S is for Sylvia (Ashton-Warner)

18 06 2017

Sylvia Ashton-Warner‘I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it’ (Ashton-Warner, 1966, p.85).

Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1908 – 1984) was a primary school teacher in rural New Zealand, where she was entrusted with teaching reading and writing, using textbooks that were imported from Britain. The content of these ‘primers’ bore little resemblance to the world of her pupils (most of whom were of Māori origin). Their inability to identify with the textbooks and their consequent failure to develop good literacy skills was a constant source of frustration for Ashton-Warner. She wrote (cited in Hood, 1990, p. 91):

There’s no communication … you see they’re not thinking about what they’re writing about or what I’m teaching. I’m teaching about ‘bed’ and ‘can’ but they were thinking about canoes and grandfathers and drowned men and eels.

This frustration led to her abandoning the use of the imported textbooks altogether and, instead, developing an approach – and the materials to go with it – that ‘emerged’ out of the lives and experiences of the children themselves.

In her successful novel, Spinster (1958, p. 67) she describes the germination of this idea:

A rainy, rainy Thursday and I talk to them all day. They ask ten thousand questions in the morning and eleven thousand in the afternoon. And more and more as I talk with them I sense hidden in the converse some kind of key. A kind of high-above nebulous meaning that I cannot identify. And the more I withdraw as a teacher and sit and talk as a person, the more I join in with the stream of their energy, the direction of their inclinations, the rhythms of their emotions, and the forces of their communications, the more I feel my thinking travelling towards this; this something that is the answer to it all; this . . . key.

Conscious that each child had a unique inner imagery, she reasoned that if she could just capture and label these ‘pictures of the inner vision’, she had all the material she needed to provide the foundations of literacy – what she called the ‘key vocabulary’. These were the words that, once written down and recognized, would unlock the ability to read and write texts that included them. These first words, she believed, ‘must have an intense meaning’ and ‘must be made of the stuff of the child himself’ (1966, p. 28).

kids with cards cropBecause the words that emerged from the children provided the basis for their initial writing and reading tasks, she called the approach to literacy ‘organic’ – it grew naturally out of the ‘stuff of the child’: ‘I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, and use that as our first working material’ (1966, p. 28).

How did it work? The first stage in Ashton-Warner’s ‘key vocabulary’ process is the eliciting from each child of a ‘key’ word, i.e. one that has strong associations for them, and writing it on a card which the child takes ownership of.

After play … we turn our attention to the new words themselves. The children pick up their books and run to the blackboard and write them up: the words asked for during the writing of the morning. They’re not too long ago to be forgotten.  Some of them are, when a child has asked a lot, but they ask you what they are.

Since they are all on the wall blackboard, I can see them from one position. They write them, revise them, the older children spell them and the younger merely say them… Of course, there’s a lot of noise, but there’s a lot of work too. (p.63)

girl at boardThese words then become the basis of sentences that the children individually write on the blackboards that ring the room. These sentences in turn form the basis of mini-narratives, usually autobiographical, that the pupils write into their notebooks and share, the teacher supplying correction at the point of need. Ashton-Warner used these texts as the basis for writing her ‘infant readers’ which she herself illustrated. Out of this ‘raw material’ – and with no explicit teaching as such – the ability to read and write develops.

In  her life-time and beyond, Sylvia achieved a considerable degree of fame, not only as an educational innovator but as a novelist and counter-cultural icon. For a while she was revered by the progressive schools movement and her methods were adopted beyond her native New Zealand (where her capacity to irritate even her supporters, along with her tendency to stereotype the Māori, badly dented her reputation). As with many visionary educators, her fame may have owed a lot to her own charisma, but those who were taught by her attest to the success of her approach.

One way her legacy has survived is the Language Experience Approach (LEA), a literacy program used with success in the US and based on the principle that the best way of teaching children to read is through their own words. Essentially, the teacher transcribes the telling of a shared experience (e.g. a field trip) or an individual’s narrative, recasting it into more target-like language were necessary. The class then read the story aloud, either in chorus, or individually, and any further revisions and corrections are made. These stories can then be saved as part of the class reading library and even shared with other groups of learners.

And, of course, Ashton-Warner’s organic, materials-light approach is a direct precursor of dogme ELT/teaching-unplugged. In both her teaching journal and her novel she describes the day she burnt all her classroom materials: ‘It’s impressive to see it go up in smoke. … But teaching will be much simpler now, and there’ll be more time for conversation. And whatever the past has or has not taught me, I’m satisfied that communication on any level, giving birth as it does to the new body, the new idea or the new heart, is the most that life can be’ (Spinster, p p.86 – 87).

kids at desks

References

Ashton-Warner, S. (1966) Teacher. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ashton-Warner, S. (1958) Spinster. London: Secker & Warburg.
Hood, L. (1990) Sylvia! The biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Auckland: Penguin.

Photos from Teacher.





C is for Curriculum

20 06 2010

I’ve been co-teaching on a curriculum design course these last two weeks, and the question has inevitably come up as to what’s the difference between a curriculum and a syllabus. The A-Z has this to say:

The terms curriculum and syllabus are often used interchangeably, but it is useful to distinguish between them. The curriculum is concerned with beliefs, values and theory (all of which may be captured in some kind of “mission statement”). The syllabus represents the way these beliefs, values and theories are realised in terms of a step-by-step instructional programme. The curriculum is, therefore, both larger than the syllabus, and more general.

The distinction seems to be born out in the corpus data. A quick check of their respective collocations shows that (in US English) syllabus very often collocates with course, whereas curriculum hardly ever does. On the other hand, curriculum collocates with school much more than syllabus does. In British English, syllabus is often associated with particular subjects (language, mathematics, sciences) whereas curriculum collocates with national, core … and hidden (more on that one later).

However, this distinction between the general and the specific, and between principles and practice, is not one that all writers on the subject adhere to.

David Nunan

David Nunan, for example, argues that the curriculum is the totality of what actually happens in an educational setting:

Traditionally “curriculum” is taken to refer to a statement or statements of intent – the “what should be” of a course of study. In this work a rather different perspective is taken. The curriculum is seen in terms of what teachers actually do; that is, in terms of “what is”, rather than “what should be.” (1988, p. 1)

According to this view, the curriculum is instantiated in classroom practice, whether or not this practice actually reflects the (often lofty) intentions of program designers and materials writers.   Douglas Barnes (1976) makes a similar point, with reference to mainstream education:

When people talk about ‘the school curriculum’ they often mean ‘what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn’. But a curriculum made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers …  A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution .. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication. (p. 14).

Applebee (1996) extends this line of thought to argue that we need to re-construe the concept of curriculum, not as disembodied ‘knowledge-out-of-context’, but  as  ‘knowledge-in-action’:  “A curriculum provides domains for conversation, and the conversations that take place within those domains are the primary means of teaching and learning” (p. 37). He adds: “If curriculum is approached in terms of the significant conversations into which students enter… the emphasis form the beginning will be on knowledge-in-action”. (p. 118).  This echoes Neil Mercer’s (1995) notion of teaching and learning as being a ‘long conversation’, as well  as being a key tenet of Dogme philosophy, i.e. that language teaching should be ‘conversation-driven’.

Nevertheless, the notion persists that a curriculum articulates an institution’s principles and goals, made operational through syllabuses, lesson plans, etc.  At this point you may be wondering what the curriculum of your own school or college is. Where is it written down? Is there a ‘mission statement’? Who wrote it? Who has access to it?  And, if there isn’t one, shouldn’t there be?

Of course, it is often the case that the curriculum is implicit.  In the case of public-sector schools, the curriculum of the school may simply be that of the education ministry itself, and it will be embodied in such things as acts of parliament, policy statements, and official bulletins. These in turn will determine the nature of public examinations and the way materials, such as coursebooks, are specified and prescribed.

In fact, examinations and officially approved coursebooks offer insights as to the real values that the curriculum designers espouse, irrespective of how these are actually articulated. This ‘hidden curriculum’ can often be inferred by “reading between the lines”. Thus the blurb on a coursebook – or the publicity for a language school – might profess a communicative methodology, but at the same time the small print will extol its ‘step-by-step grammatical syllabus’. Likewise, a school’s website might promote its internationalist and globalised values while elsewhere boasting that it employs only native-speaker teachers. The very fact that a school uses coursebooks at all might suggest that it subscribes to a reproductive, ‘delivery model’ of education, rather than a  critical or transformative one.   More insidiously, an institution may claim to be commited to educational excellence, but in reality be nothing more than a lucrative exam prep factory.

A useful exercise might be to ask your colleagues: What is our curriculum? That is to say, what is it that we value, and to what extent are our practices consistent with these values?

References:

Applebee, A. 1996. Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning. University of Chicago Press.

Barnes, D. 1976. From Communication to Curriculum. Penguin.

Mercer, N. 1995. The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Multilingual Matters.

Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.