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The Uni-Files

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

August 16, 2010

I never meta-cognitive skill I didn't like- and explaining Monkasho primary school policy: More reactions and responses from Hanoi

...or more specifically, the recent AsiaTEFL conference held in VietNam. Two more presentations from Japanese researchers caught my eye and caused the following synapses to occur in my brain-

First was a joint presentation in which the opening (and very nervous) presenter showed findings which indicate that students who focused upon using meta-cognitive strategies when dealing with EFL tasks performed better than those who leaned towards affective strategies.

OK, Lingo section: I do understand that 'meta-cognitive' is probably Exhibit A when it comes to pretentious, pseudo-intellectual nomenclature (the word 'nomenclature' being Exhibit B) but it seems apropos (Exhibit C) here. Meta-cognition basically means being conscious of thinking strategies, in this case how you plan to attack a communicative task in a reflective manner, 'thinking about how to think' in short.

"Affective strategies" are more emotional, usually determined by the speaker/writer's own belief, or lack thereof, in their ability to carry out the task. In many cases in Japan, affective behaviour revolves around the notion that student A doesn't expect to be able to do task X well with this becoming the defining factor in creating the (ultimately mediocre) product.

Therefore, the researcher argued, we should be focusing upon developing or supporting student meta-cognitive skills in EFL.

Now there is both a great strength and fault to this logic. I do believe that a transfer of cognitive strategies from L1 (Japanese) to L2 would benefit Japanese students, who in so many ways seem to abandon all cognition when dealing with English tasks and rely instead upon memorized L1-L2 cognates alone. Helping students to frame tasks, try to determine the best approaches, and understand what rhetorical forms might lead to the best communicative outcomes, is overlooked. In other words- big picture support and guidance will allow the smaller pictures to develop.

BUT, and this is a big trailer-park corn-chips munching but, isn't the research here ass-backwards? Wouldn't good performers use meta-cognitive strategies precisely because they are... wait for it... already good at English??? And the poor ones, knowing that they don't have the goods, will worry and struggle to get through (the affective approach)? In other words, meta-cognitive skills don't cause students to become better at English, but rather are just reflections of existing competency in the language. Students use meta-cognitive skills when, and because, they are already good at English- not in order to become good. Correlation and causation don't necessarily share the same front lawn, friends.

Nonetheless, the manner in which a teacher guides students towards using meta-cognition is still worthy of deeper EFL thought- in other words, we should be meta-cognitive about the role of meta-cognition.

Another 'featured' presentation I attended...

... was led by Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia (Jochi) University. Yoshida is probably the most internationally recognized Japanese scholar in the EFL/Applied Linguistics field and is a man with his fingers in many policy-making pies- including the establishment of Monkasho policy- and this is what he addressed in Hanoi.

More specifically, he outlined the rationale behind the new elementary school English requirement (to start in the next academic year). It goes something like this...

... a fairly comprehensive survey of junior high school students showed that their interest in English, and enjoyment of the subject, peaks at the beginning of JHS and drops like a rock soon steadily thereafter. No surprise here to anyone who has been in Japan for more than 20 minutes, but at least this very thorough and balanced survey substantiates the fact.

Most JHS students found English harder than expected and were soon disenchanted at not sensing any progress in their English skills. This is very much like that time you bought a guitar believing that you would soon learn what it takes to become a guitar god- but you gave it up in two weeks when you found out that musical skills actually require discipline and hard work, so now your guitar collects dust in that dark room under the stairs next to your table-hockey set.

Anyway, what Yoshida believes (and as is implemented in Monkasho policy) is that this drop occurs because JHSers are usually coming in with a background of pretty much nada in English and jumping immediately into the fire pits of vocabulary lists and abstract systems such as grammar. Yoshida likened it to a standing long jump- gravity pulls you back to earth more quickly than if you've built up some speed beforehand. The new elementary school requirement is supposed to turn that standing long jump into a more sustainable running long jump.

This means that before students deal with the more theoretical and abstract elements of English they should learn English from the perspective of the 'joy of communication' and feeling out the "differences between Japanese and other languages", simply getting a taste for other modes of communication, without much pressure. (Note that the new English course is a required class but will not be a fully graded/tested course). This means that the emphasis will be upon the spoken language with absolutely no writing/reading or even alphabet introduction until JHS.

*note: At the same conference, in a completely unrelated presentation, a Japanese teacher criticized the above rationale as being too vague- 'the joys of communication?' Huh? Another asked "Why treat it as 'other languages' when we all know that it means English?" Fair enough.

Here's my two cents:
Cent one: Why do so many teachers, including policy-influencing professionals, treat grammar as if it must be taught in a theoretical, rule-based, analytical manner? Grammar can (and should) be inculcated using less abstract and more meaning-based, content-focused methods and materials. In fact, generally speaking, much of grammar (especially the more intricate stuff) is something that it understood not prior to deployment but after a certain amount of communicative competency is established. In other words, we become conscious of the rule and its function only after we have used and seen it used. for meaningful purposes. Grammar thus describes structurally what has happened to make communication succeed. After that, as learners gradually acquire the 'rule', the prescriptive element comes into play - it can hererafter be consciously applied when faced with various grammatical choices.

In short, grammar need not be this detached, theoretical topic that must be taught explicitly as discrete rules prior to meaning making. In fact the two go hand-in-hand, often unconsciously on the part of the learner.

Cent two: Yoshida showed us an official written rationale (in English) for the new policy as one of his slides- about the 'joy of communication' and 'noting differences'. Two things struck me here (and I addressed these in the brief Q&A session that followed). One was that the word 'communication' was used frequently- that in foreign language classes students should learn communication skills, and focus upon communicating with others etc. But wait. This isn't an English skill- it's a human skill, and something that they should be doing in Japanese (kokugo) classes first. Why assume that communication is a skill derived from learning foreign languages? After all, if students master communication (written and spoken) skills in their native tongue then many of these communication skills will transfer more naturally from their first language to their second (and here we start to dovetail with meta-cognitive strategies above).

Yoshida said that yes, more should be done (and is being done now) with developing communication skills in L1.

I also noted out the numerous emphases upon learning the 'differences' between English and Japanese as a primary learning target. I found this 'divide and separate' policy disheartening. After all, if you start a child's English education by focusing upon how unlike Japanese it is, aren't you just increasing the psychological distance between the two languages, aren't you effectively placing the first barrier to acquisition? The subtext seems to be, "Kids, this English stuff is hard and really different from what you already know how to do". How is that supposed to inculcate the 'joys of communication'?

In response, Yoshida noted something vague (and a bit desperate IMO) about students needing to know their Japanese identity better because 'they don't know who they are'. Go figure.

Finally- I had a chance to talk at length with an ESL teacher from Toronto who plays host to ESL students from all over the world.

When I told her that I lived and worked in Japan she said (hesitantly) that in fact Japanese formed by the far the greatest number of problem students at her institution. How so? By not fitting in or getting along with others, affecting weird and inappropriate behaviour, and complaining about everything. She much preferred Koreans, who, in her words, were earnest, respectful, focused, more communicative, and seemed to fit in and get along.

Interesting. I can't help but wonder if many Japanese students who take a long time off from their normal J university studies are the type wh treat it more as a lark. An extended vacation and an increased chance for shopping. On the other hand, students from many other countries might be trying to enhance their English skills to get a certification or test score that will be instrumental in getting a good job or increased social standing back home, allow them to study as grad students abroad, or even eventually emigrate to English-speaking countries. Thus, it actually has more than hobby-level interest for them and really means something back home. Right now, many in J universities treat English study abroad as a type of playtime away from their real study at home and thus meaning little more than a delay in their graduation date. You know, the mark of shiftless workshy types.

But I'm only speculating. What do you think?

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I'm not sure if you did this intentionally Mike, but I think a connection can be made between your first two points regarding the presentations and your final point about homestay students.

I think it's fair to say that most J uni students (and adults for that matter) who "study" abroad really meta-cognitively consider WHY they are going abroad. They do it just because it's the cool thing to do (and they have the financial resources to do it). They enjoy being able to say "I'm going to live in Australia for 6 months" and then hear all their friends gasp in sugoi-ness. It's rare when I meet a Japanese person who is going abroad for an extended period of time and think to myself "yeah, that's gonna work just fine". It doesn't seem like there is much of a thought process involved in their decision, it's just a flighty, dreamy, cool thing to do in their mind.

Your second point, regarding elem schools focusing on the differences between Japanese and English, is also a factor here. Look, I love living in Japan, I love the people here. I probably wouldn't want to live in many other countries. But let's face it, there is a bit of an elitist attitude prevalent in J society. They pride themselves on being a "homogeneous island nation", unlike any other culture on earth. They have their own way of understanding each other, a barrier which most, if any, foreigners cannot break. They have their own way of thinking, their own way of behaving, and their own cultural norms. I think most Japanese people have this ingrained in them, and they believe that it is impossible for foreigners to understand it. Hence, when they go off to Toronto for 6 months they can't blend in, they don't enjoy the food (even though most J people proudly announce they can eat anything, anything Japanese that is), and they have a complete lack of understanding how a different culture might operate. And it all stems from the early teachings of "look how Japan/Japanese is different from everyone else".

Anyway, I thought your last point about the Toronto woman was perhaps an afterthought when you were writing your post, but actually I think a connection can be made to your previous points. I know I made some generalizations here about Japanese people, I hope I haven't offended anyone.

A colleague of mine gave me a copy of this column. I'm working on a research study into the use of metacognitive strategies by language teachers and trying to work out why they are so rarely used.
While I agree with you when we look at the narrow definition of metacognition, the broader view is now examining how teachers can play a more active role in helping learners to become autonomous and self-regulating, and this is not just focusing on specific strategies but seeing how we can assist in training students to become, in essence, their own teachers. I've been observing and interviewing teachers in a range of contexts here in Australia and it is amazing how many instances I am seeing of learners asking teachers for aid in planning, monitoring and assessing their learning, and how often teachers are not engaging in this dialogue. My research is to try and get some answers as to why.
The literature for metacognitive approaches (particularly explicit ones) is becoming quite compelling in education and while I'm not saying that it's the panacea for all ills I have seen great success when teachers adopt this approach and certainly evidence of increased motivation and performance by the learners.

First, greetings to Mark H.

I certainly agree that there is a strong sense of cultural 'otherness' or seperation in Japan- although I would question whether this is always a source of pride. However, I do think this oft-reinforced sense of distinctiveness means NOT that learners are applying the wrong cultural mechanisms when outside Japan but in fact that they fail to apply even those mechanisms they would use inside Japan- certain social skills and interactions we would regard as common sense or universal- somehow believing that everything, and I mean everything, changes when outside Japan.

In other words, they carry a type of subcoscious belief that interactive skills in C1 are non-transferable to C2, when in fact many are simply standard social skills. So, perhaps we could say that it's not so much that they view Japan as special or unique per se as much as it is an overestimation of how 'other-ish' foreign countries/peoples are.

Hi to Steve M.
Good to hear from you and to know that someone is actually recommending this humble blog to researchers in the field. The notion of actively or explicitly teaching meta-cognitive skills is a rather ironic notion. After all, if these skills are transacted top-down from a teacher they will actually serve to make students dependant upon the specific rules and procedures taught, the opposite of self-regulation or autonomy. The teacher has to act as a guide or support from behind and try to encourage the inculcation of these skills indirectly, precisely so that the learner can take responsibility for, and control of, them.

It's a delicate balancing act. I'm interested in hearing more about what you are uncovering.

The beautiful thing of metacognitive training is that it is a process of aiding students to develop their own awareness of their cognition. Whether you look at it as from the front or from behind, by explicit the literature does not mean dictatorial or 'taught', only that when a teacher engages in assisting learners discover what works for them they use explicit language rather than implicit language. I don't think you can 'teach' metacognitive skills because as you rightly say that implies some sort of transfer of rules or procedures. It's more like a consciousness raising exercise, or an approach that can take an infinite amount of forms. This is getting mumbo jumbo, but I suppose you can look at it as saying to students 'treat your language development as a process and let's try and work out a way that you can manage that process so that it works for you. And let's try and work out a way for you to monitor that process and make adjustments as and when you deem it necessary to achieve whatever goals you have'.

I think a big part of being a university teacher in Japan is doing just exactly what Steven is talking about: teaching students how to study. Its funny that so many university jobs require English teachers to be native speakers, when in reality it's not that important. What's more important is that teachers are able to teach their students how to learn a language, not how to pronounce "coffee" with a native-like accent. What is more shocking to me is that students reach the university level without many good studying skills. They've been tested to death in junior high and senior high, and they've been taught how to pass those tests, but they haven't been taught how to study/learn.

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