Companion site at http://www.stuartfernie.com .
"A Curriculum for Excellence", a personal response, and a way forward.
Let me begin with a general comment on the proposals for "A Curriculum for Excellence" (henceforth referred to as ACE), based on my understanding as a teacher of French with 26 years experience, as at July 2007.
The four objectives (successful learners, effective contributors, confident individuals and responsible citizens) are commendable and, as general principles of what is to be achieved through this initiative, are quite beyond dispute.
However, as far as I can make out at the present time there is no flesh on the bones of the initiative. We (those expected to deliver the package) have been given little, if any, idea of just how these objectives are to be achieved, yet it has been suggested that this initiative is to bring about the biggest shake-up in thirty years - a situation which is sufficient to cause trepidation and anxiety. It has been suggested there is considerable need for change, and we have been told that change is coming, yet we have received no documentation with information on how to undertake this change, how to meet criteria for success, nor, indeed, what these criteria are!
As a result of questions on these topics being asked at various meetings (to which most teachers are not privy), word has filtered down that teachers don't actually want to be told how to go about pursuing these objectives and that they do want responsibility for undertaking this challenge. This may indeed be the case, but I imagine we would all be happier if we knew the exact nature of the challenge we are apparently willing to undertake, and I would be interested to know the nature of the consultation process presumably undertaken to reach this conclusion.
Reading between the lines (and you have to, if you want to reach a position which will allow any practical preparation to take place), the whole process is about disseminating good (and existing) practice.
The four objective areas are not new - they are simply a distillation of what we, as a profession, have been aiming at for years. Needless to say there is undoubtedly considerable variation in the means of achieving these aims, and in the level of achievement, but a little analysis of existing methodologies and approaches will reveal objectives similar to those announced under ACE. Of course it does no harm to clearly identify these objectives, and indeed it is helpful to emphasise their importance so we may better incorporate them as areas of focus, but drawing attention to them does not mean they are new, and the ACE initiative is more likely to succeed if a clear path is charted from the present system to where we wish to be. This may involve structural adjustments and change in emphasis, but at least it would be reassuring to know that we will nonetheless be travelling in the same general direction we have always taken.
The teaching profession, as a whole, has nothing to fear from this initiative, but teachers are far more likely to embrace an initiative if it is made clear that we are building on what we already have by recognising and laying emphasis on methods that have been proven effective. This is a much more appealing and conciliatory approach, dispelling anxiety and creating a united front, rather than the quasi confrontational approach of announcing major changes and implying radical departures from existing systems and methods while shrouding the exact nature of these changes in mystery (until they are, in fact, decided upon?).
Analysis of teaching and learning
I propose to analyse my own teaching style and methods in the hope of showing that they are largely in keeping with ACE and its objectives, though clearly there will be room for change of emphasis and adoption of new practices.
A crucial element in the success (or otherwise) of teaching is the atmosphere in your classroom and the relationship you have with your pupils. I try to create a pleasant atmosphere where pupils will find learning enjoyable and even fun, though there must also exist discipline in order to ensure it remains a learning environment.
The following is part of a document I produced, offering advice to student and newly qualified teachers. It sums up my general approach to teaching as well as offering practical advice on the structure of lessons.
Your teaching style will depend very largely on your personality, and so, therefore, the advice contained herein will reflect my own experience, character and thoughts. You may find these thoughts acceptable and useful, but you may not - much will depend on your own start point, but I would say that most of the students who have passed through our department have found it beneficial at least to some degree.
The cornerstone or foundation of your career in teaching is the relationship you have with your pupils. I have encountered many pupils who, for one reason or another, were never going to make much of their study of French, but who were (at the time) compelled to continue. It was particularly with these pupils that I came to realise that the way I taught was at least as important as what I taught. I fairly quickly realised that these pupils (and others!) would respond more readily to a broader and more "human" approach to learning, rather than a grammatical approach focusing purely on language learning. Challenges were still set - pupils are unlikely to respond positively if they realise their work consists of mere time-filling exercises - but considerable help might be offered in the achievement of these challenges (which offered scope for some degree of initiative, personal input and often humour). However, I also came to recognise the value of the "social education" going on "behind the scenes" and supporting the more formal attempts at language teaching. Pupils should be reasoned with and not just barked at (though I have to admit there is a place for that!). By and large reasonable people are produced by being treated with reason and humanity.
This, then, is the first tenet of teaching, in my humble opinion (though it clearly applies to any number of professions) - care and humanity.
You will also require a willingness to recognise and learn from your mistakes, determination, a willingness to be open to the use of different techniques and materials in order to gain interest and enthusiasm, and of course be able to instill fair discipline. Above all, you need to be able to talk to your pupils and treat them like human beings who are intelligent and capable of reason. You should make them feel like you take a personal interest and you know your pupils.
(The general tenor of this approach is surely in keeping with "confident individuals" and "responsible citizens", encouraging pupils to see their teachers as human beings, and to recognise the importance both of what they are doing and the need for discipline in doing it. Hopefully the care taken in the preparation of exercises will lead to successful learning and effective contributions to class work.)
Be prepared - know where your pupils have been, where they are now, and where they are going. Try to foresee connections to related topics within your own subject, but also to elements of other subjects, and try to foresee questions that your pupils may have.
State the aims of the class at the beginning of the period, so pupils have a clear idea of what is expected of them.
Remind them of what they already know and point out how that fits with what they are going to learn that period.
Break the work up into small manageable chunks, with a short exercise (done orally or in written form) to ensure they have followed each chunk. Prepare these exercises with the class - point out what needs to be done in each question, perhaps even giving them notes or vocabulary to help them.
After revisiting what they already know, add the next step. Provide a clear explanation and prepare an exercise. Start with relatively simple questions and build in difficulty. At the end of the exercise, pupils could create 2 or 3 of their own sentences/descriptions. There might also be room for humour or personal comment in the questions set.
(All of the above is intended to help pupils achieve success in learning and to enable them to make effective contributions in whatever form they may take.)
Discipline and good relationships will frequently come from good organisation. Know what you are doing, tell your pupils how to do it, and then tell them to do it for themselves.
Respect will come from recognition that you know what you are doing, are organised and can make things clear. Pupils by and large want to learn and they will respect you if they feel that they can learn with you.
Set tasks that are "do-able", revising what they already know and building on that, increasing gradually the level of difficulty you expect them to be able to cope with.
Listen if the kids have problems and revise if necessary, though it is often enough to point out that they should simply apply what has just been revised.
Ensure equality of discipline and control minor infringements rather than allow them to escalate into major incidents. Stop people chatting early on and remind them they need to concentrate. This can be done nicely, perhaps with a little humour, without getting the "offence" out of proportion. Try to remain calm and controlled in spite of light provocation - a light-hearted approach will generally be more readily accepted than going in hard from the start.
After a few minutes you might want to go over the first couple of questions of an exercise, just in case pupils have made mistakes which would then be repeated. You might also consider doing the first question together. Set a time limit for the exercise and remind them of the passing time.
Remind individuals who are causing disruption that they have a responsibility to the class, as well as to themselves, to allow learning to take place. Sometimes pupils will feign ignorance when asked a question - this should be recognised and pupils should again be reminded of their responsibilities to themselves and to others in the class.
Be in control - set limits clearly. Be sure of yourself but be reasonable.
Don't be afraid to mention miscreants by name - again this can be done light-heartedly to begin with, but stepped up if pupils refuse to take advice.
If you make a mistake and are corrected by a pupil, or see the mistake later yourself, accept it, correct yourself, laugh about it and move on - we are all human and teachers are certainly not infallible. It would be a mistake to refuse to admit it, or to feel that you will lose face by accepting you have made an error, indeed pupils may even gain more respect for you if you recognise your error and they will feel pride if they have been able to correct you (which only means you have taught them well!).
Equally, if pupils make errors there is no reason not to see the funny side. This does not mean they should be mocked for making a mistake, but if what they say is funny, that can be shared with them and hopefully they will remember their error and learn from it without being anxious or uptight about answering again.
While it is clear that the purpose of a lesson is to educate, it should be remembered that this can be done in a variety of ways and it will be all the more effective if pupils enjoy the lesson while working. Exercises can be tedious and monotonous and this can lead to lack of concentration and attention. It does no harm to share amusing anecdotes or jokes in the course of the lesson. Sometimes these can refer to events from which something can be learned, or offer background information about French culture and life. They might even just break the monotony long enough to allow the class to continue more effectively afterward. It would also be a good idea to allow pupils to contribute their stories or reactions to what you say - thus building the feeling of working together.
(I hope it is clear that all these strategies and suggestions are geared toward enabling a pupil to learn and contribute effectively, while hopefully allowing them to see and accept responsibility for their behaviour and learning, and encouraging them to gain in confidence as they see what they can achieve and how they do so.)
The teaching of French, or any other modern foreign language (MFL) is usually divided into the development of four skills - listening, reading, speaking and writing, supplemented by grammar and discussion. Clearly a variety of methods and strategies should be employed to overtake this teaching (and learning). The following is taken from the same document of advice to student and newly qualified teachers referred to above. It does not take in to account the huge variety of source material available, but rather deals with ways in which such material can be used. Suggestions for materials will follow the text.
The purpose of including this document is to give a clear indication of how I (and most teachers) work, and how it might also serve ACE and its four objectives. Bear these objectives in mind as you read through these notes - it is not difficult to see a correlation between the two. It should be borne in mind that these objectives will be served not just by the "formal" teaching, but also (and perhaps even more tellingly) by the more informal and discreet education taking place in the background.
When I was taught French at school, we listened to a tape and followed the text in a book, which we read and then translated. I have never understood this approach as it seems to me that understanding what you are hearing and reading will render it more meaningful, so you should only ask pupils to read or listen to a text after you have worked out what it means in their native language, or have prepared the necessary vocabulary.
When I do reading comprehension with a class I usually read a passage from the text and ask a member of the class to translate it, noting vocabulary as we go. I may then ask another member of the class to read it in French.
Before doing a listening exercise I will usually do some preparatory work, looking at questions and thinking about possible answers and providing them with vocabulary which will allow pupils to follow what is going on.
Writing and speaking tasks are frequently on the same topic. Clearly you must set the general context and task - say local area. Subdivide this into smaller and more manageable sections, e.g. geography, employment and tourism. There should be discussion with the class of what they would like to be able to say within each sub section and you should provide them with the vocabulary, structures and grammatical explanations (where necessary) to allow them to say what they want to say.
In short, tell them what the job is, provide them with the tools they need to do the job, then ask them to do the job while providing the odd bit of support where needed.
When doing an exercise based on a grammar point you have just explained, start with some relatively easy examples and build up the level of complexity in the course of the exercise, allowing them to provide a few sentences of their own at the end of the exercise.
It is a good idea to ask pupils to take note of vocabulary rather than provide a handout. Many pupils do not make the necessary effort to learn vocabulary, especially from prepared sheets (which are easily lost), but the words are more likely to stick if they have concentrated on noting the words in their jotters. Clearly exceptions can be made and handouts are useful for absentees.
At Higher level, it is useful to discuss topics or themes as they arise in the course of the year and invite pupils to produce a short piece of writing on each topic (having discussed the area and produced a list of vocabulary and structures they may find helpful). This is enormously helpful in the preparation of speaking assessments and short essay preparation.
Extended Reading and Viewing is the element pupils appear to enjoy the most, and this can be developed into something much broader than the mere preparation of a 180 word writing NAB. I regularly study "Les Miserables" with my pupils and they respond very favourably to it.
Usually we begin with an outline of the story and have a brief discussion of the characters and themes.
They then see a DVD, usually the 10th anniversary concert version of the musical and we then go on to discuss the main themes and characters in some detail. Clearly there are many themes in Les Mis, but pupils find them very engaging and are generally very willing to debate them. They will go on to choose a theme and characters they found particularly involving and they are asked to produce a short essay about them (prepared in advance). To this they add an outline and personal reaction.
Their interest in this work has led to several theatre visits, personal purchase of CDs and DVDs, and even a mini concert of songs from the show sung in class (in French).
Their notes are often useful if they decide to continue to Advanced Higher level when they have to produce a folio of work on literature or background topics.
Some suggestions for source materials (some are startlingly obvious, others less so):
Tapes and CDs which accompany course books
Commercially available listening courses and materials
Songs - radio, CD, film (musicals)
Films - short extracts or the entire film (see below)
Materials available from the internet
Tell a class a story or a joke - either sourced or of your own fabrication
DVD is a wonderful resource due to its flexibility of use - short clips or entire films, variety of types of resource (musical, drama, comedy)
Commercially available reading courses and materials
Internet texts - various topics, jokes, biography
Establish e-mail links with a French school (though this has proved very difficult)
Produce your own material - anecdotes, stories, perceptions of French life
Books or extracts from books
Speaking and Writing exercises will often be in keeping with topics from units in a course book, and are more tightly controlled in S4 and at Higher and Advanced Higher.
The four ACE objectives can probably usefully be grouped into two categories.
"Successful learners" and "effective contributors" are more measurable and explicit than "confident individuals" and "responsible citizens", both of which are more discrete and dependent on a personal reaction to what is going on in the classroom. All, however, will be affected by level of difficulty, clarity of explanation, quality of learning (as opposed to teaching), level of challenge in work set, relations with teachers and other pupils, cross curricular input, interest in topic, reaction to various potential (and personal) problems, and discipline, among many other aspects of learning and teaching! The point is that how a pupil is taught is at least as important as what the pupil is taught. Much of the education that takes place is subliminal. Pupils are perhaps even more likely to be influenced by the attitudes and principles of their teacher than by the topics being discussed by that teacher. This "subliminal education" is likely to have a direct consequence on pupils' perception of respect, responsibility and citizenship.
Success in learning can be measured in a variety of ways - scores in tests, reciting a verb or grammar rule, producing a sentence, anything that indicates that learning (and understanding) has taken place. Of course, criteria for success will vary from pupil to pupil. Someone who has managed to retain one piece of information may deserve as much praise as someone in the habit of gaining full marks, but whatever the criteria are, there will be measurable evidence of learning or advancement.
Closely related to this is "effective contributor" which will also generally have some physical evidence, be it raising a hand to answer a question, making suggestions or offering constructive criticism, helping partners or group members, producing a piece of work worthy of mention, or offering opinions in discussion and debate. The ways in which pupils can contribute effectively are numerous indeed, but also by and large tangible.
"Confident individuals" and "responsible citizens" are categories which are much harder to assess, highly commendable though they are, and much will depend on the personality and character of the individual pupils. Some will respond readily and gain confidence and develop a sense of responsibility with very little prompting as they take on board advice offered and learn from situations they encounter. For others, however, self-confidence can prove elusive and is not necessarily linked to learning, while accepting the mantle of responsibility sometimes appears to be something actively avoided.
Perhaps the best we can do is provide opportunity for such development and try to foster it as best we can, though we must accept that in the end it remains a matter for the individual.
The issue of confidence can be broken down further - academic confidence within the subject being studied, and more general self-confidence. There is, in my opinion, a clear correlation between confidence gained from academic success in a particular subject and self-confidence. That does not mean the one will necessarily lead to the other, but the path is open. If a pupil achieves a certain standard, is made aware of this and receives praise, then the way is open for his or her self-esteem and self confidence to rise.
Sadly this is not always the case as many pupils perceive a gulf between school and "real" life - they find it hard to accept that what they learn in a classroom will form part of the "bigger picture" outside school. Somehow success at school does not necessarily equate to success (and therefore increased confidence) outside school. There is undoubtedly a gulf between the two - school remains a protected environment where many are shielded from some of the harsher realities of "real" life. However, it must be emphasised that what they carry from school into "real" life is valid and valuable. Closer links between industry and school, Work Experience placements, regular visits to companies or visits by representatives of companies and industry to schools, trips abroad, or indeed any trip that is likely to broaden pupils' horizons and make them more culturally aware is likely to benefit confidence levels and contribute to the process of maturity and accepting responsibility.
Teaching and learning French
In my case I am particularly concerned with the question of competence and confidence in learning and speaking French.
Clearly the ideal way to help pupils learn French would be to immerse them completely in the language and culture for an extended period of time. Failing complete immersion, the next best thing would be to organise regular trips to the country whose language pupils are studying, and probably have them stay with the same family on each occasion. If that is not possible then regular communication (by letter, e-mail, video conferencing) with a group of similarly aged pupils in France would help put our pupils at their ease with the language they have been studying. Unfortunately, as most MFL teachers will be able to attest, there are usually practical problems with all of these solutions and so we are left with fairly academic scholastic studies.
In the context of modern foreign language learning, school tends to be quite artificial and insular - use is not made of the language outwith the MFL classroom in school, nor is it used to any great extent outside the school! General knowledge of an MFL and the culture associated with it seems to be somewhat restricted in society as a whole (and is notably lacking in an area that would benefit the most - the booming fields of tourism and travel), and while it should be recognised that this problem is not peculiar to the field of education, it is probably within the realm of education that a solution to this more widespread ignorance will be sought and found.
Exactly because knowledge of an MFL has no apparent or obvious relevance to pupils either within school or, as they see it, once they leave school, within the broader context of the curriculum efforts should be made to inform pupils of the advantages of knowing an MFL, emphasising the global economy and the international nature of business in modern times. Pupils should be encouraged to consider not just the importance of clear communication with potential business partners, but also the fact that foreign companies are more likely to want to place an order with someone who has knowledge of their language and culture. Pupils should be encouraged to develop ambition and see how they could be part of this global economy, while bearing in mind that language and communication will play key roles in the fulfillment of that ambition.
As a "point de depart" it is particularly in the MFL classroom that efforts should be made to encourage and stimulate interest in language learning, but also, and quite essentially, in cultural activities associated with language learning. Teachers of MFLs are often held responsible for the nation's apparent lack of linguistic aptitude, but the roots of the problem are far more widespread and complex.
Let us take a more detailed look at MFL learning. In the case of French, there are relatively few confidence issues in the receptive areas of reading and listening (which is not to say pupils find these areas easy!), but the productive skills of writing and especially speaking reveal an at times almost crushing lack of confidence, and it is this lack of confidence rather than lack of ability that leads to problems.
What, then, is at the root of this lack of confidence and how do we address it?
I think there are two main strands to this problem - language, and the topics and ideas covered by that language.
When we learn our mother tongue we are surrounded by its use and we assimilate its vocabulary and structures, learning to produce language by reproducing what we have heard many times over a considerable period of time, and this takes place at an age when our minds are "uncluttered". When we come to study French (or any MFL) it is usually at secondary school in the artificial conditions of a classroom on perhaps three occasions a week. It is usually only on those three occasions that we hear or use that language and there is very little opportunity to assimilate it as we did when we were young, so teachers explain the structures of the language in the hope of providing a shortcut to understanding, as opposed to long term assimilation. Matters are further complicated by our knowledge of the workings of our mother tongue which may contradict and complicate the structures of the new language being explained to us. Combine this with the perceived notion that the rest of the world has a working knowledge of English and our insular and self-sufficient culture, and we begin to understand pupils' reluctance to partake in modern language learning.
When we study our mother tongue at school we do study its grammatical structure, but this is not often reinforced, it is not assessed as such, it may be contradicted by our experience outside school, and therefore little importance appears to be attached to grammatical structure and accuracy. In secondary school pieces of writing are drafted and re-drafted. Grammar is not often studied in itself, though grammatical corrections are made to successfully complete the individual piece of work being prepared, but the corrected structures themselves may not always be retained. Once again pupils appear to attach little importance to structures and rules except as a means to the end of gaining a pass in a particular piece of writing.
In the teaching of French, however, these structures play an integral part in the teaching and learning process as they allow accelerated learning as well as precision and accuracy. The very fact that pupils are largely unaware of these structures and, perhaps more importantly, attach so little importance to them may explain some of the difficulty pupils have in learning French, and also their lack of security in studying it. Structures which language teachers think should be familiar to their pupils are, in fact, quite unfamiliar to them.
The pupils'impression that everyone speaks English is, of course, quite erroneous. However, it is probably fair to say that basic rules of English are more straightforward than similar French structures. This, together with the fact that Europeans still, by and large, study the grammatical structure of their own language with some rigour at school, will allow Europeans to master at least some English more readily, and speak it with greater confidence because they see and understand similar and familiar structures being used in both languages.
European pupils are also accustomed to being surrounded by other European languages and cultures - they need only cross a border to encounter a different language and culture, and of course their own language and culture will be more readily influenced by such proximity. Compare this situation to our insular position and we can further understand pupils' doubts over the relevance of a study of MFLs.
I have frequently tried to make the point to pupils that studying a modern foreign language will almost undoubtedly help to improve the quality of their English. This has been confirmed, quite independently, by a businessman acquaintance who just recently embarked on a study of French and he has stated that he feels his English has improved because he has had to think more carefully about what he says and how he says it as he translates from one language to the other. He also confirmed that the idea that everyone has a good knowledge of English was, indeed, an illusion. To his surprise, however, he has discovered that French is probably the most useful common language, i.e. a language most have studied at school and consequently the one most used for social communication.
As for our insular attitudes, greater emphasis needs to be laid on the fact that we have a global economy, with most large companies encouraging international trade. Local companies of a reasonable size will almost certainly have international links and communication is clearly the key to success where international trade is involved. Use of a modern language is no longer limited to those who may wish to go abroad for a holiday. Knowledge of languages has become integral to smooth and successful business dealings. It is often said that English is the international business language and this may be true in terms of legal dealings and contracts, but in terms of practical and social communication French (and Spanish) actually appear to be more common and useful.
So, in my opinion, raising awareness of structures and encouraging precision and accuracy in our native tongue would have the added advantage of facilitating modern language learning, thus helping pupils to communicate in general with greater confidence. This, together with increased awareness of the importance of communication in today's global economy, should help motivate study of modern foreign languages.
The second area which affects interest in continued study of languages is what is studied. Courses can be very dry and appear young and simplistic, often dealing with topics teenagers find dull and uninteresting. While there is good reason for their inclusion in the curriculum and they do a good job in that pupils are likely to be readily able to respond to familiar topics to which they should be able to contribute something fairly easily, such as family, pocket money, local area etc., the problem is that they tend to be "inward-looking" topics. These are areas whose familiarity ought to encourage an easy response, but they may also breed contempt. I would suggest more demanding "outward-looking" topics may well do much to stimulate interest - in the topic itself as well as linguistically.
Pupils enjoy challenge. They like to feel they can tackle something demanding and there is no reason why they shouldn't do so successfully provided an adequate level of support is furnished, both in terms of depth and variety. Use of film, books, comics, songs, theatre and concerts should, in my opinion, not just help stimulate interest and linguistic confidence, but should also provide a basis for broader discussion involving responsibility and citizenship, issues which could easily be shared with English, R.M.E., History and Geography, to name but a few of the more obvious choices. One clear advantage of using both traditional material and broader based material is that it makes the one more acceptable and makes the other more exciting.
Many years ago I started using film with classes. At first this was an end of term treat, but as more serious French films became available for study I started to incorporate them into the syllabus - S.Y.S (now Advanced Higher) first, then Higher, and now I use film across all year groups in a variety of ways.
In Advanced Higher film can be used most obviously as a basis for Folio work, discussing character and theme, but also leading to more generally philosophical topics such as the Enlightenment Movement and Existentialism (the basics of both of which are essential if pupils are to have a true grasp of 19th and 20th century French literature). At Higher level film can be used as a basis for the completion of the writing NAB (preferably in conjunction with a book), concentrating on character and theme, but often developing our discussion well beyond the limited framework of the NAB test.
At Standard Grade film is used as a basis for the completion of one writing folio piece (a film review, similar in structure to the Higher writing NAB), but pupils watch other films in the course of S3 and S4 and are invited to answer stimulus questions describing storyline and character, and identifying themes while making use of vocabulary and structures provided for them.
At all these stages discussion is encouraged on pupils' feelings for the characters and the themes of the film. Clearly these are expanded and used to a greater extent as pupils progress through school.
In S1 and S2 use is also made of film, though primarily with a view to encouraging pupils to look on foreign film as a legitimate source of entertainment, but also as a basis for extended listening comprehension and producing relatively simple written responses to questions prepared in advance in French. Clearly if pupils wish to discuss their reaction to what they have seen they are encouraged to do so, but this would not be "formalised" until S3 when their reaction would become part of a written response to the film stimulus.
Across all the age groups film can introduce pupils not just to language (allowing them to see and hear the MFL in action), but also to cultural and thematic issues they may not have previously encountered, or which may cause them to reconsider the way they thought about something. A good film, combined with intelligent discussion afterward, may broaden a pupil's horizons, spark an ambition, or clarify ideas. Of course this need not be achieved solely through the medium of film, but film is more immediate than reading and is far more readily controlled by the teacher.
The essential point is that we may deal with issues of responsibility and citizenship through this medium. Discussing themes of a more adult, "outward-looking", and dare I say lofty nature, asking pupils to think of others and the nature of society, is far more appealing (if approached in the right way) to young and inquisitive minds than the "inward-looking" and relatively simple topics of the average course book. Of course there is a need for these topics but study of an MFL becomes far more interesting if we also deal with more demanding topics, motivating pupils to wish to express themselves and their thoughts with clarity in the MFL - worthy topics merit more effort.
Film and music
In recent times I have discovered that the twin attractions of film and music have been particularly successful with my pupils, and have inspired them to want to achieve more than I would have thought possible.
As a result of studying "Les Miserables" and "Notre Dame de Paris", highly successful trips to London theatres have been organised, high quality pieces of writing and speaking have been produced, but perhaps most importantly, a genuine interest has been spawned in the content of these works, French literature in general, and the theatre. To my utter astonishment an S4 class even recently produced a mini concert of songs (sung almost wholly in French) taken from "Les Miserables", "Notre Dame de Paris" and "Les Choristes". This was their suggestion. They performed remarkably well and are now keen to repeat the performance before the entire school on stage in the assembly hall.
It seems to me that undertakings of this kind fulfill all the objectives of ACE - pupils have successfully understood and learned French songs and the themes behind them. They have contributed most effectively by performing these songs to an audience, gaining confidence in French and in themselves along the way.
Much has been made recently of a lowering of standards. It seems to me that by and large pupils will rise to challenges set to them. Of course they will require help to achieve these goals, some a great deal more than others, but the sharing of existing stimulating ideas, materials and good practice would certainly be a major contributory factor to their success.
Lack of confidence in performance
A major source of lack of confidence, according to pupils themselves, is the fact that they make mistakes. Of course it is much more than that - they have to "perform", i.e. speak in a foreign language in front of a teacher, their fellow pupils, and occasionally a French national. Their lack of confidence in structuring their own language contributes to this, but also the fact that they are not required to "perform" in a similar fashion in any other subject. Anxiety takes over and pupils frequently focus on all they don't know rather than what they do know. They should be reminded that the art of a good linguist lies in communicating the sense of what he/she wishes to say while using the vocabulary and structures he/she has at his/her disposal, i.e. they should not allow not knowing a particular word or expression to prevent the communication of the general sense of what they want to say - find another way of expressing it.
This is also why it is a good idea to have a reasonably relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, where pupils will not feel under even greater stress than that which they create for themselves. They need to understand that everyone in the classroom is in the same boat - they are all learning and should all be pulling in the same direction, helping one another while helping themselves. Laughing at amusing things pupils may inadvertently produce can help reduce tension and relax the pupil, encouraging him/her to keep errors in proportion and have fun with their study of language.
ACE for all
ACE is not, obviously, restricted to modern foreign language teaching. The problems faced by MFL teachers are shared by teachers of virtually every discipline, though it is important not to get these problems out of all proportion. Our education system serves our pupils well but there is room for consolidation and improvement, especially as it would appear that educators are to take on increased numbers of pupils, a greater variety of subjects and assessment procedures, and a system of education that may (or may not?) change drastically to accommodate these developments.
There is a recognised problem of underachievement, but I can't help but wonder if things have ever really been any different. This initiative, if developed properly, could actually make a difference as it appears to have identified areas upon which to focus in school. Some of the problem, however, lies in a much broader cultural problem of attitude toward education and perhaps even success in general.
Academic success in school is frequently viewed as the domain of the privileged few, either intellectually or financially/socially, and there sometimes appears to be a culture of solidarity for mediocrity. A pupil should not "get above himself", should make do with getting by. Success can be regarded as something to be embarrassed about, something to keep quiet about or, worse still, something to be avoided.
I think one reason for this is our tendency to be "inward-looking" and insular. As a nation (and I am very reluctant to generalise wildly!), I think we do lack confidence and we are not good at seeking or accepting responsibility. These failings impinge on our capacity to learn successfully and contribute effectively, and so we do not fulfil our potential.
I believe that finding ways to help improve performance in each of these areas can lead to considerable impact on Scotland's future, but the most fundamental means of impacting on all these areas is to promote ambition, success, and above all simply being positive.
We need to adopt a much more "outward-looking" approach, and this applies not just to education but to commerce, the media, travel and tourism, etc.. We need to embrace the "bigger picture" and believe we can be part of it.
Many pupils regard their school experience as irrelevant to the life they will lead after they leave school. They need to be shown that it is only irrelevant if they choose to make it so. They should be shown opportunities and career structures for which school is helpful and relevant. They need to see that education is not just about finding a job afterward, but is also about preparing them for life and how to make the most of it, and for that to happen they must make the choice to take control. They shouldn't just let life happen to them. They need to make an effort and take control by taking an interest in their education and therefore in themselves. Their education is, after all, an investment in their own future.
Having said all that, pupils' effort will be the result of stimulation, motivation and guidance, and that can be achieved through focusing on the ACE objectives. However, much depends on how the package is delivered.
Materials and sharing
I have been described (incorrectly, in my humble opinion) as a cynic. I would say that I am, if anything, an idealist, but I have to admit to a certain cynicism when it comes to educational initiatives, given the number I have seen come and go and make very little long term difference to our education system. We have been told that ACE is different and I truly want to believe that as I think there is the potential to achieve something, but the organisers need to get us (the professional and experienced teaching staff) on board, and thus far I doubt if that is the case.
I sincerely hope ACE will prove to be about disseminating ideas, materials and good practice. I think that once we have cut through the verbiage of existing ACE documents we can see that this is indeed their aim, and if this is the case we have little to fear - most of us are already doing it, and if we are willing to share our ideas and exercises the process of rolling out ACE will be all the simpler and more effective, provided the ACE team can provide a clear framework from which to work, and create a central bank of materials to which we can all contribute and from which we can borrow.
A central bank of materials and resources would be useful, even essential, but in the end working only from a bank of materials would be rather like operating in a vacuum. Teachers tend to be isolated and work fairly independently. Each is responsible for progress and is expected to advance that progress in a vaguely similar fashion (taking pupils in the same direction, using the same general methods), yet each remains isolated in his/her own classroom. Regular meetings where one can discuss resources and ideas might be of considerable help. Of course much depends on the personality of the teacher and the character of the class being taught - I realised some time ago that what works for one will not necessarily work for another, but that may in part be due to the fact we occasionally share what we do, but not really how we do it.
So, a bank of materials and resources is necessary but is probably not sufficient. A network of forums and meetings (which could be national, regional or local) to discuss resources and how to use them would also be very useful - individuals could be invited to demonstrate use of an idea or materials, repeating a lesson (or part of one) and showing fellow professionals how he/she uses the materials, discussing also what he/she hopes will result from their use. In this way we are developing not just the resources used, but also the approach used in applying the resources. Ensuing discussion and debate might help refine materials and approaches rather than simply set up a bank to provide resources and hope for the best.
There is, of course, a more straightforward way of adopting this process. Rather than organising a series of central forums and meetings to which we must all travel, we could use the resources central to each of our schools - our fellow professionals and colleagues. No-one is comfortable with observation classes, largely because we feel we are leaving ourselves open to criticism, but sessions for discussion of good practice could easily be arranged and would, I am sure, be perfectly acceptable. This might even lead to more relaxed observation classes, especially if they were organised in a spirit of mutual support with resources and approaches clearly being the focus of attention, though I fully realise this will overlap with other elements of teaching such as discipline and organisation.
Technology, resources and attitudes all change in the course of time and we, as teachers, need to keep up with latest developments if we are to maintain the interest of our pupils. Events of the type described above are envisaged as positive and helpful, enabling colleagues to create and share ideas and resources together, but if they are to be truly effective they would require input from all staff, though I understand there may be reluctance to participate in such events and while organisation would be a management issue, motivation must ultimately remain a personal choice.
The main resource of any school is its staff and we can learn so much from one another that it seems an obvious step to help one another realise our full potential. Clearly this should be done with some sensitivity, but the aim of taking forward good teaching practice is best served by discussion and observation.
One group which is well placed to observe and then disseminate good teaching practice is the Inspectorate, due to the overview it can gain throughout Scotland.
I can't help but wonder if it would not be a good idea to alter the character and purpose of inspections. As they stand, the thought of an inspection generally fills teaching staff with dread, largely because staff feel they are going to be judged and perhaps criticised.
Could a more positive role for the Inspectorate not be created by having them oversee continued professional training and development? If the Inspectorate was seen as a group of colleagues whose job it was to maintain and improve professional standards by offering advice and solutions, while disseminating the latest and best teaching practices, resources and approaches, I'm sure the whole "inspection" experience would be seen in a more positive and supportive light.
Conclusion and resources
There will be, without doubt, major changes to our education system in the years to come, yet the fundamental basis of teaching and learning is likely to remain largely the same. Good teaching already exists - we are doing it, but it can be improved and good ideas can be disseminated through a suitable resource bank combined with a network of contacts and affiliations.
ACE can provide a basis for such a scheme. Let us hope it is an opportunity which is not wasted. This is an opportunity to draw the profession together, to recognise effective contributions to successful learning and teaching, to give teachers confidence in their own contributions and success, and to take responsibility for disseminating good practice and inspiring others to continue to contribute to the success of their pupils and successful teaching practices.
With that principle in mind, I would offer the following resources for use in the French classroom:
Notes to help with discussion on the following can be found on the internet via this link to my other pages:
Baudelaire and " Les fleurs du mal "
Luc Besson films
" Les Choristes "
" Cyrano de Bergerac "
" Dracula entre l'amour et la mort " (French Canadian musical)
" Les Enfants du Paradis "
" Les Miserables "
" Jean de Florette "
" Kean " (play by Jean-Paul Sartre)
" Notre Dame de Paris " (notes based on the French Canadian musical)
Notes to help with writing reviews on the following are available on the internet here:
" Le Diner de Cons "
" Les Choristes "
" Les Miserables " (1995 film version with Belmondo)
"Notre Dame de Paris"
Questions in French for listening exercise and writing on the following are also available here:
" Les Choristes "
" Mr Holland's Opus " (American film played in French)
" Les Miserables " (1995 film version with Belmondo)
My thanks for taking the time to plough your way through this document! I hope you found it of some interest.
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