Tag Archives: accountability

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).


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).


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.


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 on Changing Education Paradigms

by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Two years ago, I wrote on this blog: “It is really 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 …” (click here to continue). Yesterday I discovered the following thought-provoking video lecture on Youtube which I think fits in nicely with this ongoing discussion:

I also like this inspiring RSA animate which was adapted from Ken Robinson’s talk:

PS.: As I did two years ago, Ken Robinson speaks of a “mass-production mentality” which is outdated and  harmful to our children and youth (for more on this, click here).

New Common Core State Standards Released

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

From The  New York Times Online, Wednesday, June 2, 2010: “The nation’s governors and state school chiefs released on Wednesday a new set of academic standards, their final recommendations for what students should master in English and math as they move from the primary grades through high school graduation. The standards, which took a year to write, have been tweaked and refined in recent weeks in response to some of the 10,000 comments the public sent in after a draft was released in March. – The standards were made public at a news conference on Wednesday in Atlanta.”

Space to Language: Being Intercultural in a Breathless World

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

On this blog, I have frequently criticized current trends to coat instruction with more and more layers of evaluation, forcing teachers to increasingly think in test intervals and to squeeze foreign language learning and teaching (including intercultural education) through the bottleneck of assessment schedules (see also Kurtz 2008). The following aphorism summarizes my position on this issue: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’ (taken from Patton 2002: 12).

In a talk delivered at UC Irvine in March 2009, Alison Phipps, University of Glasgow, voices similar concerns. Examining many of the prevailing attitudes and metaphors of language teaching, she argues that commodifying frameworks and managerial approaches to quality enhancement distract and impede us in the pursuit of what language teaching and learning could be.

Her presentation titled “Space to Language: Being Intercultural in a Breathless World” is available here.

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 (eds.) Visions of Languages in Education. München: Langenscheidt ELT, 87-100.

Patton, Michael Quinn (2002). Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.