As an ELT publisher I’ve spoken to many teachers and Heads of Department about their needs, requirements and expectations when it comes to teaching their students. The majority of these conversations at some point or other involve the teacher/HoD flicking to the scope and sequence page in their nominated course book and referring to it whilst they either extol its virtues or identify its weaknesses. The power of The Contents Page is profound. It seems to be the go-to reference point for describing either the success of the course book itself, or the success of the students using it.
Book map. Sequence. Contents. All of these terms suggest the notion that the course book is a predetermined learning journey for the students; their participation or engagement is not required, they only need to listen and turn the page to the next activity when instructed. The learners are bystanders to their own learning journey rather then active participants. Any given book map represents an ELT publisher’s imposition of what content the students need to sit through before they are ‘done’.
Course books have their advantages, of course. In her SWOT analysis of an ESP textbook, Halina Wisniewska provides some compelling arguments for the strengths of the medium: they can be flexible and can be customised to suit the level or preferences of the learners, they provide a clear structure for managing the lesson and as a point of mediation between those involved in the learning process.
But when you ask a teacher or HoD to talk about their department’s curriculum and they flick straight to the scope and sequence page of their textbooks, you have to be prepared to admit that the power of The Contents Page is in need of some balancing out.
The curriculum of an English department can’t and shouldn’t be expressible through the book map of a learning material. Rather than being a sequence of content chunks that, once successfully completed, represent a rounded course of study, the curriculum of the institution ought to be expressed as the overarching objectives and aims of the institution for its learners and teachers. What does a graduate of our institution ‘look like’? What learning opportunities would we like to provide them with? How will you know that it’s been successful? etc. The course book itself ought to be a tool mindfully chosen to assist in the manifestation of these larger ideals.
So, a valid question when talking to educators about their choice of materials would perhaps be: Can you describe to me how this learning material helps support the achievement of your desired learning goals for your students?
In an imagination-stirring blog post, Terry Heick contrasts the lifeless, content-oriented traditional concept of a curriculum against the vivid, immersive realms of contemporary video games. Whereas the accepted pre-planned ‘content curriculum’ model goes from A > B > C > Finished, a truly successful learning framework needs to be able to respond to the needs, abilities and preferences of the learners themselves.
Think of some of the immense console games on the market at the moment (I for one have a certain penchant for Assassin’s Creed 3 … I mean, how could you not?); these are no longer linear, levelled game structures with clearly identifiable goals. The narratives are intersecting and often optional. A gamer can choose to extend and expand his or her gaming experience by investigating the myriad of challenges and tasks that are tangential to the core arc of the games storyline. The ‘user stories’ for gamers playing these kinds of games would be fascinating: I want to spend more time exploring this part of the map because I can / because I know it’s going to improve my chances of success within the game / because I’m curious / because I’ve had enough of the other stuff!
And so, argues Heick, curricula ought to provide the same freedom for the learner to explore and expand of their own volition. Just as you can’t plan how a gamer is going to move through a game’s array of opportunities and experiences, neither should a curriculum (and the materials chosen to support those ideals) predetermine the learning journey of the learners themselves.