Lessons in demotivation – forty years of uninspiring modern foreign languages curriculum design


Please note: This post was co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden Internationa School

Last week I had one of those weird out-of-the-body experiences whereby you watch and listen to yourself teach. To my dismay, during my quiz-starter I was uttering to my very keen year 7 French students – armed with MWBs- the sentence: “j’aime les lapins car ils sont mignons, poilus et joueurs” (= I like rabbits because they are cute, furry and playful”). My heart sank. Mon Dieu ! What was I teaching them?

Truth is, I was following the Expo-One- based schemes of work – Unit 3 animals, etc. And, fortunately, our students are intrinsically motivated third-culture kids who love learning languages! Still, why would 21st century teen-agers want to spend six weeks of their French learning talking about pets? How relevant is that to their daily life, personal interests, academic goals? Do not get me wrong, I am an animal lover and I do believe that the topic lends itself to the teaching of some useful linguistic content; however, emotional response to and relevance of the to-be-learnt information to one’s personal interests and goals being important components of motivation in any learning, I wondered: what’s in it for them? Why should they be interested in this?

The same applies to many other topics included in current MFL course-books based on the England and Wales curriculum. Take for example the topic ‘house-chores’ notoriously one of the things teenagers hate the most about their daily life – how inspiring is such a topic going to be for year 8 students of French, Spanish or German? Even the topic ‘Jobs and future career’. Yes, I see the value of reflecting on their future life in year 9 as this is the time in which they usually choose their GCSE options and a lot of career orientation goes on. But really? Does anyone in their right mind think that teen-agers would enjoy talking about future careers – in French! – at the age of 13?

The list of uninspiring topics and sub-topics that books and teachers teach in foreign language lessons is endless and is partly influenced by the GCSE examinations topics. However, in my opinions, the main culprits are textbook writers and, to a less degree, teachers who are often not in touch with teen-agers’ lifestyle, interests and aspirations. Yet teachers often complain about students not being engaged and motivated. Would you be, if you were in their shoes? Having to talk in your early teens about pets, house-chores, pencil case objects, part-time jobs or future careers, a fictitious boy or girl’s trip to Normandy (to see the Bayeux tapestry of all things!) and other topics which are kind of useful but do receive, in my view, too much emphasis when one considers the relevance and the surrender value that they hold for pubescent language learners.

Teachers and curriculum designer, especially when they are not blessed with intrinsically motivated children, should ask themselves the following questions, when creating schemes of work: what topics and/or sub-topics are my students REALLY interested in? What words do they really need to learn and which ones would they enjoy learning? How may meeting their needs and preferences impact their preparation for GCSE or whatever examinations they will sit later on?

Of course, no curriculum should be entirely based on students’ preferences; adults do have the ethical responsibility to ensure that the teaching imparts knowledge, values and skills that student may not necessarily see as relevant or interesting. However, I wonder to what extent, as adults, curriculum designers and teachers are truly aware of what their teen-age students actually do outside school, what they watch on television or on Youtube; what books they read; what music they listen to; what they share on their favourite social media; what their main concerns and anxieties are; what they truly enjoy about life. And if they are mindful of this in their short-, medium- and long-term planning.

After all, although the new 21st centuries technologies and societal changes have exacerbated the already big generational gap that has always existed between parents and their children, the textbooks topics and vocabulary content has not massively changed. Take the Tricolore series – apart from some cosmetic changes, it is basically the same book I used to teach from 25 years ago…

For some teachers the answer would be to adopt a PBL approach. I do not agree, however, as I have strong reservations about it that I have already expressed in previous posts. The main ones: (1) students do not get enough aural and oral practice; (2) they spend too much time producing artefacts; (3) the focus is often on developing the final product rather than on language skills.

As far as I am concerned, in an ideal world the solution would be for curriculum designers, textbook creators and teachers to find out what students are really interested in; what they see as relevant to their personal needs, goals and aspirations; what they enjoy talking about; and use this information to create more motivating and inspiring linguistic content and learning activities.