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Understading by design in CLIL environment – Carlos Henrique Trindade

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), a term coined by a group of scholars led by Dr. David. Marsh in 1994 in Europe, inaugurated a new era for language learning and teaching worldwide.

Although most of the concepts the term embraces are nothing new, the fact that they were rearranged and institutionalized to be a major approach to the teaching of languages throughout Europe, a multilingual, multicultural continent, that at the time was also redefi ning the economic, social and political relationship between the countries within its boundaries, makes it a landmark.

There’s ELT before CLIL, and after CLIL. There have been dramatic changes in the way we see and understand language acquisition and bilingualism or plurilingualism ever since. Over the years CLIL has also proven that it works, that it is extremely effi cient in developing not only fluency or profi ciency, but also levels of bilingualism that are key to the success of 21st century citizens. The teaching of content through an additional language places language teaching in a much more important position, beyond its linguistic spectrum, making it essential to the establishment of a more holistic Education, one that is much needed for the development of generations of citizens prepared for an ever-changing world. But the teaching of CLIL has brought new paradigms for the teachers. They have been challenged to redefi ne their own teaching. They need to relearn to teach, and to establish a new relationship with the learners. The planning of CLIL curricula, units and lessons is a challenge on its own. CLIL itself breaks so many paradigms in ELT that for some teachers it seems unachievable, unrealistic and ineffi cient. But the fact that it is based on principles that are common in the acquisition process for any language, whether it is a fi rst, second or third language, bridges the gap between methodological differences that there used to be when we learned our first language and learned any other language throughout our school years and our lives. Question is: how can we help our teachers plan effective CLIL lessons? How can we have books that are organized under a curriculum that is CLILbased?

The most commonly used CLIL curriculum design framework is called the 4Cs/3As model, from Do Coyle, a researcher from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. In it, Coyle separates the curriculum for design purposes into four main areas: Content, Cognition, Communication and Culture. Then, within each of the units and lessons, Coyle again separates the learning route into three As: Analyze content for the language of learning, Add to content language for learning, and Apply to content language through learning (2005).

My perception is that, in a world in which knowledge is more and more fluid, liquid, without boundaries, the planning of learning units and lessons has to take into account a more holistic, broader view of the learning process and the acquisition of knowledge and understandings. When we think of CLIL, the same view is there: we integrate content with language, we think of learning as not linear, nor compartmentalized. When we dissect knowledge into pieces, we run the serious risk of not seeing the big picture, the broader result that comes from the interaction and fluidity between those pieces.

Also, the 4Cs/ 3As model appears to be rather too much focused in language yet. When we think of CLIL, there should be equal balance between the learning objectives related to content and those related to language, but I feel that in Coyle’s model there’s still too much concern on language and too little on content, or more than that, on the acquisition of knowledge and understandings. There must be a different framework in the planning of CLIL lessons, units or curricula, an alternative to Coyle’s model.

When we think of Brazil’s teachers, there are also other reasons for us to run away from curriculum design frameworks that still put language in a higher hierarchy. First, the background of teachers here is, in its majority, EFL. Most of the EFL books available in the market have a grammar-based syllabus.

The vast majority of the teachers in Brazil are used to teach English, not through English, and to treat language as the main goal, never as the medium of instruction. In order to break away with this paradigm it is extremely important to break away with frameworks that would give teachers an excuse to stick to grammar. So Coyle’s 4Cs/ 3As model, being still excessively concerned about the language dimension involved in the overall learning, might invite teachers to use “disguised EFL” within a CLIL framework. I have seen this happen. And I don’t blame them. It is a real challenge to break away with grammarbased syllabi and suddenly change the mindset to themebased, CLIL curricula, especially when there’s very little expertise about it in our country.

I am advocating for the use of Understanding by Design (UbD) as a viable curriculum design framework for CLIL, and I have reasons to believe that it can work efficiently.

Understanding by Design is a curriculum design framework originally thought by a couple of American scholars, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. It is based in the concept of Understanding: “Understanding is a mental construct, an abstraction made by the human mind to make sense of many distinct pieces of information” (2006). For Wiggins and McTighe, acquiring knowledge is not enough. It is extremely important to be able to transfer the learners’ knowledge into an Understanding, which will change their relationship with the world around them forever. Understandings have this power of changing the learners’ mindsets: they will question their views, their concepts, by acquiring a new understanding. Within an Understanding there are skills, competences, content, language and values.

It cannot be called an Understanding if it does not have this broad coverage.

The quest for understandings is triggered by an inquiry atmosphere, which always starts with what Wiggins and McTighe call Essential Questions. The Essential Questions have a specific structure: ideally, they should not be answered without a considerable amount of research, and certainly they should not be answered immediately and easily. Essential Questions challenge the learners’ mindsets, values, views on life and on the world.
They raise students’ curiosity through the powerful and intriguing questioning of common sense or never before questioned assumptions. Or maybe they will simply make you think about something you have never thought about before.

To make this a little more tangible, let’s give an example of an Understanding and a possible corresponding Essential Question. Let’s suppose we’re going to teach Motion in Physics, for instance.

An Understanding about this topic could be: “Any object or person will only change its condition of rest or movement as the result of external forces acting on it”. The Essential Question could be something like: “What makes us move or stand still?”. But how can we be sure that the students have achieved such Understanding?

That’s when we think about assessment and the concept of “Acceptable Evidences of Learning”.

Within the UbD framework we should determine the parameters for the production of the students which will give us enough evidences that they have or have not achieved the Understandings set as goals throughout the units. We are not going to check if the students can answer what we want them to answer; instead, we are going to let them show what they have learned, and then, after collecting their production, we will analyze and decide if it is within the parameters previously defined, or not, and how far it is from the minimally acceptable evidence. People are different, therefore each of us have a different interpretation of the world around us. That is, we learn differently. So we cannot expect that students will give us the exact same answer to one single question. We should let them express their individual points of view, their conclusions about experiments, their reactions when exposed to new knowledge. And it is the role of the teacher to determine if, even with different eyes and ears to a same topic or content to which they are exposed, students may express themselves so that they
can show that they have achieved the Understanding set as the goal for a specific lesson or unit of instruction. There are types of assessment that could help teachers collect better evidences, especially those who are not summative, such as performance tasks or projects, and informal assessments, which are mini tasks or challenges proposed within one class’ duration. Teachers need a good set of rubrics to be able to collect adequate evidences of learning. Formal assessment, that is, the traditional paper and pen tests, can also be used, although they have limited power in helping teachers determine if the students have achieved the enduring Understandings. And when used they must have their structure changed so that they can allow learners to express themselves more freely.

The path to the acquisition of Understandings expands the learners’ discovery adventures. The inquiry atmosphere needed for the teaching for Understanding enables us to catalyze students’ natural curiosity and channel it for purposeful learning. The multi-faceted characteristic of the Understandings broadens the spectrum of possibilities, and calls students to become protagonists and owners of their own learning. Students do not have the narrow, strictly linguistic goals: they learn to be better individuals, to understand the world around them better, to respect and value differences.

As they achieve Understandings they learn to see the connection between every knowledge to which they get exposed and their lives. I have embarked in many experiences of implementing UbD for the planning of CLIL in the past few years. The hardest challenge is to be able to change teachers’ mindsets. They need to incorporate the concepts behind UbD: the Understandings, the Essential Questions, the Acceptable Evidences of Learning. They also need to learn to plan backwards, as UbD works with the backward design model for lesson planning: first you set your goals, then you think about your assessment, and only after that you think of the tasks that will be most suitable. Teachers love to think of tasks first of all, but sometimes they will find out at the end of a class that the tasks planned and used did not help students achieve their goals. So planning backwards will guarantee that the tasks proposed will work for the efficient acquisition of the Understandings. But making teachers think backwards when planning takes some time. Practical examples of plans and collaborative planning can be very effective. Using one of the templates that Wiggins and McTighe propose (2006) can also help teachers see how they can reorganize ideas in a different pattern. Once they get the idea, once they are able to see that it makes sense – that is, once they understand the concept –, it is a true revelation for them.

And the results of this change will gradually appear. Students become much more critical, much more autonomous. They produce language in a much more original way, not repeating or memorizing ready-made structures, but yet being fearless of making mistakes, creating their own speech style, having as their main goal to be intelligible. They do not accept passiveness: they become active learners and want to interact with and apply their knowledge in their lives, in the world around them.

They become agents of this new, fluid, fast and everchanging world we live in.

So that is why I advocate for the use of Understanding by Design in the planning of CLIL: because it has no boundaries, it does not dissect learning into pieces and then places them into boxes, but yet it treats knowledge as complex, chaotic, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. And treats learning as a process that will happen differently for every single one of us. Because we are unique, and this uniqueness should be valued and seen as a quality, one that can build, along with many other unique minds, a better world for all of us.

Carlos Henrique Trindade is a Bilingual Education Specialist and has been in the ELT field for more than 25 years. In the past five years he has been implementing bilingual education programs in schools all over Brazil with UNOi Educação, a company from the Spanish Santillana Group. Carlos is currently the general manager for Educate Bilingual Program, the newest initiative from the Santillana Group in Latin America.

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