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Yes, they can! Teachers and learners as language curriculum developers

Darío Luis Banegas, Ministerio de Educación del Chubut, Argentina / University of Warwick, UK

In contexts in which English as a foreign language is a mandatory subject in secondary education, language learning motivation can be a challenge for teachers and ministerial curriculum developers. Approached by a group of Argentinian teachers wanting to motivate their learners and make the language curriculum closer to the learners’ lives, in 2018 I embarked with them on an action research study with two aims: to improve English-language-learner motivation, and to transform the English as a foreign language (EFL) curriculum through teacher and learner engagement. These two aims responded to practical and curriculum imperatives, so action research was therefore considered the most helpful framework through which to intervene and examine the intervention.

In my recent article in the Curriculum Journal, ‘Language curriculum transformation and motivation through action research’ (Banegas, 2019), I report on an action research study carried out in Esquel, in southern Argentina, that addressed the aims mentioned above by seeking answers to two research questions.

  1. Does including learners’ voices in EFL teaching contribute to their motivation enhancement?
  2. Does teacher engagement in curriculum development contribute to teacher professional development?

Twelve EFL teachers and 30 classes participated during a whole school year, despite prolonged strikes and socioeconomic turmoil. For this study, I drew on current notions of motivation as a relational construct, one that is better explored through context-responsive teacher research (Ushioda, 2016) and the language curriculum as a social organiser in which enactment is central (Graves, 2008, 2016). In a practical sense, the questions were answered by teachers working collaboratively in lesson planning and materials design. It mostly involved asking learners about their expectations, needs, interests and beliefs about English language teaching. It also entailed supporting teachers’ professional development and creating an honest and dialogical environment in which they could share their insights, concerns and ideas in order to reduce the gap between the intended and the enacted curriculum. In a research sense, the questions were addressed by analysing data gathered from surveys, interviews with learners and teachers, and teachers’ reflective journals.

Analysis of the teachers’ and learners’ views shows that including learners’ voices in EFL teaching contributed to their motivation enhancement, as they felt engaged in the teaching and learning processes. Learners valued the fact that the teachers started to adjust the EFL curriculum in response to their needs and wants, though in negotiation with teachers’ own aims and informed decisions. Furthermore, learners felt their English language proficiency had increased because of their motivation to come to class and participate actively.

On the other hand, the action-research framework supporting the overall intervention allowed the teachers to develop professionally by gaining knowledge about curriculum development and by exploring new identities. According to the data collected, teachers stopped perceiving themselves as mere curriculum transmitters or implementers, and started to build their identity as curriculum developers. In this transition from accepting top-down policies to exploring agency as local knowledge creators, they also started to see themselves as teacher-researchers who could engage their learners in improving English language teaching.

‘As a consequence of the synergistic environment created by both teachers and learners, they saw each other as capable beings who could challenge the stereotypes normally assigned to them: teachers teach, learners learn.’

Together with the gains that learners and teachers made through this experience, their synergistic motivations and binomial agency as curriculum developers transformed the expected curriculum into an enacted curriculum characterised by context-responsive pedagogies. As a consequence of the synergistic environment created by both teachers and learners, they saw each other as capable beings who could challenge the stereotypes normally assigned to them: teachers teach, learners learn. Here, both learned from each other, and both managed to develop a language curriculum that they saw as truly theirs. Despite being circumscribed to one specific setting, I assess this experience as an example of collaborative bottom-up curriculum transformation which requires only that people are motivated to challenge the status quo by creating educational conditions that promote empowerment and social justice. The learners and teachers involved in this experience proved to themselves and educational authorities they could.

I am writing this post in 2019, a year after the study was carried, and guess what: the teachers have established a modest network through which they are replicating this experience with other schools in the region.


References

Banegas, D. L. (2019). Language curriculum transformation and motivation through action research. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2019.1646145

Graves, K. (2008). The language curriculum: A social contextual perspective. Language Teaching, 41(2), 147–181. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444807004867

Graves, K. (2016). Language curriculum design: Possibilities and realities. In G. Hall (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of English language teaching (pp. 79-93). Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

Ushioda, E. (2016). Language learning motivation through a small lens: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 49(4), 564–577. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444816000173