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Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

July 19, 2009

Negotiated Syllabi

Recently, there was a posting to the ETJ Activities group asking opinions about using a negotiated curriculum. The posted cited some references from Negotiation and process syllabuses in practice (Breen, M.P & Littlejohn, A. 2000, Cambridge University Press.) that were down on the notion:

Bloor, M. and Bloor, T. 1988. Syllabus negotiation: The basis of learner
. In A. Brookes and P. Grundy (eds.), Individualization and autonomy
in language learning
, ELT documents 131. London: Modern English Publications
and The British Council.

Clarke, D.F. 1991. The negotiated syllabus: What is it and how is it likely
to work?
Applied Linguistics, 12(1), 13-28.

Clarke, D.F. 1987. Curriculum renewal in school foreign language learning.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Not having read any of the above I don't know the details.  Clarke, in particular described the idea as 'radical' and 'for all practical purposes unworkable in any other circumstances than with a very small group or in a one to one situation'. I guess Clarke is thinking of College courses with large numbers of students packed into a lecture hall. Though in my experience at university that, of course,  isn't the only type of learning environment there. In fact I took one undergraduate course in Ancient Chinese Political Thought where the professor invited us to submit our own questions to create a list from which we could choose to write long essays worth 10% of our total degree. This is not to say that we had any real say upon how he conducted his course but we were allow to shape what was in fact the actual exam and that was back in the early eighties.

Before commenting upon the idea itself I think it is worth reflecting upon what it can involve. Here are four ideas lifted from this page:

  • the purpose of language learning (Why);
  • the contents or subjects matter which learners will work upon (What);
  • ways of working in the classroom (How);
  • means of evaluation of the efficiency and quality of work and its outcomes (How well

 Looking at this list I wonder why language educators wouldn't want to do all of them. Who wouldn't want students who know what material they want to learn, how they are going to learn it  and why? Wouldn't students with this level of awareness automatically be better learners and hence more motivated?

I think the problem is similar to that of trying to use non-competitive or co-operative games, though this has gotten a little easier. Competitive games are so much the norm that sometimes students, especially teenagers can have difficulty thinking in a different way. Likewise, the idea that the teacher should control learning is a kind of cultural norm. Students hardly expect to be given choice and in some circumstances can even perceive it as lack of teacher skill or even teacher indifference. Knowledge is something that the teacher has and the teacher should know the best way for the students to acquire this knowledge. As Freire termed it, this is the banking concept of education. Early on in Pedagogy of the Oppressed he wrote:

The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.

The more students get used to lack of choice the harder it is for them to grasp it as a reality. From my own experience of working with children youngsters perceive choice as natural. Most children under the age of three can easily make choices. It's a foolish teacher that keeps pursuing an activity that they aren't interested in. But once children begin to experience schooling they start to accept control as natural. The more schooling they receive the more they expect learning to be dictated by the teacher and the easier they are to browbeat. I think this is a rather damning indictment upon the nature of schooling. But then writers like John Taylor Gatto argue that it is by design.

For teachers who wish to give choice to children I think it is best to introduce it gradually. An easy way is to begin with an either/or choice. This could even be as simple as deciding which of two games to do first. Once the idea of making decisions has been established then the scope of those decisions can be increased. A lesson can be divided into sections and students given choices in one section. That choice might be limited to a single kind of material, for example choosing between different worksheets, or it might be between a choice of similar activities, for example doing a worksheet or reading a book (both quiet, individual actions).

I think that for children it is easier to focus on what, rather than how or why. What is clear and more immediate. It might be narrow in focus, down to choosing which game to play, or it might be broader, choosing actual content. One doable method for giving students some control over content is to draw up a list of themes that they can vote on. Students could vote from a list of five themes each month and do the one chosen the next month. The time lag gives the teacher some time to prepare material. The teacher can canvas for suggestions but leaving the final choice in the hands of the teacher is more practical.

I've glossed over this topic very quickly, in part because I have a plane to catch and I have yet to finish packing but also because I hope to encourage questions. I think answering specific questions is perhaps more useful. One thing to think about is that if children are called on to vote how to avoid that vote becoming a competition. Another is whether choice can work with students who are unmotivated. regarding this, I would say that giving unmotivated students choice is even more important but that paradoxically they can find it more difficult to adapt to the change than motivated students. Again, I see this as an indication of the poverty of the current system of education in general.

I'm going to stop here, except to say that this will be my last entry for a while. My internet connection is going to be patch at best for some time. Have a good summer. I intend to.

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Perhaps many students are unmotivated because they cannot see the relationship between classroom topics and activities and their present or future lives. That is the advantage of curriculum negotiation, as it allows learners some of those choices.

Of course, complete syllabus choice in an academic environment could lead to anarchy with immature students. However, it is not difficult to imagine encouraging them to make some of the curriculum choices traditionally dictated by their teachers. Without abdicating our final role as teachers (after all, we are often better trained in the pedagogy of our fields), by letting them start with small choices, we can teach them that their input is valuable, thereby helping them to grow.

For example, in our often overcrowded EFL classrooms (I have three classes with 50 apiece.), how many of us have experienced students who, after years of English language education, cannot express even basic ideas? Can we not leave them with memories other than those of being coerced to talk about how to get to the post office, which they will learn someday if and when they really need it?

Hi Chris,

Thank you for sharing, especially as I'm currently researching this topic at the moment.

In the meantime, I thought it might be good to cross-reference this page with the Learners' Voices piece on a negotiated syllabus:

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