Franz Mittendorfer, Freelance, Member of NILE Advisory Board
Going, going, gone: Reflections following a CLIL debate on the occasion of the NILE@21 conference
"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." (John F. Kennedy)
Going, going, gone … are the days when language education was seen as separate from content-related learner development. Whatever content there is to be learnt, whatever insight there is to be gained, whatever skill there is to be acquired – it needs language for that to happen.
While it is true and obvious that we never (should) stop learning, we still need, in some form or another, to know the reason why. We need to know why we learn and, as teachers, we need to know why we teach. Whether or not it is, or can always be, made explicit – what we are aiming at in sum and substance is the development of an autonomous and empowered individual who is able to successfully (inter)act for purposes of personal fulfilment and development, social inclusion and satisfying employment.
In terms of educational planning, it makes sense to think about how established good practice in content teaching and in language development might be further developed with a view of identifying and exploring synergies, of making processes of learning and teaching more varied and transparent and, finally, of making the added value of such approaches intelligible for purposes of recognition and motivation.
For young people in full-time education today, we know that the future is largely undefined, probably highly challenging, certainly competitive, and without doubt also plurilingual. Those who are attempting to prepare these students to deal with all of this will have to take into account the need for their education to be cross-curricular and plurilingual, with proper attention being given to interdisciplinary, social, emotional and communicative attitudes and competences.
The concept of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) may and will take many different forms and shapes, largely determined by prevailing educational cultures, social and economic parameters and individual resources. What in essence it is aiming at is exactly all of the above, with an explicit view on the development of communicative competences in languages other than the learners’ and teacher’s mother tongues.
“Language” in CLIL is one of a series of segments which, ideally, dovetail in order to define the whole. Language awareness and appropriate use, just like the development and application of cognitive and social competences, are essential and imperative to CLIL. Language proficiency, however, defined through concepts such as fluency, accuracy and range, is never a goal in itself from a CLIL perspective.
CLIL is very much about processing things in a language which is not the mother tongue. Hardly anything is done in isolation, though. Whether it is in pairs, in groups, among peers, between teacher and learner/s, things are done together. Learning experience and outcomes are shared and so is the responsibility. Learners share responsibility when defining and agreeing on the focus and desired outcome of work, when they collect and order what is given at the start, when, together, they create insight through graphic organisers (diagrams of thinking), when they arrange, document and communicate outcomes.
CLIL work is also about producing things, whether it is a to-do list outlining important action points which need to be covered in the course of some working process, word clouds, posters and alike to express understanding of input or brainstorming, glossaries of key language related to topics and/or working processes, or dossiers in which documents, records of work and products are collected for reference, assessment and further use. Products (as well as input and other stimuli) will deliberately and frequently include visual and sound elements rather than plain text, thus appealing to and recognising the potential of visual and auditory learners.
As CLIL teachers, we do not teach a language. We use it as the medium which is essential to all management and sustainable documentation of authentic learning and of the processes and outcomes that are related to it. We use it in circumstances and for purposes in the way the world uses it, we use it to open up our learners’ minds and perspectives and, not least, we use it to develop plurilingual and, as a consequence, pluricultural awareness and competences. We use it when we work and communicate in teams (sometimes deliberately crossing borders in more than one sense of the word) and we use it to extract maximum benefit from the resources, references and documents available. We also use it to demonstrate and create awareness of the de facto nature of real-life tasks which, as a matter of course, include non-native language aspects as soon as we start looking beyond our noses.
This is where, as CLIL teachers, rather than competing with our language teacher colleagues or ‘fishing in their waters‘, we should welcome their support. We know that many of them are desperate for authentic, relevant and motivating “topics” around which to explore lexis, structure and good use of the target language. We are certain that many of the content topics we address are no less authentic, relevant and motivating that some of the topics addressed in language textbooks. In return, we are enormously grateful for expert language teacher support in terms of identifying and organising key language, summing up and presenting things, or adding linguistic flesh to some of the content bones we have decided to chew upon. We are ready to cooperate with the language department and, together, to explore the nature and potential of cross-curricular constructs, just as we endeavour to raise cross-curricular awareness and thinking among our learners. What we need most, however, is recognition of what we do and what our learners do. Learners are quick in sensing whether or not their achievements are being recognised, recognition being the very soil on which motivation grows – the learners’ as well as the teachers’.
When asked whether or not CLIL may be seen as a disruptor to established language education, the answer is certainly ‘yes’. There is no doubt that CLIL challenges and questions a number of long-standing concepts of teaching, and to those who still keep flying monolingual and subject-focussed flags in complacency, it may well be a source of irritation and unrest. Yes, it asks us to rethink and adapt some established administrative and organisational frameworks, and yes, it requires those who demand that education needs to keep up with the times to actually walk their talk. To those, however, who are truly committed to the “Call of Teaching” and, at the same time, have not given up learning themselves, the CLIL approach offers a great source of pedagogical inspiration, motivation and success.