In this interview we ask David Marsh, one of the leading experts on CLIL, what he believes to be the main driving forces behind CLIL, why teachers should get involved and what the status of CLIL is now.

What is the main driving force behind CLIL?

I think the main driver is adapting education to suit the demands of the times we are now living in.  Teaching is a demanding job. We may be passionate about teaching maths, geography, languages, but those of us who have a strong desire to educate young people know that we are running a continual race. Just like Olympic athletes we need to be at the cutting edge of what we set out to do. If we back off, and let the world pass us by, we can swiftly become outmoded and outpaced, especially by the young people we work with in our classrooms. Education is a demanding profession.  We are surrounded by the forces of change, and CLIL is one response.

Each of our classrooms is a microcosm of our surrounding society. All around us, whether we are in South America, Asia or Europe, we are experiencing new working models which are affecting our lives through the processes of fusion.  Fusion is driven by integration. CLIL is a classic example of fusion.

Look at the impact of fusion on the new technologies. Integration of  telecommunications, media, entertainment and computing – means that we now carry pocket sized telephones that contain more power, and have vastly more functions, than the computers found in many schools a decade ago. Indeed, they can hardly be called telephones anymore.

Look at Cirque du Soleil which fuses circus, modern music, dance, acrobatics and gymnastics to create a new innovation. It blends ingredients from different sources into a coherent whole and now provides us with  innovative and new forms of entertainment. 

Fusion is having a profound impact on our lives, and it is as relevant to technology and entertainment, as it is to teaching and learning. It is increasingly easy to see fusion in the curricula in different countries as in new fields of study such as environmental studies and citizenship.  Fusion of content and language teaching is one example of educational change.

But the real driving forces behind CLIL are teachers. For language teachers, CLIL is emerging as the most significant methodological change since the 1970s. For teachers of other subjects, it involves a major shift in teaching and learning practice. CLIL is about change, collaboration and connectivity, which is where resources such as onestopclil can play a major role.

Why should I, as a teacher, get involved with CLIL?

I heard someone say recently that when they enter some classrooms, they rarely meet a dull six year old, but equally, rarely meet an exciting 16 year old. It may be that this person has simply been very unfortunate in their choice of secondary classroom visits! But it is a commonly reported fact that methodologies used in some sectors (e.g. primary) are more ‘engaging’ for young people than those used in others (e.g. secondary or higher education) across a range of subjects.

It may well be that this is simply not the case where you, the user of onestopclil live. But it is often reported as too common a problem in certain countries, particularly now when we live in an age where young people’s attitudes towards ‘how to learn’ has been so deeply influenced by exposure to the internet and gaming consoles. Basically, it isn’t just the world that is changing, it is also the young people.

When I visit classrooms in different countries, I often see sheer excellence. But that is partly to do with my work, and the types of teacher and schools I have the privilege of working with – but I fear that excellence or close-to-excellence is exceptional. Teachers I have known who have got involved with CLIL tend to be at the ‘cutting edge’ – sometimes brave, often bold, but usually passionate about their work. Quite often these are experienced teachers who look at CLIL as satisfying what they already know from their experience – whether they are language or content teachers – and if you ask them whether it was worth it – then they often say yes, but that the start-up was very demanding in terms of time and effort. So if teaching is a ‘tough’ job to do year-in and year-out, it does seem that involvement with CLIL does bring tangible and concrete positive outcomes for the teacher themselves.   

And why the demanding start-up? This was often because there has been so little support in terms of materials, networking, sharing of resources – but now times have changed, and there is a wealth of solutions.  For example, the pioneer teachers in CLIL got started when there was very little research evidence readily available which could enable them to have clear points of reference to justify what they were doing. The implications of PISA (OECD), and new understanding of the brain and cognition coming in from the neurosciences and other research fields, means that even here, things have changed.

Keeping up with change means that what may have worked well with students yesterday may not be so successful tomorrow. To me, CLIL is very much about Tomorrow’s World and the opportunities it offers. 

So what is the status of CLIL now?

Teachers have been exploring ways of combining content and language learning for many years. In Europe, we have see an exponential increase of interest since the early 1990s – when types of CLIL education spread from select and often very privileged schools into the mainstream. From 2000 onwards we have seen increasing interest in East Asia, and now more recently, South America.

There is now a global community of practice forming of teachers which will finally get what they have been requesting for some years, namely access to materials from publishers; opportunities to share expertise and set up trans-national school and teacher based cooperation projects; and access to professional development. CLIL is ‘coming of age’ and now one of the very exciting drivers is beginning to appear which helps to inform and guide teacher decision-making in what, when, and how to integrate content and language. This is in the form of evidence. We have had a great deal of anecdotal evidence observed and found in schools, but this has not often been communicated into the wider environment, until recently. 

Advances in scientific research over the last 5 years have been particularly significant in getting external insight into what teachers have often instinctively known, or otherwise observed from their work in terms of the cognitive processes which operate when young people learn different subjects. The cognitive neurosciences now enable us to look at the brain in ways not possible before the advent of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and magneto-encephalography (MEG) scanning and imaging techniques.

Insight from this research is now filtering through and helping explain why educational approaches such as CLIL appear to have the types of success which have been reported over the years. I think you could say that CLIL has reached a critical maturity threshold. 

David Marsh, of the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, is a leading expert on CLIL. He was part of the team that conducted groundwork leading to the launch of the term CLIL in 1994. Originating from Australia, educated in the UK and based in Finland, he has extensive experience of capacity-building for CLIL in a range if countries, designing teacher development programmes and carrying out research.

CLIL interviews