The freemium synthetic syllabus

Synthetic syllabi, or premade sets of discrete language items to be learned in a precise order, are toxic to many ESL/EFL teachers, much like grammar-translation and PPP.  However, continuing my tendency to try to redeem the desiccated shed skins of modern ELT, I believe these syllabi and the coursebooks that are often their physical instantiations have at least one thing to recommend them (beside their familiarity, which is also not to be underestimated), and is something of such overriding value that it may actually outweigh their many drawbacks.

I made the mistake a while back of downloading one of those freemium hidden picture games to fiddle with on my commute back when I still had one. What I noticed most about this game as compared to those of my youth was that the designers had spent a lot of time on ways to connive the player into playing more beyond the mechanics of the game itself, in effect doing away with the casual gaming experience.  They had incorporated layers of quests, sub-quests, and achievements to always make you feel like you’re working toward something, not wasting your time as you objectively are.

(Incidentally, I also noticed why “freemium” has come to have such a bad connotation.  Imagine if Street Fighter 2 had demanded additional money to continue more than once an hour.)

From within the game, your thoughts are occupied not just with your immediate task of clicking pictures but collecting a set of items which you use to unlock a new area of picture-clicking and get one step closer to completing a chapter which is one of 5 in your quest, after completing which you can go back again and try to get 3-star ratings on each minor picture-clicking stage.  This makes the game quite difficult to tear yourself away from, as your play time starts to feel like an investment rather than a diversion.  Even games with the most rudimentary elements (tapping buttons in time, matching colored blocks, tracing a pattern, etc.) now embed your task in a complex tapestry of things to be done in order to go on and do other bigger things.

Did you ever notice none of the birds in this game can fly?

There is a name for this, which is Game Design Thinking (read that article and tell me if the discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards sounds at all familiar).  Basically, game design is the science of bewildering people into spending hours on a futile activity by hyperstimulating the parts of the brain that want to be on task, forcing them to chase imaginary goals for that next hit of dopamine. If you do it right, people will pay you for the right to use your blatant psychological manipulation program and throw themselves into a digital Skinner Box.  Unlike a real Skinner box of course and as this blogger points out, the point is not the token you receive at the end but the process of getting there that triggers addictive behavior.  That and humans instead of pigeons.

Synthetic syllabi as games

What does this have to do with the synthetic syllabus? Think of how chapters and chapter sections are organized in the most premodern, unenlightened grammar-and-vocabulary coursebook you’ve ever used, the kind Geoff Jordan might unflatteringly compare a new product to.  The kind that pays no respect to the interlanguage construct, asks for no output from the student except for the answers to closed-ended questions, and treats language as a series of “language item” bricks to be polished to a shine and laid in a precise order.

In this kind of book, you follow a path from the front cover to the back cover quite similar to a modern iPhone game.  Master each item of a vocabulary list, and move on to a set of numbered exercises. Finish the page and you’re done with Section B, bringing you within one step of completing a whole chapter. Vanquish that review at the end and you deserve a break, maybe a cutscene or a Loading screen before you upgrade your Stealth skill and Dex attribute and start the next chapter.  You feel like you’ve accomplished something, and it almost doesn’t matter that what you’re practicing can’t be applied anywhere else in the world besides this textbook.  The mental kick is reward enough.

People are willing to pay money to experience being sent through a nested series of chores within chores even without any expectation of skillbuilding or social advancement.  So why do modern SLA writers lament this so terribly when the series of chores is called Headway and there are skills learned, albeit incidentally?

Pecking for treats

To see how materials can have value even if nothing they say works actually works, take the same retrograde textbook from earlier, and look at it through Krashen’s eyes. The process of reading and memorizing decontextualized vocabulary or metalinguistic grammar expositions won’t lead to their acquisition, but if there are example sentences or even dictations, audiolingual drills or gap-fill activities, some part of these can count as input.  There is something to be gained from these books even if they are not written with Krashen’s theories in mind, as graded readers are.  In other words, even when adopting Krashen’s non-interface position in which explicit learning never leads to acquisition and language does not develop skill-like through practice, the most hidebound didactic English textbook still has some value.  The value is not to be found in the things the textbook puts forth as ways to learn language, but language learning might still result, much like Daniel-san’s karate skills developed incidentally (to him) by his being made to perform a series of unrelated menial tasks.

Now add to that the fact that working through even objectively pointless nested goals is tremendously motivating, and you might see that some breaking down of the TL into groups of “language items” has positive effects, even if one of the effects isn’t that students learn those items.  The coursebook is the treat to keep pigeons pecking at a button, but neither the treat nor the button are the point – exercising pigeon necks is the point.  It’s easier to get pigeons to peck when you blatantly manipulate their psychology so they want to do so.  That is the point of the synthetic syllabus.

Here is a passage from the blog linked above’s description of Angry Birds but with a few words changed to reflect the experience of using Headway:

I’m challenged by the review exercises which begins dopamine release > I know completing the chapter unlocks the next chapter and I can progress further (anticipation of reward) > Once I’ve completed it I get a score based on how well I’ve done (Achievement) > And the pleasure of what I’ve just experienced causes me to jump into the next section.

Assuming some incidental learning is going on along the way, it’s hard to say that a synthetic syllabus is a waste of time.  It is certainly preferable to students losing motivation and quitting, which is a very real concern in the private market, where I used to work.  Better to keep them engaged in an inefficient way of learning than demoralized by an efficient one.

The opposite of my worst-case textbook, a learner-guided process syllabus where there are no hurdles to be jumped until the learners build them from driftwood by hand themselves, is a fundamentally unrewarding activity.  Without the learning process divided into discrete skills, sections, and short-term goals, the feeling is more like a long drive down a deserted highway than a safari or a ride.  Yes, it is a more efficient means of getting places, but it’s hours and hours of going past familiar-looking scenery unsure if you’re going in circles before you realize you’ve made it anywhere.  People pay to play Grand Theft Auto.  They get paid to actually drive long distances.  And no one is ever tempted to take a shortcut on Grand Theft Auto because they want the game to end sooner.

Yes, there are “tasks” in modern ELT methods, but not the kind that get you a numerical indicator of success at the end.  You might decide on a short list of things you’d save from a burning house or make a scrapbook page to share with your classmates, but you won’t get a 2- or 3-star score afterwards.  You also have to do hard work of negotiating the innumerable miscommunications that are possible and find your own path to the finish line rather than simply following the glowing arrow or turning the page.  There’s a lot of ambiguity in the “tasks” involved with modern approaches in language teaching, and while some would say that’s part of the point, it’s also a burden and demotivating if you never actually feel like you get to the finish line.

All kidding aside…

OK, I know I’m beginning to sound sarcastic in my descriptions of the benefits of game-like learning.  The truth is I’ve never seen a synthetic syllabus or coursebook that is as rewarding to complete as a video game.  Most of the time, the illusion of progress found in working through nested sections of a coursebook disappears once you actually try completing some of the questions and find them akin to a series of very abstract jigsaw puzzles, “colored blocks” of all the same color.  From the outside though, looking through the table of contents or the course syllabus, it is inviting in a way that an analytic syllabus usually is not – particularly if most of the analytic syllabus reads “to be decided later by mutual agreement between learners”.

I don’t think any language teacher, no matter how avant-garde his/her approach is, simply abandons students to figure out how to get to the end of a task themselves and treats all language holistically, i.e. never focusing on “language items” as discrete meaning-bearing units.  I’ve been a practitioner of Dogme and TBLT for at least 4 years and I’ve always tried to subdivide tasks or conversations into bite-sized or at least meal-sized chunks so that students will be able to describe what they’ve done at the end of a lesson, for their own reflection and so they have something to tell their bosses/parents.

By comparing synthetic syllabi to video games I just mean to point out that the feeling of being pushed through a set of discrete items can in itself be a rewarding experience – independent of any objective benefit like language learning – so much in fact that a massive industry exists specifically to cater to that need.  Even teachers opposed to thinking of language as a series of separate skills to be mastered one at a time could benefit from incorporating some of this thinking into lessons and syllabi.  Some degree of artifice could motivate learners more than actual but mostly invisible increases in any area of English competence.

Image from Kotaku.  Imagine if there were no stages but a blank map that learners are to co-construct a path on towards not a goal but simply greater proficiency in a skill that they cannot measure.

The thing is, dividing the lesson artificially in this way is hard and takes concentration on the part of the teacher.  It’s hard to do this in one lesson when you’re depending on students to provide content because that means you can’t write a summary of “What We’ve Learned Today” beforehand, and even harder to do over the course of several lessons or a semester.  A coursebook would do this part for you.  A coursebook chops the learning into bite-sized, Dungeon Level 12 stages without me even needing to pay attention.  A master storyteller can divide a narrative into separate acts almost by instinct, but a mere journeyman, particularly one with 5 other stories to tell that day, needs the help of notes and special effects.  Coursebooks can distract learners just enough with the feeling of going through a series of embedded quests to mitigate the need for immediate positive results or the teacher drawing out teachable points in ways that learners feel engaged in.

To me, this is the value of a traditional coursebook – taking the work of providing content away from students who enjoy going through a predetermined obstacle course a la Mario rather than being presented with a blank canvas like Minecraft, and pre-slicing the course and lesson into manageable bits for a teacher who can’t or isn’t willing to do it on his/her own.

I don’t plan to try to save the synthetic syllabus completely from the junk heap of educational history, just to point out that it has some value you can certainly see for yourself by perusing the App Store.

3 thoughts on “The freemium synthetic syllabus

  1. You must know I have a CALL essay to work on!

    One of the things that annoy me about CALL (mainly apps) is that it’s about learning interfaces rather than language. Maybe that is why I hate a lot of coursebooks, too. Positive affect is a good thing, and if the interface, that is the material is aesthetically pleasing it is one advantage. It’s just a shame most books are about learning X explicitly and possibly getting no chance to produce X (in PPP), instead of learning to do Y which will encourage learning through practice and production of X of one’s own volition.

    Mario 3 is the best Mario btw.


    1. Yes, it seems many language learning apps have no idea how to separate language into bite-sizes portions except by making lists of words and structures. I imagine it would be much harder (but well worth it) to program an app that analyzes whatever you happen to be enjoying on the internet for point-of-need focus-on-form and creates a Duolingo-like syllabus based on that. Someone should get to that.

      Liked by 1 person

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