When developing an English for Specific Purposes (ESP) curriculum for new clients, there is one thing at the forefront of my planning – objectives.
Objectives mean different things to different people. When we talk about objectives, teachers, trainers and lecturers often talk in terms of lesson objectives and learning objectives. Indeed, these are an indispensable part of the teaching process, and critical to effective instruction. To go blindly into a course with no real idea what you want to achieve is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
When I talk about objectives, however, I am equally concerned with – and far more interested in – the long-term objectives of the client. I try to think beyond just the individual session or programme, focusing instead on how my work is going to help clients to achieve their professional goals outside of the classroom, after the course, now and in the months and years to come.
It is very much part of my personality and professional character to get excited by long-term goals, and I am very much drawn to the “big picture”. I am driven by the way in which my work contributes to the achievement of my clients’ personal and organisational objectives.
Teaching and training in the ESP field enables me to pursue and embrace a fulfilling, long-term, goal-oriented, big-picture-driven professional practice, and to achieve this, my process for designing and developing ESP curriculum is centred around four objective-based questions.
I want to explore these questions in a little more depth, and offer suggestions for how to figure out the answers.
Why is the client here?
Most importantly you need to know what long-term objectives the client is seeking to achieve by working with you. The most obvious answer to this question is “to learn English” or, at least usually, at ESP level, “to improve English skills”. However these represent only short-term objectives, as it is unlikely that a client’s very purpose for existing, and the focus of everything they do, is to improve their command of the English language. There has to be a reason. There has to be a why.
Developing ESP curricula allows you to get to grips with what the client really needs, and why they need it.
To understand what a client intends to achieve by working with you, you can look at their organisation. You can ask what projects or activities they are working on at the moment, or will be working on in the future. You can ask who is going to benefit from these projects or activities. You can ask what kind of impact that they are looking to achieve, and what kind of legacy they want their work to have. You can ask how they think English communication can help contribute to their success, and how you can work together to make this a reality.
Once you can fully understand the big picture, you can put into effect a more targeted and more meaningful client experience, where each and every teaching objective is directly linked to helping the client to achieve their purpose.
Which linguistic functions does the client need to master?
Understanding the communication objectives of clients can help shed some light on the linguistic functional objectives. Language and communication is functional. Whether you are buying a loaf of bread, or making an inaugural address to an audience of hundreds of thousands. Getting to the bottom of what those functions really are is essential to a successful, objective-oriented ESP programme.
To give a practical example, I was putting together a seminar programme on written English for drafting project funding and grant applications, targeted at public sector organisations and NGOs looking to obtain European funding. Whilst designing the programme, I was exploring some of the core elements associated with funding applications. One such element is the problem statement or project rationale. I noted that, in order to craft an effective problem statement or project rationale, you need to engage various language functions:
To craft an effective problem statement or project rationale, you need to be able to master multiple functions, and to use them interchangeably to the best effect.
This is the case with all elements of proposal writing, and this is the case with all ESP programmes. If you know what functions the client will need to work with, then you will be able to integrate these functions into the programme, within the context of the client’s goals and objectives.
Which words and word combinations does the client need to understand?
Vocabulary is usually at the top of the client’s wish-list. Understanding – and being able to use - specific words and phrases within a particular field, are key elements of effective communication.
Individual words may be especially prevalent with a specific academic or professional discipline, and being able to express yourself using standard and specific word combinations or collocations tends to indicate that you know your field, you know what you are talking about, and you know how to communicate it correctly. Whoever the client might be, it is imperative that you understand the discourse that they need to engage with.
As a native (or near-native) English speaker, and as an expert in a certain field, you might have a good feeling for the kind of lexis that might be required for your client to achieve their objectives. It is, however, highly unlikely that you can rely solely on your own judgement to determine what is lexically important or relevant, and what is not. There are too many options. Too many variables. Too many words.
An approach I have taken to using is corpus analysis – that is, utilising big data to tell me what my client probably needs the most. In my writing and in my lesson planning, I have taken to using a fabulous piece of free software called AntConc. While this software is pretty nerdy and assumes some level of background understanding of statistical frequency analysis, it’s quite easy to get the hang of. I can input 10, 20, 50, 100 or more text files, and this software will tell me which words and expressions are most common. It will report the range and frequency of each and every collocation, subject to me setting some basic parameters.
Let’s say you have an ESP client from the Ministry of Social Affairs, responsible for social insurance and welfare policy. You can perform a basic Google search on all English-language, government-published reports on social insurance and welfare policy, from all over the world. You can download the top 100 results, feed these documents into AntConc, and within less than a minute, you can precisely identify the key words, phrases, and collocations that your client needs to be able to work with. This saves you a lot of time, and gives your clients the confidence that what you are teaching them is practical, relevant, and in common usage internationally. Integrating specific, objective-oriented lexical corpora into an ESP programme is an extremely useful and highly-efficient way to ensure that you are designing your curricula with those clear objectives in mind.
What kind of communication tasks will help the client learn in a meaningful manner?
The final stage is to create real-world, meaningful tasks that enable the client to develop and put into practice those language skills and communication competences that they need to pursue their personal and organisational agenda.
I am a huge fan of task-based learning, particularly in ESP. Task-based learning turns language into a tool, rather than an objective. Communication becomes a means, and not an end – just like in real life. I think this is essential in ESP, because the tasks that clients are performing in their day-to-day activities – those tasks which help them progress towards their goals and objectives – are not concerned with learning, but with doing.
If you can replicate as best as possible the real-life communication tasks that clients need to be able to perform in their work, and if you can enable clients to draw upon their linguistic and communicational resources to perform these tasks in a controlled, safe environment, with constructive feedback and correction, then their ability to use English to achieve their objectives outside of the training room will be greatly enhanced.
As with other elements discussed in this article, this requires some degree of research. When I work with a new client, or design a new curriculum for an ESP programme, I read a lot about the field, and speak in depth with the client. I keep notes of the types of tasks that professionals in this field have to perform, across all 4 sub-skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. The more realistic I can make a programme, the more engaged the client, and the better the learning outcomes.
My chief advice to ESP trainers would be as follows: You are a resource, not a commodity. You can help bring about change, progress and impact in whatever field you are specialised in. You can use your skills and professional competences to support people in achieving their long-term objectives. Create your own legacy. Think big, think long-term, and you can use your valuable talents to help make a real difference.
I have just returned from Finland, where I was co-hosting a workshop on developing and mainstreaming high-quality project outputs in the prison education sector. I was in my element. This important but heavily-neglected niche of the public domain has so much potential for innovation and change, with real-world impacts on some of the most marginalised people in our society. I am truly passionate about prison education, and I am grateful every day for having the opportunity to work with organisations across Europe to deliver excellent results in this area.*
Or, indeed, any area.
To be clear, I am passionate about the ways in which governments and civil society can use education and training to overcome some of the major challenges facing our society - whether in our justice systems, or our health services, or our communications infrastructure,, or our pedestrian safety policies.
I am passionate about the way that education and training can have an impact in public policy, and can make a difference to people’s lives. As a trainer, I guess I have always wanted to be able to offer my skills to support organisations whose primary objective is to make a difference to people’s lives - organisations that address public problems, create public value, deliver public services or otherwise have an impact in the public domain.
So, when someone asks me: “what do you do?”, my practiced pitch is that I work with public policy organisations, using education and training to help achieve public policy objectives.
Let me explain.
What is a 'Public Policy Organisation'
There are a number of interpretations of what a 'public policy organisation' is. Quite clearly a continuum exists between a very narrow definition of public policy as being purely the turf the nation state, to a much broader definition of public policy as the province of broader civil society, the economy and the family. I suppose any definitions need to meet the criteria and purposes of those doing the defining.
For me, and for my purposes, public policy organisations include those that are (1) involved in making public policy decisions (government and intergovernmental institutions, parliamentary groups and elected representatives) or (2) in delivering public policy on the ground (public services and organisations across the public sector), but also (3) those that are interacting with public policy, either by contributing to policy making process, or mediating the delivery of public service and public value (international organisations and NGOs, policy think-tanks and research institutions).
I very much see these organisations as key actors in the public policy process, and their goal, in whatever field they work in, is to achieve an impact in the public domain. The people that work for such organisations are making a difference to people’s lives, and this is really important. The training, education and development that they receive should serve this purpose, and help create a really positive, meaningful impact, whatever field they are working in.
I am passionate about the ways in which governments and civil society can use education and training to overcome some of the major challenges facing our society, and how education and training can have an impact in public policy, and make a difference to people’s lives.
Professional Development in Public Policy Organisations
It is important that training programmes for professionals working in public policy organisations can be clearly linked not just to the immediate job they are performing, but to the long-term objectives they are working towards. Courses on communications skills need a clear focus on the real-world situations that people face, and the real-world outcomes people want to achieve. One of the reasons I offer 6-months' follow-up support with my training programmes is because I want to ensure that people can put what they learn into practice outside of the training room.
If someone participates in a training, with the best of intentions, but that training brings about little or no change in real, practicable, relevant performance, then it has achieved nothing of any value to the organisation, or to the wider public domain.
Training by Objectives has gained some currency in the field of strategic human resource development**, and there is some recognition of the need to use scarce training resources to target specific objectives, and the need to evaluate learning outcomes not just on the basis of what has been learnt, but on the basis of how training outcomes will contribute to organisational success - or in our case, public policy impact. Moreover, beyond helping learners to achieve their objectives, Training by Objectives actually makes the training process itself more meaningful. Motivation is higher. Knowledge and skills retention is better. Return on investment in training is greater.
Education and Training for Grassroots Change
In such a people-driven environment as public policy, however, it is not only professionals in the field that can benefit from training by objectives. Achieving public policy impacts requires a dynamic interaction between public policy actors and the citizens or communities that they are serving. The beneficiaries of public policy initiatives are often the same people who are tasked with creating a public policy impact on the ground.
A case in point: I was involved in a project together with the Turkish Directorate for Policing and Security, with the objective of reducing pedestrian fatalities on the roads of Antalya (a popular tourist destination on the Turkish Riviera). The project developed training programmes that would be delivered to teachers in local driving schools, helping to change attitudes towards pedestrian safety at a grassroots level. By training driving instructors on how to instil better attitudes towards pedestrian safety in learner drivers, they became an integral part of realising a larger public policy agenda - turning Antalya into a "pedestrian priority city".
Using Education and Training to Achieve Public Policy Objectives
I think prison education is a prime example of how the education and training can play a role in achieving public policy objectives. For prisoners sitting in the classroom, education and training is used as a tool to change their lives and to steer them away from a cycle of crime. For staff working in this environment, education and training provides an opportunity for professional development, to improve the work they do, giving them the knowledge and skills to support their target group. Both of these forces are necessary to create greater long-term impacts in this particular policy sphere, whether it is enhancing public safety, reducing the pressure on the criminal justice system, or contributing to an educated and employable workforce.
I truly believe that this is also the case for many other areas of the public domain. I believe that objective-targeted education and training can help right across the public policy field, from policy development and leadership, through to policy implementation and delivery. From government through to public service provision. From white paper planning through to target group mobilisation. I believe that education and training programmes can be designed in close conjunction with policymaking processes to help make a positive and more meaningful impact to people's lives, and I am excited to be part of that.
If you are interested in learning more about education and training for achieving public policy objectives, contact me directly here.
* I am proud to sit on the steering committee of the European Prison Education Association (EPEA) - if you are interested, find out more about the work of the EPEA here.
** A Google search of the term 'Training by Objectives' draws fewer than 7,500 results, compared to over 7,500,000 for 'what to make with old bananas' and 91,000,000 for 'Justin Bieber' - so perhaps it needs a cultural revival?