A day in the life of an elf

So, as an English Language Fellow, fondly known as an “ELF”  ( I see myself dressed in a tight-fitting leprechaun-like green outfit, complete with red and white striped socks and green shoes with toes that have curly tips, all topped of with a soft felt pointed hat, also green, that has a bright shiny bell at the tip, and droops over one of my ears, every time someone calls me an ELF),  we are to report anything significant that we do for all the other elves (and presumably the people who are paying for us to be here) to see on our Community of Practice website, which is, like us, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.   This “look-at-what-a-great-thing-I-did-on-behalf-of-the-United-States” page, entitled “Highlights” is separate from our “blog” page where we can share a blow-by-blow account of  our day-to-day cross-cultural escapades, and from the “gallery “page where we can show off, or not, our photographic skills.
Anyway, being  the good elf that I am, I just posted the following on our community of practice website, using the format provided by that site.  I actually think that this project, as modest as it was, really will make a positive contribution to English language education in Nepal.  Yay!! Your tax dollars put to good use for someone else’s children .   Eat your heart out, President Trump — he wanted to send all his elves home and tried to zero out our budget for this year but Congress wouldn’t let him.  They even increased it!!  At least someone in the government understands how individuals, doing small things for the benefit of someone else, can make a difference in the world beyond U.S. borders.  Of course,  not to be naive, the ELF program is also a relatively inexpensive public diplomacy tool, a concept which  Trump obviously either doesn’t understand or distains, or both:   In international relations, public diplomacy or people’s diplomacy, broadly speaking, is the communication with and dissemination of propaganda to the general public of foreign nations to establish a dialogue designed to inform and influence.
Interestingly enough, in this particular diplomatic vignette, I was also informed and influenced.  Hard for me to tell who benefited more, me or the children.  In turns out that people’s diplomacy, if you’re open to seeing things in new ways, is a two-way street.
In Kathmandu, an English Language Fellow helped develop a contextualized competency-based framework for Nepal’s national curriculum for English language education for grades 11 and 12 using a theoretical concept paper developed by the national Curriculum Design Committee. This framework will be used to develop language and learning materials for over 600,000 secondary school students throughout Nepal. A small project, done in a relatively short period of time, is anticipated to affect English language education for all Nepali secondary students for years to come.

This project was both interesting and challenging for a couple of reasons. First, it was the first time I have ever seen an attempt to organize a curriculum for language teaching around a non- directly measurable holistic cognitive perceptual concepts – “constructs”. I had to do quite a bit of online research, which ultimately resulted in my changing the way I think about l language learning. In systems theory, where higher order systems accomplish more than the sum of lower systems, such as how the collection of cells that form a liver performs functions in the human body that individual cells cannot, so does a cognitive construct characterization of language learning capture the fact that people can do more when they acquire higher level skill complexes than they can with individual skills. So for example, cognitively the “reading-to-summarize” construct in the human mind is not the same as the “reading-to-take-notes” construct. Each is slightly different, and involves a slightly different combination of mental skills which evolve out of a different perception (cognitive representation) of the task. In addition, people do not all have the same constructs for different things and tasks. For example: the concept of “family” may differ from one individual to another within one culture, as well as across cultures.

In a way, learning a language could be considered a process of creating cognitive constructs that progressively become closer to matching those of native speakers rather than a process of acquiring different skills. It’s not one’s ability to write a sentence that makes it possible for them to write a well-formed paragraph. It is having a grasp of what a well-formed paragraph is, and the ability to integrate the individual skills necessary to accomplish what is, in reality, a multi-dimensional task.

Second, this was the first time I have ever worked with a decontextualized list of language learning objectives. It was magical for me to see how, with the stroke of a pen, learning theory becomes a teaching practice simply by adding context. So, for example, a desired learning outcome such as “use suprasegmentals correctly to express emotion” becomes pedogogically achievable when embedded into a communicative context: “Express surprise with the tone of you voice when someone gives you a gift.”

All in all, I’m not sure who benefited the most from this project — secondary students in Nepal or me. Certainly, I am now looking at what I do, both as a language teacher and as a teacher educator, in a new way. I am quite sure that improvement in my teaching praxis will follow as a result of this new perspective on what language learning is actually about. Hopefully, a contextualized, competency-based curriculum will lead to changes in pedagogy in secondary schools that will be beneficial for Nepali teachers and learners alike.