Negotiated Syllabus: focus on doing


As part of my presentation at TESOL France, I spoke about a negotiated and emergent syllabus students designed two weeks ago, in which we had some lessons outside (park, café, high street). This part of the presentation was well received and generated some interesting questions afterwards. For example:

Shelly Terrell asked me what my school thought about having lessons outside. I said they’re okay with that, and that in the summer we were specially encouraged to do it; the school even hired a mini-course consisting of an audio tour guide (15 mp3 players) with pre and post tour lesson plans and worksheets.

This reminded me that in many institutes it may not be clear whether it is okay to have lessons outside of classrooms. And in some others, it is clear that teachers are not allowed to do it. Why not?

I understand that if I had 40 students at a school located in a dodgy area or something like that, going out could be a very bad idea. But in contexts where this can be easily done, why is it not?

All in all, I would be very interested to know what kind of things teachers out there are doing outside of the classroom, because despite the classroom being a safer place, it’s also very boring sometimes.

talking about negotiated syllabus @ TESOL France, 2011

Later on, I was chatting with Antonia Clare and Ceri Jones, and they asked me if I filmed any of the things I talked about, or if I ever video record the students and some ideas to do it. I said no, never, because they don’t like it.

On the train back to London, I thought, Wait a minute! They don’t like it?… erm… I think I actually never asked… or maybe I did… but hey, they might’ve changed their minds… and now that the group is more integrated, they might think it’s a good idea.

Yesterday, I walked in with the same plan I had in the week I described in the presentation, i.e. no plan.

But I had a mindset:

DOING is better than covering. By this I mean, the syllabus won’t be guided by seeing and covering language items, or skills and sub-skills. Any linguistic instruction will only be present at the point of need, when students have their hands on authentic communication. There will be no reductionism or atomization of language (in) use and its skills prior to anything. Everything will be seen as whole, emergent, and collaborative.

I also had a rule: we need a product, you’ll need to produce something.

When we started to brainstorm ideas for the week I suggested we made a film, and guess what? Everyone liked the idea.

So this is what we’ll do this week. We’re going to produce a film.

each student drew a frame of the storyboard

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4 Responses to Negotiated Syllabus: focus on doing

  1. phil says:

    Hi Willy,

    Great ideas. I did something similar in London a while back but only as a weekly session. I stuck my class together with another and we did Apprentice style challenges but after the first where they set up sales stands and sold products to other students a kid asked if they could speak to natives. Thus, we set about sending them off into the London wilderness to meet such natives, well locals. It definitely worked having an end product and a tight time frame, also having groups and a competitive element. To keep track I became a roving reporter with a video camera which provided footage of the next classes overview and discussion. The whole idea was ‘business simulations’ so every week students review how their teams operated and made changes based on their ideas.

    Some groups really loved it but a couple very high students didn’t as the others were lower than them. 2 guys asked to continue doing it so we started doing voluntary projects with volunteer groups where every term students were given a group and a brief/task then at the end of the term they gave presentations on what they’d achieved.

    I loved doing these things and the students generally did too. Opening your class up to the outside world should be encouraged as it’s more useful than just chatting to host mums.

    Look forward to hearing more about your great projects.

  2. Hi Willy,

    So sorry to have missed your session – impossible to see all the people I wanted to!!!

    Anyway, on the topic of negotiable syllabuses, which is a fascinating one, a small comment.

    Most of the people who write or blog on the topic have never actually experienced a negotiable syllabus themselves; I once did and I would like to share this short experience may be more fully in a blog post, as I have a lot of documentation related to it consisting of daily feedback to the course tutor.

    During the last 5 or 10 minutes in each lesson, we were all asked to write a note to the teacher describing our successes, failures, what we liked and what we felt we wanted or needed.

    I would be happy to run a short experiential course like this for anyone who wanted to experience a course of this kind – in beginner Modern Greek, methinks. Let me know if you or anyone else is interested.

    A negotiable syllabus at beginner level may be an altogether different kettle of fish and I think it needs exploring.

    Apart from that, a collection of intelligent reflections and introspections by ELT professionals would interest me very much – so do let me know if you are game and we’ll take it from there.


  3. Antonia Clare says:

    Hi Willy,

    I loved the idea that you gave students the space to input into the syllabus and how they wanted the course to run, and was amused by the fact that the students asked you (as their teacher) to decide some of the lessons yourself. I think this fulfils their expectations, and also shares the responsibility, which was something you talked about. The outdoor lessons sounded great, with students interviewing people on the street, and all of you looking at the language that emerged from this. I’m so pleased they are happy to be filmed, as I think this offers up lots of opportunities and gives students another clear focus and outcome. Will you be able to show us the film?
    I’ll also put my hand up for beginner Greek -should be fun!

  4. Chuck Sandy says:

    Hi Willy! It was so good to meet you in Paris and as I was starting to tell you in front of the venue before running off to a session, I’ve been experimenting a lot with video and my own take on emergent syllabi recently. Things are a bit different with a class full of students from the same language background in an environment where their language really -is- the background outside the classroom but still a lot is possible.

    One thing I’ve been doing is making use of the video function of smart phones in this one class which I meet with twice a week for three hours at a time. During the first half of class we do activities which in my mind are headed somewhere — and by that I mean I have a vague idea what I would like the outcome to be finally — but along the way we discover other things that are even better with ideas emerging out of the work we’re doing. I often ask students “what do you think we should do next?” or “how could we proceed from here” and I’m fortunate to have a group of students who will tell me, even disagree with me by saying “no Chuck, that won’t work, but how about this?” Interestingly, they’re usually right and so class goes off in some direction I had never even considered when I first walked into the room.

    And here’s where the video comes in: we’ve been experimenting with minimally structured group video activities where I might say “OK, we’ve got 20 minutes left. Work in groups to come up with a video which uses some of the language we’ve been looking at.” Then I get out of the way. In the video I recently posted on Facebook — the one you commented on, Willy, in which I’m dancing with students — the task we’d decided to do was to choose one adjective from the list we’d created collaboratively and create a 1-3 minute film that would get people to say, “Oh, that’s really _____” when they saw it. Students came up with that idea. The only thing I did was say “sounds great. Email me your video before the end of class” then groups took off to plan and film where ever on campus they thought best.

    Here’s an example:

    If you watch this and think “that’s really funny” then the students were successful — tho obviously the funniest thing about this (which students knew would be true and why they pulled me into it) is me not being able to do the dance moves and also obviously a lot of other adjectives come to mind while viewing it. Still, there’s a lot that went on in the planning of this and the other videos that were produced that day and most of it, honestly, has little to do with language but everything to do with collaboration, autonomy, and a kind of joie de vivre that is infectious and lovely.

    I’m still trying to figure out, given the context I’m in, how to make it all more language based and a bit more linguistically productive — but then maybe that’s not necessary. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, please don’t be afraid of video. Let students decide how to do it and what to do with it and then show us the results. I’d love to see!

    And Marisa: sign me up for beginning Greek please 🙂

    Good things!


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