A Wiggle Room Curriculum

Last year I found myself leading a large curriculum design redesign for an adult ESOL program in the U.S. Clocking in at six levels, from true beginner to high intermediate; aligned to the daunting College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS); integrating life skills such as digital literacy, financial literacy, and civics—this was, by a long shot, the most complex curriculum project I’d ever faced.

The negotiated syllabus never struck me as a particularly revolutionary idea. Perhaps at one time it was somehow subversive, but it’s always struck me as common sense to involve students in curricular decisions (I do recognize that I have been lucky to find myself in situations where the teacher has a good deal of control over their own syllabus). My own ideal in terms of syllabus design is a good deal more liberal: Recognizing the futility of the synthetic, grammatical syllabus, I am slowly working on a self-guided syllabus that I believe will be radically student-centered—but that’s for another time!

More to the point, though, the project required some philosophical compromises that didn't quite sit right with me. I tend to think of curriculum as intrinsically imperfect and unfinishable, necessarily a compromise between ideals and programmatic realities; even so, this one had me second-guessing myself.

I’m sharing what we did on this particular project not because I’m entirely satisfied with the final product, but because the solution involved a novel element of flexibility—wiggle room—built into the structure of the curriculum, which I hope might be of use to anyone who finds themself faced with a similar need to compromise. 

Our program was government funded, which meant that the curriculum had to meet a number of prescribed guidelines, several of which ran counter to my own preferences. We were given to understand that the curriculum should be structured around thematic vocabulary units (e.g., The Grocery Store, Describing People, Driving). Another constraint was that both teachers and students (and the State) had expressed strong preferences that we keep a core textbook series. Yet at the same time, the teachers were concerned that the large new curriculum could be very top-down, impinging upon their freedom in the classroom. So a key objective of mine from the outset was to make this curriculum a framework to support teachers, upon which they could build their lessons, without becoming a cagework that would restrict them.

As I said, the building blocks of the curriculum were to be thematic vocabulary units. In order to select these, we conducted an extensive survey of our students, asking them to identify the topics that are most important to their daily lives in America. In many cases, the results surprised us: for instance, teachers and staff ranked airport vocabulary of below average importance, but students identified it as a very high priority. This type of student involvement is, as I understand it, the key component in a negotiated syllabus.

Based heavily on these survey results, we selected six “core” vocabulary units per yearlong level. This is where the wiggle room comes in. Rather than selecting an entire year’s worth of material, the six core units account for only about 60% of the program hours in a year. With the remaining 40% wiggle room, teachers are encouraged to select topics in consultation with their class to and based on formative assessments conducted throughout the year. The result is a curriculum with enough planning and structure to satisfy funders, but enough flexibility to respond to students’ needs as they arise (and to assuage my ideological concerns).

Another element of flexibility lay in the treatment of target grammar structures. We were unable to fully break free of the sequenced treatment of grammatical forms—the State wanted us to commit to something on paper—but we were able to leave a bit of wiggle room in that department as well.

The new curriculum doesn’t prescribe teachers which structures must be taught when. Rather, we give students and teachers year-long self-assessment checklists that include the grammatical forms that they are expected to have acquired before advancing to the next level (this is a free program and students are allowed to repeat a level two times if necessary). Teachers track class progress on each item, and can adjust instruction accordingly. The curriculum is recursive, so key grammatical forms can be addressed multiple times throughout the program.

Importantly, this list includes only those that are deemed essential for success at the subsequent level. It’s only one of several varied assessment tools used to gauge students’ progress (others include a communicative computer adaptive speaking assessment and more conventional, publisher-made achievement tests).

Again, the solution isn't perfect, but the hope is that this compromise will give funders what they want and students and teachers the flexibility to do what they do best.

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