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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.

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Historical TEFL Research: Toward a Data-Informed Approach

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

Research on how foreign languages were taught in the past is very important; mainly, perhaps, because it can help us avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. More specifically, it is of crucial interest to avoid black and white-thinking which can easily result in misinterpretations or an unjustified depreciation of formerly wide-spread, generally accepted, and (arguably) successful classroom practices.

In a number of research papers I have read recently, the past is depicted as being in conflict with the present (and the future?) of foreign language teaching and learning, as if former conceptualizations of instruction were clashing with present-day approaches. While this may be justifiable from a purely theoretical (or administrative) perspective, it does not adequately reflect foreign language education in praxis, simply because teachers and learners are not ahistorical beings. They all have their specific (learning) biographies, values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations they bring with them, and these are shaped and reshaped in daily school life, depending on a large number of classroom internal and external factors. This is, of course, also true for the many other stakeholders that (want to) play a role in education (see also Bonny Norton’s highly interesting research on Language and Identity (2010), or the documentation of the 33rd Annual German Spring Conference on Foreign Language Education which focuses on the issue of ‘Identität und Fremdsprachenlernen” [Identity and Foreign Language Learning, my translation]; see Burwitz-Melzer, Königs & Riemer 2013).

‘Historically-sensitive’ TEFL studies often refer to A.P.R Howatt’s brilliant book on the history of English language teaching (1984, second edition 2004 with H.G. Widdowson), but Friederike Klippel’s “Englischlernen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Die Geschichte der Lehrbücher und Unterrichtsmethoden” (1994) [English Language Learning in the 18th and 19th Century. The History of Textbooks and Instructional Methods; my translation) and Werner Hüllen’s “Kleine Geschichte des Fremdsprachenlernens” (2005) [Brief History of Foreign Language Learning; my translation] (2005) are equally important and valuable (not only, perhaps, from a German perspective).

At any rate, till now there is little – if any – historical research based on empirical data gathered in EFL classrooms decades ago. In two previous posts, I have already referred to the Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE) (Kurtz 2013) and to the Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC) (Jäkel 2010). I am glad to let you know that both corpora – there are almost 40 years of EFL classroom practice in Germany between them – are now available online as open access data for further, evidence-based historical and, perhaps, transcultural FL/SL classroom research. Both corpara are too small in size to be representative, and they do not fully meet current standards of corpus-based research, but they are nevertheless quite interesting and important for comparative and diachronic qualitative case research. As Hunston (2008: 155) points out, “(…) there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ corpus, because how a corpus is designed depends on what kind of corpus it is and how it is going to be used”.

If you are interested in taking a look at the DOHCCE, click here (this is a large file, 608 pages). Both corpora, the DOHCCE and the FLECC are also stored and available on the Flensburg University webserver (please follow this link).

References

Burwitz-Melzer, Eva; Königs, Frank G. & Riemer, Claudia (eds.) (2013). Identität und Fremdsprachenlernen. Anmerkungen zu einer komplexen Beziehung. Tübingen, Narr. [Giessener Beiträge zur Fremdsprachendidaktik – Giessen Contributions to Foreign Language Education, edited by Eva Burwitz-Melzer, Wolfgang Hallet, Jürgen Kurtz, Michael Legutke, Helene Martinez, Franz-Joseph Meißner and Dietmar Rösler]

Howatt, A.P.R. (with H.G. Widdowson) (2004). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Hüllen, Werner (2005). Kleine Geschichte des Fremdsprachenlernens. Berlin: Schmidt.

Hunston, Susan (2008). “Collection strategies and design decisions”. In Anke Lüdeling & Marja Kytö (eds.). Corpus Linguistics. An International Handbook: Vol.1. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter, 154-167.

Jäkel, Olaf (2010). The Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC): Sammlung authentischer Unterrichtsgespräche aus dem aktuellen Englischunterricht auf verschiedenen Stufen an Grund-, Haupt-, Real- und Gesamtschulen Norddeutschlands. Flensburg: Flensburg University Press.

Klippel, Friederike (1994). Englischlernen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Die Geschichte der Lehrbücher und Unterrichtsmethoden. Münster: Nodus.

Kurtz, Jürgen (ed.). (2013) The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE). Flensburg: Flensburg University Press.

Norton, Bonny (2010). “Language and Identity.” In: Hornberger, Nancy H./McKay, Sandra Lee (eds.) (2010). Sociolingistics and Language Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 349-369.

The Role of the Textbook in the EFL Classroom (9)

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

A new scholarly publication on textbook analysis, development, and use in the EFL/ESL classroom is out now. Edited by Nigel Harwood, it focuses on what I have referred to as the three pillars of textbook resesarch (see Kurtz 2010, 2011), i.e. on a) textbook content analysis, b) textbook development and production, and c) textbook use or ‘consumption’:

English Language Teaching Textbooks

Harwood, Nigel (ed.) (2013). English Language Teaching Textbooks: Content, Consumption, Production. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

I have read the book with great interest and wish to recommend it to anyone interested in textbook critique, development, and use. However, while going through this valuable collection of papers, written by an international cast of teachers and textbook writers, I noticed that references to research conducted in Germany over the last 125 years are (largely) missing. This is irritating, since the book addresses an international readership.

Furthermore, local EFL textbooks and accompanying teaching and learning aids produced in Germany (such as, for instance, Camden Town, Green Line or English G Access) are not taken into account at all. Why not? Is this, perhaps, because these textbooks are mainly produced by German publishers for EFL instruction in Germany? In view of the continuing international debate on the strenghts and weaknesses of global and local textbooks, I think textbook research needs to adopt a wider perspective.

In order to encourage  and support research in this direction, I would like to add the following bibliography to this post. Compiled by Carolin Borchardt at JLU Giessen last year, it comprises a considerable number of thematic articles which appeared in some of the most important TEFL journals in Germany, including DNS (Die Neueren Sprachen, first published in 1894). If this is of interest to you, please click here: JLU Giessen_EFL Textbook Research in Germany.

References

Kurtz, Jürgen (2010). Zum Umgang mit dem Lehrwerk im Englischunterricht. [Using a Textbook in the EFL Classroom]. In: Fuchs, Eckhardt; Kahlert, Joachim & Sandfuchs, Uwe (Hrsg.) (2010). Schulbuch konkret. Kontexte, Produktion, Unterricht. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt, 149-163.

Kurtz, Jürgen (Koord.) (2011). Lehrwerkkritik, Lehrwerkverwendung, Lehrwerkentwicklung. [Textbook Analysis, Textbook Use, and Textbook Development]. Tübingen: Narr. [Claus Gnutzmann, Lutz Küster & Frank G. Königs (Hg.) (2011). Fremdsprachen Lehren und Lernen, 40, Band 2].

 

Theoretical Approaches to Second/Foreign Language Acquisition and/or Learning

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

In a recent paper published in the Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (Herschensohn & Young-Scholten 2013), Florence Myles looks at “the major theoretical families that currently exist in SLA research” (2013: 46). Comparing the most influential linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural frameworks and approaches to second language acquisition, she identifies a number of divergent trends and “a plethora of different and seemingly conflicting claims” (2013: 46), arguing that due to the complexity of language and language learning “a single SLA theory is currently beyond our reach” (2013: 70). I agree in principle but there remains the question as to “where all the different and sometimes conflicting approaches originate from” (2013: 70). According to Myles, most of the seemingly irreconcilable theoretical positions that are under discussion today originate from conflicting views of the nature of language and language acquisition, but she remains relatively vague in this respect (2013: 70). Here are my thoughts on this:

Theories of foreign or second language learning and teaching ultimately build on sets of ontological and epistemological assumptions about the very nature of reality and existence. Frequently, however, these core assumptions remain implicit and vague. There are two plausible reasons for this. (1) Basic philosophical assumptions about being and knowing may appear to be too abstract to be mentioned or discussed, because they go beyond falsification or verification. (2) Philosophical assumptions, orientations, or mindsets (see fn 1) may be viewed as being mutually exclusive, thus contributing to increasing, rather than resolving the many discrepancies inherent in contemporary research on learning and teaching foreign or second languages (often resulting in clashes between theoretical constructs such as nature versus nurture, mind versus body, the individual versus society, language as a system versus language in use, competence versus performance, acquisition versus learning, and focus on forms versus focus on meaning).

Generally, current theories of foreign or second language learning vary in the degree to which they specify their underlying ontological and epistemological foundations (for a more detailed discussion, see Kurtz, 2003). Nonetheless, since most theoretical approaches or models draw predominantly on concepts and propositions derived from or influenced by psychology and linguistics, they reflect the ontological and epistemological views and assumptions underlying theory-construction in these fields. As the history of research on learning and teaching foreign or second languages shows, this is, or can be, problematic. Mapping philosophical core assumptions, perspectives, or mindsets (e.g. empiricism) prevalent in one academic field of study (e.g. behaviorism and associationism in psychology) to another (e.g. audiolingualism and audiovisualism in foreign or second language pedagogy) can lead to serious theoretical ‘birth-defects’ and shortcomings, such as overemphasis of instructed language learning as habit formation and automatization. It can also cause serious problems in instructional design and practice, such as overemphasis of mimicry, memorization, repetition, and pattern drill.

This is largely undisputed today (see, e.g., Mitchell & Myles, 2004: 261). Yet, there are two competing orientations in foreign and second language learning research which dominate and (unnecessarily) polarize current international discussions: cognitivism and socioculturalism.

Grounded in a computation-representation paradigm, cognitive approaches to foreign language learning and teaching tend to place strong emphasis on the human being as a mental self. The overall focus is on aspects or factors such as the role and quality of linguistic input in instruction and learning, the mental processes involved in the conversion of input into intake, and the optimal conditions for the production of target language output in pedagogical interaction (for a brief overview, see, e.g., Mitchell & Myles, 2004: 95-130, 159-192).

However, in recent years, the underlying mind as machine-metaphor and the corresponding view that mental processes could be described in computational terms (input – output) have been criticized for over-theorizing and for exaggerating the importance of the cognitive processes involved in learning a foreign language, especially in instructed learning environments:

Cognitive metaphors of SLA have obviously been productive during the last 30 years. However, […], their intellectual scope is unnecessarily narrow. […] Cognition and learning are constructs that go beyond the individual. […] Individuals are members of larger ecosystems of contributing agents and technologies. This position contrasts sharply with the individualistic version of cognitive science that is still the norm in cognitive SLA. […] This individualistic perspective is excessively restrictive or, worse still, simply out of date (Markee & Seo, 2009: 40).

Sociocultural (or ecological) approaches to foreign language learning and teaching view the learner primarily as a social being and an interdependent self, placing much stronger emphasis on learning with and through others, and, ultimately, on learning as a transformation of participation (typically modeled in terms of Vygotskyan sociocultural theory and, interestingly, on former Soviet psychology):

The view of learning as changing participation is radically different from theories of second language acquisition that frame language learning as a cognitive process residing in the mind-brain of an individual learner […]. The view […] I wish to argue here for is, instead, of second language acquisition as a situated, co-constructed process, distributed among participants. This is a learning theory that takes social and ecological interaction as its starting point and develops detailed analyses of patterns of interaction in context. In this perspective, language learning is manifested as participants’ progress along trajectories of changing engagement in discursive practices, changes which lead from peripheral to fuller participation and growth of self-identity. (Young, 2007: 263).

However, a convincing theoretical framework which can serve as a basis for the design of sustainable curricular frameworks, for the creation of powerful language learning environments, and for the implementation of effective and efficient instructional procedures and techniques ultimately needs to integrate both, the internal (or mental) and the external (or social), modeling language and language learning from a code-focused as well as a usage-based perspective. Approaches to foreign language learning and instruction which set a sharp divide between the mental and the social, and between language form and function are, ultimately, too restrictive to account for their (seemingly) interdependent and complementary character.

It is perfectly clear that fundamental theoretical and methodological problems need to be overcome in order to develop such a unified theory of second and/or foreign language acquisition and/or learning. In terms of research methodology, we need more multi-perspective (classroom) research that is theory- as well as data-driven (i.e. top-down and bottom-up qualitative research). I terms of theorizing, we need to assume a pragmatic stance, without of course trying to pigeon-hole a domain-specific theory into a vague ontological and epistemological framework. Nor does it make sense to draw simplistic conclusions for domain-specific instructional design from such a domain-unspecific philosophical orientation. At any rate, in order to get to the core of things, we need to lay bare the central theoretical premises and priorities that guide our inquiries.

(Fn 1) Schuh & Barab (see 2007: 71-72) distinguish between objectivism, realism, empiricism, rationalism, idealism, relativism, and pragmatism, but not all of these broad philosophical orientations or mindsets have been or are of equal importance for theorizing about language and language learning.

Literature
Kurtz, Jürgen (2003): „Menschenbilder in der Theorie und Praxis des Fremdsprachenunterrichts: Konturen, Funktionen und Konsequenzen für das Lehren und Lernen“. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung, 14 (1), Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Verlag Hohengehren, 149-167.

Markee, Numa & Seo, Mi-Suk (2009): “Learning Talk Analysis.” IRAL, 47 (1), Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 37-63.

Mitchell, Rosamond & Miles, Florence (2004): Second Language Learning Theories. London: Hodder Education.

Myles, Florence (2013): “Theoretical Approaches”. In: Herschensohn, Julia & Young-Scholten, Martha (eds.) (2013). The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: CUP, 46-70.

Schuh, Kathy L. & Barab, Sasha A. (2007): “Philosophical perspectives.” In: J. Michael Spector, M. David Merrill, Jeroen van Merriënboer and Marcy P. Driscoll (eds.): Handbook of Research on Educational Communication and Technology. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Young, Richard F. (2007): “Language learning and teaching as discursive practice”. In: Zhu Hua; Seedhouse, Paul; Wei, Li & Cook, Vivian (eds.): Language Learning and Teaching as Social InterAction. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 251–271.

InTASK Model Core Teaching Standards

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

During my stay at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada this summer, I stumbled upon an interesting paper on teacher education issued by the Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington, DC. The title of the publication is: “InTASK: Model Core Teaching Standards: A Resource for State Dialogues”. From my German and European perspectice, the paper outlines some very general standards of teaching that are conceived of as being important to lead to improved student achievement. I agree with the overall goals and objectices of education in schools, but in its decontextualized nature, the paper has very little to say about the many different contexts in which education in schools, including second/foreign language education is taking place these days. Opportunity-to-learn standards and teacher qualifications? Since all this has become an issue of world-wide interest, I am interested in hearing your personal views on this.

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?

New Publication: Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching

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

This new book, edited by R. Keith Sawyer (Washington State University, St. Louis), takes a fresh look at one of the core issues in education and learning. Focusing on the predictability and unpredictability of learning (and teaching) processes in schools, it raises a number of fundamental questions concerning flexible and creative curriculum and instructional design in the 21st century, providing readers with the know-how as well as the ‘do-how’ necessary to create rich, meaningful, and encouraging learning environments in the age of outcome-orientation and testing. As Keith Sawyer points out on his blog:

“The key idea is that good teaching involves both structures and improvisation, both advance planning and adaptability. Expert teachers know how to use structures (lesson plans, activities, techniques to discipline unruly students) in an improvisational way that’s customized and targeted to each class and each student. This is what “creative teaching” really is: it’s not a flaky, New Age performance artist who mesmerizes the students. It’s an expert with a deep knowledge of the craft of teaching, and of the subject being taught, and an expert who can use that to orchestrate valuable learning activities among the students.”

The book comes at a time when education systems are under massive socio-economic and ideological pressure world-wide, and it would be fatal if all this resulted in what David C. Berliner calls creaticide in the foreword: “With a few notable exceptions, policies designed to improve schools have resulted in a diminution of those classroom activities that are more likely to promote higher levels of thought, problem solving, and creativity in academic areas. It is not that the research community can agree on how to produce higher-order thinking and creative responses among youth. Far from it! But there is remarkable agreement about how not to produce the outcomes we desire. And by constraining what teachers and students can do in classrooms we do just that” (2011: xv).

Chapter 7 of this book focuses on the significance of structure and improvisation in teaching English as a foreign language. Title: “Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms.” (Kurtz, 2011: 133-161).

For further details, please click here.