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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

January 30, 2009

Notes and anecdotes from the end of the second term…

A few things that I’ve noticed on campus and in the classroom in the past few weeks…

1. Choral repetition- "Now THAT’S English"…

OK, we all know that choral repetition is not the most efficient way to learn a language. This lingering legacy of the audio-lingual method is widely-regarded as a questionable methodology that looks particularly outdated in a university classroom. But I confess that I do use it every once in a while, usually to try to drill in just that bit more deeply some pattern or pronunciation issue. But it is not- and I repeat NOT- the focus, or main teaching method, used in my classes. Hey, I’m just as progressive and use as many of the new millenium methods as the next TESOLer.

What I do find interesting though is the reaction of the students to these peripheral and very occasional choral repetition bits. Suddenly there’s this rush of energy, a sense of involvement, an air of “Ok, now we’re doing some REAL English, dammit!”. With the more ‘methodologically-correct’ tasks I get varying student reactions, but with choral repetition? “Now that’s an English class!”.

2. The Center Shiken follies…

Yes, we are one of the universities that host this yearly flagellation session and, yes, it is always a spectacle to behold. A good chunk of the campus is sealed off with officials wearing black and yellow ‘STAFF’ jackets scooting around with frightening sense of purpose and efficiency, like a SWAT team before a visit by the President, making sure that all security is in place. All classes and events the day before the test are cancelled in order to prepare. Current students can’t get near the testing building, much like the common riff-raff not being able to enter the holy of holies in an ancient temple, less they defile it or, in some unfathomable way, compromise its purity.

The invigilating procedures and protocols (I escaped that duty this year) run to 60 plus pages in print, including advice on what to do if an examinee faints, claims sickness, gives birth, is kidnapped by aliens etc. It terms of tension, the whole process makes the guard stations at Panmunjom feel like a Caribbean limbo party. And did you know that there are back-up invigilators waiting in the wings just in case a 1st-stringer goes down? It’s true! Bench invigilator- now there’s a calling!

Ultimately, I feel really sorry for the examinees. The head invigilator increases the tension in the air even further by making regularly-timed declarations such as, “The biology examination of the 2009 Center University Placement Examination will begin in precisely three minutes and twenty seconds”, with all the official pomp and foreboding solemnity of a North Korean newscaster. In this edgy waiting period I recalled how students fumbled nervously with their pens and other on-desk apparatus. One poor sap spent the last five minutes of the build-up arranging and then re-arranging his seven regulation pencils in strict order according to size at his pre-determined Geometrical Spot of Most Convenience.

At least, unlike the second-stage entrance exams, there aren’t huddled groups of expectant-looking parents milling about outside and bowing more deeply to you than anyone ever has before while you pass by on your way to the john. The Center test kids usually come in chartered buses, waved through the blockades set up at the university entrance by attendants with fluorescent batons (Attica State comes to mind). I bet there are even back-up baton waving parking attendants somewhere in the wings too- just in case.

3. Anketos (class questionnaires)…

Pretty much every tertiary institution dishes out some kind of anketo as a matter of course at this time of year, usually in order to meet standards of quality control (which can affect funding). Personally, I’m not a fan of anketo. No, I’m not afraid of negative comments from the students. My ‘scores’ are just fine. In fact, just about every teacher I’ve ever met has thought that their anketo results justified whatever they were doing in the classroom (students will give most teachers a run of 4s or 5s). I hardly even look at the results anymore.

And that’s the problem. The results are entirely expected. After twenty years in the game I have an ingrained sense of what I’m doing well or not doing well in the classroom that is completely independent of what students may comment on. Call me arrogant (go ahead, I dare ya!), but I simply think students are not in a position to make certain judgements. OK, I admit though that it may give them at least a sense of 'having their say', but c'mon, do you think Sir Alex Ferguson would ask his players to rate his coaching performance with the hope that he might learn something constructive about his coaching methods from them?

Even when I’ve asked students to pointedly address a specific issue in the comments section of the anketo (“Am I using too much Japanese in this class?”), the result will be the predictable Goldilocks and the Three Bears mish-mash: one-third say too much, one-third too little, one third just right.

Of course, good anketo don’t focus so much on the teacher as they do the course, the students’ self-reflection, the learning environment, materials, whole curriculum etc. But nonetheless, the anketo ratings that students give will reflect whatever activity you did in this, or the previous, class. So, if the class prior to the anketo was a Christmas party where you gave a Christmas quiz while wearing a Santa costume, the anketo results will duly prove your 'worth' as a teacher. On the other hand, a pop quiz with some strict follow-up comments and practice would lower the anketo ratings, even if that lesson is methodologically stellar and even if all the previous lessons had been worthy.

Guess what I did in my anketo class this year?




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Comments

I've been enjoying your posts, thanks.
When you say that you got a 'predictable mish-mash' for an answer to your question about L1 use, what do you mean, and what do you think it reflects about the students? It could mean that there is a diversity of thought about L1 use by teachers, or that there is such a disparate range of levels in the class, or a bunch of other things. Do you intend to respond to this result in any way? While there's a certain amount of both negative and positive responses that shouldn't necessarily be taken much notice of (10% of people will always like whatever you do, 10% will always grumble), I'd be looking to expand the 'just right' response somehow - there's not much point doing surveys if we ignore negative feedback.
What do you think?

Cheers,

Oliver

Hi Oliver, Mike here.

What I meant is this. If I include a pointed question in an anketo or I ask my students to comment on some particular aspect of the class, I have never (and I mean NEVER) received any surprising responses. Most students will say that the current practice (or whatever I'm trying to check) is fine, a few will say they want a little more of X, and a few will say that they want a little less (hence the Three Bears, not too hot- not too cold- but juuust right!- reference). So, in the end, I'm back where I started, relying on my own classroom instincts.

Mike

Right on Mike, as usual: when the anket fantasy was first imposed on us here (at yet another mythic university in Japan) I mildly protested to our then Dean that it would prove to be, one, simply a popularity contest, two, misused as a way of evaluating and potentially dismissing contract teachers, and three, a big waste of paper. One and two were indeed borne out, and three was gotten around, after reducing the so-called feedback from all four years to the first year, then finally only one class chosen by the instructor, by transferring the process to the Web. After 15 years of this (also, btw, in a span of 20) I've stopped looking at the Three Bears results.

Easily enough said, to agree with your perspective, but what do you think about peer observation, Mike? Or having full-timers observe part-timer classes in a constructive way? You have anything like those in your neck of the woods?

Hi Walter. Thanks for your comments. Peer observation can be useful- with people you trust and whose opinion you respect so that the observee doesn't feel like the observer has some critical bone to pick. If the observee is worried about the impending criticism or they neither trust nor feel comfortable with the observer they are unlikely to teach naturally and thereby give off a 'false reading', so to speak.

I also think that veteran teachers being watched might feel like they are still in teacher training and may be resistant, with good reason (although some vet teachers probably do need a wake up call if and when they have become numb to their classroom environments).

Mike I just wanted to point you to the results of an academic research done on group mentality and commented upon on Newscientist.com. Here is the link:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126945.300-how-to-control-a-herd-of-humans.html

In brief the article supports what you have been observing on your own: "that practicing pronunciation together raises the spirit of the class". It seems that dancing and singing activities have the effect of increasing the feeling of group-ness and the dependency between the members, so a bit of the out of date audio-visual theory here and there is a good spark or spice for teaching and learning success.

Nic

Thanks Nic. I think this accounts for the widespread use of choral repetition for the purpose of team building in the military, so there is certainly something to it.

Unfortunately though, at the university level, my primary goal is to help make students more autonomous learners, and to seek alternate ways of acquiring skills. So, I worry that in those rare cases where I use choral rep, I am reinforcing something that might not be so good for their overall SLA skills.

Mike: thanks for your reply re peer observation. As a former teacher trainer (way back in the business world) I am quite sensitive to your reservations on how those observed might feel intimidated and/or resentful. However, in a university setting, say in an English Department in Japan with its usual mixed complement of gaijin and nihonjin instructors, commonly where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, such observations could get the core group to work on opening the same book, if not the same page, metaphorically speaking. Were this to be the case, it would shift the focus from evaluations (anket by those least qualified to make them) to a cooperative of professionals working together to optimize their strengths and minimize their drawbacks.

Yes, this is no doubt idealistic, but funny thing, after all these years in a Japanese university, I remain so -- actually, not so funny, I base this on, with perseverance, having effected changes which were initially greeted with "deki nai, muri" reactions.

Just would like to add re choral repetition and autonomous learning, that your worry is probably misplaced. It's not a question of reinforcing inappropriate learning strategies, rather that choral repetition, as a familiarizing practice, is effective in helping to dissolve (a la Krashen) the affective barrier so common to Japanese students (not to speak of, with books closed, its usefulness in obviating katakana pronunciation). As a means to an end, the promotion of self-motivated learning, repeat-after-me, done judiciously, is no-worries ;)

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