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Coordinating Curriculum at CESL

Earlier this month, I began my new role as curriculum coordinator at the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.  I am very excited to be back in my field and to put all my experiences, observations, and research into action.  This was an excellent time to thoroughly read Karen E. Johnson's book Second Language Teacher Education, published in 2009, the same year I started my PhD studies.  Unfortunately for me, I became aware of this book halfway through my dissertation project.

In Chapter 6 of the book, Dr. Johnson introduces Engestrom's human activity system as shown in the figure above.  This nice triangle with arrows helps illustrate my mindset in terms of coordinating curriculum and professional development.  Let's enter this figure by concentrating on the subject (middle left), which is the learner of the community (bottom middle).

For English language teachers, their students are the subject.  In my position, CESL faculty are the subject with the learning community as CESL at the micro-level and all English language teachers at the macro-level.  For now, I'll focus on the micro-level (CESL), which I am currently in the process of learning myself.  Let's look at the rest of the terms with bullet points:
  • Object (middle right) - to teach English for academic purposes; this is the practical purpose for the subject
  • Outcome - this is the professional purpose of the object and the core of professional development.  What do instructors want to develop or learn to become better at their job?
  • Mediating artifacts - CESL curriculum, tests, materials, technology.  This is my primary domain in this model.  Perhaps I am drawn to this model because it's at the top of the triangle.
  • Division of labor - What does each teacher teach?  Which teachers have supervisory roles?  
  • Rules - includes both implicit and explicit rules of how CESL operates
Engestrom's theory suggests that these many rules have been ritualized through history and the activity system contains the results to all previous activity systems that have influenced it.  I've come to CESL at an interesting time as the current director is leaving, so there is a lot of positive and negative speculation concerning a shift in this activity system of CESL.  Although the subjects, objects, and outcomes will stay the same relatively, the other components may and will change.

We know for a fact the division of labor will change as I begin to take on the responsibility of the curriculum supervisors over the next year.  The community will change with a new faculty member coming on board and some TAs leaving.  Division of labor and community are the more expected changes, but rules and mediating artifacts are a greater unknown as it depends on the new leadership of the interim director and the curriculum coordinator.  Johnson concludes her overview of activity theory by writing, "human activity is both unstable and unpredictable, and the first stage in resolving any contradictions that the activity system may be facing involves uncovering them."  And I feel that one of my main duties is to help CESL uncover the contradictions directly related to the mediating artifacts.

The rest of Chapter 6 covers two topics that are close to my new job description as well:
  • Educational Reform Policies - For CESL, this mostly has to do with our accreditation process with CEA
  • High-Stakes Language Testing - Much of this section concerns institutional and individual practices and attitudes towards the TOEFL
I am very happy to have picked up this book at the right time.  I have found it to be a great guide for my first few weeks at CESL.  Do you have any books like this that have come to you at the right time and the right place?

More on Activity Theory and the Human Activity System

Also, let me know what you think of this human activity system.  Does it help you understand your situation?  If you want to know more about Engestrom's human activity system, here are a few ways:

Read his book, Learning by Expanding: An Activity Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research

Read the Wikipedia entry on Activity Theory

Watch this video:
 Or this video:


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