Number one for English language teachers

Implementing CLIL: Dangers of a top-down only approach

Type: Article

In this article Dr. Brian Bielenberg explores the advantages and disadvantages of top-down and bottom-up approaches to initiating CLIL programs, concluding with a discussion of a hybrid approach that appears to provide the best possibility for successful and sustainable CLIL implementation.

Anchor Point:1Introduction

Recent years have seen widespread implementation of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) programs across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The decision to begin a CLIL program can originate with a small group of teachers, within a local educational zone or district, or at the ministry level. The reasons for implementing CLIL vary from one context to another, but can be summarized into four main categories: Socio-cultural aims, socio-economic aims, educational aims, and language aims (Eurydice 2006). 

Socio-cultural aims focus on conveying tolerance and respect of other cultures. Socio-economic aims have as main goals preparing for life in a more internationalized society and providing better job prospects. Educational aims seek to stimulate the assimilation of subject matter by means of a different and innovative approach, while language-related aims intend to improve language skills by using them for real purposes. Each of these overall aims is important, and any given program may include more than one. But who decides the aims of a CLIL program? And who, in fact, makes the decision to begin a CLIL program? Most importantly, to what degree does the source of the decision impact the potential for success and sustainability?

In this article, we will discuss two main approaches to decision making, top-down and bottom-up. We will examine how they have impacted programs in a variety of fields, and how they play out in CLIL implementation. The article concludes with a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach and a discussion of how ministries of education, school administrators, teachers, parents, and children can best work together to promote successful CLIL implementation, and improved classroom practices, through a hybrid approach to educational reform.

Anchor Point:2Top-down and bottom-up

To answer the question concerning how the source of the decision to implement a CLIL program may impact the potential for success and sustainability it is useful to begin by thinking about how decisions are made. Two terms that occur across a number of contexts and disciplines are top-down and bottom-up. Whether discussing educational policy, corporate decisions, community health programs, language revitalization efforts, or CLIL, how decisions are made and who decides which initiatives to implement can strongly influence the potential for success and sustainability.

Top-down approaches

Top-down approaches refer to a small minority making decisions that will affect many. These decisions are disseminated to lower levels under the authority of the few. It is at these lower levels where actual implementation must take place. In such approaches, the decision of which programs to initiate and which strategies to follow reside in the hands of a limited number of people. In educational terms, we are referring to decisions and initiatives that originate at the level of an educational zone or district, or in the case of many recent CLIL initiatives, more likely at the level of a national ministry of education. Teachers, those actually expected to implement the initiatives, have very little say in the decision; however, it is they who are essentially bound to implement it. Top-down approaches tend to provide a broad overview of a program or initiative, with little detail of how the day-to-day implementation will occur. 

Lessons from top-down

One of the many areas in which top-down approaches have been applied is community health work. In a top-down approach to community health work, decisions about which community health problems to address are made by outside groups. The villagers served by the programs tend to have little opportunity to choose the focus, nor to learn the skills to take over the job. Expertise, services and training are all provided by outsiders. Experience has shown that top-down community health initiatives have been much less successful than desired, with health improvements often lasting only as long as the outside group is there with money. In many top-down health initiatives, initial training is provided for local health care workers, but there tends to be a lack of follow-up, with local health workers often left stranded without adequate on-going training, support, or supervision.

Top-down CLIL

One of my first experiences of working with CLIL initiatives in the Middle East followed a pattern similar to those described above. Administrators of an educational zone, working on the advice of outside consultants, decided that it would be beneficial to teach ICT through the medium of English to Arabic speaking primary school students as a means of improving both ICT teaching and English language development, two of the main aims of many CLIL programs. A substantial amount of money was spent on the development of a series of computer based units, with the expectation that teachers would use these to support the English medium ICT instruction. Supervisors were trained on use of the software, and were in turn expected to train and evaluate teachers. However, these supervisors had limited understanding of CLIL concepts and methodologies, and were unable to discuss classroom issues from a position of practical experience. Top-down initiatives often rely on school administrators for implementation, but limited training leaves many lacking the competence needed to start up and manage a CLIL program.

To further complicate matters in this attempt to initiate a CLIL program, no thorough assessment of the English language abilities of teachers was conducted. The reality was that many of them did not have the English language levels necessary to teach in English, even with the support of English medium resources. Additionally, initial participants were “volunteered”, a common occurrence in CLIL start ups.  In one training session, I asked a group of teachers why they had chosen to attend the training and become CLIL teachers. They quickly pointed out that they really had no choice in the matter, that they had simply received a phone call from a supervisor who informed them to begin attending the training sessions. They had not even been told what the purpose of the training was. A similar story is found on this website in the article about CLIL in Thailand. In his article, Alan Mackenzie writes that “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.” This common top-down occurrence could have played a role in the fact that half of the schools involved in the original stages of the Thai CLIL project eventually dropped out.

One of the most glaring weaknesses of a top-down approach is that those expected to implement the program, the teachers, often feel that the directives have been imposed from above, with little consideration of the time and stress involved in the actual day-to-day implementation. It is not difficult to imagine why there is often a lack of motivation and buy-in from teachers. Their lack of participation in the decision making process leads to resistance to imposed changes, evidenced in comments such as these by an Arab speaking mathematics instructor who was told to begin teaching mathematics in English: “Why do we have to do this? I don’t teach language. That’s not my job. I teach mathematics.” Classroom observations confirmed that this teacher and many others like him simply ignore the basic CLIL concept of integrating content and language objectives in their “CLIL” classrooms. 

The ideas of CLIL are solid, but when imposed from the top the result is often that any changes in instructional practice are short lived. Studies across a variety of educational settings have consistently demonstrated that local implementation fails in the vast majority of reforms initiated from the top; that centralized efforts do little for educational improvement. Top-down approaches, simply stated, have little sustained impact on improving classroom instruction. The response to this has been a movement towards more grassroots, bottom-up efforts at changing education. But do they have a better track record of changing educational practices?  Can they help to avoid the dangers of top-down CLIL?

The bottom-up approach

Bottom-up approaches differ from top-down in that more of the practical day-to-day details are specified and thought about before a decision is made to fully implement a program. Such approaches often start with people working together in a localized setting. One way to think about bottom-up approaches is as a “seed”. As with a seed, beginnings are small but eventually can grow in complexity and completeness, given the proper conditions and nourishment. In terms of educational initiatives, bottom-up approaches are programs that develop independently in classrooms or schools and are optimized for the local conditions. In some cases, successful individual efforts eventually grow and join up with others. One of the keys in bottom-up decision making is that the practitioners, the people who will be responsible for implementing the program or initiative, are involved in discussions and decision making from the beginning. As a result, they tend to be much more motivated to see the project succeed.

Lessons from bottom-up approaches

Returning to community health programs, we can find numerous examples of bottom-up approaches that have been more successful than top-down programs. One of the most successful is Jamkhed, which serves rural villages in the Indian state of Maharashtra. In this program eighty percent of a community’s health needs are now met by the village health workers. A key has been that the program enables village health care workers to be decision makers, the people who identify the problems that need to be addressed in a particular village. Having those responsible for implementation in a role of decision maker is a key aspect of a bottom-up approach. Jamkhed further supports the practitioners by providing ongoing weekly links for the village health workers and opportunities to continue to learn new skills and knowledge, maintain contact with other health workers, and have access to needed materials and supplies. The program’s 38 years of existence confirm the sustainability of the approach.

Bottom-up CLIL

One of the greatest strengths of the early CLIL movement was its flexible, inclusive approach. According to Marsh (2002), the term itself “allows us to consider the myriad variations …without imposing restrictions that might fail to take account of school or region-specific implementation characteristics ...” (p. 59). These variations are enabled through a bottom-up approach that allows CLIL to develop according to local settings. It is interesting to note that bottom-up initiatives are not always planned. Alan MacKenzie’s description of CLIL in Thailand, mentioned in the top-down section, seems to be transforming into a naturally occuring bottom-up initiative. He writes that at every stage of the implementation process, the project was negotiated, providing an important opportunity for the teachers themselves to rework a decision that had originally been top-down. He also notes that it was time and repeated experimentation that enabled success. The ability to experiment and adapt is one of the strengths of bottom-up approaches. Despite half of the original schools dropping out of the Thai CLIL program, 20 new schools have expressed interest and will begin individual, localized approaches. In essence, a sort of grassroots movement has begun – a movement that probably would not have occurred had it not been for original top-down policy decisions that provided impetus, resources and an initial forum for CLIL development and networking. 

While bottom-up programs sound appealing, they have their problems as well. They can often lead to uneven development and fragmentation of effort. Many start up and then fizzle out as the time required for materials development leads to teacher burn-out, or key people move on to other schools or positions. In reviewing studies of bottom-up educational reform efforts, researchers have found that while teachers in such programs are actively involved in decision making, their instructional practices remain, for the most part, unaltered when there is no clear overarching policy or directive. In other words, the net results of a bottom-up only approach are often the same as those of top-down reforms – no lasting changes.

Anchor Point:3Advantages and disadvantages of each approach

Top-down and bottom-up approaches each have their strengths and weaknesses, as discussed above and summarized below in Table 1. Top-down approaches provide a means of producing rapid, widespread change. The decision making authority can provide resources, incentives, accountability, and opportunities to develop wider networks. However, programs initiated from the top often suffer from limited buy-in from teachers and a lack of experience on the part of those expected to administer the programs. Moreover, top-down approaches tend to restrict local adaptation resulting in a “one-size-fits all” approach that ends up fitting no one.

Bottom-up approaches, on the other hand, have the advantage that they enable flexible programs that can be adapted to local needs through experimentation, creativity and an ability to respond to local changes. Participation in the decision making process on the part of the teachers provides motivation and commitment. Unfortunately, bottom-up classroom and school-based efforts often become fragmented, lacking clear direction and systems of quality control. In both instances, top-down and bottom-up, the net result is typically little sustained change in actual classroom practice.

Table 1: Advantages and disadvantages of approaches

Advantages and disadvantages of the top-down approach
Advantages and disadvantages of the bottom-up approach

Anchor Point:4So, how do we implement successful, sustainable CLIL programs?

Which is better for CLIL, top-down or bottom-up? The answer is … neither … and … both! What do I mean by neither … and …both? I mean a hybrid approach that draws on the strengths of each to form a collaborative partnership for educational reform. I mean changing our perspective from that of either/or to one of both/and. When we draw on the strengths of each in order to create a more coherent whole, we will be laying the foundation for an effective, sustainable CLIL program. In so doing we can benefit from the top-down initiative’s ability to provide guidance, accountability, resources, incentives and networking. Simultaneously, we can benefit from the innovativeness of bottom-up approaches, their ability to adapt to local needs and conditions, and to motivate teachers through participation in the decision making process. In this way, CLIL implementation becomes collaborative rather than prescriptive, with each level contributing from its strengths. From the top come clear aims, clear project outcomes, and centralized means for training, material development and networking.  From the bottom, local motivation, skill, know-how, experimentation and commitment are provided.  Action and variation at the school level is not only allowed, but encouraged. Both levels need to be active and influential, co-managing and jointly planning. Each has a role to play if a CLIL program is to succeed.

Three main lessons can be drawn from past collaborations between the “top” and “bottom”. First, to be successful the top must ensure the provision of adequate, appropriate, and collaborative ongoing training, support and supervision for CLIL teachers and program administrators. This is best accomplished through a centralized body. Second, the local stakeholders – teachers, parents and students – should be consulted about the local context, its needs and its challenges, and must be allowed flexibility in program implementation. Most importantly, individual teachers and schools should be brought together through the establishment of CLIL networks to share successes and discuss lessons learned and challenges met. In this way real change in classroom instructional practice across schools, districts and entire educational systems can occur. The benefits of CLIL programs will be best realized when top-down mandates and bottom-up initiatives connect, when ministries lead by setting clear goals, and putting resources and decision making power into the hands of people who can make an immediate and lasting difference – the teachers. 

Dr. Brian Bielenberg

Anchor Point:5References

Eurydice Report (2006) Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) at School in Europe.  Brussels: Eurydice European Unit. Available at
Marsh, D. (ed.) (2002) CLIL/EMILE – The European Dimension. Actions, Trends and Foresight Potential. Jyväskylä: UniCOM Continuing Education Centre.

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