Sunday, 4 September 2011

All part of the (yearly) plan, more or less…

Although it’s still a couple of weeks until kids in Turkey are sent back to school (for the first time in 3 months!!), I will be back to work on Monday as our preparation period for the year ahead begins. That preparation will (in theory at least) be centered around a new yearly plan that was drafted back in June at the end of the last school year. I, together with my 4th grade ‘conversation’ colleagues, was asked to do the drafting - an experience which from my point of view highlighted many of the failings of the pre-prepared textbook-based syllabus.

Hannibal

“I love it when a plan comes together…”

We were informed that a new ‘standardised plan’ would have to be used as a template, a standardised plan to be adopted by all the different year groups in every English department of every branch of the school I work for up and down the country. Any such sweeping standardisation is likely to be full of standard problems and difficulties and this was no exception. The school I work for has over 20 branches in different cities across the country and each one offers varying contact hours in the different year groups, depending on the number of English teachers and the size of the school, which also means very different programmes. Whereas one school may have a few hours a week with one coursebook used, another (mine for example) may have triple the hours with more than one coursebook and supplementary materials such as readers and project work. And yet, no matter if we teach 4 hours a week or 12, use one book or several, it all had to be fitted into the same template…

And so, we were handed a sample plan from another school to look at and a blank version to fill in. The whole thing was of course constructed around the idea of a book being used for the entire year with the first column titled ‘Topic’ in which we were instructed to write the title of the relevant unit. So far, so simple (if not particularly in line with my ‘emergent’ thoughts about what teaching and learning should be) but then the confusion began… The next column was named ‘aims’ followed by one labelled ‘objectives’. OK, now perhaps I’m not that well-versed in exploring subtle differences between synonyms but don’t those two words mean the same thing? The ‘objectives’ were broken down into the classic 4 skills (because of course, we should have regulated practice of each in every unit, shouldn’t we?) but for some reason the aims were not…. (I’m conscious of the fact that I’m ending lots of sentences with …. here but …. well, you know …. Winking smile )

And then for the parts to really make the collective skin of all the dogmeists out there crawl - sections for ‘structures’ and ‘vocabulary’ to be covered in each unit. Even if I place a project not featured in the coursebook into a ‘slot’ in the syllabus, target structures and vocab have to be identified and written down… That really got me thinking about the nature of emergent language - how can we decide months in advance what the language used is to be? How can we predict/dictate the words that are to be used? More than ever, I believe that this has to come from the learner and the class, nowhere else.

Next up, my favourite column - ‘Methods & Techniques’. Yep, that’s right…. We are also to decide in advance which methods and techniques all of the teachers in that particular year group are to use. To make it even better, this part was already filled in and we were advised to leave it as it was. For each ‘topic’, the following was written:

Eclectic Method, Communicative approach, Ask&Answer, Repetition, Dictation, Pair work, Group work

Let’s start with ‘Eclectic Method’ (not even principled!) Is ‘eclectic’ even a method? Well, I suppose it at least allows for teachers to pretty much use whichever method they wish - “just being eclectic” is all we need to say!

And how exactly do ‘repetition’ and ‘dictation' fit in with a ‘communicative approach’? Are we really expected to do dictation every unit as well?

In the end, we just stormed through, got the columns filled in and the stamp of approval. That was the only way I could see to make it work - do what is officially required for the files and those fine folks in admin but when the classroom door is closed, forget about and let the real learning emerge….

One small victory - the programme I work on is now no longer called ‘conversation’ (which it really isn’t what with the prep for Cambridge exams, readers and writing practice). It shall now be known as the ‘language skills development’ programme and will complement the ‘grammar’ programme (which retains its old name….)

So, anyway, if somebody asks what’s going on, I’ll say I’m being eclectic…. And I’ll hope they haven’t read this particular post!

10 comments:

  1. I can really sympathize with you on this. My school is coming up with a new, standardized four year plan for our students. All of this planning rests on my shoulders and there can be a lot of pressure. Good luck with your planning and I hope your upcoming classes start off well. :D

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  2. You have my sympathy, Dave. My school has been using such a standardized lesson plan with page numbers to cover along with a small boxes for teachers to tick when they are covered. It seems like we as teachers will turn into tick-ers soon!

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  3. How predictable that a school would look for such ridiculously pinpointed structure in a syllabus. After recently reviewing (and revamping) 8-week core curricula, I found the best way was to create expected outcomes per skill and then allow teachers to decide how to get there. Who can suggest what specific activities to do or what method by which you do it until you know the students and are in the classroom? And how boring would it be if all teachers were forced to do the same activities in every class?

    In the end, these type of prescribed columns are usually constructed by people who don't know much about teaching or the classes that teaching occurs in and only want something, anything, in writing to show to some governing body--look, we did it.

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  4. In your post, Dave, I recognize the same planning frenzy that is happening in my country. We teachers have to predict at what date we are going to do a Present Perfect test in March (!) or what vocabulary students will learn in January. To me such a plan has always seemed so far-fetched that it practically holds no value, it's just a sheet of paper with zero relevance to what is actually going on in the classroom.

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  5. Eclectic, Chaotic... oh, those are hard to predict, control, standardize and most of all prove results... Administration no likey :)

    Red tape... have a great term, Dave ! Sure it'll work out well in your classroom.

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  6. Hi Dave - good post and great reflections. I did this post a few months back - it seems more schools need to take a look at things like this (and the comments you have here):

    http://allthingslearning.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/to-lesson-plan-or-not-to-lesson-plan%E2%80%A6that-is-the-question/

    Take care,

    T..

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  7. ze best laid plans of mice and men, eh? I wonder what all this scurrying around is doing to education. It seems to me that on one hand we are finally recognizing the reason that many textbooks fail to deliver is because we can not pre-sume to know what the students will need to learn and so we are abandoning them... and yet, on the other in this very gap, there is a desperation to still maintain control.

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  8. OMG, if I may say so. I notice this is the same in all countries, I agree with Baiba Svecna, I also have to set the exact date of the certain test, and not change the date, if I were to change it, than more paperwork. So, my conclusion is that here in Croatia I have also been eclectic for the past few years! I understand we need to write a certain Global Plan which should be flexible, but going so much into details...
    In one point while writing my lesson plans I was supposed to write Ss possible answers and question, oh, come on, would I possible know all the time how they are going to react!? I think people who write these type of Curriculum or "standardize plans" have never been in the classroom as a teacher! BTW, Dave, love Hanibal A-Team!? :)

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  9. So it seems this is a common issue around the world... Ultimately, I don't mind as I just fufill the administrative requirements and then do my own thing. However, there are two problems I see:

    1. Some teachers DO think it should be a working document and feel obliged to follow it.

    2. I would rather spend my time (the plan took several hours to complete and type up) on other things such as reviewing what I'd done in class in the previous acdemic year, exchanging ideas with colleagues, exploring new possibilities etc.

    And another thing that your comments have reminded me of - while very much appreciated, it seems we all agree and experience the same frustrations meaning the people who need to be reading this (i.e. those who can bring about change) are either staying quiet or are blissfully unaware. I fear it's the latter...

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  10. Personally, I like my yearly plan (as long as I don't have to write it :p)

    It's good to have something to refer to even if I don't follow it to the letter

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