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The Uni-Files

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

October 28, 2009

Needs analysis nonsense

Say your kitchen sink isn't functioning well. Water's not going down and the smell is starting to infest the whole kitchen despite your best efforts with the plunger. Call a plumber, right? So, he arrives, takes a perfunctory glance at the reeking drain and says, "I need to perform a needs analysis". Then he leaves. And he researches the causes of sink stoppage- what the symptoms may tell us as to best course of plumbing action. Two months of research later he returns and announces that research shows that "a coagulating agent may be blocking the drain".
Really now! And you know what else, balls are used in soccer!

Doesn't sound like much of a plumber, right? After all, a trained and licensed plumber should be able to make a quick diagnosis, based on his training and experience, and then immediately start getting inside the damned pipes and unclog them. And, if in that process something unexpected pops up, such as a family of decomposing badgers, we expect that he'll be able to adjust accordingly and improvise a solution. That's the idea of professionalism, n'est ce pas?

Right- except apparently for English teachers who seem to think that professionalism requires them to carry out a 'needs analysis' regarding their students. (I'll take a stab at the answer here- they need, um, English, right?).

I've expressed my criticism of 'needs analyses' as being uneccesarily obtuse and eggheaded elsewhere and I stand by it. So, do I think about my students' needs? Yeah. When I started working at a medical school I thought about it for, oh, five minutes or so. Here's what I came up with (and they still hold true 13 years later):
1. Medical students need to know medical discourse.
2. They will probably have to perform or attend English presentations at some point in their careers.
3. They will have to do academic reading, and likely writing, in English.
4. They will probably have to be able to communicate with non-Japanese fellow professionals at some point.
5. Some will never use much English again.
6. Some will work abroad in English intensive situations for long, sustained periods of time.
7. These students are generally right out of high school or yobiko and therefore will have a standard HS english education up to this point.
8. Some students will have been exposed to English abroad- perhaps extensively.

End of needs analysis. With this 5 minutes' worth of thinking in mind I started designing my courses. It hasn't failed me yet. Exactly which aspects of medical discourse they will be weak in and those which may be a priority is something I have gradually learned over teaching my classes, a constant refining to be sure. But I presume that every teacher learns about 'needs' this way and not by some detached in-advance 'study', as if the 'needs' are somehow out there just waiting to be discovered by a research project, like genomes in a petri dish (or wherever one finds genomes these days). Any teacher with the slighterst amount of classroom sense should also be able to make any adjustments based on perceptions after a few classes, and incorporate those insights into the program design for next year.

Very occasionally I have made use of corpus data but my educated-teacher common sense usually takes priority. Awareness of, but not blind dependence upon, copus data can be useful in designing lessons but a general awareness of authenticity is hardly the same as a 'needs analysis'.

Of course, the one thing you want to avoid with anyone under 23 years of age in a school or university is asking the students themselves what they want. You'll get the expected rigamarole of "to make friends", "for travel", "to learn about the world",, and in the case of medical students "to learn medical terminology". The bmost appropriate paraphrasing of the first three listed above might be "Whatever. I dunno", and as for learning terminology, well they don't always know what's good for them do they? That's why they're the students and we are the teachers.

And it seems to me that any teacher with training and qualifications should, by virtue of those credentials, have an almost immediate understanding of student needs. And if it's not clear then, take two more minutes to ask an administrator where most grads end up doing what and go from there. It's not that hard.

Now imagine that you do ask an administrator at your school where your students will likely take their English educations and he/she replies, "Well most of our males end up in construction crews and the majority of the girls gravitate towards the 'entrtainment' industry". What will you do then? Teach the females 'mizu shobai' lingo on the one-off that someday a client might be a non-Japanese speaker sampling the bright lights? Teach the guys some 'work talk' on the small chance that they will work with someone from a developing country (who will certainly be looking for the chance to brush up on their Japanese anyway)?

This exposes a problem with needs analyses- it treats language as largely instrumental. In a case like the above (admittedly extreme, but in order to make a point) sometimes the purpose of English might be instrinsic, mere exposure to the language in order to gain an appreciation of something that might be mind-expanding and could be applied at some later point if any individual chooses to do so. That doesn't come out on a needs analysis.

And it's fine when you have very narrow, specific goals that apply to ALL students, such as 15 grad students ALL needing to get a TOEIC certification and then going to research nuclear physics in the UK. But more often than not the expressed 'needs' will be both general and varied. And the inevitable conclusion that 'there are many needs' is not some kind of revealed truth that is hovering out there waiting to be discovered by 'analysis', it's something you should be able to gather from minimal exposure to any teaching situation.

Imagine what our students and colleagues must think when the allegedly trained professional shows up at his/her workplace without any apparent innate sense of what his charges 'need'. What impression will be created when he or she has to do a survey, a statistical compilation, and collate all the data before offering a sense of what might be best for their students?

It doesn't sound like professionalism to me.

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Hi Mike. Amen!

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