Image courtesy of C. G. P. Grey
The other day, I came across an interesting article from Andrew Littlejohn called Language Teaching Materials and the (Very) Big Picture (2012). I have had the opportunity to read through some other articles by Littlejohn in the past and I was intrigued by what he had to say about material development since that is something I am working on presently.
“[P]rior to the 1980s, the influence of the wider social context on the design of English language teaching materials has generally been one of inspiration. That is, the zeitgeist provided the intellectual backdrop which generated new imaginings in language teaching – most notably seen in the experimental ideas of the late 1960s and 1970s. From the 1980s onwards, however, I believe that there has been significant shift towards a standardisation of materials design, particularly evident from the way in which materials are increasingly aimed at scripting the interaction of teachers and learners.” (p. 294)
What struck me about that was how we have shifted away from the creation of material for the student and moved towards the creation of material for the system. We want things to be neat and tidy (and controlled). Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for more controlled teaching, especially for inexperienced instructors or in situations where students need to reach a certain level such as in the entrance to university. I think the problem is that we have started to expect that there are these neat little compartments in which we can place students. We see that being abused all of the time in every area of language learning. What caught me is that we used to be focused on the right thing (even if we didn’t do it well) whereas we know believe we are doing it well now.
“One of most worrying aspects of standardisation and centralisation is that by setting out what needs to be done, what should not be done is simultaneously dictated. In a world where teachers and learners are encouraged to work towards centrally determined levels, backed by centrally determined international examinations, and where employers and parents come to view progress in terms of these levels and examinations, anything that does not fall within this scheme instantly can be seen as wasteful of time and effort, and irrelevant. Thus, the notion of an alternative is rendered unnecessary, and, with it, the possibilities of experimentation, innovation, and a rethinking of what language teaching may be.”
I am not against finding continuity, nor am I against using set material, but what I fear, and what Littlejohn has so clearly stated, is when we start to rely on others to tell us what to do/teach/learn instead of taking risks and being creative, we fail to do our job well. For the most part, I have worked with some amazing people who spur each other on to better and greater things. There have even been times I have wondered what in the world someone was thinking of doing only to find out that it was a raging success. Sure, there have been failures, but as any scientist would say, a negative result is still a result. I think teachers should be engaged in testing out new ideas and then sharing those ideas. The whole premise of doing action research is based on this idea of questioning, theorizing, testing, and analyzing.
“[T]his is precisely where we need to start in language teaching, by resisting the manner in which uniformity is being imposed, and by wrestling back curriculum decisions into the hands of those directly involved – teachers and learners.”
I like how Littlejohn is clear in his inclusion of students in the process. This is one of the dangers of using standardized material. We fail to allow students to have a hand in the process. As I have stated before, learners are not always aware of what they need, but they certainly know what they don’t.
I thought about how this idea of standardization in materials would transfer over to the use of technology in the classroom. We need to critically look at the tools we use and how they are controlling our teaching/learning experience. A valuable technology-based tool is one that allows teachers and students the ability to explore and create without constraints. A tool that takes the teaching out of the hands of the instructor and turns it over to someone else without the ability to make changes to suit the needs of the student is not a valuable tool. At least with a textbook, a teacher can adapt and change/eliminate at their discretion. A computer-based tool often does not allow for that same level of involvement at the classroom level. I have found the best tools are the ones that are like a blank canvas where the teachers and learners can create and learn, fail and succeed.
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Littlejohn, A. (2012). Language Teaching Materials and the (Very) Big Picture. Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9(1), 283-297. Retrieved from http://e-flt.nus.edu.sg/v9s12012/littlejohn.pdf