Columns on View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

The Uni-Files

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

July 03, 2009

Lessons are not lectures!

Note to university personnel:
I wish you wouldn’t call my lessons ‘lectures’ in English. I know you are just trying to translate the Japanese but I find the word problematic. Sorry, but it's a personal thing. “Lectures” brings forth the image of a teacher expounding in front of the class for the whole 90 minute period, transmitting ‘information’ or, perhaps, spouting of personal opinion or research results. I don’t do that. And I don't want you to think that I do that.

OK, maybe that’s just semantics but the mentality behind the nomenclature seems to be pervasive、not to mention the effect it ultimately has an effect upon how students approach the classes. For example, note the requests that I put my ‘lecture notes’ online or have ‘lecture note’ provisions readily available for absent students. Although I sometimes have handouts outlining the tasks and procedures, and maybe a few examples of whatever language target I want the students to focus upon, but they are hardly lecture notes. My whiteboard will be full of scribbles by the end of the lesson, determined by the ebb and flow of the lesson, what needs to be clarified, highlighted, or reinforced depending on how the class is handling the task. That’s about as close to ‘lecture notes’ as I get. If students don’t come to class and try out the tasks and get on the spot guidance they will not learn- and no amount of ‘lecture notes’ will help.

Then there’s that place in the online syllabus where I’m supposed to write my week-by-week lesson plan. Trouble is it’s not as if I do one unit a week, something like “this week we’ll do the perfect tense, next week phrasal verbs”. Tasks and activities extend over a few classes, timing and positioning are flexible depending upon how I see the students’ progressing with a task. I might decide that an extra class or half is needed here or a review is needed there. The ‘one distinct unit per lesson’ approach tends to make students think that they can miss a class, get the ‘notes’, and then jump right back in without missing a beat, whereas in reality, with all the extended tasks and flexible time frames, they can easily become lost. I would hope that my overall classroom goals as stated elsewhere on the syllabus would suffice, rather than giving what would be a stifling and ultimately inaccurate week-by-week rundown.

And about that end of semester test season. The papers you send each semester ask me to fill in a date for my ‘test’. The implication here is that my class culminates in one final test that determines the students’ grades. And moreover, that this test is the final meeting with the students so that the students get no feedback on strengths, weaknesses- probably not even a score unless they are required to take a re-test. These forms further ask whether I will 1) do a test or 2) have the students write a report. Yet, in my online syllabus I have written that evaluation will be based upon a combination of in-class role-plays, in-class tests, other assignments, and effort/participation. Why this 'test OR report' binary straitjacketing?

Yes, this has an effect on students. They are fed this system so much that even though I outline the grading process in my first class, somehow in the back of their minds they are still convinced that the term-ending test determines everything and that if they miss a lot of classes or generally screw up, it will all be made better by writing a ‘report’ or just cramming up for the final. Go figure.

The ‘lecture’ mentality can even affect the actual classroom atmosphere. In purely lecture-styled classes students can come in late, surreptitiously slink into an empty chair at the back of the room and soon get up to speed on note-taking or whatever it is they do at lectures. But not in my English classroom. In the first few minutes I have usually introduced a focus or target for the lesson, maybe held some small interactions on this, have explained and handed out a print which outlines or guides the task, and have made partners or groups. Then Mr. or Ms. Sleepy wanders in late and I’m expected to go over it all again for their benefit so that they can participate. This is the legacy of thinking of every class as a lecture, something that you can just drop in or plug into or out of at any point.

Oh, and I don't really need that little lectern at the front of my classroom.

I simply wish that a questionable pedagogical approach (for EFL at least) would not be manifest in the university's official framework. Can we get past this?

« The 'Gaijin Party'- some classroom recipes | Main | My students' English skills- it's not up to me »


Surely a rhetorical question, Mike: of course not. Oh, I suppose if you were to get political about it, go behind the scenes and conjure up some support from the more influential of your J colleagues, you might get an exemption or two which recognize that fact that the EFL classroom is not a lecture hall (as a part-timer at Waseda years ago, I was assigned a 110-seat auditorium to teach a 12-student "conversation" class) but that's about it, case by case.

You've mentioned a few times in this blog that you teach at a boondocks school which has a medically-specialized curriculum. Isn't it interesting that all the annoying, and valid, points you bring up are common to nearly every university, public or private, ranked high or low, in the entire country?

One surely doesn't need to go into the compulsions of uniformity (thou shalt not differ) the dead hand of tradition and obsolete mimicry (grammar translation still rocks) the hopeless, obtuse mindlessness of the administrative bureaucracy (forms MUST be filled in) the unquestioning acceptance of authority ("he's the DEAN) all of which characterize the typical Japanese university, does one?

No Mike, just like they all do, you just have fake the bits that don't make sense ;)

Hi Walter. I really don't expect administrators to be sophisticated about pedagogy so I don't begrudge them their rather outdated understanding of methodologies. I'd say that about 50% of the Professors at my boondock uni (just wait until our Governor becomes PM- then all you city folks will be feasting on mangoes and niku maki!) are aware of alternate approaches to education. The others are more doctors or researchers than educators. Nonetheless, I'd expect some people at the top of the tower to affect the system so that it reflects and encourages a greater variety of pedagogical approaches.

To be perfectly honest, not everything I mentioned in the post is established here at UOM. Some are standards at other universities I've worked at, so I'm not too surprised that my comments find kindred souls. Yes, I am voicing the (cough) concerns of the university everyman (cough). That is my station, my office.

Well, let's face it, Mike, most people over 50 are pretty much set in their ways and probably have been for a long time. It's also a fact that most of the people at the top of the tower in Japanese universities are at least in their 50s, ergo, to expect them to embrace a variety of approaches is a tad illogical, not to say unrealistic. To be sure, exceptions exist, for example I was able, for a while, to get the locals to stop referring to alumni as "old boys" and "old girls," and even to get them to drop the requirement of a viva voce for the B.A. degree, but much of the annoying stuff remains because the old guard, most of them, are simply out of touch, and out of sympathy with "foreign" approaches. I'd say that the majority of Japanese universities are fossilized in the structures and methodologies of the mid-1930s. The mind-set which
accompanies this, handed down and preserved through the seniority system, is what is so resistant to change.

Now, this isn't to say, of course, that there aren't a lot of people aware of this. It's just that most of the irritants you cite are more or less trivial and most of us just work around them as part of the job.

Let's consider something more serious. You train future doctors and nurses in Japan to be able to use English as part of their medical profession. To whatever extent you and they succeed in this probably doesn't affect their main expertise. On the other hand, the students I teach, mostly English majors, in many cases pursue English-teaching careers. Those that do take a one year course in methodology, taught by J instructors often in katakana English as the model, the content in Japanese, and they do a two-week practicum, and that's it! Is it any wonder that the question keeps repeating itself: why after 6 years of English instruction in secondary education are Japanese students of the language among the least accomplished in the world? The answer is as self-evident as the answer to your question, "can we get by this."

Hi Mike and Walter. For pedagogy to change, one would have to admit a need for that. As frustrating as it is to not have modern techniques in place, might I just play devil's advocate and suggest that Japan does not need better pedagogy. The Meiji mentality of taking from the foreigner, but not giving anything in return is firmly in place because it works. Why actually demand communicative competence when none is required? As long as foreign documents can be read and translated into Japanese, that's enough. Japan is rich, her bellies are full, and no riots are taking place. In addition, if one really wanted to be cynical, one might argue that improved pedagogy would be positively subversive to the powers that be. What? A critical populace? That would be unpatriotic to the LDP types that run the show, and more importantly would cut into their bottom line action of pocket fattening. Pedagogy, who needs it, I say. As long as industry foots the bill for actual workplace training, nothing will change. But then, does it have to? Japan's unemployment rate hit, sit down for this...5% recently. Tell that to Canada and see the reaction.
(hope you guys are having a great summer)

Good point, Mark, and you don't have to be a devil to make it ;)

Absolutely, for the vast majority there is no need for English in this country (just as there isn't for Japanese in Canada) and for the few who are, for various reasons, dedicated to acquiring it, very few chances to use it beyond the classroom. This is why so much of the liberal arts curriculum and administrative structure are antiquated, there is no functional point to modernizing them, and also why much of the whole enterprise has a simulated feel.

However, despite the recession and demographic decline, it's still big business and the universities and community colleges (which of course attract the English hobbyists) have vested interests in pretending English is important in Japan. In any country where English is not a second language its only "real" importance, even taking into account tourism, is external to that country.

This could be seen as talking myself out of my own job here, but I have every confidence in the power of the emperor's new clothes to be impervious to this logic ;)

Thanks for the comments.

Actually, I didn't really intend to portray this as Japanese vs. Non-Japanese or 'my sound pedagogy' vs. other teachers' poor pedagogy or methodology.

I've met many Japanese teachers who use progressive and interesting methods and are aware of the fundamentals (and more) of education. I've also met NJ teachers who still think what they learned 25 years ago is de rigeur.

My big whine is about how the structures surrounding or supporting the curriculum (testing, syllabus formats, even classroom architecture etc.) tend to reinforce, or reveal a complete unawareness of, what conforms to a sound educational policy. In other words, the tools are often OK but the toolbox is the wrong shape. The people using the tools should either have more influence in shaping the toolbox, and if they do already have that influence, should be applying it more firmly.

On a final note, I can see why some teachers take an old-fashioned pedagogical approach. The research specialist and doctor who lectures to 100 medical students about the structure of the central nervous system may be wise to carry out a teacher-centered, transmission-focus, content-based model (common to pretty much every country for this type of content). But the administrators seem to assume that this pedagogy and learning environment is the default.

It IS the default, Mike, here as it is mostly everywhere, which is to say your assumptions about dichotomies in this thread are partially a misreading of the points made. That language classes, the minority in all but the most specialized institutions, are subsumed under the administrative structures designed for that default, is what is old-fashioned, or to be more accurate, inappropriate. The still-born attempt to move all language classes out of major departments into a language centre, however ill-conceived, was an effort to address that problem.

My other points remain: English-language teacher training in this country is a disaster, and that the people using the tools, however much they "should," largely do not have the influence to shape the toolbox because of a lack of seniority, a lack of Japanese language ability, a lack of desire to enter into the thickets of academic and administrative politics, or some combination of all of the foregoing.

Now I do realize, Mike, that occasionally you simply want to vent, and your venting, as in my first post to this particular vent, does resonate across the board, but by the same token I sometimes like to get into the why and how of things. I think I've demonstrated sufficiently in my various posts that I'm not into knee-jerk us-and-them finger-pointing (whoa, lotta hyphens there) but sometimes, as in blogs like this, generalizations do obtain.

And just to be sure, please don't take this as some kind of defensive, gotta-get-in-the-last-word (oops, there go the hyphens again) parting shot. Go for it if you like, if not, no worries.

Hi Mike,

I tried to leave the comment on your article "My students' English skills- it's not up to me", but the link is not working so I'm posting it here.

First of all I'm very sorry to hear about you being stuck in a hospital bed and pray that it won't be long before you are up and about again.

Tonight I was feeling depressed at the number of negative comments I received from my 1st year uni students in their written assessment of English Communication 1. Reading many of their comments I felt that most of them were blaming the teacher, the language, the textbook, the materials, the homework or something else for the perceived failure of the class. Not once did anyone who expressed negativity about the class look to themselves. Some felt that I should have "controlled" the class better, but I usually reserve this type of control for the first few lessons of my 1st grade elementary school children who don't yet understand acceptable classroom behaviour. I could go on but...

I wonder how much longer I can continue giving 110% myself.


Nuts. It should be perfectly viable to put a different word than "Lecture" in a course description . . . er, "syllabus."

Recent Columns

Recent Comments




World Today