Category Archives: For Schools

I can advise on program management, curriculum, faculty issues, and business development.

Defining your English language program’s value proposition

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

After the catastrophe of 9/11, as we wondered if and when  international students would start coming back to study English in our schools and programs, a teacher kept reminding me that there would be ‘pent-up demand’ – that people who had missed the chance to study English abroad would be extra-keen to travel when the opportunity came back, and they would come back in great numbers. The thing to do now, he advised me, was to make sure our school was visible and ready when students were ready to return. So I used that quiet time to work intensively on the school’s website, translating content into French, Spanish, and Japanese, and ensuring inquirers could get the information they wanted – or submit an application – with a minimum of obstacles and clicks.

Knowing that the market would soon be hyper-competitive, I was also careful to ensure that the school’s unique value proposition (an executive-level facility with classes of three or four students) was stated front and center and included in all messaging, so that inquirers would be able to differentiate the school from others – and quickly decide whether this was the school for them or not.

While English language programs have been able to retain students and even recruit new students in these online times, we find ourselves in something like the same situation as we did in the early 2000s. There are hundreds of accredited English language programs in the U.S., most of which will be actively recruiting students for in-person learning. How will prospective students be able to tell one from the other?

In a 2009 blog that remains relevant today (https://hbr.org/2009/09/value-propositions-that-work.html), Anthony Tjan proposed that there are only four types of benefits that matter to consumers. Language program leaders should consider which of these benefits their program offers and build this value proposition into their promotional materials and messaging.

  • Best quality. You don’t have to be the best English language program in the world – but define the category you are in and be the best at what you do in your category, whether it is offering academic preparation on an inner-city campus or short-term programs in a laid-back beachfront environment. And one hint: it is not enough to scatter ‘high quality’ in your mission statement and promotional materials. Describe what you do and do it consistently well. Your students will decide if it is high quality or not.
  • Best bang for the buck. This doesn’t mean you are the cheapest school, but it does mean that inquirers must be able to relate your price to your offer. I once worked at a school that was priced more highly than others in the city, but students frequently complained that they didn’t know why it was so expensive. The school owner may have wanted to position the school as superior, but did not have – or did not communicate – any special features to justify that price. The school never filled up and went out of business a few months after I moved on. A high price is justified if you can clearly describe the school’s benefits over lower-priced schools. On the other hand, a low price does not necessarily equal good value, especially if quality is compromised. As a teacher I worked with used to quote her mother, “You pay or you pay, but either way you pay.”
  • Luxury and aspiration. Brands such as Rolex and Porsche fill this consumer need, but it is rarely addressed in the language school industry. OISE probably comes closest, and like other aspirational brands, it is targeted at a relatively small number of high-paying clients rather than a mass market. University-governed programs are unlikely to adopt this strategy as their tuition rates are subject to institutional approval, but in theory there is no reason why more proprietary programs shouldn’t pursue this approach, which requires a relatively small facility and allows for a high level of customer service and teacher-student contact.
  • Must-have. There are certain products and services we can’t do without, and others that we need to attain certain goals in life. There is real value if students need your program in order to reach a certain goal. For example, conditional admission programs or pathway programs at some universities make completion of the English language program or component necessary for full admission to the institution. Making English language courses credit-bearing and part of degree requirements for non-native English speaking students is another (but rare) example. Achieving this status for a university-governed program requires advocating for it with the institution’s upper administration.

Do any of Tjan’s value propositions describe your program’s offer to students? If so, now is the time to double down and emphasize that value proposition to inquirers. If not, it will be a useful exercise to sit down with your team and ask, “Why should students choose this school over another one?” You’ll want to have an answer to this question as students the world over begin looking for an in-person English language program in the coming months.

Handling student complaints

Photo by 傅甬 华 on Unsplash

As organizations that provide a multitude of services – classes, accommodation, transportation, and cultural activities, to name the main ones – it’s inevitable that not all students will be satisfied all the time. Among the most common requests resulting from dissatisfaction in an English language program are “I want to change my host family” and “I want to change my class.” It’s easy for busy staff to become defensive or want to dismiss such requests, but we should keep in mind that student dissatisfaction and the resulting complaints or requests can help us learn to serve students more effectively and build a stronger program, especially if issues come up repeatedly.

Fairness
When handling complaints, it’s important to be seen to be fair to all students, and this can be a challenge. Your program may have a policy that limits class or accommodation changes, and there are likely good reasons for this: complying with too many requests would make the program unmanageable, so to avoid the slippery slope you discourage any changes.

If you have to make a change for a student, in order to avoid charges of ‘not fair!’ the change should be for a reason that is unique to that student’s situation. For example, a student who for some reason was not able to complete the class placement process may ask to change levels, and the teacher(s) of the student may agree that the student is incorrectly placed. Other students may just see that a student got to change levels or classes.

To avoid having to change every student who comes to you, you have to be clear that any changes you made were for reasons specific to individual students – but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) explain what those reasons were. Still, not making a change for a student because of ‘program policy’ can be a hard sell to the student, and you will likely have to do some work to explain why the student should stay in her situation.

Record-keeping
Keeping a record of student complaints is not only required by accreditors, it is helpful in your program review process. Reviewing complaints that come up more than once – such as requests for class changes or complaints about a textbook – can guide you in making positive changes in your program. You can design a paper form to record complaints, or set something up using digital tools. I’ve used a digital form that stored the complaint in our internal website and sent a copy of it to the program directors.

Complaint form
Your form should have sections for:

– Student information (name, student number)

– Date of the complaint

– Name of the person filling out the form

– Description of the complaint, including actions taken so far, if any

– Follow-up actions taken

– Record of follow-up with student

Responding to complaints
Your options for responding to a complaint are:

a. Resolve. This may involve work, expense, or inconvenience, but your first goal should be a satisfied student.

b. Persuade. You may not be able to make a change for the student or you may not think it is appropriate. In this case, you will need to explain to the student the reason why you will not make a change in a manner that is credible to the student.

c. Resist. The student’s complaint may not be reasonable. For example, the host family may not conform with the image of the ‘ideal’ family the student had in mind. In this case you will need to explain that the complaint is not justified and that the program has fulfilled the promised made in its advertising.

d. Wait it out. Sometimes you have to accept that you cannot satisfy a student’s request – and not all complaints are reasonable. Although the student may continue to complain, there is nothing you can do. Although this is not the best solution as it will leave a student dissatisfied, you may just need to wait for the problem to go away when the student leaves your program – again, as long as you are sure you have provided what you advertised.

e. Advise out. In some cases, you and the student have to agree that this program is not a good fit. If you believe that the student’s best interest is the top priority, you may decide to help the student find a new program and help with the transfer-out process.

Dealing with a complaint
Here is my Standard Operating Procedure for a complaint:

  1. Ask the student to take a seat, take out a notepad and pen, get ready to listen and write.
  2. If you don’t know the student’s name ask for it. Write it down and check the spelling with the student. Then you can ask the student to describe the problem.
  3. Listen carefully and take notes. Ask questions to clarify.
  4. Ask the student if s/he has already raised this problem directly with the person concerned. Find out if this might be a possibility.
  5. When the student has finished explaining the problem, ask any further questions, then re-tell the problem back to the student to ensure you have understood correctly.
  6. Tell the student you cannot give an answer right now as you need to investigate. Say you will check back with the student in 24 hours.
  7. Make a note in your calendar or on your to-do list to get back to the student in 24 hours.
  8. Start a formal record of the complaint. Your program should have a paper or digital means of recording complaints that includes the student’s name, the nature of the complaint, and the resolution.
  9. Investigate, try to find a solution to the problem, discuss with colleagues, and be ready to speak or otherwise communicate with the student the next day.
  10. Be sure to follow up with the student within 24 hours, whether you have been able to resolve the problem or not.
  11. Complete the written record of the complaint and archive it.
  12. Take any disciplinary action needed if the complaint is about a teacher or staff member and you have found that the complaint is justified.

Finally
Avoid complaints by being honest in your advertising, managing student expectations, and providing great classes and services.

Student Services when everything’s gone online

Image: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

“What do you do in Student Services?” I was asked the other day. It’s difficult to give a quick and easy answer, because the work of Student Service staff is wide-ranging and includes several functional areas. But I’ve found that if your listener has a minute or two, you can frame your explanation of Student Services with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s pyramid, though Maslow himself never drew a pyramid. His hierarchy is a motivational theory intended to describe five levels of human needs. In some interpretations, needs lower in the pyramid must be satisfied before needs higher up can be addressed. I find Maslow’s hierarchy useful in describing the work of our Student Services departments, because we try to take care of the whole person, beginning with satisfying some of their basic physiological needs (bottom of the pyramid), all the way to encouraging them to fulfill their highest aspirations (top of the pyramid).

Here are some of the ways in which Student Services staff address students’ needs at all levels:

Physiological needs: our housing service puts a roof over students’ heads and ensures that they have a means of obtaining healthy food and drink.

Safety needs: we satisfy students’ needs for order, predictability, and security by providing airport transfers, orienting them to the locale, helping them open a bank account or get a cellphone, advising them about local laws, and ensuring that they maintain their visa status by following rules and regulations.

Belongingness and love needs: we organize icebreakers, parties, trips, and other social events to help students get to know each other and feel a part of our school and community.

Esteem needs: we learn our students’ names and listen carefully to their concerns, and we celebrate their successes at end-of-term parties.

Self-actualization needs: we organize extra-curricular workshops, get them out into the community, and find opportunities for them to pursue their interests independently.

Seen in this light, Student Services departments provide an essential whole-person approach to caring for and educating students on their study abroad adventure, helping students to get the most out of the experience and excel in their studies. It is a set of jobs not to be taken lightly: we all know that a student who is unhappy in her living situation can be distracted in the classroom. A strong Student Services function can make all the difference to the success of an English language program.

But what role is there for Student Services when a program has gone online? You might decide that since there are no students on your campus or in your school, you don’t need Student Services. It’s true that if your students are studying from their homes, then the bottom two layers of the pyramid – physiological and safety needs – are likely taken care of or are not something you can help with. Student Services can still play an important role, though, in supporting students, binding them to your school, and helping them achieve their aspirations. To give just one example, the Community Friends Program at Lewis & Clark College connects international students with local volunteers in the community for friendship and exchange. Now, with everything going online, the program continues to connect students and volunteers through Zoom meetings. This kind of extra-curricular program has the potential to hit the top three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, and gives students a unique and distinctive experience. In a competitive online environment, that may be one benefit that keeps students loyal to a program.

Online Student Services is a new phenomenon for most English language programs, and we don’t yet know whether or to what extent students will take us up on these types of activities. But as we explore this uncharted territory, we have to try what we can to support our students and help them grow.

Online teaching and creativity

In 1939, the American writer Ernest Vincent Wright published a novel named Gadsby. Nothing too special about that you might think, except that this 50,000-word work of fiction did not contain the letter ‘e.’ Can you imagine even writing more than a word or two without the letter ‘e’? Me either.

Gadsby is an example of a lipogram, a piece of writing with a particular letter of the alphabet deliberately excluded. It is part of a tradition of constrained writing, in which the writer deliberately self-imposes some limitation. There is a long history of constrained writing in poetry – think of the sonnet, limerick, or haiku – but writers have experimented with various kinds of constraints, such as six-word memoirs and stories with exactly 100 words. The French author Georges Perec wrote the novel La Disparition without using the letter ‘e’, and subsequently penned Les Revenentes, which contained no other vowel except ‘e’.

I’ve been thinking recently about how creativity arises within constraints, and this is true in education too. As a teacher I have been tempted to think, “If only I had…” or “If only I could get…” But teachers have always had to work with what they have and what the circumstances impose on them. Most teachers can’t choose their students, their class size, their classroom, the curriculum, their  schedule, and on and on. Sometimes they have to work with multiple skill levels in a class, or have limited access to equipment.  Many teachers feel resistance toward some of the administrative limitations placed on their work or balk at attempts to ‘standardize’ their teaching (I’ve been there), and most manage to work within those limitations. But teachers are also able to take what they have and make something magical happen: a unique, creative learning experience that couldn’t have been anticipated at the outset.

As university-based English language programs enter the fall semester online (and with reduced numbers), and many other programs continue their online teaching, it may seem that the online environment is limiting. Indeed, the lack of face to face contact and informal encounters with students is another limitation imposed on teaching. But it is encouraging to keep in mind that even within this set of constraints, creativity can blossom, new techniques and procedures will arise, and online language teachers will continue to create magic on their own terms.

Let’s embrace the constraints and let the magic happen. Just as we’ve always done.

Tough times for English language programs

It has been a quiet week for English language programs. That is something to be thankful for after the craziness that was visited on us in the first half of July, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a new rule:  international students attending institutions that are going to offer their programs entirely online must either transfer to another institution where they can take at least a part of their program face to face, or leave the country. The rule of course impacted students at the hundreds of English language programs and schools across the country.

When the rule was rescinded, there was much celebration (online anyway) in the international education community. The administration’s dialing back of the rule was declared a victory. I was relieved that the rule was rescinded, but I couldn’t help but feel we’d all been played by an administration that seems to thrive on dividing us all in order to step in with its heroic authoritarianism to save the day. And this was a move that seemed calculated to divide us in the international higher education community – by forcing international students to switch from schools operating online to schools offering in-person classes, all schools would feel pressured to re-open, serving the administration’s denialist approach to the COVID-19 virus.

The rule, calculated to divide us, had the opposite effect. Our two most prestigious universities filed suit and were supported by many other institutions; senators, governors, and business leaders spoke out against it; and our international education organizations – NAFSA, TESOL, EnglishUSA, UCIEP, and others – released public statements and organized advocacy efforts to protest it. If there was something to celebrate, it was that the excesses of this administration can be pushed back if we are united, not divided. And we showed that we are united.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. While new guidance is likely to be issued in the coming weeks, for now it looks as though international students who plan to attend institutions that are going fully online will not be issued a visa. This is going to hit English language programs particularly hard. Although some have gained a foothold in online teaching, most rely on what these programs do best: offer in-person, in-class language, cultural, and social experiences that cannot be replicated online. They will be pressured to re-open and implement measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Yet many of these programs occupy compact spaces with relatively small classrooms and common areas in which it is almost impossible to maintain a safe distance from others.

These are the most challenging times English language programs have had to face, and there is little doubt that we will see more program closures and employee layoffs, a tragedy for our field. But I know a lot of people in this field, and I know that we are resilient, we are fighters, we persist. We are down but not out, bruised but not defeated, and we’ll keep up the struggle because we love what we do, we know how important it is, and we want students everywhere to know that no matter what message our government sends, ‘you ARE welcome here.’

In our students’ shoes

Learning to play a new piece of music on the guitar. A piece that is really beyond my level, but I’m trying it. Making progress, bit by bit , but it seems ever so slowly. Trying to be accurate and get every note right. Trying to play faster and more fluently. When I go faster,  I make more mistakes and end up frustrated. When I go more slowly, I feel I’m always going to be a beginner.

Yesterday I could play this part, my fingers easily moved among the strings. Today my fingers feel like lead, heavy and awkward, hitting every wrong note. Why is that?

I’ve been practicing this forever, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I want to be perfect, just like a professional guitar player, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach my goal. So I feel inferior and  constantly look up to real guitar players, always comparing myself to them. When people compliment my playing, I say no, I really can’t play at all, I always make mistakes.

I know how this is supposed to go, I’ve memorized it, test me and I will be able to tell you. It’s just that when I actually try to play it in front of people, I find it so difficult. Performance anxiety kicks in, I become embarrassed, my heart beats faster, my face contorts, I’m ashamed to even try. Even if you tell me you like it, I feel you’re just being nice.

Sometimes…sometimes though, my fingers just seem to dance on the strings, I go faster, I can feel myself doing it, finally getting somewhere, feeling as though I really can play the guitar.  These moments spur me on, encourage me to keep going, even though the road is long and slow-going.

*

Learning any skill enables us to empathize with our students as they struggle to master their foreign language. Some language teachers choose to learn a language themselves to put themselves in their students’ position, but learning any skill puts us in touch with our students’ challenges, frustrations, aspirations, and successes, as they try out new language, make mistakes, compare themselves to native speakers, and slowly, slowly progress.

It is a very difficult time for our field. Many colleagues have lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. I think most will find their way back, one way or another, as the virus is defeated and students begin to return to our programs. While Netflix is entertaining (until you have watched everything), now is a good time to pick up a new skill or develop an existing one, and reflect on our students’ learning experience.  It is a time for us to renew our understanding of – our empathy with – their struggle and their challenge. This will make us more effective educators when our students return again.

Are English language programs threatened by online learning?

What does the future hold for English language programs in the U.S., once we get over the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus? Will things return ‘to normal,’ with students traveling here to study at English language schools and university-based programs? Or will a wholesale rush to online learning result in the virtual disappearance of in-person programs?

I recently heard colleagues with many years of experience in the field arguing that the future is online. As we struggle through the COVID-19 crisis and learning online or remotely become normalized, their thinking seems to go, learners won’t want to spend the time, money, and effort to travel to another country to learn English. Online learning is the future, and in-person English language schools will decline.

At a time like this, we may gain some insight into the future of the field by looking at examples of other industries that have faced similar challenges from new technologies.

Netflix vs. Movie Theaters
When Netflix launched its streaming service in 2010, there were predictions that the availability of movies to stream at home would negatively impact movie-going. Why make the effort and spend good money at a movie theater when you could watch movies at home? In reality, U.S. movie theaters had their best year ever in 2019, with box office revenue of around $12 billion. There is evidence, in fact, that people who stream movies also regularly go to movie theaters – if you are a movie fan, you like both formats.

Airplanes vs. Ocean Liners
Why take a boat when a plane is quicker? The airline industry largely put a stop to people crossing the oceans in liners back in the 1960s. But today, passengers ships are bigger, more lavish, and more popular than ever, with annual revenues of around $30 billion, and carrying over 20 million passengers per year. The industry re-purposed itself from one that carried people from point A to point B, to one that offers luxury round-trip vacations.

Recorded Music vs. Concerts
Before Edison invented recording, all music was live. Recording and playback technologies have advanced over the years, from cylinders to records, cassettes, eight-tracks, CDs, MP3s, and now streaming. With music available to us in the comfort of our homes and our headsets, why would anyone bother to shell out a lot of money and go stand or sit in some venue to hear it played? Yet by the second quarter of 2019, LiveNation had sold 73 million concert tickets, with revenue of over $3 billion. There must be something about concerts that you cannot get from your music streaming service.

True, movie theaters, cruises, and concerts have all been decimated by the effects of the COVID-19 virus. Some businesses will not survive, but plenty will return when it is safe enough for people to be physically close again. Nobody can predict the future of English language programs, but the ‘it’s all going online’ narrative is only one possible outcome, and in my view, not the most likely. English language programs may benefit from the ‘movie theater effect,’ with those who are enthusiastic about learning showing up in person to learn in spite of online options. They may see the ‘cruise ship effect,’ adapting to serve a new clientele for different purposes. They may experience something similar to the ‘concert effect,’ with enthusiasts knowing they will get something visceral and exciting from attending in person.

Yes, online English learning has arrived, and that’s a good thing. But English language programs will continue to provide the authentic, immersive experience that thousands of learners want and appreciate. In spite of current challenges, they are here to stay.

What do you think?

“Why can’t we get rid of SLOs?”

Yes, a teacher asked me this recently. While her question seemed mostly an expression of frustration at what she saw as a loss of control over her teaching, it is also a question that educators should consider seriously. After all, education proceeded quite well for thousands of years without SLOs. Socrates never referred to them, nor did Jesus, the Buddha, or any other well-known teacher you could name.

A few years ago I was taking classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, just for intellectual stimulation and to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. I signed up for a few classes taught by a remarkable teacher, Michael Koran, who taught classes in poetry, drama, religion, and other fields. One class in particular was intriguing. It was called “Reading Aloud.”

In Reading Aloud class, a small group of us (all men, it turned out) read short stories aloud and discussed them. That was the class. What is remarkable, in light of today’s fixation on SLOs, is that not only were there no stated outcomes for this class, but that the name of the class itself described the process, and not the product, of the class. What Michael Koran understood was that by engaging in this process with a group of people, something would result, learning of some kind would happen, but that it could not be defined in advance.

I don’t know what the other participants in this weekly class got out of it, but one of my big takeaways as a teacher was the value of reading aloud in the classroom, an activity that had been shunned as ‘unrealistic’ by misguided proponents of the communicative approach to language teaching. Reading a text aloud puts the words out into the public space of the classroom, where they can be discussed and analyzed. After that class, I incorporated reading aloud back into my classroom. I found that it also offers the teacher a chance to hear students speaking in a controlled form and to offer correction or group practice of challenging words or phrases. None of this was expressed as a student learning outcome in Michael Koran’s class.

Today most schools are held to a standard of public accountability that requires them to justify their quality claims through defining, assessing, recording, and publishing student outcomes. Most of this has nothing to do with the teacher’s art, which is about process, atmosphere, experience, and attention to each student as an individual. This gap between what some teachers would rather  focus on and the accountability measures they are being asked to fall in line with underlies the question that started this post.

We cannot get rid of SLOs, and we probably shouldn’t, given that education is expensive and people want to know what they are getting for their money. But it would be nice if we could turn some attention back to the quality of the educational experience and understand that not all outcomes can be planned in advance.

Why you should be teaching to the test

Back in the day, if you were ‘teaching to the test,’ you weren’t really doing your job as a teacher. You isolated the pieces of knowledge and the skills that you knew would come up on the test and taught them to the exclusion of broader educational activities that might have enriched the students’ experience. You might have done this to ensure a high pass rate, which reflected well on you as a teacher if the higher-ups were judging you on your students’ test scores. But teaching to the test was frowned upon as a kind of shortcut for both teacher and students.

Since the advent of the accountability movement, teaching to the test is exactly what you should be doing. In the currently popular paradigm, schools and teachers are accountable for students’ achievement of defined learning outcomes, expressed in behavioral terms: “The student will be able to…” Examples in language programs are:

  • give a five-minute presentation on a topic of personal interest
  • write a five-paragraph narrative essay
  • summarize, in writing, a radio news story
  • re-tell orally the plot of a short story

If the learning outcomes are well-conceived, they should be a guide to what the test – let’s call it an assessment – should be. How do you assess students’ ability to give a five-minute presentation? Have them give a five-minute presentation at the end of the course. How do you assess their ability to write a five-paragraph essay? Have them write a five-paragraph essay. And so on. (The specifics of the assessment will need to be made clear, and rubrics provide a means of determining the students’ level of performance.)

And so what is the best way to prepare students to give a presentation? Teach to the test and have them practice giving presentations. To write an essay? Teach to the test and have them write essays. This is what I mean when I say ‘you should be teaching to the test.’

Some summative tests – including many of those provided in published textbooks – are not good tests to teach to. A grammar gap-fill isn’t much use in giving information about a student’s final level of achievement, unless your learning outcome is ‘be able to provide the appropriate grammatical forms in a gap-fill test.’ That’s not a very useful outcome to anyone, though this activity might help promote student learning along the way. A well-defined learning outcome is a behavior that you can describe to a future employer or school indicating the student’s ability to do useful things with language.

So let’s embrace teaching to the test – as long as you have good learning outcomes and a corresponding test that assesses them appropriately. (If you don’t, maybe it’s time for an overhaul.) And while we’re doing that, let’s not forget that games, songs, poetry, sharing experiences, and laughter create a positive, human environment that leads to unanticipated learning and ideal conditions for students to learn.

 

 

“They don’t know how to order.” The challenge for ESL students outside the classroom

How many times are ESL students told to ‘go out and speak English?’ The possibility of using the target language outside the classroom and the school is surely one of the strongest rationales for learners to come to an English-speaking country to learn the language. Theorists of second language acquisition have proposed that ‘negotiation of meaning’ with native speakers will provide learners with the comprehensible input they need to make progress, making access to native speakers important to that progress. As Bonny Norton points out in the 2nd edition of her book Language and Identity, getting that access is not so simple.

Like the five immigrant women in Norton’s 1990s research study, for international ESL students “the opportunity to practice speaking English outside the classroom is dependent largely on their access to anglophone social networks” (p. 172). But getting  into those networks is challenging because the ability to speak English is necessary to enter them. Back in 2012 we learned that many international students on college campuses fail to make any close U.S. friends for this very reason. And according to Norton, even in interactions between native and non-native speakers, native speakers are often unwilling to engage in negotiating meaning, placing the burden of comprehensibility on non-native speakers. I saw this first-hand at a campus Dunkin Donuts: two students from China had difficulty communicating their order to the server, who offered little in the way of ‘negotiation.’ When the students left, the server, shaking her head, turned to her colleague and sighed, “They don’t know how to order.” It is unlikely the students’ learning of English was enhanced by this encounter. As Norton writes of her research participants, “native speakers of English were often impatient with their attempts at communication and more likely to avoid them than negotiate meaning with them” (p. 150).

ESL programs for international students can mitigate some of these challenges through careful programming that brings students into meaningful contact with native or more proficient English speakers. Some examples (the first two are from my workplace but I take no credit for them):

  1. The Showa Friendship Circle at Showa Boston matches pairs of students with people in the community who have a genuine interest in getting to know international students. Students and ‘friends’ are chosen and matched carefully to maximize the chance of a positive relationship and the opportunity for language learning. Students and their friends arrange meals together, visit local places of interest, or take trips.
  2. The College Connection Program, also at Showa Boston, similarly matches international students with students from local colleges. Groups of students are carefully selected, matched, and oriented. They plan several activities together, and the international students spend a day or two visiting the campus and sitting in on classes.
  3. Meetup.com makes it possible for international students to find people in the community who share an interest. While international students in such groups may need to gain confidence and find their voice, meetups do offer a legitimate ‘way in’ to meaningful interactions that can lead to friendships and enhanced language learning. ESL programs can help students by orienting them to the app or website, supporting them in finding appropriate meetups, and giving them advice on language and behavior to optimize their experience.
  4. Finally, let’s not forget homestays, which, if successful, can offer an enriching language experience in which the student’s voice is welcomed. ESL programs must select and monitor homestays carefully and ensure they are not simply seen by the host as ‘renting out a room.’ Hosts must be willing to spend time talking with their students and engage in the negotiation of meaning that will help the students make progress.

I have barely touched on the riches that Norton’s book offers. Her stories of each research participant are compelling and memorable, and will offer anyone in the field of language teaching new insights into the learner’s experience, and ways to empower students to find their voice in the target language.

Language and Identity (2nd Edition, 2013) by Bonny Norton is published by Multilingual Matters.

Interaction: the imperative of the classroom

I’ve observed hundreds of ESL and other small-format classes over the years, and one thing that always interests me is the pattern of interaction between the teacher and the students. For years there has been an injunction against ‘teacher talking time,’ and class observers commonly pointed out (and still do) when the teacher is talking too much, lecture-style. You can represent this type of classroom interaction in the following way (forgive my back-of-the napkin doodles):

In this interaction pattern, information is being communicated one-way, from the teacher to the students. At least you hoped communication was happening: that would depend on whether the students were listening, or tuned out. (Lecturing can be a useful teaching method, used in moderation. You just have to be an excellent lecturer, able to hold students’ attention for a prolonged period of time. Not many of us really have this talent.)

More commonly in classroom observations, I would see – because the teacher was likely making a special effort to ‘get the students to talk’ – a more socratic-type interaction that looked more like this:

Nonetheless, the interactions were still limited to what looked like a series of one-to-one conversations between the teacher and each student. I would often notice that other students’ attention drifted during these types of interaction.

What these interaction patterns failed to do was to do what I call ‘exploiting the interactive potential of the classroom.’ Meaning that when you have a group of people gathered together in a room, you have a unique opportunity for learning to take place by having those people interact with each other. This could result in various configurations such as this:

Or this:

The interaction patterns I’ve described represent a shift from a ‘banking’ model of education, in which knowledge is supposedly communicated by a fount of all knowledge to students lacking knowledge and with nothing to contribute to the educational enterprise; to a constructionist model, in which knowledge is not transmitted but grows or is built in the mind and behaviors of each learner.

(Scheduling observations with a teacher was interesting when the teacher would tell me, “Don’t come on Tuesday, the students are just giving presentations.” Or, “I’m just having the students work in groups for most of the class, so you won’t be able to see much.” The assumption being that if the teacher was not up there ‘performing,’ there would be nothing interesting to see.)

With advances in technology and recent notions about the ‘flipped classroom,’ there is less and less excuse for classroom interactions to be teacher-dominated. To give an example from the 1990s: I used textbooks that contained listening and speaking exercises based on NPR stories that could be between five and ten minutes long. Typically the instructions in the textbook called for the students to ‘listen to the story’ for general information. Then ‘listen to the story again’ for details. And finally ‘listen once again’ for some more specialized task. I could never help but feel that a lot of class time was being wasted by students just sitting there listening (hopefully) to the story. It did help to fill the time in my lesson plan though, even if it did suck the energy from the room in those drowsy early afternoon hours. (By the way, the shall-not-be-named textbook that contained not-very-interesting-and-wholly-unrealistic 15-20 minute ‘college lectures’ was the greatest offender.)

The problem was that the story was recorded on the book’s copyrighted cassette (later CD) which was made available only to the teacher (emphasizing the banking model’s notion of the teacher as holder and distributor of knowledge). The only legal way to distribute the story to the students was in the classroom by pressing ‘play.’

These days, textbooks – and enterprising teachers who pull material from the internet – make it possible for students to access the listening material themselves, in their own time, and play and re-play it (in some cases at the speed of their choice) as many times as they wish. And the increasingly popular learning management systems and published online materials allow students to do much of the individual work on their own. This means that the teacher is able to truly exploit the interactive potential of the classroom by having students get their language input outside of class. One principle I learned early on in my career was, “Don’t let students do in class what they could do outside of class.” The thing they have difficulty doing outside of class is working with each other, discovering and building knowledge together. And if I went to observe a class today, that is what I would want to observe. How does the teacher create the right conditions for learning, recognizing that the classroom is potentially an interactive environment?

But for all our talk of ‘student-centered learning,’ I’m afraid that if you walk past many ESL classrooms on a typical day, the most likely thing you will hear is the teacher’s voice. You might still hear the listening text from the textbook (often a TED Talk these days). In some cases, more egregiously, a movie is being shown – which makes that classroom the most expensive movie house in town.

Now I may have gone a bit too far here. Running an interactive classroom has its challenges. If you, the teacher, expect the students all to have done their out-of-class listening, reading, or exercises and to be ready to discuss them in class, you may be disappointed. Even if you train your students to do all their out-of-class preparation, you know that some won’t have done it. In those cases, you have to decide what to do with the slackers – try to incorporate them anyway, or set them aside to do the work they should have done and assign a lower grade?

Despite the challenges, if teachers are not exploiting the interactive potential of their classrooms, they are failing to keep up with established good practice, and denying their students a once-only opportunity. Classroom interaction should be high on the ‘classroom observation checklist’ for anyone observing or being observed teaching.

The differing worlds of faculty and staff

Occupying the same physical space, the faculty and staff of university English language programs (ELPs) may inhabit very different worlds, giving them divergent perspectives on the activity they are all involved in. This situation can lead to antagonism, mutual suspicion, and a fissure between faculty and staff who should be working toward the common goal of educating students.

Let’s look at some of the differences between the worlds of faculty and staff.

Faculty Staff
1 Primarily internally focused (on classes and students) Internally and externally focused (on accreditors, the wider institution, Department of Homeland Security)
Example: When administrators translate external reporting requirements (such as student achievement data) into demands on faculty for changes in teaching or assessment practices, faculty can feel their work – their art and craft – is being interfered with. Faculty may resist making changes or providing requested information, leading to frustration among administrators..
2 Defined duties with possibility to earn more salary for extra duties performed  Fixed salary based on workday; flexible duties and no possibility to earn more for added duties
Example: Staff can get frustrated by faculty asking for more compensation or a reduced teaching load when they are asked to do something new, such as serve on an ad hoc committee. Staff may feel that faculty should behave like them and take on whatever duties are asked.
3 Emphasis on individual students and classes Emphasis on the program as a whole or on specific non-curricular areas
Example: Faculty may be critical of the class assignment process if they do not get their individual preferences met. Administrators have to take the needs of the whole program into account and cannot satisfy all individual preferences. 
4 Ownership of individual work Self-identify with the organization as a whole or with their department
Example: Faculty may object to administrative efforts to ‘standardize’ – make school-wide – syllabi, assessment tools, or teaching materials.
5 Requirement to keep to class schedule, with some freedom to work at school or at home Requirement to be in the office with some freedom to organize time and work
Example: Administrators may become frustrated at faculty who are ‘never here’ or the inability to schedule meetings because of faculty members’ varying schedules.
6 Breaks between semesters  with requirement to be present during semesters Fixed number of vacation days with flexibility to take vacation
Example: Administrators may be envious of faculty members’ long breaks; faculty may find it difficult to schedule vacations, attendance at weddings, or medical treatments because of the requirement to find a substitute or make up classes.
7 In decision-making, an emphasis on process In decision-making, an emphasis on results
Example: Administrators can get frustrated with the length of time faculty take to make decisions through committee meetings and faculty meetings; faculty may be dissatisfied if they feel decisions were ‘rushed through’ by administrators without sufficient consultation or discussion with faculty. 

With so much potential for conflict, it is vital that the faculty-administration relationship be proactively attended to and managed. This means formalizing opportunities for sharing perspectives, consulting each other on proposed changes, and engaging in dialogue. It means establishing meetings – committee-style and whole-organization, formal and informal – where faculty and staff can exchange ideas on an equal basis, and where concerns can be openly expressed in a civil way without fear of criticism or retribution. And it means not personalizing disagreements, but working through them as colleagues, with a willingness to see the other side and make compromises to reach solutions.

None of this is easy, but it is vital for the effective functioning of your program and the maintenance of a motivating and fulfilling work environment for all.

The baby and the bathwater

If you read anything about curriculum design these days, or attend a presentation or workshop, you will learn only one model. Backward design starts at the end, defining student learning outcomes, then working backward through assessment, teaching and learning objectives, content and sequencing, and finally teaching and learning. This approach to curriculum design is so pervasive that anyone new to education might think there is no other way.

Thanks to the recently published second edition of Jack Richards’ book Curriculum Development in Language Teaching, we can learn about, or be reminded of, the alternative. Although it was never recognized with the name, forward design took the opposite approach: decide on your content and sequence it, teach, assess, and evaluate with a grade. This used to be the standard way to design  and teach a course in higher education. And the fact is, many teachers who used this approach continue to do so, or try to do so, in tension with an institutional backward design ethos promoted by accrediting organizations.

Backward design has the benefit of identifying (in theory anyway) student needs, developing measurable learning outcomes, and demonstrating program quality through analyzing and publishing student success rates against those outcomes. There is accountability for student success, which is important in an increasingly competitive environment in which customers (students and their sponsors) demand transparency in results. Yet as we are reminded in Richards’ book:

“The experience of language teachers today is often one of diminished classroom autonomy and of being managed by business-savvy administrators.” (Hadley, 2014, cited in Richards, 2017, p. 228)

This is because teachers are increasingly told to work with standardized outcomes and learning objectives, demonstrate that their assessments address the student learning outcomes, and use textbooks that deskill teachers by driving many of their instructional decisions (Richards, p. 247).

If backward design has introduced an obsessive focus on outcomes, or product, forward design was always much more about the educational process. A process curriculum:

“…is person-centered, considers users’ needs, identifies problems rather than rushing to solutions, and does not rely on top-down mechanistic models but is a process that works towards interaction between participants at all levels.” (Kennedy, 2013, cited in Richards, 2017, p. 227)

The emphasis is more on what teachers might call the art of teaching, making meaningful experiences for students, and letting the teaching and learning follow, to an extent, students’ needs and interests as they arise during the course. In a process approach, students and teachers form a learning community that explores together, often with an unclear destination. While backward design requires assessment of students’ achievement of learning outcomes exclusively, forward design grades participation, homework, and attendance, because these are indicators of students’ engagement in the process of learning.

While I don’t think we can or should return to a purely process-focused approach, we should consider what is lost when we throw out the process approach baby with the forward design bathwater, and embrace a product-based approach too strongly. Now that backward design is established as the accepted way to design curriculum, I hope that we can start to talk about how to maintain art in the process of teaching, one that recognizes teacher creativity, responds to the students in the class and the needs of the particular group, and provides a unique and unrepeatable experience for learners.

Thanks to Richards’ book, we may be able to start having that conversation.

Jack Richards’ book Curriculum Development in Language Teaching is published by Cambridge University Press.

The jury trial and the language test

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I recently had the opportunity to serve on a jury in a case in which a young man was accused of ‘operating under the influence,’ i.e. driving a car while under the influence of alcohol. There was only one witness, the police officer who arrested the young man. In order to establish that the young man was under the influence of alcohol after pulling him over, the officer had conducted what is known as a field sobriety test, which usually has three components:

  1. The horizontal gaze nystagmus test, in which a person’s eyes have to track a moving object.
  2. The walk-and-turn test, in which the person walks heel-to-toe for nine steps, pivots on the left foot and walks back heel-to-toe for nine steps.
  3. The one-leg stand test, in which the person stands on one leg and counts to 30.

Each test has its criteria for success and failure. For example, you may fail the one-leg stand test if you have to use your arms to balance yourself, or if you put your foot down before counting to 30.

In the jury room, we six jury members found that the prosecutor’s evidence was based almost entirely on the results of the field sobriety test, which the young man failed. We had been instructed by the judge that we should presume innocence and find the man not guilty unless the prosecution could prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the young man had been driving under the influence of alcohol.

We jury members were not permitted to do any research on the field sobriety test, and none of us had any information about how useful it was, though we knew that it is widely used. Most jurors had doubt about the evidence, but one juror believed we should base our verdict on the result of the field sobriety test.

I found myself in the position of explaining that we cannot assume that tests give us useful information and I used the notions of validity and reliability to explain it. In this case:

  1. Is the field sobriety test valid? Does it measure what it purports to measure? (Note that the officer conducted only the walk-and-turn test and the one-leg stand test.) Were there other reasons why the young man – or anyone – might fail these tests other than being under the influence of alcohol? (It was claimed by the defense that the young man had ‘an issue’ with his left leg.)
  2. Is the field sobriety test reliable? Can we be sure another officer would have reached the same conclusion based on the young man’s performance on the test?

Given these questions, could we determine ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the young man had been under the influence of alcohol?

I am writing about this because in language teaching, we tend to place a lot of trust in the tests we use, whether made by an individual teacher, a program, or an international testing organization. Any really useful test should help us determine whether the test taker has attained certain knowledge or is capable of performing certain functions in the language. Think about any test you know – the TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, or those home-grown tests used in your program. To what extent are you able to say ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the person taking the test has acquired certain knowledge or skills? We know for sure that plenty of students with high TOEFL scores are not well-prepared linguistically to succeed on an American college campus, and this is a test that has a huge research effort behind it.

So I would ask that you advocate for more evidence than a single test to determine students’ language proficiency. Decision-makers such as college admissions staff should seek multiple sources of evidence that converge on a conclusion, not just a single test. They should have more than one person or entity reviewing students’ language ability. We should maintain a healthy doubt about the tests we use.

What was the verdict in this case? In the end, no matter what the truth was, we could not return a guilty verdict because the state had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the young man had operated a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol.

Naturally I rushed to my computer after the trial and googled ‘reliability of the field sobriety test.’ What do you think I found?

Forwards design, backwards design

Backwards-design curriculum is a relatively new approach to curriculum design that is finding its way into many disciplines. In English language teaching, backwards design originated with English for Specific Purposes courses (such as English for pilots or English for the food service industry) where it was important to specify what learners should be able to do following the course or program. In the US, it was given a boost by the accreditation requirements of ACCET and CEA, themselves subject to the mandates of a federal Department of Education that sought greater accountability from educational institutions, starting with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

To understand backwards design, it helps to understand what it sought to replace. In a forwards-design approach to curriculum, the subject matter is broken down into its component parts and taught. At the end there is a test or other form of assessment to check what the students learned. The most obvious example in English language teaching is the traditional grammar syllabus, which organizes teaching grammar point by grammar point, and is still popular in many schools. In early versions of the communicative approach, grammar was replaced by communicative functions, but the approach was essentially the same. When I started teaching, I followed this approach: teach the points, then make a test.

Backwards design turns the process around. In this approach, you first analyze the needs of the students. What are they learning for? What do they need to do? This results in an overall goal for the course or program, and learning outcomes (often referred to as Student Learning Outcomes or SLOs) that state what students are expected to know or be able to do after completing it. Then you determine what would be acceptable evidence of achievement of this knowledge or ability, and design a means of assessment. Following that, you break the outcomes down into teaching and learning objectives and order them into a logical sequence. Finally, you decide how you are going to teach the knowledge and skills – your methodology.

Backwards design has been disruptive in many schools. Faculty with many years of experience are used to a forwards-design approach, and have developed their preferred ways of teaching around this approach. They may feel that the classroom is a place to explore new knowledge with students, they may want to meet students where they are, and may not want to define in advance exactly where those students will end up. Many are uncomfortable with trying to shoehorn their established teaching practices into a backwards-design course. Newer faculty are more likely to have been trained in backwards-design principles and accept them as natural.

However we feel about backwards design, it responds to a demand for greater accountability in education. This is the result of rising tuitions, a value-for-money orientation among students and their parents and sponsors, and a greater demand for demonstrable practical skills resulting from education. Love it or hate it, teachers have to embrace backwards design and incorporate it into their professional practice.

What makes a school?

We are used to talking a lot about quality in education. It used to be normal to describe quality in terms of inputs: faculty to student ratios, faculty degrees, school facilities, test scores of the incoming class, and so on. More recently, we have been pressured by government departments, funding agencies, and accreditors to prove our quality in terms of outcomes: can-do statements, demonstrable skills gained, behavioral changes in our students at the end of their course or program.

The input-outcome paradigm for determining quality is adequate enough if we are in a production mindset. In this mindset, education is analogous to the production of goods or services. “Our shoes are made of the finest Italian leather” is an input-based quality claim. “Kills 99.9% of bacteria” is an outcome-based quality claim. Similarly, “highly qualified and friendly teachers” is an input-based quality claim. “Our Academic English program will prepare you to succeed at a university” is an outcome-based quality claim.

I wonder if this paradigm tells the whole story about the quality of an education? This is important to consider for intensive English programs (IEPs), because they are increasingly competing against other models of English language education and training, such as in-country classes, online tutoring and courses, even apps on devices. The producers of these alternatives can point to their inputs and outcomes and on that basis apparently offer a viable alternative to an intensive English program.

But I want IEPs to revive the notion of the school, a concept that is far broader than mere production or educational delivery. If you think about your own educational experiences which were the most memorable? Which shaped you most as a human being? Were you most influenced by a program that had clearly defined student learning outcomes? Did you learn the most from the teacher who was the most highly qualified? Unlikely.

A school is a place where community is formed. Diverse (however you choose to define diverse) students, teachers, and staff, come together in the shared enterprise of teaching and learning. There is social interaction, friction, the challenging of dearly-held beliefs. There is laughter, disappointment, joy, and frustration. Students encounter teachers with idiosyncrasies that they will never forget. A story heard sticks in the mind forever. A kindness is extended and remembered.  All of this is the quality of an education that is not recognized by the production paradigm of educational quality. It cannot be measured. You cannot really put a price on it.

Think about this kind of quality when  you go to your school in the morning. You still have to hire qualified teachers and measure student learning. But you have the opportunity to create unique, precious, and lasting experiences for your students, staff, and faculty. This is what really makes a school.

Outcomes are fine, but inputs make the difference

Alan speaking at the 2019 TESOL International Convention in Atlanta, GA

At the TESOL International Convention in March, I participated in a panel presentation on the future of intensive English programs. One of the themes I asked attendees to consider was user experience design, an increasingly popular concept in industry that emphasizes the creation of meaningful and relevant experiences for a product’s users. We are about to see, for example, the widespread introduction of self-driving cars. What will we do in our vehicles when we no longer have to concentrate on driving? Car manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to promoting the experience users of their vehicles will have, rather than the car’s technical features.

The intensive English program (IEP) field can take something useful from the notion of user experience. In recent years, educators have been pressured to focus their efforts on student learning outcomes, as governments seek greater accountability from educational institutions. The obsession with outcomes has unfortunately led to the neglect of the quality of the educational experience, and ‘non-essential’ programs such as sports and the arts have been cut back in many school districts. IEPs have been swept up in the outcomes obsession, primarily through the requirements of their accreditors, who need to see measurable evidence of outcomes but have no standards relating to the quality of the students’ daily experience in their programs.

But this is a rough time for IEPs in the U.S. Student numbers are falling because of changing demographics in their sending countries, stronger English language programming in public schools across the globe, and above all, competition from other countries (such as the Philippines and Malaysia) and formats (apps and online learning). Simply focusing on outcomes is not the answer for U.S. IEPs. Each IEP can offer a unique experience to its students, an experience that can be personally enriching and be life-changing, can create life-long international friendships and networks, and can teach much more than language: intercultural communication and understanding, adaptability, and resilience.

If you booked a package vacation with a tour company, you would not expect the company to describe to you the anticipated outcomes of the vacation. You would expect that the elements you purchase, or the inputs – the destination, the tours, the hotel, the attractions – would offer an enriching and enjoyable experience. In their marketing strategy and program delivery, IEP leaders should pay close attention to user experience design, thinking about every aspect of the program from the users’ (the students’) point of view and working to make it the best possible experience for them. This is one way IEPs can distinguish themselves from the competition in an increasingly crowded global English language marketplace.

The panel presentation, “IEP? What will Intensive English Programs Look Like in the Future?” was devised and chaired by Jodi Nelms (University of Houston), and included contributions from Mary Reeves and Heidi Villenga (Commission on English Language Program Accreditation), Mark Algren (University of Missouri) and Scott Stevens (University of Delaware). 

Putting Students First

At a recent professional development session at Stafford House Boston, Miyo Takahashi Le and I presented some principles and practices of good service to intensive English program (IEP) students. The simple mantra “Students come first” particularly resonated with many in the audience. It means that in any policy or practice consideration, staff should always prioritize what is best for the students. Putting students first may seem obvious, but although individual staff and faculty approach their work with their students’ best interests in mind, in practice there can be institutional or structural impediments that inhibit good service. Here are three examples.

Silos
At one IEP, the Admissions team was responsible for first-day check-in of students for its semester-length program. The team had made the process – which included scanning passports and I-20s, checking students’ insurance, and ensuring that tuition was paid – highly efficient. There was no involvement from the Academic team in first-day check-in, because it was viewed as an Admissions process. Yet many students had academic-related questions when they came in on the first day, and there was no process to get those questions answered. Worse, for new students who had traveled thousands of miles to come and study at the program, there was little in the way of a warm welcome, no chance for students to meet their teachers, and only limited opportunities to start bonding with other students.

This was changed by having Admissions and Academics collaborate to develop a first-day check-in experience that included a warm welcome and conversation with faculty, and advisors on hand to answer students’ questions. It resulted also in the Academic staff and faculty being able to take care of some academic procedures (such as elective class selection) on check-in day, which was more efficient and of better service to students.

Breaking down silos and seeing first-day check-in as an institutional effort rather than the activity of just one department led to better service to students.

Prioritizing Staff or Faculty Interests
In an IEP that ran three semesters per year, the summer semester was set up differently from the fall and spring semesters. The daily schedule was shorter, with all days ending at 1:00 instead of 3:30, because students were restricted to one elective rather than two. The summer was divided into two six-week sessions, giving faculty the opportunity to teach less or concentrate their teaching into one half of the semester. This also meant that electives that were designed to be taught over 60 hours were crunched into 30 hours. None of this was great for students.

The original rationale given for the different summer schedule was that the IEP was running its main semesters in the fall and spring, and summer was seen as just an extra that was not taken as seriously. But students wished to study year-round, and there was no reason why the program should be any different in the summer. In fact, it looked suspiciously as though the summer had been designed for the convenience of the faculty rather than the good of the students.

After much discussion and a faculty vote, the summer semester was brought into line with the fall and spring semesters, creating a smoother study experience for students studying over several semesters.

Institutional Inertia
At a residential program, students were required to sign out when they left campus and sign back in when they returned. This was an onerous process that began twenty or thirty years before, and was intended to increase the safety of the students by enabling staff to check who was on campus at any time. Upon review, it was found that many students failed to sign out and sign in correctly, making the system ineffective. Given that the Student Service team’s mission had recently been updated to include empowering students and helping them to be more independent, the sign-out/sign-in system seemed outdated and intrusive. And on reflection, staff realized that the system had been introduced before the age of smart phones, which students now all carry at all times, making them easier to reach than ever before. The reason the sign-out/sign-in system continued was simply because that’s how it had always been done. While some staff had reservations initially, the burdensome sign-out/sign-in books were finally removed, and in a subsequent survey, students overwhelmingly supported the change.

Serving Better
No matter how much you may want to provide top-notch service to your students, impediments – such as silos, prioritizing the interests of faculty or staff over those of students, and institutional inertia – can get in the way of great service to students. Do you recognize any of these impediments in your program? How can you serve better?

 

 

Thank you to Ece Gürler of Stafford house Boston for devising and publicizing the session ‘How Can We Serve Better?’ 

What you should know about language placement tests

Most intensive English programs offer a placement test or a set of procedures to try and ensure that students are receiving instruction at an appropriate level. Minimally, a multiple-choice test is offered at the school on the first day,  or online. Other procedures typically include an interview and a written assignment that are assessed by the program’s teachers.

If your program is introducing, reviewing, or revising placement procedures, here are some important considerations.

Placement tests are not tied to your program’s objectives
If a program uses a commercially available test such as the Oxford Placement Test or the Michigan English Placement Test, the test may give some indication of students’ overall proficiency, but will not tell you which of your program’s learning objectives students have achieved. Even if you include a writing assignment based on a prompt or an interview, these procedures will not cover the range of learning objectives for your program. The results of placement tests are, therefore, highly inferential. They may gain face validity if used over a long period of time, if program staff can say, “Students with x score typically do well in y level,” but they do not tell which level is the correct one based on achievement of your program’s objectives.

Placement tests are not diagnostic
Because placement tests generally yield limited data about students’ proficiency, they they can be used to broadly categorize students into your program’s levels, but they won’t tell you much about each student’s ability on the four skills in a variety of discourse settings. This is why you sometimes find very quiet and hesitant students in a class with fast talkers, which can lead to student frustration – they placed at the same overall level but their skills vary. To serve students effectively, schools need to build in additional procedures (such as a needs analysis or separating skill classes by level) to ensure that students’ individual needs are understood and can be addressed.

Placement tests don’t tell you a student’s level
This may seem counter-intuitive, but in fact there are no ‘levels’ in language learning. Language proficiency improves on a continuum. Levels are imposed by programs as a way to group students (and each program has its own system of levels and grouping). ‘Level’ for a language program means its curricular level – what is specified to be taught to (and presumably learned by) a categorized group of students. Placement is the process of deciding which level a student should be placed in – but it doesn’t tell you ‘the student’s level.’

Placement procedures rarely ask the student’s opinion
Some students are ambitious and want to be challenged. Others want to spend time reviewing and consolidating what they know. Some students lack confidence and want time and space in the classroom to get comfortable with themselves as language learners in an English-only environment. Students’ own learning preferences are not usually taken into account in placement procedures; they are told what level they will be placed in and that this is the right level for them ‘based on the placement test,’ which, as I’ve tried to show above, is may be limited in its effectiveness. Placement procedures should take students’ preferences into account.

The only relevant information you need is…
‘what is the level of our program at which this student is likely to thrive and make the best progress?’ All other considerations are secondary.

So, if you are introducing, reviewing, or revising your placement testing procedures, consider the following

1. Improve the validity of your procedures by linking them directly to your program’s learning objectives.

2. Take proficiency on individual skills into account when placing students.

3. Avoid concluding that a student must be in a particular level because of the placement result – build in procedures for flexibility.

4. Ask students about their preferred level of challenge – if your program is ‘student-centered,’ you should be doing this anyway.

5. Finally, if a student is unhappy with his or her placement, be willing to make a change – understand that the placement test gave you limited information and that adult students have valid opinions about what works best for them.

 

Are adult learning principles at odds with accreditation requirements?

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Malcolm Knowles’ seminal text The Adult Learner sets out the principles of andragogy, an approach to teaching and learning which recognizes that children and adults learn differently. In pedagogy, the teaching of children, a relationship of dependency is assumed:

“The pedagogical model assigns to the teacher full responsibility for making all decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, when it will be learned, and if it has been learned.”
(Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2015, p. 41)

In practice, learners study to pass the course, not to apply their learning to their lives; they become dependent on the teacher’s decision-making; what they bring to the classroom is subordinate to the requirements of the curriculum and textbook; they are ready to learn when the teacher or the system deems them ready; and they are motivated by external motivators such as grades.

Based on this pedagogical model, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 sought to improve accountability in K-12 schools, in part by requiring states to develop ‘measurable objectives’ and assessments to measure student achievement. This meant that curricula were to be specified by each state in advance, and all students were to follow the curriculum on a pre-determined timeline.

In the early 2000s, this way of thinking bled into Department of Education requirements for accrediting agencies, including the two agencies that accredit intensive English programs, ACCET and CEA.
IEPs found themselves having similarly to specify learning objectives and timelines and to demonstrate that learners were achieving the specified objectives.

This pedagogy-based approach (whatever you may think of its effectiveness in the public schools) is inconsistent with the andragogical model proposed by Knowles, which makes the following assumptions:

  • Adults need to decide for themselves that they are ready to learn something; they must see its practical application to their lives.
  • Adults are self-directed and resist others imposing their will on them.
  • Adults bring a large volume of experience to the learning environment with them, that teachers must integrate as part of the teaching and learning.
  • Adults bring a problem-solving orientation to learning, and curriculum must address their life issues.
  • Adults are more likely to be motivated by internal factors such as satisfaction and self-esteem, rather than by grades.

If the assumptions of the andragogical model are correct, then the direction most IEPs have moved in as a result of accreditation requirements may not be appropriate for many of their adult students. Curricular items delivered on a specific timeline do not speak to adult students’ own readiness to learn. Talk of externally imposed ‘student learning objectives’ does not interest them. Imposition of topics by the teacher and/or textbook often fails to engage their self-directed nature.

I know of only one IEP that systematically addresses the principles of andragogy through customized, mutually agreed syllabi, assessments, and evaluations. It is very effective. Needless to say, it is also expensive and it requires enormous time and effort on the part of teachers and administrators. The IEP also has a hard time making its case to an accreditor which has curriculum and achievement standards that are based on a pedagogical, rather than an andragogical approach.

Reference
Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F., Swanson, R.A., The Adult Learner, Routledge, 2015