I have been writing about how community ESL has changed over the past 20 years.  This is the second part of a post about the standardization of the curriculum.  The first is here.  You might also want to look at the introductory piece.

Whoah!  That last piece started off as one sentence on the way to this one. So let’s just get all that philosophical Freirean stuff out of the way and just say for the sake of argument that learning can be quantitatively calibrated.

So we have Overland, with these seasoned motivated teachers, who really know what works and doesn’t work on the ground, and we have these universal objectives governing what should be taught in the context of the job market and immigration patterns.  This would be a great opportunity for both parties to sit down and work toward a shared program that incorporated the wisdom of the teachers into a vision that suited the modern economic situation.

Sadly, no such consultation took place.  Perhaps it was too much to hope for that an organization as large and unwieldy as the Board could be supple enough to manage such a  compromise, but as it is,  the standards and checklists were imposed in a  top-down fashion.   There was  little acknowledgement of the pragmatic problems inherent in applying them, and these problems are especially common in the larger learning centres like Overland.

A one-size-fits-all solution does not suit complex learning systems.  Overland prided itself on its specialized programs, classes which focused on specific skills, classes that blurred the lines between language teaching and community programs.  These classes did not conform to the CLB criteria, which focus on functional language units.

Benchmarks also become problematic when they are applied to higher level classes.  We all have a pretty consistent idea of what basic survival fluency is:  hello/ goodbye/ thank you/ where’s the bathroom?/ sorry (we are in Canada after all!)/ Go Leafs Go (Sigh! That’s nostalgia for you!), but as language skills increase, the objectives become less standardized.  When I look at the Can-do sheets for the advanced section of the Benchmarks, I start to feel extremely uncomfortable.  There are many skills listed there that I do not possess (read a tax document; write an interoffice memo…).  Not only is English my first language, but it is the way I make my living .

In other words, there are many paths to cultural and linguistic maturity, and these paths tend to diverge as one’s language skills increase.  How can one checklist measure literacy at that level?

What this means is that for the past 10 or so years, there has been increasing pressure on instructors to reverse engineer their programs so that they can write them up as acceptable elements of the new curriculum.  More and more, the specialized classes are falling by the wayside, or being re-purposed  in a more standardized form.

What happens, then, when, teachers are forced to navigate ever increasing layers of bureaucracy merely to justify what they have been doing competently for 30 years?    Well, clearly, classes are losing some of distinctive qualities, but the fallout extends beyond that.   Remember the at the school, not at school moments?  There is less time and energy for them.  Now activities still take place, and many of them are successful (Overland Learning Garden, you guys rock!), but teachers are being asked to work within a framework that fails to acknowledge the importance of such a key part of the community school.

Breaking ground at the Overland Learning Garden
Breaking ground at the Overland Learning Garden

So yes, a common curriculum is an inevitable, and by most counts a positive, development.  In many ways it brings a sense of security to the student, and to the fledgling teacher; it also makes it easier for students to transfer from one school to another. Still, the imposition of this system has changed Overland, and with any change comes some loss.