Category Archives: standards

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.

CAES International Conference: Faces of English Theory, Practice and Pedagogy

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

The Centre for Applied English Studies at Hong Kong University will be hosting an international conference titled “Faces of English: Theory, Practice and Pedagogy” in Hong Kong on 11-13 June 2015. According to the organisers, the conference aims to bring together academics, researchers, practitioners and research students from around the world to discuss the interdependence between theory and practice, with papers which focus on the analysis, description and teaching of English in order to better understand the ways in which theory, research and pedagogy interact and inform each other. It also welcomes participants to share practical ideas and teaching materials related to the use of English in a variety of social, professional, educational and virtual contexts.The keynote speakers and post-conference workshop facilitators are:

Rod Ellis, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
Keynote: Teacher as input; Workshop: Consciousness-raising tasks for grammar teaching

Bonny Norton, University of British Columbia, Canada
Keynote: Digital ways, unequal worlds: Identity, investment, and English language learners in changing times;  Workshop: Critical practices in the assessment of writing

David Nunan, The University of Hong Kong
Keynote: Language learning beyond the classroom;  Workshop: Designing projects for out-of-class learning

Wen Qiufang, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China
Keynote: Production-oriented approach to teaching adult English learners in Mainland China;  Workshop: How to implement POA in English teaching

Ken Hyland, The University of Hong Kong
Keynote: Anecdote, attitude and evidence. Does English disadvantage EAL authors in international publishing? Workshop: Writing for international publication in Applied Linguistics and EFL journals

I have been invited to give a talk on ‘Standards-based instruction in EFL classrooms in Germany: Creaticide by design?’. This is my abstract:

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 conceptualizing education in terms of testing and measurable outcome primarily. In his view, reducing education to competency-based instruction and the demonstration of knowledge and skills in centralized performance tests may eventually have some undesirable backwash effects. Sooner or later, frontline practitioners might adopt a ‘teaching to the test-mentality’ which in turn could contribute to a classroom learning atmosphere overshadowed by fear of failure. In this context, Berliner (2012) warns against ‘creaticide by design’ in the classroom.

In my talk, I would like to briefly outline and problematize the state-of-the-art of competency-, standards- and test-oriented theorizing in Germany, placing special emphasis on the (largely neglected) role of creativity and improvisation in learning English as a foreign language. Based on qualitative-empirical case research carried out in a number of EFL classrooms in Germany over the past 20 years, I would also like to illustrate how teachers can foster creativity and improvisation in meaningful, task-driven, partly scripted and unscripted classroom settings.

Berliner, D. (2012) ‘Narrowing Curriculum, Assessments, and Conceptions of What It Means to Be Smart in the US Schools: Creaticide by Design’, in Ambrose D. and Sternberg, R.J. (eds), How Dogmatic Beliefs Harm Creativity and Higher-Level Thinking. New York: Routledge, 79-93.

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.

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.

Elevating Increased Monitoring and Testing to an Educational Imperative – Does this really make sense?

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

On Monday this week I gave a talk to a small group of teacher advisors on the pros and cons of integrated skills development in EFL classroom environments near the city of Berlin. The focus was on developing oral skills in primary and secondary schools, more specifically, on fundamental issues related to the transition from primary to secondary EFL classrooms. In this context, I voiced my concerns about the current trend to think about (efficient?) foreign language education in terms of competence- and standards-based measurable outcome in Germany, arguing that this approach is difficult to bring in line with traditional conceptualizations of Bildung (foreign language education as a time-consuming process of self-formation; in the age of globalization, mobility and migration, cultural diversity and hybridity, etc.). This was followed by a lively discussion.  Since we did not have enough time to discuss all this in detail, especially the potential problems associated with conceiving of oral target language proficiency in terms of neatly defined, measurable sub-skills (or so-called competences and levels of oral competence), especially perhaps with regard to primary schools, I would like to add the following:

In my view, improving foreign language education in everyday classroom practice is complex and subject to the interplay of a wide spectrum of interacting factors. By importing and adapting reform strategies and measures that are largely based on values, goals and concepts which (arguably) have been proven successful in business, commerce, finance and industry, complexity may appear to be manageable. However, the price to be paid for injecting market pressure into secondary (primary?) school education, for turning foreign language classrooms into arenas of competition for the best test results, for coating instruction with more and more layers of assessment, for reducing educational ‘quality’ to a limited number of measurable performance indicators, and for conceiving of output or outcome as the linchpin of quality development, may be hefty and unacceptable. In many countries, concerns are continuing to grow that standards- and test-driven compliance pressures on teachers are likely to rise, and that, in consequence, foreign language classroom instruction may increasingly and largely be condensed, redesigned and repackaged toward improving isolated skills performance in standardized tests (see, for instance, Böttcher, Bos, Döbert & Holtappels 2008; Kurtz 2005, O’Day 2008).

Today I stumbled upon two highly interesting, and perhaps, highly controversial  articles (mentioned/written) in the New York Times that I would like to share with you. Please click here and there. :-)


Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.) (2008). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrolling in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann. [Education Monitoring and Control – Viewed from an international perspective; my translation].

Kurtz, Jürgen (2005). „Bildungsstandards als Instrumente der Qualitätsentwicklung im Fremdsprachenunterricht: Towards a Checklist Approach to Foreign Language Learning and Teaching? In: Bausch, Karl-Richard; Burwitz-Melzer; Eva; Königs, Frank G.; Krumm, Hans-Jürgen (eds.). Bildungsstandards auf dem Prüfstand. Arbeitspapiere der 25. Frühjahrskonferenz zur Erforschung des Fremdsprachenunterrichts. Tübingen: Narr, 159-167.

O’Day, Jennifer (2008). “Standards-based reform: promises, pitfalls, and potential lessons from the U.S.” In: Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrollingt in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann, 107-157.

Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the Learning Revolution

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany

According to Sir Ken Robinson, “We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. This is something Jamie Oliver talked about the other day. You know there are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other are things like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they’re customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.” (subtitled in 50 languages)

In Germany and, from my perspective, in many other countries around the globe, SL/FL teachers are put under massive pressure to meet vague and – partially – unconvincing standards, and to conduct tests based on a questionable approach to foreign language education. What do you think about all this?