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CLILing Me Softly in Thailand: Collaboration, Creativity and Conflict

This article looks at the implementation of CLIL in Thailand; the hopes and challenges, successes and failures of the project. Concluding, how like any other curriculum innovation, CLIL in any context takes time and repeated experimentation to enable success.

The seeding of CLIL in Thailand
The British Council has enjoyed a very collaborative relationship with the Ministry of Education in Thailand. For both English language and general educational innovation, we are seen as the first port of call for expertise and have run many successful projects that have supported the development of the Thai education system.

In September 2006, the Future Perfect conference run by the British Council, marked the first time the term CLIL entered Thai educational vocabulary. As a new idea, it gained credence with the education ministry very quickly, becoming a buzzword for better English language learning and teaching. Since then, the British Council has been involved in a number of projects involving the discussion of CLIL methodology (EdFest, February 2007), CLIL's appropriateness for the Thai context (Hot Topic debate at the Thai TESOL conference, January 2008), as well as a pilot project in CLIL program implementation.

The solution to our ills?
The Thailand CLIL Project has an unfortunate acronym: TCP (a famous antiseptic ointment in the UK) which coincidentally labels the project very appropriately. A new 'method' had been discovered by the Thai Ministry of Education (MoE), which they thought had great potential and could be a potential solution for soothing some of the educational ailments within the state school system at that time. These included:

  • very low English and teaching skills proficiency levels of teachers;
  • 60-80% of English teachers being non-English majors;
  • poorly resourced schools;
  • shortfall of 50,000 English teachers nationwide.

Perhaps integrating content and language learning would make English teaching more attractive to non-English subject teachers? Or perhaps, English teachers could take over the teaching of maths and science in primary levels where there is a shortage of subject-specific teachers in those areas?  

Preparing the ground
To discover the potential for using CLIL in Thailand, development teams of English teachers, subject teachers and key school administrators from three primary and three secondary schools took part in the development of 30-hour pilot modules integrating science and ELT to be delivered in grades 5 and 7.  This was coordinated by the English Language Institute (ELI) of the Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC), MoE, Thailand, with the British Council in consultation with David Marsh.

Conflict from the outset
From the beginning, the pilot was hampered by misunderstandings and differing expectations on the part of MoE officials, the consultant and British Council project managers. Schools were 'chosen' by OBEC officials who wanted schools that would be used as display schools in the future and have the best chance of succeeding in the project from a political point of view. This was counter to the original project aims of either choosing the most appropriate educational context for success, or 'typical' schools within which to investigate how to enable a CLIL program to succeed on a national level.

Teachers in the project, rather than being informed of the project and recruited as volunteers were 'assigned' to the project by school heads who had little understanding of the project aims. Heads also seemed to expect a high-status project with a lot of associated funding: something that was counter to the original aims of the project which was looking for low-resource solutions that would require little funding.
Another original aim, that of promoting whole school development through increased dialogue among teachers about teaching was hindered by strong communications barriers between departments and differing levels of support from different levels of school administration.

Because of these administrative issues, the aims of the project changed completely between the initial conception, through observation of teachers in project schools and during a two-day meeting with teachers for a collaborative development workshop. At every stage the project was negotiated with the participants to the point where we had a clear project structure with the aim of discovering potentially appropriate methodologies for CLIL in Thailand.

Collaboration and creativity
Despite these administrative weaknesses, the project motivated the teachers involved to develop quality modules and well-constructed lesson plans. During planning workshops, we negotiated forms of CLIL most appropriate to the Thai context; developed a support system for schools and teachers; worked out how to integrate CLIL approaches into the curriculum in a sustainable way and developed materials for the CLIL module. Four models of CLIL implementation were used in schools:

A  Content teacher teaches science through English
B  Content and English language teachers team-teach science through English
C  Content and English language teachers teach language for science and science through English in complementary sequence
D  Content and English language teachers team-teach science through English as an extra-curricular 'club' activity

All of these approaches involved close collaboration between the subject and language teachers, integration of curricular objectives, careful planning of schemes of work and lesson planning involving both teachers over extended periods of time. The task of re-inventing their subjects and how they go about enabling learners to develop both content and language skills simultaneously unleashed a tremendous number of new ideas and approaches to learning and teaching.

Both groups of teachers were highly stimulated by the collaborative process and the exchange of ideas, information and skills specific to both science and language teaching. Eventually, the dialogue enabled them to learn from each other and experiment with other ways of teaching.

Language teachers learned from the discovery-oriented approach of science teachers: set up the experiment, let them do it and have them come to their own conclusions about what they learn, before giving input on the actual science of what is happening. This approach could be applied to language lessons through basic discourse analysis or task-based learning.

Science teachers learned that learners need the language to be able to express concepts before they can talk about them in an appropriate way. They also realized that the language of instructions, predictions, reporting what was done and results obtained all involve different language forms and conventions that they had not considered before. In other words, it is not just a matter of teaching the subject in English and letting learners pick it up. Learners need specific language support to enable them to access content and be able to explain their learning.

Conflict within the creative process
When science and English teachers talk to each other, they speak very different languages. When they plan lessons together, they take very different approaches. Within any collaborative, creative process, there is bound to be conflict as boundaries are negotiated and new ways of thinking are considered. Finding an appropriate balance between language and content learning within a lesson or course, can be a difficult negotiation as it implies ideas of relative importance and primacy: What comes first, the science or the language? How much language should be integrated at one time? Should we decrease the amount of science learned to make way for the language learning? What science learning points use what language?

Roles also conflict: Who should do what and when? Given the team-teaching nature of different options above, this became very important. When should the science teacher use English? Is it their job to teach the language or does that happen in English class? Should the students be learning new science content in language classes? Who plans that?

Compounding these issues was the teacher's low English language proficiency. Science teachers in particular, were very nervous about using English in class. They felt that they should be very proficient and appear as experts, rather than just be seen to be trying hard to use the language. There were also problems in lesson implementation with weak teacher instructions, classroom management skills and over-reliance on translation. In fact, well-constructed lesson plans were not always implemented in classes as written or planned. Critical thinking and content objectives, even if clearly embedded in lesson plans, were often omitted or delivered in such a way that their aims were compromised. When pointed out, these issues were addressed positively by the teachers who sought to improve on these areas in future.

In practise, low language proficiency teachers often had clearer instructions as they had fewer options with which to confuse learners. Higher proficiency teachers often over-explained, talked over learners, paraphrased repeatedly and generally talked too much. Lower proficiency teachers, although very nervous, were also very focused on target language, perhaps because they had only recently learned it themselves!

Many of the other implementation issues were due to teacher nervousness at trying out new ways of teaching, being observed and videoed in a high-stakes project that was being watched closely by school authorities, other teachers and the education ministry. This did highlight that in any larger-scale implantation of CLIL, there should be very clear guidance through observation from core practitioners as well as strong administrative support (as opposed to evaluation) systems.

CLIL-ing me … softly
The professional synergy resulting from teamwork by content and language teachers resulted in positive methodological professional development and alternative curricular modes of teaching. There were also overwhelmingly positive learner reactions to these more interactive and participatory methods with reported increases in motivation for learning English and science together, learner gains, teacher development and stress!

Stress on teachers within this project comes from multiple points:

  • high expectations of heads, ministry officials
  • high demands of project managers
  • new ways of working with other teachers
  • alien educational ideas
  • tremendous (often uncompensated) time demands
  • high project aims
  • desire to do what is best for learners

As a direct result of teacher stress, half of the schools in the project pulled out. It was not only the teachers that felt stress. One ELI OBEC official, during the project was heard to remark, "CLIL is CLILing me!" and the project was categorized as high risk by the MoE.

... a new beginning?
However, another twenty schools have expressed interest in taking part in TCP. ELI OBEC has, however, decided to take a softly-softly approach to CLIL and work with the three original pilot schools still involved to develop CLIL modules and methods that work for them before diffusing to other schools. Any other school or teacher is allowed to try out CLIL in their own way, and many are trying. It will be interesting to research what is happening in CLIL in Thailand in a year's time to see if these independently developing schools have a working CLIL model that could be replicated in other local contexts.
 
Lessons learned?
Educational innovation is fraught with implementation issues, but the nature of CLIL means that is has more issues than most. It is a complex methodology that has the potential for great benefit given appropriate levels of guidance, support, preparation and time. Project managers need to realize that introducing CLIL into the education system requires very careful, responsible and pro-active project planning and monitoring. There should also be re-alignment of project goals and expected outcomes, including appropriate and timely adjustment of stakeholder expectations and project architecture.

CLIL is a high risk, but potentially beneficial methodology for the Thai context. It is possible to introduce CLIL in low resource classrooms with low language proficiency teachers, but this involves a lot of preparatory work on the part of the teachers involved. Participation in CLIL development is professionally rewarding for both science and language teachers, but very hard work and high levels of administrative buy-in and support are essential. Like any other curriculum innovation, content and language integration in any context takes time and repeated experimentation to enable success.


Alan S. Mackenzie, British Council East Asia Regional Project Teacher Training Manager
Based on a paper delivered at the CLIL symposium at IATEFL Friday April 11th 2008

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