And pigs will fly.
By the end of Level 1, any of the following might have happened: every Monday two or three new students of varying abilities will have been incorporated into the already diverse class; at least two students will have requested – and been refused – a level change; one student will transpire to be dyslexic and another will have hearing difficulties; three students will have dropped out; eight students will have regularly used Google Translate to do their homework; two students will refuse to do pairwork together; one student (male) will always be the first to answer the teacher’s display questions; two of the students will have embarked on a torrid affair in which English is the lingua franca; one student will have memorised a 2000-item word list; another student will have attempted to read an abridged version of Sense and Sensibility; two students will be working illegally as kitchen staff where, again, the only common language is English; the teacher will have substituted several of the texts in the coursebook with photocopies of authentic material; one student will sit and pass her driving test in English; the teacher will have corrected the same errors a hundred times while completely ignoring others; during a flu epidemic a substitute teacher will teach the class nothing but phrasal verbs for a week…. And so on. You get the picture.
In short, whatever they have achieved, it will not be the ability “to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…”. Nor will the coursebook have had much to do with it.
Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation.
Yet advocates of coursebooks and of syllabuses share a touching faith in their capacity to impose order on chaos, uniformity on complexity. Predicated on a unitary view of language and of learning, the coursebook/syllabus is enlisted with the task of bulldozing a path through the diversity, spontaneity, unpredictability and general messiness of the classroom jungle. In so doing, it will ride rough-shod over the delicate eco-systems that inhabit that jungle. It’s a bit like shooting an arrow into a flock of starlings. You’ll get one or two, but that’s all. And, in the end, there’ll be no noticeable effect on the flock as a whole.
In this sense the coursebook/syllabus is very much a modernist phenomenon. Just to remind you, the ‘modernist project’ holds that knowledge is unitary, stable, objective and disinterested, and that, by extension, learning is ‘a one-way road from ignorance to knowledge’ (Felman, 1987, cited by Mann 1999: 38). As a tool designed to leverage uniform ‘improvement’ on systems that are inherently unstable, the coursebook/syllabus embodies a ‘grand narrative’ mentality, in which ‘development takes place through linear progression and contributes to the greater good, which is emancipatory in nature, and passed on from one generation to the next’ (Mann 1999:37 – 38). You only have to look at the portentous titles in the publishers’ catalogues, with their promise of ultimate consummation, to see how the current paradigm is framed in ‘grand narrative’ terms: Headway, Success, Horizons, Solutions, Outcomes, Open Doors, Way Ahead, Achieve, and so on.
In order to cope with the inherent diversity and particularity of classroom life, Breen argues that “the classroom group needs to be a dynamic self-organising learning community”. He adds that “a postmodern pedagogy locates experience as a core starting point and constant focus of attention. Classroom work builds directly upon learner and teacher experiences. The focus is on doing things, upon action, and interpreting the experience of, and outcomes from action” (p.54).
Language, in this pluralistic, multi-vocal context, emerges out of communal activity, shaped by the need to render experience into words. (In an earlier paper, Breen  had written: “‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process”.) Whereas, from a modernist perspective, education is all about the reproduction of existing practices (witness the supremacy of native speaker models), in a postmodern pedagogy, “a major objective for learners would be to acquire new voices and new ways of articulating experiences and ideas. The culture of the classroom group would need to place high value on such diversity and multi-vocality and to assert it as a key attribute of the language class” (p.60. emphasis in original).
Way ahead of his time, Breen argues the case for the ‘porous classroom’, in which the boundaries between the classroom, the school, the society, and the world are weak and permeable: “In such a context, access to what counts as knowledge and its construction and reconstruction is likely to be rendered almost infinite because of the availability of technology. The language classroom ceases to be the place where knowledge of language is made available by teacher and materials for learners and becomes the place from which knowledge of language and its use is sought by teacher and learners together; the classroom walls become its windows” (p.55).
Rather than being a transmitter of knowledge, either directly, or knowledge as commodified in the pages of the coursebook, the teacher is re-construed as a ‘cultural worker’, not only forming and maintaining the classroom culture, but also facilitating a research process “resembling that of linguistic and cultural anthropology” (p.57). Through engagement in language-based activity, the learners become researchers of the language themselves, propelled by their diverse (but not necessarily divergent) needs and interests, “and this process occurs largely independently of the intervention of explicit teaching, not least because different learners move at a different pace and have different preferences in how they go about the task. The essential ingredients, however, appear to be an input-rich environment, enthusiastic persistence, and the learner’s search for understanding and the wish to share more and more complex meanings with supportive others” (p. 60).
Teaching, in this paradigm, is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go.
Breen, M. (1985) ‘The social context for language learning – a neglected situation?’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.
Breen, M.P. (1999) ‘Teaching language in the postmodern classroom’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.
Mann, S. J. (1999) ‘A postmodern perspective on autonomy’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.
Illustrations from Hemming, J., and Gatenby, E.V. (1958) Absorbing English Book 1, London: Longman.