Tag Archives: teaching

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.

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

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.