July 29, 2012 by Willy Cardoso
Following Dick Allwright (1981), here are two views concerning classroom activities which are predetermined by coursebook syllabi, practice of which is among the most common ways of teaching, as far as I could notice.
The deficiency view: coursebooks are needed to compensate for teaching deficiencies, to make sure the content of the lessons are well thought out and covered properly. In essence, it seeks a teacher-proof curriculum, i.e. a curriculum that regardless of who delivers it has its aims achieved. And this is only achieved if there is a high degree of control over what is taught, how and when. This became a predominant system in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language mainly because of the rather informal nature of the job, which is largely performed by what in the profession is, unfortunately, known as backpacker teachers (low-qualified traveling native-speakers of English). For example, it is widely known that to teach in a private language institute in the UK one needs no more than a 4-week certificate course in TEFL, and in some other countries (my native Brazil for example) one needs only to speak the language well (in some desperate cases not so well).
The difference view: coursebooks are needed because decisions are best made by experts (authors and publishers) since they have a different expertise from that required of teachers.
For some this conception may seem to ‘reduce’ the teacher to the role of mere classroom manager. For others, it ‘frees’ the teacher to develop the expertise needed for dealing with practical and fundamental issues in the fostering of language learning in the classroom setting (Allwright, 1981: 6).
The difference view, if taken, creates a clearer division of labor; one which places the teacher at the bottom of the education hierarchy, making him/her an operator of materials and curricula created by others who are better credentialed (and better paid) to make such important decisions.
Although the two points above must seem reasonable due to various circumstances, they do neglect the fact that, quoting Allright:
“the question of who takes the decision might be more important than the question of whether or not the ‘best’ decision is always taken”
Having worked not only as a teacher, but also as an academic manager and recently as a materials writer, I know quite well when and why coursebooks are needed, and in many cases, at a practical/efficiency level, I actually support the use of coursebooks. They can, in the end, save time in planning, syllabus design, training, etc. And when working for the sake of profit (like any business I suppose) these are important factors. However, I have also come to realize how coursebooks can easily support laziness, more precisely intellectual laziness, for teachers might easily just follow the book at the expense of more careful consideration of matching students’ needs and learning materials. But then again, it’s the teachers’ fault, isn’t it?
It is perhaps unnecessary another debate on coursebook. But I feel the coursebook debate has gone a little too much like some talks on tobacco and alcohol. Lots of people blaming the producers, forgetting a bit that the consumers is just as important. So I reckon coursebook aren’t gonna get any better if we keep saying how ‘evil’ publishers are, but only when (a) we become critical of other aspects, such as economical and political ones across schools and their market places; therefore (b) starting to demand solutions that are educational as much as they’re economical and political; and ultimately (c) developing critical teachers who can actually care about the choice of materials given to them and who are (d) resourceful in their material selection and, perhaps, creation.
Allwright, R. L. (1981) ‘What do we want teaching materials for?’ ELT Journal 36(1) pp. 5-17.