Following further feedback and amendments from many people, this paper was last updated on 5 May 2011. We also invite you to provide your feedback about this latest draft.
We wish to thank the many school principals, teachers, parents, students, educational researchers and personnel in the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development who commented on previous drafts of this discussion paper.
One of the great achievements in education in Australia is the accreditation of so many languages as Year 12 subjects.
Besides being important in its own right, languages learning is at the leading edge of the education revolution.
If mainstreamed over time, it has the potential to improve, if not transform, learning experiences and outcomes for all students.
Despite the imperative of mainstreaming languages education, Australian students spend less time learning a second language than their counterparts in other OECD countries.
Likewise, most students do not study a language through to Years 11 and 12. In Victoria's public schools, for example, although 92% of students study a language in Year 7, only 17% are still doing so in Year 10 and only 8% in both Years 11 and 12.
Toward quality languages learning for all
To work in a practical way toward realising the vision of quality languages education for all students and in all schools (at a time, however, when the decades-old impetus behind mainstreaming languages learning has lost its momentum), what is to be done?
There are four fundamental challenges:
- Strong strategic leadership and good governance
- Culturally inclusive teaching, learning and curricula
- Continuity in learning within and between schools
- The question of adequate resources and facilities.
Each of these big-picture, strategic challenges can be converted into manageable, 'bite-size' pieces.
Factors favouring a strategic approach
Factors in favour of a more strategic approach to languages education include globalisation, increased international mobility and the cross-cultural impact of ever-evolving communications technology, all of which compel governments and communities to make language education a core part of a world-class curriculum.
In this respect, the Victorian Government is developing a new languages education strategy. It has created a Ministerial Advisory Council for a Multilingual and Multicultural Victoria, chaired by the Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship, Nicholas Kotsiras.
As well, given that Victorians originate from over 230 nations, speak approximately 180 different languages and follow at least 116 different religions, there is obviously a broad grass-roots basis for the development of a new languages strategy.
1. Leadership and good governance
Bold educational and political leadership to support quality language programs is obviously needed.
Governments need to exercise this leadership through not only giving clear messages of support for language education but by articulating a comprehensive policy framework and an adequately resourced plan for mainstreaming language education.
Stakeholder organisations may also need to develop a new kind of coalition for cultural and linguistic diversity in education. Central to this are partnerships between schools and community groups and organisations, including community languages schools, to promote and enrich language learning in schools.
And stronger partnerships and coalitions at the local, regional and state-wide levels can enable people at the grass-roots level to better engage governments to develop and fund a framework for a 21st century languages strategy.
As well, there needs to be better support for the efforts of language educators and others (including school principals and school councils and boards) in developing a whole school (and, increasingly, a more strategic school cluster and regional network) commitment and approach to languages education.
How to build grass-roots momentum
In this regard, as vehicles for building broad partnerships between principals, teachers, parents, students and community groups and organisations, school governing bodies (school councils and boards and their sub-committees) can be pivotal.
School councils can develop strategic plans - as the basis for parents, teachers and students - and community and cultural groups - really working together! Plans may include shared school-family-community goals such as the goal that all students become bilingual. In preparing a strategic plan that is made up of truly shared goals, good practices in schools include:
- Assessing community needs and issues through a community survey that can involve all parents, teachers and students
- A series of facilitated forums to maximise teacher, parent and student participation in the planning process
- Making sure that school council sub-committees have adequate time to prepare their thoughts and input into the plan
- Developing broad agreement about the goals and strategies that are most likely to improve learning outcomes for all students.
School councils and boards - and, of tremendous importance for the future, clusters and networks of schools - may also develop their own Cultural and Social Inclusion Policy and Plan. Such a policy and plan is discussed on this website.
Such policies can provide a broader, holistic framework for languages education - which is required to realise the vision of quality languages education for all students and in all schools.
Their focus can be on local and global citizenship learning (as per the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians) and cultural inclusion and languages education.
Eventually, such partnerships, policies and plans may be a way to further build grass-roots momentum for languages education.
A bottom-up campaign may also mean building greater awareness of the benefits of language learning as well as how cultural rights are an integral part of human rights and the right to education.
Much more can be made of a rights-based approach to education such as a Charter of Education Rights which included the powerful idea of culturally and linguistically inclusive education.
2. inclusive EDUCATION and curricula
Capitalising on the interplay of its diverse linguistic and cultural environment and rich educational experiences, Australia has the potential to be a world leader in culturally inclusive pedagogy.
Language teachers covering scores of languages up to Year 12 level are at the forefront of a nation’s educational and cultural development. This is the case for two reasons:
- A culturally sophisticated, modern nation is a multi-lingual one with robust links to the rest of the world
- Among the greatest benefits of multiculturalism and multi-lingualism are advances in pedagogy.
A monolingual mindset along with a monocultural mindset obviously holds back the development of good pedagogy, which is, ultimately, an international cross-cultural synthesis.
Such a synthesis may well emerge in Australia due to its deep tradition of multiculturalism. In turn, language educators can be among the architects of this pedagogical renewal.
Broad agreement about pedagogy
Many schools have tremendous skills in developing staff and whole school community agreement about pedagogy (even if the word ‘pedagogy’ is not always used to describe this work).
Agreement around pedagogy emerges when staff and school community members jointly consider and develop things such as:
- Values, when staff and school community members develop shared values that are incorporated into all school policies and practices and guide teaching and learning in the classroom
- Educational theories and philosophy. For example, if success at school is considered by some to depend more on 'natural ability' than student effort and perseverance, schools profile theories of intelligence and learning that support the view that all students can become successful learners
- A shared vision and goals in a community such as the goal that all students become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens
- Links to evidence and research, i.e., ongoing progress in the interaction, understanding and collaboration between the three communities of research, practice and policy
- Policies such as a Cultural and Social Inclusion Policy and Plan that may provide guidelines in relation to how social class, culture and ethnicity impact on teaching and learning.
The power of talk
What Robin Alexander terms the 'pedagogy of the spoken word' and 'structured talk', which have a stronger background in many European than in Anglo countries and which underpin good practice in languages education, provide possibilities for:
- Increasing the relevance of languages education to all learning areas through the increased use of structured classroom talk in the curriculum and immersion (i.e., students studying one or two particular subjects through a second language)
- Significantly improving learning outcomes for all students
- Reducing the achievement gap based on social background.
As all good language teachers know and have long been pedagogical leaders of, Alexander notes that a student’s oral intervention (clearly audible, well-articulated and grammatically correct) together with intonation, changes of speed and facial expression are as important as the substance of learning.
When this structured talk is working well and consistently in a classroom, students routinely talk to the class as a whole, read aloud, come out to the whiteboard, write on it and explain in detail and in depth what they are doing. Alexander thus suggests:
We need to “rethink and adjust the balance of writing and talk in the language curriculum; redress the balance of written and oral tasks and activities; and shift from random, brief interactions to sustained and longer ones” (2001).
A key challenge, therefore, is to better exploit the power of talk (as can be used well in language education) to improve learning outcomes for all students in all learning areas and to reinforce the strong correlation between oracy, literacy and numeracy.
Such talk is not simply a matter of acquiring ‘communication skills’, as a subset of interpersonal or social skills, but rather embraces both deep knowledge and generic skills (skills that apply across a variety of jobs and life contexts).
Recognising the relevance of languages education to all learning areas and to all efforts to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes can help to move languages learning beyond its ‘add-on’ status in many educational settings.
There is also the untapped potential of talk in computer-mediated communication: what some call a new form of oracy, one that is not speech and not writing but a hybrid fusion. Consider students’ text messages, wikis and e-mails; they can be closer to spoken language in real time than to standard written communication.
A catalyst for educational renewal
There needs to be more discussion and quality research about how languages learning can drive educational renewal across all learning areas, schools and even education systems.
Indeed, languages learning is, arguably, one of the most powerful catalysts for the education revolution.
Culturally inclusive pedagogy also extends to the recognition that all languages are equally valid. It is thus important to counter wedge linguistics such as posing Asian against European languages.
A modern, democratic, culturally and socially inclusive nation obviously values - and makes productive use of - all of its diversity.
Culturally - and socially - inclusive curricula
One other pedagogical issue will, no doubt, come to the fore.
An inclusive curriculum and new, more unified student learning pathways challenge the old separation of students into academic and vocational, practical and technical tracks.
But the study of language is still perceived by many students (and some teachers) as something solely for the academically ‘able’.
This partly accounts for the paradox of many students of culturally and linguistically diverse background in socially and economically ‘disadvantaged’ areas not studying a language in the later years.
A culturally - and socially - inclusive language curriculum over time seamlessly combines deep academic knowledge and concepts with technical skills and applied learning. This is not just a matter of, for example, incorporating languages into vocational training programs.
Rather, the curriculum is opened up to a wider range of students who may be streamed into narrowly academic and vocational and technical learning pathways, with deleterious consequences for the numbers of students choosing to study a language.
The very best language learning has always had both academic and practical, technical and applied components, including the use of a language in real contexts (e.g., community groups and organisations have often assisted in supporting real-world language experiences and interactions).
Moreover, across education, students increasingly favour their own personal blend of both deep academic knowledge and applied learning - challenging the old vocational, occupational and academic study pathways. Students also create their own pathways into and out of education and work. Some may begin with university and then attend a TAFE college, and vice versa.
Many teachers, reflecting on their own backgrounds as academic subject specialists disconnected from more applied learning, have led the way in developing an optimum mix of academic and applied learning and of deep knowledge and practical skills.
This mix is readily embraced by many young people and is at the core of a 21st century curriculum. And language educators may well emerge as key leaders of this curriculum shift.
Besides changes in content and pedagogy, this may also necessitate a campaign to better promote the combined academic and practical and vocational value of languages education.
3. Continuity in languages learning
The disconnect between universities, schools and school levels and systems obviously works against larger numbers of students undertaking certain languages by the time they reach Year 12.
Likewise, students are often not able to continue the language they previously studied at primary school in their secondary school.
These problems need to be addressed as a strategic priority. But there are no easy solutions with these challenges (given, in part, the paucity of resources and shortage of language teachers).
Nonetheless, there are many allies (in schools and education departments and among stakeholder organisations including community languages schools) who share the passion for a more coherent P-12 education.
Steps toward a unified P-12 approach
Research and practice in Victoria support the idea of a unified P-12 approach to curricula, with teams of teachers (including, over time, more language teachers) planning and integrating the curriculum from a P-12 perspective.
Indeed, the very future of languages education and education broadly pivots on the gradual development of a coherent P-12 approach!
A P-12 approach takes shape when primary and secondary schools work in clusters and networks toward a shared pedagogy and seamless curriculum. As Bill Stringer puts it:
“Two cultures dominate schooling: a primary culture and a secondary culture. Both have sound ideas about the ways for thinking about curriculum and learning in their schools but, when placed together, they make nonsense of the learning continuum with which each of their students is involved.”
While this is not true with many schools (that have long worked to blend primary and secondary school cultures and teaching methods), a continuum of learning and development (including from kindergarten through to university and college) is the next big thing. (For more information, see the P-12 education partnerships section on the website. This section distils the lessons from fifty schools).
A key indicator of P-12 curriculum planning is how well each year level builds on the learning of the previous level without major gaps in learning and without duplication.
The use of ‘throughlines’ is an approach that can support the development of a curriculum across the P-12 spectrum. Gardner and others at Project Zero emphasise the importance of throughlines as a strategy to ensure that essential ideas, learnings and conceptual understandings are developed consistently.
High quality P-12 professional development programs will need to be created and implemented (and adequately resourced) to nurture a common P-12 languages education pedagogy and curriculum.
As well, the better use of technology and distance learning can be a way to not only overcome the major problem of small numbers of students enrolled in certain languages but can also be a means for primary and secondary schools to collaboratively ‘pool’ students across the primary-secondary divide.
With the requisite resources, much more use can be made of video-conferencing technologies and online content. Through the optimum use of technology, schools that are unable to employ qualified teachers will be able to provide language education.
All of these things are easier said than done, of course, but many structures to encourage shared curriculum planning between primary and secondary schools do already exist.
Steps toward a whole-of-community model
With adequate resources and support, the regional networks provide powerful opportunities to coordinate languages education better across schools and other providers.
It would be useful to map this – to look at what is already in place and what else can be done to build a coherent P-12 approach to languages education and increase the effectiveness of the primary to secondary transition in clusters and networks of schools.
Such mapping could assess what is 'do-able' in the shorter-term as well as what may be worked toward more strategically. This would inform school clusters and networks as to which languages may be best organised collaboratively across a number of schools.
Managing smaller clusters and the larger networks will become paramount. Clusters and networks can complement each other.
Clusters can be readily managed (with several primary schools and one or two secondary schools creating a language education alliance) and community-based. Being smaller than networks, clusters can help to maintain a diverse range of languages.
Networks could create uniformity of language education. Positively, however, they can enable economies of scale across twenty or more schools, support the sharing of language teachers and build partnerships with agencies such as local government.
Indeed, with practical steps toward a whole-of-government and whole-of-community approach to cultural diversity and language education, over time local government and other agencies could play a pivotal role within the regional networks.
This will be important - as schools and education systems alone cannot be expected to tackle all of the challenges of language education. With schools, regions and other agencies sharing a leadership role, there will be enhanced opportunities to:
- Create broad policy frameworks with the practical intent of linking linguistic and cultural resources in local communities
- Build local coordination and management structures to maximise the effectiveness of educational resource use including the shared use of online and multimedia materials
- Develop stronger partnerships between schools, universities, colleges, community and cultural groups, business and industry and sporting clubs as well as overseas governments.
4. Adequate resources and facilities
In large part, this is obviously a matter of a smart, evidence-based policy framework and fully funded plans for languages education and increasing the number of language educators.
Adequate time for languages education in schools is obviously important. Students spending one or two hours per week learning a language can be insufficient and superficial.
It is also a matter of new school building designs and infrastructure (including specialist language areas, hardware and high speed broadband) supporting language learning.
Unfortunately, in some new school building designs, language learning and the culturally and socially inclusive pedagogy of the spoken word are not necessarily key considerations.
This can also reflect an old, culturally exclusive, Anglo bias in school building design.
Language teachers have found that some ‘new’ facilities privilege private learning in front of a PC rather than enabling collaborative, ‘noisy’ learning that revolves around intense, structured talk that engages all students and scaffolds their learning.
VICCSO looks forward to an on-going dialogue about the big picture challenge of building and mainstreaming languages learning - both for its own sake and as a key catalyst for educational renewal.