|An Analysis of the English Curriculum
by Nellie Deutsch
Curriculum leaders should consider the role of technology, academic studies, cognitive processes, societal needs, student self-actualization, and subject content for future generations (Klein, 2001). Likewise, the State of Israel Ministry of Education (2001) and the English Inspectorate developed a new national English curriculum to set standards for English as a foreign language (EFL). The new curriculum addressed Posner's (2004) constructivist perspective on curriculum and learning, information processing; aligned with brain-based learning theories, and the needs of Israeli learners (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001). English teachers to speakers of Hebrew and other languages will find the new curriculum inducive to learning because the principles and standards set by the artifact support different learning styles, multiple intelligences, inquiry and problem-based learning, and technology. The new English curriculum is a well planned EFL artifact that enhances student performance and embraces different learning styles (Rabbe & Shuster-Bouskila, 2001) by supporting brained-based learning.
A curriculum should focus on "learners, the subject matter, and society" (Gunter, Estes & Schwab, 2003, p. 14). The planning committee should: (a) set goals and rational for instruction, (b) define the objectives, (c) decide on means of assessment, (d) construct a breakdown of units of study for the course, and (e) create lesson plans using various instructional models and activities (Gunter et al., 2003). Curriculum developers require information on (a) the needs of the students, (b) the societal purpose [of the learning institution], and (c) the subject matter" (Gunter, Estes & Schwab, 2003, p. 3). Similarly, student needs assessments could provide background knowledge for teachers prior to planning new learning activities. In addition, teachers may need assistance on how to implement the curriculum so that the content and goals of the lessons align with the standards set by the curriculum. Finally, evaluating the effectiveness of a curriculum program requires authentic assessment of student performance-based tasks (Wiggins, 1997) as demonstrated in the new English curriculum (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001).
English as a Foreign Language Curriculum
The Israeli Ministry of Education and the English Inspectorate developed a new national English curriculum to set the standards for "constructing course books, syllabuses, teaching materials and lesson plans (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 5). The artifact for English as a foreign language (EFL) based the ideas on a previous curriculum designed to incorporate cognitive and constructivist approaches to learning while catering to the needs of the Israeli learner, society, the universities, and teachers, and setting the standards for writing course books, course syllabi, lesson plans, and teaching material (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001). The terminology may have changed (Orland-Barak, Kemp, Ben-Or & Levi, 2004), but the goals remained the same; to "create an effective and efficient language learning environment that fosters pupil development and achievement" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 7). The underlying principles of the program view language learning as a process that engages students in meaningful communication (Bernat & Gvozdenko, 2005; Cohen, 2003; Richards, 2006; State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001) while empowering "teachers as curriculum developers" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p.9).
The instructional committee divided the program into three sections: (a) language learning; language teaching; the choice of materials, topics, and tasks; and assessment in the classroom, (b) definition of the standards for each domain; an area of language ability and knowledge, description of each level of progression, specification for benchmarks and criteria, (c) learner diversity and recommendations on how to implement the program. The curriculum subdivides language learning and instruction into four domains or language abilities: social interaction; access to information; and appreciation of literature and culture, which align with a constructivist approach to learning and instruction.
In the domain of accessing information, learners may access information from spoken (lectures or radio), written (book or article), or combined (television or computers) means of communication. The domain of presentation enhances the student's ability to present ideas multiple ways via speech, writing an essay, letter, or report, film, audio recording, or photographs. Learners are provided with audio and visual means of expressing knowledge. The domain of appreciation consists of two areas: language and literature, and culture. The domain of literature and culture addresses students' understanding of other cultures and encourages learners to share other countries' literature and culture by means of course book material and the Internet (The State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2007). Furthermore, in the domain of language, learners become aware of the "nature of language, how languages are structured... the differences between languages... and ... the nature of their mother tongue" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 9).
Learning Theories and the New English Curriculum
The Ministry of Education's English curriculum focuses on social interaction, appreciation of literature and other cultures, and recognition of language learning as "a communicative skill reflecting cognitive processes" (Schunk, 2004, p. 393). The curriculum program provides a detailed list of principles underlying language learning and teaching, the choice of material and content, and classroom assessment that incorporate constructivist, motivational, and brain-based learning theories. The principles of the artifact support holding discussions (Vygotsky as cited in Schunk, 2004) on different subjects and "developing sensitivity to people of various cultural backgrounds" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 8). Social discussions and group dynamics are methods of learning characterized by constructivist and social cognitive theorists (Gredler, 2005; Schunk, 2004).
The new English curriculum was influenced by "research in the fields of foreign language learning, education, assessment, cognitive psychology and curriculum development" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 7). The principles underlying: (a) language learning and teaching, (b) choice of materials, content, and tasks, (c) classroom assessment; formative and summative, (d) alternatives in assessment, and assessment requirements and criteria, and (e) the role of the pupils (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001) align with a constructivist approach to curriculum development and learning (Posner, 2004). In addition, the "principles underlying language teaching" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 11) also follow brain-based learning theories that cater to learners' needs; preference for learning styles and multiple intelligences. The new English curriculum artifact provides teachers and learners with a constructivist approach to assessment "as an integral part of the teaching-learning process" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 14) with guidelines and on expectations for formative and summative assessments, and criteria for alternative assessments "that would reflect performance in the targeted language competencies described in the curriculum" (Inbar & Vermel, 2005, 2).
Constructivism and the Curriculum
Curriculum leaders may wonder which learning theory to incorporate into a school curriculum. According to Bruner (as cited in Schunk, 2004), learning theories are never "right or wrong; rather, they can be evaluated only in the light of conditions such as the nature of the task to be learned, the type of learning to be accomplished, and the characteristics learners bring to the situation" (p. 390). Constructivism focuses on the learner rather than on the teacher (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). Additionally, constructivist theory of learning encourages social interactions with peers as an effective method of acquiring skills and sharing knowledge. Constructivism supports teamwork with collaborative and cooperative activities (Ghaith, 2003). Vygotsky (as cited in Schunk, 2004) believed that discussions and project-based learning (Staff, 2001) would enhance student-learning performance.
A constructivist learning approach views students as active learners who construct knowledge (Baker, Jensen, and Kolbe, 2005; Mcloughlin, 1999). Teachers who follow a constructivist perspective believe that authentic problem-based situations will engage learners in the learning process and help them acquire independent thinking (Schunk, 2004, State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001). Learners are engaged through the learning process in mindful processing of information (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001) where they are responsible for the result (Sinapova, 2004). According to constructivism, and Piaget's developmental psychology (Iran-Nejad, 1995) and brain-based principles, learning should take place in a natural environment that is safe and conducive to learning (Caine & Caine, 1994; State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001; Winters, 2004). Developing natural learning environments can facilitate reading and writing skills in learning English as a foreign language (Bernat & Gvozdenko, 2005; State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001).
Brain-Based Learning and the Curriculum
Brain-based research and learning aligns with the constructivist approach to learning (Gulpinar, 2005). Cognitive neuroscience or brain research has provided a better understanding of: (a) Piaget's developmental principals, (b) information processing, (c) the role of lifelong learning, and (d) maintaining the brain's longevity (Khalsa & Stauth, 1997; Gredler, 2005; Hyatt, 2007). Brain-based learning has become of interest in increasing student performance (Gredler, 2005). According to Caine and Caine (1994), the following information about the brain can enhance student learning performance: (a) the brain is a complex adaptive system, (b) brain is a social organ, (c) the search for meaning is innate, (d) patterning aids in searching for meaning (Eckstein, Marquardt, & Volter, 2001), (e) emotions are important in developing patterning, (f) the brain automatically perceives, creates, and organizes information into parts and wholes, (g) learning involves focused and unfocused attention, (h) learning is a conscious and unconscious process, (i) the brain has various ways of organizing memory, (j) learning is a developmental task, (k) learning is enhanced by challenge and reduced by threat, and (l) each individual brain is unique in how memories and information are stored.
An instructional program may incorporate brain-based research by making the learning environment a safe place for student learning (Gulpinar, 2005; Sloan, Rodger & Nicholls, 2006; Wilson, 2005). Brain research has shown that learning takes place in the neocortex, which does not function well when learners are under stress or fear (Goswami, 2006; Wilson, 1993). Brain research findings indicate that learners have one hemisphere that is more prevalent than the other. Therefore, activities should be provided to cater to both hemispheres of the brain (Goswami, 2006). Moreover, instructors should be aware that students' thought processes vary and consequently, consider multiple ways of presenting the material or instructions. Finally, since students come from diverse backgrounds with different life experiences (Baker, Jensen, & Kolbe, 2005) and prior knowledge, teachers should apply reflective (Kolb, Boyatzis, Mainemelis, 1999) as well as abstract and concrete examples to cater to the needs of all students (Wilson, 1993).
Information processing theories may be valuable when developing a curriculum in order to provide teachers and learners with appropriate instructional material and resources to enhance learning (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001). Information processing may be compared to the way a computer processes information; input, storage, and output. The theories "focus on attention, perception, encoding, storage, and retrieval of knowledge" (Schunk, 2004, p. 188). New information is gathered, stored in the memory and activated when a solution is required by receiving mental pictures of the problem and then processing how to get from the beginning (general) to the solution (specific) (Schunk, 2004). The mind is in a state of void ready to go from one stage to the next when the need arises (Sinapova, 2004). This process is called "means-ends analysis" (Ormerod, MacGregor, & Chronicle, 2002, p. 788). Learners possess specific strengths and preferences in how they process information (Felder, 1996; Felder & Spurlin, 2005). Instructors should balance and structure their lessons to align with the diverse learning styles (McLoughlin, 1999; Felder & Brent, 2005). It may be wise to conduct a learning style inventory of the teacher and students in the class for a better view of the predominant styles (Felder & Silverman, 1988; Felder & Soloman, 2001; Felder & Spurlin, 2005).
Learning styles and Multiple Intelligences
Catering to students' needs include learning styles and developmental approaches to learning (Even, 2004; Rabbe & Shuster-Bouskila, 2001). Learners can apply deep or surface learning attitudes to learning depending on the learner's involvement in the activity (Aharony, 2006; Even, 2004; Kanuka, 2005; Lipscomb, 2002). A learner's perception, interaction, and response to the learning environment determine the learner's ability to focus, process, and store information (Savery & Duffy, 1995; Schunk, 2004). The information the learner receives must align with the learner's learning style and multiple intelligences for optimal learning performance (Savery & Duffy, 1995).
Students learn at different paces and in different ways depending on their preferred learning styles and special skills (McLouglin, 1999; Winters, 2004). Learning styles (LS) and Multiple Intelligences (MI) deal with diversity among individual learners. Therefore, instructors should consider students' special needs when planning a lesson (Rabbe & Shuster-Bouskila, 2001) to ensure student success (Kolb as cited in Ross and Lukow, 2004). Curry (as cited in Giles, Pitre, & Womack, 2003) divided learning theories into "personality learning theories, information processing theories, social learning theories, and multidimensional and instructional theories" (, 1). Learning styles are ways a student processes or "acquires, retains, and retrieves information" (Felder, 1995, p. 21) while multidimensional and instructional theories such as Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences (1983) addressed the student's environmental preference for auditory, visual, kinesthetic, tactile or a combination of one or two.
Teacher and student learning styles may align for effective learning performance (Felder, 1995; Felder & Brent, 2005; Rabbe & Shuster-Bouskila, 2001). Teachers should accommodate students' learning styles, specialized skills, and talents (Giles et al., 2003; McLoughlin, 1999) in order to avoid frustrations from "low test grades, unresponsive or hostile classes, poor attendance, and dropouts" (Felder, 1995, p. 21). One way is to divide the information in small chunks using audio or visual means as demonstrated by Rabbe and Shuster-Bouskila (2001) for the new English curriculum. The material should be organized and presented in meaningful, supportive, and non-threatening ways (Joels, Pu, Wiegert, Oitzl, & Krugers, 2006; State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001) so that students can relate to the information for long term retention (Blakemore & Frith, 2005).
Evaluation of the Curriculum
The State of Israel curriculum program for English as a foreign language (2001) has successfully encompassed the needs of the EFL learner by setting principles and standards that suggest the learning process is more important than the content (Savry & Duffy, 1995; State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001). The learner gains ownership of the learning by engaging in relevant and meaningful activities (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001) that accommodate alternative assessment that "turns day-to-day assessment into a teaching and learning process that enhances (instead of merely monitoring) student learning" (Stiggins, 2007, p. 23). Consequently, learning evolves as a result of social negotiation through the learner's individual construct of the information by means of inquiry or problem-based learning using authentic and relevant situations (Savy & Duffy, 1995; Schunk, 2004; State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001).
Recommendations for the New English Curriculum
The principles underlying the new English curriculum follow a constructivist, brain-based approach to learning and instruction while catering to the needs of diverse learners. The principles underlying the choice of tasks (a) relate to learners' prior experiences, (b) encourage problem-based inquiry and higher order critical thinking skills, such as analyzing, comparing, generalizing, predicting and hypothesizing, (c) provide meaningful real-world authentic content for student reflection, self-evaluation and peer assessment, and (d) focus on the process as on-going (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 13). Inquiry and problem-based learning supports teachers in accommodating all learners (Savery & Duffy, 1995). Inquiry-based learning theory presupposes that every child wants to learn and that asking questions is a natural means of getting information as stated by Piaget and constructivist theory of learning and instruction (Dede, 2000; Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2004). However, students need to develop skills so that they can cope with future situations and become lifelong learners (Dilts & Epstein, 1995; Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2004). The inquiry-based approach to learning uses authentic situations by challenging students to view and solve real life problems as suggested by the new curriculum (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001). Learning to use computer applications such as word processors, databases, spreadsheets, presentations, and webpage software helps students deal with information to solve problems. Trying to solve or resolve problems motivates learners and involves them in the learning process. Students learn to use higher order thinking and social skills necessary in today's fast moving world.
The aim of inquiry-based learning is to emphasize learning as a lifelong process (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2004; Kolb & Stuart, 2005), which transforms the teacher from a provider of information to a facilitator, or coach (Kolb & Stuart, 2005; Woods, 1996). This facilitator, or coach, then guides students on a lifelong quest to learn about learning. Inquiry and problem-based learning are very similar to project-based learning (PBL) in that they also raise questions that require answers. Project based learning connects learning to the task (Dilts & Epstein, 1995; Thomas, 2000). The new English curriculum views learners as active participants in the process of learning who construct meaning from a variety of "resources (traditional, electronic or digital) used for language learning and teaching purposes including coursebooks, newspapers, recordings and videos" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 12). The curriculum planners recommend implementing technology and the Internet in instruction, learning, student presentation and for alternative assessment to facilitate learning and offer students opportunities to practice inquiry, problem, and performance project-based learning tasks (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, 2007).
Implications of Using the Internet
The Internet is bringing learning to more homes (Kolb & Stuart, 2005). Information about every conceivable topic is now readily available to the public. Information is no longer the monopoly of schools, teachers, libraries, or books. Because of integrated workforce technology and technology-rich environments at home, the educational focus on the Internet has turned from teacher teaching to student learning (Kolb & Stuart, 2005). The new English curriculum (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001) recommends using computers and the Internet for instruction and learning. WebQuests are good examples on how to integrate technology by requiring learners to search for information by accessing the Internet (Dodge, 1997). Using the Internet as a learning tool is an unconventional way of learning since the Internet challenges conventional textbooks and teachers as the sole providers of information. WebQuests are similar to online distance learning environments where students can work independently. Students do not require assistance from the school or the teacher during a WebQuest task.
Instructional Inquiry-Based Program and the Internet
One example of inquiry, problem, and performance project-based learning task that follows a constructivist approach to instruction and learning and accommodates alternative assessment as suggested in the new curriculum (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001) is the WebQuest (Deutsch, 2006a, 2006b; Dodge, 1997; Lamb & Johnson, 2004; MacGregor and Lou, 2005), which uses the Internet in an organized manner. Dodge (1997), defines a WebQuest as "inquiry-oriented, based on a doable, engaging task [that] uses pre-defined resources from the Web" ( 2). WebQuests consist of an introduction, a process, a task, list of resources, a conclusion, an evaluation, and additional information such as student roles, teacher notes with state, district, or local educational standards, lessons plans, student reflections, and student presentations (Deutsch, 2006a, 2006b; Teclehaimanot & Lamb, 2004). Teachers may benefit from using WebQuests in the EFL classroom (Sidman-Taveau & Milner-Bolotin, 2001) since WebQuests: (a) act as a project-based collaborative activity in which students create a product, (b) teach students how to be independent thinkers since most of the problems encountered in a WebQuest are real-world problems, (c) teach critical and higher order thinking skills, (d) increase competency in the use of technology, and (e) provide motivational techniques to keep students on task (Buzzetoo-More & Alade, 2006; Leahy & Twomey, 2005; Yoder, 2005).
Benefits of the WebQuest
The WebQuest engages students in an inquiry, problem-based learning activity that integrates teamwork, higher order thinking, and access to information on the Internet (Dodge, 1997). The WebQuest provides learners with a variety of learning styles and a deeper understanding of concepts through the use of "case studies..., role-playing and access to online links (Kanuka, 2005, p. 17). Teachers may use WebQuests in the classroom: (a) as a collaborative activity in which students create a product, (b) to teach students how to be independent thinkers since most of the problems encountered in a WebQuest are real-world problems, (c) to teach critical and higher order thinking skills, (d) to increase competency in the use of technology, and (e) as a motivational techniques to keep students on task (Buzzetoo-More & Alade, 2006; Leahy & Twomey, 2005; Yoder, 2005).
Students learn by classification, inducing, deducing, abstraction, and comparing (March, 2003, 2006). As a whole, WebQuests promote time and task management skills while scaffolding the learning process (March, 2003, 2006). WebQuest projects integrate critical thinking, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, technology, schema theory, scaffolding, and novice/expert models of teaching (Dodge, 1997). WebQuests can include problem or inquiry-based learning activities that provide teachers with the opportunity to use the Internet and integrate technology into the course curriculum by allowing students to experience learning as they construct knowledge. WebQuests can be identified as quests for knowledge since students are actively engaged in acquiring knowledge by exploring and processing information. Most WebQuests require students to perform multiple tasks, beyond presenting findings to the class or writing a report. The performance tasks include the creation of multimedia projects, videoconferencing, using email, databases, spreadsheets, and other technological programs.
Theory and practice provide useful information in designing a curriculum. Curriculum leaders should consider; learning theories, learning styles and learners' unique ways of processing information, brain research and inquiry-based learning, blended means of delivery and presentation, and alternative assessments when setting standards and lesson plans for teachers. Curriculum and instruction complement one another. The State of Israel Ministry of Education (2001) set guidelines for teachers on instruction and assessment. The principles offer choices in content, material, and alternative assessment. The national curriculum encourages teachers to use positive reinforcement, show equity and tolerance for diversity, provide student choices, and instruct teachers on effective "principles of language teaching" (State of Israel Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 11). Everyone can learn; the role of the teacher is to facilitate the process. Teachers should provide learners with a positive climate for learning by incorporating the major learning theories, as the situation requires. The standards and principles of the new English curriculum for Israeli learners successfully align curriculum theories with student needs.
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