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The Process of Curricular Change


Last month, my attention was brought to an article recently published in TESOL's IEP Interest Section Newsletter, "Navigating Curricular Change in a Postmethod Program: Negotiating Roles and Expectations" by Erin O'Reilly, who works upstate from me at the University of Illinois. Their IEP has undergone a similar process of curricular change as we are experiencing at Southern Illinois University.

The need for curricular change became clear for accreditation purposes. Both of our programs needed to align student learning outcomes (SLOs) across levels and skills. The biggest difference between our programs is that they had experienced teachers with administrative oversight of one skill area whereas we had experienced teachers with administrative oversight of two to four levels. In this sense, Illinois may have had an easier process to align skills across levels whereas we had a clearer understanding of SLOs representing the three major tiers of levels.  For both our programs this curricular change process required a negotiated dialogue.

How My Role Differs

After reading through O'Reilly's article, I feel that I can make a safe assumption that she has been part of the curricular change process since the beginning. This differs for me as I entered our program's change process at least a year after the process began.  When I was hired, our program was just a few weeks away from getting conditional accreditation for ten years. One of these conditions is that our program had a curriculum coordinator, namely me. The other condition had to do with assessment, which we are working on now and should have completed before we break for the summer.

O'Reilly introduces her program's interpretivist approach to explore the theory-practice dynamic as follows: "The process to redefine supervisory roles included two formal meetings, with a reflective activity in between meetings." Our program did not have the same procedure to redefine supervisory roles, and this has complicated our process during the first year as my role and the roles of the curriculum supervisors overlapped.  We were both charged with initiating a change process but also with not making changes. A few problems arose because we needed to make changes this year when our roles were clear not to make changes until next year. Six months into my job, I worked with the director and others with administrative roles to determine our roles during this transition year.

Understanding Roles

After one year into the curricular change process at Illinois, O'Reilly mentions the questions I immediately faced when I started working at Southern Illinois:
  1. Do teachers need to teach the same way using the same materials and methodology?
  2. How can teachers balance freedom of materials and instructional methodology with covering prescribed SLOs?
Let me unpack the first question by asking another question: Who needs teachers to teach the same way? The clearest answer is that administration and full-time instructors would like our graduate teaching assistants to teach the same way. However, full-time instructors don't want to teach the same way as their colleagues, and they don't need to.

When it comes to SLOs, I believe the outcomes should be standardized but not the specific approach. The administration, the teachers, and the students should all understand what the goals are for each level and for each class.  It is up to the teacher and his or her students to reach those goals.  Therefore, I see the end of the course, represented by the outcomes and the assessment of the outcomes, as the standardized part of the curriculum. I am not interested in controlling every lesson plan and every activity of the program, especially when we have fully qualified professionals teaching the majority of the classes.

As for methodology, I believe it is more up to the director and the vision for the program's identity to form a certain approach to language learning and teaching. The more specific a program defines its methodology, then the more structured and prescriptive the teaching can become. My experience as a teacher educator has shown me that the freedom to create and adjust materials towards the students' needs and interests and the teachers' expertise is the most effective way to keep both teachers and students happy.  If a curriculum is too prescribed, I believe it can rob the creative element from teachers, which in turn reduces their enthusiasm for the curriculum. And a less enthusiastic teacher is a less effective teacher.

I'm all for freedom of materials, but for large programs, most of the materials have to be ordered before the program even knows who the learners are specifically.  I see many teachers and administrators accepting this as fact, but we can use many materials online. Before teaching here, I knew it would be easy to access materials for upper-level courses, but now I'm finding that it's just as easy to find materials for mid and lower-level courses.  I really want to avoid a situation in which the textbook dictates the curriculum. The textbook should serve the curriculum, which ultimately serves the students.

Moving Forward

At the end of year one, our program will be going through some curricular transitions. Although my position as curriculum coordinator may give the appearance that teachers may be giving up some responsibilities, I believe it is the opposite.  Here are some examples of how teachers may inherit more responsibilities:
  • Teachers who are curriculum committee members will be engaged in different types or stages of action research to investigate the efficacy of our program to develop reading, listening, writing, and speaking skills.
  • Some teachers will look for evidence of research-informed practices already in the curriculum
  • Some teachers will find gaps between research-informed practices and existing approaches to language learning and teaching
  • Teachers who are assessment committee members will be designing or developing tools to measure outcomes for each level and course
As we come to the end of this academic year, we have to reexamine our curriculum as a whole as it relates to our program's mission and identity.  We profess to teach academic English through content-based instruction by integrating the four language skills, but do we do this in every level and in every class?  If so, how do the levels and classes differ in their approaches to academic English, content-based instruction, and integrated skills? This is something I hope we discuss at the end of the year.

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