Tony Gurr

Between a ROCK and a very HARD PLACE…(Pt 03)

In Curriculum, ELT and ELL, Our Schools, Our Universities on 23/07/2012 at 7:36 pm

I was so happy that Part 02 of this little mini-series allowed me to get to the “rant” I had originally planned off my chest – as well as touch on some of the more serious issues that relate to pacing guides as a “curriculum tool”.

In yesterday’s post, we highlighted many of the problems and challenges created by pacing processes in schools and colleges – and I noted that we cannot really “pace” our way out of these problems – we have to questionact and thunk ourselves out of them!


The thing was that I wrapped up the post by saying that we might need to clarify what exactly we mean when we talk about the “rocks” and the “hard places” created by curriculum / pacing guides – and also “Who gets stuck?” between them.

This little image “captures” the one we looked at yesterday…

…the “pacing” dilemma that many “subject” or discipline teachers face.

As I mentioned, many of these maths, biology and social science teachers often feel that they “get stuck” between these two “choices” – the only two choices many of them feel their curriculum and pacing guides offer them. Getting stuck between a “rock” and a (very) “hard place” in this way is never a good feeling – it stresses us out, impacts our levels of self-efficacy and generally takes the “fun” outta TEACHing…


I also noted that while so-called ELT and ELL “experts” were aware of all the problems related to pacing systems and guides, they still decided to “import” them into the world of language learning and teaching.

The thing is, to date, we only have blog postings like Dave’s “The Song Remains The Sameto tell us how ELT teachers might be feeling about these – and we know how anecdotal and unreliable those bloody bloggers can be.

So, and because I liked the idea of the “image” above – I decided to run a little research project to see what these teachers thought. I asked a few teachers (all the ones I knew that had not gone on holiday) to take a read of Part 01 and Part 02 – and use the same kind of image to “summarise” what they thought I was saying and how that related to the “rocks” and the “hard places” they had experienced.

Yes, I knownot very “scientific”not entirely “best practice” in terms of “research practice”…but I wanted to try and get at some “gut reactions” that illustrated the feelings ELL teachers have about “pacing guides”. Besides, you know you have to take everything I say with a pitch of salt – I is a bloody blogger, too!

Besides…what came out of it was really interesting. 


These four responses (“read” them clockwise) were pretty typical of what my pals noted:

Now, remember…I asked these teachers to summarise what I was banging on about in the two posts! Funny how people “HEAR” some very different stuff to that which we “SAY” (or even “LEARN” stuff that we did not “TEACH”)!


OK – so take a look at all four of them (and the opening graphic, too). What is the one common element that “shines” on through all of them? Did you see it? Also, and this is a bit “tougher”, think back over the two posts – What things didn’t I mention that are highlighted by the teachers themselves?

Hey, nobody said this blog was an easy read!


I thought it was interesting that all the teachers focussed on “ME” (not “me”, as in Tony, but “ME” as in “the teacher”) – they clearly see the core pressure of pacing guides from their “own perspective”. This is pretty normal – they are the ones that have to interpret these guides, come up with ways to breathe life into them – and take them into the classroom. They are, sadly, also the ones who get “cracked over the head” when too many students “fail” – or worse, when the school drops a rung or two on the “stats” – or league tables we so-oft fabricate!


Now, I did not specifically mention tests as such in the posts – so it was surprising to see that 3 out of 4 highlighted them as a “pressure factor” (and perhaps, more interestingly, did not use the term “assessment”). But, I’m thunking that this means some teachers see a very clear link between assessment and curriculum (and pacing guides)! Mmmm – think about that more shall I!


OK – I did mention textbooks…so no surprise that half of them note this…what did strike me (in the last one) is that textbooks and tests were “combined” as a “double threat”. I didn’t worry about that one too much – because that 4th image also had something a wee bit unexpected, too…and something that was pretty common in many of the responses to my little “survey”!


If we look closely (and as I suggested in Part 02), we do also see something else starting to “creep” into some of the feedback from my respondents…

Hey, I only admitted to fleetingly considering a bit of “finger-pointing” – I did not actually “do” it!


In the second “teacher” image, “administrators” get the finger – and so they should (that’s what they get the “big bucks” for). We could, perhaps, substitute this word for other phrases – “curriculum unit” or “curriculum and testing team”. But, the point is clear – my teachers often “blame” others for the pressure they face with curriculum and pacing guides (and, perhaps do not like the lack of control they seem to have)!

I wish I had also asked a few administrators (or curriculum teams) about their “rocks” and “hard places”. I’ve often felt that pacing guides are sometimes used because administrators (believe it or not) also want to try and do the “best” for students – but, sadly, do not “trust” their teachers (or their knowledge and skills) enough. Me thinks they often get it wrong here (“under-trusting” teachers and “over-trusting” curriculum systems – and totally missing the point vis-a-vis teacher “involvement” and “engagement” in allthingscurriculum) – but that’s for another post, perhaps!


What is really interesting, however, is found in the last one. Teachers, or more accurately – my teacher pals, also blame students for a lot of the “pressure”. In the last image, textbooks and tests are seen as the “rock” – while students are looked upon as the (very) “hard place”. This really intrigued me – so, I had to ask!

The answer was that it is frequently the LEARNers themselves that ask “Is this on the test?” – it is the LEARNers that do not always want to do the types of projects and cognitive “heavy-lifting” that teachers know can help them get results. LEARNers, I was told, also see ELL as a “subject” and place a premium on easily-digestable “practice activities” that (they believe) will help them “pass the test”.

Basically, many LEARNers (especially those in the Turkish “hazırlık” or “university prep” schools)…want an easy ride – and, if they have to make a choice between “real LEARNing” and “passing the TEST”, it ain’t really a choice at all! Now, this is probably not true of every student studying at a prep school here – but it does show a preference for something we introduced in Part 01:

And…you know what, just to make matters worse…they “know” they also get a “vote” when time comes round for those lovely “student evaluations of teaching”…

The little buggarsas bad as those “evil” administrators and “damn” curriculum and testing units!


OK – my little “experiment” was fun!

I had gleaned a better idea of what ELT people felt “the rocks” and “the hard places” were all about. But, this “feedback” left me feeling a bit like….well, you can see the picture!

I got to thunking… I could really understand the things that these teachers were feeling. What I could still not get me head around was how some teachers had “chosen” (if Dave was right – in his post) to respond to these pressures by: 

  • Keeping on racing through their textbooks…without exploring their themes or relating them to students’ lives
  • Revertingto traditional forms of teacher-centered “spoon-feeding” and “grammer practice activities”
  • Dropping “topics” (“speaking” comes to mind) because they are not on the “tests”

Again, these “choices” are typical of another phenomenon we also introduced in Part 01:

The problem is that “great teachers” – no, all of us – know these things just do not work, don’t we?


Now, I know I didn’t ask any students (perhaps I should) to do the same little “research exercise” – but it would seem (from what the teachers are saying) that their “rock” and their (very) “hard place” would look a little something like this:

And, as is the case with teachers – students also look at problems created by pacing guides from their “own perspective”. They see themselves as the ones who are getting “squeezed” or “stuck”. I get that many students do not think much about “curriculum” (and wouldn’t know a pacing guide if it hit them on the nose). For many of them “assessment” is “the curriculum” and the teachers role is to deliver that curriculum (as they define it). Assessment, or the “tests”, becomes the “currency” of the curriculum. Ergo, the teacher represent a “rock” or a “hard place” – especially, if they are using a different “currency” to begin with…

This complicates things!


If my teachers (and my research methods and “sample size”) were right – you can be judge of that – we might want to ask a couple of questions.

  • How had students “LEARNed” this stuff – these attitudes? 
  • What happened to them?

Most of us already know the answers to these questions – SCHOOL happened to all of them…CURRICULUM happened to all of them…ASSESSMENT happened to all of them – so they must have also LEARNed this stuff from “us”…their TEACHERS.



So, what we end up with is a pretty dire situation.

“Rocks” and “hard places” all over the bloody show! Everyone feeling as if they are the ones who “get stuck” or “squeezed”. Everyone blaming everyone else for what’s going on.

More importantly, if teachers and their learners are BOTH making the types of “choices” we see here, doesn’t that show us that they are truely missing the point

LEARNing, especially Language LEARNing, is not something that can be “packaged up” and “paced” into LEARNers – is not “ekmek” and cannot be delivered along with the morning newspaper by a cheerful “kapıcı” (yes, and Google Translate is still as dumb as ever)!

Could it be that SCHOOL, CURRICULUM and ASSESSMENT (or a “specific version” of all three) had also “happened” to teachers – at least here in canım Türkiye?

I need a Part 04, don’t I?

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