I Had Half a Good Post Written

… and then it was lost to the aether.

It was about curriculum, program changes, and levelling programs, and how an educational institutions can effectively implement programs and program changes in a way that is centered on student benefit. It’s not really a whine-and-bitch session, but it does focus on the fact that realistic, honest assessment of negative factors is necessary if any real improvement is to be made. It also focuses on the idea of student-centered program implementation, and how this relates to interdepartmental politics. While it’s particularly true of the program change I’m witnessing now, it’s also true of other departments and programs at many universities, and the observations could also be applied to many other kinds of organizations, I believe.

In any case, I intend it not as a criticism of my workplace, but rather as a look at some of the things that are necessary for a curriculum change to be a successful one.

I was going on about how I’d recently heard a speech from the President of the University where I work, which urged faculty members always to think about whether their decisions benefit the students. This is something which I agree with, in principle, though I have some pretty specific ideas about what needs to happen before any decision by any one faculty member actually even can make a difference.

An illustrative example is a “pilot course” I’m teaching now. At least, I hope it’s a pilot course—a course which can be moved within the program, adjusted, changed, or even canceled if it doesn’t work, if it seems to not benefit the students. I’m not sure this is the case, but I hope it is. In any case, the course I am teaching is a Video English course, one which involves students watching an approximately ten-minute-long video in class, and then discussing it, re-viewing it, and discussing it some more. This, at least, is the idea of this course, which was supposed to be offered to advanced students. The kinds of things I was told about useful methods of teaching it, ways of getting the students to relate to the material, caused me to change my opinion of it—I stopped considering it to be a class designed to remove the pressure of teaching conversation from a non-native speaker of English, for some of whom the job is understandably difficult. I began to think the course could be something more, something quite interesting, in fact.

And then I went to class, and discovered that, in fact, the course was being offered to advanced students, plus anyone else who wished to enroll. It was an open course, and my particular class contained about 12 music students plus five or six physical education students. About two of them seemed interested at all in English, and the average level was about the level of your average villager from deep in Siberia—meaning that most of them had trouble saying more than “Hello!” and all of them had trouble understanding my speech, even at the slowest, clearest rate I can do without losing coherence. When they asked me when I wanted them to bring their ID forms with photos, my response, “Next class, on Thursday” literally took a group effort for them to decode. At one point I switched to Korean, difficult as it is for me to speak the language, because it was obvious they couldn’t make heads or tails of even the simplest things I said to them.

Now, before you misunderstand me, don’t think I am blaming these students. They’re Freshmen, they’re new to the English program, and they were allowed into the class, a class about which I am fairly certain they knew absolutely nothing at all, because when I told them what we’d be doing—WE’LL WATCH A VIDEO. AND WE’LL TALK ABOUT IT. TOGETHER. IN ENGLISH—they were taken aback and a few people scurried out of the classroom in horror.

No, I don’t blame the students. You see, for some people these might seem like a new set of problems, caused by the transition into a new course program. In fact, they’re old problems, problems carried over straight from the old program, except that the structure of the old program made these problems a little easier to deal with, because levelling was a less important factor in that program. In this program, levelling is a more crucial issue, because there are a lot more advanced courses offered, and keeping out students who cannot handle those advanced courses, and would even struggle with basic courses, is the only way those advanced courses will be remotely teachable.

What are the lessons that can be learned from this?

  1. When a system of standards is used, such as student levelling, it must be really used. Classes for advanced students should be open only to advanced students. Maybe it has to do with the registration system, or maybe to do with the fact that nobody handling registration in our department seems to have any skill in English (and thus, I suspect, may not have studied a foreign language before, and probably has no idea what is entailed in learning or teaching one) but the whole notion of levelling is simply not handled with the kind of care, attention, and absoluteness that is necessary.
  2. The application of standards must be standardized if it is to be meaningful and effective. This may seem obvious, but it’s often not how things are set up, for various reasons. For example, levelling is a form of standards-definition. As a level of standardization, it must therefore be absolute across the whole student body, not merely relative within departments, if it is to effectively guide the creation of curriculum to be used for all members of the student body. A simple example: at my school, at least, there is no such thing as full class of Physical Education students who can perform at the advanced level in English. The department has been consistently unable to produce even one class full of advanced-level students, in other words. I suspect the same is true of Music students, and probably of several other departments as well. Now, there most definitely are students in those departments who may qualify for advanced standing, but you have to understand that they are exceptions and absolutely not the rule. The most advanced Physical Education students I’ve taught were on a par with your low-average Business or Science majors.

    Therefore the notion of an “advanced” class within each department (such as physical education, music, or law) is essentially meaningless with regard to a universally mandatory curriculum. They cannot be assigned the standard “advanced” textbook, and if they are, they will not only not succeed at it, and fail to derive benefit from it, but they and the teacher will be forced into the very demoralizing position of going through the motions of a class, knowing that the setup makes a proper class extremely difficult to conduct.

    At the same time, the lowest level English Education students are in my experience typically equipped with enough ability in English to run circles around the average-level students in almost any other department. When they are stuck into those classes, they also are frustrated, and embarrass and discourage (though no fault of their own) their classmates.

  3. Students need to know the basic idea of the courses offered to them, so that they can make decisions—intelligent or not—based not on the assumptions they’re likely to make, but on the course objectives and methods as planned by the curriculum formulators. What I’m saying here is that, very likely, a course like “Screen English” looks like a Mickey Mouse course, where students get to watch TV, an easy way out of what has been, for most of them, thus far, a deadly boring rote-education background with English. If a student is running from a class when he discovers something as basic as the fact that the course design assumes viewing and discussion of a video, then it’s quite obvious to me that he had no idea what he was signing up for even in the most basic sense. This is a problem in both registration, and in the preparation of teachers for the course: teachers who expect advanced students run into a brick wall when they find a room full of kids who can’t understand a word that’s said to them.
  4. Program diversification needs to be planned with a realistic understanding of the program’s weaknesses in mind. If the University will not abandon its current practice of using solipsistic levelling within departments with no consideration of how their “advanced” students compare to the student body—really a nonsensical notion considering that admission into departments is largely dictated by University entrance exam scores, and considering that entrance exam scores are largely affected by a student’s English ability, and the English scores of which perhaps could be used even in Freshman placement within English programs, if you think about it—then at the very least, the (already observed) negative effects of this practice should be minimized, instead of increased. In other words, when the implementation of a levelling procedure is not really allowed to be efficient and cannot be changed, the solution is not to diversify the program in such a way as to exacerbate the problems that proceed from this ineffective approach to levelling. It would be better to either somehow have departments relinquish control of students’ English courses (as it is assumed they must have done in terms of students other elective courses), or at the very least to have the program take into account that levelling is actually not effective in approach, or even enforced in practice.

    Furthermore, the recognition of this fact should not be regarded as the sheepish uttering of a dirty little secret, but rather the honest admission of an imperfection which realistically needs to be taken into account.

  5. The observations of teachers, pedestrian as they may be, need to be taken into account if administrative decisions are to result in increased benefit to the students. The teachers, as a body of professionals—for this is why they were hired—represent a lot of experience with the particular environment in which program changes are to be applied. While differences in opinion about, say, the average standing of music students, or which is the best approach to getting students actively use English instead of Korean in conversation courses, the vast majority of teachers will be found to be in agreement about a number of issues such as leveling, course appropriateness, and about what, if it were changed, would make teaching students more effective. Additionally, for those who think that teachers just like to complain about everything, it’s incredibly instructive to set aside that rationalization and listen to their complaints for a period of time such as a week. You will, I assure you, note that among their complaints you will find repeated mention of specific, persistent problems, problems commonly observed by most teachers of comparable courses at the institution, and which cannot be solved by a teacher alone because they are problems at the level of programs, and not individual courses. (Teachers tend to collaborate to solve the problems they can solve themselves, which is why they are such incredibly thieves of teaching techniques and piraters of teaching materials.)
  6. The impetus to change for the benefit of students, to be more than just rhetoric, needs to be accompanied by backing, not just from above, but laterally. Universities, like any human organization, are inherently political, but if they are to survive, they must be about more than mere interdepartmental politics. Departments direly need to be open to, and accomodating of, one another when the kinds of changes that are requestion in the dealings between those departments are realistically for the benefit of students, especially when minimal compromise is needed. Pivotal is the word compromise, which seems to be extremely difficult to attain from other departments with regard to departments that are tasked with servicing the full student body, such as that which runs a universally mandatory English program. Every time that departmental disagreement breaks out, people on all sides should point out that, in the presently declining market for post-secondary education in this country, increasing the effectiveness of programs, especially programs with as high profile as English programs, may well have an important effect on a University’s ability to survive, let alone to thrive or advance. This is not to say that everyone should hold hands, sing, “This is for the students’ benefit,” and then do whatever the English department wants, but there should be a reasoned discussion of the proposal, conducted on the pros and cons in terms of student benefit, and it should simply be obvious that other concerns, unless absolutely pressing, come a distant second.
  7. Finally, teachers need to realistically adjust their expectations and their performance according to the current system. If a course that appeared at first to be designed for advanced students, and which is exceedingly difficult to teach in that way to beginners, is suddenly populated by the lowest-level students you’ve ever met, well, it’s very unlikely all the students can be made by the department or by anybody to drop the course and transfer into a more appropriate course. Therefore, it’s best to plan on teaching the course down to their level, running it so that at least they can get some marginal benefit from it, and remembering, most importantly, that they too came into the class with no idea of what they were walking into, unprepared but not explicitly told just how unprepared they were. They certainly never requested to be the ones to mess up your idea of what the course ought to be, and should not be treated as if the mess is somehow their fault. That said, I hope the above list also makes clear that this last point, which it seems teachers already normally and routinely do, is really only a step of being resigned to making do despite an unfavorable program which is not centered on student benefit.

I’m not specifically blaming anyone about the problems I foresee—nor am I making assumptions about the goings-on in inter-departmental relations, about which I am largely in the dark and which I characterize mainly based on staff rumors, on what I’ve heard from friends who’ve served as faculty at other Universities and had more access to this kind of thing, and on things I have surmised from comments by those who know more than I and from the outcomes of various initiatives I’ve seen come and go in the last year and a half.

But while I hope that some of the problems do somehow sort themselves out over time, I also think the most crucial issue for our program is the levelling issue, and I believe that until it can be sorted out, between our department and the bureacracies of the various other departments whose students we are teaching, no further changes to the English curriculum will result in an increased net benefit to the students, and furthermore that the introduction of more changes risks a net loss of student benefit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *