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The Uni-Files

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

May 21, 2009

Japanese university students and groupwork/homework

Screw the cross-cultural stereotypes and simplistic, monolithic generalizations. Japanese university students are generally not good groupworkers. In fact, I find them highly individualistic. Several common scenarios indicate this:

1.“Interactive pairwork” in which both members studiously avoid facing each other by burying their faces in books or 'prints' that are unrelated to the current task, as though they will somehow find an “answer” (even though there is no “question”) hidden there.

2.Forming pairs or groups in the first week in which students refuse to acknowledge each others’ existence. Postures are in the 'reject' position, the way Melinda the cheerleading captain and homecoming queen reacted back in junior high when Kevin, the pimply nerd from the chess club, was assigned as her in-class partner.

3.So-called 'study groups' wherein each member has their own dictionary out, covering the same words (or whatever), filling in the ‘team paper’ individually, and not telling their partners what they've come up with to complete the 'group' assignment.

4.Teamwork essays where sections have obviously been parceled out to each member, so obvious is the disjunct in tone and style in the final product. Sometimes the contributions of each partner haven’t even been checked by other members such that content duplicity is the norm. OK then- a screw up? Everybody shares responsibility!
(Sidebar- I have a 1st year assignment in which teams of 3 members write up and perform role-play style: a combination of 1) patient-doctor consultation, 2) doctor-to-specialist doctor data transfer, 3) specialist doctor-patient check. I tell them that the grade will be a team grade. But that still doesn’t stop some from parceling out each section to each member to write and leaving it at that- even though one section, written by the weakest member of the group, is painfully bad. I’d hope that all members check all sections- the very definition of teamwork- such that weaker members can learn from stronger members- but alas, often students are far too individualistic to do so).

5.Incredible hesitancy at the start of any team assignment. I’m talking about even how or where to sit. They just seem uncomfortable when not stationed behind their own individual desk and book. Making a group seems to be a rigorous, awkward process. (Another sidebar- and a totally subjective observation. Westerners are supposed to be highly individualistic, right? OK- Observe situations in which Westerners, especially those who don’t know each other well, are asked to form groups and carry out some impromptu task. You can see good examples at JALT or ETJ meetings and conferences. It takes about one second and- boom- the group gets going. But ‘collectivist’ Japanese seem uncomfortable with this, even when making groups with other Japanese [especially if they don’t already know each other] and take an inordinate amount of time to feel out the task, roles etc. I know there are further cultural explanations for this behaviour- involving sensitivity and delicacy to relationships- but it’s still a facet of classroom Japanese ‘individualism’).

Now, I don’t want this to sound like a whine about Japanese habits- there are already too many blogs like that out there. And I could balance the negatives perhaps by making generalizations about Western habits of everyone in an impromptu group having to make a big impression, a personality splash, or expressing a big fat opinion, but I won’t (heh heh). The main reason I’m mentioning this groupwork problem is because it belies what you always hear about alleged Eastern ‘collectivism’ and being aware of the reality might help teachers address it in the classroom. This, in turn, might allow students to get more out of groupwork, to be more efficient and productive (having encountered it so often I’m ready to address it and alter the behavior from the first class). This is not to make them ‘be like us Westerners’ (please, no!) but simply to be productive students who get the most out of interactive English classes by learning from others in the class, by being actively in tune with the team effort, period.

Almost all homework I give is in preparation for a next class, so that students can actually carry out a task in the regular class time rather than spending class time getting ready. In-class time is spent more productively with homework preparation. It also (usually) means that students have engaged the topic, prepped appropriate language forms, and are therefore ready to take a deeper plunge in the next class. It is very rare that homework is something that I have students hand in. It is all prep.

But almost none of my students see homework this way. They see it basically as something to be handed in to me for grading. Often, a student will have been absent from the class in question- the one which homework was the prep for- and will come to my office with a sheet of that homework paper, proffering it to me. “Actually, the class is finished, so you don’t you need it any more”, I might say. “But aren’t you going to check it?!” comes the reply (Lisa Simpson’s shrieks of ‘EVALUATE ME!’ come to mind). “No. It was to get you to think about the topic, to have you research some content, make some predictions, check the language forms you will use, and share all this with partners in the class”, I respond.

There is almost always a stunned silence at this point, one that seems to be saying, “THAT’s not homework! Why did you make me do it!!”. Sometimes I feel I should look over their work anyway, write ‘B+’ and some perfunctory comment, just to help them justify their efforts.

« Language Yaritori + 6 Frustrating Student Behaviors | Main | Two grammar puzzles; Plus- What’s so good about working at a university; Plus- the reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-based lessons revealed! »


Good one, Mike. I can't say I've had the same experiences, but certainly variations on the theme. It is indeed very hard to 'break' students of their perception that school is for facts and that the 'company' will train them to do what is really necessary when they
receive the acceptance of employment. Your piece also made me think more about culture and what it means to teach ESL, from the cultural point of view.

It kind of begs the question why you persist in trying to carry out such activities when you know the students don't like them (or they doubt the efficacy of pairwork/groupwork).
Do you explain your views on the matter to your students in Japanese? Do they really understand what you want and why you want it?
Is there something better YOU could be doing to motivate your students to do you what you want?
Or is pairwork/groupwork not so effective for certain groups of learners anyway?
There are those like Phillipson (1992), Pennycook (1994), Holliday,A. (2005) and Canagarajah (1999) who would argue that case.
I especially recommend Canagarajah's "Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching" as a bit of an eye-opener on this matter.

Good questions, Edward.

Actually, I probably overstated my case for the sake of effect, a little literary license, a little hyperbole in order to emphasize the main point that the cultural notion most would think apropos to Japanese students (a tendency towards groupism) is not always the case.

In fact, once students get used to each other and the types of interactions that occur in my classes things run much more smoothly. It's not that they "don't like" these lessons, it's just that many are awkward at first, they are not used to group protocol- that sort of thing.(Yes- I should probably write more about how I work to mitigate these behaviors rather than just listing them- that would probably be more constructive, but less cathartic, for readers).

Yes, I do explain or make comments when things aren't going so well. For example, if I notice the common groupwork situation where other members are allowing one member to obviously proceed wrongly without saying anything, I mention the old "if I have a piece of egg salad sandwich stuck to my lip when I'm talking to you, it's more helpful to point it out to me than to pretend it's not there and let me embarrass myself further" example. Other cases that I mentioned in the blog entry are pointed out and explained too- but the very fact that they often need pointing out only serves to highlight the fact that many normative behaviors of collectivist cultures are not the norm among Japanese students.

As for the cultural imperialism angle, well, here's the irony. I'll bet both my ankles that 99% of Inter-cultural theorists would argue that since "Japan is a collectivist\group-oriented society" groupwork should be the natural, default educational model. And, if so, an individualistic approach would actually represent alleged Western cultural interference by the teacher.

But I'm turning the cultural cards on that notion.

eddie / Mike: Just as an aside, about a thousand years ago when I started teaching, we had an inservice, all in attendance were private school teachers. Regarding group work, one teacher stood up and said essentially "why would I waste my time and my students' time with group work when I can just tell them what they need to know". Not exactly applicable to the Japan ESL situation, but revealing nonetheless.

Actually, Mike that's not quite the case. Their argument (which I am not saying I totally agree with, BTW) is that pair/group/task work is the product of "centre-based" (i.e from the UK and USA) methodology and part and parcel of "native-speakerism" and surreptitious language imperialism.
Their argument for the periphery countries is that teachers should adopt the preferred local methodology and ways of teaching that are familiar to the students...which, of course, in Japan's case is the mug-and-jug style lesson; and, as far as EFL lessons are concerned, that means a big old dose of grammar-translation.
However, there are also those out there (e.g. Scot Thornbury) who believe GT has had a bad rap and can still be used effectively for "soft" CLT (communicative language teaching).
It's can keep the ankles!

Hi Mark,
Actually, in some instances, he might be right!
I know some students feel that when they are doing group work, it is of very limited value because their mistakes are not being corrected. Some students feel quite embarrassed to try to speak with each other in a foreign language.
Some students feel it is just a chance for the teacher to relax with a sneaky break!!
And maybe sometimes, we "native speakers" need to take our CELTA training and give it a good old critical overhaul.

Interesting info, Eddie. I did NOT know that. I have read bits of Pennycook, Holliday, and Thornbury but am not clear on "Center-based" methodology actually means.

But to be honest, after reading Pennycook et al a few years back I felt the need to wash my hands thoroughly.

My first objection to their line of thinking is that it is so culturally static. It's an automatic defense of the status quo. "Is" equals "should". Description becomes prescription. Dictators worldwide love using this type of thinking to justify repressive policies ("Our people don't want 'human rights' because we have never had such a concept in our society")or, as you stated, it justifies whatever method- regressive or otherwise- that students have been exposed to this far.

My second objection is that it often involves a monolithic idea of culture. A Westerner teaches a class so it is assumed that his/her methodology must be indelibly Western, as if there is one, singular, monolithic, mandated way in which Westerners teach. Western-ness emanates from the chalk itself, it seems. I call it the virus view of culture.

My third objection is that it is anti-intellectual. Criticism of a teaching methodology should focus first and foremost on the content of the methodology, not where it allegedly 'comes from'. Is the methodology itself beneficial to learners, is it theoretically sound? Subjugating this to static notions of culture is an intellectual dead end. Of course, one can question the benefit of a methodology due to cultural considerations or they can keep cultural factors in mind when discussing the virtues of a methodology, but the methodology, for an educator, should be the logically prior category of consideration.

However, I do like your comment about some potential problems with group work, and questioning this as an overriding EFL philosophy. The unassailable virtues of group work seems to enjoy almost sacrosanct status in EFL/ESL, so I enjoy the idea of the CELTA norms being turned on their heads.

Finally, from a very amateur ethnologist point of view, I'd say that clearly there are aspects of Japanese society where groupism is natural, highly-developed and vital (hard to argue that) but that it many educational settings and when forming impromptu groups with unknowns, this is not the case.

Hi eddie / Mike: Stacking is what I refer to as providing appropriate activities to 'stack' on to the hundreds of hours of grammar / translation that students receive. Even by K1, students have received almost 400 hours of it at our school. Therefore, appropriate activities in an 'oral' class must take this background into account. For high school students at least, they seem to love pair work, but are fairly useless at group work. Pair work, in my opinion, can be highly effective if specific goals are incorporated. Females might also be better than males at this, although I have no evidence upon which to base a comparison, only the girls. This appropriate stacking of activities is also something that certificates and advanced TESL degrees must take into account, for two reasons. First, if someone from 'x' country comes to Japan armed with a degree in TESL and thinks they are going to tell / show the natives how it's done, they will likely end up imploding in frustration that their qualification is essentially thrown back in their face. Secondly, as you both allude to above, grammar translation is not the devil. It can be used as a very effective background for all kinds of activities in which the 'learnt' structures are brought to life. Personally, pair work and paragraphing seem to provide the outlets for students to really use the grammar background that they've been exposed to.

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