Making Educational Reform Work

One of the projects I am currently working is called English for Universities (EfU). This has been running for four years in Ukraine, with a dual focus on improving the quality of ESP teaching in universities and developing the English-medium instruction skills of lecturers in a full range of academic disciplines. We are now doing the final evaluation of the project and in the last two months I have spent three weeks in Ukraine visiting universities, meeting teachers and students, observing classes and discussing the project with Heads of Department. The results of the evaluation will be presented in February 2019 but I would like to reflect here on the ESP component of the project and on the factors which have shaped the considerable impact it has had on over 30 participating universities across the country.

In brief, as described in a baseline study by Bolitho & West (2017), ESP in Ukrainian universities was characterised by a narrow focus on teaching subject-specific terminology, reading and in-depth analysis of technical texts, limited consideration for the professional needs graduates will have in relation to English, and overall approach to teaching and learning which was teacher-led and non-interactive. EfU thus sought to promote a more contemporary approach to ESP.

The model for professional development embedded in EfU was not particularly radical; ESP teachers attended three five-day intensive blocks of training on different aspects of ESP (collectively, these blocks constitute the British Council’s CiVELT course). They returned to their institutions and were expected to ‘disseminate’ what they learned to their colleagues, but otherwise the approach to professional development adopted can be described as an intensive off-site workshop-based training model. I have written elsewhere about the shortcomings of such models and reviews of different approaches to teacher professional development have also suggested that, in terms of impact on what teachers do, workshops are often not particularly effective. However, the experience of EfU suggests otherwise and it is useful to consider key factors that have contributed to its success (as evidenced in the extensive impact evaluation data that have been collected) in bringing about practical change in what ESP teachers do.

Some of these key factors were:

  1. Systematic baselining. The baseline report by Bolitho & West (2017) was noted above. This described the state of ESP in Ukrainian universities before EfU and provided clear evidence of the need for change which acted as a stimulus for institutions to participate in the project.
  2. Institutional support. EfU did not work simply at the level of individual ESP teachers; Heads of Department (HoDs) were also heavily involved, attending dedicated training events and being tasked with the central role of facilitating among their staff the new approaches to ESP that were being promoted on the project.
  3. A new ESP syllabus. Early in the project a new ESP syllabus was adopted by all participating universities. This provided a template for the development of new ESP courses for different disciplines. The collective adoption of this new syllabus ensured that the changes to teaching and learning ESP teachers were being encouraged to make were aligned with the syllabus they were required to implement.
  4. Collective enterprise and ownership. EfU was characterised by a sense of collective enterprise and ownership, on a national level. HoDs and participating teachers formed an enduring community which persisted throughout the project and which will undoubtedly persist beyond its formal conclusion.
  5. Action planning. All participating departments were engaged in developing, reviewing and sharing action plans which allowed them to define the work they were doing to enhance the impact of EfU. This periodic engagement with their action plans meant that the profile of EfU was kept high and institutions were able to monitor the progress they were making in promoting change in the teaching of ESP.
  6. Dissemination. Some 300 ESP teachers were directly trained, but many more had indirect access to new ideas about ESP through workshops, presentations and similar sessions that those attending the training organised on return to their departments. This substantially extended the reach of the project.
  7. Teacher motivation. It is clear too that many ESP teachers were ready to change and keen to engage in the kinds of professional development EfU provided. Post-training, too, teachers returned to their workplaces with a new vision of ESP which they were keen to implement (and which their department supported them in doing so). In educational reform, teacher motivation is vital because it drives teachers to apply new skills and knowledge.
  8. High-quality training.  Finally, it must be noted too that the quality of the training during EfU was generally seen by teachers to be very high. High quality training does not guarantee that subsequent transformations in practice will occur. However, driven by the other facilitative factors noted here, high quality training provided an excellent basis for changes in teachers’ work and that of their departments more generally.

Of course, departments and individual teachers varied in their engagement with EfU and the impact of the project did vary across institutions. However, overall, EfU provides valuable insights into the factors that allow professional development to achieve practical change. In particular, the project highlights the key roles that institutional support, committed leadership, a sense of collective enterprise and teacher motivation play in bringing about positive educational reform.

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2 Responses to Making Educational Reform Work

  1. Fadhel Alsheikh says:

    A very interesting topic, We would be grateful to share with us summary of the project and achievements in EfU regards.
    I am always proud of being one of your students in Leeds University once, though I could not finish my degree due to the conflict in my home country.
    Following your updates and learning from you always my dear Tutor and Professor

    • Simon Borg says:

      Very nice to hear from you Fadhel. The results of the evaluation will be available online once the report has been written. In the meantime you may want to look at the baseline study and the EfU website too – links are in the blog.

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