A Curricular Way of Thinking
I don’t have anything against curricula. On the contrary, they are important instruments for institutional education, for building structured learning and educational processes and for mutual agreements on educational, competency and knowledge objectives between federal states, educational authorities and schools, as well as in academic circles and between educators in schools.
After nearly 15 years, federal educational standards for the first foreign languages at the lower secondary stage (grades 5-10 in Germany) and their seamless and soundless adaptation to the upper secondary level (grades 11-13, and final exam ‘Abitur’) educational standards from the ministers of education in 2012 show exactly the opposite of what competence curricula were originally conceived to be. Learning is now considered a completely state regulated affair in which many teachers have arrived at a critical situation where they must give up their autonomy over content, the instruments and structures of learning processes, and school education for their students. The reason for this is that what teachers must do in their classrooms is stipulated and regulated to the extreme and with utmost detail in the curricular frameworks.
Originally, the idea of competence curricula runs exactly counter to our current situation. Curricula were not meant to prescribe to the micro-level of classroom instruction how and with which goals learning is conducted. Rather, curricula and their underlying educational standards were supposed to define can-do profiles for the final stages of school education, leaving it to the teachers and their students themselves to determine how learning processes should be staged and developed over the years accordingly. In that sense, there is nothing fatal about curricula. The problem is rather the enormous mass of decrees and enactments from our education ministers and centralized graduation examinations which have led us to a way of curricular thinking in which classroom instruction and its content are regarded as a regulated system, of which educators are at the mercy.
What is there to do?
At least three strategies should be considered.1First of all, we need pedagogical and extracurricular (as well as non-curricular) thinking that is led by educational objectives and life goals from which aims and plans for classroom instruction can be derived. Young individuals must be placed in environments to participate in foreign language discourse and to position themselves in order to lead a self-determined life through the increased possibilities foreign languages, and particularly from English, allow.
Therefore, we must determine ourselves what the object of learning is. This pedagogical approach implies that in the language classroom one takes the freedom to do something beyond the frame of curricular regulations and educational standards. Also, it’s wrong to assume that with this way nothing will be learned that counts. Presumably, the opposite will happen. What moves students will actually be understood, dealt with and spoken or written about. For decades, the focus on content, task-approaches and the notion of situated practice have fed exactly off this idea.2 Secondly, we need intelligent curriculum strategies to decide how we will connect the fulfillment of curriculum guidelines with the ideas of students and their life-world experiences and interests in foreign language education. Often this is easier than we think, since the curricular standards are often defined from a rather narrow conception of language learning. Therefore, it is often not so difficult to see how one can connect the development of receptive and production skills, which are at the center of educational standards, with complex, interesting and exciting course plans. In such designs, the communicative skills are bound to happen and be developed anyways. 3Finally, school curricula should be considered from the perspective of the learners and designed accordingly. Curricula mustn’t follow a philosophy of curriculum fulfillment, but rather should allow teachers to make their own decisions together with their students, and to create the necessary free space to utilize such decisions. School curricula shouldn’t constrain us, but rather restrain the impact of impeding curricula and therefore create space for self-determined student education and achievement.
I would call all of this intelligent curricular thinking. A pedagogical thinking that is urgently needed.