Melbourne-based French-Australian Chloe Brian, Head of Languages at the prestigious Methodist Ladies College (Melbourne) writes about how she overhauled her curriculum design based on the MARS’EARS pedagogical framework. This is a sequel to a blog post she published on The Language Gym last May.
The Conti effect on curriculum design
Following on from my previous article for the Language Gym on our department’s “journey into Contification” (22/05/2020), I was delighted to be asked to write the sequel account of our step by step approach and adoption of his work into our curriculum design. With this new post, I aim to go through our process, and share our findings at every stage. I hope that by providing you with those specifics details, you will find some inspiration to infuse your own teaching with MARS’ EARS; from experience, and as I have mentioned before, I can assure you this has been nothing short of a revolution.
Right after we began our work with Dr Conti back in 2018, we decided to examine our existing schemes of work in detail, our textbooks, and our sequences for learning, starting with Year 7. Having engineered a dual language carousel system for Year 7, and consequently, a reduction of time allocation per language, we saw the perfect opportunity to put our syllabus under the microscope and carefully examine our pedagogy. One key element that had resonated with us during our first workshop with Gianfranco was the prevalent lack of recycling opportunities for students. This had been highlighted to us all during a department meeting where we had gone through the exercise of writing on sugar paper our Schemes of Work for every year level from Year 7 onwards for every language: seeing before our eyes the amount of content and grammar we were asking our students to cover each year was not only enlightening, but confronting too. It became apparent that we rarely revisited any item of language, did not do enough consolidation from one unit to the next, and bombarded our students with long lists of vocabulary, mostly in discrete item formats, with no chunking or communicative purpose other than their connection to the topic taught.
This was our starting point. In our language teams, we decided to start with the communicative functions we wanted our Year 7 students to develop a mastery of, bearing in mind the ones which would form a strong foundation for Year 8 communicative functions’ development. As a side note, it was also important for us to have common communicative functions across our 3 languages: French, Chinese and Japanese. Those universals, as Gianfranco calls them, underpin everything our students do in class now. As a result of this sharper focus, we managed to weave in recycling opportunities in every lesson, and throughout entire units of work, giving students the chance to become highly proficient in those functions over time. This was our new mantra: less is more.
Going back to design, the second phase was the creation of Knowledge Organisers, or Sentence Builders, which supported the development of those communicative functions. We put them together for each unit, and they served as the framework for the only language to be practised in class, through a careful and highly curated sequence of tasks which follow the MARS’ EARS sequence. In our beginner classes for Year 7, we spend more time on those early stages in order to develop transferring skills across contexts and enable students to commit their language to long-term memory. The LAM phase is crucial in building students’ confidence, and very soon, we started to see the effect of our new teaching routines through student participation and engagement. With that momentum in place, students (even the most hesitant ones) could then tackle the thorough processing and structured production without any apprehension. This is where we started to see very early on the transformative impact of this way of teaching a second language. Among staff and student favourites are, in no particular order: chorus repetition, finish my sentence, read my mind, dictation and delayed dictation on mini whiteboards, one pen one die, narrow reading, narrow listening, sentence stealers, oral ping-pong, no snakes no ladders, and of course, sentence chaos. The fascinating thing is that as students became familiar with those tasks and thoroughly enjoyed the dynamic nature of class, they started mentioning how this was supporting their language acquisition. We had reached a stage where students were reflecting actively on their own thinking, processing and learning. We share our learning intentions and success criteria at the start of every class, and through their participation in those tasks, they started to connect the dots and comment on how they were developing as second language speakers. Finally, we were seeing all students consistently engaged and excited, because they were feeling successful with their own learning.
The next phase of our curriculum design was rethinking our use of technology so that it would support our pedagogy and significantly enhance learning. We needed it to serve our purpose, not the other way around. We selected a range of tools specifically aligned with each point in our teaching, in direct correlation with the various phases of MARS’ EARS. Incidentally, we also wanted to get better at collecting formative assessment data and ensure we could do that in an easy and manageable manner. The following are some of the tools we find most useful: Education Perfect, Immerse Me, Flipgrid, Kahoot, Quizlet, Anki, and Language Gym. Each of these serves a specific purpose and is aligned with what we teach, when we teach it. For instance, we tend to use Kahoot and Quizlet after the thorough processing phase in order to check for understanding, we also use Flipgrid in the structured production phase and check for spoken precision and sentence structure. Language Gym reinforces our scaffolding our activities at any stage of the learning sequence. As a side note, I do not, by any means, want to imply that these tools are the ones you should necessarily use with your students. This is very much about individual schools, teachers, and contexts, or in other words, what works for you and your students. By using each one with a highly specific purpose in mind, we reinforce each segment of our units of work, and we consolidate the whole process. I should add that this year, remote learning has pushed us further in every aspect of teaching, but particularly with technology. Those extreme circumstances demanded that, like we did with our curriculum, we considered using technology with a heightened sense of purpose, almost with a laser cut approach. There was no more room for the non-essential. If it did not directly contribute to high impact learning and student progress, we did away with it. This reinforced that some of the changes we had made were the right decision, and it clarified the absolute necessity for technology to be an instrument of highly successful learning at all times. Again, and more than ever, less is actually far more.
Finally, the last phase in the sequence takes place when we reach autonomy and expansion, after most of our time has been spent on building up the previous phases. This last section becomes more integral and prominent as students progress in their learning, and already within the course of Year 7, we can see a progressive shift in the time spent on the early stages of MARS’ EARS, when we can progress faster through to routinization. The scaffolding eases off, and the training wheels come off faster too. This is not only the case because they become more proficient, but also because they trust the process and their ability to learn, and therefore, they take on more risks without fear of failing. They become more creative, and love discovering that about themselves.
To sum it all up, I cannot recommend taking on this journey highly enough, and here are some of the considerations that we are keeping in mind at this time: we have seen a tremendous change in our students’ engagement and participation rates in class. We are regularly receiving very positive feedback from students and parents about what is happening in our classes, which is wonderfully affirming. We will keep a close eye on our Middle School and Senior School language numbers, which will be a strong indicator of how students have connected to their language learning journey. Our staff have worked incredibly hard in order to break free from the mould and carve a new path to learning a language. Our purpose was to empower our students and to give justice to their potential as future language speakers, which required a huge change embraced by all parties. I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such passionate and committed teachers, who have poured every effort into this curriculum overhaul, and I thank them all so much for the amazing work they have undertaken. This is teamwork at its best, and whilst there is no perfect way, this sure does feel like we have contributed to something much bigger than us in this journey of exploration and discovery. When one lets go of the need to be perfect, magic happens.