Is there a reason that language schools (or schools in general) have to be so damn boring? Must they all be designed as some kind of perverse, communal, sensory deprivation tank? Think of the average school: grey or tan floor, white walls, a few pathetic posters (maybe), white acoustic-board ceiling, a blackboard.... little desks with hard chairs... Fluorescent lighting. Do school designers go to conventions to learn how to do this? Do they take seminars titled "How to design an ugly school" or "How to put your students to sleep"? Is this some sort of vast educational conspiracy? I've got a Masters in education, shouldn't I have been let in on it by now... or must you have a Phd. or MBA?
How tragic. How utterly tragic. Here's my idea of an good language school. It would be a coffee shop & used book store. This would form the core of the building. The decor would incorporate soft chairs and couches, wooden tables, the work of local artists, incandescent lighting, tapestries, christmas lights, woven rugs, wood trim, etc. To stock the bookstore, I'd buy used English books in India, where they can be purchased very cheaply (thanks to Green E books, in Kyoto, for the idea). Books would be chosen with an assortment of topics and language complexity (from kids books to adult novels) in mind. The shop would have plenty of couches, tables, and chairs to encourage folks to lounge, read and converse.
Classrooms would be arranged around the cafe/bookstore... or above it. I'd use an effortless acquisition curriculum (see my "respectable" blog for more info: http://www.effortlessacquisition.blogspot.com ). I'd design it as a semi-intensive night program... three hours a night, Monday through Thursday. When class was not in session, the rooms would be available for community groups and student groups to meet. Classrooms would likewise follow the theme... no tiny desks or fluorescent lights. Instead, each would have the feel of a lounge or a theater set.
The "school" would be much more than an English program. The idea is to create a community focal point for both native English speaking expats and students interested in acquiring the English language. The English program would run at night, but the coffee shop/bookstore would be open normal business hours, seven days a week.
A series of elective interest classes would be taught during the afternoons and weekends. Such classes might include topics such as meditation, jewelry making, Thai massage, soap making, yoga, cooking classes, video production, flower arranging, etc. These classes would be advertised in the cafe/bookstore on an announcement board and in local newspapers. All classes would be taught in English (with plenty of demonstrations, props, and other aids to comprehension). Classes would be open to the general public, including native speakers,... not just to students in the English program. These classes would charge a minimal fee to cover expenses (if any).
In addition to interest classes, a variety of social activities would be scheduled at the cafe. These would include student-formed club meetings (hiking club, running club, film club, etc.), parties, outings, speakers, and workshops. Most of these activities would be free to the public, though some would charge minimal fees to cover expenses. Again, both the expat and the English student populations would be targeted for such activities.
Krashen (2004) and many others have noted the importance of non-linguistic factors in determining success in a foreign language. Though he (and others) do mention social, psychological, and sensory factors-- I believe they underestimate the importance of these issues by a wide margin. Students who have ties with native speakers and opportunities to connect with them, have a much higher chance of achieving fluency. The social activities at the cafe, therefore, would target both native speaking expats and students, with the goal of encouraging the two to mix and interact. The school would aim to create a vibrant community and thus provide English language students with ample opportunities to use what they are learning-- in authentic social interactions.
This would provide some very cheap (free) marketing opportunities as well. Rather than paying for ads,... the school could publicize its extensive social events for free in local papers. These events would draw people to the cafe/school... where they would learn about the English program from posters, brochures, and other students.
Just in case you think this can't work... check out http://www.wisdom21.com
While their school lacks the social programs I would use, they have created a very interesting school. Wisdom21 strives to create a "country club" atmosphere for their students. Their lounge and classrooms are plush, beautiful, and inviting. And they are doing very well-- competing easily with the big chains in Osaka.
Actually, that's no surprise to me. What surprises me is that the monster chains manage to stay in business. How do you succeed with that level of mediocrity? The only reason, I suppose, is that most of their competition is just as dreadful. The chains have a big advantage in budget and marketing... so in the absence of quality, they win out.
Unfortunately, the students lose.