Tasks, Materials, and Classroom Contexts

Christopher N. Candlin & Ken Keobke


Take a moment to imagine the ideal classroom context. Teachers would have freedom to make choices among a wide range of teaching and learning materials. The learning materials they use would be closely geared to the interests, ages and cultural expectations of their learners. Teaching materials would reflect what we know about the nature of language. The tasks included would be directed at enhancing how learners learn, how they could improve their language performance, and how they could experience, interactively, what each learner could contribute to a common learning purpose.
Classroom life is not like that. Instead, the norm is that teachers are presented with a limited range of materials and tasks, which may have no theoretical basis or may embody contradictory theories of learning and teaching. The room for exploring options for delivering instruction is often limited and frustrating. In the face of such challenges, we ask ourselves,"What is to be done?"
First, we can try to work out the cognitive principles underpinning the tasks and evaluate their effectiveness. Second, we can examine how representative the content and activities of the materials and tasks are to the contexts of teaching and learning in our desirable classroom. Third, we can ask questions about the quality of language exposure the materials provide. Finally, we can question the overall framework of the materials and the extent to which they support (as is often the case) less well-equipped and less experienced teachers to do a good job in difficult circumstances.
The issues facing such teachers working with such materials in such classrooms have often been considered. In many studies, problems have been identified that usually include questions of available time, appropriateness and relevance, teachability of content and tasks, and attuning to learners' levels of competence, both linguistic and cognitive. But the central concerns of our sessions revolve around how to address these issues in a practical way that can benefit teachers and learners. We need to consider how to develop strategies, systems, and structures that can be used to evaluate learning materials and their classroom contexts to allow teachers to reflect intelligently on what they should use, adapt, and discard. We need to develop materials that seek to address at least some of those issues, including increasing student autonomy to make them responsible for their own learning beyond the walls of the classroom.
In approaching these issues, our concerns range from the theoretically-based analysis of language, learning, and classroom context to the development of effective learning materials, both simple (to ensure usability) and complex (to offer insight into the richness of language). Our sessions at JALT99 will focus on evaluation and design of materials as well as appraisal and delivery. Above all, these sessions will address how we might match what we do and the materials and resources we use to the twin demands posed by theory and the contexts of teaching and learning English in a real world.
To achieve these goals, we plan to draw on our complementary experience of linguistics, social psychology, and foreign language teaching pedagogy, to look closely at how theories and research into task-based learning have developed, how they can be adapted into classroom practice, and how we can work out a set of viable guidelines for both task design and materials development. These guidelines need to take into account what we know about language, learning, and how learners navigate the discourses and activities of the classroom and classroom materials. Above all, we are interested in how apparently small changes in the way we teach and how we organize learning can have quite dramatic effects in enhancing learners' opportunities to learn.
Planning is one thing, evaluating is another. Therefore we are also interested in taking our ideas about teacher action research in classrooms further so that we may reflect on the teachability of materials and tasks that enhance teachers' own teaching capacities as well as enhance learners' learning.