‘Lean Production’ in Foreign Language Education: Are We on the Right Track?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Almost 25 years ago, A.P.R. Howatt (1984: 274) described the interrelation of foreign language education and socioeconomic development in the mid-twentieth century in the following way: “Though economic factors facilitate investment in educational development, they do not motivate it, or determine which direction it will take.”

The overall situation has changed dramatically since then. In the new International Handbook of English Language Teaching, Michael Breen (2007: 1071-1072) points out that “[…] governments have mobilized standards of achievement and competencies in education, systems for the accountability of educators, and the new positivism of evidence-based practices. Such measures have been put in place on the basis of two unproven assumptions: that whatever teachers achieved before is no longer adequate and that the bureaucratic surveillance of teachers’ work will improve their students’ performance. More overt consequences […] have been the ‘re-skilling’ of highly experienced teachers into managers and an escalating exodus from the profession. The reason most often given by teachers for their decision to leave is the intensification of workloads entailed in regular testing of students and related accounting and reporting processes. More covertly, assessing a teacher’s worth primarily in relation to national benchmarks of the outcomes of learning include the displacement of teachers’ broader educational aims and the complex interpersonal process of enabling learning to occur.”

It cannot be emphasized enough that the foreign language classroom is not an assembly line on which intercultural communicative competence is fabricated in a rapid ‘plan-do-check’-way (at the least cost). It really is heartbreaking to see how education is increasingly transformed into an economic enterprise by external stakeholders, how commercially exploitable competences and skills are turned into commodities, and how the principles of lean production are applied to schools, leaving very little room for internal change agents to develop what might be called a holistic learning culture (aimed at sustained individual development) in the classroom.  

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984), A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michael Breen (2007), “Appropriating Uncertainty: ELT Professional Development in the New Century.” In: Cummins, Jim & Davison, Chris (2007). International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Part II. New York: Springer, 1067-1084.


3 responses to “‘Lean Production’ in Foreign Language Education: Are We on the Right Track?

  1. Having just returned from a conference on modern languages and quality in teaching them (Gesamtverband Moderne Fremdsprachen) this entry stimulates even more thoughtfulness than that which can arise on a longer train ride. As Alison Phipps put: “We need a language pedagogy of air” – one that allows students (and teachers, too!) to breathe. They might suffer from suffocation from too much testing and standardized teaching. However, we cannot turn back the clock. Output orientation and core currricula are better than teaching plans with massive catalogues of what has to be taught. What the evidence based philosophy has brought about is a (mis)belief that administrators can control and direct learning and school systems with the help of these instruments. It is sad to see that the internal agents of change in schools are really overburdened with the demands of the positivist culture.

  2. In Leipzig, Alison Phipps also reminded us that quality systems come and go. Perhaps we can speed up the process a bit by voicing our concerns. Simply hoping for change is not enough. There is too much at stake for the future of foreign language education. As Franz-Joseph Meißner pointed out today, children and youth in Europe are highly interested in learning foreign languages (i.e. not only English).

    Thank you very much for your contribution!

  3. I am currently working on an article on lean language teaching. Working in Merida Yucatan, where school administrations are still pretty much the absolutist definers of reality, I have found that students are rather interested in innovations that would put teachers and students in the driver seat (they being the designers and producers of the value flow, i.e. their education). I find that concepts of MBO as well as lean management and those of the constructivist classroom can go hand in hand.
    P.S. other than Breen, are there references that specifically discuss lean language teaching? thanks

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