Tag Archives: Alan Broomhead

Rubric’s Clues

Photo by pure julia on Unsplash

When the accountabilty movement in education took off at the turn of the century, schools and teachers were called on to justify their quality claims by defining expected student learning outcomes and stating publicly whether students had met them. This ‘no child left behind’ approach filtered through to postsecondary English language programs by way of accreditation requirements, and classroom evaluation of students moved from a largely qualitative exercise (‘speaks well,’ ‘a good writer’) to a strongly quantitative one. From that point on, student language evaluation had to be based on observable, measurable behaviors.

There is a challenge in trying to quantify something that is largely qualitative in nature. Think of assigning a numerical score to a work of art or a scene in nature, for example. Measurement is typically reserved for the physical world and is expressed in standardized units such as centimeters, kilograms, and degrees, which everyone in the world agrees on. How do you apply that approach to a second language learner’s performance in a conversation, or an essay? What is the unit of measurement for language ability? (Standardized test providers have tried to quantify language proficiency for many years, but it would be a challenge to describe what a single point on the TOEFL test represents.)

For classroom teachers, this is where rubrics come in. A rubric is a grid that typically comprises columns representing levels of achievement on an assessment task (e.g. “Did not achieve,” “Minimally achieved,” “Achieved,” “Exceeded”) and rows describing aspects of the task (such as “Includes a topic sentence,” “Uses discourse markers,” “Uses vocabulary appropriately”). A rubric is essentially a yardstick for measuring students’ performance on an assessment task. It lacks the objectivity of a standardized measure (although this can be improved if teachers ‘calibrate’ the rubric by agreeing on different levels of performance in students’ work), but it makes teachers and schools accountable for student achievement by certifying what students did or didn’t do. From an accountability standpoint, this is a step forward compared with purely qualitative evaluations of students’ performance.

If you have to create rubrics, here are three pieces of advice:

1. Determine how much detail you need. Before creating the rubric, consider what level of detail you need to give in the student’s evaluation. If it is a simple letter grade, you may not need to do a detailed analysis of a student’s language using many rows of the rubric. You might be able to take a more holistic approach, describing the whole task in one or two rows. Similarly, include only as many columns (indicating level of performance) as necessary. Writing differentiated performance levels is challenging; there should be a clear difference between each one so that you are not scratching your head wondering which description best fits the student’s performance. As with many things in life, keep things  simple and avoid unnecessary effort by including only as much detail as is needed for your purpose.

2. Avoid using the words, “is able to” on the rubric. Remember that the rubric is a measuring tool and should describe only what the student did or did not do. A tape measure can give you the dimensions of a bookcase, but you (not the not the tape measure) have to evaluate whether it fits in your living room. Similarly, you use the information from the rubric to determine what the student can and cannot do. The rubric itself does not tell you that.

3. Include only assessed items on the rubric. If it is not in your course objectives, it should not be in your rubric. For example, if students are required to give a PowerPoint presentation, you would only include ‘creative, eyecatching slides’ on the rubric if this were one of the course objectives and you had taught it. Otherwise you are assessing skills that were not taught. (An exception to this advice is if students had learned a skill in a previous or connected course in the curriculum, which they were expected to incorporate in this course.) Don’t assess students on knowledge and skills that you did not teach them.

Demands for accountability in education continue, so rubrics are here to stay. Even if rubrics will never reach the level of objectivity of standardized measures, educators should learn to create effective rubrics as part of their professional skill set. Good luck!

Teacher to Administrator – the perks and pitfalls of moving into the office

Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

At some point in their career, many teachers ask themselves if they should move into school administration. For me that question came soon after I moved to the U.S. and realized that in an ESL field dominated by part-time teaching appointments it was going to be challenging to make a career as a teacher. I also perceived that others had a passion for classroom teaching, pure and simple, that I couldn’t match. Having worked in another industry previously, I also felt restricted by the strict scheduling of my time when teaching. It just didn’t suit me that well, and when the opportunity came, I began making the move ‘into the office.’

If you are considering making that move, perhaps these questions and answers will help inform your decision…

What kind of schedule do you want?

As a teacher your daily schedule is fixed. You know when your classes are, and you know where you need to be and at what time. It’s a highly structured work life.

Administrators generally have much more control over their time (other than the slew of meetings they have to attend). Depending on your institution, vacation time is structured differently too. University-based teachers tend to have more vacation, but are restricted as to when they can take it. Administrators may have less time off, but more flexibility.

In both cases though, the ability to really unplug varies. Teachers may spend much of their vacation time thinking about and planning for the next term’s classes; administrators tend to have to be reachable even on vacation, and may have to attend meetings remotely even while they are supposed to be taking a break.

Either way, the way your time is structured will change if you move from the classroom to the office.

What’s going to happen to your teaching skills?

Being a great teacher is a constant process of practicing, trying new techniques and materials, refining routines, reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, and making efforts to become more effective. Teaching is like learning a foreign language in that it requires regular practice. If you get out of practice, you get rusty.

If you make a move into administration, you’ll have to ask if you are going to continue to keep one foot in the classroom or not. Some think that academic administrators should continue to teach, so that they can fully appreciate the experience of teachers and the consequences of the decisions they make. That’s a nice ideal, but teaching and administering are two completely different jobs, and there is a danger that you will not be able to give your full self to either.

In my first job as a school administrator I was a teacher five mornings a week, and a housing director five afternoons. In the classroom students would ask me – or more often complain to me – about their housing. In the afternoon when I was working on housing, my students would visit me with questions about their classwork. This led to long hours for me and the potential for early burnout, as well as the sense that I wasn’t doing either job really well.

It can be hard to leave the classroom behind, but it’s a tough balancing act to keep teaching and office work going at a high level.

Do you care about a career path?

Teachers and administrators may have different mindsets when it comes to their careers. Many teachers just want to teach. Some end up doing similar work year after year; others push themselves to become more effective teachers through professional development and teaching different kinds of classes.

Either way, there isn’t traditionally what you would call a career path for teachers, especially in ESL. Some institutions might have ‘junior lecturers’ and ‘senior lecturers,’ and of course there are part-time and full-time teachers. But in the end, teachers tend to remain teachers, and many teachers are fine with that.

The administrator mindset tends to want to see career progress – increasing levels of responsibility, higher level job titles, broader influence in the organization. If you are planning to move from teaching to administration, it’s a good idea to reflect on what kind of career you want, and what you want to be doing ten or twenty years from now.

How will other teachers view you?

In some institutions, teachers and administration enjoy a constructive and positive relationship. In others though, there may be a level  of mutual suspicion and mistrust resulting from differing perceptions about how decisions should be made, less-than-perfect communication, and a failure to understand and appreciate the demands of each other’s work. If you move from teaching to  administration, some teachers might view you as having switched teams; or feel you’ve gone over to the dark side.

You may not be able to avoid this because while many in the organization call for transparency in decision-making, you may be required to maintain discretion (for example to protect individuals’ personal information), not publicly disagree about higher-level decisions with which you personally don’t agree, and be accountable to individuals or entities that teachers rarely encounter, such as accreditors, boards of directors, the Department of Homeland Security, and upper-level management. Sometimes what teachers may feel is best for the students seems contrary to what is demanded by one of these entities. Too bad – as an administrator you have to comply with demands wherever they come from.

On the positive side, as a former teacher you might be seen by teachers as someone who ‘understands us.’ Either way, you should be aware that perceptions of you may change with your move to the back office (or the corner office).

Finally – do you have the skill set and the inclination?

While some of the soft skills of teaching transfer well to administration – planning, organization, and effective communication, among others – teaching and administering are fundamentally different jobs, each requiring a refined set of skills. Do you enjoy working with spreadsheets, budgets, student records? Are you ready to handle complaints from students, teachers, and staff? You will need to ask yourself if you have those skills or are able and willing to develop them. And of course, working in an office is very different from working in a classroom. Will you be happy with significantly less contact with students?

So, is administration for you?

Educating our students requires many different roles and functions, from classroom teacher to academic administrator and student services provider. We are all educators, no matter our job. Education can be a rewarding field to work in regardless of your role. I hope you will find the right niche for your talents, skills, and inclinations.

Power-distance in the language classroom

Image by 정수 이 from Pixabay

If you’ve studied intercultural communication, you’ll probably recall that one of the ways cultures differ is in power-distance, “the degree to which the culture believes that institutional and organizational power should be distributed unequally and the decisions of the power holders should be challenged or accepted (Lustig & Koester, 2010, p. 114). A high power-distance culture is characterized by hierarchy, politeness rules, titles, and people ‘knowing their place.’ In low power-distance cultures, people tend to see themselves as equals, their relationships are less formal, and they are more likely to use first names.

I’m interested in how power-distance is also a feature of different kinds of English language class. Think about how the history of language teaching methods has been on a trajectory from high to low power-distance. Teachers in western countries used to be seen as the authority, the expert, the ‘sage on the stage’ who stood (did not sit) at the front of the classroom; the person who had the right to speak and to whom students had to display deference by not asking questions or questioning their authority. The ‘methods’ era ended with communicative language teaching, characterized by more informality, a sense of equality, teachers saying things like “I have as much to learn from you as you do from me,” and often sitting among students in a horseshoe-style arrangement. That style of teaching has now been quite commonplace for some years.

It is perhaps not surprising that the move toward low power-distance in the classroom followed the protests of the late 1960s, when young people, especially in western countries, challenged the authority of their governments and their institutions, including their universities. The generation that emerged from that period became the next generation of teachers, transforming English language teaching from a model in which knowledge is transmitted from the teacher to the students, to various models in which knowledge is constructed collaboratively with the teacher as ‘facilitator’ of the process.

The evolution of methods was driven by innovations in western countries, particularly the U.S. and the UK, and there was a push to export these methods to other countries, as well as an appetite in other countries for what were considered enlightened teaching methods. Here is where, in many of those countries, the limitations became apparent. A low power-distance approach such as communicative language teaching didn’t sit very well in a high power-distance culture such as Japan, where public school classes were under the strict control of an authority figure teacher. And while many students traveling to the U.S. or UK found the informality of the approach refreshing, some were confused because teachers didn’t assert their authority and expertise, taught informally, and let students’ mistakes go – all low power-distance moves.

If you’re teaching, it’s interesting to reflect on the power-distance relations in your classroom. Do you tend toward a high or a low power-distance relationship with your students? Do students from high power-distance cultures adapt well or poorly to low-power-distance teaching? How did you come to adopt your power-distance approach?

Lustig, M.W. & Koester, J. Intercultural Competence, Sixth Edition. Pearson 2010

Compliance and creativity in language teaching

When I create an I-20 form for a prospective student, the SEVIS system has me choose “Language Training” as the student’s area of study. I’m always intrigued by this choice of words. Why is learning English considered ‘training’ and not ‘education?’ Are other disciplines – math, the sciences, English literature and foreign languages – considered to be training?

I suppose this rankles because ‘training’ doesn’t sound as elevated or noble as ‘education.’ The word training connotes the learning of standard routines for predictable situations. In preparing people to administer CPR, make a burger in a fast-food restaurant, or respond to a customer service call, a future situation is anticipated, its predictable components are identified, and a set of routines, to be followed step-by-step, is developed. Complying with the prescribed routine is considered the most effective way of behaving in the anticipated situation.

Historically, language teaching methodology adopted such a compliance or training approach. The grammar-translation method inculcated grammar rules and vocabulary with the aim of producing accurate translations of sentences. The Berlitz schools relied on heavily scripted lessons from which teachers were not to deviate. Audiolingualism employed drills designed to ingrain mental and muscle habits, and functional language teaching provided scripts for situations such as ‘asking for help’ or ‘at the post office.’  Perhaps the notion of language training is derived from this history of methods that emphasized rules, drills, and situations imagined to be predictable.

This changed with communicative language teaching, which combined a constructivist approach – knowledge regarded as being built or constructed in the learner, not received from outside – with the goal of teaching students to use their language to solve problems in less predictable situations. In information gap tasks, students were not given specific language, but were required to draw on their language resources creatively to find missing information in communication with classmates. In the communicative heyday, many teachers and textbooks de-emphasized grammar teaching and error correction, to the disappointment of many of their students.

Communicative language teaching ushered in a new age of creativity in language teaching. Students gave presentations, took part in classroom discussions, wrote original essays and stories, and engaged in pair- and group work, all of which was unpredictable language-wise. The emphasis in pronunciation teaching was less on ‘sounding like a native’ and more on students making themselves comprehensible with whatever phonological features they brought to English from their own language.

These days we have moved past language teaching methods into an eclectic era in which teachers use whatever approaches and  techniques they feel are best suited to the subject matter and their students. It is liberating not to be straitjacketed into a teaching method, but freedom of choice means that teachers need to make principled decisions, and this includes how much they will adopt a training approach, emphasizing rules, routines, and scripted language, as opposed to a more educational one, having students solve problems using their language resources.

Naturally, both approaches are needed, as they likely are in most academic disciplines. Particularly in early language learning, training is vital, as students need language rules and vocabulary. Practice dialogues, controlled grammar exercises, dictation, drills, and choral readings are all helpful at this stage. Later, these methods, aimed at compliance, can give way to a more creative approach, in which students use their second language resources to navigate unexpected situations and in doing so increase their proficiency. Language teaching that gets stuck in a training mode as students progress may help them prepare for tests and complete predictable exercises, but is unlikely to prepare them for using language in the real world. By the same token, an approach that leaves too much open, providing too little language structure, may not help students progress.

The compliance-creativity/training-education dichotomy (or is it a spectrum?) can be helpful in analyzing one’s own lesson plan and teaching, and is one useful framework for observing and analyzing a language class. It is helpful in thinking through students’ needs and deciding on materials and teaching components in curriculum design. Training has an important place in language teaching – but language teaching shouldn’t be reduced to ‘language training.’

Who owns the syllabus?

Image by Darby Browning from Pixabay

A syllabus is a document that sets out a plan for how a teacher will turn the curriculum into a course. It’s one thing that tends to set university-based English language programs apart from private language schools. The latter tend to have short sessions or rolling intake systems that can mean students arriving in and leaving the class on a regular basis, as often as once a week. Schools with this type of system tend to follow a school-wide plan for what will be taught and assessed, in many cases based on the units of a textbook, and there is no place there for a teacher-made syllabus. 

Many university-based programs have inherited the syllabus tradition, which is part of a broader tradition of faculty ownership of teaching. That is, the teacher is assigned a semester-length course and is responsible for significant elements of its design and delivery. The typical syllabus is headed by the teacher’s name and contact information, and details such as location and schedule of the class and the teacher’s office hours. Information about the course tends to come later. The foregrounding of the teacher on the syllabus symbolizes the centrality of and ownership by the teacher. 

This is changing. Institutions have become more prescriptive about the layout and content of syllabi, and many provide a template for faculty to fill in. Heading the new style of syllabus is the institution’s name and logo, representing a brand consciousness that asserts the institution over the individual teacher. Additionally, the requirement to adhere to accreditation standards and institutional attempts to standardize course information and policies – such as academic honesty, attendance, and grading – mean that more syllabus information than ever is supplied by the institution and the document is less and less owned by the individual teacher. 

This makes the syllabus in some ways a contested area of school life, one in which the freedom of the teacher may be pitted against the requirements of the institution. Although it may not lead to openly expressed disagreement, there may be some concerns among faculty over this corporatization of the syllabus. On the other hand, having a template that looks professional and requires less ‘from scratch’ work is appealing to many faculty. 

I think it’s important to retain faculty-specific elements of the syllabus in university-governed programs. Yes, course goals and outcomes, and even some assessments, should be standard across course sections to ensure fairness to students. But one goal can be reached by many routes, and teachers – master’s qualified, experienced – should retain a degree of professional decision-making and judgment about which route speaks best to their own strengths and to the needs of the students in front of them. As in most things, it’s a question of balance.

Education – the journey and the destination

With a high school student about to enter 12th grade, we are finding colorful mailings from colleges in our mailbox every day. It’s a competitive market for students, and college marketing offices need to make their institutions attractive. 

As I was sifting through the pile, something struck me about how schools are trying to appeal to my rising senior. For over 20 years now, education at all levels has been driven by an accountability ethos. This is intended to ensure schools’ accountability for their quality by defining student learning outcomes (SLOs) and reporting students’ achievement of those outcomes. In an age of rising education costs and the demand for value for money (and for institutions that want to benefit from federal government financial support) this is considered to be good for students. And the definition and assessment of SLOs has become a centerpiece of accreditation standards. 

The funny thing is, I’ve never yet met a student who cares much about student learning outcomes. And if students did care about them, you would think the college marketers would have cottoned on to that fact by now. But look at some of the messages in the mailings we’ve been receiving…

“A college experience built around your definition of success.” 

This doesn’t sound like a college that is pushing its SLOs as a selling point. It is about the student finding meaning in the college experience. 

How about this student quote from another mailer…

“I’ve had professors who truly care about what I am doing and how I’m moving forward in my life.” 

I doubt you will find a requirement for ‘professors who truly care’ in your accreditor’s standards. 

“Best college town, extraordinary college experience.” 

Again with the ‘experience.’ Again, not a sales pitch based on outcomes. 

“Your (college name) story starts here.” 

College as a story – something filled with experiences and will create memories and meaning. 

“The question isn’t where you want to go. It’s how to get there” – an explicitly anti-outcome statement. 

And finally, my favorite: 

“You’ll never be bored in Buffalo.” 

Enough said? 

My point is that in the push for accountability and compliance, we can become too focused on outcomes that students may not be very interested in, and not pay attention to the quality of their experience. When we focus only on results, we can forget that what makes an education memorable is the location, the personalities, the interactions, the participation in the process, the experience of undergoing all that. A quality education should be rich in experiences, should encourage personal growth, should open us up to different ways of understanding the world. This is all very difficult to express as a measurable learning outcome. 

Does this matter? I think it does for several reasons. 

  • What does the grade for your course represent? Is it only the final result, the achievement of the outcome? Most teachers want to include assignments, projects, class participation and contribution, and quizzes – formative activities on the way to the goal – as part of the final grade. This is because teachers know that an education is not simply about the destination but also about engagement in the process. Students who fail to engage in the class but nonetheless achieve the learning outcome may have ‘succeeded’ in meeting an outcome, but may have failed to gain an education.

  • When can you consider that a class ‘worked?’ An education professor criticized teachers she observed who thought their class had ‘worked,’ because they failed to clearly define and assess an outcome for that class. But perhaps teachers know that ‘working’ can also mean having students engage in a process, in activities that enrich them in ways that are hard to measure – none of which is interesting to an outcomes-only oriented observer.

  • What is important when designing an educational program? Striving to comply with accreditation standards, many schools are focusing heavily on teaching to and assessing outcomes. An equal focus on how to get there – the journey too, not just the destination – should be taken seriously by schools and those who hold them accountable.

  • Is online learning just as good as in-person learning? From a purely outcomes point of view, maybe. Good online learning can of course be rich in experiences. But is it possible for good online learning to be as rich and engaging as good in-person learning? Personally I doubt it. 

And here comes the caveat, of course. I’m not arguing that establishing and assessing outcomes is not important. Clearly if education is going to consume students’ resources – their money, time, and effort – they want to know that they will gain knowledge and skills from it. I am concerned though that – as in many areas of life – the pendulum can swing too far in one direction. I’m arguing that it ought to swing back some way. College marketers, teachers, and students have understood this all along.

Talking textbooks

If you’ve been teaching English as a second or foreign language for a few years, you’ve probably taught using a wide variety of textbooks. Over the years, textbooks have evolved from layouts you could easily create (now anyway) in Microsoft Word, to sophisticated, full-color extravaganzas that seem designed to cater to limited modern attention spans. Textbooks also mirror evolving approaches to language teaching, from the decontextualized sentences of grammar-translation, through the drill-and-kill repetitions and substitutions of audiolingualism, information gaps and situational dialogues of communicative language teaching, to…whatever it is we have now, which is not entirely clear. 

Teachers use textbooks in various ways, sometimes as a springboard for whatever will happen in class, sometimes as a ‘pick and mix’ assortment of activities and exercises, and sometimes – perhaps too often – as the lesson plan itself. The latter seems to be increasingly true of those sophisticated, theme-based texts which can lead to what I think I’ll call ‘textbook lock-in’ – the tendency of the textbook to bind you to its content. The way this works is that each unit is based on a topic, and all vocabulary, grammar, speaking, listening, and reading exercises are based on that topic. It’s hard to do what’s on page 23 unless you’ve already done page 22. And 21. 

While this kind of textbook offers rich content, the language practice and the methodology tend to get a little lost in the mix. If learning involves analysis of the subject at hand, then it’s a good idea to isolate a piece of it (let’s say the present perfect tense), examine it closely, practice it in a structured and then a freer way, and then integrate that new piece of the subject into one’s total knowledge. This process of analysis and synthesis can get a bit lost when you are confronted with the whole language, everything all at once, and you (the teacher) are expected to also teach about volcanoes (been there, done that). 

This content-based, ‘locked-in’ approach in textbooks is very likely useful for students preparing for academic study, but it makes you wonder what the teacher is supposed to be expert in. Many ESL teachers are not expert in the specialized content of the textbook, so the textbook becomes the content authority in the classroom. And with all the exercises tied to the content, there may not be much for the teacher to do but manage the delivery of the textbook content to the students – or not stick to the textbook. 

Which creates its own problems. If teachers stay close to the textbook, they may be giving up some of their teacherly authority to determine content and method. The lesson is derived not from the teacher but from the publisher. The teacher is reduced to a delivery system, just as in the days of the old Berlitz schools (when teachers didn’t have to be qualified to teach in a language school). But if teachers don’t use the textbook, students may complain about having paid for it but not having used it, or may feel overwhelmed with all the content in the book plus what the teacher is supplementing with. What a bind this is. 

Do you like your textbooks? How do they position you in relation to your students? What is your role with regard to the book you are using? Does it support you in freeing up your creativity, or lock you in to pre-defined content? There’s a lot more to say about textbooks, but I think these questions are worth discussing. 

The image for this post is from Lessons in Vocabulary by Robert Lado and Charles Fries, The University of Michigan Press, 1956

Proficiency by proxy: language proficiency and test preparation

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

I wonder if your school offers test prep classes for any of the English language tests that are intended to indicate a person’s readiness for academic study in English or to succeed in a professional or daily life in English? Test prep classes – and the test prep industry – have always struck me as being a little strange. What are these tests for? In my naive moments I think they are meant to give a snapshot of a person’s language proficiency at a particular point in time. Looking at a test result, we are supposed to be able to say that on such and such a date, the test-taker’s English was at a certain level of proficiency.

A complication arises because of test preparation. By intensively focusing on the test itself prior to taking it, a learner ‘hacks’ the test so that it may not give a true indication of the learner’s level. The result then is not an indication of the person’s English level on a given date, but of the person’s ability to get a certain score on the test on that date. And the score is everything – because scores have a gatekeeping function for higher education and other purposes, the aim of the learner becomes the score rather than English proficiency as such. The number is a proxy for English proficiency and is treated by gatekeepers as a substitute for actual knowledge about English proficiency.

Now, it isn’t true to say that English proficiency tests have no relationship to English proficiency, but in my experience, a test score that was gained through test prep classes, coaching, and individual study may make learners appear more proficient than they really are. Anectodally, I think we all know of the students who arrived at an institution with a qualifying English test score but who were not able to handle the demands of the English language academic environment. This may have a lot to do with whether the test is truly valid, that is, whether its scores indicate what they are purported to indicate.

Test preparation can be beneficial for language learning, of course. In my own experience, preparing for Japanese proficiency tests gave me motivation and no doubt improved my vocabulary, grammar, and (under controlled conditions) listening ability. Yet even when I passed at a high level – sufficient to be accepted to a Japanese university – I knew that I wasn’t equipped linguistically to handle that level of language. I had prepared intensively to perform well on a limited and somewhat predictable range of tasks.

In spite of these concerns, test prep will continue to thrive because, well, everybody’s doing it and learners put themselves at a disadvantage if they don’t. I hope that as a field we will try to keep language test preparation in its appropriate place, connected to a genuine effort to build practical language knowledge and skills, and never an end in itself, chasing proficiency by proxy.

The importance of being open

A closed system has an impermeable border that prevents the exchange of energy between the inside of the system and the outside. We try to create a closed system when we fill a cooler with ice and put the lid on tightly. What we are trying to do is create an environment inside the cooler in which nothing changes.

As we know of course, the cooler isn’t a perfectly closed system – heat exchange will occur and the ice will eventually melt. And in fact it is rare to find a truly closed system. There are systems that tend to be more closed than others.

Organizations can suffer from a tendency to being closed if they cut themselves off from new ideas.

With no ideas coming in from the outside, the useful energy in the organization dissipates, and the organization stagnates. Some in the organization feel comfortable with the resulting stability, others feel the organization is languishing and are frustrated at their inability to change things. This can happen, for example, if jobs are secure and employees stay in the organization for a long time, not making way for new people and fresh ideas. It can happen if those with power in the organization are comfortable and not open to change, or are afraid of rocking the boat. It can also happen if there is too little diversity in the organization. Without diverse viewpoints, the organization can become an echo chamber with no possibility for fresh ideas and innovation.

This is why it’s important for people who have responsibility for organizations to actively ensure that the organizational boundary is permeable.

In an open system, energy flows in and keeps the system moving and evolving. Schools and academic departments can help ensure an open boundary by actively seeking diversity in their hires, encouraging professional development for teachers and staff, and entering into networks with other organizations. Administrators must conduct environmental scans to find out what is happening in the world beyond their departments’ walls; faculty must actively seek new ideas from their own field and others to enhance teaching and learning.

The result of this approach is dynamism and change. Ideas flow not only into the system but out of it too, into other systems.

This is the sign of a healthy organization, and a healthy academic field, in which organizations (departments, schools) exchange ideas, but the field itself also has an open border whereby it can communicate its best ideas to the outside world and in turn gain fresh ideas from other fields, industries, and activities. To those who enjoy comfort and stability, this complexity may look like a nightmare. But in a changing world, an organization that is not itself changing is sure to be left behind.

We educators have a responsibility to see ourselves, our departments and schools, and our field as open systems, always open to new ideas and diverse viewpoints, always willing to exchange those ideas inside and outside our organizations, and act on the best ones.

Inputs and outcomes – how we wound up with two systems for grading students in english language programs

row-students-doing-examAssigning final grades to students has been done in various ways over the years. In some contexts, everything rested on a final exam – this was the case with the O-level and A-level exams I took in a British high school ‘back in the day.’ Then ‘continuous assessment’ became popular, making the final grade a composite of grades for assignments completed during the course, either with our without a final exam.  This approach became popular in U.S. intensive English programs, where the final grade might be made up of homework assignments, projects, tests and quizzes, and the usually ill-defined ‘participation’ by the student. 

But English language programs, like all other schools in the U.S., became caught up in larger forces that had an enormous impact on how students were evaluated. Following the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s, there was much nail-biting over the quality of American education, culminating in the ‘A Nation at Risk’ report in 1983, which painted an anxiety-inducing picture of failing U.S. public schools. 

In the years following the publication of the report, the means of defining quality in education were questioned. The focus of quality tended to be on inputs – number of hours in class (this is where the ‘credit-hours’ system came from), teacher qualifications, teaching methods, and so on. Many schools in competitive environments still make such inputs the basis of their quality claims – “highly qualified teachers!” “innovative teaching methods!” 

But those raising the red flag about school quality were less concerned with inputs and more concerned with what the students came out of their education with – that is the outcomes, or as they have come to be known, student learning outcomes, or SLOs. No matter how great the inputs, if students were not learning useful knowledge and skills for the job market, the education they were receiving was not valuable. The solution was to turn the traditional curriculum planning process around and start at the end by first defining the desired outcomes, and having course design lead to student achievement of outcomes. 

This enabled education bureaucracies to hold schools and teachers accountable: school and teacher quality could be judged not by the quality of the teachers or the hours spent in class, but by the extent to which students were meeting the defined learning outcomes. In the public schools, those outcomes were assessed by standardized tests, and schools were judged and ranked by how well students scored on those tests. (The downside of all this was that quality aspects of school such as adequate breaks between classes and time for the arts, music and sports suffered as schools honed in on efforts to increase standardized test scores in math, science, and English.)

Back to grading. ESL teachers have for many years been used to giving final grades based on a combination of test and quizzes, homework assignments, projects, participation, and final exams. But with a shift toward accreditation of English language programs – mandatory in many cases, voluntary in others – teachers in those programs are now required to fall in with the requirement to define learning outcomes at the outset, and assess and evaluate students with sole reference to the students’ achievement of the outcomes. This has to be done at the school level, and it results in a greater standardization of curricula, syllabi, and assessments in schools. Schools are required to record and analyze the data arising from the assessment of SLO achievement. Decisions about whether a student may progress to the next level of study or complete the program successfully must be made solely on the basis of whether the student achieved the learning outcomes. 

The result is that schools have to take a mixed approach to grading students. Schools may still assign a traditional grade based on continuous assessment and participation, but they must also maintain a system that isolates achievement of the student learning outcomes and makes promotion and completion decisions based on that. What’s certain is that choosing one or the other of these two systems is not possible – both are needed. Yes, we can agree that it’s important for students and their sponsors to understand what the expected outcome of a course or program was and whether the student achieved it. This kind of accountability is needed when many are questioning the dollar value of their education. But as educators we also want to know whether students engaged with the educational process – collaborated with peers, challenged themselves on difficult projects or assignments, sought help and advice and gave them to others in turn. How the students got there is important to us, and still largely defines the benefit of studying at one school rather than another. 

And so we ended up with two types of student assessment and evaluation, one based on inputs into the process and ongoing or continuous assessment, the other on outcomes. Both systems are here to stay, and educators need to be familiar with the rationale and procedures for each of them. 

Background photo created by pressfoto – www.freepik.com

Goals, outcomes, objectives – clearing up the confusion (I hope)

If you’ve had anything to do with curriculum over the past few years, then you’ve likely wrestled with the terms ‘goal,’ ‘outcome,’ and ‘objective.’ It’s not surprising they cause confusion. After all,

“What is your goal?”
“What outcome are you seeking?”
“What is your objective?”

all sound like different ways of asking the same question. But in educational circles, the terms have come to take on specific meanings, and it can be hard to tease them apart. So here’s a handy-dandy guide to – what I think is – the correct way of thinking about how these terms are used by curriculum wonks.

Although there are various ways to design curricula, the in-vogue approach this century is backward-design. It starts by asking what we want students to achieve as a result of – that is, by the end of – the course. Hence the fixation on the end-result vocabulary. Let’s take a look at each term in its turn.

The goal is the most general statement about the end result. It’s the answer to the question, “What’s this course for?” Another way to think about it is by asking, “What change do we want to see in the learners as a result of the course?”

Possible answers are, “We want them to become more proficient academic writers.” That’s not a bad goal. “We want them to be able to speak English more fluently.” Pretty good goal. “We want them to be able to understand lectures.” And so on.

The goal offers a general rationale for the course. But It isn’t very specific. So this is where outcomes come in (so to speak).

Often referred to as student learning outcomes, or SLOs, outcome statements are there to hold teachers, students, programs, and schools accountable for results. They are usually expressed as ‘can-do’ statements and describe observable behaviors that successful students should be able to demonstrate. Usually an SLO can be preceded by the words (or it actually includes them), “By the end of the course, successful students will be able to…”

So in the academic writing example above, an SLO might be, “…write a five-page essay in English examining a current topic in the social sciences, with a clear thesis, supporting argumentation, and citations.” Something like that. The statement is in some way measurable, usually using a rubric against which the students’ performance can be gauged. It is useful to people outside the school, such as potential employers or admissions personnel, who may want to know what the student can actually do, and it is useful to the school itself for analyzing its own effectiveness (by asking how many students meet the outcome and at what level of proficiency).

So we have our goal, the general change we wish to see in our learners; and we have our SLO (one or more per goal), a specific, measurable statement of what a student should be able to do. But how are we going to get there?

Objectives break down the goal and SLO into more specific teaching and learning activities. I like to think of objectives as the components of the SLO. Just as the parts of a car, assembled correctly, result in, well, a car, the objectives, or components of an SLO, when put together, lead to the attainment of the SLO or goal. For example, speaking more fluently (depending on the level of the students) might involve ‘practicing conversational routines,’ ‘engaging in free conversation practice,’ and ‘expressing one’s thoughts in speech,’ among others. Objectives can help guide teachers in planning which skills and sub-skills to work on in the classroom to support the students in reaching the outcome.

So that’s the short version of goals, outcomes, and objectives, and I think it more or less represents the consensus, although you will find many points of disagreement or elaboration in the curriculum literature. I wonder if my understanding of goals, outcomes, and objectives is the same as yours? What would you add or change?

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.

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.

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.

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

Three organizational approaches to great student service

Over many years I’ve found that people who work in English language programs, whether teachers or  staff, are extremely kind, generous with their time and attention, and committed to their students. You’d think in an environment with people like that, students would always be well served. But in some cases the organization is set up in such a way that good student service is impeded. Here are three examples of organization-level problems and a suggested approach to addressing each one. 

  1. In one English language program, first-day check-in was conducted by the admissions team. They had it down to a fine art. Enter the lobby, present your I-20 and passport, check that you’ve paid your bill, show evidence of your health insurance, good to go, come back tomorrow for placement testing. It was highly efficient, and although the staff were friendly, this was hardly the welcome students should have been receiving after traveling thousands of miles and spending significant money for their program. 

    At this program, there was a siloed culture in which each team did its own thing. It was clear that students could be much better served if all staff, and faculty too, were involved in that first-day process. So, starting by inviting faculty to participate in welcoming the students that first day, the other teams – student activities and the academic staff team – were brought in. This resulted in a comprehensive first-day experience for students, starting with a warm welcome and conversation with faculty. Once the possibilities became clear, the academic and student services staff worked with the admissions team to create a process in which students could get a lot done – IT setup, activities sign-up, electives selection, program changes – in a ‘one-stop-shop’ approach that left students feeling welcomed and accepted into their new program. 

    Lesson: if your teams are working separately on serving students, break down the walls between departments and find ways to collaborate. You’ll find staff and faculty all pulling in the same direction and you’ll be serving students better. 

  2. Going back years, the summer term had been divided into ‘first half’ and ‘second half.’ This made it possible for teachers to teach just one half of the summer (which was an optional semester to teach in) and take the other half off. What’s more, the schedule had been adapted so that summer classes took place only in the mornings. The thinking seemed to be that the fall and spring were the ‘real’ semesters and the summer was just an optional, additional semester. 

    This may have been true for teachers, but not for students, many of whom wanted to continue their studies as normal over the summer and were inconvenienced by the mid-term change of teachers and the option to take only one 6-week elective in each half of the semester instead of two 12-week electives for the whole semester. 

    The arrangement seemed to suit faculty well, but had not been designed with students in mind. Again, there was no intention on the part of any individual to serve students poorly, but that was the effect of this arrangements. 

    Lesson: in decision-making around curriculum, schedules, and anything else that directly affects students, the first people to consider are the students. Always ask, ‘how does this benefit our students?’ In most cases, other considerations are secondary. Put students first. 

  3. In the final example, individual teachers worked with a staff member to plan and deliver specialized short programs. In some cases the staff member and the teacher had very different ideas about the role of each in the planning and delivery. One teacher viewed the staff member as ‘support’ – a back-office function to get students to the classroom where the learning happened. The staff member saw her role as integral to the students’ education and claimed more than spreadsheets and transportation arrangements. Disagreements got in the way of a team effort to give students the best possible service. 

    No matter the individual job – whether classroom teacher, student services staff, admissions personnel, and so on – everyone works for an organization that has the purpose of educating students. A narrow view of education is the ‘delivery to the classroom’ model – staff get students to the classroom where the ‘real learning’ takes place. But an English language program is a place where learning can take place at every stage and in every interaction.

    Lesson: As a part of the institutional goal to educate, see all employees as educators, and get them to see themselves in that light too. In particular, faculty and staff should see themselves as being in a partnership, with differentiated roles, to help students learn at every opportunity. 

    I hope you can see how impediments like the ones I’ve described can get in the way of good student service, no matter how kind the individuals in the program are. Look for examples of these organizational blockages in your own program and work to fix them. You’ll make a big difference to your students’ experience. 

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?

English language programs: what the virus tells us about who we are

The novel coronavirus has gone pandemic, our entire cohort of students has canceled, and we’ll be closed for the semester. While it’s encouraging that faculty are willing to re-tool quickly for online teaching, we are a study abroad program where English happens to be taught, and you cannot study abroad online. It’s true that many English language programs have ‘gone online’ to try and ride out the crisis, but this is a stopgap measure that will not satisfy students over the long haul.  The corona crisis forces us to consider just what English language programs in the U.S. actually are, and what value they offer to their students.

The terms ‘intensive English program’ and ‘English language program’ can actually distract us from getting to the right answer. Yes, we teach English, but so do online instructors, phone apps, self-study books, and secondary schools in countries the world over. Our students don’t come to us only for English. English language programs are:

  • experiential: students embark on a life adventure, many in a tradition that follows the ‘grand tour’ of Europe of young people from wealthy families in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • immersive: students are surrounded by the target language and culture, which can drive changes in their language ability, their resilience, tolerance, adaptabilty, and even their identity
  • destination-based: many proprietary programs in particular are located in attractive and prestigious cities such as New York, San Diego, and (yes!) Boston
  • interactive: students can get to know classmates and others in the community, primarily through activities outside the classroom
  • local: students can experience living in a foreign place that may eventually come to feel like a second home to them.

None of these features is available in an online format, and this ‘grounded’ nature goes a long way to defining what English language programs are. It also means that English language programs must see themselves as occupying a particular and special niche in the diverse English language market, and not as the be-all-and-end-all of language learning.

The forced and rapid move online for many English language programs means that they are likely changed forever, and this is a good thing. Now that teachers and administrators know firsthand that online lessons and assignments are possible, they will become integral to curricula in many programs, with online learning accompanying in-class work. This benefits students in various ways:

  1. It meets the digital generation where they are by allowing them to engage with online media. Students can create blogs and multimedia presentations to demonstrate their achievement rather than writing essays in stodgy blue books.
  2. If a teacher is absent or the school is closed because of bad weather, online learning is a useful short-term solution to keep students on track.
  3. Online materials enable teachers to ‘flip the classroom,’ delivering written and spoken material online for outside study while exploiting the interactive potential of the classroom when students gather.
  4. Programs are more likely to introduce online pre-program and post-program study, preparing students for their studies and consolidating their learning, thus adding value to the overall experience.

A few years from now we will be able to distinguish pre-corona and post-corona practices in English language programs. Programs will continue in an essentially grounded tradition, part of a study abroad and language tourism industry that students travel to, while becoming more sophisticated about integrating online learning into their offering. We will continue to be vulnerable to global crises, but perhaps better adapted to cope with them when they happen.

“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.

Intensive English Programs and the SEVIS Fee Increase

 SEVP recently announced an increase in the SEVIS fee from $200 to $350, a 75% increase. All international students who wish to study in the U.S. in F-1 status must pay the SEVIS fee (in addition to any additional in-country visa application fees), and are not eligible for a refund if they are denied an F-1 visa. The SEVIS system was an unfunded mandate introduced to keep track of international students following 9-11. It is entirely funded by its users: the students and the institutions they study at.

But not all users are equal. In particular, students wishing to study in short-term programs at intensive English programs (IEPs) are disproportionately burdened by the SEVIS fee, compared with those who come to study for a bachelor’s or master’s degree. $350 is a large chunk of the outlay of an IEP student in a short-term program. Doubtless the fee increase will deter many students from choosing the U.S. as a destination for study in an IEP, and U.S. IEPs stand to lose significant business.

A comment campaign organized by EnglishUSA made clear the unfair burden on IEP students, but it fell on deaf ears at SEVP, which went ahead with the fee increase for all students. IEPs will be responding by sidestepping the SEVIS system entirely. Already many IEPs offer part-time (such as 15 hours per week) programs, with students entering the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program or on a B visa. Rather than a workaround, this approach will increasingly come to be seen as business as usual.

Although some IEP administrators or designated school officials at universities may be reluctant to admit students for part-time students, it is acceptable to do so. An ESL program of less than 18 hours per week is, by the Department of Homeland Security’s own definition, not a full course of study, and individuals in such programs are not eligible for an F-1 visa. F-1 status is a privilege: it allows individuals who have demonstrated academic accomplishment and financial means the possibility to remain in the U.S. for as long as they remain in a full-time course of study at a recognized institution. People coming for part-time ESL do not seek that privilege, are not eligible for it, and should not apply for an F-1 visa.

I recommend that IEPs refer to the people who come to part-time programs as program participants, not as students. This will avoid any confusion as to the correct visa status for them (that is, they are not F-1 students). And please keep in mind that there is nothing illegal or dangerous about sitting in a room talking about English grammar, whether you are a U.S. citizen or not. U.S. IEPs offer valuable opportunities for people around the world, and should use the means available to them to continue to do so.

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.

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?’ 

Left behind? Intensive English programs have to adapt to survive

Image result for student visa

At the recent IIE summit in New York City, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Marie Royce, trumpeted governmental support for international education. “We must step up our game,” she declared.

While it is heartwarming that the administration, particularly this administration, intends to support increasing enrollment in U.S. higher education, intensive English programs (IEPs), which attract over 80,000 students to the US each year, are unfortunately left out of the conversation. And if cost, as Royce stated, is “a major reason that students decide not to pursue US study,” then the current government proposal to raise the SEVIS fee from $200 to $350 (additional to the visa application fee, none of which comes with the guarantee of getting a visa) impacts prospective IEP students disproportionately.

Prospective students who want to pursue a full-time course of study at an IEP are required to obtain a student visa. Somebody somewhere at some point in time decided that full-time for an IEP student is an arbitrary minimum of 18 class hours per week. Here is a key to how IEPs can respond to the increasing costs imposed by the government’s obsessive need to monitor international students since 9/11: by adapting programs so that they have a smaller number of class hours than 18, students will be ineligible to apply for a student visa and can enter the country using a visa waiver, B visa, or other means that are cheaper and less burdensome than the F-1 student visa. IEPs can fill out their program by adding out-of-class cultural and social activities.

The 15-hour-per week program is a good solution for those who want to come to the US for a relatively short time to improve their English, and return home. This is still a sizable portion of the IEP market. And it could be a more economical program for the price-conscious.

In order to survive tough conditions, even with professed administration support for international education, IEPs have to adapt.

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?

Created by Katemangostar – Freepik.com

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.

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

Do’s and don’ts of delegation

Many IEPs are staffed by people who started out as classroom teachers. This can be a positive thing, but management skills – especially the skills of managing people – have to be learned. One important skill that can be challenging to learn is delegation. Knowing when and how to delegate is important for all academic directors, student services managers, and program coordinators. Here are some tips for delegating.

  1. Delegate responsibilities, not tasks. True delegation isn’t just asking someone to do something; it is entrusting a person with a responsibility. It could be a project with a deadline such as writing a curriculum, or it could be an ongoing responsibility such as overseeing program assessment. Find an area of work that someone could take on and let a person do it. That’s delegation.
  2. Give ownership. Once you delegate, step back and let the person get on with it. They may not do it the same way as you; they will often find a better way of doing it. Owning an area of responsibility gives employees pride in their work.
  3. Explain your goal, not the process. Tell the person what you are trying to achieve, such as conversion of inquiries into registrations. Let them know how it’s been done before. Then let them figure out how they are going to meet your goal.
  4. Hold the person accountable. Agree on criteria for success, and arrange to check in on a regular basis to discuss progress and challenges. Make the person understand that although they have ownership of this area of work, they are accountable to you and the organization for results.
  5. Anticipate and tolerate mistakes. Employees need space to make mistakes, especially if they are trying out new methods. Agree with yourself that you won’t stress out if the person makes mistakes as they learn to do what you have asked. Repeating the same mistake over and over is a problem, but mistakes in learning are natural.
  6. Support, support, support. Make clear to the person that you are there to support them. When you delegate anything, consider this your primary role. Ask repeatedly, “What can I do to support you? Is there anything I can do to help you do this more effectively?”
  7. And remember: you are still responsible. Although you have delegated, the responsibility is still ultimately yours. If something goes wrong, don’t blame the person you delegated to. When explaining the situation to your boss, take responsibility. Conversely, if your employee did a good job, be quick to praise and advertise his or her accomplishment to your colleagues.

These are my do’s and don’ts of delegation. Do you have any others?

What’s your pricing strategy?

As competition for students increases, intensive English programs should consider the price of their program. The pricing decision must take into account the overhead and operating cost of the program, as well as revenue and margin goals. But a conscious pricing strategy also positions the program in relation to competitor programs. Prospective students evaluate the program price against the perceived value the program will have for them. Here are five examples of intensive English program pricing strategies I have encountered over the past few years, each of which exemplifies a pricing strategy that worked, or didn’t, for the program. Prices are for tuition for a four-week general English program.

Program A was part of a for-profit language school chain, located in the downtown area of a major city. At $2,200 (this was in 1998), it was priced significantly higher than similar programs. The price was intended to communicate high quality, but although this company had developed its own proprietary language learning software and hired only teachers with master’s degrees, it struggled to communicate added value to students. Student feedback included comments such as, “Why is this school so expensive?” This language school chain went out of business.

Takeaway: If you charge a higher price, you must be able to communicate the value you offer beyond the competition.

Program B, also part of a for-profit chain, marketed itself as a kind of ‘business class’ English school. It charged anything from $4,000 to $8,000 in the early 2000s, much more than any other program. Its facility was designed with business executives in mind, classrooms were fitted out as high-end conference rooms, and classes were very small, with additional one-on-one options available for personal attention (which most students opted for). Teachers were trained to push students hard for rapid progress. This school had a clear differentiating factor, and there was an elite clientele willing to pay the price, including corporate HR managers seeking professional development for employees. This was a low-volume, high-margin approach that was successful as long as the school could find and reach its market, which was and remains a challenge.

Takeaway: If you price high to attract a small number of well-heeled students, you must have a strategy and the capacity to reach those students or decision-makers, and clearly describe your difference.

Program C is a university-based program charging  almost $3000, which is about twice what the typical proprietary program in the same city charges. The university and the program have a strong reputation, and the program has a highly qualified and experienced faculty teaching an academically-based curriculum. The program saw a significant drop in enrollments in the past few years. While its price may reflect an ‘elite’ status as a university program and continues to attract students who seek a superior program, its net income is allocated to fund other university programs, and the university has demanding revenue expectations. Students are paying above what the program might need to charge if it were an independent entity. On the other hand, if they choose, students can take advantage of the university’s facilities and its student community.

Takeaway: A university-based IEP must be able to communicate the value inherent in its position on a campus to potential students who have academic ambitions.

Program D is a stand-alone proprietary program outside the main business district of the city, charging $750, or as little as $500 for students who make a long-term commitment. This program has made price its main differentiating factor, and is experiencing growth even at a time of overall declines. This is a high-volume, low-margin strategy that works if enrollment is strong, as it is. The downside is that it attracts a population largely from one country, many of whom stay with relatives who have immigrated from that country, and whose priority may be to stay in the U.S. rather than a strong urge to learn English. This has quality implications in the classroom.

Takeaway: A low price can be successful if you are able to find large numbers of students who may be satisfied with a no-frills program, and recruit them directly rather than through commission-based agents.

Program E: This program is a downtown branch of an international chain of English schools, and charges around $1700, which is about the same as other chain schools in the same city. This school emphasizes its location, its modern facility and technology, and friendly, welcoming atmosphere. It recruits primarily through an extensive network of agents, to whom it pays commissions.

Takeaway: When your price is the same as your direct competitors, you must build and maintain strong relations with your sales network, and develop in your agents a strong brand loyalty.

Information about intensive English programs is ubiquitous, and in an era of high student mobility,  you might say that every program is competing with every other program for students. Price is one of the major factors in positioning your program. Which of the above strategies is yours closest to? Is it appropriate now, and will it remain so in the future?

The push and pull of power in intensive English programs

…a review of Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership (2nd Edition) by Gilbert W. Fairholm

Power has a bad reputation in educational environments. In many people’s minds, it is associated with terms like ‘power-hungry’ or ‘greedy for power,’ and yes, I’ve heard it used by faculty to describe what they see as overreaching administrators trying to control their work.

But power, according to Fairholm, is ethically neutral; it is the  motives of the individuals who use it that determine whether its outcomes are positive or negative. And power is intrinsic to any group of people that aims to get things done, so reading a book about organizational power politics can give you insights not only into your own power and how to use and increase it, but also into the power tactics of those around you. In turn, you will gain a deeper understanding of how your organization works, and especially why some people or groups are more powerful than others.

In any group or organizational setting, power is the ability to control scarce resources in order to achieve your aims, even if others oppose you. While you may think of power as coercive (hence its reputation), power is exerted in a number of ways, listed by Fairholm on page 12, ranging from coercive at the top, to consensual at the bottom:


Those who are higher in the organizational hierarchy are more likely to be able to access the direct forms of power at the top of this list, while those lower down may exercise the indirect power types at the bottom. Yet power is not only about where you are in the hierarchy, and other sources of power include expertise, criticality to the organization, and group solidarity. This means that the exercise of power can be inverted, and power can be exerted upward. Fairholm describes “the power exercised by… lower-level workers who dominate their superiors through their control over resources (e.g., skill) the leader needs” (p. 55).

In many educational settings, especially in universities, there is a tension between faculty and administrators over the use of power. While it may be inappropriate to talk about who is higher and lower in the hierarchy, this struggle often manifests as one between authority legitimized by formal position among administrators, and the threat exercised by faculty who know that their expertise and skills are critical to the institution. Faculty in many university intensive English programs are challenged by the administrative invocation of the authority of non-negotiable accreditation standards. Fairholm sums this situation up concisely: “Promulgation of standard operating procedures, requiring prior (or post) approval of subordinate decision or actions and an over-adherence to organizational traditions, exemplify this tactic” (p. 125). Note that in the case of IEPs, it is often ‘organizational traditions’ that are promoted by the faculty in opposition to the ‘standard operating procedures’ imposed by the administration.  Note also that teachers in proprietary IEPs have long been subject to organizational standard operating procedures, and are unlikely to be able to draw on institutional tradition as a counter-weight. This is one reason why proprietary IEP teachers have relatively less power in their organizations than their university counterparts.

If you want to understand the workings of power in your organization, and gain insight into your current power and how to increase it, Fairholm’s book – with its sharp analysis, questionnaires, and lists of strategies – is a good place to begin.

Fairholm, G.W., Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership, 2nd Ed., Praeger 2009

Faculty freedom and curriculum design in intensive English programs

How much freedom do intensive English program (IEP) teachers have to design their courses, choose their materials, and teach to their interests? How much should they? These questions become ever more compelling as accreditation standards push programs to be accountable for their outcomes.

Teachers in proprietary (non-university-governed) IEPs have long been used to teaching within a structured framework, using prescribed textbooks and curricula that map out what is to be covered by the week or even by the day. This has been necessary because, adopting a customer-centric and profit-maximizing approach, they allow students frequent – weekly or monthly – entry and exit points. Students staying for a short program jump in and then out of existing classes with longer-term students. Those long-term students need to be able to move through a defined program of work and progress to the next, and then the next, level. This means that all teachers need to be on the specified part of the curriculum – in some cases on the specified page of the textbook – at all times.

Many university IEPs have inherited the university tradition of faculty autonomy, giving faculty the freedom to write their own syllabi, choose their own materials, and generally teach to their own interests. Under the influence of CEA accreditation standards, faculty are losing some of this autonomy, as student achievement standards require them to teach to a program-wide set of learning objectives. Student promotion to the next level must be based on student achievement of objectives, so faculty have to conform to standard assessment, evaluation, and grading practices. In order to ensure all students are getting the same course, university programs are increasingly prescribing textbooks. As a result, university IEP curricula and faculty work are looking more like those of proprietary programs.

This trend has caused much tension between faculty and administration at IEPs where faculty have fought to retain autonomy in their teaching. Some faculty claim that students are losing out because, being close to the students, they know what is best for them. Administrators charged with implementing accreditation standards argue in turn that students gain when there is a program-wide system that smooths out the differences between faculty styles and preferences.

In proprietary programs, curriculum can be imposed by administrative fiat. This is harder in university programs. Those that have adapted best are the ones where administrators and faculty have a trusting relationship and can jointly respond to the new requirements in a collaborative way that reconciles the divergent demands of individual autonomy and program standardization. Some programs continue to struggle.




Unintended Consequences? Effects of the 2010 Accreditation Act on Intensive English Programs

The Accreditation Act passed in 2010 required that F-1 students pursuing an English language training program must attend a program that is accredited by a Department of Education recognized accrediting agency. University-governed programs were covered by their university’s regional accreditor, which meant that for them, an additional specialized accreditation was optional. All proprietary programs – mostly for-profit language schools – were required to seek and gain accreditation.

The Accreditation Act was supported, and its passage celebrated by, program directors and leaders at university-governed and well-established, already-accredited for-profit language school companies. They were motivated by a strong desire to bring greater professionalism to the field and to weed out a significant number of unscrupulous and fly-by-night operators who had cleared the relatively low bar for entry into the industry and whose low standards were tainting the field as a whole. Since the passage of the Act, the two specialized accrediting agencies for intensive English programs, CEA and ACCET, have added hundreds of intensive English programs to their rolls. Plenty of programs that sought accreditation have been denied, and the weeding out process has been largely successful.

But some consequences are not so unequivocally positive for the field:

  • The accreditation process costs up to $10,000, plus annual sustaining fees. This is a significant financial burden on programs, especially during a time of enrollment challenges. While university-governed programs have the option of sheltering under their institution’s accreditation and avoiding these costs, proprietary programs have no choice but to pay up or cease doing business.
  • The requirement for an IEP to be accredited creates a Catch-22 for potential new entrants into the market. A proprietary program has to be in business for two years (ACCET) or one year (CEA) before it can apply for accreditation. The accreditation process itself takes around 18 months, and if it succeeds, the program must then wait for F-1 issuing approval from the federal government. In the words of one IEP administrator in this situation, “It felt like being choked to death for four years.” During this time, the program has to survive on non-F-1 students. The near-impossibility of this makes the price of entry extremely high for those wanting to enter the field. While there were always requirements to become an F-1 school, the Accreditation Act raised almost insurmountable barriers to new proprietary players.
  • A consequence of this is greater consolidation in the proprietary IEP market. If you cannot start a new school, you have to purchase an existing one. Inevitably, those with the resources to do this are large companies seeking to develop branded chains of English schools. Further, accrediting agencies make it relatively easy for existing schools to open new branches through a simplified accreditation process for the new branch, thus allowing existing companies to expand while new entrants continue to struggle to gain entry.
  • Accreditation likely has the effect of curbing innovation in the field. Adherence to accreditation standards tends to result in institutional isomorphism (the phenomenon of institutions of a certain type looking the same), and programs are reluctant to launch anything radically different for fear of not complying with accreditation standards. Aside from surface details (number of levels, number of weeks per session, etc.), IEPs can be quite difficult to tell apart. This, combined with the lengthy SEVP approval process for new programs, in turn leads to commodification in the industry: potential students have difficulty telling one program apart from another, and use price, location, and established brand reputation to make their choice rather than any specific features of a program.

Overall, the benefit to the field has been positive. Students can apply to U.S. IEPs with the knowledge that their chosen program has been verified by an accreditor to meet high standards. The price to the industry as a whole is high though, and we should look for ways to mitigate the downsides – in particular to find ways to foster innovation and be open to new models – as we continue to face challenging market conditions in the years to come.

How valid is that speaking test really?

students in testing lab

Language learners who take an online language test usually expect to receive an evaluation of their speaking ability in the results. But online tests don’t do a very good job of assessing speaking ability because they lack construct validity: they cannot create the type of conditions the learner will be speaking the language in, such as a conversation or presentation. The iBT TOEFL has speaking components, but the test taker has no interlocutor, creating a highly unrealistic speaking situation – a monologue spoken into a microphone with no audience – on which speaking ability will be evaluated. Some online tests contain no speaking component at all; claims about the test taker’s speaking ability is even more inferential than those of the iBT. None of this prevents test makers from making confident claims about their test’s ability to measure learners’ speaking ability.

Speaking is a particularly difficult skill to test properly, especially the ‘spoken interaction’ described in the Common European Framework of Reference. Research has shown that learners perform differently under different conditions. For example, a test taker scored more highly when paired with another learner in a conversation than when assessed by interview with an examiner (Swain, Kinnear, & Steinman, 2011). Conversation is co-constructed by participants, who build on and scaffold each other’s utterances. Conversation requires cooperation, the successful negotiation of meaning, strategies to understand the other person, asking questions, requesting clarification, affirming, and paraphrasing. Is it likely that any of this can be evaluated by an assessment that does not require the learner to do any of these things?

Online tests have emerged from the psychometric testing tradition, which assumes that an ability is stable in an individual, and therefore requires isolation of the individual in order to avoid extraneous influences. This is the opposite of most spoken language in use. We should call into question the usefulness of tests that make claims based on a lack of validity.

The best way for spoken language to be assessed is by an expert interlocutor interacting with and observing learners in interactions with others over a period of time. Language teachers – trained and experienced in assessment and evaluation techniques, and in many cases able to assess learners over the course of a session or semester – are best placed to offer this kind of assessment.

Swain, M, Kinnear, P., & Steinman, L., Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education, Multilingual Matters 2011

Picture credit https://tc.iupui.edu/

How SWBATs and can-do statements shortchange language learners

“Can keep up with an animated discussion, identifying accurately arguments supporting and opposing points of view.” “Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points.” If your program is using Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) descriptors as its outcomes statements, you’ll be familiar with ‘can-do’ statements like these.

The CEFR was developed as a means to assess and describe language proficiency. It was built on the European tradition of communicative language teaching (CLT), which emphasized the performance of language tasks. Since language performance can be observed, the CEFR’s can-do statements were a perfect match for the measurable-outcomes-based accountability initiatives that came in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Many teachers have been trained, encouraged, or badgered to plan their lessons and courses around SWBAT (‘students will be able to’) or can-do statements.

There is a persuasive case to be made that CEFR (and similar) performance statements are a useful way to describe language proficiency. Employers, for example, what to know what a potential employee can do in a language – what practical uses the employee can use the language for. Language educators are not employers, though. What language educators need to know is whether and to what extent learning has taken place, and here’s the problem.

Broadly speaking, two educational traditions have informed language teaching: the behavioral, and the cognitive. Behaviorists see learning as a change in behavior, one that can be observed or measured. Cognitivists see learning as acquiring and understanding knowledge. The cognitivist tradition fell out of fashion with the demise of the grammar-translation method and the rise of behavior-based approaches to language teaching. These days, we can probably all agree that in language learning, we need to refer to both traditions: the acquisition or construction of a mental representation of the language, and the skill required to be able to use it in practice. When our outcomes are can-do statements, we focus on observable or measurable behaviors, but tend to pay less attention to acquired or constructed knowledge. We want to know if the learner ‘can tell a story,’ or ‘keep up with an animated discussion,’ for example.

If you have taught students from various countries, you know that some are great performers even if they lack a solid language base – somehow, they manage to draw on sparse linguistic resources to communicate. And on the other hand, you know that some learners have extensive language knowledge, especially grammar and vocabulary knowledge, but have a great deal of difficulty ‘performing.’ Hence, Chomsky wrote of language proficiency, “behavior is only one kind of evidence, sometimes not the best, and surely no criterion for knowledge,” (as cited in Widdowson, 1990). The one is not necessarily indicative of the other.

If you are an educator (as opposed to an employer), you are interested in student learning in any form. You want to know what progress a learner has made. From a cognitive point of view, that includes changes in the learner’s mental representation of the language – a clearer understanding of the form, meaning, and use of the present perfect, for example – even if that has not yet resulted in a change in behavior, such as the ability to use that tense easily in a conversation. A learner who has made great strides in his/or mental representation of the language but is still speaking in telegraphic speech may be of little interest to an employer, but should be of great interest to an educator, because learning has taken place that is a basis for future teaching. Assessment and description of the learner’s language should address this type of progress. The behavioral tradition, with its can-do outcomes statements have no interest in such cognitive development – it is not interested until there is a change of behavior, an observable, measurable performance.

This approach to assessment shortchanges learners who may have made real progress on the cognitive side. So, I’m calling on language educators not to accept uncritically the use of CEFR and similar performance-based descriptors as measures of language learning.

Widdowson, H.G., Aspects of Language Teaching, Oxford University Press, 1990

The Accreditation-Ready Program

There are few obligations for faculty and staff that cause knots in the stomach and departmental wrangling than preparing the accreditation self-study. It is often viewed as a burden, a distraction from everyone’s ‘real’ work, and a process of bureaucratic box-checking or of trying to fit the round peg of the program into the square hole of accreditation requirements.

In Five Dimensions of Quality, Linda Suskie draws on years of experience with accreditation, institutional and program assessment, and accountability to re-frame the role of accreditors as “low-cost consultants who can offer excellent collegial advice” (p. 245) to schools and programs seeking to demonstrate their value to stakeholders in an increasingly competitive market.  Accreditation should be viewed not as an imposition of alien practices on an established program, but as a way for a school or program to gain  external affirmation of already-existing quality. The challenge is not to make the program ‘fit’ accreditation standards, but actually to be a quality program and demonstrate that quality.

Accreditation success, then, flows naturally from the pursuit of quality, and is not an end in itself. But what is quality? Suskie breaks it down into five dimensions or ‘cultures’:

A Culture of Relevance
Deploying resources effectively to put students first, and understand and meet stakeholders’ needs.

A Culture of Community
Fostering trust among faculty, students, and staff, communicating openly and honestly, and encouraging collaboration.

A Culture of Focus and Aspiration
Being clear about school or program  purpose, values, and goals.

A Culture of Evidence
Collecting evidence to gauge student learning and program or school effectiveness.

A Culture of Betterment
Using evidence to make improvements and deploy resources effectively.

Fostering these cultures is the work of leadership, since they require widespread buy-in from all stakeholders. The challenge in many institutions is institutional inertia, as Suskie points out in her chapter, “Why is this so hard?” Faculty, staff, and governing boards may feel satisfied that the school’s reputation is sufficient for future success; resources – especially money and people’s time – may not be forthcoming; faculty and staff may live in comfortable isolation from the  real-world needs of students; there may be an ingrained reluctance to communicate successes; there is frequently resistance to change; and siloed departments in programs and institutions make across-the-board cultural change difficult to pull off.

The question administrators and faculty should ask themselves is, “Do we put our efforts into pursuing quality, or into maintaining our accreditation?” Suskie’s book presents a convincing case that working on the former will make the latter much easier and will result in quality rather than box-checking. For its straightforward prose (including jargon alerts scattered throughout), its sound advice, and its call for schools to demonstrate quality in a highly competitive environment, Five Dimensions of Quality should be a go-to resource on the reference bookshelf of decision-makers and leaders in higher education programs.

Suskie, L., Five Dimensions of Quality, Jossey-Bass 2015

More of my education-related book reviews are at Amazon.

Challenge and change in intensive English programs

From left: Bill Hellriegel, Carol Swett, Michelle Bell, Amy Fenning, Alan Broomhead

Challenges over the past few years have deeply impacted intensive English programs, forcing irreversible changes in their organizational cultures that result in anxiety and tension, but also innovation and adaptation. That was the theme of a panel session, “Organizational Culture in University and Proprietary IEPs: Challenges and Changes,” presented by Michelle Bell (University of Southern California), Amy Fenning (University of Tennessee at Martin), Bill Hellriegel (Southern Illinois University), Carol Swett (ELS Language Centers at Benedictine University, Illinois) and myself at the TESOL International Convention on March 28. Recognizing the cultural types of IEPs and how they are affected by changes is the first step in adapting and surviving in an increasingly competitive field.

IEP cultures can roughly be divided into collegial and managerial types, following Bergquist and Pawlak’s (2007) typology of academic cultures. A collegial culture, more likely to be found in a university-governed IEP, is faculty-focused, with faculty scholarship and teaching, academic autonomy and freedom, and faculty ownership of the curriculum as the organizing principle. A managerial culture is administration-driven, motivated by considerations of fiscal responsibility and effective supervision, and organized by systems, processes, and standards.

The massive shift to accreditation in IEPs has moved collegially-oriented programs in a managerial direction. Faculty are required to plan, teach, and assess in compliance with program-wide student learning outcomes; policies and procedures have to be written and followed; and program success is measured by data, which has to be systematically collected, analyzed, and evaluated. Proprietary IEPs are seeing a a shift in the other direction: faculty standards require minimum levels of certification, experience, and ongoing professional development, and these are affecting faculty hiring and employment practices in many proprietary programs.

The severe enrollment challenge of the past two years has also affected both types of program. University IEPs are becoming more revenue-driven and entrepreneurial, actively seeking new recruitment partnerships and designing new programs – such as short-term high school programs – to respond to changing demand. Faculty may have little say in these initiatives. Meanwhile, proprietary IEPs are increasingly developing conditional-admit and TOEFL-waiver agreements with partner universities, requiring them to make programs more academically-focused and hire masters-level teachers who are qualified to teach English for academic purposes.

These are ground-shifting developments, and program leaders who recognize the need to address profound cultural change in their organizations – and not just surface-level adjustments – will be in the strongest position to navigate these challenging times.

Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K., Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, Jossey-Bass 2007

Is language proficiency measurable?

For the past few years, ESL teachers have been pushed to focus their efforts on helping their students achieve ‘measurable objectives.’ Am I the only person who finds this a strange idea? Measuring something is a matter of determining how much of something there is. To measure, we need a unit of measurement: inches and feet, centimeters and meters, pounds and ounces, grams and kilograms. By agreeing on standardized units of measurement, we can determine, objectively, the quantity of something.

Could we use this approach to evaluate a work of art or a piece of music? What would Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik measure? What unit of measurement would you use? Impossible, because we are not dealing with quantity (the amount of paint or size of canvas, or the number of notes) but with quality. There is no unit of measurement for quality.

When we want to assess and evaluate language are we dealing with something more like a distance or weight, or like a work of art? Is it the quantity of language or the quality of language we want to know about?

If you believe it is quantity, then you might say we can ‘measure’ the number of words a student has learned, or the number of grammar points. These don’t work as units of measurement, though, because defining exactly what is meant by ‘learning a word’ is complicated, as language teachers know. A student may be able to say it but not spell it, may use it but in an inappropriate context, may not recognize it when written down but may hear it in another person’s speech, may forget it on one occasion but recall it on another.

The psychometric testing tradition has given us tests which appear to measure learners’ language ability by assigning a score and thus appear to be objective. Classroom assessments by teachers are often regarded as a subjective second-best.

We should move away from the notion that language proficiency is measurable, and that test scores give us an ‘objective measure’ of a learner’s ability.  Language should be evaluated qualitatively, by people, using rich description rather than fantasy units of measurement that give the false impression of objectivity.

The Inadequacy of “ESL” for International Student Preparation

Wrapped up in the term ESL (English as a Second Language) is an assumption that language, above all, is what students need to succeed in an English-speaking environment. The same kind of assumption can be found in the name of the most popular standardized U.S. admissions test for international students, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) lists levels of language proficiency by skill, and many ESL programs continue to organize their curricula on the basis of Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing skills. The field of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) is a major feeder discipline in ESL teacher preparation programs.

A focus on the acquisition of language skills gets us only so far if we are preparing an international student for academic work in an English-speaking setting.  One thing among very many that this student needs to do is to read a text critically and offer an original, well-thought-out, supported, and argued response. The student may need to argue that response in class, and defend it against other points of view, in an assertive yet diplomatic manner. To be taken seriously, the student will need to behave in what is recognized as a normal and appropriate manner in that environment – and know when and how to revert to a more informal style when class ends. All of this goes far beyond language skills.

What this student needs to learn is what James Paul Gee in Social Linguistics and Literacies refers to as Discourse (with a capital D). Discourse “is composed of distinctive ways of listening/speaking and often, too, writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and with various objects, tools, and technologies, so as to enact specific socially recognizable identities engaged in specific socially recognizable activities” (p. 152). These are less language skills than “social practices into which people are apprenticed as part of a social group” (p. 76). As we move in different Discourse communities, we need to know how to play our part and be recognized as a legitimate member of each community. Discourses are mastered by “enculturation…into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse” (p. 168).

This helps us understand why any program of learning that reduces preparation to language skills is inadequate. Students need to learn the ways of interacting, believing, valuing, and effectively being in the academic Discourse community. University IEPs (intensive English programs) teach English for academic purposes, but they still largely identify as English language programs with language-based missions, their faculty members have degrees in teaching English, and classes are often language skill-specific. They are often isolated from the rest of the campus, and therefore don’t allow for the kind of apprenticeship into the social practices of the campus that would make international students full members of the Discourse community.

In order to address this wider understanding of international student preparation:

  • Intensive English programs should ensure their missions, their curricula and teaching, and their names, encapsulate the full meaning of international student preparation – not simply ESL.
  • University administrations should make international student preparation a task for the whole university, supported by, but not the sole responsibility of, an intensive English program. The IEP’s efforts should be integrated into a campus-wide strategy for international student preparation.
  • Universities should not expect that simply raising the required TOEFL scores will improve international student outcomes – students need induction into the Discourse community, not just a higher TOEFL score.
  • ESL teacher preparation programs need to include coursework on social literacy and in preparing students to enter and successfully navigate their target Discourse communities.

Some of this has already been achieved. Many IEPs recognize their wider mission of orienting students into academic culture, and more recently,  pathway programs have been structured to provide ESL support alongside credit-bearing classes that, in theory at least, offers an apprenticeship into the academic community. But there is a long way to go before the notion of Discourse communities drives international student preparation beyond the inadequacy of “ESL.”

Gee, J.P., Social Linguistics and Literacies, 5th Ed., Routledge 2015

Teacher Leadership for Program Improvement and Development

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader

If you’ve read anything from the popular leadership literature, you’re probably familiar with the prescriptions for strong leadership: confidence, vision, integrity, charisma, and so on. Analyses like these are premised on positional leadership, or what James Spillane called ‘the heroics of leadership’ – the notion of the strong leader standing at the head of an organization, leading the way. Think Jack Welch, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page.

There is an alternative to this view of leadership. Distributed leadership begins with the idea of leadership tasks and asks how these tasks can be accomplished by individuals across an organization. In an intensive English program (IEP), leadership tasks can include curriculum development, teacher professional development, and materials writing, among others. In many management-driven IEPs, these tasks are still carried out by non-teaching staff. But there are advantages to bringing teachers into leadership tasks and distributing them more widely.

Bringing teachers into leadership roles – whether formally or informally – is great professional development for teachers in a profession that otherwise may have no upward career path. It can give teachers a sense of fulfillment from helping other teachers or the program as a whole, and can serve to retain talented teachers by more thoroughly networking them into the program. And it serves the program by drawing on the enormous pool of talent that teachers bring, and which is otherwise confined to their classrooms.

There are challenges to introducing teacher leadership. The role of leader is not a part of the ‘role schema’ of a teacher – teachers are socialized to be followers and may not see themselves as leaders. Teachers need to reframe their self-identity to include leadership. External constraints include how teachers are perceived by other teachers when they take on leadership roles – there is often a culture of egalitarianism among teachers, and teacher leaders may draw disapproval from their teacher peers. Finally, structuring  teacher jobs to include leadership can be a challenge: teachers may lack the time or energy to take on leadership roles, and the program may be limited in its ability to compensate them or structure their jobs appropriately to accommodate leadership tasks.

For teacher leadership to succeed, therefore, it requires strong support from the program director or academic director. Teachers need to be empowered to take on leadership roles, and they need to be given the time and resources to succeed. They may also need coaching on how to manage their identity as teacher leaders, and they may need to be protected from resentment that may occur among peers as they take on leadership roles.

IEPs serve their students best when everyone has an opportunity to contribute to decision-making and program improvements. Here are some examples of teacher leadership I’ve seen over the past few years:

  • A teacher took the initiative to start a reading corner to encourage extensive reading among students. With management support, she built up a collection of books for ESL learners at all levels, and now runs the reading corner as part of her job.
  • A teacher started a peer observation group to encourage teachers to visit each other’s classes and give feedback.
  • Teachers took on program coordinator roles for which they were given release time from their teaching.
  • Teachers played a role in the selection and hire of new teachers.
  • Teachers delivered professional development workshops for their peers, or organized a professional development program.
  • Teachers self-organized into ‘level’ teams to collaborate on in-class projects and assessments.
  • Experienced teachers mentored newer teachers.
  • Teachers became subject or skill experts in the program.

Think about how teacher leadership can be extended in your program.

Can an intensive English program go virtual?

Business image created by Jcomp – Freepik.com

Along with continuing enrollment challenges for university and proprietary intensive English programs (IEPs) comes a demand for fresh ideas, re-thinking the model, and new types of programs that meet the needs of today’s learner. Given the rise and ubiquity of online learning, many IEP leaders are asking whether and how they might take their programs online.

Online ESL is already big business, with many startup companies connecting students and teachers in different parts of the world through synchronous online lessons. The first challenge for IEPs thinking about breaking into this market is how to devote the resources to develop and market an online program while not diverting resources from their current on-ground operations. But the greater challenge is how to take a model that has developed and established its value in one format (on-ground) over many years and adapting that model to a new, online format.

In their book on academic cultures, Bergquist and Pawlak identify the ‘tangible’ culture and the ‘virtual’ culture as two cultural types that may be in tension with each other. IEPs have developed around a tangible culture that emphasizes location, student life, interaction with local people, institutional facilities – the whole student experience. Additionally, as a result of visa regulations, they have built curricula and weekly schedules that prioritize compliance over the needs of students (example: there is no strictly educational reason why students should spend 18 hours in class in order to learn a language). This model has been valuable to the many thousands of students who have attended IEPs. But how much of this on-ground value can an IEP retain when it puts its programs online? And with many providers in the online market, most of which are specialized, agile, not tied to an on-ground model, and highly entrepreneurial, how feasible is it for established IEPs to make significant inroads into this market?

My prediction is that most intensive English programs will not play a significant role in the online ESL market, nor will they want to break from the on-ground model they have spent years nurturing. To survive, they will need to continue adapting to the needs of current students who want to travel for an education. Right now this means offering short, specialized programs, and pathways into universities. While the demand for intensive English programs is currently in a slump and may never bounce back to the numbers of recent years, the tangible academic culture is not going away, and there will always be value in traveling for a global, intercultural, and language education. IEPs need to continue working to demonstrate that value to tomorrow’s students.

Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K., Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, Jossey-Bass 2008.

Keeping your Intensive English Program Relevant on Campus

Created by Ijeab – Freepik.com

These are trying times for many on-campus intensive English programs. Enrollment and revenue are down, and there is increased pressure from senior administration for many IEPs to demonstrate their continuing relevance and usefulness to the wider institution.

At the same time, many universities have enrolled international students who can benefit from language, cultural, and social support. IEPs have faculty and staff who are highly qualified to provide programming in these areas (and who may currently have less work to do), yet because IEPs are typically viewed as profit centers rather than service units, they are not called on to offer such support. This is short-sighted, as increased support for degree-seeking international students will improve their retention and completion rates – which is good for the students,  the university’s bottom line, and the institution’s reputation.

IEP directors can sell this idea to university administrators. Here are some activities the IEP can offer to improve the international student experience on campus:

Workshops for faculty: Offer strategies to encourage international students to participate in class discussions, or give advice on assessing written work of students using English as a second language.

Resource webpage for English language support:  Like this one at Hunter College. Include online dictionaries, grammar resources, and writing advice for international students across campus.

Tutoring: Many universities have a writing center, but few have a place specifically to help with second language issues. The IEP can provide this.

English language workshops: Students who have gained a high score on the TOEFL or IELTS may still be lacking essential English skills. Offer workshops in pronunciation, pragmatics, or giving presentations.

Career preparation workshops: Many international students may seek on-campus employment, co-op or internship positions, or CPT/OPT opportunities. Help them write an effective application and interview effectively.

Pre-arrival language preparation: Develop a short online course to give incoming international students confidence with English. Prepare them for the various situations they will encounter and provide strategies to continue working on their English once they arrive.

These ideas will likely require building relationships with other offices on campus, and IEP directors may run into territory issues. Getting buy-in from a senior administrator who can support these efforts may be essential. This person may also be needed in making the case that the costs incurred in these activities will be more than recouped in international student performance, retention, and completion.

On-campus IEPs are home to enormous expertise on international student success. It’s time to put that expertise to work across the campus.


Job number one for education managers and leaders

Startup Stock Photos

I used to see one former boss only when he stopped by my cubicle with a question or an urgent demand. Another gave me the shrill and unhelpful advice, “You should be panicking!” in response to enrollment declines. This is not what you would call effective supervision.

It’s a problem in higher education that individuals are promoted into positions in which they have oversight over others, without having undergone training to prepare them for that role. For university IEP directors, the problem can be compounded by the fact that they report to managers who have little or no knowledge of the workings of an IEP. While there are many good people working in higher education administration, these circumstances can lead to strained relationships, loss of motivation, and diminished performance.

The solution is for managers to understand their primary role, their job number one.  It isn’t revenue generation, test score improvements, or student retention, which are indicators of great performance but not activities in themselves. No, the manager’s first job is to support his or her people. They are the ones on the front line of providing service to faculty, other staff, or students, and who are best placed to deliver quality through their work. The manager’s most frequent question to those employees should be, “What can I do to support you?” This is followed by careful listening and the  acquisition and direction of resources to provide that support, so that employees can do the high quality work expected of them.

On the basis of a well-supported faculty and staff delivering quality, managers can have confidence in focusing on goals of increased enrollment and revenue, improved student outcomes, and program development. There are no short cuts to these goals. Don’t forget job number one: support your people. 

Performance evaluations – a few polite reminders


Performance evaluation season will be upon us before we know it, so here are a few gentle reminders and tips to make this a good experience for both parties.

For those doing the evaluating:

  1. This isn’t about you. You are evaluating the employee on behalf of the institution, and your evaluation should be a fair reflection of how the employee has served the institution. Put aside your personal feelings and base your evaluation on facts.
  2. Gather your information along the way. Don’t try to remember how the employee performed just a few days before the evaluation. Make it a habit, every month, to take notes on each employee’s performance, so you are not puzzling over the narrative at the last minute. Put it on your calendar.
  3. Make it an ongoing process. Have a deliberate check-in meeting with each employee every three months. Before the meeting, ask the employee to take notes on what has been going well, what the challenges are, what s/he has been working on, and what support s/he needs. Use these meetings to initiate course corrections, and let the notes from the meetings feed into the year-end performance evaluation. Put these meetings on your calendar.
  4. Get your employee’s input. Before the formal evaluation meeting, ask the employee to give you written notes on what has gone well this year and what the challenges were. BUT please don’t ask the employee to write his/her own performance evaluation, and don’t simply reproduce the employee’s notes as the performance evaluation. This is disrespectful to the employee and shows you don’t care. By the same token, don’t ask for the employee’s input and then ignore it in the evaluation.
  5. Rate the employee fairly and realistically. You’ll likely have to check some boxes indicating whether the employee ‘exceeds expectations,’ ‘meets expectations,’ or ‘needs improvement.’ Ensure that you take the entirety of the employee’s record into account when you check these boxes. Don’t mark ‘needs improvement’ to express a gripe about a single incident. And don’t mark ‘exceeds expectations’ across the board – doing so may make you feel generous, but it indicates that you have low expectations, or that the employee should be in a more challenging position.
  6. Discuss goals for the next year. Do this with the employee, and get his or her buy-in. Don’t simply impose goals  on the employee. And be sure to check in regularly with the employee in the following months on the progress toward those goals – don’t wait till the next annual performance evaluation.
  7. And of course, the cardinal rule: No surprises. If you follow the advice above, the performance evaluation will hold no surprises for the employee, which is how it should be. If your evaluation is negative and this is a surprise to the employee, you have failed as a manager, since you should have been working to correct any negative behaviors along the way, and you should have discussed them already with the employee. Your goal should be to have the employee leave your office feeling valued and appreciated, even if there are areas for improvement.

For those being evaluated:

  1. Keep an ongoing record. Make it a habit each month to recall your achievements and write them down. Otherwise, you will forget half of what you achieved and will undersell your accomplishments at year’s end. Put a reminder on your calendar.
  2. Ask to meet with your supervisor once every three months specifically to check in on how things are going with your work. Be prepared to ask what your supervisor is happy or dissatisfied with, and what s/he would like to see from you in the coming months. Report on progress toward your annual goals. Don’t expect your supervisor to initiate this. Put it on your calendar.
  3. If you get a negative surprise in your evaluation, be sure to raise this with your supervisor. It was his or her job to alert you to any performance issues along the way.
  4. Agree on goals for the coming year. You or your supervisor (or both) may develop goals for the year, but you must be sure they are reasonably achievable. Don’t set yourself up for failure with unrealistic goals.
  5. If you’re not satisfied with your evaluation, bring it up with HR. They will be able to advise you on how to effectively raise the problem with your supervisor.

Performance evaluations should be a helpful process for both the evaluators and the evaluated. Too often, they are a source of worry, stress, and disappointment. The advice above (based on years of hard-won experience on both sides of the process) should contribute to a peformance evaluation that is helpful to the employee, the supervisor, and the institution.

Do you have any other ideas for effective performance evaluations?

Keep Calm and Dance

Jerome Murphy of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has made a career of educational leadership, and has first-hand experience of the stress, burnout, and even despair that can come with a lifetime of trying to satisfy the needs and demands of faculty, staff, students, and a host of other stakeholders. “Honking and hissing like geese,” goes Murphy’s goose theory of leadership, “faculty and staff members will cruise into the boss’s office, ruffle their feathers, poop on the rug, and leave” (p. 44), expecting a solution to whatever problem they brought in. The unskillful response of many leaders under these conditions is to obsessively ruminate, resist the discomfort and try to escape it, and rebuke themselves for not measuring up. The more they try to escape their discomfort, the more entangled they become in it. Can anyone relate yet?

Murphy’s answer in Dancing in the Rain: Leading with Compassion, Vitality, and Mindfulness in Education, is learn to live with the emotional discomfort and get it to work for you. When it rains, don’t run for cover; learn to dance in it. His formula for doing this, developed over a career, is summed up by the acronym MYDANCE:

Mind your values: Take action inspired by what matters most to you
Yield to now: Slow down and focus on the present moment
Disentangle from upsets: Mentally step back, observing and making room for upsets
Allow unease: Open up to upsets even if you dislike them
Nourish yourself: Engage in activities that replenish your energy and restore your perspective
Cherish self-compassion: Give yourself the kindness you need and deserve
Express feelings wisely: Carefully reveal your human side so that you can build trusting relationships (p. 41)

Murphy takes the reader through these Buddhist-inspired precepts chapter by chapter, and includes many easy-to-do exercises. For example in the Mind Your Values chapter, we are invited to call to mind a favorite leader, reflecting on the person’s values and how the person makes us feel. In Yield to Now, a 5-minute exercise suggests focusing in turn on the five senses, bringing attention back gently each time the mind wanders.

This definitely isn’t your typical educational leadership book. It’s more of a handbook on surviving and thriving amid the slings and arrows of academic administration. If your professional life seems to be a constant struggle, this may be the therapy you need.

(This review was also posted on Amazon)

Why language is best assessed by real people

“Classroom decoration 18” by Cal America is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is the most effective way to assess English learners’ proficiency?

It has become accepted in the field to rely on psychometric tests such as the iBT (Internet-Based TOEFL) and the IELTS for college and university admissions. Yet these and most other language tests are an artifice, a device that is placed between the student’s actual proficiency and direct observation of that proficiency by a real human being. Students complete the limited set of tasks on the test, and based on the results, an algorithm makes an extrapolation as to their broader language abilities.

When you look at a TOEFL score report, it does not tell you that student’s English language ability; what it tells you is what a learner with that set of scores can typically do. And in the case of the TOEFL, this description is an evaluation that is based largely on multiple choice answers and involved not one single encounter with an actual human being. Based on this, university admissions officers are expected to make an assumption about the student’s ability to handle the demands of extensive academic reading and writing, classroom participation, social interaction, written and spoken communications with university faculty and staff, SEVIS regulations, and multiple other demands of the U.S. college environment. (Although the IELTS includes interaction with the examiner and another student, these interactions are highly structured and not very natural. TOEFL writing and speaking tasks are limited, artificial, and assessed by a grader who has only a text or sound or text file to work with.)

Contrast that with regular, direct observation of students’ language proficiency by a trained and experienced instructor, over a period of time. The instructor can set up a variety of language situations involving variation in interlocutors, contexts, vocabulary, levels of formality, and communication goals. In an ACCET or CEA accredited intensive English program, such tasks are linked to documented learning objectives. By directly observing students’ performance, instructors are able to obtain a rich picture of each student’s proficiency, and are able to comment specifically on each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Consider this a call, then, for colleges and universities to enter into agreements with accredited intensive English programs to waive the need for a standardized test such as the TOEFL. Just as those colleges and universities don’t use a standardized test to measure the learning of their graduates, they should be open to accepting the good judgment of teachers in intensive English programs – judgment based on direct observation of individual learners rather than the proxy scores obtained by impersonal, artificial tests.

Goodhart’s Law and the Measurement of English Proficiency

Goodhart’s Law was first proposed by the British economist Charles Goodhart. In essence it states that, “When a measure becomes the goal, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurements are often used as a proxy for performance. For example, it’s sometimes reported that in Soviet Russia, when the success of nail production was measured by quantity of nails, many tiny nails were produced. When it was measured using weight of nails, smaller numbers of large nails were produced. The measure became the target, and gaming the system created the illusion of success.

In U.S. university admissions, the TOEFL is the most common measure of the English proficiency of international applicants. It’s easy to understand why the complexity of language proficiency needs to be reduced to a small set of numbers when large quantities of applications have to be evaluated. Unfortunately, TOEFL preparation is very often a great example of Goodhart’s Law in action: many students focus on attaining the necessary score rather than comprehensively working on the cognitive-academic language skills and cultural skills they need to succeed in the U.S. university, and this can result in serious challenges for those students. Once matriculated, as those students seek to earn good grades – a proxy measure for learning – they may wind up trying to game the system by plagiarizing, using online essay services, cramming at the last minute, or begging the instructor for a better grade.

Although it would present practical difficulties, it would serve everyone better – schools and students – if the schools used a broader set of mechanisms to determine English proficiency. These might include evidence of English (not just test prep) study, Skype, phone, and in-person interviews, recorded presentations by applicants, synchronous online discussion groups, and reports from instructors in intensive English programs who have first-hand – not proxy – knowledge of the students’ English.

Hourly teaching rates in IEPs – reflection

In my last post, I questioned the hourly rates for ESL teachers in intensive English programs. I looked at the rates themselves, which can be very low, and the practice of counting class-hours as the basis for the hourly rate, which neglects the time that teachers put in on preparation, grading, and other duties.

There is no simple solution to this, since institutions and programs vary in their expectations of teachers for out-of-class work, and teachers themselves spend very different amounts of time preparing and following up on their lessons. Early-career ESL teachers may burn themselves out with over-preparation (as I almost did), or impose time constraints on themselves (knowing that their salary doesn’t justify an enormous amount of preparation) – which can lead to greater spontaneity in the classroom and can therefore  be a useful discipline to learn. Offering an hourly rate that teachers must work within may be the fairest and most workable way to manage all this variation.

Keep in mind, too, that proprietary English language schools are often the first stepping stone into a teaching career for newly-minted ESL teachers, who may have completed only a one-month certificate in addition to their bachelor’s degree. This is a low bar for entry into a teaching job, yet student satisfaction surveys indicate that such teachers can perform well, and the school can be seen as a kind of apprenticeship and nurturer of teaching talent. One teacher I employed did great work before deciding to complete his master’s degree and going on to become a business English professor at a prestigious English language program in Tokyo.

In the end, schools employing hourly-paid teachers should do their best for their teachers, providing resources and programs to develop the skills of their teachers, who may well leave for greener pastures when the time comes.  Additionally, hourly-paid teachers should inform themselves about the ESL job market, understand what they are likely to be able to achieve career-wise, decide whether to earn further qualifications, and make good decisions for themselves.


Let’s talk about those hourly teaching rates

A school vice principal I once reported to told me of his younger days teaching 60-hour weeks at Berlitz school. It was exhausting, he said, but at least with the Berlitz method, all he had to do was walk into the classroom and follow the script. There was no lesson planning, no grading, no syllabus or evaluations to write.

The Berlitz method is gone, and good riddance, but how should the hours of part-time ESL instructors be calculated in an age when teaching involves so much more than walking in and following the script? Many ESL teachers are employed on an hours-per-week basis, which invariably refers to the number of hours spent in class teaching students. Many programs in their turn – and this includes university IEPs, non-profit organizations, and English language schools – advertise their rate on a per-hour basis, which also refers to hours spent in class. At the upper end, this could be $60 – $80 per hour in some university programs. At the lower end, it could be as low as $15 or $20 per hour, especially in some non-profits and private language schools. As all ESL teachers know, these are not the true hourly rates, because teaching requires preparation and grading, in addition to required meetings, office hours, evaluation writing, and other activities. According to the federal government, actual hours worked should be calculated as time in class x 2.25. That is, for each hour spent in class, it is reasonable to assume that instructors spend another 1.25 hours working outside the class. Additional required activities should be compensated additional to this.

Many ESL teachers will tell you that 2.25 hours is too conservative, and that they spend longer on lesson planning and grading. Others may find it over-generous. But for the sake of argument, let’s take this number as a reasonable expectation. It doesn’t take advanced math skills to work out that a “15-hours-per-week” (not untypical for part-time ESL teaching) assignment is almost a full work week. Add those additional duties and you easily have a full-time job. Further, that $20 “hourly wage” is well below minimum wage in most states. Even that higher paying $80 per hour teaching gig is actually $35.50.

Everyone in the field knows about this. Part-time teachers tend not to complain because they enjoy the work and it’s the best they can do. University administrators and business owners know that advertising actual pay rates might be embarrassing and paying more would reduce margins. Accreditation standards for intensive English programs don’t mandate salaries or impose specific workload requirements. Associations such as TESOL and EnglishUSA either have little will or power to address salaries and teaching loads for part-timers.

It is way past time for a conversation about this, to include teachers, administrators, business owners and managers, accreditors, and associations. A start could be made at the national TESOL convention or the NAFSA conference. Can the field overcome its inertia and finally address part-time teaching salaries?


What’s the real story on international student applications?

“Survey Finds College Applications from International Students Down,” cries the U.S. News and World Report headline from March 13. “Amid Trump Effect Fear, 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applicants,” reports the New York Times on March 16. “Will International Students Stay Away?” asks Inside Higher Ed on March 13, reporting a “nearly 40% decline” in international applications.

What’s the story here? The actual percentage reporting declines was 38% or 39% (depending on whether you read the original AACRO preliminary report or one of the news stories), not 40%. This is three or four percentage points higher than institutions reporting increases in international applications, not a whole lot. And the rest – 27% – reported no change. Which means that 62% of institutions are reporting the same or higher applications.

While most stories touch briefly on some of the institutions experiencing increases, the slant to all the stories is negative. Far from simply reporting anxiety about future enrollments, they appear to be creating it. Is there a real basis for anxiety here? Consider:

  1. We haven’t yet learned (though a full report is expected) which institutions took part, how they were selected (or if they self-selected) or if they are representative of U.S. institutions as a whole. It is possible that institutions experiencing declines disproportionately responded to the survey.
  2. Only 250 institutions responded to the survey, a small sample of the thousands of institutions accepting international students. Without more information, it is too early to conclude that “nearly 40% of U.S. colleges are seeing declines.”
  3. We are not given any information about how these results compare to previous years, or whether the survey was conducted in previous years. Is this year better or worse than before? The only clues we get from the stories are anecdotal and speculative.
  4. No information has been given about the margin of error – which could even out the institutions reporting increases and decreases.
  5. No actual numbers are given, meaning we don’t have any real idea of the extent of the increases and decreases reported.

None of this is meant to diminish the anxiety that some institutions are clearly experiencing over enrollment declines. It is also not a criticism of the original study. But stories like this, especially those with a negative and alarmist slant, can quickly take on the status of orthodoxy and shape the conversation over the entire higher education landscape. They need to be read and interpreted with caution.

Sources for this post:





University IEPs: get the business back

Right after September 11, 2001, when many IEP student left the country and new applications tailed off to near-zero, I received some advice from a good friend: “Be here when the business comes back.” What he meant was to increase the school’s visibility, especially online, because the downturn wasn’t going to last forever and prospective students would once again be looking for schools to study English in the U.S. So I worked like a fiend to develop the school’s website, turning it into not only an information source in multiple languages, but also a highly efficient sales tool. I learned about SEO and made sure the site was appearing at the top of the search results. In time, the business did come back and sales turned around and took off.

Many IEPs, especially those in universities, have not been very well oriented to promoting themselves. For a few years, it was more or less enough to hang out a sign and wait for the students to arrive. Not any more. In these times of reduced enrollments, university IEPs need to take active steps to seek new students. They should adopt a three-point strategy:

  1. Define and communicate the unique value of the IEP. If your IEP looks just like any other, then you have a commodity and a race to the bottom on price. Sit down with your faculty, staff, university colleagues, students, and external contacts, and really figure out what makes your program unique. In most cases, it won’t be a single feature but a combination of features that are unique to your program. Think about the benefits of your location, your faculty’s expertise, opportunities for community interaction, and university resources. Also, keep in mind that you are unlikely to be attractive to all students everywhere. What is your niche? What do you want to be known for?  Once you have defined it, communicate it – on your website, in your social media, in your brochure, and whenever you and your staff talk to others about your program. If you advertise, be sure to include your message in your advertising.
  2. Develop new programs and adapt existing ones. Accept that the market is changing, and that what was attractive ten years ago may be less so today. Be aware – through conference attendance, reading (ICEF Monitor, The PIE Weekly, etc.), and your conversations with your external contacts – of what new programs are likely to be attractive. Match these ideas with your faculty’s expertise, and get faculty on board with program development. Think about populations you haven’t served, such as short-term summer high school students, incoming degree students, or professionals, and develop new content and means of delivery to appeal to these markets. Once you have developed curricula, put these new programs on your website and in your materials to signal your program’s capacity to deliver them, and talk them up in your conversations.
  3. Actively recruit students. As the cliché says, waiting for the phone to ring is not a good sales strategy. Expensive student fairs are generally not very effective for individual IEPs. Go with recruitment methods that are likely to lead to repeat business over time. Identify target countries based on resources such as Open Doors, Dr. Education, and NAFSA. See if you can work with the Undergraduate Admissions Office or the graduate colleges on campus to piggy-back on their recruitment and outreach efforts.   If you are permitted to work with agents, increase your network through agent fairs or in-country visits, or work more closely with your existing partners. Work with EducationUSA offices and try the State Department’s Gold Key service to connect with institutions and corporations in your target countries. Connect with foreign institutions at NAFSA and develop those relationships.

These are trying times for most university IEPs. If they are to survive and thrive in a hyper-competitive environment and during uncertain political times, they need to be pro-active. It’s not enough to wait for the business to come back. The strategy outlined above will get an IEP moving in a positive direction and ready to take on future shifts in the markets.

Recognizing the university’s obligations to its international students

Many U.S. universities have increased their international student enrollments over the past few years, through building out their international student recruitment capacity, working with overseas study abroad agents, or partnering with a pathway provider. Financial motivations are at the heart of much of this recruitment activity, but many institutions have been keen to implement and communicate a campus internationalization plan that adds value to the students’ experience by offering a diverse student community. But such a plan requires more than merely a recruitment effort: institutions need to develop the capacity to support their growing international population of students, who may need help with cultural adjustment, language skills, and orientation to the demands of the U.S. higher education system. In many cases, institutions have been slow to recognize the need for and create appropriate support systems for their international students, and this has led to concerns or complaints among faculty that students are not prepared, heightened stress for international students, and academic disciplinary measures taken against students who may not be familiar with citation practices. Clearly, institutions that have recruited international students should take their responsibilities toward these students seriously by offering plentiful support through dedicated staff, offices, and programs.

But this is only part of the solution. Much talk about international students on campus focuses on getting them to integrate, getting them to learn the American way, improving their communication skills. In this discourse, which belongs to the longstanding assimilationist tradition in the U.S.,  international students are viewed as a problem to be fixed. If institutions really want to develop their global credentials though, they need to look in the mirror: how prepared are faculty and staff to work with students from other cultures and language backgrounds? To what extent does the institution prepare its U.S. students to break out of their familiar social groups to befriend and welcome those from other countries? At a time when many institutions are signaling that they welcome international students, how many are actually taking measures to build that welcoming environment?

We know that most international students leave the U.S. not having formed a single significant friendship with an American or having once stepped into an American home. To serve their international students well, university administrations and faculties should refrain from merely problematizing those students, and accept their share of the burden in creating a welcoming, globally oriented institution.

IEPs and the Rise of Pathway Programs

This week my colleague from the University of Kansas, Deborah Osborne and I led a discussion on the future of

Deborah Osborne and Alan at the TESOL Convention, Seattle

university intensive English programs at the TESOL Convention in Seattle. Many university IEPs reported enrollment declines of between 10% and 70% last fall, and some are really struggling at this point. Meanwhile, pathway programs resulting from partnerships between universities (such as American University, Oregon State University, and George Mason University) and corporate partners (such as INTO, Navitas, and Shorelight) continue to proliferate, suggesting that English language and academic preparation for international students is undergoing a major shift.

For prospective students, the major attraction of a pathway program is the word ‘guaranteed.’ If they complete the program successfully, they will matriculate into the partner university. Many university IEPs can offer college advising and assistance with applications, but are not able to offer that guarantee. For universities, pathway programs can offer a fast track to increasing international student enrollments with little upfront investment or the need to build their own international student recruiting capacity.

There are two main choices for university IEPs. First, they can try to compete on the pathway providers’ territory by setting up their own pathway programs. The challenge here is that they generally don’t have the recruitment network to make that happen quickly, and there are very few instances of a university recruiting significant numbers of students via a home-grown pathway. Second, they can adapt to provide programming that pathway programs can’t. Examples include shorter programs, custom programs, specialized programs, and programs to support admitted or matriculated international students on their campus. This will require flexibility and an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

These are challenging times for IEPs, and it remains to be seen whether they can adapt to the challenge of the pathway model.

Aligning assessment and IEP culture

Since the passage of the Accreditation Act of 2010, intensive English programs (IEPs) have been under pressure to justify their quality claims by recording and reporting on student achievement. This has meant devising program-wide systems for assessing and evaluating students, and has been a challenge for many IEPs.

The type of system a program develops is influenced by its culture. A more managerial (top-down, administratively driven) culture typical of proprietary English schools tends to favor standardization of assessment that includes program-wide level-end tests. Many university IEPs have more of a collegial (faculty-driven with a degree of shared governance) culture in which individual faculty decision-making and autonomy are valued. In the latter type, it can grate against the culture when there is an attempt to introduce or impose standard testing. It may be more agreeable to retain faculty autonomy in assessment but introduce checks to ensure that assessments are aligned with course objectives and outcomes.

Both approaches (and blends of the two) are used by CEA-accredited programs and are able to meet the CEA standards. There is no need to create standard assessments across a program if they do not fit the culture. On the other hand, the imperative to assess students in a more consistent way can be a catalyst for culture change. This will need leadership, persuasion, and buy-in from faculty.

I’ve designed and overseen assessment and evaluation systems in proprietary and university programs, and can support programs in determining and developing the right approach. Get in touch if I can help!

Have a great weekend!

(Learn more about academic cultures in Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy by William Bergquist and Kenneth Pawlak. I highly recommend it.)

Where most IEPs trip up in CEA accreditation

The CEA Planning, Development, and Review standards have proven tricky for many intensive English programs to get right at the first attempt. The seriousness of failing to measure up has been mitigated in recent years by CEA’s decision to collapse what were four planning and review standards into two – meaning that a program will have fewer standards of concern if it is having difficulty in this area. Nonetheless, the challenge for many programs is that they have never had a plan for regular review of their academic and administrative areas in place. Even knowing what such a plan would look like can be an obstacle to developing one effectively.

I’ve created development and review plans for a rolling-intake proprietary IEP and a semester-based university IEP. They were very different plans, each one tailored to the needs of its program, but both worked well and met CEA standards. If this is an area your IEP is having difficulty with, why not contact me to find out how I can help?

Have a great week!

What is backwards design?

When devising your curriculum, you need to start out by thinking about goals, outcomes, and assessment. What do you want students to achieve by the end of the course? How will you know if they have achieved it? Once you are clear about these things, you can start to work on the teaching and learning objectives that will guide classroom learning. Often, curriculum design starts at the wrong end, with lists of items to be learned and teaching and learning activities, with little thought at the outset about overall outcomes or assessment. By using backwards design, you prioritize student learning outcomes and let them be your guide in assessment, objectives, materials, and teaching and learning activities.