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The Uni-Files

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

February 18, 2012

10 Dumb Things That English Teachers in Japan Do (Part 1)

Yes, I know the title isn't diplomatic but, hey, the bluntness is likely part of the reason why you're reading this-- there's no subtlety about the topic. Sure, it dwells on the negative side but that helps draw attention to the issues too. I also think English teachers may be a little too conciliatory when it comes to discussing dubious practices in public forums (especially in those where pseudonyms aren't used). Having done some of these when I was young, beautiful, innocent, and naive, I wish I'd had heard about them earlier.

Some well-known don'ts (i.e., "Too much teacher talk") are not listed here, having been well-drilled into most teachers' heads even before they get that certification paper. The items I've come up with have been less widely discussed. And I'm perfectly happy to hear why readers may think that any of the following points might not be particularly 'dumb'. Obviously this is a subjective list and I'm open to revision.. feel free to add your own ideas too.

1. Blame the University Entrance Exams for unproductive teaching methods:

You know what I mean. The old adage that high school teachers have to teach grammar explicitly by having students diagram and memorize sentence patterns at the expense of dealing with content and meaning-- the result being that students have only receptive, analytical skills and can't use English productively and meaningfully. And all because success on the entrance exams depends upon this (known as the washback effect)

Bullshift. The notion that university entrance exams reward this type of mechanical skill is well past its sell-by date. The Center Shiken has changed drastically over the years and demands a far more comprehensive skill set-- critical thinking, understanding rhetorical development and thematic cohesion, summarizing, predicting-- all big-picture skills.

Many second-stage (individual university) exams go even further. with most these days requiring productive writing, commentary, the ability to extrapolate meanings and themes, and manage wider semantic and pragmatic issues. Yes, there are a few throwback-to-the-Showa-era tests out there and many tests will have at least one discrete-point section, but if you're preparing your students only for these (increasingly rare) bits you are not really helping them achieve overall success on the entrance exams.

(And just as an aside-- more and more of my stronger students (in terms of entry scores) these days claim that they didn't really focus upon entrance exam prep in high school)

2. Teach basic English-- again-- to university students:

Yes, I know very well that some, even many, Japanese university students make pretty basic English mistakes ("I borned in Kagoshima. I have five families. I am influenza now") and can't expand or extend beyond the most basic English formulas. So, here's a question: Why, if they learned all this stuff in detail in junior high school, practiced them ad nauseum, met them again on the high school entrance exam, went over them again in high school, and yet once more at juku while preparing for the Center Shiken, do they still not get them?

University teachers often seem to think that since the student obviously hasn't mastered or internalized the item they should go over those items explicitly yet again (often with textbooks more suited in style and content to JHS students). But if the students didn't quite get it back then, why expect that they'll get it now?

The reality is that the students have absorbed the structures at some level (latently, passively, formally, semi-consciously) -- after all they can do endless formal diagrams and transformations-- but have trouble applying them productively or actively. What is needed to draw these latent skills into the productive realm is have them appear, and be used, in wider-ranging meaningful, content-based, productive tasks-- which is of course more in keeping with the notion of what a university is all about. Students need a wider frame in which to meaningfully manipulate (albeit with errors en route) these basic forms. Meaning and usage are a process of discovery.

What they don't need is another junior high school-type lesson introducing the 'rules in decontextualized, discrete sentences'. Nor do they now need 'eikaiwa'... which is another problematic animal altogether.

3. Teach Japanese students about Japan:

I heartily recommend doing this if you want to be thought of by your students as an arrogant twit (and obviously this doesn't just apply to cases in Japan). Personally, I have little patience for teachers who exude the missionary white man's burden, the need to 'inform' the students of the truths that "their media, government, and education system don't tell them".

Here's a helpful axiom-- the more you think that you, sensei, are privy to the real truths while your charges "are not taught critical thinking" or "are manipulated by media and authorities" the more likely you will be presumed to be a know-nothing pedant. Don't forget, Teach! You are the establishment, the authority, now! You are the one likely to be on the receiving end of an 'attempt to brainwash' charge.

The more esteemed NJ teacher learns something about Japan from the students-- although of course they need not believe everything they are told. They should be aware of Japan-related issues and conversant on matters pertaining this society (and I mean the real Japan now, not those popular and widespread Western caricatures that have been passed around since the end of WW2 or those scare-mongering, pseudo-sociology books that were de rigeur Japan-briefers in the 80's, when Japan was the U.S.'s trading enemy number one).

Preachiness will backfire. At least it does whenever someone from outside my own society tells me what beliefs I must have and what my values as a Westerner must be, me being nothing more than a mindless social product of some reductionist notion of 'The West', who needs correction from self-proclaimed know-it-alls.

Sure, challenging popular and uncritical beliefs can be attractive and useful to teachers, but in my 20 plus years of teaching in Japan one thing I've noticed is that many of the widespread NJ beliefs about what Japanese people supposedly believe is far too monolithic and outdated. I've actually found a fairly wide variety of views held by my students on any number of topics. And I shouldn't need to mention that taking the attitude that the locals will hold an "official media/gov't-influenced view" because they are "subservient to authority and unquestioning" drones, whereas Mr./Ms. NJ sensei is a free-thinking, independent, exponent of diverse and complex insights, just smells bad. And it will to your students.

4. Ask general questions in large classrooms:

Go ahead. Ask a class of 30 students, "Does everybody understand?" and revel in the resulting silence. Or at the beginning of the class ask, "Has everyone brought their book?". If these are merely rhetorical questions, I might forgive them. But if you actually expect, and wait for, an answer then I'm going to have to ask you to hand in your teaching credentials to the nearest authority.

There's a good reason you don't get any response. It's because no one knows the whole classes' answer, they can only answer these questions individually. And you didn't ask them that.

Unspecified questions to large classes also result in complete silence. For example: "Have you studied X before?". Just who is supposed to answer that question? Very occasionally, a brave soul will offer up a response but in Japan you can expect this about once every leap year.

Ask the question more specifically: "Has anyone forgotten their paper? If so, raise your hand." Or ask specific students-- if you actually want a response. But keep in mind that private-ish in-classroom conversations of almost any length seem odd and out-of-place to Japanese students and others will often lose interest or stop paying attention out of... wait for it... politeness. Yes, they often feel uncomfortable when teacher is having what looks like a private conversation with Yusuke-kun in the classroom.

5. Give tests in the final class or the official testing period:

... which means that students will get no feedback on their performance, except a number or letter grade. They will have no idea of what they got right or wrong, no understanding of strengths or weaknesses. Such tests have no educational value, they serve only to fulfill the administrative requirement to produce a number for the students' records.They own you!

Give the test in the penultimate class and use the final class to give back tests, go over common strengths and weaknesses, let students see each others' test content so they can see succesful responses, and allow the teacher to answer specific questions from individual students. And if your school has an official post-semester test period either a) opt-out if you can or b) use that as a follow-up feedback lesson (or even as a re-test session).

Part 2 to come soon...

« Cognitive overload: Is the 'myth of multitasking' itself a myth? | Main | 10 Dumb Things That English Teachers Do in Japan (part 2) »


Great points! My favorite is "reteaching" basic English. There's no excuse for that. I have found that giving the podium to the students with a self or group-made power point behind them produces a lot of spoken English. The students love it, too. And the topics are endless.

I really agree with these, especially no. 2 and extreme versions of "get back to basics and teach grammar," and even can agree to a point with no. 3, about which I'd like to comment. It's easy for me to agree with your explanation, that teachers who teach with missionary zeal about Japan problems in class are going overboard, and that preachiness will backfire. Sure. But from your title and previous exchanges, you seem to think mention of social problems in Japan should be off limits. This I disagree with. For example, if a class theme is social problems, focusing only on foreign ones will accentuate the unfortunate conviction among young Japanese that there are no social problems here ('What? There's poverty in Japan?'). So such a class is a good opportunity to share some facts, for example what the poverty line is in Japan, which groups are most at risk (single mothers) and what a minimum wage is and the rate in Japan. I don't think the focus should unduly be on Japan, but neither do I shy away from mentioning problems here. After all, these are most relevant to people living in Japan, no? Actually, upon reflection, the opposite can be true as well, with J. students wondering if bullying exists outside Japan ('Is there bullying in America?' 'Of course!'). And, like everything, it's the way an issue is presented that matters most. There is always the chance that a nationalistic student will resent anything a foreigner says about Japan. One the one hand, if I'm pissing such students off on a regular basis maybe I need to re-examine. On the other hand, if I'm using content about J. social problems without preachiness, sincerely, with no national pride of my own, and the vast majority of students react positively, then the occasional sensitive nationalist is not my concern. So, in conclusion to this long-winded and winding response I'd say yes, it's dumb to be preachy, but it's equally dumb to avoid all issues about Japan that might be perceived as criticism.

Thanks. I've noticed that many students will master these tricky bits if they have to use them in a prestige form. too.

I thought you might quibble with point #2. I suspect we have differnt personalities (more so than politics) in this regard. You have a real desire, almost a need, to point out and address what you think are social injustices whereas I am rather hesitant because I always suspect the story is more complex and nuanced. You want to speak out while I want to avoid getting caught out on a topic I really don't know in depth.

Anyway, Japan topics are popular among Japanese students in English to be sure. The students have a cognitive foundation to engage this material as such topics are usually related to their lives-- so they can personalize them. But the key word for me is "teaching" them about Japan, as opposed to "discussing". The latter implies that the teacher can learn something too, that the teacher isn't going into the classroom with the idea that it is their soapbox and students their captive, and naive, audience. If the teacher carries that smug "I'm going to tell you the real truth about your life, culture, society" attitude the students will smell it.

I can imagine when I was in Canada-- if someone relatively new to Canada, and not a citizen, was teaching me, say, Spanish but used that subject to introduce instances of poverty, racism, and corruption IN CANADA as classroom issues I would suspect that this teacher has a chip on their shoulder, an axe to grind, in short an agenda and that we are the targets. Now, I know, and knew then, that poverty, corruption and racism exist in Canada and are worthy issues, but having a Spanish teacher from abroad telling me this would come across to me as fatuous-- I would suspect that there must be an ulterior motive at work. I apply the same principles to my work in Japan.

Why I agree 100% that preaching is best left at home...By judging to your reply John, in the spirit in which you make this point as Dumb I agree.. it's not our job to 'teach' the students of what they aren't learning here in Japan.

However I beg to differ about the idea of teaching students things about Japan that they may not know or don't remember... I have taught a unit on 'talking and teaching about Japan' and in one of the many activities I have made a collection of things uniquely Japanese that a.) don't really have an equivalent word in English and if well known enough actually adopted into English, 'Kimono' being the optimal example...b.) or if they do have an equivalent it is too generic or cumbersome to actually denote the uniquely Japanese cultural item like 'Yunomi' There are many which are commonly known to students such as 'Manekineko' 'Enma' or 'Daruma' but others that maybe are more technical and relate to the traditional art form in which they are used, such as 'Chasen.' The goal of the lesson is for the students to be able to describe the item in English explain its function and significance... vice versa identify it after hearing its description in English. I figure it will be high probability that they will be asked about something unique to Japan thus use this type of language in an English conversation more so than a lot of the travel communicative activities you find in most curriculums.
... I have found however that many students don't even know what these things are called in Japanese... not out of ignorance but essentially not having a need to name them (they recognize the objects in the picture but for whatever reason fail to be able to name it) This aspect of me 'teaching them about their culture' by telling them the names of the less known objects, [not in condescending way but done out of having genuine interest in things uniquely Japanese] also so they can participate in the activity isn't actually a dumb practice as you imply... These activities have shown me anecdotal evidence that student interest actually increased in English Communication classes... I attribute this effect to maybe being along the lines of when you have visitors to your town point out things you've come to take for granted and essentially forgotten about... I imagine students are awakened to idea that maybe what they once took for granted is quite special.


I think I might have to revise my third (fixed!) point after having read your comment. Rather than dealing with socio-poliitcal issues, you are having your students learn strategies-- in this case how to explain things Japanese in English. This is good stuff- some of my best-received lessons have taken this path. Students explain words such as enryo, hansei, mottainai and chindonya using specific English explanation strategies. The last word in that list is interesting because, like yours, many students did not actually know what a chindonya was.

If they have to think more deeply about Japanese words/concepts that don't have direct English cognates then that it is a good cognitive and linguistic exercise-- and sometimes I help them in framing their explanations. But I don't really teach them the concepts, nor is it my intention to teach them 'correct' notions about the concepts which I think would be presumtuous. They may learn chindonya in my class but that is really a byproduct of the lesson, not my teaching intention or a teaching point of any note.

Thanks for your reply Mike. I think you're referring to your point 3--point 2 I'm in complete agreement with. As I pointed out, and Morgan pointed out, the *way* you present scenarios makes it easy to agree with. "Missionary," "exude the white man's burden," "privy to the real truths," "Preachiness" etc. Sure, those approaches are problematic. But does using content about a social problem in Japan, for example, necessarily have to be in those ways? Are you saying that teachers who get carried away in those manners are, well, dumb, or are you saying any mention of a Japan-related sensitive topic is arrogant or will be perceived in those ways?

About my desire or need to mention social problems, I don't think I'm different than other teachers. I consider what I think is most effective and meaningful content and use that. I consider global issues content educational, and feel I have made it accessible, and it seems effective, so I use it. When the class theme is otherwise, social problems never come up, and I'm fine with that.

Presenting facts (OK, call it "teaching") is my preferred route, without judgment or "should be" comments. Do they know that the average income of single mothers in Japan is around 2,000,000 yen a year according to Wikipedia (making that up here but it's about right)? In many ways, I think that's more provocative (in a positive way) and meaningful than facts about child soldiers. Does my nationality really matter? It shouldn't. And anyway, again your scenario is about someone who has not been in the country long, but in my case (and many foreign teachers), I've been in Japan almost as long as my students (over 15 years)!

I would probably bore my students with Talk a Lot because I feel it's more suited to junior and high school students (on a comment on the evolution of a teacher, many years ago when I first came to Japan and hadn't yet fully thought out what I wanted to accomplish in a class I used it and it worked well enough). I think I can cover social problems, including Japan's, because I have no national pride. If someone defensively points out, 'Aren't there homeless in America?' I'll eagerly explain that the problem is much worse there. So, in that case, the topic has the added benefit of giving me the chance to show that we don't have to be so prideful of our countries or protective of national identities.

Finally, there are topics I avoid, like discrimination. I think it's too easy to misunderstand that I'm being a crybaby and complaining about my own personal circumstances (which, anyway, I feel I have almost nothing to complain about). Whaling I generally avoid too. But even that, I can imagine a teacher making it work because of the *way* she presents it. I'm just not confident I could pull it off, but do not consider it dumb in any way.


Hi John! Your points make me wish that I'd written item #3 (sorry, I referred to it wrongly as #2 in an earlier comment) as a full entry so I could have explained myself a little more clearly.

I certainly agree that removing any Japan-based social issue from the classroom would be, well, dumb. I've actually used whaling as a debate issue in my own classes. What I oppose is the mentality in which a teeacher goes into the lesson with the mentality that they are going to "teach" the students what "they don't know" about their own country. In short, going into the classroom with an agenda to 'correct he students' views or knowledge'. The attitude the teacher takes to the classroom is everything-- although I would say that some who think they are innocently inviting discussion on an issue are really falling into the preachy missionary role without realizing on many occasions.

I think it's particularly presumptuous when teachers assume they know what students will believe/know about a topic, and make correcting this viewpoint their agenda. Teachers (Nj or J) should be allowed to make relevant, meaningful points during any discussion of course but this should be an outcome or by-product of the student discussion on the topic, not the input or intention.

As for the nationality aspect--- philosophically it shouldn't matter who makes a socio-political argument. But in reality there is no way we can avoid the fact that our students will see any opinion we give on Japan as coming from a (relative) outsider. 'Stance' or 'affect' can't really be ignored in such cases. As I stated before, I would certainly think that a non-citizen teaching in Canada bringing up Canadian social problems (in a non-sociology related subject's class) has some agenda, a chip, and that we are being used, even challenged, as his/her fodder.

I certainly agree though that old J vets like us don't need to play the wide-eyed, just off the boat gaijin card, feigning naivity about relevant Japan topics to appease local sentiment. In fact, it's good to let students know that we are on top of the news in our adopted home too!

As for being 'dumb', the actions I've described are IMO dumb-- but having done several of them myself I wouldn't label a teacher who does any of them 'dumb'.

4 is one of those almost too obvious to mention, but it still goes on. I think it's a common mistake of inexperienced teachers or those that don't look at themselves from alternate perspective and reflect on their work enough. I remember taking a Japanese language course in college (where all of the students have had 2 years of Japanese) and the teacher would start every single class asking us what day it was and what the date was. I guess she thought it would make for a good review and warm-up. What actually happened was I started off each class with a groan and started doodling or looking for something more interesting to think about. Oh, and I deeply resented it (among other things) and formed a lasting negative impression of the teacher.

Good qualification to 2: They've usually got it fine with input but still have trouble with output. I do review "basic English," but it is specifically for production of language, which they desperately need work on, and it's mixed with learning new things and experiencing the language in different contexts.

I had a hockey coach here in an adult league that thought we needed to work on our basic skills. Great! But this amounted to standing in place, passing the puck back and forth with a teammate for 60 straight minutes. After several practices like this, I quit the team and the sport I love and haven't played for 5 years now.

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