Category Archives: accountability

MIDTESOL 2016 Conference: Innovation and Improvisation

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Midtesol 2016 Conference Kansas City

The MIDTESOL Annual Conference 2016 will be held September 30 to October 1 at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown in Kansas City, MO. The conference theme is “Innovation and Improvisation“.  I have been doing qualitative research on improvisation and improvised speaking for about twenty years now, so I am very glad to say that my proposal for a paper entitled “Structure and Improvisation in the EFL Classroom” has been accepted for presentation. This is what I am planning to talk about:

Improvisation is a complex phenomenon that has attracted little attention in foreign language learning and teaching research until now. Since improvisation is not only related to cognition and competence, but to goal-directed and spontaneous behavior and performance as well, it is difficult to bring in line with the traditional view of teaching as transmission of knowledge and skills, i.e. of delivering a prescribed curriculum, attending to a particular methodology, following a specific procedure, actuating a lesson plan, and interacting in pre-arranged ways. Moreover, since it encompasses attunement to a situational context (including attunement to others, also referred to as ‘tact’ or ‘tactfulness’ in scholarly discussions), spontaneous decision-making, and problem-solving, improvisation also contrasts with current educational ideologies and trends that place extreme emphasis on standardization, outcome-orientation, and testing.

In my video supported talk, I am going to illustrate and discuss the potential of improvisation for flexible (or ‘adaptive’) instruction in the EFL classroom. I will also present an instructional framework for enhancing oral proficiency which is based on the assumption that increasing the improvisational demands on EFL learners by confronting them with progressively less predictable communicative settings and scripts can contribute substantially to the gradual transformation and expansion of their participatory repertoires in the target language English.

Life Skills-based Education in the EFL Classroom: Cornerstone of a Challenging Vision

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Life skills-based education: a (very) brief outline
In its landmark report to UNESCO on the role of education in the future, the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century (Delors et al.1996) underlined the growing importance of learning throughout life and the need to focus on four pillars of education, in particular: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be – ‘learning to be’ including ‘learning to learn’. In accordance with this vision, the United Nations Educational Framework for Action (UNESCO 2000: 36) obliged governments to ensure “that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes” within the first decade of the twenty-first century.

However, even though the main goals of life skills-based education are largely agreed upon world-wide (i.e. enabling young people to lead a fulfilling and healthful life and to take control of their destiny, as well as empowering them to fully, responsibly and creatively participate in their societies, which increasingly entails being familiar with and tolerant of other societies and cultures), a generally accepted definition as to what exactly is meant by ‘life skills’ is still missing. In view of the diverse and continuously changing cultural contexts in which children and adolescents are growing up today and the changing demands of life they need to be able to cope with, this is completely understandable. In her background paper for the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2003/4, Singh drew the following important conclusion: “It is not enough to ask how life skills are defined in general; rather it is essential to ask how they exist in diverse life situations and how they affect the empowerment of people.” (UIE 2003a: 2). This needs to be kept in mind when taking life-skills based education into the foreign language classroom.

Nevertheless, in order to capture the essence of what life skills-based education is and to outline the scope of it roughly, two general, largely complementary definitions are particularly interesting in this context. According to UNICEF (2007), life skills-based education refers to a number of psycho-social and interpersonal skills which can help people make informed decisions, communicate effectively, and develop coping and self-management skills. The overall focus is on empowering young people to deal with challenging life situations and critical incidents successfully and, ultimately, to lead healthy and productive lives. As such, life skills-based education is associated with relevant and engaging learning content as well as with contextualized interactive and participatory learning and teaching aimed at enabling all learners to acquire knowledge and to develop skills and attitudes which allow them to cope with a wide range of intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts and challenges.

Likewise, the World Health Organization (WHO 1999) points out: “Life skills education is designed to facilitate the practice and reinforcement of psychosocial skills in a culturally and developmentally appropriate way; it contributes to the promotion of personal and social development, the prevention of health and social problems, and the protection of human rights.” More concretely, the following life skills are considered to be the most essential: the capacity to think creatively and critically, the ability to make decisions and to solve problems, the ability to communicate effectively, the ability to establish and maintain interpersonal relations, knowledge of self and others, the capacity to feel empathy, and the ability to handle emotions, including the ability to handle tension and stress (see PAHO 2000; 2001: 29-32).

Taking both of these definitions together, life-skills based education calls attention to a continuum of intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of coping with life in the global media, information and knowledge society, seeking to develop an action-oriented competence in relevant life contexts in an integrated way. As Singh points out, the overall approach implies success in private as well as in professional life, which means that “the idea of success is not only the accomplishment of a happy working life, but also the creation of a self-fulfilling life outside the world of work and wealth creation.” (UIE 2003a: 4).

In sum, the international discussion of life-skills based education with its focus on human independence and interdependence, on knowledge, skills and understanding, as well as on beliefs, attitudes and values clearly indicates that current standards-driven reforms of foreign language education, in their unfortunate combination of simplistic and bureaucratic views of accountability and accountability assessment, and their tendency to exclude long-term sustainable aspects of education and educational assessment, have to be reconsidered. It is time to counteract the continuing withdrawal from general educational objectives and human needs in foreign language classrooms, without of course losing sight of the essence of foreign language teaching, i.e. of ensuring that learners achieve a good command of the target language.

Taking life skills based-education into the EFL classroom
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) (Council of Europe 2001) is based on a holistic concept of foreign language learning which is slightly but decisively different from that underlying life skills-based education. ‘Existential competence’, to begin with, is considered to be the “sum of individual characteristics, personality traits and attitudes which concern, for example, self-image and one’s view of others and willingness to engage with other people in social interaction” (2001: 11-12). Furthermore, personal identity is described in terms of “selfhood factors” referring to attitudes, motivations, values, beliefs, cognitive styles, etc. (2001: 105-106). However, by explicitly stating that existential competence and personal identity are thought of as the sum of various parts, the CEFR has, probably unintentionally, opened up a Pandora’s box of theoretical and practical problems and contributed to the growing obsession with assessment and accountability which we are witnessing in educational politics in many countries today. One fundamental insight of Gestalt theory should have been given more careful attention in this context: the whole is not simply the sum of its parts, and not just more than the sum of its parts, but significantly different in quality from the sum of its parts (see Wertheimer 1922, 1923). In all probability, the educational whole in terms of existential competence and personal identity which is meant here will be almost impossible to measure and fully account for in standardized tests. But this does not automatically mean that is it less precious and important for life in the twenty-first century – on the contrary.

In order to meet the growing challenges and demands of childhood and youth in foreign language instruction, the selfhood factors referred to in the CEFR, which are thought of as being mutable through learning need to be seen as far more than just “parameters which have to be taken into account in foreign language learning and teaching” (2001: 11-12). Since these factors or parameters are of utmost importance in improving individual chances in life, pushing forward social change and bringing about more integrated and participatory societies (see UIE 2003b: 7), foreign language learning in secondary schools should more directly address the educational questions and challenges that arise out of these, and, consequently, provide appropriate content- and context-based learning environments.

From this perspective, shaping what is taught in foreign language classrooms in terms of thematic content and outlining some of the key issues for communication is as important as the promotion of “methods of modern language teaching which will strengthen independence of thought, judgement and action, combined with social skills and responsibility” (Council of Europe 2001: 4). It needs to be remembered that foreign language learners will hardly engage in message-oriented and ‘form-sensitive’ classroom activities geared at mobilizing and improving their target language as well as their personal (intellectual, emotional and social) skills and abilities, as long as the thematic contents offered and the situational contexts created are felt to be uninteresting or irrelevant to them. Foreign language instruction based on thematic content which is unrealistically and artificially ‘designed away’ from everyday problems of growing up today contributes too little to helping learners become “thinking social actors” (Breen 1985: 144), even if learning is embedded in experience-, task- and activity-based communicative classroom environments. It rather leads to what Legutke & Thomas (1999) have appositely referred to as ‘dead bodies and talking heads’ in the foreign language classroom, with the learners more or less simply working out how to say correctly what they are told or expected to say by the teacher (see also Thompson 1996).

As has already been indicated above, four fundamental, highly interrelated thematic areas are currently of particular interest and importance to education in secondary schools from a life skills-based educational perspective – not only in Germany: health, ecology, citizenship and peace. However, since these thematic categories are far too abstract and too distant from the learners’ personal experiences to deal with them in the foreign language classroom as such, they need to be broken down to more specific thematic and contextual units which are flexible enough to spontaneously address concrete problems of life and respond to critical incidents as they come up almost naturally day by day. Distinguishing between macro-, meso- and micro-thematic content level considerations is one way of approaching this problem in theory, but in any case, more empirical research will be required to ferret out and understand contemporary learners’ needs in more detail in the coming years. Only on the basis of this will it ultimately be possible to make foreign language learning in secondary schools more authentic and meaningful – in particular with regard to the purposes for which the learners are expected to acquire the target language, the anticipated communicative settings in which the target language will probably be used by them, the intercultural events in which they will be required and willing to participate, the content topics they will be exchanging views about, the language functions involved in these events, the grammatical structures and lexical material that will be needed, etc.

Focussing on foreign language learning and teaching as an educational enterprise, i.e. as a cognitively, affectively and socially challenging long-term process of intercultural initiation, some suggestions for infusing life skills-based education into secondary school foreign language classrooms are given below:

Macro-level (concerning goal-setting and the selection of thematic content):
• Bring together the key elements of life skills-based education, of global education (see Cates 2002) and of intercultural education (see Byram 1997; Byram & Fleming 1998; Alred, Byram & Fleming 2002, 2006) with current approaches to content-based instruction (see Met 2002; Stoller 2004) and communicative language teaching in foreign language classrooms (see Richards 2005), including, but not overestimating the potential of task-based instruction in institutionalized secondary school settings.
• Step up systematic, empirically grounded foreign language and intercultural communicative needs analysis (see Long 2005) to identify thematic learning content and communicative substance which is of relevance to growing up and living in the twenty-first century.
• In order to avoid oversimplification and trivialization and to make foreign language education more learner-centred, authentic, and motivating, place more emphasis on the (cross-culturally pervasive) tensions, contradictions and pressures children and youth are confronted with in their daily lives (e.g. the surface-Westernization of juvenile lifestyles in terms of fashion, music, behavioural patterns, etc.).

Meso-level (concerning curriculum development and design):
• Integrate real-life thematic content into existing foreign language curricula; be aware of the possible mismatch between views of what is existentially important as seen by those who are growing up and as seen by researchers, curriculum advisors, coursebook designers and teachers.
• More specifically, try to identify thematic content areas and topics which can trigger lively classroom interaction in the target language, and can help to increase the learners’ willingness to communicate in the classroom and beyond.
• To facilitate better cross-curricular education, look for complementarity and interface between schools subjects.
• Example: ‘youth at risk’ (as a macro-level curriculum unit); meso-level topics: (a) ‘drug prevention’ (e.g. consuming premixed alcoholic beverages and/or over-the-counter drugs; smoking habits), (b) ‘healthy nutrition’ (e.g. food and eating habits inside and outside school; school meals; fast food), (c) ‘sexuality and sexual health’ (e.g. the emotional dimension of sex for men and women; Internet pornography; sexism; HIV/AIDS prevention), (d) ‘social and civic responsibility’ (e.g. vandalism and violence inside and outside schools; political or religious extremism or fundamentalism; racial discrimination), (e) ‘consumer behaviour and use of mass media’ (e.g. telemarketing; online shopping; phone-in television; mobile phone addiction and juvenile debt), (f) ‘sustainability’ (e.g. energy efficiency inside and outside schools; reduction of waste; recycling), etc. Central objectives: enhance target language communicative ability, explore/modify attitudes and values, increase knowledge, raise intercultural awareness, develop core skills towards effective use of knowledge in intra- and intercultural encounters (especially: critical thinking skills, negotiation skills, empathy skills, advocacy skills, refusal skills, decision-making skills, self-monitoring skills, counselling skills, skills for managing stress).

Micro-level (concerning learning environments and classroom practices):
• Upscale language and content integrated learning in regular foreign language classrooms by providing appropriate learning materials, by creating relevant and stimulating contexts and scenarios, by encouraging learners to share their everyday life experiences and to speak about critical life incidents, etc.
• Create experience-based, decision-oriented classroom environments in which learners can exchange ideas and views with children and youth from other cultures (e.g. in virtual communities in which learners collaborate trans-culturally and discuss their own values and attitudes towards concrete issues).

References
Alred, Geof; Byram, Michael & Fleming, Michael (Eds.) (2002), Intercultural Experience and Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Alred, Geof; Byram, Michael and Fleming, Micheal (Eds.) (2006), Education for Intercultural Citizenship. Concepts and Comparisons. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Breen, Michael P. (1985), “The social context for language learning – a ne­glected situ­a­tion?” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7 (2), 135-158.
Byram, Michael & Fleming, Michael (Eds.) (1998), Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective. Approaches through Drama and Ethnography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cates, Kip (2002), “Global Education.” In: Byram, Michael (Ed.) (2002), The Routledge Encyclopledia of Language Learning and Teaching. Routledge, 241-243.
Council of Europe (2001), Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Delors, Jacques et al. (1996), Learning: The Treasure Within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.
Legutke, Michael & Thomas, Howard (1999), Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. London: Longman.
Long, Michael (Ed.) (2005), Second Language Needs Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Met, Myriam (2002), “Content-based instruction.” In: Carter, Ronald & Nunan, David (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language, 137-140.
PAHO (2000), Tobacco-free Youth: A ‘Life Skills’ Primer. Washington: Pan American Health Organization (PAHO Scientific and Technical Publications No. 579).
PAHO (2001), Life Skills Approach to Child and Adolescent Healthy Human Development. Available here.
Stoller, Fredericka L. (2004), “Content-based instruction: perspectives on curriculum planning.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 261-283.
Thompson, Geoff (1996), “Some misconceptions about communicative lan­guage teaching.” English Language Teaching Journal, 50 (1), 9-15.
UNESCO (2000), World Education Forum. Final Report. Available here.
UIE (UNESCO Institute for Education) (2003a), “Understanding life skills.” Background paper for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003/4: Gender and Education for All, the Leap to Equality; prepared by Madhu Singh. Available here.
UIE (UNESCO Institute for Education) (2003b), Nurturing the Treasure. Vision and Strategy 2002-2007. Available here.
UNICEF (2007), Life Skills. Online. please click here.
WHO (1999), Partners in Life Skills Education. Conclusions from a United Nations inter-agency meeting. Geneva: Department of Mental Health. Available here.
Wertheimer, Max (1922), „Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt. Reihe I.“ Psychologische Forschung 1, 47-58.
Wertheimer, Max (1923), „Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt. Reihe II.“ Psychologische Forschung 2, 301-350.

The post is based on:
Kurtz, Jürgen (2008), Life Skills-based Education in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms – Cornerstone of a Challenging Vision. In: Doff, Sabine; Hüllen, Werner & Klippel, Friederike (Hrsg.) (2008). Visions of Languages in Education. München: Langenscheidt ELT, 87-100.

Out Now: “Creativity in the English Language Classroom” (Maley & Peachey 2015)

by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

In his foreword to this brand-new British Council publication entitled “Creativity in the Language Classroom” (Maley & Peachey 2015), Chris Kennedy argues that creativity is a concept that is in danger of being “hijacked by public bodies and private institutions which employ them as convenient but opaque policy pegs on which practitioners, including educators, are expected to hang their approaches and behaviours” (2015: 3). Correspondingly, Alan Maley views creativity “as an endangered species in the current model of education, which is increasingly subject to institutional, curricular and assessment constraints”. The publication is now available online. I was kindly invited to contribute a chapter on fostering and building upon oral creativity in the EFL classroom. For a free download of this book, please click on the image below (also available in print form).

Creativity in Language Teaching

I have been interested in creativity and improvisation to foster oral proficiency in EFL classrooms in Germany for roundabout 20 years. When I started thinking about task-driven instructional designs which offer learners more room to talk and to express their own ideas in the target language in the mid-1990s, mainstream educational philosophy and policies in Germany were only just beginning to change,  from so-called input- to standards- and competency-based, measurable outcome-orientation. The backwash effects of such reforms are still unclear.

Common sense tells us that ‘weighing the cow does not make it fatter’. I think there is a pressing need to reassess assessment and the current obsession with efficiency and measurable outcome in foreign language education. What effects and side-effects does it have on teaching and learning English as a foreign language in secondary schools? (see also the current discussion on The Steve Brown Blog).

This is one remarkable finding of a (non-representative) pilot study with 697 EFL teachers carried out in the German state of Hesse: “After nearly a decade of [..] nationwide standards-based assessment in Germany, researchers and teachers alike are still struggling with the task of implementing educational standards and system-monitoring in schools. […] The majority of teachers neither consider the test results useful in improving classroom learning nor the potential impact on school development.” (Skejic, Neumann & Mangal 2015).

References:

Kurtz, Jürgen (2015). “Fostering and building upon oral creativity in the EFL classroom”. In: Maley, Alan & Peachey, Nik (eds.). Creativity in the English Language Classroom, London: British Council, 73-83.

Skejic, M.; Neumann, D. & Mangal, H. (2015): Vergleichsarbeiten im Fach Englisch. Einschätzungen von hessischen Lehrkräften. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung [in print]. [non-representative pilot study carried out in the German Federal State of Hesse; n = 697 EFL teachers]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Complexity Thinking in German Englischdidaktik

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany

In a recent publication, Sarah Mercer (2013: 376) states that at present “SLA is undergoing what could be termed a ‚complexity turn’ as researchers become increasingly aware of and sensitive to the inherent complexity and dynamism in learning and teaching foreign languages”. While this may be true for SLA research, it is difficult to generalize across all academic disciplines concerned with foreign language learning and teaching in Europe and elsewhere in the world. I come from a different background – referred to as Englischdidaktik in Germany (English ‘Didactics’).

As an academic discipline, Englischdidaktik is by no means restricted to teaching, and it is not at all to be confused with a didactic, i.e. schoolmasterely chalk-and-talk approach to foreign language instruction built upon simplified assumptions of cause and effect. Rather, Englischdidaktik is a tradition of thinking about and studying teaching and learning that has always been sensitive and fully aware of the complexities, the richness, and the dynamic and emergent character of language pedagogical encounters, as well as the messy nature of foreign language learning. This does not mean, of course, that teachers and teaching should be messy, too. Teaching is more than setting the conditions for learning, because this would be a teaching strategy that is largely based on hope, not more than that. At its core, teaching is highly complex, professional decision-making, before, during, and after instruction, in order to increase the probability of learning.

One traditional heuristic for modeling complexity in general pedagogy and in foreign language learning and teaching in Germany is the ‘Extended Didactic Triangle’ (see below). Developed in the mid 19th century its origins are unclear, but the model nevertheless identifies three core components of any instructional system: student, teacher, and content (see the three corners of the triangle and the three vertices as well). Each of these components is immensely complex itself (various learner and teacher variables, etc.), and all components are interrelated in a complex, nonlinear, and dynamic way. Furthermore, they are embedded in a multi-layered societal and cultural context:

Kurtz_Complexity 1_Didactic triangle

This diagram depicts the beginnings of complexity thinking in Germany. A more recent approach to complexity is, for instance, Andreas Helmke’s ‘Affordance-Utilization-Model of Instruction and Learning’ (2009; my translation) which illustrates how many interconnected factors can actually play a role in the classroom:

Kurtz_Complexity 2_Helmke

However, in current research conducted in the field of Englischdidaktik in Germany a further, pragmatically motivated distinction is typically being made between classroom-based and classroom-oriented research, i.e. between studies that focus primarily on aspects of big C-complexity or small-c complexity, depending on the specific interests and questions of the individual researcher. Studies that focus on small-c complexity are typically conducted in the foreign language classroom (i.e. in many different ways, ranging from qualitative to quantitative, from ethnographic to experimental, employing different research methods, including participatory action research, design experiments, etc.). Studies dedicated to big-C complexity are usually representative of theoretical, rather than empirical research. However, this does not mean that conceptual (‘armchair-‘) research is less complex and important.

Kurtz_Complexity 4_Big C

I think that in the present age of competency-oriented and standards-based foreign language instruction, increasing attention needs to be given to big-C complexity (not only in Englischdidaktik-research) and how it influences or even shapes everyday classroom practices  (in terms of backwash effect):

Kurtz_Complexity 5_exogeneous

I also think that the delicate balance between big-C issues (outcome orientation) and small-c issues (process orientation) is at risk currently, not only in Germany:

Kurtz_Complexity 6_Imbalance

This is why researchers working in the field of Englischdidaktik and in its international sister disciplines need to step up their efforts to further investigate the complex relation between outcome-orientation (focusing on predictability, this way reducing complexity) and the highly complex processes involved in target language learning and teaching (which are difficult to anticipate).

References:

Helmke, Andreas (2009). Unterrichtsqualität und Lehrerprofessionalität. Diagnose, Evaluation und Verbesserung des Unterrichts (3rd ed.). Seelze-Velber: Klett-Kallmeyer.

Mercer, Sarah (2013). “Towards a Complexity-Informed Pedagogy for Language Learning. Uma proposta de pedagogia para aprendizagem de línguas na perspectiva da complexidade”. RBLA, Belo Horizonte, v. 13, n. 2, p. 375-398, 2013.

 

10th Annual Conference of BAAL LLT SIG 2014

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

The 10th Annual Conference of BAALSIG LLT 2014 (The British Association for Applied Linguistics, Special Interest Group: Language Learning and Teaching) will be held on July 3-4, 2014, hosted by The School of Education, University of Leeds, UK. The conference theme is: “Recognizing Complexity in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching”. Confirmed plenary speakers are:

Adrian Holliday, Canterbury Christ Church University
Sarah Mercer, Karl-Franzen University Graz, Austria
Pauline Foster, St Mary’s University College Twickenham

For more detailed information, please click here.

It is a great honor and pleasure for me to be invited to give a talk on the complexity of balancing structure and improvisation in everyday classroom interaction. This is my abstract:

Structure and Improvisation in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching

Imagination, creativity, and flexibility are of great importance in today’s knowledge age and economy. Thus, it is crucial to develop and strengthen these capacities in schools. Current education reforms, however, place primary emphasis on the ability to perform to fine-graded standards of competency and skill. Imagination, creativity, and flexibility are chiefly viewed from this perspective. Moreover, creativity is typically conceived of as an individual process or product, not as a collaborative or complex collective endeavor. Little attention is given to improvisation (spontaneous creativity in performance) and to the spontaneous und functional use of accumulated competencies and skills in everyday social interaction (so-called ‘little-c’ creativity). Generally speaking, current reform initiatives focus much more on accelerating measurable progress in certain subject areas of competency and skill than on fostering mental agility, communicative flexibility, resourceful spontaneity, social adaptability, and a commitment to lifelong learning across the curriculum.

Looking at recent education reforms in the U.S., the American education psychologist David Berliner (2012) cautions against placing too many expectations on standards-based reforms, on thinning down school curricula, and ultimately, on conceiving of education in terms of measurable outcome primarily. In his view, elevating competency-based instruction and the demonstration of knowledge and skills in systematic performance tests to an educational imperative may eventually have some undesirable ramifications. In sum, he refers to them as ‘creaticide by design’.

In order to prevent education in schools from being suffocated and, ultimately, from being pathologized by standards-based instruction and grading, it is necessary to place stronger emphasis on developing a culture of creativity, spontaneity, and originality in the classroom, establishing a learning atmosphere which is conducive to both enthusing and empowering students to think and act on their feet and, if necessary and appropriate, out of the box.

Based on more than ten years of qualitative classroom research, I would like to problematize improvisation from a foreign language learning and teaching perspective and examine its potential for flexible instruction.

References
Berliner, David (2012). Narrowing Curriculum, Assessments, and Conceptions of What It Means to Be Smart in the US Schools: Creaticide by Design. In: Don Ambrose & Robert J. Sternberg (Eds). How Dogmatic Beliefs Harm Creativity and Higher-Level Thinking. New York: Routledge, 79-93.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2011). Breaking Through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms. In: R. Keith Sawyer (Ed.). Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press, 133-161.

6th Biennial UC Language Consortium Conference in San Diego

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

I needed surgery on my left leg three weeks ago, just a few days after returning from the 6th UC Language Consortium Conference on SLA Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives which was held at Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, San Diego, from Friday, April 20 to Sunday, April 22, 2012. This is why this post comes later than intended.

The UCCLLT conference was truly remarkable again, all the more because I was given an excellent opportunity to share, compare, and learn lots of exciting things I did not know before. Earlier this year, I had attended the EmMeth 2012 in Jena, Germany, where I gave a keynote speech on current issues in EFL textbook research. At that conference in Jena (see my brief review on this blog), I heard some thought-provoking presentations from promising doctoral and post-doctoral students, discussed posters with them and, apart from all this, I was brought up to date on computerized ways of analyzing classroom data. In San Diego, I gave a talk on the same topic, i.e. on “Textbook Innovation and Use in FL/SL Classrooms”, which is currently at the top of my research agenda. I argued that actual textbook use in everyday practice is an area crying for empirical, classroom-based research, and sketched future avenues for qualitative, mixed-methods studies in secondary school environments, based on what we have been doing at JLU Giessen over the last twelve months.

To put it this way, my ‘secondary’ focus in San Diego was on exploring what (kind of) research talented young minds in some parts of the US are currently involved in, comparing their research interests and projects to those previously presented at the University of Jena. I was quite impressed by the diversity and quality of research studies conducted on both sides of the Atlantic (so to speak), and noticed that many young scholars, in the US and in Germany, appear to be particularly interested in those issues and challenges that have emerged in recent years. These are, for instance, culture-sensitive instruction in FL/SL classrooms, bilingual/multilingual education, optimal use of technology and digital resources in the classroom, the role of literature in FL/SL instruction, standards and outcome orientation, possible consequences for FL/SL teacher education, etc.

Looking back at both conferences, I feel that some ‘bread-and-butter’-topics and related, pressing questions of learning and teaching foreign/second languages, especially those related to ‘hands-on didactics’ in secondary schools such as holistic grammar and vocabulary instruction, teaching the five skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing, and mediating) in integrated ways, communicative language learning and teaching in all its variants and manifestations (CLT, TBI, CBI, project-oriented learning, etc.), balancing scripted (pre-planned and largely predictable) and unscripted (improvised and widely unpredictable) classroom interaction, promoting differentiation and inclusion, etc. are currently under-represented in many of those research projects undertaken by the young scholars I listened and talked to. This is, of course, just my personal experience. In my view, it is perfectly clear that sooner or later all these issues will (have to) be given more attention again, and I look forward to seeing how they will be re-addressed, then based on the knowledge and experience accumulated at present.

The ACTFL Decade of Standards Report

Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Standards-based EFL/ESL education has become increasingly influential in the past decade, in the US as well as in many other countries. I have voiced my concerns about all this many times on this blog. Yesterday I stumbled upon two important papers in this context, both issued by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL): a) “A Decade of Foreign Language Standards: Impact, Influence, and Future Directions”, and b) “Alignment of the National Standards for Learning Languages with the Common Core State Standards”. If you like to read these papers as well, please click a) and b). I am interested to hear what you have to say about it.