O is for Open Space

22 05 2011

The 8th “vow of Dogme ELT chastity” proclaims:

Grading of students into different levels is disallowed: students should be free to join the class that they feel most comfortable in, whether for social reasons, or for reasons of mutual intelligibility, or both. As in other forms of human social interaction, diversity should be accommodated, even welcomed, but not proscribed.

(Thornbury, 2001)

An open space: venue for the Teaching Unplugged demo lesson at the TD SIG event

The thinking that motivated this idea is that, by adopting students’ “levels” as their basic organising principle, schools sideline the learners’ needs, interests and desires, for the sake of conformity to an externally imposed and spuriously quantifiable standard, typically the grammar McNugget standard. (A teacher reported to me that she once overheard a colleague rejecting a student’s request to go up a level with the words: “No, Mohamed. Your present perfect sucks!”).

Such a mentality ignores the socially constructed nature of learning and the socially directed purposes for which language is used.  It also denies the learner access to an important means of controlling their own learning trajectory, with possible negative consequences for their sense of agency.  Apart from anything else, the freedom to find, and adapt to, one’s ecological niche in the institutional ecosystem is surely an important contributor to motivation, as well as being a useful skill in coping with the real world of ungraded language use . Finally, a ‘levels-based curriculum’ compels teachers to adopt the role of level vigilante, constantly fretting about “mixed ability”. The mean-spiritedness of such an approach is well captured in this piece of teachers’ book advice:

Don’t let the false beginners dominate the real beginners or pull you along too quickly… Encourage them to concentrate on areas where they can improve (e.g. pronunciation) and don’t let them think they know it all!

An alternative way of reconfiguring the curriculum along less hierarchical lines might be to co-opt some of the practices of Open Space Technology, a humanistic approach to problem-solving in organisations, developed by an American writer, Harrison Owen.

Open Space is a group dynamics methodology designed to maximise the benefits of bringing people together to address a shared issue or concern. Inspired by Owen’s personal experience of finding the coffee break to provide the most fruitful learning opportunities at conferences, Open Space Technology rejects delivery-mode instruction and promotes genuine interaction, peer-teaching and self-discovery.

Organisers agree a general theme for a session, but there is no agenda in Open Space. Participants meet in the round and are invited to post sessions under more specific headings.

People posting a session are responsible for initiating the discussion and for reporting back later. Participants sign up for different sessions and within a given time-frame people can attend one only, or go from session to session, or do nothing at all. The basic principles are that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, and that the people who turn up for a given session are the right people. As Owen (1998) puts it :”If any situation is not learning rich, it is incumbent upon the individual participant to make it so.”

A group reports on its discussion

This weekend’s Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona (sponsored by the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG) adopted an Open Space format for the afternoon session. Participants posted topics that they felt might be of general interest. Topics included ‘Syllabusing and lesson planning for Teaching Unplugged’; ‘Integrating technology into Teaching Unplugged’; ‘Researching Teaching Unplugged’; and ‘Implementing Teaching Unplugged in an institutional context’. Volunteers offered to ‘chair’ one from a short-list of these topics. After 90 minutes or so of group discussions – in which participants were free to come and go – the whole group re-assembled for the report back stage. The sense that the conference participants had some ‘ownership’ of the conference agenda was palpable.

How might this kind of structure translate to a language learning context? At one extreme, it suggests an end to level tests and a permanently fluid learning environment – as suggested by the dogme vow quoted above. But it could also be implemented more modestly – as a kind of Friday afternoon option, for example.

Of course, in choosing their class, learners would need to take account of their (self-assessed) ability to cope with the language: it would be foolhardy, perhaps, for a novice to embark on, say, Academic Writing 101, but they should at least be given that choice. If we accept that language learning is both an emergent and a complex phenomenon, any attempt to regiment and control it from the outside is foredoomed.


Owen, H. (1998). Emerging order in Open Space. http://www.openspaceworld.org

Thornbury, S. (2001) Teaching Unplugged: That’s Dogme with an E. It’s for Teachers, Feb 2001. (A copy can be found here)

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?


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.