Friday, September 26, 2014

Backwards Course Design and Communicative Language Learning Models

Recently I unexpectedly had two days of teacher training seminars, dedicated to course and curriculum development. Despite having no warning beforehand it was very enlightening. In this post I am going to spend some time re-presenting some of what I learnt, and discussing how it might apply for communicative models of language learning.


The core of the backwards design model is to begin at the start. That is, what is the goal or outcome of the course or subject supposed to be. Only be knowing and establishing where you want to get to will we have any chance of arriving there.

This was broken down into identifying a series of Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) across three/four areas:

1. Knowledge
2. Skills
3. Character/Values
(4. Community)

A lot of courses are designed purely around 1 - the impartation of knowledge. This, as most of us well know, is simply not that useful. Trying to merely impart a body of knowledge rarely creates good learning or successful learners. Undoubtedly we are trying to impart knowledge, but we must consider carefully not only what knowledge but what for.

The second element is also relatively clear - we generally want students to emerge being able to do certain things. In some courses this will overshadow knowledge. We have very practical goals.

The third element is more elusive. In some course syllabi that I have read it is taken to the Nth degree, it seems like some universities are producing paragons of modern western ethics just with their entry level courses! However, much as I am inclined to be a little dismissive, all learning is also character-forming. We do communicate and impart values, even if we don't think we are. All the more reason to think clearly about it.

The fourth element emerges when we recognise that we are creating learning communities, and shaping learners who will go on to work in communities. We didn't discuss this a lot in our seminars, but it was good to highlight it and at least bring it to the table.

When we consider CLLM and Classical Languages, what are our ILOs? What are yours?

This needs to be done at a macro, mediate, and micro level. That is, we want to think about the whole course of study, individual units of study, and then each lesson. For the course of study my goal is something like this:

To produce persons who know a body of vocabulary around the 5000 word mark, and all the fundamentals of grammar, who can utilise this knowledge actively in four key areas of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and have been shaped to be persons self-aware about the nuances and challenges of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural interactions.

If I was talking in CEFR terms, I think a course of language study ought to produce students at a B2 level, after 2-3 years, and at a C1 level after 3-4 years.

There is more to say on this level, but this post is primarily exploratory. So let me move on.

From the ILOs, we then consider 3 more things sequentially:

1. Achievement Based Objectives
2. Assessment
3. Learning Strategies.


Our Achievement Based Objectives are attempts to describe clearly what a student will be able to do at the end of the course. They must be linked to the ILOs in a way that expresses: how do we know that a student has reached this outcome.

To give an example, if my outcomes include students being able to parse Greek verbs accurately, then one of my Objectives will be "will have accurately parsed (number? range? etc??) Greek verbs".

How we shape our Outcomes and Objectives eventually will shape how we teach, and more importantly how our students learn. In other words, even if we don't teach to a test, students learn to what they are tested on. Objectives are closely connected to Assessment.

So if my goal is an active vocabulary of 5000 words, my Objective must express this, but express it in a way that isn't, say, a 5000-word vocabulary test. Because my outcome isn't "knows English glosses for 5000 words". Instead, I'm going to have Objectives something like, "has read Greek texts with required vocabulary around the 5000 word range", "has given oral presentation demonstrating 5000-word breadth of vocabulary", etc.. I may have several objectives for one Outcome. Again, I am not saying that they need to demonstrate in speech exactly 5000 words, but rather I would expect that their oral activities would demonstrate that there was a 5000-word vocabulary "in their head".

On to Assessment: answer the question how will the teacher know that the student knows?

These can often be formulated in relation to the Objectives. Essentially I must design actual assessments that provide proof that a student has attained the objectives. This is a really key point, because the reality of assessments is that (a) students will learn towards what is assessed, not towards what is 'proposed'. I can tell my students as much as I please that I want them to have a core vocabulary of 5000 words, but unless I have a means of testing that requires a core of 5000 words, they will not strive to acquire it. If, however, I should devise assessments that require, say, a passive 'flashcard-type' knowledge of 5000 words, that is also exactly what I will get - rote memorisation. So if my Objective is actual acquisition of circa 5000 words, then my assessment must be designed to elicit proof of 5000 words. Not that I necessarily have to hear 5000 different vocabulary items come out of their mouths in comprehensible sentences, but at least their output must reflect a body of vocabulary around that large.

Last is Learning Strategies, and this is very closely tied to assessment. How will the students learn. Not "how will I teach?". Teaching is one thing, learning is another. They are obviously related, but it we ask the learn question first, we will often get to the teach question better. One may teach and no one learn, but we are unlikely to have students learning without any teaching (unless we are fostering autodidacticism, but that's another thing!).

If I want students to emerge with a core 5000 word vocabulary, and I am going to design assessments that require them to expressly demonstrate actual communicative competency in both oral, aural, written, and reading formats of this kind of vocabulary, then my learning strategies must be geared towards this. So, handing out vocab lists and telling them to memorise is just not going to cut it - I will end up with students with rote knowledge. If I test for rote knowledge, that is also what I will get. Instead there must be another way. Since I have been talking about vocabulary in this post, it's going to be something like this:

Students will learn 5000 words of core vocabulary through continual, repeated exposure to gradually increasing amounts of new vocab in comprehensible contexts over the course of the whole syllabus. That exposure will be firstly aural input, reinforced by reading practice, and then further solidified by opportunities to utilise acquired vocabulary through oral and written output.


All of this is going on at the very macro level. I'm talking about designing a whole multi-year syllabus. Once that has been done, across a number of objectives, then one must break it down into units (e.g. semesters), sub-units, and even individual lessons. If we are talking vocab, then what are my Objectives for each semester, how will we go from X vocab to X + Y vocab? Will we employ different processes at different stages? Will the assessment vary significantly in the first unit? How much will each lesson emphasise this aspect, as opposed to other objectives we are working on.

I think this is enough on this topic for today. If you have either some thoughts or questions, please comment away. I hope to return to this theme in relation to the question of teaching the discipline and field of History.

2 comments:

Paul Nitz said...

I've just been working on the very same issues of course design. I found it very helpful to think about Assessment immediately after setting objectives.
For ABO's, I've concluded that they are too numerous and specific to list in my broad course design (syllabus). This must be a negotiation between the teacher and each class of students. The TPRS gurus make a big point of this. I might well write out a list of ABO's as I go along this year, e.g. "By the end of these series of lessons the learners will demonstrate that they understand the basic functions of 5 cases by their response and usage during class exercises." But I won't know if that will be ten classes or twenty until I have students in front of me. Of course, I'll get a better idea of the time required with more experience, but the door needs to be left open to adjust to the students progress.
On vocabulary, I am and more convinced that vocabulary is NOT my objective, but my tool toward reaching the main objective, namely, learning structures. See my new post on Ancient Greek Best Practices:
https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en&fromgroups=#!topic/ancient-greek-best-practices/kjo-z6CXHZ0

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Paul.

I don't think vocabulary should necessarily be a main objective, it was just one of the easiest to write about.

In my training about this we talked about negotiating objectives with students in the first class. This seems like a great idea, because you also find out what students want/expect, and can get greater buy-in.

As you will see in some future posts, I kind of think most 'assessing' can be better done on the fly by the teacher, rather than through assessments.

On time, I think this is difficult to gauge, it's something you also work out as you go: oh, they didn't get this, maybe some more time here, oh they got this really quickly, we can move on a bit faster.