View from the desk
Peter Lahiff, Academic Director of Future Learning Language School in Ireland
Peter Lahiff

This week, Peter Lahiff, Academic Director of Future Learning Language School in Ireland, shares the results of a recent survey of their agents on demand for innovations in summer programmes.

After almost twenty years working in summer junior programmes it is natural to feel that a change is needed. I couldn't help feeling that the same old mix of general English classes in the morning with sports and museum visits had grown stale and that our young students were increasingly restive and hard to engage on such programmes, no matter how you tweaked it.

 

When David Ganly met me four years ago to propose working with him on a technology-enhanced language school, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the change I had been looking for. To begin with it was difficult to describe what we wanted to do to people that didn't really see the need for such a dramatic change in the old reliable recipe. A few agents, who were themselves educators, recognised the value of integrating technology as an essential tool in a communicative language programme and sent us around 40 students in our first year. We learned a lot that first year, the feedback was overwhelming positive and the same groups very happy to come back and each year since then others have joined them.

 

It was still a niggling question whether this is a select group, or whether there is a wider feeling among agents that such change was needed. As we go into the fifth year, and in preparation for a presentation on the topic at ICEF 2017 in Berlin, we decided it was time of ask around and see if others in the industry also felt that there was this demand for something different.

 

We sent an online survey to all the agents on our contact list of around 2,000 agents and waited. When the responses* came back, they showed that more than two thirds of the responding agents have experienced a demand for something different in the junior market over the last three years. One commented that there was a demand for change, but that the parents didn't know what that should look like, so we probed a bit deeper in our questions in order to find out.

 

We found that just under two thirds of agents have seen more demand for lessons at higher levels among juniors, reflecting more effective teaching back home and the increasing prevalence of CLIL [Content and Language Integrated Learning] and English-medium schools in our biggest markets, Spain and Italy. More than half of the agents who responded have seen a demand for more communicative lessons while almost a quarter have seen a demand for less traditional grammar and vocabulary lessons, only 14 per cent felt that students wanted more of this. This is not terribly surprising since the communicative approach to language teaching has been the dominant method in most places where the language is taught for many years.

 

The next three questions asked about the three pillars of the very different approach that we have adopted in all our programmes, which are project-based, collaborative and make extensive use of technology. Just under half have seen a demand for more project-based lessons, compared to five per cent who felt there was a demand for less or this. Forty per cent have seen a demand for more collaborative work in lessons, compared to five per cent who feel demand for this has lessened. Almost 60 per cent see demand for more use of technology in lessons, compared to nine per cent who see demand for less of it.

 

The lessons are only a third of any summer language programme, with activities and accommodation making the other two thirds, so we also asked about activities. Although these have also been affected by a demand for change, it is not as profound as what we have seen in classes. Just under a fifth of agents who responded have seen a demand for less museum and gallery trips, which has to be balanced against a similar number who have seen more demand for this. Sport and team games still have strong supporters with almost 40 per cent seeing a demand for more of this type of activity, but eight per cent do want to see less of this. A third of agents have seen a demand for more arts and crafts workshops while 18 per cent would like to see less of this. There was a stronger showing for drama-, dance- and music-based activities, however. Forty-three per cent of agents have seen a demand for more performance-based activities like these, while just over a tenth want to see less.

 

There were two areas where our survey showed a significant demand for change in activities. The first is in the area of content integration, possibly inspired by the popularity of CLIL across Europe. Just under half of the agents who responded have seen a demand for more activities linked to other school subjects (geography, science, etc.) while only 12 per cent would like to see less of this offered. We have brought in qualified second-level teachers in a range of different subject areas to lead this element of our courses.

 

The most significant development identified by our survey, however, is that just under two thirds of agents have seen a demand for more activities which develop intercultural communication skills, with less than 3 per cent feeling there is a demand for less of this. Taking the opportunity in the activities programme to facilitate the development of students' life skills and help them to relate to fellow students from other language backgrounds, and to better understand the culture around them, is something we have decided to emphasise in our activities. It is also important to us that our learners get a sense of having travelled somewhere different and aim to achieve this by linking the activities to the project work in the lessons.

 

The difference in our approach has been to have a more project-based syllabus which sets the students real-world tasks which involve them in creating digital products that are published online. Intercultural collaboration is a vital element of this project work and in doing them they use their personal devices as a tool for the creation of digital products. Our key innovation has been the multi-skill certification which we have devised that considers the communication skills, digital skills and collaboration skills that the students demonstrate on our courses in equal measure.

 

From the first year where many agents were not willing to risk something so different, we have gone through a number of phases in the way that we explain what we do. In the second year, we took the emphasis off the technology and focused more on fun. In the third year, we assisted agents more with promotional content that would help them to explain the programme, include a professionally produced video about it. In year four, we developed content integration of specialist school subjects as part of the activity programme and did more agent visits to show them what this looked like in practice. This year and with the help of our survey we feel that agents have come to recognise the demand for something like this. The change I was looking for is really happening.

 

*survey results based on 85 responses

 

 

Peter Lahiff is the Academic Director of Future Learning Language School, which runs summer programmes in Ireland and the UK as well as mini-stays and high school immersion courses in Ireland. The provider recently announced two new summer centres for 2018.