, texts, worksheets, grammar work, etc..
- Tools for making decisions about ways of working.
- Tools to evaluate outcomes: Daily/ Weekly/ Monthly retrospective accounts, reflection charts, assessment (can-do) cards, work diaries, reflective learning journals, peer interviews, portfolios, one-to one consultations, etc..
This very brief outline gives a good idea of the principles involved, but doesn’t give us a good picture of what actually happens in the implementation of such a negotiated syllabus. I think that what’s most important is to see it as an extension of the task-based syllabus: tasks are what drive it, but the tasks are decided on by teacher and learners together. The negotiation part looms large, like a bogey man, but in fact 90% of the course would be dedicated to carrying out the tasks. What we need to explore more is how the negotiation affects the selection, sequencing and evaluation of the tasks. So, for example, at the start of the course, the teacher, having explained what’s going to happen, works through the first questionnaire which aims to make a plan for the first phase of the course, maybe the first 6 to 10 hours. The questionnaire is obviously vital here, as is the teacher’s ability to help members of the new group to articulate their views and find consensus. Objectives may be quite broad (improve ability to communicate with people) or more specific (give a presentation in a business meeting), but they have to provide a good idea of priorities in terms of “can-dos”, the 4 skills, etc.. The content at this stage is also broadly specified, but again, a general feeling for areas of interest is teased out, and, similarly, preferred ways of working are voiced and discussed. What would the questionnaire look like? How long would be spent on discussing it and arriving at a plan? What happens next?
My own version of this entails the teacher doing the first phase without any negotiation about the tasks to be done, in order to help the learners see the range of possibilities and get a feel for more “micro” levels of negotiation. In the next post, I’ll try to tackle some practical issues, flesh out the tools listed above, and suggest a syllabus for a group of lower intermediate students enrolled in a course of General English.
Valavani, S. Negotiated syllabus for Second Chance Schools: Theoretical considerations and the practicalities of its implementation. http://www.enl.auth.gr/gala/14th/Papers/English%20papers/Valavani.pdf