Some Assumptions in the Design of Courses

Vivian Cook 
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University of Trier, Series B, 94, A selection of papers from the IATEFL Conference 1983

One of the important differences between a coursewriter and a teacher is that the coursewriter does not know the students for which he is providing teaching materials. A teacher can tailor what he or she does in the classroom precisely to the interests and personalities of the students; a coursewriter has to guess at the characteristics of students he has never seen. If the course is to be used in a range of countries, of class­rooms and educational settings, the writer has to empathise with situations and people he has never seen. His guesses about their characteristics may be educated ones, using his own experience of real students and real classrooms, or reports about trials of the materials with actual students, but they are nevertheless still guesses, since, unlike the teacher, he has never met the combination of individuals and needs that make up any particular classroom. The frequently encountered grumble that coursebooks are bland misses the point: a teacher can introduce topics that are relevant to a particular group of students and engage their emotions to a great depth because he knows the students. A coursewriter's task is not to produce materials for one class, but for many classes; he has to produce something that will work with a diversity of students in a diversity of situations, not just the one situation that the teacher knows. 

Perhaps the major assumption that the coursewriter has to make is the overall goals for which English is being taught. According to particular educational systems in particular countries these might be: educational goals, in which language teaching develops the personality of the students; cognitive goals through which the students gain superior ways of thinking; cultural goals through which they learn about other people's lives in other countries; or communicative goals, through which they learn to use language for practical purposes of exchanging information; and still other goals are possible. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the communicative goal will be appropriate for all situations. A coursewriter working on a general course has to guess which overall goals will be present in the range of classrooms for which he is writing. 

One way of looking at goals is to divide them into those which are related to the student's eventual needs outside the classroom, which can be called target goals, and those which are related to life inside the teaching situation, which can be called classroom goals. The communicative approach common recently has concentrated on the target goal of functioning in real-life situations; the humanistic 'alternative' methods have concentrated on the classroom goal of fostering the student's emotional and social growth. It is possible to write courses for both extremes: an ESP course may cater only for the target, a humanistic course only for self-development. But in most educational settings, specially in schools, there is a balance of both: an exclusively target-orientated course can be attacked for being utilitarian rather than educational, a purely classroom-oriented course for neglecting the students' real world needs. 

The coursewriter has to decide how to balance these goals. One particular scheme tries to achieve this at each level of the course, namely English for Life. At the beginners' level therefore a combination had to be found of a target goal and a classroom goal. A target goal that seemed useful to students in many countries was that of travelling through English; even if the students never visit an English-speaking country, they may want to use English for visiting other countries or for dealing with visitors to their country. A similarly widespread classroom goal is to talk about one's experiences, opinions, and interests to fellow-students; English can be used even at this level for presenting oneself and understanding other people. At the next level of the course the target goal was chosen to be talking to strangers in English; whether in their own country or abroad students may want to meet people through English who are, at least to start with, strangers and who therefore use the polite language used for meeting people for the first time. The complementary classroom goal was the ability to acquire information through English; they could learn things they had never known before through the medium of English in the classroom. By the third level of the course it was assumed that the students were in some way committed to English as a subject and would therefore be contemplating staying for some time in an English-speaking country, or would at any rate be interested in the life that goes on there; the target goal was therefore the ability to live in an English-speaking country. The classroom goal was the discussion of controversial subjects through English; they could deal with important issues in the classroom, always remembering, however, that the coursewriter can only provide a springboard for controversial issues, leaving the real controversies to the control of the teacher. 

This selection of goals is a matter of the coursewriter's judgement; it may be that the selection is more appropriate to some situations than others. The sequencing of the goals into levels is also a matter of individual choice. Other courses for instance place the goal of living in an English-speaking country much earlier. There is also the idiosyncratic assumption that at the early stages students need to talk to each other in the classroom and to strangers in the real world; they do not need target language for talking to friends; probably the majority of other courses start with "Hello, I'm Jim" - an assumption that the foreign learner starts on terms of easy intimacy with the native speaker. 

Underlying the selection there is also the assumption that each level has to have goals that are complete in themselves. At every stage in the learning of English there is a large dropout of students; few of the eager faces of beginners go on to be those of advanced learners. However, many courses imply that the person who studies Book 1 goes on to Book 2 and then to Book 3 and so on; the learning only becomes fully effective if it includes the later stages. This surely goes against the needs of most students; if they are only going to study the language for a short while they need something that will stand them in good stead even if they never go to an English class again. The notion of 'surrender value' which has been used about language teaching for some time suggests that the student should do something which is complete at every stage. So the goals mentioned above have to be achieved even if the learner never progresses any further. At the first level for instance the student has to be able to travel in English even if he never learns another word; it would be unfair to say to him "Ah yes you've really got to wait to travel till you've gone to the next level". The consequence is that each level of the course has to include any language that is necessary to carrying out the goal, even if it goes outside the range normally taught at that level. The first level then needs to include anything necessary for travel, say the technicalities of air travel or hotel booking, and anything necessary for ex­pressing the student's own experiences, say his hobbies and likes and dislikes. The latter in particular requires the course to be flexible to the language a particular student needs; it can only provide a skeleton on which the student and the teacher can build. 

The assumptions that the coursewriter makes about goals also affect the choice of content - the actual subject matter that is talked about in the course. Too often it has been assumed that content is a trivial matter; conventional courses used the adventures of a fictional family; communicative courses invented information gaps about pictures or maps. But content has to be related to goals; information about England is irrelevant if there is no cultural goal; an educational goal is not achieved if there is nothing in the content to engage the student with sufficient depth. In particular it is easy to trivialise language teaching if it is not related to goals; the classroom may be a fun place where amusing things happen rather than a place that reflects the importance of language to our lives and our world. A content decision is also vital because it advertises to the students what our goals are much more clearly than a syllabus which he may never actually see; he sees communication puzzles about imaginary treasure islands and cannot penetrate through this to the serious goal of international communication that they may be leading towards. 

Finally a coursewriter has to make assumptions about teaching techniques. The choice has to fit what the teacher is capable of, again not just the particular teachers he knows or has observed but a wide range of teachers from different backgrounds and with different trainings. The teaching techniques he chooses reflect his assumptions about what teachers can handle. Also they reflect the other assumptions he has made about the course in terms of goals. The technique has to fit in with the goals not fight against them: if we are teaching towards a cognitive goal it would be strange if our techniques depended chiefly on habit formation; similarly it may be strange if we adopt a communicative goal and use techniques where the students never acquire or present new information. The techniques for teaching the target goals will be heavily influenced by the tar­get we are aiming at; travelling will naturally require simulations of travel situations; talking to strangers; roleplays of various encounter situations; and so on. The classroom goals also suggest particular teaching techniques; talking about oneself requires a technique that teaches sufficient vocabulary and grammatical structures without constricting whatever the individual student has to say; communicating through English requires techniques that stress the acquisition of actual information through English; and so on. English for Life in its early stages for instance made heavy use of a technique called the conversation exchange, which starts from a brief model exchange between characters in the book and gradually forces the student to take over the exchange and use it to say things of their own. 

So we have seen that the coursewriter's basic assumptions, his guesses about the students, the teachers, and the classrooms, have immense repercussions on all aspects of the course. His hunch about goals affects overall structure and sequencing of the course, the choice of content, and the teaching techniques employed. The choice of syllabus is something which should follow all these, not precede. Whether we choose a notional syllabus, a situational syllabus, an interactional syllabus, or a grammatical syllabus, depends upon the assumptions we have made about the goals, the learners, and the teachers: there is no single right solution. 


This talk was a 'promotion for the series English for Life published by Pergamon Press. Some of the points in it have been developed at greater length elsewhere namely in: 

Cook, V. 1982. "Structure drills and the language learner", in: Canadian Modern Language Review, 38. 

Cook, V. (to appear, 1983) "What should language courses be about?" in: English Language Teaching Journal.