Tony Gurr

Between a ROCK and a very HARD PLACE…(Pt 02)

In Classroom Teaching, Curriculum, ELT and ELL, Our Schools, Our Universities on 23/07/2012 at 2:44 am

When I started that last post (or rather the first “episode” of the new “mini-soap”), the plan was to havea good ole rant” – however, as is often the case with many blog posts, things didn’t quite go to plan…

 

The rant was going to start with something like this:

…and, yes – I was planning to indulge my love of comic books and superheroesThat would cheer me up and, I hoped, using a few new characters would help shake off the “blogging funk” I have been feeling these past few weeks)!

 

Now, a rant may be just a rant – but as I was banging away at the keyboard, watching the thingy “evolve” (it got to 3,500+ words at one point – and I was nowhere near “finished”) as I deleted / chopped / added away – I found the post was becoming more “serious” than I had initially wanted it to be!

The main problem was that I found myself experiencing feelings of real “sadness” (rather than “mock anger” – the feeling that usually accompanies a rant)!

I tried to keep things more positive with the little diatribe on what makes schools “great”:

 

 

But when I got to curriculum and assessment, I guess I kinda got overwhelmed with disappointment or frustration.

“Why can’t we LEARN?”“Why can’t we get it RIGHT?” I kept saying to myself! I got annoyed that a lot of the bloggery I have done over the months had (clearly) gone to waste – nobody was listening! Nothing had improved

I also found myself asking “Whose FAULT is it?” – as I recalled the things I had read myself and snippets of conversation I had had with those in schools and colleges around Turkey this year. Had the culture of “finger-pointing” and playing “the blame-game” finally got to me, too? This is how I felt – despite the fact that I “know” this is as dangerous (and dumb) a question as we can ever ask!

 

I mean, come on – it was only “curriculum”!

Those of you that know the blog will know that I have visited and revisited the issues related to curriculum many times – even tackled the “Mother of All Curriculum Myths“! It was in that post that I had come to the conclusion that it is what we “do” in our schools and colleges that largely conditions how we approach the whole idea of improvement and teacher development – and that what we “do” in the area of curriculum is, perhaps, the real “rock” (or “hard place”) that gets in the way of student LEARNing and success

Pacing, far from just being my favourite whipping boy these days, just seemed to embody everything that we are doing wrong!

Maybe, I need to go back to the “rant” to give a bit of context!

 

It seems that whenever I meet a bunch of teachers and ask them about some of the biggest challenges they face…I am told many of them feel a little like this:

Of course, these teachers frequently “blame” the curriculum or syllabus documentation that seem to be “handed down from high” – from God, perhaps?

What I find, however, is that many institutions still do not have a “curriculum” (as I might define it – we’ll come back to this, promise). But, they almost always have textbooks – and just as many have “pacing guides” (or spreadsheets) that tell teachers what to teach, when and how to teach it and how “fast” to “get through” everything (all too often so students do not “fall behind” and…God forbid…”fail the test”)!

All too often, it’s almost impossible to distinguish these pacing tools from the textbooks they are frequently built around – and teachers inevitably find themselves just rushing from page to page just ensure they deliver as much as they can and cover as much “content” as is humanly possible…

Sound familiar?

 

By the way, and in case I forgot to mention it, this rant was primarily directed at how we “do” ELT (English Language Teaching) or, as I prefer, ELL (English Language Learning) here in canim Türkiyem! But, something also tells me these challenges are not limited to language learning and teaching or Turkish LEARNers

Now, you might think that a discussion of pacing in ELL is a bit dumb! We all get that it could make sense in a “content-based discipline” (whatever that may mean) but we all know that the English language does not have any “real content”, don’t weIn a recent ELTChat, @theteacherjames pointed out that “ELT is the subject without a subject” – makes sense! I am guessing that I am not the only person that always thought that we could use any content we wanted to help LEARNers “do” more with what they learned about the language – and, inşallah, “be” more!

But, we’ll come back to this in a bit…

 

As I said, I’m talking here about ELL departments/schools and their programmes. But, these pacing guides or tools have been around other subject areas or disciplines – like biology, social studies and mathematics – for years. They have become a staple of a teacher’s day-to-day life in these areas – and a lifting of the “high-stakes bar” across education in recent years (around the globe) means they are increasing used to help keep teachers “on track” and “on schedule” (often in terms of days, class periods and even minutes) towards the benchmark or national tests to which they are frequently tied.

The rock and the hard place that these “subject teachers” find themselves squeezed between is really about a “choice” – a choice between “going faster” (and sacrificing deeper LEARNing) and “slowing down” (and sacrificing content coverage). Bit of a Catch-22 really – as both of these choices could mean harming student success on the “tests” (or worse – their school’s ranking)!

Sound familiar?

 

The thing is that in nearly all of these other subject areas, the research clearly demonstrates that these innocently named “pacing processes”:

  • Encourage teachers to focus on traditional forms of “teacher-centered instruction”
  • Result in teachers doing less “cognitively demanding” work in their classrooms and fewer “long-term projects” with their students
  • Lead to “topics” that are not tested being “dropped”
  • Promote the increased “packaging” and “fragmentation” of curriculum knowledge into “test-related practice” activities
  • Force teachers to make “curricular adaptations” that reduce the overall effectiveness of programmes

Sound familiar?

 

Knowing all this (because we always do our “research” and due diligence before making decisions that will affect our LEARNers and teachers)…some ELT “genius” (no doubt also working on a “sponsored” textbook project) decided that we needed to “import” the idea of pacing into ELL:

…and everybody swallowed it – hook, line and sinker! For a while…

 

Pacing dilemmas, in the Turkish ELL context, were highlighted recently by Dave Dodgson in a post that captured the feelings of many teachers here in canım Türkiyem – The Song Remains The Same. Dave was lamenting the possible “future misfire” that many schools appear to be facing with their adoption of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) – the new “darling” of many a school (and publishing house) here in Turkey these days.

His title speaks for itself. But, Dave also notes that many institutions are still enforcing “standardised approaches” and “restrictive policies” that are designed to maximise “coverage of textbook material” (and delivery of so-called “content”) – approaches and policies, he tells us, that mean:

…the problems we face now of (some) students being unable to speak beyond short broken sentences or switching off because there’s just too much being covered too quickly will continue. Teaching to the test will be more rife than ever. Most lessons, whether we like it or not, will be teacher-centred.

Not exactly what Marsch and Langé (2000) had in mind when they talked about the potential of CLIL to help students use language to learn (stuff) and learn (stuff) to use languages! And, regardless of the methods and approaches used by a teacher (or school) – not exactly the climate that nurtures student LEARNing and success!

 

What did Einstein say about “insanity”, again?

 

What really takes the biscuit, however, is not these dumb-ass ideas per se – it’s that we keep on with them while all the time knowing that students are not doing much “real LEARNing”. Many LEARNers still fail the “tests” we give them…and even when they do “pass”…well, let’s just say the cartoon above has more than a grain of truth in it…

We cannot “pace” our way out of these problems – we have to question, act and thunk ourselves out of them! Pacing guides and tools, in a nutshell, do not answer the critical question I asked in the first post – What are we here to do for the LEARNers? – and they do not do this because the thunking behind them is “flawed”.

 

As I hinted earlier, it’s easy for us to “pass the buck” and “play the blame game” with these challenges – perhaps, it would help if we changed a couple of the questions we ask:

…but, that’s for Part 03!

 

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  1. It is a long way down here in New Zeal and but I really enjoy reading your blogs Tony. And I love your graphics.

  2. Wow, it sounds frustrating in Turkey. Here in Korea I think we are Edutainers rather than teachers. But, most of our students are committed.

    I feel our biggest hurdle is the variation in student skill level. Honestly, I haven’t taught in a public school, so I’ve been able to sidestep the curriculum battles.

    Good luck and I’m looking forward to part 3.

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