Like many guest bloggers before her, Vicky is someone I discovered via twitter and blog world, having been linked to her blog and finding it really useful, written so that even a techno-duffer like me could understand it.
Vicky was the first twitter-friend I met at IATEFL Harrogate when she walked into Christie’s Bar shortly after I did. Since then, I have been so determined that she should write something for me to post here that I allowed her carte blanche regarding subject matter.
I may live to regret this.
Below you will find a very persuasive set of arguments in favour of abandoning the use of course materials. If this happens on a grand scale, I will of course be out of a job.
Sadly for me and my ilk, these arguments are out there already. I can only hope some of you will be able to say you read it here first…
Do your worst, Vicky…
Daring to move away from course books
I have been a teacher for over 20 years and I have always taught with a course book. In the beginning of my career I taught with course books that were imposed on me by a higher authority or senior teacher who made such decisions. In time I became that senior teacher myself and eventually the coordinator of my school so that course book selection was my responsibility. Indeed I took it very seriously as I understood that the course book had a tremendous impact on learning.
Together, of course, with the teacher.
I work in a school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a private school with about 1,000 students at all levels, from kindergarten to secondary. Although it is private, it is far from the concept of a bilingual school. It is mostly funded by the state to keep the fees low and our students have only three hours of English a week. This context influenced my selection process in that I needed a book that fitted my curriculum and my teaching beliefs and that was short enough to be covered in one school year and at a reasonable price.
So for the last ten years, I have tried to select the most appropriate course books for my context. I think I succeeded most of the times but not always…
However, something happened two years ago… I started feeling that students, especially teens, were not being offered the best option for their learning for a number of reasons:
- teachers were under pressure to use the whole course book because we had asked students to buy one and it was a big effort for most families. Therefore, there was no time to do other things, which were more creative or fun or relevant!
- the course books, however carefully chosen, did not fully reflect the students’ interests and culture or the language we wanted them to learn or how we wanted them to learn.
- students were mostly unmotivated by the predictability of the course books.
- the occasional independent projects were welcomed with enthusiasm and offered a more creative output, which resulted in increased motivation for both the teachers and the students.
So I became quite restless and uncomfortable about this situation and I found myself asking the same questions again and again:
What if we did away with course books altogether?
What if we designed our own curriculum and materials?
What if we introduced some kind of choice in the classroom?
What if we tapped into our students’ interests and knowledge to engage them in their own learning process?
What if we started using web 2.0 technologies to break down classroom walls?
Yes! Why not? But there was no way I could do this on my own, so I approached one of my trusted teachers…
“Hi, Pat, I am thinking about doing away with course books and writing our own materials instead,” I said, hoping to get any sign of approval.
“That’s really hard work… but I’m in!”
So last year I finally decided to make a dramatic change in the hope of really improving the quality of their learning.
The result is a new Project-Based Learning (PBL) scheme for grades 6 onwards, launched in March 2010, in which teachers design their own projects, taking into account the needs and interests of the students and the new syllabi. It had first been discussed and agreed on by all the teachers.
We found PBL was really appropriate for our context and our teaching beliefs, closely aligned with Constructivism, Connectivism, multi-literacies education for the 21st century, collaborative learning and the promotion of autonomous and lifelong learning.
A major concern was assessment: we discussed shifting from formal testing to continuous assessment through observation during the project development process and assessment of the final product.
We also held several meetings to discuss the necessary shift from a teacher-centered paradigm to a student-centered one, where the teacher would act as a facilitator. We envisioned the class as a place where students would feel the urge to speak the language, especially by providing real audiences by means of web 2.0 tools.
We created a wiki to be used as a project repository and as a record of which projects were done with which class. The wiki also hosts resources related to project-based learning and technology integration, guides and tutorials for web 2.0 tools and any other material to support the scheme.
It has been only three months since we started and there’s a lot of work still to be done: constant teacher support, periodic assessment of the project’s development and analysis of problems to find solutions and improve the program.
But the overall feeling about the new PBL scheme is really positive. Teachers are excited about being able to do personalized and creative work. Here are some of their reactions.
“I can finally do drama activities.”
“Working with songs they like is a great motivator.”
“Being able to choose topics that they are interested in has resulted in more participation and eager production.”
But what about the students? From their reactions, they seem as excited about PBL as the teachers. They are motivated to work and really look forward to their English lessons.
“We love English classes this year!”
“English is fun now!”
Even those who used to be quite indifferent now feel they can contribute something meaningful and are willing to learn!
“Miss, I have already uploaded my predictions to the Wallwisher. Did you see them?”
I still believe course books are a great solution in many contexts, especially in my country, but I am happy I dared to go against the mainstream trend of using course books. And I know this was possible thanks to my wonderful team of teachers and the school authorities, who worked so hard and believed this significant change was the way to move forward into the 21st century.