Thursday, January 31, 2013

A WICKED PROBLEM A simple problem is one where the issue, difficulty or challenge is not controversial or contested and neither is the solution. Complex problems are those where either the issue or the solution is multi-faceted and unresolved. Wicked problems are those where both the challenge and the solution are controversial, complex and hotly debated. Wicked problems are, in the words of John Kolko, worth solving. Curriculum design is a wicked problem. As a challenge, it is complex and multi-faceted. It involves identifying, at one level, the needs of communities, even nations and, at the other, of individuals. It calls for the documenting of the available resources, of the views and capabilities of stakeholders. It involves a deep understanding of the processes of learning and teaching. The solutions are similarly complex: they involve dimensions across time (where to start, how to proceed, how rapidly) as well as multiple decisions at each point of time: what content, what procedures, how many choices, what forms of assessment. They involve setting goals in four different but related categories: cognitive (what will participants know, be aware of, be familiar with?), performative (what will participants be able to do and at what level of skill and accuracy), affective (how will they feel about the content, about their developing skills, about themselves, about each other?) and metacognitive (how will present learning facilitate future autonomous learning and personal development, producing lifelong learners?). Designing language curriculum is a wicked problem. Because it involves all of the above, plus an extra dimension: knowledge and skills in another language; attitudes towards speakers of that language and their culture; long-term capabilities for continuing to expand and enhance proficiency. It involves particular challenges of resourcing, especially in foreign language contexts where authentic and natural samples of and interactions in the target language are not locally available. It requires teachers whose own capacity to use and explain that language must be initially strong and must be continuously nurtured and enriched. Wicked problems are not, of course, inherently evil. But they are thornily resistant to easy solutions. The best curricula are never finished: they are constantly replenished as new data about learners and learning processes must be analysed, leading to new designs for procedures and materials. Here is a simple example: every summer, the Monterey Institute conducts a short, intensive programme called English Refinement for Fulbright Scholars. Each year, some 40 scholars from about 30 countries gather to polish their English language skills and learn about the life of graduate students in American universities. There is a Reading and Writing component, in which participants become familiar with the discourse of their field of study by reading and analysing current textual practice in journals and professional publications. Our commitment is that everything they read will have been published in the current year. Which means that each year, the materials from the course are discarded and must be replaced the following summer. More complex examples involve the use of digital tools and social media as part of the course - and preparation for the course and follow-up, as participants are tracked during their subsequent experience to further inform subsequent versions of the programme. Designing language curriculum is truly a wicked problem.

Friday, January 14, 2011


First, the history of the term, Intertwingle. It was coined by Theodor Holm (“Ted”) Nelson in 1974, when he wrote in Computer Lib/Dream Machines that “everything is intertwingled.” It was then used in 2005 by Peter Morville as a chapter heading (page 64) in his book Ambient Findability (published by O’Reilly). At the outset of that chapter, Morville quotes Nelson as follows: “Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged – people keep pretending that they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t. Everything is deeply intertwingled.”

In 2008, the book Interwingle was written and published by Judy Breck. She writes about the future, about the internet and digital tools, education and creativity, and crowd sourcing and the cloud. She explains various intertwingularities, that is “ways creativity emerges from digital connectivity.” The conclusion: in the future, everyone and everything will be intertwingled.

As a theme in EDUC 8520, potential intertwingularities include the following:

- because the emphasis in terms of syllabus design will be heavily on CBI (Content-Based Instruction – also known as CLIL, Content & Language Integrated Learning), language, culture and subject matter (history, literature, economics, geography, physics, art and so forth) are connected in multiple ways;

- while the traditional grammatical syllabus was linear and one-dimensional, the new syllabus is multidimensional and cyclical: units may be specified in terms of content, discourse, culture, grammar, speech acts (or functions), vocabulary, rhetorical devices, situations and skills, with any and all features likely to recur in subsequent segments;

- the multidimensional syllabus displays features of complexity: there may, for example, be a fractal quality to the learner training component, which may comprise several hours or days at the outset and conclusion of the syllabus, feature as a metacognitive or reflective task of 20 or 30 minutes at the beginning and end of each unit, then show up at the lesson level as brief, 5-minute activities; but in each case, the structure is the same – plan (set goals, objectives) -> do the work -> reflect, self-assess;

- the course is based in a semester-long project, carried out by teams of 3 to 5 participants who must collaborate effectively for maximum quality in both process (blissful productivity) and product (new curriculum with epic meaning); one crucial aspect of the process will be interactions across teams as we all assist each other in solving problems and generating ideas;

- the claim that Curriculum Design is central to language education in general and to the MATFL/MATESOL programme in particular: see the poster displayed in class and the photograph of it on the Moodle;

- that the effectiveness of both the project teams and the jigsaw reading teams is based in a community building and sustaining process through which we all come to know, trust and willingly depend on each other; thus the personal, social, academic and professional all come together in positive relationships producing insight, learning and quality outcomes.

In other words: everyone and everything is intertwingled.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Power of Contrast

In the Fulbright writing class this summer, we used the splendidly creative and thorough activity designed by one of the curriculum teams in the spring semester, specifically for this population. The focus was genre and the materials were nine short texts all related to the topic of volcanoes. They included a newspaper report about the Iceland eruption, scientific articles about various features of volcanoes, a poem, a proposal for a science lesson, a blog post and a passage from a novel. They ranged across a wide expanse of formality levels.

The students worked in pairs to identify the source of each text and were remarkably accurate in their estimations. But the linguistic sparks really began to fly when I asked them about the features of each text which provided clues: the passive voice in the science journal article; the short paragraphs and direct quotes in the news paper; the imperatives in the recipe; the sentence fragments and use of the word “jeez” in the blog post; the alliteration and enjambment in the poem; the evocation of place in the novel; the citations in the biogeography article.

The crucial role of induction, the value of authentic texts, the power of contrast. Nine texts and a whole set of insights into genre and their distinguishing linguistic features. Awesome.

Summit of Awesome

Here’s a coincidence that I did not immediately notice, but later became mildly obsessed with: our great friend Eve, fatigued with the cold Oregon winter and long, wet spring, decided with huge conviction that 2010 would be the Summer of Awesome. At the time of this announcement, we were visiting Eve and other Portland friends; we were staying a few blocks away from her house at the Kennedy School, a unique hotel in an old elementary school.

Now it’s important to emphasise that this building struck forcibly in the gut of my long term memory. The style was highly evocative of the schools I attended as a boy: high ceilings, long corridors, lots of wood paneling, neatly printed signs. The conversion to a hotel was done with great creativity, style and humour: our room had a blackboard and an old desk; they have squeezed in a small pool, a restaurant, three or four bars, including one in the old boiler room; and the old school labels co-exist with the hotel signage.

There is also a large room, a place of assembly. At the time of our visit, it hosted a gathering, announced and promoted in a number of cute signs as The Summit of Awesome. The doors were normally ajar and glances inside revealed groups of participants eagerly collaborating on various projects. A sense of fun and committed activity prevailed, leaking through the doors in snatches of intense conversation and squeals of delighted laughter.

For a day or two, it somehow seemed wrong. This school/hotel was much too redolent of my difficult and sour experiences of primary and secondary education to be hosting something light and entertaining. Gradually, however, this impression faded, to be replaced by three intriguing insights. The first, that anyone (but especially Eva) can make a season awesome simply by declaration – such is the power of words. The second, that events both fun and awesome can take place in a school setting. The third, that the word summit neatly connotes both height (of achievement) and collaboration (the word meeting being these days almost always elided).

And all three, I think, can be applied to a semester-long graduate course in language education.

I have therefore renamed my fall class, Principles and Practices of Language Education, as THE SUMMIT OF AWESOME – with the intention of starting the process of making it a memorable and enjoyable experience, a meeting of minds and spirits which transcends any limitations which the classroom setting can imply.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fretting 2.0

I try to be super sustainable and not print out blog posts, but the exceptional Barbara Sawhill provokes too many thoughts for one sitting. In fact, I have been carrying around for many months her January 31 2009 piece about struggling with the syllabus and being anxious about the students’ reaction to her approach.

It all began with the spring semester 2009 Curriculum Design class. I tried to start out with some perspective by putting on the Moodle links to both Barbara’s blog post ( and to Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk about pasta sauce, psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz and the principle of horizontal segmentation (see September 19 post).

The intention was to set up what I am thinking of as the two central human principles of syllabus design, namely
(1) you are not doing your job properly if you do not experience at least some degree of syllabus panic shortly before the beginning of a new term or progamme;
(2) the more relevant and effective we want our syllabus to be, the more we have to help students identify their specific needs and goals and thence develop appropriate choices for them.

As Barbara unpacks the being “awash in panic” in that January post, she mentions addressing her students’ needs and describes her role as, in part, “to nudge, push, prod them towards their goals.” These relatively gentle contacts replace the tightly scheduled forced march of the traditional language syllabus (“if this is Tuesday then this must be the preterite” is Barbara’s characterization”), but she has concerns is about removing a detailed structure and replacing it with training in the use of on-line tools to explore and connect with the Spanish-speaking world (the course in question is a Spanish conversation class) followed by the challenge to create a maintain a blog in the target language . The concerns are about “scaring them off” and unnerving them by asking participants to contribute significantly in defining the class and creating a meaningful learning community.

For me (and, I suspect, for Barbara too, as the post is tagged “fear2.0”), this panic, this “plotting, fretting, and hoping” replaces the old fears that the splendidly detailed and exact syllabus one had created was relevant and feasible. That panic 1.0 was accompanied by the related anupholsteryphobia, Stanlee Brimberg’s splendid term for the fear of not covering all the material. Which means, as I recollect, that syllabus panic 1.0 never went away; to the contrary, it could actually spiral into ever-increasing nervousness as the end of the term approached. Fretting 2.0, in contrast, is gradually relieved as the students become comfortable with their role, relish the flexibility and take the course in expected directions.

Consider this from Barbara’s post, a definition of designing a syllabus: the instructor should “weave [the students’] wants and desires together and craft a schedule of events that will give them the time, the space, the support they need to make their personal learning outcomes happen.” Beautifully put: it should be clear by now, I hope, why I have been carrying this post around for a year.

In other words, as the schedule is crafted (or co-crafted perhaps), the learning community is founded, the space is defined, and the journey begins, then Panic 2.0 subsides and the joy of the shared adventure takes over.

Now it is late January 2010 and I am in the same place again, still determined, in Barbara’s terms, to avoid “snorkeling through the content” and focus on “deep water scuba diving in the sharktank of learning.”

Thanks again, Barbara. We, about to panic, salute you.

Naked Teaching in the Inverted Classroom

Jose Antonio Bowen of SMU writes about teaching naked in the National Teaching & Learning Forum, Volume 16, Number 1 ( The full title of his article is Teaching naked: why removing technology from your classroom will improve student learning. The core of his position is captured in the phrase “the Inverted Classroom.” In the traditional model, students came to class without much preparation, encountered and initially digested the material there and subsequently displayed mastery through written papers or examinations. In the “inverted classroom” (the phrase is from Platt and Lage’s 2000 paper “The Internet and the Inverted Classroom,” at ) , the initial encounters and first steps to mastery occur outside and before class meetings; student engage in the classroom with each other and with the instructor to extend and deepen their learning. While project-based approaches or the studio model of arts education can also facilitate this inversion, it the various forms of technology which are currently most applicable, powerful, nimble and flexible.

In terms of students becoming versed in new material, Bowen makes the case for podcasts, talking powerpoints (or audiotours), “serious” games, peer instruction and review (using e mail, Facebook, and so on, as appropriate). Some of the talking powerpoints and games he has himself created can be experienced at These means the banishing of both direct instruction and class business, the latter taken care of through e mail, Facebook and the like; the former by students listening to podcasts, readings texts and so on, all integrated through a course management tool such as Blackboard (or Moodle).

For me, there is a very direct path from this position to much of what I have learned from Co-operative Learning – especially Jigsaw procedures. There is a vagueness in Bowen’s piece which makes me uneasy: the descriptions of the classroom are highly unspecific and have no apparent structure. This continued in the radio interviews he gave (exposure on NPR is not common for higher education practice, so attention was rightly given).

But faculty development programmes and teaching/learning centres on college campuses are there to help. The hard part, I think, is doing away with the old, burning the worn, shabby clothes of traditional pedagogy. While the emperor might be only lightly clad for the moment, he is at least aware of the need for new clothes.

And that’s the naked truth.

Mapping the Buzz

“Mapping the Buzz” is the title of an article in, of all things, the USC Trojan family Magazine, the autumn issue (page 18, should you want to read the whole thing). The author, Cristy Lytal, describes the work of two academics, Elizabeth Currid, of USC’s School of Policy, Planning and development, and Sarah Williams, director of Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. They have been examining Los Angeles and New York, respectively, from the novel geographic perspective of 300,000 photographs taken over a 12 month period (March 07 to March 08) by Getty Images, documenting arts and entertainment events. The analysis of these images has produced a quantitative account of where creative social scenes (art, fashion, popular music being among the significant loci) have formed. The most significant “cultural hot spots” in LA were Beverly Hills and the Hollywood segment of Sunset Boulevard; in New York, Lincoln and Rockefeller Centers and Broadway, between Time Square and SoHo.

These areas are labeled “disproportionate event enclaves” because of the tendency for the more significant events (screenings, fashion shows, concerts, theater premiers, gallery openings) to happen there and for “spillover nodes” (not specified, but I assume restaurants, bars, clubs, coffee shops and the like) to be found in the vicinity. The researchers plan to extend their investigations across time (other years) and space (other cities) in order to further explore patterns of “social agglomeration.”

All of which might sound a little obvious, a little pretentious, or maybe both. But it did set me thinking again about the possible ways to localise an ESL curriculum. In a possible lociculum (locabus?) model, it would be incumbent on a needs assessment to perform the equivalent of mapping the buzz, or, because it sounds grander and more technical, tracing the disproportionate event enclaves, along with their spillover nodes. More specifically, I suspect that the responsibility of the needs assessment might be confined to sketching the outlines (perhaps the contours, or isoglosses, or isotherms?) of these enclaves because it will be the task of the learning community to fill in the details through their work together.

This corresponds nicely, I think, to the light specification of the syllabus called for in progressivist or post-structural approaches.

How would this work proceed? The data will be less extensive than the Currid-Williams-Getty archive, but more varied: local newspaper accounts, TV clips, in-person observations, interviews with key local players, on-line sources and so forth. The data base might be anchored in a large and detailed map, with coloured pins and other devices. Google Earth would be a potent complementary online tool. Products might include guidebooks, posters, journals and the like.

Come to think of it, mapping the buzz might well create its own . . . well . . . buzz.