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Instructional Design in Applied Linguistics

A few weeks ago, I attended my first American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL) Conference.  I first heard about it during my first year at the University of Iowa as some of my colleagues went there.  They described it as a more intimate and research-oriented conference compared to the International TESOL Convention, which is now held immediately after AAAL in the same city.  As a new PhD student, I still preferred the practitioner-oriented TESOL Convention as many of my ideas were in the mindset of a teacher.  I went to a couple TESOL Conventions until my graduate studies and dissertation crowded out any opportunities for professional conferences.  Now as my dissertation is near completion, I got my first opportunity to attend AAAL and it was really worth it.

I came to AAAL wearing two hats.  The first hat was my PhD candidate hat.  With it, I attended presentations and roundtables about language & culture and language planning & policies.  My second hat was my instructional designer hat.  This second hat represents my current job at Kirkwood Community College.  With that one, I attended presentations on language teaching and education technology.  Admittedly, the conference is designed for my first hat and not so much my second one.  However, I was introduced to language teaching through the context of instructional design as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).  Ever since then I have seen English language teaching through the lens of an instructional designer.  

Although I completely enjoyed and was inspired by the conference wearing my first hat, I was a bit more critical wearing the second hat.  I expressed through Twitter as a request for more instructional design in presentations about pedagogy, but I got feedback alerting me that this request may have been a bit (too) critical.

Perhaps I'm being (a bit) arrogant about instructional design, but I believe using the concept of backward design helps make language teaching much easier to plan and do.  I saw and listened to many great ideas of how to teach certain linguistic concepts, but as an instructional designer I am interested more in assessment.  Compared to many of my peers at the conference, I felt like I had a different set of questions.  Many of the questions were linguistics-oriented as appropriate to the conference, so I felt out of place with my design-oriented questions that I rarely asked.  Perhaps shame on me for keeping it quiet until this blog post (which is like being quiet anyway).

Let me provide two different hypothetical presentations similar to some I saw at AAAL.  Then I will provide my instructional design mindset to each of them.

Hypothetical Presentation #1

It is a poster presentation about teaching English derivational affixes to Japanese learners.  The poster emphasizes research on how Japanese university students respond to and interpret English derivational affixes.  About a third of the poster shows how this linguistic research can be applied to the classroom by providing sample activities for teachers to make the explanation easier.  These activities were tested on a group of ~50 students (including a control of ~25 students).

Hypothetical Presentation #2

It is a provocative presentation that evokes discussion about importing Western pedagogy (specifically the Communicative Language Teaching approach) to other countries.  Attendees who appear to be from Westerners are outnumbered by those who appear to be from "the East."  The conclusion of the discussion seems to be that some cultures are not as receptive to communicative teaching approaches as others, which I believe is only partly true.

Instructional Design

My first reaction to the first presentation is that it is incredibly limited to teaching English in Japanese universities.  Can these findings be generalized to Japanese high school students not to mention English language learners from other countries?  Most likely no.  I admit this is a snarky criticism, but many new practitioners to conferences may dismiss research like this immediately if they share this criticism or they may try to adapt it to their contexts with unpredictable results.  We would sure love those results though.

My first reaction to the second presentation is sympathy for the learners and local teachers who are forced to learn English through the Communicative Language Teaching approach and do not know the rationale for such an approach.  The top-down mandate will of course cause the learners and local teachers to resist.  They had no voice in the decision to import this teaching approach.

From an instructional design standpoint the key to coming to a solution to both of these issues is by looking at the assessment.  Who designs the assessment?

For the first one, does the assessment value accuracy in derivational affixes over other types of grammar and language skills?  If so, why or why not?  The bottom line is finding who is demanding a better way to teach or learn derivational affixes?  Is there really a one-size-fits-all answer (a panacea) to this?  (Perhaps this final question can be applied to any issue for teaching and learning.)

For the second one, many institutions adopt the communicative learning teaching approach to help improve learner's oral language skills.  However, the assessments in these institutions usually remain the same, assessing language only through reading and writing skills.  Learners and many teachers are frustrated with this imported teaching approach because it does not improve test scores.  The communicative language teaching approach actually takes away valuable time to improve language skills that are assessed in the exams.

If you want to improve the pedagogy in your class, department, and/or institution, then you must start with assessment.  That's what students focus on whether teachers like it or not.   Their grades depend on the test scores.

Conveniently, this brings me to the title of my blog: Teaching English for Glocalized Communication, which I described last year at http://jesl1.blogspot.com/2013/02/what-is-glocalized-communication.html.  Effective instructional design helps people identify possible mismatches between the needs of the learners and the desires of the administration.  Instructional design can help faculty better manage this mismatch.

Recommended Reading

I got my start in instructional design by taking a course from Chuck Hodell at UMBC and reading his book, ISD from the Ground Up: A No-Nonsense Approach to Instructional Design.   This is an excellent book for practitioners in many fields.

For people who want more theoretical substance to their instructional design, I recommend Wiggins & McTighe's Understanding By Design.  This is the seminal work behind backward design, which is used by most instructional designers.

These books should simplify your pedagogy.  For me, they also improved my communication skills with learners and administrators, which greatly reduces the risk of conflict with these two parties.  Bottom line: job security.  Please let me know if you had contrasting experiences.  I'm curious to learn why.

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