Coursebooks: Jack of all trades, master of none

(Reading time: 3 - 6 minutes)

Tool 1: A good teacher cannot be fixed in a routine…During teaching, each moment requires a sensitive mind that is constantly changing and constantly adapting… (Bruce Lee, kung fu practitioner and film star)


Teaching is an art as Stenhouse (1988) in his seminal paper “Artistry and Teaching: The Teacher as Focus of Research and Development” reassures us, in other words it is a way to perceive the world, it is a way to inspire others to acquire the tools to interpret the world. It involves a lot of insights, experiential learning, background knowledge, cosmopolitanism and above all, intellectual class. What about learning?


Learning is all about biology, this is why Zull (2002) calls for the “biology of learning”. Learning is about effort, practice, self-discipline and motivation. In other words, it is a “manual job” and as any manual job it is best done with the appropriate tools.


Tool 2: A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them (Steve Jobs, gifted speaker, public opinion maker, visionary)


As the Expanding Circle countries (Graddol, 2006) dedicate more and more of their resources and energy in EFL learning and teaching,materials and tools gradually rise to what Bolitho (2008) calls “iconic status”. In other words, classroom materials are able “to provide structure and content for learning activities, to organize curriculum, and to frame (more or less questionable), classroom ideologies, among many other roles” (Guerrettaz & Johnston, 2013). Although there is a plethora of material design, development and evaluation reviews, studies and checklists in literature, when it comes to the introduction of classroom materials most of the decision makers insist on the “wow factor”. This “top-down” approach pays a lip-service to progressive teaching practices and ideologies preached by the teaching community almost all over the world.


Tool 3: “Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.” (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society)


Courseware developers should take into account learners’ needs and wants while producing classroom materials. Not all learners have the same needs or wants, not all learners share the same prior knowledge or context. Age, beliefs, interests and linguistic background are of vital importance in designing the appropriate materials; learners living in Halkidiki may come from bilingual families, have more opportunities to use the language in natural settings and may have different linguistic needs from learners living in Athens or inner city areas who definitely have different priorities, skills and opportunities. Materials should also reflect social norms, dominant ideologies and current ideas about life. Technology, bullying, music, social exclusion, family relationships, racism and even politics are some of the hot issues here, yet so discreetly excluded from most of the classroom materials. Luke Meddings on this: “There is even a code for this inside publishing: while the mafia relies on the omertà - a vow of silence and non-collaboration, ELT publishing swears by the Parsnip. An acronym, of course, standing for: no politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms or pork. (The Guardian, Embrace the parsnip, 2006). What remains seems not to be enough to create this “meaningful setting”, Illich talks about. Back to Luke Meddings:
“The real issue is not the content, but the delivery mode. Depending on a coursebook to supply the stimulus for language learning is like expecting youth TV to deliver the authentic experience of being young. Youth is about experience, not representation (discuss). Learning a language is about constant experiment, not rehearsal and performance”. (The Guardian, Embrace the parsnip, 2006).


Tool 4: “Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living. Whatever big problem you can imagine, from world peace to the environment to hunger to poverty, the solution always includes education, ... We need to depend more on peer-to-peer and self-driven learning. The laptop is one important means of doing that.”(Nicholas Negroponte)


Courseware designers many times overegg the pudding by adding lots and lots of extra components to satisfy the “digital natives” (students). Materials may come overstuffed with things like e-books, access to web materials, CDs, IWBs’ software, all sorts of gadgetry and LMS systems. Negroponte himself had promised One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project would help poorer children have access to learning systems and world education but this may not be the case in most of the countries. Negroponte, who quite right thinks that “young people are the world’s most precious natural resource” needs to reconsider the philosophy of the project as it fails to live up the expectations. Truth is we have to be skeptical of the use of technology as a panacea, a cure-all solution. There are numerous studies that express skepticism about the over-dependence on educational technology, as Nicky Hockly puts it: “Basic pedagogy needs to be in place, and then the technology can form another layer on top of that. Tech “solutions” also need to be effective and sustainable in a local context” (Fact or Fiction, May 2016 Report). She also points out that 79% of English language teachers believe that technology has transformed English language learning and teaching, an example of Pygmalion Effect, in other words teachers attribute effectiveness to technology without any concrete evidence to do so. This tool obviously needs to be balanced. Instead of de-humanising our materials it is much better to humanize them as Mario Rivoluncri envisaged.


Tool 5: “In teaching English we can impart to learners not only the present perfect, but also the power of knowing and caring about the world they live in” (Luke Prodromou)


Logistically, materials need a purpose, a quantity and an audience. In most of the cases, learners are supposed to develop the necessary skills to pass the test or score high at an exam. Accountability counts and it promotes the courses as well. Sometimes it may even pay the bills. During any single language lesson, though, there seems to be two contrasting powers present in the room: academicism and escapism. Teachers’ rhetoric of the power of knowledge rarely coincides with learners’ daydreaming. Tsagari D.and Sifakis N. conclude their seminal paper on EFL course book evaluation in Greek primary schools with the following words: “It is our belief that the more courseware development integrates learners’ language and learning needs, teachers’ readiness to integrate the course books’ orientation, as well as current research on what constitutes adequate language learning, the more they will succeed in contributing to genuine language learning.” (System ,August, 2014). The key words here are: “genuine language learning”. Genuine language learning happens when we do not deliver the materials but we teach the learners, when we involve learners into a collaborative, real-life communication aiming at their role as human beings and not as ephemeral language learners. •

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