Hidden Curriculum Article

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The Hidden Curriculum: issues and angst about cultural content in ELT materials. *
Nicolas Robert HURST Universidade do Porto

Without doubt, practising ELT teachers need to aware that ELT materials, here essentially meaning coursebooks, can never be neutral in terms of their cultural content. This is especially true for native-speaker English language teachers working outside of their own countries of origin. “If they have any subject content, coursebooks will directly or indirectly communicate sets of social and cultural values which are inherent in their make-up. This is the so-called 'hidden curriculum' which forms part of any educational programme, but is unstated and undisclosed. It may well be an expression of attitudes and values that are not consciously held but which nevertheless influence the content and image of the teaching material, and indeed the whole curriculum. A curriculum (and teaching materials form part of this) cannot be neutral because it has to reflect a view of social order and express a value system, implicitly or explicitly.” (Cunningsworth, A. 1995: 90) Some of these attitudes, ideas, beliefs or values, which Cunningsworth was perhaps referring to above, could include, at a macro-level: Individualism: each person is a distinct being and should assert his/her independence from others; Egalitarianism: Everyone believes that all humans have equal intrinsic worth; and Universalism: the value which everyone attributes to the obligation to be guided by their society’s standards, laws, procedures etc. Furthermore, a more detailed description might include: 1) People (self included) can be largely defined according to their work and achievements. 2) People can be positively motivated by a sense of competition. 3) People become irritated if the pace of activities is slower than their own. 4) People put more faith in the collective wisdom of their group than in any individual.



5) People give greater value to utilitarian aspects of experience than aesthetic ones. 6) People may be willing to offer their work for the benefit of the “common good”. 7) People believe there is a best way, which should be identified and followed. 8) People perceive their life and world as having “problems” which require “solutions”. 9) People make decisions by evaluating alternatives and selecting the most advantageous. 10) People tend to quantify all aspects of experience which unnecessarily qualifies that experience. (adapted from Dunnet, S. et al, 1986: 153/154) “Traditional thought in foreign language education has limited the teaching of culture to the transmission of information about the people of the target country, and about their general attitudes and world views.” (Kramsch, C. 1993: 205) But when it comes to evaluating the cultural content of course books employed for the teaching of English as a foreign language, it is important to first define what the concept of culture embraces: “Culture is a concept which needs to be handled carefully. Nowadays it is much used, often far too loosely. One of the problems is that the most common use of the word - as national culture - is very broad and conjures up vague notions about nations, races and sometimes whole continents, which are too generalised to be useful, and which often become mixed up with stereotypes and prejudices.” (Holliday, A. 1994: 21). Teaching manuals tend to talk of the difficulties associated with teaching English to particular groups of students that are influenced by particular national cultures, for example, “the Japanese culture” or “the Arab culture”. However, it is doubtful if such concepts (even accepting that they are identifiable) are very useful in describing the realities of different people from different national backgrounds being in contact in a classroom: they are too huge and complicated. Perhaps it makes more sense to think in terms of the rtealtionships that English generates at both local and global levels: “… to use English implies relationships to local conditions of social and economic prestige, to certain forms of culture and knowledge, and also to global relations of capitalism and particular global discourses of democracy, economics, the environment, popular culture, modernity, development, education and so on.” (Pennycook A. 1994: 34)



One way of illustrating this point is to play a short session of word association: after relaxing and clearing your mind, be ready to think of three words that immediately spring to mind after hearing the cue word. The cue word is “breakfast”. What are the three words? Almost certainly they do not include “tea” or “toast” or even “eggs” if you come from a cultural background associated with a Portuguese community. Sometimes it gets taken for granted that there is cultural correspondence when there is an apparently obvious lexical correspondence between two languages. Furthermore, consideration needs to be given to the referred to undisclosed or unstated meaning which in this case may include indications of economic power or class membership or even religion when talking about what is possible to include in the meaning of “breakfast”: how much can you afford to buy for breakfast? Does your social group have more time for an extended/elaborate breakfast? What does your religion limit you from eating for breakfast? Reference should be made here to the SapirWhorf hypothesis dating from the 1950s which identified two crucial features in the nature of language, in that it “influences the way we construct our model of the world (determinism). And if this I so, other languages convey differing visions of the same world (relativity)” (Fantini, A.E. 1997: 11) In terms of the general background to cultural content in coursebooks, it is worth taking into account two further aspects: how teachers of English as an identifiable professional group create a dynamic associated with their interests and work practices: “Methodologies are […] ethnocentric, not in terms of national cultures, but in terms of groups of teachers or political interest groups. These methodologies are constructions on reality created largely to satisfy the needs of the professional-academic cultures of teacher groups. They represent paradigms which provide these cultures with recipes for action, rather as scientific paradigms provide recipes for action for scientific groups. Hence, the maintenance of these methodologies is essential for the cohesion of the teacher group, and provides the standard for the group's identity.” (Holliday, A. 1994: 90). And secondly, questions concerning the adoption of an appropriate local methodology. A. Suresh Canagarajah rejects any notion of the existence of a one size fits all best methodology and urges a non-globalised solution: “How does classroom practice proceed in a context where there are no formalised, formulaic methods to deal with? This is perhaps the right moment to empower the local knowledge of teachers, deriving from their years of accumulated experience, wisdom, and intuitions about what works best for their students.” (2002: 140) Perhaps this insight also has equal application in the area of inclusion/selection of cultural content. In this light it is important to establish a series of criteria which could help clarify cultural nuances without resorting to binary distinctions of cultures based



around associations with nation states. One approach would be to use the list given below:  Social identity and social groups (social class, regional identity, ethnic minorities)  Social interaction (different levels of formality; as an outsider and an insider)  Belief and behaviour (moral, religious beliefs; daily routines)  Social and political institutions (state insitutions, health care, law and order, social security, local government)  National history (historical and contemporary events seen as markers of national identity)  National geography (geographical factors seen as being significant by members)  Stereotypes and national identity (what is “typical”, symbols of national stereotypes) (adapted from Byram, M. 1993a: 3/16) In addition, Byram makes a strong case for including not only “cultural awareness” but also “cultural experience” in his model of foreign language education: “Learners need to be prepared for experience of the daily rhythm of the foreign culture, of the behavious which are different and those which are the same but have a different significance. Such phenonema are verbal and nonverbal, and learners need both the skills of accuracy and fluency in the language and the awareness of the cultural significance of their utterances.” (Byram, M. 1989: 145) A more generalist perspective would be to attempt to heighten awareness of cultural questions among a group of colleagues who were, perhaps, attempting to choose a new coursebook. An activity based around the worksheet given below could serve this purpose:



Being Interculturally Aware. At the most basic level, an intercultural perspective implies understanding that: 1) Languages cannot be translated word-for-word. All languages have idiomatic expressions which carry connotations above and beyond the meanings of the separate words. Example(s):_______________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________ 2) Intonation patterns carry meaning. All languages have different paterns as well as other features such as loudness which are characteristic of that language. Example(s):_______________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________ 3) Each language/culture employs gestures/body movements to convey meaning. These are not necessarily universal. Example(s):_______________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________ 4) Languages uses different grammatical elements to describe all parts of the physical world. Example(s):_______________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________ 5) All languages have “taboo” topics (and words!!). It is important to know what you CANNOT say, to whom and when. Example(s):_______________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________ 6) At a personal level, terms of address may vary considerably. There may be well established “rules” even in informal situations.



Example(s):_______________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________ (adapted from Valdes J.M. 1986: 148/149) In practical terms, the traditional “location” of ELT coursebooks was generally in the USA or the UK, either as alternatives or more recently as a source of comparison. Nowadays, there is a tendency to “de-territorialise” coursebooks and present a wider view of the world, dealing with ideas centred around “World Englishes” whereas previously in 1988 it had been suggested that “globally designed textbooks have continued to be stubbornly Anglo-centric: appealing to a world market as they, they cannot by definition draw on local varieties of English.” (Prodromou, L. 1988: 73) Basic concepts that should guide any discussion of cultural content are: firstly, inclusivity: which refers to issues such as gender roles as well as age, class, ethnicity or ability/disability are included. For example, in terms of gender roles, the way in which women/men are represented may directly reflect on students motivation to learn. How often are women depicted as being self-assertive or initiative taking or men as being emotionally open? Current linguistic norms should also be taken into account: the use of “men” as a generic to mean both genders or the careful use of his/her in rubrics/instructions for exercises. So ingrained are such linguistic norms that it was extremely difficult to get a predominantly female class of teacher trainees at FLUP to refer to the role of a teacher using the pronoun “she”. Secondly, appropriacy, which implies that certain topics should be avoided because they are perceived to be sensitive or offensive. In this context an acronym may prove a useful guide: P A R S N I P politics alcohol religion sex narcotics -isms pork (see Gray, J. 2002: 159/161) Coursebook writers themselves are also explicitly considering these issues in their approach to materials production: “In terms of content we realised that we could not please everyone. We did compromise and not include some texts we would have used with our own students, on the grounds that they would not go down well in such and such a country. We did not want to fight shy of sex,



drugs, religion and death (still THE taboo subjects in EFL coursebooks) but found ourselves doing so and being expected to do so. (At the higher level we got away with more) There was also the great influence of political correctness at that time, particularly the men vs. women debate, which was US/UKteacher/publisher driven rather than student driven. Certain texts were avoided, others were encouraged – women in important jobs, for example – and others toned down.” (Bell, J and Gower, R. 1998: 128) The importance of being sensitive to potential interpretations of cultural content is also raised by Penny Ur (1991: 197/200) in her discussion of “different kinds of content” where she identifies four areas which merit special attention with reference to the notion of an “underlying message in a coursebook”. She also suggests analtyical strategies; for example: for sexism: “If your book is illustrated, look at the first 30 pictures. Count the number of men and the number of women featured in them. If there are no pictures, look at the grammar and vocabulary exercises, and do the same count on pronouns or nouns of clear gender. In either case, was there a significant difference? If so, what is the implication?” Ur goes on to suggest further strategies under the headings of ageism, social orientation and values. An alternative approach could be to review the cultural content of a coursebook making use of an analytical grid, like the example given below:

The Visuals: what choice of pictures/images; culturally weighted? intended impact etc

The Linguistics: use of inclusive/appropriate evidence of bias etc language;

The Text: what is the source? what style is it? what world view does it presuppose? etc



The Topic: what is the relationship with the target culture? are there any institutional implications or assumptions?

Local Specificity: how does this relate to the local context: as a socio-cultural context? to local learners’ needs?

Any other ELT related comment? methodological implications?

(revised and adapted from Byram, M. 1993a) However, the net result of such approaches has tended to produce an increasing element of “likeness” across all course books, to the extent that there is a lack of cultural distinctiveness. Restricted exposure of students to “safe” content and topics only may, in fact, be demotivating as it reduces levels of “engagement” which has linguistic repercussions. Settings in general English coursebooks tend to represent a clean, affluent social environment and focus on leisure activities, entertainment, holidays and shopping. An even more reductive approach to content as being more a reflection of writers’ interests than the readers’ interests, has been described in terms of “the 3 Ds of consumerist EFL culture: dinner parties, dieting and dating”.(Wallace, C. 2002: 109) Coursebook writers/producers should aim at an accurate, factual, unbiased (ideologically) and contextualised (in time) depiction of social reality, an accurate depiction of the linguistic reality and take care with how they handle the icons of the target “pop” culture. This final point requires special attention if the charge of “linguistic imperialism” is to be avoided. As Phillipson (1992: 59)



has noted: “English linguistic imperialism is often advanced by such cultural activities as film, videos, and television. For instance, besides pop music, television is the greatest source of the considerable amount of English that children in the Nordic countries know before they meet the language as a school subject.” This context should be readily recognised by English language teachers working in Portugal where an extraordinary quantity of English language music, films and television programmes is broadcast. Any attempte to evaluate a coursebook is naturally a complex procedure, whether dealing with locally produced, minitery restricted publications or books from the global market. For example, “it demands the sassessment of the content of a coursebook in realtion to its professed aims and objectives. … to what extent the goal of cultural instruction is stated … whether it is primary or subordinate to other goals … whether the cultural content is presented in context … or as isolated facts.” (Skopinskaja, L. 2003: 60) English language teaching coursebooks should be a two way bridge to connect the students’ world to the world of English remembering that “Accurate intercultural communication is built on fluency in the target language, insight into what people are imaging when they speak, and the ability to decipher nonlinguistic symbols such as gestures and icons. Because people use language to aid and complement other behavioural purposes, language cannot be understood in isolation from the larger context of behaviour – all of which is culturally filtered and most of which is culturally originated.” (Seelye, H. N. 1997: 24/25) Above all, it is perhaps relevant to bear in mind “No book can meet all the needs and interests of each group of learners that uses it. For this reason, a coursebook must be adapted to your particular group of learners.” (Nunan, D. 2003: 230) This is as much true for socio-cultural content as it is for linguistic input. Indeed the perspective of the learner should not be underestimated since they bring with them their own charcteristics, their previous learning experience and their attitudes and specific objectives related to the target culture. Thus, “The target culture does not need to be English or British culture and should include a variety of cultures. While considering these questions, learners’ needs, charcteristics and aims should be taken into account.” (Kilickaya, F. 2007)

Bibliography: BELL, J. and GOWER, R. “Writing Course Materials for the World: A Great Compromise.” Materials Development in Language Teaching. Ed. B. TOMLINSON. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.128.



BYRAM, M. Cultural Studies in Foreign Language Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1989. BYRAM, M. “Langauge and culture learning: The need for integration.” Germany, its representation in textbooks for teaching German in Great Britain. Ed. M BYRAM. Frankfurt: Diesterweg, 1993a, pp.3/16. CANAGARAJAH, A.S. “Methods and Practice in Periphery Classrooms.” Globalization and Language Teaching. Eds. B. BLOCK and D. CAMERON. London and New York: Routledge, 2002, pp.134/150. CUNNINGSWORTH, A. Heinemann, 1995. Choosing Your Coursebook. Oxford:

DUNNET, S, DUBIN, F. and LEZBERG, A. “ELT from an intercultural perspective.” Culture Bound.. Ed. J.M VALDES. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp.148/161. GRAY, J. “The Global Coursebook in ELT.” Globalization and Language Teaching. Eds. B. BLOCK and D. CAMERON. London and New York: Routledge, 2002, pp.151/167. FANTINI, A.E. “Language: its cultural and intercultural dimensions.” New Ways in Teaching Culture. Ed. A. E. FANTINI. Alexandria: TESOL Inc, 1997, pp.3/15. HOLLIDAY, A. Appropriate Methodology Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. and Social Context.

KILICKAYA, F. Guidelines to Evaluate Cultural Content in Textbooks. The Internet TESL Journal, accessed 26.02.2007. KRAMSCH, C. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. NUNAN, D. Practical English Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. PENNYCOOK, A. The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London: Pearson, 1994. PHILLIPSON, R. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. PRODROMOU, L. English as a cultural action. ELT Journal, 42 (2), 1988. SEELYE, H.N. “Cultural goals for achieving intercultural communicative competence” New Ways in Teaching Culture. Ed. FANTINI, A. E. Alexandria: TESOL Inc, 1997, pp.22/27.



SKOPINSKAJA, L. “The role of culture in foreign langauge teaching materials: an evaluation of an intercultural perspective.” Incorporating intercultural communicative competence in language teacher education. Ed. LÁZAR, I. Strasbourg: The European Centre for Modern Languages, The Council of Europe, 2003, pp.39/68. UR, P. A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. VALDES, J.M. Culture Bound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. WALLACE, C. “Local Literacies and Global Literacy.” Globalization and Language Teaching. Eds. B. BLOCK. and D. CAMERON. London and New York: Routledge, 2002, pp.101/114.

* This article is a revised, adapted and updated version of "Ways and Means of Evaluating Cultural Content in Coursebooks" in A Escola e a Diversidade Cultural, BIZARRO, R. (org), Areal Editores, Porto, Portugal, pp.241/248. Bibliographical reference for this article:

"The Hidden Curriculum: issues and angst about cultural content in ELT materials" in Estudos de Metodología de la Lengua Inglesa (IV), Perez Ruiz, L. Pizarro Sanchez, I. and Gonzalez Cascos, E. (eds), 2008, Universidad de Valladolid Publicacíons/Centro Buendía, Valladolid, España.


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