One of the first things to think about when designing a course is the kinds of situational or environmental constraints that may exist. These constraints are factors that have the potential to impede the success of the course, and must be taken into account during the planning stage. They could be related to the students, the teacher, the resources available and the general situation.
In my case, the biggest constraints are time, resources, students' needs and students' level of proficiency. Let's look at these a little more closely.
One of the most common problems that teachers find it hard to accept is that of time. Most teachers in the private sector only see their students for around three hours per week. In the context of adult learners, the majority of these will also have very little time to spend on language study or practice outside the classroom. Adults have lots of commitments such as work or studies and families as well as all the basic daily activities they have to make time for. This means that trying to get them to do anything in their free time is very difficult, and at best they will find half an hour once or twice a week. The challenge for us is to make sure they progress quickly in order to maintain high motivation, but it is very difficult to do, especially if some of the learners are sporadic attenders. How can we find the time to recycle language enough that the learners really internalise and acquire it without them feeling that they are repeating something they have already learnt. How can we make the students feel that they are making good progress? One possible solution is to do several tasks over several lessons that use the language in question, including warmer and filler games or activities. As for the lack of homework, maybe trying to incorporate the use of technology could be a solution. If we can get students using a social network in English, they can chat to each other, send messages, and share links to English language materials on the web. This will not seem like homework and it is a way of encouraging students to use the language out of the classroom.
In this particular case the problem is finding interesting and thought-provoking materials that challenge and motivate the learners. This group of adults enjoy talking about things they have been doing and about current affairs, especially local politics! However, we can't talk about politics all the time, and this means that the majority of these discussions are based around something they have read or heard in their own language, or a newspaper article I have brought in. The traditional topics that are found in course books are not suitable for this class, as many of them have been learning English for several years, and are tired of the typical course book material. Their syllabus should be based around topics that are up to date and stimulating. This means that choosing texts and listening tasks before the course starts may be detrimental, as they will be out of date by the time they are used. I will need to design a flexible syllabus whose topics can change according to what goes on in the world. However, I can choose the topics beforehand - in most years there will be a natural disaster, a general election in some part of the world, an important sports event, a change in government policy and so on. It will be the choice of lesson material that will have to wait until each specific lesson is planned.
Students' needs and levels
Although the group is small (usually around 6 students), each student has different needs and wants. Some have excellent speaking skills but have big gaps in their grammar, others find reading and writing fairly easy but have problems listening and speaking, some want conversation and others want grammar practice. I need to accommodate all these needs into the syllabus in order to keep everyone happy and motivated. Looking at common wants, the course should be based around improving speaking and listening skills whilst widening students' vocabulary and revising grammar. However, most of the learners do not enjoy doing the typical controlled grammar exercise, and will therefore need a different way in which to practise language.
These are the most important environmental factors that I need to consider for this class. Other factors to consider are lack of lesson planning time for the teacher and whether it is worth spending so much time designing a course that is only suitable for this specific group. Will the course be suitable for other groups? If not, it may not be practical to develop a whole new course but to adapt an existing syllabus or published course book.