A big thank you goes out to Shelly Terrell for putting me on to this outstanding TED talk from Sir Ken Robinson, where he calls for a revolution in learning, and - in particular - the need for us to disenthrall ourselves from our current industrialised, manufactured and linear models of education and embrace instead a more "agricultural" model that sees learning as organic. Sir Ken introduces this as our "second major climate crisis" and I hope you will take 15 minutes or so to watch his excellent speech before reading further into my post.
While Sir Ken is of course referring to education in general in his speech, language education is definitely a stream within this broader field, and could arguably be accused of being one of the most susceptible to models that are based on linearity.
And at the heart of a lot of language learning, embracing a manufacturing-style linearity, the coursebook often resides. In a sort of presidential palace.
Lindsay Clandfield, a prominent ELT coursebook writer, recently hosted an excellent discussion about coursebooks over on Scott Thornbury's An A-Z of ELT. I can't help wondering if some of the commentators there in that discussion might see things ever so slightly differently if they take the time to really listen to Sir Ken's speech.
Some people argued passionately (but perhaps in some cases rather unhelpfully) that coursebooks needed to go the way of the dodo altogether, while others (also, in my opinion, somewhat unhelpfully) took a very defensive tone about coursebooks.
One of the things I called for most stridently in that discussion is the need to put blank pages or sections in language coursebooks. It is only one of many ideas about ways to improve future coursebook design, but for me this is based on several factors that I believe are inherent to language learning coursebooks as they currently stand.
Coursebooks are very popular in ELT contexts, because - to put things rather bluntly - many teachers don't know a lot about teaching yet, or haven't quite (yet) mastered the language they are supposed to be teaching. They are also popular because so many of us are "enthralled" with the idea that language needs to be carefully organised, packaged and ordered into incremental parts.
While it is fine to suggest that coursebooks are just a core of material that can be adapted and added to, I would suggest that in the majority of cases, the coursebook is used as the whole course, as is, and is expected to represent everything that needs to be done. In many of the contexts I have taught in or visited as a coursebook writer, the coursebook is seen and applied as the whole syllabus and as the schedule for learning. There aren't a lot of teachers out there who get to choose their own coursebooks to use in class. They have a coursebook forced on them, as well as a scheduled time within which to complete it.
The insertion of blank pages or sections would not only encourage teachers to generate more of their own and learners' own material and activities, it would in many contexts stipulate that this is important and a natural part of good course design and application.
This also represents to me a workable transition or adaptation from the fully pre-manufactered and linear coursebook content to something that incorporates more learner involvement, more contextual adaptation, and hence - potentially - better opportunities to facilitate learning that is more "agricultural" and organic in nature and process.
It could potentially force the hand of the pre-set syllabus and schedule by basically slipping some empty spaces into it. Some room to breathe, as it were. Room to grow.
Of course, this would require some teacher training and/or some helpful lists of activity suggestions in teacher's guides. It would also require publishers to take a risk. Probably most importantly, it requires the ability for some people somewhere to disenthrall themselves with the way coursebooks are made and used.
I think it is natural for some coursebook writers (and publishers) to want to stand back with a sort of "hands up/off" stance when it comes to issues like this. "We just provide good content," they say. "We don't want to get too involved with how teachers interpret or apply it in their own contexts. That's up to them."
That would be fine if teachers could in fact decide which coursebooks to use and how. But is it really up to them (the teachers), in all or even many cases?
This is only a personal observation, but I do think many of the teachers who use my coursebooks either expect them to cover everything they need, or are actually forced to use them as the be-all and end-all of their overall courses with given classes. That is why I perhaps need to think more about my coursebooks - not just what I put into them, but what I leave open. Rather than providing yet more content and structured activities, it may be providing (and encouraging) a more eclectic and organic approach to language learning by ensuring there are some regular big blank sections there, with clear signposts saying "this is for you and your learners to decide on (and make the most of)."
In any case, I don't think it's a simple matter of coursebooks versus no coursebooks (or, as I've commented in the past, an "all or nothing" proposition). I can understand why ELT needs coursebooks. I can also understand why they need different ones.