Outcome Thinking and the Development of Foreign Language Education

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Inspired by the notion of education as an investment in human capital, a variety of more or less invasive and consequential reform initiatives have been developed and implemented in many countries in recent years. However, from a research perspective it remains to be seen if the continuing global trend to elevate intensive monitoring and meticulous evaluation of learning outcomes to the status of an educational imperative will turn out to be beneficial to foreign language instruction in secondary schools. What do you personally think about these developments? I am interested to hear your views on this. What are your personal reactions to the contemporary trend to coat instruction with more and more layers of testing and evaluation?


2 responses to “Outcome Thinking and the Development of Foreign Language Education

  1. I think the questions that you raise in your post are very important und pressing. My work experience in a standard setting and language testing environment has left me thoughtful as to the expected assumptions of output orientation. There is – in my opinion – a great need to evaluate the effects of high stakes testing on ELT in secondary schools.
    However, one assumption of the standard setting and testing movement is that data and tasks are to inform ELT classroom development. Teachers are to draw on the test results (the data) for diagnostic purposes. This assumption is inherent to the logic of the paradigm shift from input to output management. The administration has withdrawn from spelling out contents and processes of teaching and learning in its curricula; consequently teachers “as professionals in the classroom have the freedom to achieve the goals stated in the curricula the way they think it is done best”. From an in-service teaching perspective one might rather say: Teachers have been left alone with the tasks, the test results and the classroom; they are not given any certainties or at least clues whatsoever about principles and processes of language teaching that will eventually turn out to be successful. Success is important in a system that reports back failure and success annually (just check the Ministry’s announcement of the results of the “Zentralabitur” at comprehensive schools in NRW). Another thing that I see happening is that those teachers, who are eager to develop their classes, are prone to consider the scales as a blueprint for modelling learning processes. As they do this, they rely on the empirical models of competencies generated by psychometric experts, but not by language learning experts or researchers from the linguistic field. E.g. in reading comprehension one might try to bring up students to a level at which they are able to infer and interpret information in the text because this is stated as the next higher level in the competence scales of the test. So what actually happens here? The psychometrics have covered ground that the empirically oriented ELT researcher (or applied psycholinguist ) should plough. So, having said that, I believe that Fachdidaktik has to reconquer territory and do what it only can do best, i.e. do classroom research and pinpoint learning processes in task based language learning environments that lead to measurable gains in language competencies. And is this not what we all want for our learners? In this respect “the educational imperative on evaluating outcomes” reveals positive sides as well. It helps to move the whole teaching profession from mere beliefs about which principles and methods work best on to a culture of ascertainment: making oneself sure of the results of one’s teaching.

  2. Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment

    By Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam
    Standards can be raised only if teachers can tackle this task more effectively. What is missing from the efforts alluded to is any direct help with this task. This fact was recognized in the TIMSS video study: “A focus on standards and accountability that ignores the processes of teaching and learning in classrooms will not provide the direction that teachers need in their quest to improve.”

    In terms of systems engineering, present policies in the U.S. and in many other countries seem to treat the classroom as a black box. Certain inputs from the outside — pupils, teachers, other resources, management rules and requirements, parental anxieties, standards, tests with high stakes, and so on — are fed into the box. Some outputs are supposed to follow: pupils who are more knowledgeable and competent, better test results, teachers who are reasonably satisfied, and so on. But what is happening inside the box? How can anyone be sure that a particular set of new inputs will produce better outputs if we don’t at least study what happens inside? And why is it that most of the reform initiatives mentioned in the first paragraph are not aimed at giving direct help and support to the work of teachers in classrooms?

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