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The Second Language Curriculum in the New MilleniumDavid Nunan
In this paper, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to look back at the trends and issues that have started to change the face of second language curricula and which I believe will have an important impact over the next few years. Secondly, I want to highlight some emerging trends that will, I believe, be central to our pedagogical endeavors as we head into the 21st century.
1. What is "curriculum" ?
Curriculum is a large messy concept that can be looked at in a number of ways. A very broad definition is that it includes all of the planned learning experiences of an educational system.
I like to draw a distinction between the planned curriculum, the implemented curriculum, and the realized curriculum. The planned curriculum includes everything that is done prior to the delivery of instruction. The implemented curriculum refers to what happens in the moment-by-moment realities of the classroom. The realized curriculum refers to the skills and knowledge that learners actually acquire as a result of instruction. Recently, it was assumed that these three dimensions would be isomorphic.
2. Philosophical and practical shifts
There have been many trends in language curriculum development over the last thirty years. Some of these have "taken root", and some have not. For example, the "methods" movement - the search for the one best method, would seem to be well and truly dead.
Here, I would like to highlight one philosophical shift that has taken root, and that is having a profound effect on all aspects of the curriculum. This is a shift from transmission model of education to an experiential model. Proponents of an experiential philosophy believe that the function of an educational system is to create the conditions whereby learners might recreate their own knowledge and skills.
3. Emerging trends
Predicting the future is notoriously difficult. As Bernstein has noted, "The view that we can reach out to the future to bring it under control is one of the most audacious advances in the history of humanity... The gods are still so unkind as to deny us knowledge of what the future holds..." (Bernstein, p. 2000. The enlightening struggle against uncertainty. Financial Times, April 25, 2000).
Here are some famous predictions that didn't come true - by people who might have been expected to know better.
"The phonograph... is not of any commercial value.(Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph in 1880.)
Flight by machines heavier that air are unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible. (Simon Newcomb, an important astronomer, 1902.)
Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? (Harry Warner, Chairman of Warner Brothers Pictures, 1927.)
There is a world market for about five computers. (Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943.)
There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home. (Ken Olsen, President of Digital Corporation, 1977.)
If these experts in their respective fields could have gotten it so wrong, what hope is there for us? Is it not either arrogant or foolhardy to make predictions?
Despite the fact that making predictions about the future is notoriously difficult, it is an activity that we humans constantly engage in - both in our personal and professional lives. I may appear to be foolhardy in writing such a speculative piece about the future of language teaching, that may be so, but it is a tempting prospect, and, like Oscar Wilde, I am one of those people who can resist anything except temptation.
There are three trends that I believe will have a profound impact on language teaching as we enter the new millennium. Each offers opportunities, but also threats. The first is the emergence of a limited number of world languages. The second is the impact on technology. The third is the large-scale movements of peoples from one speech community to another.
The emergence of a limited number of world languages
Much has been written about the emergence of English as a world language.
The rapid growth in the number of people learning and using English through global communications in multilingual workplaces has created many questions. A key research priority identified by the TESOL Research Agenda Task Force is "What are the implications of the changing nature of work, communication, and global economies for the teaching, learning, assessment and use of English in the information era?"
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In Hong Kong, the government has mandated Cantonese as the language of instruction in all but 100 high schools.
There is, in fact, no evidence that "younger = better".
As foreign language teachers we should actively uphold the right of every child to develop high levels of spoken and written competence in their first language.
The impact of technology
The impact of technology is already being felt in many sectors of education, not the least in language education. Many language schools have their own websites, and it is standard practice for commercial publishers to develop websites to support their textbooks. In the last few years several Internet startup companies have created a hybrid entity - a publisher/school that delivers language courses through the Web.
The danger here is that the use of technology will exacerbate the current gulf in education between the haves and the have-nots. A recent survey of computer use in the United States revealed some interesting facts. Almost 100% of full-time regular public school teachers reported having access to computers or the Internet in their schools and about two-thirds say they are using new technology for classroom instruction - but two-thirds of these teachers also say they are not well prepared for the task. The survey also showed that teachers working in high-poverty schools had less access to these technologies than teachers working in more affluent schools. Internationally, this trend is exacerbated. In Mexico, for example, it is estimated that in public schools, only one child in thirty has access to computers and the Internet. In private schools, 100% of students have such access.
The large-scale movements of peoples from one speech community to another
My third prediction is that the large-scale movements of peoples from one speech community to another will accelerate. From the perspective of language education, this trend will render problematic the traditional distinction between the concepts of first language, second language and foreign language. This will have massive consequences for language teaching. Population shifts are already having an impact on educators in several parts of the world. In San Francisco, children are appearing in classrooms claiming to speak English as a first language, yet the variety they speak is not recognizable as English. Teachers working with these students report that regular ESL methods and materials simply do not work with these students.
The dilemma here is whether educational systems should accept or validate the varieties of language used by their students, or whether they should attempt to inculcate one of the standard varieties. The furious debate over Ebonics in the United States is just one example of the controversy generated by non-standard varieties of language.
4. A hope
I want to end, not with a prediction but with a hope. This is that my own field of English second language education might be recognized and acknowledged as a profession. By looking at other occupations that call themselves professions, we can begin to identify criteria for determining whether or not our field can legitimately be called a profession.
I think that we need to take at least four criteria into account: (a) the existence of advanced education and training, (b) the establishment of standards of practice and certification, (c) an agreed theoretical and empirical base, and (d) the work of individuals within the field to act as advocate for the profession.
How do we measure up on these criteria? Here is my take on the situation:
Advanced education and training
Despite an increase in in-service training, and the proliferation of formal award courses around the world, thousands of individuals who have no formal education and training in TESOL practice as ESOL teachers. In fact, at some language schools in different parts of the world, the only employment criterion is fluency in English.
Standards of practice and certification
In TESOL, standards of practice and certifications vary widely. Most countries have some form of certification for teachers, although this is rarely TESOL specific. Further, in most countries where some form of teaching certification is required, this process is controlled by governments and educational bureaucracies, not by professional teaching associations.
In terms of institutional accreditation, the situation also varies widely. In numerous countries, there is no professional or governmental control over language schools. In such countries, nothing can stop individuals who see language as a marketable commodity from opening their own schools, hiring and underpaying unqualified teachers, and using illegally copied materials. I am familiar with one such school that doesn't even pay its teachers. Native speakers of English hired as "teachers" are sent on to the streets to recruit their own students to the school. Their salary takes the form of a percentage of the students' fees.
An agreed theoretical and empirical base
A challenge for education in general, and TESOL in particular, is to define, refine, and articulate its disciplinary basis. Education is a hybrid, drawing on a range of disciplines such as psychology and sociology. In addition to these, TESOL is influenced by linguistics (both theoretical and applied), psycholinguistics, socio-linguistics, cognitive science, and numerous other disciplines. Partly because of this, we don't have a shared set of rules of the game. In fact, we don't even come close.
Advocacy for the profession
The fourth and final criterion is that of advocacy. Most professions have professional associations, and a key function of such associations is to act as advocates for the profession. They do this by attempting to influence legislators, either to create legislation that is seen to be advantageous to the profession or to oppose legislation that is seen as inimical to the progression. In the United States, the various health professions played an important role in blocking the passage of President Bill Clinton's health care reform bills. In California, a wide range of educational associations, including TESOL and the National Association for Bilingual Education, has less success in opposing the discriminatory Unz Initiative, an initiative designed to severely limit the provision of bilingual education in that state.
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While governments want more English taught in school, there appears to be a general reluctance to come up with adequate levels of funding. In a number of countries, elementary school teachers are being deployed, or re-deployed as English teachers without training, resources, or support. The notion that if you can speak the language you can teach it is alive and well - even at official government levels. Reluctance to provide adequate funding for English language education is reinforced by the economic difficulties confronting many countries at the present time. In these and other countries then, the matter becomes a political issue of getting adequate resources to enable teachers, curriculum developers and materials to design, deliver and evaluate effective language programmes.
Similarly, technology is seen (mistakenly, I believe) by many educational providers as a cheap alternative to employing professionals. At my own institution, last year, I was offered a substantial amount of seed funding if I could implement an information technology dimension to each of our courses. The justification for this additional funding was not pedagogical but political. "If you're teaching English through the Internet, it will make your courses cheaper," I was told.
Despite these challenges and threats, I remain hopeful that our struggle to have what we do seen as a profession will bear fruit in the future. The key role for associations such as TESOL and FIPLV is to provide leadership in the four key areas I outlined above - facilitating advanced education and training, encouraging high standards of practice, encouraging the development of a robust theoretical and empirical disciplinary base, and in arguing vigorously for the profession and the constituencies it serves.
In this presentation I began by offering a definition of curriculum as all of the planned learning experiences in an educational system. I suggested that curriculum needs to be seen from three different perspectives - as a plan or specification for action, as the moment by moment realities of the instructional process, and as the outcome of the learning process. In philosophical terms, I suggested that there is an unresolved tension between a traditional transmission model of education, and an experimental model. In the second part of the presentation, I made a number of predictions about the future of curricula. These are the growing dominance of a limited number of world languages, the impact of technology, and the impact of large scale migration across language boundaries. All of these factors will conspire to transform our concepts of both language and also the learning process.
Nunan, D., 1993, Second Language Teaching and Learning. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Stenhouse, L., 1975, An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.
Tyler, R., 1949, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. New York: Harcourt Brace.
About the author
David Nunan is a Professor at The English Centre, University of Hong Kong. He is also the Immediate Past President of TESOL
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