It has been lovely, thanks for asking. The break I mean; I have reined back on twitter, have put my blog on the back burner and have been focussing my time on family, friends and writing. So what has cause me to rupture my silence, to burst the bubble of summer fun? Mainly anger and disbelief. I am devastated by the decline in languages in England. I was embarrassed by the front page of the Independent which loomed up from the newspaper stands in my local supermarket yesterday - languages in schools in crisis. Children are not opting to take languages because they are perceived to be hard. This is bollocks. The real reason children are not opting to take languages is because, despite the best (?) efforts of the new secondary curriculum, Links into languages and the exam boards, the current trend in language learning is that of trying to disguise the same old, disengaging (I hesitate to use the word) pedagogy that is boring, transactional, rooted in contexts which the students will never use, vocabulary-list-tastic by making it whizz bang and fun (at least our perception of fun...). Well, for want of a less vulgar expression, you can't polish a turd.
Do not misunderstand me, there are shining examples of innovative and excellent practice out there which put pedagogy at the heart of everything they do, but this is not reflected in the national picture. My proof? Look at the decline in numbers - French has dropped out of the top 10 subjects at GCSE for the first time since 1066. German is faring worse and Spanish has gone up 1%, but 1% of a paltry figure is not a lot. Only 1 in 4 teenagers in this country are taking a language post 14. This is a disgrace.
The not-so-new secondary curriculum is brilliant, in that there is nothing in it, we are not to be dictated to in terms of content which has led to a growth of CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) which is being heralded as the Messiah of languages. I think CLIL is a positive move, but I have observed a number of CLIL lessons where History is taught entirely in French or Fair trade is taught in Spanish, however, the history lesson and the citizenship lesson in themselves lacked really effective pedagogy. We are on the right road with CLIL, but we need to rebrand it as CLPIL (Content, Language, Pedagogy Integrated Learning - not so easy to say...)
Do not get me started on exam boards. Ridiculous. I lost all respect for publishers and exam boards when they started getting into bed with each other and branding textbooks as "the only AQA/EDEXCEL endorsed book". In other industries I am sure this would contravene competition laws. The message from this is "buy this book, learn it off by heart and your exam results will go up" which head of department in a struggling school would not do this? The exam needs to be rethought to test skills not content and let them have a bloody dictionary for at least part of the exam where they are dealing with unknown language - reading and listening. We should be examining how learners cope with language, not how much of the vocabulary they have learned.
So let us turn to the sources of language teacher professional development in this country and see what is happening to carve a consistently better pedagogical approach. Well, I was on a nationally rolled out CPD course a little while ago which consisted of drawing stick people in powerpoint and adding voice overs. Some people did not know how to do that so in one sense it was useful to them but I kept asking myself, what is the pedagogical purpose? (I actually felt sorry for the presenter because he was obliged to stick to a script written by someone else). At no point was the reasoning behind doing this activity discussed, assessment rubrics were not mentioned, scaffolding activities were not explored, feedback and feedforward did not come into it. It may as well have been a session on how to make finger puppets without ever mentioning the why. The focus was on (not very) shiny output and little on the input. I might be able to get my students to make vokis, podcasts, talking powerpoints, films and animations but if they are all about asking where the post office is (get a map) or saying what is in my pencil case (get a life) then it is a waste of time. Our children are prolific consumers and,today, creators of media, they can create things we cannot and I am guessing they would never use powerpoint to do it. In all cases, the shiny output is only one part of the puzzle, how best do we input language, link it together, set up assessment rubrics (when will there be a national languages CPD on SOLO Taxonomy?), practice, demonstrate and review learning? En gros, when are we going to get back to the basics of what good language teaching/learning pedagogy looks like?
I hesitate to criticise because I love languages and language teachers. Ne'er a finer bunch of people will you meet, but rather than putting time into crystalising and sharing a new and effective pedagogy and investing in training teachers in situ, we expect languages teachers to PAY to go to evening or residential events, where we roll out rushed off, outcome focussed CPD. It is a disgrace.
I am sorry if this upsets anyone, this is not a personal attack but rather a rally to say we are at rock bottom and we as a language learning community need to really take stock of what we are doing because if we always do what we always did, we will always get what we always got; in this case a crisis.