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The Uni-Files - Management Archive

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

January 07, 2010

Monitoring the classroom- perceptions vs. reality

There are a few students who regularly visit my office for chatting. These students are usually either returnees or those with a bubbling motivation to improve their English. It is often I who end up asking them questions about student life or their English educational experiences and I've learned a lot about what goes on students' brians this way.

Take some recent impromptu student discussion about my classroom monitoring for example. And what I mean by monitoring here is my habit (principle?) of walking around the room and observing closely while students are carrying out tasks. While I think of it as normal, even indispensable, for my teaching the students apparently find it a bit unnerving- partially because only a small percentage of their teachers actually monitor in this way. Partially.

The issue in question was what I am doing when I'm wandering among the students. You see, my students were sure that my monitoring was purely disciplinary. That I was trying to catch anyone who was cheating, sleeping or doing something 'wrong'. In other words, my intentions were seen as mostly negative in nature, looking for someone to scold, like the Zen priest and his 'big stick of satori', waiting to whack any wayward miscreants over the shoulders.

Of course, my perusals through the aisles might end up have this effect on student discipline but it hardly my primary intention, as I explained to my students. In monitoring, my purposes are in fact as follows:

1. For timing. To see how quickly the average student is getting through a task so that I know when to call time and/or move on.

2. To make sure that students are carrying out the task correctly- that they are on the right page, understand the task or assignment correctly etc. If not, I can point them in the right direction before they waste time and effort.

3. To allow for questions. Most students will never ask a question while I'm standing at the front of the class but are more likely to make a question gesture if I am strolling nearby. Making myself available for a few 1-on-1 moments is essential.

4. To see which aspects of the task the students are understanding well and/or struggling with. If I see common mistakes being made I can make a board note for the whole class or address the problem area post-task. This, to me, is the primary purpose of any pedagogy- to guide. And if it is some vocabulary that is stumping them I might address the unknown lexical entity immediately.

(Sidebar- For this fourth reason I often like to glance at what students are checking in their dictionaries while I monitor- so that I might learn what terms might be confusing them or are unknown to them. This, of course, helps me with my future lesson planning and classroom management, particularly since I often teach the same lesson three times in a week to different classes. But when I try to glance, most students tend to shut it down immediately, as if I've caught them cheating somehow, and am about to scold them).

I'm curious as to whether readers have other reasons for monitoring their classes or monitor in other ways...

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January 21, 2010

'Misses' and 'objectivity'

The Center Shiken (National University Entrance Exam) took place a week back and I'm sure many readers were involved at some level, most likely by proctoring. And if you were proctoring, (even if you were a back-up proctor, yes, there are benchwarmers in Japan's Center Shiken proctoring world) you will know the intricate protocols, steps, conditions, and general hoop jumping that is involved in what many might mistakenly think of as an easy process.

The key notion is of course that the Center Shiken must be fair and fully objective. That's why it is held nationwide with the same subjects being tested at the same time in over a thousand locales Japan-wide with over 500,000 students taking part. In order to maintain this integrity the surrounding system has to be airtight. Details are meticulous and must be adhered to under threat of your photo appearing in newspapers regarding a breach of Center Shiken protocol. No compromises. Nothing slipshod is allowed.

Lengthy protocol explanation sessions, complete with instructional CD ROMS, are prepared for proctors. The instruction booklet is the size of a small telephone book and, as far as I can read, contains provisions regarding appropriate actions to take if an examinee freaks out, becomes physically ill, if an alien lands in the testing room, and if an examinee suddenly morphs into The Dave Clark Five.

You know, the Japanese are generally very good with this type of thing. One old school generalization about Japan that I hold on to is the fact that the couuntry is pretty risk adverse and great lengths will be taken to ensure that there are no 'misses' ('miss' being the standard abbreviation for 'mistake', and it is the default term used in Japanese). If you've ever been involved, or merely watched, a kindergarten or elementary school undo-kai (sports day) you can see the meticulous, orderly planning manifested in a seamless- but somewhat tense and regimented- performance. (Whether people actually ENJOY it is another matter).

The thing is though, the more you try to avoid 'misses' by fine-tuning, tightening the screws, or devising manuals that try to cover every contingency, the tighter the system the more likely that a 'miss' is likely to occur- precisely because you've created a huge checklist of protocols that now could go wrong. As analogies, think of pure-bred dogs and how finnicky they are. Think of the guy (it's almost always a guy) who tweaks his computer to a T but it's always malfunctioning when any new software is introduced. Think of body builders where each muscle teeters on the brink of both 'perfection' and complete physical breakdown. The fact is, the tighter you build the foundation, and the more pieces that you use, the greater the likelihood that one piece will falter and lead the whole thing to collapse.

Hence, the near fetishistic emphasis upon 'miss' avoidance can actually induce scenarios where more misses are likely to occur. At the Center Shiken we proctors were quite tense, with almost every second accounted for and formally backed up in some way, making sure that the myriad steps were taken in precise order, with military obedince to the manual. This meant that we had to act with speed and efficiency but also meant that any screw ups would lead delays or claims from examinees of some breach of norm. And the more nervous, cluttered, and time constrained you are, the more likely that a 'miss' will occur. (There was also a ubiquitous stretcher placed outside the examination area, as if to underscore the severity of it all).

Now, here's the twist.
A miss in the test administering protocol is considerede a huge black mark. Therefore, about 95% of the pre-test information sessions and meetings focus upon the avoidance of a 'miss'. But, as an English teacher, I am more concerned about 'misses' at the larger level. Let me explain.

At the orientation sessions for teachers making the second-stage university entrance exams (NOT the Center Shiken orientation sessions) the overwhelming emphasis is also placed upon not having any 'misses' in the test. There is, in my opinion, too little emphasis placed upon producing a test that is valid and reliable. In other words, the overriding rubric is negative: "Don't have any mistakes on the test. That's all we ask". The endless fix-up and follow-up sessions are designed to make sure that no misses get through.

A big, get-called-before-a-committee mistake would be something like the following:
Match the four paraphrased sentences below with the undelined sentences (1,2,3,4) in the passage.
a.
b.
d.
e.

Although the lack of a 'c' answer should not really confuse students or cause them to answer incorrectly, this would be a huge black mark for the test makers.

Anyway, administrators usually want 'objective' style tests because objectivity, it is believed, reduces the likelihood of mistakes. So, in order to meet the heavy 'no-miss' criterion you could make discrete English language test questions like the following:
1. The Montreal Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in [ ].
a. 1998
b. 1984
c. 1993
d. 2004

2. Hitler's [ ] regime lead to the restructuring of Europe's political boundaries
a. nebulous
b. soporific
c. pernicious
d. sendentious

As you will see, there are officially NO misses in the above questions. But they are clearly absolutely crap questions for an English test. (I've exaggerated the samples- I can't imagine any exam actually making such questions although they did come close in the not-too-distant past- to make a point).

The first question does not measure English skill in any way but rather teasts localized knowledge which happens to be presented in English. And even if this was accompanied by a passage containing the answer (c) it still would not be indicative of English skill, especially in terms of measuring suitability for university entrance. Also, if the answer was contained in the passage 99.9% of the examinees would get it correct which renders the stratifying force of the question meaningless. So, while there are technically no 'misses' in the question it is nonetheless both invalid (it doesn't measure what an English entrance exam is supposed to be measuring) and unreliable (it's either too hard, based on chance specialist knowledge, or -if the answer is in the passage- it is too easy) and thus cannot have any stratifying function for placing examinees.

But it IS 'objective'. It contains no 'misses'. Also, the answers can be immediately measured numerically: 2 out of 2. Administrators love this type of thing and consider it somehow more 'objective' because the results can easily be rendered as numbers- even though these numbers basically indicate NOTHING about actual English ability. "Hey, if it's mathematical it must be objective!"

In the second example, the vocabulary choices are obviously way over the students' heads which means that if the correct answer is chosen it will almost certainly be chosen randomly (and of course a trained chimpanzee has a 25% chance of getting the correct answer on a 4-item multiple choice question).

Hey, but it is still 'objective' and contains no 'misses'--- despite the fact that it is thoroughly invalid and unreliable.

OK- I can't imagine any university entrance exam test maker making such egregious errors (in fact, in my research I have found that many second stage entrance exams and recent Center Shiken are quite valid and reliable). But the point is that an inordinate focus upon avoiding misses and maintaining this surface, shallow notion of objectivity can obscure the bigger picture- that of makng valid and reliable tests that acuurately or reasonably measure a wide range of student English skills.

Questions that demand deep thinking or skills such as making inferences, reading between the lines, predicting, summarizing and so on tend to be both more complex and nebulous than simple kigou (so-called because they can be answered by a letter mark- a,, b, c, d) questions. This complexity or lack of clarity can often led to what overseeing commitees think of as 'misses'. Overseeing commitees don't like the alleged 'subjectivity' or interpretive element that such questions demand. Hence the safety factor in making more discrete TOEIC-type questions

I find this fear of alleged subjectivity odd. After all, as trained professionals it is precisely we who should be expected to be able discern which students display the greatest ability in a subjective or essay-type question. By taking away the subjective evaluation element from a trained, experienced pro (who is supposed to be an expert in the field- that's why you've hired them to teach at a university) you've basically narrowed the scope of the test. You're no longer measuring extensive English skills but discrete item knowledge. You're no longer testing English ability but knowledge about English.

Your emphasis on 'no misses' at the expense of greater test validity and an artificial sense of objectivity that in fact often reduces test reliability means that you've messed up the bigger picture of measuring holistic student English ability.

And that's the biggest 'miss' of all.

A QUICK FUNNY- My all-time greatest classroom mistake

A long time back, when I was new to Japan, I had a small class in which I asked the students to tell me about the Japanese person who they admired most. One of the students answered 'I admire Chiyonofuji'. At that time I had no idea who Chiyonofuji was, so I asked. "He is a small restaurant," came the reply. "Non, no," I responded. "He OWNS a small restaurant or he runs a small restaurant. Not 'He IS a small restaurant'". The student looked both frustrated and amused. "But he IS a small restaurant" he insisted. A few seconds later another student spoke up. "Chiyonofuji is a sumo wrestler," he explained.

Oh (blush).
But come to think of it, some sumo wrestlers are actually like small restaurants.

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February 24, 2010

University English in Japan: What should we be doing? A delectable template of methodological morsels from MU

In my previous blog entry (just scroll down!) I talked about the education and training system for medical students in Japan. I deliberately held off talking about English education within the curriculum because I'm saving it for a special day. Like Wednesday.

Let me be presumptupous, self-indulgent, even conceited, pompous, puffed up and full of self-important hubris here (not to mention redundancy). I have very clear ideas about what should be done under the banner of English education in Japanese universities and, dammit, I think we're doing it well here in the medical faculty at Miyazaki U. So what I'm outlining today represents a template of what I think should be going on at most Japanese universities.

So, let's allow the voices in my head to start the Q&A to propel us forward (a tacky tactic to be sure, but easier to write and, hopefully, to read):

What formal English classes do your Medical students have to take, Mike?
All are required to take 1st year Medical English and 1st year Communication English (some with transfer credits or fat TOEIC scores are exempt from the latter- to my displeasure). In the 2nd year they are also required to take a Medical English class but can choose any one from among four being offered. There is also an elective course where most choices are English-based (a sociology course is also offered).

What about after rheir second years?
We have a specialized, intensive, practical program called EMP (English for Medical Purposes) that includes a foreign practicum component. 4th and 5th year Med students can choose this as an elective. ENP (for nurses of course) also exists. Students also tend to learn some medical English in their regular Japanese clinical classes because a lot of medical vocabulary comes directly from English. Some required clinical textbooks are in the language too. But these latter classes are not English courses per se.

Communication English. Hmmm. What's that all about?
OK, Here's where we get meaty. Let me explain by telling you what it is NOT. It's not Eikaiwa (do NOT conflate communication with conversation or we will have to step outside) and definitely not remedial English! Nor is it a continuation of high school English. And it's certainly not TOEIC-type test preparation. And although it is a required first year course with fairly large classes containing various levels of students, it is not a 'General' English course, one of those subjects that stretches it's pedagogical net so wide that everything falls through the mesh.

Rather, it is made up of:
1) Content-based learning:
The focus is on thinking. We excpect the students to be actively engaging the material, the concepts, and using the language towards that end. When language is used for meaningful and engaging purposes users become more conscious of form and tend to internalize it better. The other key point is that a university should be about cognitive engagement and not just 'language practice', particularly for those in medical school.

2) Task-based learning
We expect students to be able to carry out and complete tasks, again so that they are using language to communicate something, that there is some end purpose in mind. Communication English tasks here include getting personal information, taking a basic patient history, asking questions about symptoms/onset/medical history, connecting symptoms to systems, and being able to inform both patients and other medical professionals of one's findings (in writing and in speech). We also expect that students can fill in basic English medical charts professionally and accurately.

3) Discourse-based methodology
The textual focus is upon longer, extended texts such as doctor-patient consultations, information transfer, or referrals. The social and interpersonal manner in which the language is chosen and used carries as much weight as grammatical and lexical minutaie here.

4) Production-based focus
Not only are students expected to understand the content mentioned above (receptive), they are expected to be able to produce it accurately and appropriately (productive). The course evaluation system emphasizes this.

In short, the course is very much ESP (English for Specific Purposes) focused. But while the content focus is clearly medical, the same pedagogical principles can be applied to any academic discipline. To my way of thinking this is where the focus of all university English education in Japan should lie (this was the gist of the argument I put forth in the plenary session at the JALT CUE conference in Nara last October)..

So what's the difference between the Medical English courses and Communication English then? Do the Medical English courses emphasize terminology?

No. Students can get terminology from a dictionary (most specialized terms tend to have 1-to-1 J-E cognates and are often just katakana-ized versions of English anyway). They tend to learn terminology in their regular J clinical classes. Also, students have to learn to put terminology together within meaningful, purpose-oriented discourse (yeah, I'm repeating myself here, I know) and that's what these classes are for.

The different teachers have different skill and content focuses as well. One focuses upon writing and compositional skills. One deals with current medical affairs in the media. One focuses upon socio-political concerns regarding medicine and practice. Myself, I use these classes to teach counseling and interactive skills (bedside manner).

Don't you think it's too hard for a lot of students? I mean, most are just out of high school. How can we expect them to handle this type of content-based, cognition-engaging, higher-order specialized learning? Do they really have enough basic English skill to do this stuff?

Almost all of them can, and do, handle it. Yes. After all, they graduated from high school with six years of English under their belts. And if they can't, they'll have plenty of re-tests, extra work--- or they'll fail.

(condescendingly) Mike, most Japanese high school students have had those same six years of English study and can still barely put a sentence together. Don't you know anything? (smirks)

Well, if we keep doing remedial English, having them 'put sentences together' ,at the university level- going over what they've learned in junior high and high school- they never will be able to use the language. They'll just keep tripping up in the same places. If we do that, there's no reason to expect that they'll suddenly get it now at university. Unless, you assume that on some level, subliminal, subconscious, passive, hidden, whatever, they have an awareness of how the language is structured. What they need is somewhere to apply it, some type of stimulus to cognition to manifest that receptive understanding, to bring it into fruition. They need reasons for usage- tasks- and then guidance towards achieving those goals. That's precisely the function that content and tasks serve.

This, it seems to me, is what university education should be all about, to take that which is passively known from high school and to force it into meaningful expression where cognition is engaged- where language is mediated by thought. Most students at university are smart enough to do this and most have enough interest, if the tasks are meaningful and engaging, and if they are scaffolded, production-oriented and if students can gain a sense of both responsibility and achievement for their learning progress.

And then what goes on in those 'advanced' EMP classes you mentioned?

These are intensive all-English sessions for small, select groups who really want to become international medical professionals. We invite NJ medical professionals to speak on their research, case studies, or special field experiences in intractive tutorial sessions. English-speaking Japanese doctors also serve as teachers. The role of the NJ 'house' teachers in EMP are to have students complete the following guided tasks (year-by-year):

1. An ability to talk about each section of the hospital or clinic and to be able to answer questions (or ask them) about the Japanese medical system. Relevant vocabulary used accurately in context is the key here.
2. The ability to write, critique and summarize in speech an academic research paper.
3. To prepare and peform a Powerpoint presentation on a medical theme.
4. To conduct a full poster session using their medical research interests as a topic.

EMP students also participate in international exchanges and seminars that we host and do a medical practicum at a non-Japanese university. They also act as hosts to visiting medical students.

This is, to my mind, the fullest realization of an ESP program, and is the culmination of what we consider to be the main goal and purpose of university English education in Japan. Now stop me before I get bloated and dogmatic.

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March 18, 2010

Teachers' Meeting! (A 'Morality' Play)

Watanabe: First, I’d like to welcome you all to this meeting. As senior teacher I’ve been asked to create this working group on student morality by the Prefectural Board of Education, who seem to be worried about the alleged decline in student morals and want us to do something about it within the context of English education. (Aside) Hmmm I seem to remember my teachers saying the same thing when I was a student but whatever…
Anyway, other teachers will be addressing the issue within their own subject’s working groups and a report of suggestions and plans from us in the English department will be sent to the Board so feel free to offer your ideas.

Saito: I think the answer here is obvious. Morality means following rules. Therefore the more rules we create, as long as we rigidly enforce them, the greater the amount of morality.

Watanabe: Uhh, what kind of rules do you have in mind, Saito?

Saito: Any arbitrary rule will do. How about this? Whenever a student speaks English in response to a teacher’s question they have to stand and move one away from their desks to the right, starting with a lateral step of 80 to 100 centimeter’s length. This will demonstrate respect for others, particularly those who create arbitrary rules and have the ability to punish those who violate them.

Watanabe: Saito, I think you are talking about some artificially imposed idea of 'manners'. Morality means something more than that.

Hayashi: That’s right Saito, where is love of country in your proposal?

Watanabe: Love of country? What’s the connection? Can you elaborate, Hayashi?

Hayashi: Come on, Watanabe sensei! Are you really Japanese? Morality is basically patriotism. Patriotism demonstrates care for others- as long as they are our fellow countrymen that is. Love of nation leads to moral acts.

Watanabe: Such as?

Hayashi: Well in terms of English teaching it means helping our students explain Japanese culture, the Japanese way of thinking, and Japan’s positions to foreigners so that they will agree and come to appreciate the beauty of our country. (Eyes well up with tears). I can think of nothing more moral than sacrificing the fun part on their homestays for the betterment of Japan.

Watanabe: Ummm, I’m not sure there is a single Japanese way of thinking or a set ‘Japanese position’ on most issues or that students should be fodder for national propaganda.

Kobayashi: I think you are all missing the point. Morality means respect for life. Students have to learn that life is precious.

Watanabe: And how do you intend to teach that, Kobayashi?

Kobayashi: Well, we tell them in our classes that life is precious and that we must respect it in all forms. (Silence)

Watanabe: And this will be achieved by just telling them that this is so?

Kobayashi: Well, I’ll tell them to say it in English. I also think it’s important to remember that each person has his or her own morals. Who’s to say who’s right and wrong?
(Long, awkward silence)

Saito: We are. We’re the teachers.

Watanabe: Kobayashi, I know you mean well but I don’t think that really helps us in our current situation. After all, some students recognize no moral authority at all and many simply do not understand the nature of the social contract, how to interact in society.

Yamamoto: Ladies and gentlemen, you are all avoiding the inevitable. Morality is connected to grammar. Proper grammar leads to greater morality. Look at our own language. Back when everyone said “taberareru”, the correct form, we lived a peaceful co-existence in Japan based on respect for our fellow man… and syntax.

Saito: Hear, hear!

Yamamoto: But now kids, and even (shudders) some adults say (gulps) “tabereru”. And with this increase in sloppy grammar it is no coincidence that we see a rise in drug usage and threatening hairstyles. In fact I was talking about this just the other day with the girls at the Pink Thrill club. They all agreed that morals loosen when prepositions do. Or at least I think that’s what I said. I’d had a few too many that night. (Takes a long drag on his cigarette and blows the smoke across the meeting table).

Nishimura: Well I came of age in late sixties and we had some pretty radical ideas about morality and I think a lot of them are still valid. Morality is something that is imposed by the man, man. So, I call for counter-morality, morality that seeks to destroy the corporate industrial morality that oppresses the human spirit.

Watanabe: More concretely?

Nishimura: Like, I envision Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd jamming in the background while the students stage a sit-in, where they take back the streets from Big Oil, turning it into a people’s street.

Yamamoto: Nishimura, you know what that leads to don’t you? It might start with street protests but it ends with uncouth grammatical contractions.

Hayashi: Not to mention interracial marriage.

Watanabe: Nishimura, I’m not sure that’s a viable option in our current situation.

Nishimura: Fascist! Just wait until Narita airport expands into your backyard!

Hayashi: Communist! Nishimura, are you really Japanese?

Saito: Well Watanabe sensei, what do you say? As the senior teacher here and as head of this working group I will gladly submit to your authority on the topic.

Watanabe: Well, I agree that morality is not something that can be imposed from above or taught as a series of discrete facts. When we do that the students are not learning morality they are simply obeying orders to avoid punishment and not really dealing with any moral notions at all. In fact, I believe it retards their moral development. Confusing morals with arbitrarily chosen manners or rules, or conflating it with patriotism, is just a form of bullying, or in the latter case, is just chauvinism masquerading as ethics. Morality implies that the individual acts from a consistent, principle-based ethical foundation and is not purely driven by self-interest, momentary caprice, or simply by acceding to authority.
For moral development, young people have to engage human nature, understand complex relationships, decision-making and its consequences and have to actively engage these. English case or situational examples exposing them to moral dilemmas in complex characters and situations and asking for descriptions, explanations, opinions and so on might help them to reflect on the notion of right and wrong at a deeper level and thereby provide a strong foundation for moral principles. By presenting such issues in English and having our students deal with them productively, perhaps our students can not only further their English skills but become engaged at a deeper cognitive level too.

Saito: Whatever you say, Watanabe sensei.

Nishimura: Lackey!

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April 05, 2010

Classroom Nurse/Doctor discrmination? You bet! PLUS comments on the Foreign Nurses' EPA Trainee Program in Japan

Two sections today.

The first section is an outline of an interesting discussion I had with a ranking Faculty of Nursing member at our university regarding the controversial EPA agreement completed between Japan and the Philippines/Indonesia, in whichnurses from those countries are able to come to Japan to 'work' as trainees- but with a three-year time limit, unless they are able to pass the standardized Japanese nursing examination in Japanese. This program has been criticized by several pundits in the Western media plus many web-based Japan-oriented sites but there may be more to it than meets the eye, or at least the usual uninformed knee-jerk polemic that tends to surround public debate on such issues. (Those wishing to look at some survey stats on how Japanese hospital officials actually feel about the issue might want to peruse this.

The second section (with that eye-catching title) elaborates on why I discrminate in my classroom between doctors (or at least medical students) and nursing students.
But let's start with the Foreign Trainee Nursing Program EPA discussion.

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

I had a chance to discuss the program's merits/demerits and surrounding details the highest-ranking individual in terms of introducing and administering the program at our university hospital. So far, they haven't introduced it here- and probably won't under the present circumstances. Here's the lowdown:

Me: Some commentators see the 'three years only' rule as unfairly limiting and ultimately leading to a de facto revolving door, use-'em-and-discard-'em, disposable nurse program where only Japan benefits from cheap labour.

Response: That's just nonsense, although I too have heard some foreign reports saying this. First it is a bilateral program. The terms of the program were hammered out in conjunction with the Ministries of Health in the Philippines and Indonesia. And they all agreed on the time limitation. Do you know why? Because they trained these skilled nurses for service in their own country, at their own expense. They don't want a brain drain, to lose them to richer countries. They want them to learn abroad, and of course it is expected that foreign currency will be remitted home, but officials in those countries most certainly do NOT want to see the fruits of their labour disappear abroad.

Me: Some commentators see it as a way of limiting immigration or assimilation into allegedly xenophobic Japanese society.

Response: The Ministry of Health worked out this agreement, not the Department of Immigration. They are worlds apart. It's strange that some people would confuse the two. But foreigners often see Japan as one big unit, like Japan Inc. It's a kind of prejudice or misunderstanding I think.

Me: But wouldn't a longer program provide an answer to Japan's nurse shortage? And wouldn't it therefore ease the burden on Japanese nurses?

Response: Not really. In fact, the program creates more work for Japanwese nurses.

Me: How so?

Response: The foreign trainees have limited Japanese or no Japanese language skills at all at first. That's just a fact. Now, a nurse's job is typically made up of four parts. First, housekeeping. Second, physical treatment and therapeutic administration. Third, personal care ('wellness') and fourth, paperwork. Paperwork is a huge part, especially nowadays with electronic charts. But unless a foregn trainee is fluent in Kanji they could not possibly do the paperwork. Treatment and administration also have huge liability issues so the foreign traineees are unable to carry out those duties. A mistake based upon a communication misunderstanding could have enormous repercussions so they'd be excluded from that role until they have a full Japanese license.

That leaves personal care and housekeeping, less than half a regular nurses' responsibilities, that they can carry out- and even the personal care issue can be dodgy if their Japanese verbal skills are limited. Now, the problem is, if these trainee nurses are registered as being on-staff the hospital administrators are allowed to increase the patient load accordingly, because the number of nurses has officially 'increased'. But because the foreign trainees can't do the same job it simply increases the workload for the regular nursing staff. In addition, they have to train the trainees too and sometimes even have to help them learn the Japanese language. So where are the benefits for the Japanese nurses in all this?

Me: Would the foreign trainees get the same wage as a Japanese nurse?

Response: As a Japanese trainee nurse yes, but there are other factors in the agreement that may make it slightly lower. The specific hospital administration does not decide the wage. But I can tell you that the nurses' unions are creating opposition to the program since they believe that by paying a lower wage to foreign nurses that they'll be priced out of the market and replaced by cheaper foreign nurses.

Me: Is that a real possibility?

Response: They could just pay them the exact same wage but in the end that would actually turn out to cost more because the hospital has to pay for some aspects of training, housing etc. and liability issues. And hospitals are expected to avoid being in the red these days. Even with program funding fiscal perfomance is very strictly monitored. Why operate at a loss with both increased liability and tougher working conditions for the Japanese nurses?

Me: Isn't it a bit much to expect people with little experience in Japanese to pass a professional exam after only three years?

Response: It's certainly tough but that will at least weed out the less than serious candidates. But understand also that if it takes any longer to prepare for the license it means that the extra work for the Japanese nurses involved also goes on longer. And, as I said, the governments of the participating countries are very worried about a skill and brain drain.

Me: Thanks for your time.

(As you probably realize, the above exchange is both paraphrased and translated, although I can say in good conscience that I have not deviated from the original responses in any substantial manner. I also hesitate to name the person I spoke to- I'm not a reporter and this is not reporting per se. Let's just call the person a ranking university official with knowledge of the program. Finally, I encourage knowledgeable readers who feel that the information contained above is inaccurate to comment)

Part two: Why I discriminate between nursing and medical students in my classroom

Sometimes discrimination, in the purest sense of the word, makes perfect sense. It does in this case too.

No, I do not treat the nursing and med students the same. I use different content, have different expectations and employ different evaluation criteria. Here's why:

1. The medical students are academically more proficient.
95% of Med student Center Shiken scores are higher than corresponding Nursing scores. And even if you discount the academic viability of the Center Shiken you might trust me when I tell you that the quality of school, juku and related records for med students is also substantially higher.

2. Med students generally are more proficient in English.
Our university has English as one of the two core subjects on its entrance exam, hence Med students partial to Eigo will tend to choose our entrance exam. On the other hand, English is not a subject on the Nursing entrance exam.

3. Med students are on average older and more worldly.
This is just a statistically verifiable fact. Almost all the nursing students are 18 and come from Kyushu. Many, if not most, have never worked or been abroad. The med students come from all over Japan and many are in their early 20's as freshmen, having worked or travelled (or having studied other subjects post HS).

4. Doctors will almost certainly use English in specific ways while in service, nurses much less so.
Doctors will certainly come across English in both reading and writing research, conferring with peers internationally, or attending conferences. Doctors will probably give a presentation or do an English poster session at some time. They are also more likely (by far) to be assigned abroad for research. The only category in which nurses might use English as much as a doctor is with the occasional NJ patient who doesn't speak Japanese (although here in Miyazaki that usually means only Korean or Chinese monolinguals, not English speakers). The chance that a medical professional out in these parts will meet a non-J speaking foreigner are not high or consistent enough to warrant it being a foundation of university curriculum design.

What then is the point of teaching nursing students English?
First, learning a foreign language, or at least engaging a 2nd language with a cognitive, content-based focus is part of a good academic grounding for any university graduate. Second, it could inspire those who do want to become bilingual, international medical professionals to go further (and we do have courses that allow for such students to expand their English skills and international horizons).

How does all this manifest itself in the English nursing classroom?
There is less of an emphasis on developing professional discourse and academic literacy skills than there is with medical students although in no way are these neglected. Rather, the content is less rigorous both in terms of expected English proficiency and content/tasks. The teaching moves at a slower pace BUT neither is it what we might call remedial or Eikaiwa-based. Evaluation is also more gentle.

Does this mean that med classes are more engaging, fulfilling, and easier to teach from the Prof's perspective?
Hell, no. The nursing classes are generally great fun. They are less intense, take themselves less seriously, and hold a somewhat refreshingly cavalier approach to the classroom and English that lightens the teacher's pedagogical load. In short, nurses classes seem to have fewer classroom 'issues'.

Does anybody else out there teach both medical and nursing students? What are your feelings on this?

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April 09, 2010

Kaken-hi: The perils of getting what you wish for

Congratulations to me. I think.

To tell the truth I'm a little shell-shocked. You see, I was just informed that I received the equivalent of $20,000 (very sloppy numerical miscalculation now fixed) in the form of a 2-year research grant. Most readers have probably heard of kakenhi, a grant-in-aid for scientific research, doled out by the Japanese MoE through the university system. But if you haven't, here's the lowdown:

Kakenhi are what keeps departmental budgets (and to a certain extent, jobs) afloat and are a fundamental feature of working in a Japanese university. Fundamental because you are expected to at least apply for a grant if you are a full-time teacher. Fundamental because any specialized programs you participate in will likely have resulted from somebody's kakenhi cache. Fundamental because the number of kakenhis your department receives is often (and unfortunately) considered to be the primary indicator of your departmental worth. Fundamental because any score founded upon your database 'gyoseki' (academic achievements) will rise exponentially if you have one.

As a result, I have carried out the copious kakenhi application procedures (10 pages plus) 4 times now. To be frank, I have never put too much thought into the actual content of the research proposal because I have never needed the money (or more accurarely, the various fiscal and bureaucratic responsibilities that come with it). In other words, I was just going through the application procedures because it was expected of me (making no attempt at all looks bad on your database), without any actual hope or expectation that I would get huge sums of cash thrown my way.

But the other day- congratulations, Guest sensei. You got a kakenhi.
The plan is to research, develop, and produce a viable English corpus for our nursing faculty. To be perfectly honest, the idea was actually suggested to me by a colleague who is doing Doctoral research in the field and who thought that a combined proposal, written in English, would aid her chances. But now, as the 'principal researcher' the fiscal research ball is in my workplace court. (Was that a sloppy attempt at a metaphor or what?)

Anyway, here are my suggestions for those who hope to reap one of these babies (and it would be nice to hear further suggestions from those of you who've been successful in securing kakenhi dough):

1. Write it in English. Because you can and... because you can. The competition will be lesser and although the decision-making committee will have someone or two proficient in English on board, there will never be the same degree of scrutiny that meets a Japanese proposal. And it just seems more 'international' somehow.

2. Focus upon the notion of collaborative research. Especially if it is cross-cultural or trans-national. Be sure to mention how you plan to carry out investigations with the highly-respected Dr. Schlong at MIT as well as the eminent Prof. Gakuryoku from Kyoto Univ. (I'm not at all suggesting that you be facetious or try duping the committee with false names- your research WILL be investigated and followed-up on and fraudulence can ruin careers and land you in jail).

3. Since they are officially SCIENTIFIC grants you should employ a scientific research outline in your proposal. This doesn't necessarily mean statistical sophistry but it does mean having clear, palpable targets and research goals. A lot of EFL-based research is, IMO, pseudo-scientific at best (and that is NOT a criticism) but you will have to use the format and terminology to make the right heads nod.

4. Have a clearly stated fiscal budget laid out. State directly that you wil need 500,000 Yen to go to Dublin to research the effect that Guinness has upon the discourse involving the local variety of English. State outright that you require 300,000 to visit Bali in order to take first-hand field notes on the types of English strategies required in the upmarket resort industry.

5. Involve research partners who can share the burden. Some 'buntan-sha' are listed only in name in order to make an impression but having a buntan-sha or two who will actually be heavily involved (and is good with computer graphics, making resports, and reading/writing kanji, dealing with bureaucratic paperwork) will be best.

6. You must produce something tangible and this must be stated from the beginning. Big, fat reports that no one reads are commonly doled out to fulfil this condition but if you don't want to bore yourself to death, or dupe the tax-paying public, you should produce a viable book or piece of software that other people will WANT to use, something that gets you cited, noted and most importantly, gets your name on that extended work contract.

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May 13, 2010

Privacy, transparency and why you must know what I'm looking at on the web

Transparency is one of the most popular recent buzzwords in Japan- one of those imported motifs which is assumed to side with a progressive and enlightened society. After all, a society in which public officials can be held up to public scrutiny, where the taxpayers have the right to access public data, makes for accountable leadership. This is an increasingly common feature of Japanese universities as well , particularly those (like mine) in the public sector.

Unfortunately the notion of transparency can run counter to another concept cherished by stable, modern societies which is gaining increasing currency in Japanese public policy making- privacy. You see, although Joe Taxpayer is paying my salary, he (or his wife, Jane Taxpayer) may have the right to know how their hard-earned taxes (have you ever noticed how tax money is always 'hard-earned'? Isn't easily made money taxed?) are being used, but it doesn't follow that allowing access to all public records is in the best interest of that same public. The police are on the public payroll but that doesn't mean you can just saunter into the 5th Precinct and start rummaging through crime scene evidence.

I understand that there has to be a balance- after all there should be ways of checking and confirming that I am not using my kaken-hi (grant-in-aid) funds to purchase backrubs from nubile 19 year old aerobics instructors. But I don't like the sense of John Q. Public breathing down my neck or looking over my shoulder. I'm a little unnerved by having too much of my daily work visible for public consumption. Whatever grade I gave to Taro Yamada (or his wife, Jane Yamada) is between me, Taro, and relevant university officials. I think everyone would agree with this. Likewise, Hanako Watanabe's transcripts should be accessible only a limited number of officials and even fellow teachers should offer a legitimate reason to access the info. Again, I don't expect much argument here.

But what about my course syllabus? Or my class evaluation methods/system? Sure, students should be able to access these (although they in fact almost never do) but I fear revealing too much to John Q. (who, it must be said, is getting a little too big-headed about his being my 'boss' these days). The problem is that data can be abused, misused and misunderstood when available in the public forum. Data regarding the number of students who don't graduate in the standard 4 or 6 years might in fact be due to stricter criteria being used in some faculties (e.g. medicine) but it could (and often is) willfully (?) misinterpreted as representing poor teaching skills or unconcerned faculty in the media or, these days, in blogs.

And then there are all those miscreants, ne'er do wells, and just plain wingnuts with personal or institutional vendettas who scour this type of thing to launch 'claims' ("Hmmm. Guest is required to present a detailed 14 week syllabus but I see only thirteen general lesson plans listed. The university is being slipshod! Maybe I can pry some compensation from them for my emotional distress. And there's the old truck outside with the loudspeakers. I haven't fired up that baby in a while").

Although I understand that my educational history and research focus should be available to Victoria J. Anybody (or her wife, Jane) I do have worries about big brother scrutiny by self-appointed public watchdogs- interestingly, the very opposite mode of oppression that Orwell wrote about. "It seems that according to Guest's publicly accessible web log that he checked Yahoo's Stanley Cup playoff scores for 6 minutes. And on the public lam!", or "So, Guest stayed at the Hotel Puberty on his business trip to Singapore. Well I found a youth hostel on the net for a third of that price. And what about that Oatmeal Stout and India Pale Ale he drank? Were those included in his per diem?". Or the fact that I am writing this blog post while at work and using uncooth phrases such as 'nubile 19 year bold aerobics instructor' (Humorless self-appointed vigilante morality police readers might want to note that this blog is hosted by an educational organization so I can do this at my workplace without compunction- nyah nyah).

The most visceral problem though is that increased transparency increases the amount of work for everybody involved and thereby makes public service less efficient. To wit- the other day I sat through a two-hour rubber-stamp meeting to confirm the acceptance of all the university's transfer students (note- as a committee member I have access to that info but I do feel uncomfortable with it- as may the students). But this meeting, which gave me less time to prepare for the class in the next time slot, was held as a means of increasing transparency- so that accepting transfer students is now not just the province of a few isolated officials but is something that is widely committee-approved for the sake meeting publicly-acceptable protocol.

These days I receive an increasing number of internal email saying things like: All members of the Student Cafeteria Rewiring Committee are required to submit a scanned copy of all academic records for our public website, along with a hard copy of the official seal of the registrar(s) of those institutions. Deadline: tomorrow.Ok- I'm exaggerating, but it is true that I had to file a thorough and detailed kaken-hi budget plan before we even received the money for reasons of public disclosure. Research demands some flexibility but now we are beholden to, straitjacketed by, a budget that may not meet our actual plans and needs, which of course fluctuate. So, is this type of disclosure really serving the best interests of the public? And this is not to mention the office people who have to spend time creating and monitoring those sites. Accountability is increased- while time and energy is wasted.

And this is only one of many examples. I have spent an inordinate amount of time recently filling in various university-related databases because the public demands accountability. For example, if one happens to be on a national university entrance exam committee (and this is just - ahem- hypothetical because the actual names of committee members are not supposed to be made public) one is required to submit a fairly detailed amount of specialized data which will ultimately be made available to Joe and Jane Regularpeople. Doing it accurately and fitting it into the labyrinthine guidelines and categories (mistakes or inaccuracies could cause one to be held accountable to that same public) takes considerable time away from actual class prep, student composition checking, or actual research. Is this what the public actually wants or expects me to be doing with my time?

I can tell you that just down the hall (I work at an attached university hospital) doctors and nurses have the same complaints. The same tensions between patient privacy and transparency predominate. Doctors in particular know that someone somewhere will be scrutinizing every minor decision to look for possible breaches of conduct- parlayable into claims and inquiries- which makes them hesitant when making decisions. Handcuffed.

Doctors, in the name of being held accountable, now have to record every minute nugget of information into records that can often be made accessible to patients, officials and, in some cases, the general public. This means that they are even more overworked, carrying out a lot of what effectively amounts to clerical duties. Requirements to explain in more detail to patients and immediately carry out both paper and an electronic recording of changing an old man's diaper means that the public in the outpatient department will wait longer to see Doc and that there will be fewer Doctors in total seeing them. Is this really in the best interest of the public? Is this the ultimate goal of using taxpayer's money?

Or should tax money be handed over to specialists in the public domain who we trust to do as they see fit and get tagged only when there is some egregious breach? Yes, Virginia there are better checks and balances than John Q. Grudgeholder (and his wives, Jane and Victoria).

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May 27, 2010

J universities as bastions of progressive policy?

There are those who think that Japanese universities are a reflection of the top-down authoritarian structure that they see in Japanese government or large companies- in fact some think of them precisely as extensions of government and companies, as conservative bastions of the 'dominant culture'. Perhaps such people think of all Japanese as falling into line under a regimented authority structure regardless of the actual system employed, in order to suit their own preconceptions about this country. No doubt there are certain inaccessible corridors of power in Japan, like anywhere else, but how widespread is it really? And are universities a reflection of this?

Well, I can speak only for my own university, which I have every reason to believe is typical of national universities, and although located in conservative Miyazaki, the popular view of Japan as a top-down authoritarian society does not hold in this case.

Say what?

Well first let's take a look at the power structure. The president and all faculty deans rotate from department to department and professor to professor and are elected democratically by all full-time faculty. This means that there are no Self-Appointed President-for-LIfe types who founded the university based on their industrialist daddy's cash. Neither is the Riji-kai (Kyouju-kai at unis- like a board of directors) an unchanging cabal of stodgy old boys but rather a fluctuating broad-based set of educators. Here's where Japan's (in?)famous worker rotation system displays some tangible benefits. These are not bureaucratic 'suits' but regular class-teachin', lab-researchin' guys 'n gals MANY OF WHOM DO NOT EVEN WEAR TIES! Every department is represented and every educational (and more) policy of note goes through them. In fact, they tell the bureaucrats what to do.

When Monkasho wishes to implement a guideline or policy this group ratifies it and decides how, or to what degree or in what manner, it may be carried out. Suffice to say that Monkasho guidelines are not carried out like imperial decrees.

Most of the Uni presidents and deans I have known reasonably well and, generally speaking, they are well-travelled, amiable, broad-minded types. It is very easy to arrange a meeting with them. In fact, I recently spent 1 hour discussing the wider establishment of a discourse-based English education focus with the university vice-president, who also happens to be head of the English policy committee (of which yours truly is a member). This wide number of committees with rotating chairs helps to distribute power even more widely so that the power structure remains fluid.

Let's look a little further.

There is an ombusdperson section, openly advertised, with the provisions of due process for grievance are clearly laid out, and complaints can be carried out in confidence. There is also a widely-advertised support center, fully-funded, for sexual harassment, power harassment, alcohol harassment and other unfair or psychologically debilitating practices.

There is a support center for women, staffed entirely by women (and feminist supporters may be happy to note that they are a thorn in the side of some rather rigid older profs), which also lends tangible support regarding child care leave and aid. And yes, males can take advantage of this too (see Matthew Apple's story of taking child care leave from a university in Nara here).

NO ONE tells you what to teach and content is not checked by any 'authority'. This principle is almost religiously enforced, somewhat to the chagrin of visiting part-time English teachers who often want to, or expect to, be told what they should be teaching- and few such directives are forthcoming.

The university grounds are completely and fully smoke-free (although just ten years ago there were numerous smoking areas outside classrooms which became encrusted with a near-permanent yellow sheen and a 24 hour Eau De Marlboro aroma plus every other piece of consumer junk that students tend to leave around for the garbage fairy to pick up).

There are rotating ecology and watchdog committees to monitor mismanagement and abuses and to make/apply further suggestions. I realize that the latter might sound more ominous than progressive but it is management practices that are being checked and balanced so...

I talked about the movement to full access and disclosure (and associated problems) in a recent blog entry.

Another thing I've alluded to here before is the attitude of the office staff and/or bureaucracy. Since professors and doctors call most of the shots there is virtually no sense of being under the thumb of inaccessible boardroom suits. They don't decide policy, they carry it out- and this is reflected in the kindness (almost deference really) with which they treat the teaching faculty.

And how might the university look not-so-progressive? Well, by far the majority of senior profs are male, but that number will almost certainly decrease as the number of women in associate prof positions has risen propotionately in recent years (demographics, demographics). The support center also promotes female researchers/academics in this regard, plus the fact that among the medical staff (I work in the faculty of medicine with an attached hospital), the number of female doctors about to move into positions of greater authority is quite high.

One could say that the number of lecture-oriented classes is still too high, although that too is changing.

Despite these few hiccups, there is little doubt that the authoritarian image of Japan and Japanese institutions held by many does not apply here.

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June 04, 2010

Japanese universities slip in Asia rankings- a few comments

Some readers may have noticed this headline and short article appearing recently on the eltnews website.

The rankings are based upon several criteria, including: academic peer review (40%), employer review (10%), faculty/student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), proportion of international faculty (5%), proportion of international students (5%). (*The actual website includes more criteria so I'm not sure where ELTnews got the percentage breakdowns from).You can see both world and Asia rankings (plus the breakdown of each listed university via the links) here.

So are we to take it that Japanese university educational standards and performance are heading downward? In short, no. So, why did the Japanese universities slip and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis these rankings? Apparently, Tokyo U. would have been Asia's numero uno had only academic factors been cited, so the slip cannot be said to come from a decline in academic achievement. The drop then seems to be based upon the two 'international' categories and 'student exchange' criteria.

Japanese universities have always tended to keep fewer non-citizens on faculty compared to other developed countries. No surprise here. As the vast majority of classes, administration and research will be carried out in Japanese, opportunities for those who don't speak the language are extremely limited, especially when compared to the Hong Kong and Singaporean universities. But this still doesn't explain the slip. Perhaps then economics come into play. The appreciation of the yen and hard times in general means that fewer foreign students and possibly, researchers (even though the Japanese hosts foot a large number of those bills) can afford to visit or stay.

On the other hand some J university rankings actually rose, not the least of which was my own humble place of employment, the University of Miyazaki, which made a significant jump- from 201st to 131st (although this would still be the 7th division if this were British football or the J9 league domestically). In our case, this is due to the fact that the number of international exchanges and cooperative ventures at all (student, faculty and research) levels have exploded recently as has- and this is important- the way in which we are now carefully compiling and providing this information to the public- which influences sites like the one linked above. (I don't imagine that our huge leap forward is founded solely upon the enormous amount of international respect this blog garners).

But while the language factor will always cause Japanese universities to lag somewhat in such rankings there is still no excuse for avoiding the development of international relations, of actively cultivating exchange. Our international profile expansion was founded largely upon GP (good practice) grants and has now become an established, permanent (?) part of the university program. And the English section plays, as you can imagine, a big role in both establishing and maintaining this. So the bleak economic situation need not adversely affect every aspect of international exchange- after all the YEN is still strong and the internet continues as a means for international exchange.

Since the J universities ranked highly in terms of research and academic citations, we can't say that academic level is a weakness. but there is a dimension in which I feel that Japanese universities might actually be lacking: Teaching skills. Education.

You see, most universities in Japan heavily favour hiring personnel with strong research backgrounds. People with a lot of papers, people with established names in the research field. And that's fine. Having students (usually grad students) apprentice under the mentorship of a world-class researcher can hardly be anything but beneficial. But most of these people also have to TEACH!

And they are often- ahem- not too great at 'teacher-y' things such as class management, communicating to large groups, creating tasks, the very items that undergraduates deal with almost exclusively. They usually don't have backgrounds in curriculum development and syllabus structuring. They are far from up-to-date on assessment and evaluation.

So here's the point- to improve Japanese universities on a more visceral level (I make it a habit to use the term 'visceral' at least once each blog entry) more attention needs to be paid to hiring people with these types of backgrounds to fill TEACHING roles.

The University of Miyazaki's Faculty of Medicine's international academic status seems to be built on the back of its world-class ranking in peptide research (note, that's peptide, not Pepchew) but unless the people involved in this highly-rated program also hire people who can teach and inspire the undergraduates, who may someday evolve into peptide researchers themselves, we will lose our ranking and, more importantly (viscerally?), advances in medical research may also come to an end.

Added editorial note- Apologies for initial typos in many blog posts. We are asked to compose on the blog page (and not just copy from Word), which when done with an IE browser, produces no spellcheck (Firefox though, does). On top of that, I tend to be oblivious to some of my own typos even upon proofreading. I know how ironic this appears when talking of university education and academia...

Will strive to take more care in this department instead of rushing to get the blog online.

I've also heard that my entries come off without paragraph breaks in some blogreaders. Suffice to say that my paragraph delineation seems perfect upon composing here and when it appears in the actual blog but I will take advice on how to fix this so that it doesn't happen on some blogreaders.

Mike

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July 22, 2010

Getting involved- local politics, universities, representation and influence

I'm feeling rather buoyant at work recently despite the usual cluttered end-of-term schedule and the searing and humid weather. I'm feeling a bit lighter on my feet because I've received a little validation and recognition, and more importantly, good EFL methodological practices have been acknowledged.

Let me explain why in a roundabout way. I'll start off by making a few general political comments and then tie these to the university EFL workplace and my current situation...

Most of you will have heard of proposals to offer suffrage to permanent NJ residents of Japan and there has been some intense debate on the topic in various quarters. The best argument in favour of suffrage is probably that as permanent members of our community, with financial, family and workplace investments implanted, we deserve a say in our governance. Fair enough. But is voting the only way to be represented, to have a say? Is it the most effective way?

Some might argue that simply because we pay taxes we should be given the vote- no taxation without representation- but I'd hesitate here. Your taxes give you the right and means to use numerous government services provided at various levels. Don't want to pay your taxes because you can't vote? OK. But then don't expect to use any welfare, health, garbage collection, or childcare facilities and services- which are what your tax money is paying for. No taxes- no benefits. Surely we don't want to become entwined in this circle (assuming that no one who reads this blog is a private militia survivalist living in a plywood shack in Idaho).

In fact, despite the current lack of a local vote you are, and can be further, represented. Your local town hall will include numerous resident's committees, advisory boards filled with residents, and resident representatives in all sections. By joining or volunteering for any of these, any of those bwhich match your concerns or interests, you are doing far more visceral work for the development of your community than a single vote would (especially if your candidate loses).

My thinking is that if one really is so concerned about influencing local polity as a concerned resident then it would be incumbent upon one to learn about the issues (if you had the vote would you exercise this right responsibly by studying the issues?), the players (ditto), and most of all, to get yourself involved in some committee work (being an NJ will in no way disqualify you). This will mean sharpening your Japanese skills and making an effort but hey, that's participatory democracy, and presumably that's what people really believe in.

At the most local of levels there are the jichikai, or neighbourhood associations. I just finished serving as the Vice-chairman of ours for a year and it was an eye opener (and good not only for my Japanese skills but neighbourhood public face too). Our current Chairman is an American PR. We are treated like any other resident and use our involvement to make local decisions. This too is grass-roots participation and involvement. If people want to be counted and represented, to influence local policy, this is where to start.

I hope those who clamor for 'representation' plan to make themselves active and knowledgeable with the same fervency as they spout their suffrage advocacy if and when PRs ever get the local vote.

OK, now let me tie this to the university milieu.

Many NJ teachers feel left out of university decision-making, that they aren't represented or listened to, that they cannot affect educational policy. Voting is generally limited to the Kyouju-kai (Professor's committees). But, as with local politics, there are ways of getting yourself involved and noticed and ultimately making a difference. Like getting your PR status, it takes time, knowledge and some passable J skills but if you really want to be a player there are ways.

One is to inform yourself about current university system and policies WELL before criticizing or offering alternatives. Half-baked critiques based on unwarranted beliefs about 'the man' and 'his system' will not bode well for your seat on any committee.

Two- work on your J skills. Otherwise your credibility as a player takes a big dip and you will end up merely fulfilling the token Gaijin caricature.

Three- Have an active interest in some issue and something coherent to say about it. Whining about your boss doesn't qualify, except over a Guinness.

Four- volunteer for a committee. And yes, this means commitment and more work. In other words, don't just talk the talk but walk the walk. Get yourself involved by attending any open meetings of interest to you and thereby putting yourself in a position to get onto a committee. Again, and, I can't stress this enough: get informed about it if you want to be taken seriously.

You can avoid all the hassles and responsibilities by just doing your regular teacher's work of course (and that can be an attractive option) but don't complain then about your inability to affect policy or how the man is keeping you down (with apologies to those NJ at universities who are shut out of every meaningful decision-making process- yes, I've heard of a few such places).

So, how does my sprightly step tie into all this? Well, I'm a member of our Zengaku English Study Program Committee (I'm the only NJ on it as the rep from the Faculty of Medicine's English section). This committee is comprised of representatives of all faculties of our university, but many are not ELT educators at all. Still, this committee is responsible for developing or propagating new English programs, making recommendations to each faculty on English teaching policy (note- but NOT compiling edicts or dictates).

In the recent past, this committee adopted a program that I felt on my levels was unworkable, awkward, as well as methodologically and educationally dubious- and costly (although I admit that it has some limited benefits). And because I showed concern (and knowledge) on the topic I was placed on the committee. However, after some committee members, having been led to believe in certain unattainable benefits of this program, have gradually come to question it- including the committee Chairperson himself. This gave me the opportunity to present an alternative to the Chairperson and thereby establish my credentials as somebody who is trained and has experience in developing EFL programs and curriculum.

The chairperson has since asked me to make a formal Powerpoint proposal for our next meeting, where I am to explain the theoretical and practical logistics of my own proposal. Here's a big chance to establish a viable university English program beyond my own faculty (Medicine). Although it soothes the ego to be sure, the feeling that I'm being treated as a player, being counted, and seen as having some skills or knowledge worthy of developing a wide-ranging policy gives me a sense of purpose, of being useful. It is a positive move also in the name of sound educational policy. And, it goes without saying, it is good for the students who may have somebody trained and experienced in the field providing a framework for their university English education.

Disclaimer- I am not a natural go-getter who has the energy or inclination to get involved in every issue and expect others to do likewise. I pick my spots and try to influence where I have some knowledge or skill, something positive to offer. Although I can still whine with the best of them, getting yourself on board beats griping or constantly feeling like you're the victim of poor managerial decisions.

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July 30, 2010

A very brief blueprint for Japanese university English programs

In the comments section of the previous entry, reader Mark Howarth asked me to outline what I think an English program at a Japanese university should look like. I have covered a similar topic on this blog in the past which you can access here (scroll down to the second entry) but I thought it would also be worthwhile to restate, or elaborate on, a few points.

First, here's what I think a Japanese university English course shouldn't be modeled upon:
1. It is not eikaiwa. There are legitimate places to learn daily conversation. University is not one of them. A university should have a more rigorous academic focus for any subject- including English.

2. It is not a continuation of high school English. Most students learned English structure in the form of discrete items in high school (particularly in preparation for entrance exams). The students, at some level, know this stuff. True, very few can use it productively or even in a consolidated manner but at some level they 'know' it. The trick is getting it from the realm of the latent and passive and into more active contexts. Now is the time to put what was learned (at a certain level) in high school to use.

3. It is not a matter of just memorizing more specific terminology- which can be achieved using a good dictionary.

4. It should be more generalized in scope- as befits the concept of a university- than the narrower, very specialized focus of a senmon gakko. That is, it should balance intrinsic and instrumental purposes.

5. It shouldn't be reduced to a TOEIC-like course, a detached, discrete-point, impersonalized, externally-administered program. Such things are useful foor supplementary study but hardly as a curriculum framework.

On the positive side- a university program should...
1. cause students to engage cognitively

2. be academically viable

3. develop critical thinking skills and production of English within meaningful contexts (meaning within their major subjects)

ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and EAP (English for Academic Purposes) models therefore seem most appropriate.

Teaching methodology should not focus upon structure (which will just repeat the shortcomings of high school English) or terminology but upon the frames of discourse within a particular academic subject (i.e., agriculture majors should study and utilize English skills that reflect and enhance what people in the field of agriculture talk about, what they read, write, communicate.

Universities should be a place where students learn to communicate with peers worldwide in the field and gain the ability to write papers and give outlines/preparations in English on specific topics.

Discrete aspects of English (specialist vocab., structural elements) can be mastered through ongoing moderated evaluated tasks, process learning, (if and when such points are needed and can be grasped contextually for the sake of enhancing communication) rather than a focus upon numerically-based discrete item testing. In other words, vocabulary and grammar are mastered not before dealing with meaningful, academic content but through dealing with such content. The meanings and functions only have reality for students when they manifest themselves in meaningful expression, and is retained only when recycled through meaningful contexts which the student is creating or maintaining (not teacher or text fed).

The most common negative response I get in regard to these proposals is that many, if not most, university students don't have the English skills to embark upon such a program- that many can barely squeak out the most basic of utterances.

I would answer that it is precisely the focus upon non-cognitive mechanics that has brought about this disjunct (between the passive knowledge of English as gained in HS and actual, practical, meaningful usage) and therefore to continue pursuing it, arguing that students have not yet mastered it sufficiently, is flogging a dead horse.

Challenging, rather than cognitively coddling, students should inspire them. By relating it to their field of study/interest we provide a framework that has significance for them. Talking about shopping or movies in English does not. They might start of awkwardly upon this track but the rate of improvement and mastery of skill should excite both students and skeptical teachers. After all, it treats them as if they were adults and real students.

I should know because I've seen this happen with my medical students. And while medical students tend to be pretty sound academically, this does not always transfer into utility when they enter university. In fact what they generally do well at is test-taking. But after two years of a discourse-based ESP/EAP approach most have taken at least a few steps forward- steps that are more becoming of a university student.

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October 26, 2010

Two items: 1. Nobel Prizes, Research and REAL WORK 2. How to avoid a test (and fail!)

Two mini-posts today…

1. Nobel prizes, the office concept, and research in Japan

Much was made in Japan of Prof. Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido Univ. being awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. There is no doubt that Nobel Prizes provide a boost for national egos, even if the winner is usually more a product of individual genius that a product of that society. Oddly though, when a Japanese academic wins a Nobel prize it is usually accompanied by an equal amount of hand-wringing about shortcomings in the nation’s educational and research environments.

I say 'oddly' because you’d think that achieving the ultimate academic recognition would serve as a vindication of an educational system but not in Japan. One reason is that co-winner Eichi Negishi is based at the U. of Chicago and has been so for almost all of his research career (and he is not the first Japanese researcher who has been able to flourish abroad and be critical of research setting in his country of birth).

The criticism is that university research institutes in Japan are static and rigid. That there is a stifling hierarchy which discourages the type of open environment necessary for innovation and success (although I would argue that most countries would like to have Japan’s –ahem- lack of academic/innovative success).

Not working in a research lab I cannot confirm all of this firsthand but the fact that even young Japanese researchers (among them some that I’ve met on my own campus) seem discouraged certainly lends some credence to the notion. But I’d like to raise another factor that inhibits the pursuit of excellence in almost all of Japanese educational institutions but is rarely mentioned as a factor....

OK. When you think of the term “Japanese worker” what comes to mind? The guy in the blue suit who sits at a cubicle (or a shared table) in a company office 8AM-8PM, right? Mr. Salaryman (or Ms. OL in the case of women). This seems to be the set model for ‘working’ in Japan. Therefore, if you are not somehow engaging in office work of some sort you are not really working.

Now you might think that primarily teachers should teach, doctors should treat patients, and researchers should do research, right? And perhaps the occasional bit of paper work might come their way for inputting grades and the like. But not in Japan.

An enormous amount of my working time, concentration, and effort is taken up by requests from various offices in the university. Elaborate questionnaires have to be filled in, meaningless committees have to write vapid reports, databases are changed and have to be re-inputted, the Student Affairs bureau wants you to keep a record of student visits to your office and the purposes thereof- I could go on and on but you get the point. It seems like almost everyday the secretary comes to me with something to fill out, prepare, input, or comment on.

To be perfectly honest, I've come to feel that if I read an academic book on EFL in my office for more than 5 minutes I’m screwing around, indulging in a personal hobby. If I work on an academic paper on my computer I’m somehow cheating the university time-wise. Help! They’ve gotten to me!

I often get the impression that administrative office staff thinks that if we are not on our actual teaching contract hours that we aren’t really working and therefore have to fill our idle hands with some nefarious tasks to legitimize receiving our paychecks. And yes, I have heard researchers here claim the same thing- that they are always busy with ‘zatsuyo’ (paper work) and thus are forced to delay the very research that the ‘zatsuyo’ is based upon or work until the wee hours. The surrounding, peripheral work has supplanted the real work. It seems that the most important thing is to dance through the hoops created by someone in the office downstairs, not to produce actual research of worth. Your research could be total crap and you'd still be rewarded for it as long as you completed your online 'Research Report- reflective imprssions of the allotted travel funds section' correctly. And only in 12 MS font.

As I work next to an attached hospital (plus the fact that my wife is an MD) I know that this afflicts doctors (and nurses) too. Doctors complain of rushing patient visits in order to complete the pre and post visit paper requirements, which are ever increasing, demanded by the paper pervert powers in those dusty cubicles.

Maybe this is why research is usually more practical and productive at Japanese companies than at universities. The expectation inside a company seems to be that office workers do office work and the lab people stay in the lab and there are a sufficient number of clerks and secretarial go-betweens to bridge the two. Less so for universities and hospitals. Secretaries and clerks have their roles here to be sure, but the more they do on behalf of the teaching/research staff, the more the bureaus downstairs make up because- well we have to do some real work, right? And real work of course means filling in online forms and shuffling more and more papers…

2. How to avoid a test: An almost true account of where my class apparently ranks in the student life hierarchy

(Setting- My classroom with 32 2nd year English communication students)

Me: OK. Next week we’ll start the role-play tests based on what we’ve been working on over the last five weeks. You’ll be doing the role-play in pairs- 12 minutes per pair. Even numbered students will come next week, odd numbered students the week after.

Everybody: Ehhhhh!!??

Me: What do you mean, ehhhh???!!! It’s a university. We have tests here, right?

Yamada: But we have a test the day right after that in Anatomy! We have to study hard for it!

Me: Perhaps then you should ask the anatomy teacher to postpone his test- because you have an English test the day before and you have to study for that!

Watanabe: But it’s not fair because the students like me who come next week have the anatomy test as well as your test, but the students who come in two weeks don’t!

Sato: But it’s not fair for students like me who come in two weeks either!

Me: Ummm, why not Sato?

Sato: The rugby team is playing a tournament that weekend and we have practices!

Me: You don’t have practices Thursday morning, when our test is held!

Kobayashi: But we’re having a drinking party on Wednesday night to celebrate the tournament.

Me: Now why on earth did you schedule a drinking party on a weeknight?!

Hayashi: Our club seniors decided. So we have to go, and then we won't be able to study for your test. Plus it’ll be hard to get up in the morning for this class!

Me: Well that’s a choice you make. Please your seniors or get a failing grade on the test.

Suzuki: Give the test in three weeks! It’s better!

Yamamoto: No way! In three weeks the orchestra is doing a concert the day after English class and we in the orchestra have to focus on that. I may have to miss English that day anyway to set up seats in the concert hall.

Me: If I listened to you guys we would never have a test at all. Or even classes for that matter.

Setoguchi: Why don’t you do the tests in the final test season, like other teachers?

Me: Because it’s not suited to two weeks of role-play testing AND I can’t give you proper feedback. Plus, we use ongoing evaluation in English class. It's not just a pile of knowledge that we’re testing.

Abe: Yeah, Setoguchi, shut up! If we had the test in the usual testing season we couldn’t study for it anyway because we have three other tests scheduled then. So we wouldn’t be able to study for the English test at all.

Me: All right. I hear you. The only solution it seems is to do the test right here, right now in the next 30 minutes. Take out one pen and one piece of paper everyone. Here we go. This test, or should I say pop quiz, will account for 60 percent of your grade. Good luck!

Everybody: Ehhhh!!!???

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November 08, 2010

Sending Japanese teachers abroad for English training- Does it make sense?

A little ditty in the Daily Yomiuri caught my attention last month.

The article tells of the government's mulling of a plan to send young Japanese English teachers to the U.S. to improve their English abilities. One thing immediately caught my attention- the estimation that it would cost 10 million yen annually for each teacher sent. As a result, sending just 1000 teachers would incur a total cost of 10 billion yen annually.

Wait a second. That's about $120,000 per person per year, right? So where exactly are they planning to house these young teachers? At the Four Seasons? One would expect that they would be housed at residences for foreign trainees connected to the institutions they'd be attending- which are invariably publicly subsidized. Add a per diem ($70 per day would be more than generous), air travel costs (150,000 Yen return) and study fees (variable) and you'd still be a long way from justifying a $120,000 package per person.

This is the kind of thing that generally passes over readers' heads, largely due to the 'stunned-by-numbers' phenomena. You know, where someone in the media states that there have been 'over 750 thermos-related deaths in Iowa in the past year'- until you realize that that means two thermos-related deaths per day in a single state! Or when you hear that the government has 'set aside 750,000 hectares for rutabagas experimentation at a cost of 6.8 billion dollars' but whether these numbers are realistic or not doesn't really register because they are so big as to become virtual abstractions.

Anyway, later in the article, something else a bit odd pops up.

The JET program is duly mentioned as being the current mode of English 'exchange'. But this is followed by the statement that the JET budget is being reviewed and, further, that the Ministry is requesting only 130 million yen- which appears to be the fiscal JET allotment- down 14% from last year's fiscal budget.

Say what?

So the JET program is to be allotted 130 million yen per year with which several thousand JET teachers are to be housed, provided a salary, paid travel costs etc. If we apply that to, say, 3000 JETs that comes to around 420,000 yen (about $5000) per year per JET. I know you can get some decent cardboard as walling for that price but...

Again, compare this with the $120,000 estimated for Japanese to study abroad. Consider also how cheap the U.S. is from a yen-earner's perspective right now. The numbers don't add up. Can somebody tell me what's missing here?

Anyway...
The article seems to be saying that sending Japanese teachers abroad might be a way of replacing the JET program, at least in terms of budgeting. So is this a good thing? Let's weigh it up:

If the numbers in the article are correct it would seem that hiring 3000 JETS is far far more cost-efficient than sending 1000 young Japanese teachers abroad. However, I suspect that the numbers are wrong. But by how much?

And what about the pedagogical side- the educational benefits? This is of greater interest to the Uni-files. Many (most) JETS are untrained, uncertified, and inexperienced as teachers. Most do not plan careers in teaching. The Japanese teachers are of course teachers by trade so it could well be argued that theirs is the better long-term investment.

One argument in favour of JETs though is that even if they don't bring teaching expertise into the classrooms, they introduce many young Japanese to foreigners and living English, which in fact has always been the stated purpose of the JET program.

It could also be argued that several JETs do in fact go on to become very good, qualified, professional teachers and that the JET experience provides training for them- which is later paid back into Japan's education system through their teaching skills.

On the other hand, young Japanese teachers going abroad to improve their skills has a certain obvious appeal. Although some JHS and HS English teachers do have a very sound grasp of English it is pretty clear (often by their own admission) that many struggle with dynamic, idiomatic English (and sometimes with anything beyond the textbooks they use). This is especially so given that the new Primary school English curriculum is about to be introduced as of next April.

I sense a few problems with this thinking though.

Although I would expect that their daily English skills would improve after a year abroad I'm wondering if and how this would improve actual classroom instruction in any tangible way. Textbooks in JHS and HSs are already set and I'm not sure that an improved ability to hear English more fully or having a more dynamic control over grammatical choice or vocabulary range would impact the type of things that the textbooks and curricula cover.

Nor have I seen much in these textbooks that is 'wrong' or unnatural English that 'improved' English teachers would be able to 'correct' (although many sections do seem a little stilted because everyone speaks too perfectly, with almost too much civility and without any evident personality). In short, I'm not sure how much idiomatic English would affect the teaching of foundational English or to help students prepare for university entrance exams. How would sensei's increased facility with the day-to-day lingo really benefit learners who have an existing, set curriculum to complete? JHSs and HSs don't exist to teach students daily conversation or 'how to do X' abroad.

My intuition is that poor class management skills, sloppy methodology, and/or inadequately developed curricula might be a greater factor in causing student motivation and skills to atrophy rather than a lack of native-like fluency. Perhaps then further teacher-skill training would have greater educational value than English study abroad.

Then, of course, as I blogged about recently in regard to Nobel Prizes and research, there is also the problem of having in-service teachers away from their workplaces so long. After all, only a small part of a teacher's work is bound up in teaching their main subject. In Japan, with the teacher-as-all-thing-to-all-people motif being what it is, having even one staff member away for a year could seriously impact the workload of others. Reducing teacher's extracurricular workload and using a budget to hire more clerical or specialist staff to carry out these extra duties would free up teachers to attend training sessions and become more competent at what they do.

Which is teaching English, not speaking it.

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March 30, 2011

Scoring burnout points in the 'off-season'

With all the events of the past few weeks, it seems almost trite to be talking about the state of English education in Japan. And when people have lost relatives, homes, and are huddling under blankets in underpowered evacuation centers, complaining about inequities in the education system seems like self-indulgent whining.

I suppose if there are two things which come to mind for me in light of the situation up north one would have to be the sense of impotency of being a mere English teacher, as opposed to being someone who could really help in a more visceral, constructive way (of course I encourage all of us not directly affected to give financial aid!). The other is how proud I am to be a resident of this country- where the people have responded to adversity with such resilience and dignity.

But university English education is what this blog is all about so let's talk about the 'off-season' (yeah, right!) and the 'B' word. Yes, I know that the off-season should be a time for battery recharging but for me this is the season not to be jolly. But first, a few disclaimers...

I like my job. I can think of few I'd rather do (or in fact be capable of). I cannot remember a single day in the past dozen years where I have dreaded coming in to work (OK, proctoring the Center Shiken comes close, but that doesn't really count). I have never yet felt the need to ignore the alarm clock beckoning me to toil for my daily bread.

I like teaching my classes and 95% of the students. I am inspired when I walk into the classroom. I get a buzz. The great majority of my students are appreciative and attentive. I can't recall ever feeling a sense of burden before a lesson.

I have my own office. This means I can check hockey scores at will. I can go in or out of my workplace as I see fit and nobody really cares why or when. It's nice.

But perhaps all this is why the 'off-season' (in reality, the 'meeting, entrance exam, research, scheduling/planning, and special courses season') actually causes me to feel ('B' word warning!) burned out- precisely because the dopamine effect of the classroom, the adrenalin rush of dynamic interaction, has been withdrawn. Now, I can't complain about having too much work per se- again, look at what people are either volunteering for or being forced to do right now in Sanriku up to 18 hours a day. And for me it's NOT the feeling (although this is not uncommon among teachers in Japan) that I am wasting my life performing songs and dances for students who would rather be tuned into their ipads. So, if it's not overwork or a sense of being disrespected or under-utilized, why the feeling of burnout?

I suppose age is a factor. I've turned fifty. At fourty, it seems you can still maintain a hopeful narrative that your job and research will bloom and prosper, that you can and will raise your station to become a player of international stature. You can even tell yourself that you might just still write that great 21st century novel, record that CD that's been playing in your head for years, score the cup winning goal in your national football league, and end up dating a Eurobabe supermodel who actually digs you. You can afford to look forward.

At fifty though, you stop. You're scrambling to hold on to what you've got, clawing at your remaining time like you're Bear Grylls hanging by his fingers on a crumbling cliff top. And, oddly enough, that's OK. But change is difficult. You start to become traumatized at the possibility that you might have to change brands of shaving cream. And everything hurts physically- sitting at your desk writing research papers, driving your car, reading self-indulgent whiny internet blogs, and especially knowing that you are now unlikely to change in any significant way except to get older. You now know that your research will not suddenly be recognized as seminal, epoch-making work by Henry Widdowson and Michael Halliday.You will not be asked to become Professor Emeritus at The Sorbonne. But that's all fine. You're happy to have a decent beer in the evening, a loving family (OK, not necessarily in that order), and take the occasional trip to Southeast Asia. It'a tradeoff, I suppose.

But factors other than age can and do lead to widespread teacher burnout- and yes, I am feeling this pinch as I write this. Here are four further causes that come to mind:

1. Bureaucracy leads to burnout.

When about, oh, 80% of your time and effort at work goes into filling mindless functions that basically exist to perpetuate the current system, to feed the machine as it were, you can be forgiven for feeling like the proverbial hamster on the treadmill. The fact that excessive bureaucracy can be a demotivating factor probably falls into the "No shit, Sherlock!" school of discourse, but the point is that the off-season is surely Carnival parade 'n party time for bureaucrats.

Now, as a teacher, I can and do feel inspired by educating and challenging both myself and my students. But, and call me a Philistine if you must, somehow I don't feel motivated and inspired when I'm filling in the university database's 300+ item/category 'achievement' file with a smack-in-your-face deadline. Now, I'm not gonna go all 70's-sci-fi-novel-cum-progrock-concept-LP on you and assume that this is a 'me vs. the system' scenario, the protagonist as an independently sensitive soul in an uncaring world, but hey, when work becomes a matter of little more carrying out duties simply because someone else has decided that some 'busy work' duty has to be carried out- well you are allowed at least 5 burnout points.

2. Not being absolutely fluent in reading Kanji leads to burnout.

No doubt you could contribute much more of significance to your workplace if you could digest those 20-page 'shiryo' the way natives (and those cursed Gaijin Kanji nerds) do. You could feel on top of things- more relevant and involved. But I'm not a good visual learner and I struggle with Kanji. This is not some type of xenophobic anti-Gaijin barrier erected by my superiors- it's my shortcoming (and maybe yours). Not feeling up to speed on issues that MAY matter and thereby not contributing what I could or should, not to mention that trying to read some obtuse shiryo will take me at least ten times longer than Dr. Sato next door, aids burn out- about 3 points' worth.

3. Feeling that your real work is not being recognized or appreciated leads to burnout.

This obviously connects to number 1 above.

Case In Point A- You sit on a committee which seems to exist solely for the purpose of producing a bi-annual report. A report that no one reads because it's about having meetings about producing a report. But, dammit, preparing and formatting that report is treated as serious, important stuff!

Point B- The entrance exam overlords keep banging into your head that you must avoid any 'misses' on your exam. They wouldn't know if the exam you made was in fact 100% structually invalid or that all the tasks and questions measurably unreliable, as long as you don't, for example, put the wrong, unofficial kind of bracket on the question sheet. But you do put in the wrong kind of bracket, and your 'miss' gets pointed out to you on exam day.

Point C- You care about your course content. Good. And it's not just you- many other teachers do too. So, you duly fill in your syllabus- but the online syllabus entry form carries 20 different category headings and all must be filled in according to a format explained in a, wait for it, 20-page shiryo. You want to explain your well-thought-out educational rationale here but you know that no one will ever read it anyway and that the guys in suits downstairs are more concerned that you have officially filled all six slots for 'available office hours' (using the obscure single font type that the system recognizes) for each of your twelve classes.

You could probably write in that Educational Goals section: "...to make myself more attractive to the ladies in the class" and no one would bat an eyelash. You wonder why you are writing down '...developing strategic competencies' instead. Score 6 burnout points here- two for each of these three cases mentioned above.

4. No one cares about your research focus except for...

... the editor of the journal you've submitted it to. Who cares a little TOO much. And you can add a burnout point or two if he/she is the type who is more concerned about the fact that you did not italicize the title of the chapter noted in the proceedings papers listed in your references- so you are therefore IN VIOLATION OF APA STANDARDS (this warrants CAPS because it is taken as seriously in the world of EFL publishing as, oh, arson is in the real world), and therefore you are clearly not a serious professional!

Then, the head of your department has no idea what you are researching but is happy when he/she looks at your database and notes that you have two items listed under 'research publications' for the year. It could be that you merely wrote a short review of a muffin shop to a suburban shopping bulletin board but hey, if you have that publication listed the department bigwig is happy because funding your research (which remember, he/she actually doesn't much care about because his/her role in the houjinka system is now primarily to secure funding) will be easier next year. But despite this realization, you try to be professional and still shoot for the lead article in TESOL Quarterly or Applied Linguistics. Score 5 burnout points here.

[I want to add here that people in the hard sciences have a huge and distinct advantage over soft, pseudo-sciences like Applied Linguistics when it comes to research papers. That is- it's tailor-made for publication, cookie-cutter prefabricated for the background-methods-results-discussion format. There is no vagueness or nebulous quality to it. Rigorously empirical, it is precisely this formulaic quality that makes it easy to slot into that great template of research paperdom, unlike opaque EFL/ESL topics such as, "Learner Perceptions of Secondary Intercultural Aspect in Cleft-structure Usage". And if you're a scientist- a real one- you can also put the names of all your lab mates under the paper title and they'll do the same for you. Presto- suddenly your the author of 11 hardcore published research papers within a year!]

So here then is the question to you, dear reader- where do you rank on the off-season burnout scale? Have I missed any major causes of off-season burnout? And what do you do you to avoid it? Me- I'm waiting for my classes to start again. I want to feel that energy flow. And in particular I want to see the faces of our students from Northern Japan...

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October 08, 2011

Is this really an improvement for Japanese universities? Critiquing a critique

Think of all the bad cliches you can think regarding alleged Anglo-Saxon values (putting aside for a moment the fact that many people wrongly conflate 'Anglo-Saxon' with being white, or even with being Western). You know, the ones about winner-take-all cut-throat capitalism, the need to rationalize everything numerically, the low regard for the emotional welfare of the small fry, and an emphasis upon bottom-line results, all directed with ruthless efficiency.

It's a pretty damning caricature but one, as you will have surely noted if you are well-read or travelled, that is widely believed. I've often been in position where people have assumed these characteristics must inevitably be ascribed to my good self, being a wasp and all, despite my protestations that these attributes did not in fact reflect my personal values nor the education, formal or otherwise, that I received.

But after reading Paul Stapleton's article in the September/October issue of JALT's 'The Language Teacher' magazine I felt like this caricature had been not only underscored, but justified by being presented as virtuous.

Let me explain by outlining some of the key points made in Stapleton's article (although it is obviously better if you read the link provided above). Stapleton worked for twenty years in a Japanese university but recently left to take a new role in another country (Hong Kong to be exact). Stapleton's article compares the two systems and finds the Japanese lagging on many counts. Although Stapleton is careful to note that his experience cannot be assumed to be representative of Japanese universities as a whole, the conclusions he draws from this personal experience nonetheless are used to critique Japanese universities en masse.

'An atmosphere of mistrust'
For example, Stapleton relates how test grades given by individual teachers at his current (favourable, non-Japanese) institution will be subject to "internal monitoring and external review", and then possibly modified by others to ensure "fair and balanced grading". For me, having my own students'-- my own courses'-- graded assignments reviewed, and possibly changed, by other teachers violates the tenet of academic non-interference and smacks of institutional nannyism. Micro-management of this sort generates an atmosphere of mistrust. What is wrong with the idea that if you hire someone to do a job (such as grading) you assume competency, until some egregious problem raises its head?

Stapleton also explains how teachers at his current institution are ranked (!) based on a cumulative "magic score" garnered from student questionnaires about the teacher. Teachers who receive lower 'rankings' are called to task. He goes on to explain how this "can, and does" lead to non-renewal of contracts. First, the reason as to why teachers should be ranked against each is other beyond me. Universities are not Billboard charts. Student ratings and comments should primarily exist as a means of feedback for the teacher, and with an emphasis upon qualitative commentary as opposed to raw numericality.

Secondly, although Stapleton is aware of the dubious veracity of using student questionnaires as a measure of pedagogical competency, he does not address the likelihood that pandering to students in order to accumulate popularity points will be at odds with his supposed emphasis upon increasing academic rigor and accountability.

Low bar for research
Stapleton also criticizes at length the alleged "low bar" that Japanese universities maintain when evaluating personnel (referring to database scores which are carried out at all national Japanese universities, especially since the advent of 'houjinka' system, or semi-privatization). He mentions that dubious essays published in non-refereed department journal will suffice as research publications. But he also seems unaware of, or chooses to ignore, two factors that might considerably alter his perspective on this issue.

The first is that national universities rate publications by an established impact factor, so it is not possible for a throwaway piece in the department journal to have the same database value as a full publication in a top-notch publication. The second is that all teachers and researchers on the database can choose a weighting system for their contributions-- that is, researchers can choose to put greater weight on research scores, teachers on teaching roles, or on administrative involvement (which is a large part of a professorial role at national universities). In other words, people with different roles are not constrained by the same rubric, let alone some numerical "bottom line" acting as a cut-off barrier. It may seem fuzzy, but it is more flexible, and thus, I would argue, fairer.

Is the hamster-wheel scenario more humane?
Frankly speaking, it also seems much more humane to me. While Stapleton's faculty would appear to be running on a hamster wheel trying to maintain the bottom line under threat of losing their livelihoods, the "Japanese" system he criticizes recognizes the value of different roles and how individual contributions may not manifest themselves in fat database scores. While deadwood still occupies some Japanese academic offices to be sure, those (full-time faculty) with dubious scores or contributions will have their situations discussed so that all the affective factors can be made known.

While "clear benchmarks" may aid in illuminating expectations, set established minimal "bottom line" scores don't allow for such human variables. To me, Stapleton's approach seems more suited to the sharkpool world of retailing than academia: "Go out and sell a minimum of $50,000 or you'll be out on your ass!"-- Show me the money! I really wonder if this score chasing is really as conducive to raising research standards as Stapleton assumes, since I can easily imagine lower-tier academics focusing more on the tail-chasing act of maintaining numbers than on doing research because they love it or because it is truly beneficial to their teaching area. They produce because they fear the crack of the whip. Is that really a virtuous motivator?

Promotion- age, merit, or other?
And while Stapleton lauds promotion based upon merit (although he appears to conflate this with high database scores) I think he overstates the centrality of age as the determining factor in promotion in Japan. It is most certainly not the determining factor at my own university (although professors anywhere will generally be older because they have stayed in their positions longer, it's not that they originally attained that position solely or even largely because of age).

In fact, the whole notion of 'promotion', in the sense of the business-world model that Stapleton seems to be describing, doesn't really apply to national Japanese universities. Professorial seats, when open, are publicly announced-- and outsiders with excellent academic credentials or current Associate Professors very familiar with the existing system, who have been acting as de facto professors for awhile, tend to gain these seats. Moreover, department heads, deans, and committee leaders rotate regularly, often through internal elections. The need to jockey for position, to scramble, to outpace an opponent, is less pronounced.

'Who benefits?'
A bigger question might be this: Who benefits from Stapleton's system? It is telling that not one of the improvements that Stapleton mentions is connected to pedagogy, education, or improving learning skills. Rather, every one of Stapleton's comparisons is about bureaucratic efficiency, garnering academic brownie points, justifying budgets, and about maintaining control and "accountability" or, as I read it, about keeping people on their toes by making them anxious about the possibility of losing their jobs. There is no reason to believe that students receive better teaching methods or superior curricula due to all the factors cited by Stapleton despite his claim that good students are naturally drawn to such universities, so we can't say that it really seems to benefit the students.

Surely lower-rung academics wouldn't be benefitting from this dance-or-I'll-shoot-at-your-feet scenario either. It seems that those who might benefit most, as is often the case when "accountability", "bottom lines", "meeting numerical standards", and contract renewal are buzzwords are the people in power which, perhaps unsurprisingly in Stapleton's current institution appears to include Paul Stapleton himself!

'To hell in a happi coat'
Unfortunately, the article ends with an old bugaboo or, I might even say, cliche. Stapleton argues that without changes, meaning the adoption of the systematic "rigor" and "efficiency" carried out at the university he now works at, Japanese universities will be marginalized, since they are already "outliers" in terms of accountability; that the negative effects of these qualities rooted in Japanese culture will lead to decline.

The old 'unless Japan changes this society is doomed' (Doomed I tells ya!) slogan is something I have heard on every Japan-related topic over the past twenty years. Yes, there are aspects of Japanese society that, if not addressed quickly and appropriately, could lead to future hardship (i.e., the aging problem), aspects of Japanese culture/tradition whose time has come and gone and now are burdensome anachronisms (the koseki and juuminhyou system), and features Japan would do well to borrow from other countries (traffic roundabouts). But the notion that Japan is headed to hell in a happi coat, a downward spiral into oblivion, unless Japan adopts Stapleton's preferred model (the superior one apparently held by "developed" countries) this just sounds like the same old alarmism.

If this is the future I don't want to be a part of it
If I recall correctly, I met Paul Stapleton once and have also attended one of his presentations. In no way did he come across personally in the same manner as the procedures he advocates do. And although it's true that different systems bring out the best in different people, I wonder if he is aware of how his article might come across, if he is aware of some of the demerits of what he calls 'rigor', 'efficiency', and 'accountability'. For this reader at least-- if this is supposed to represent an improvement in academics, education, and of societal advancement in general then, sorry, but I don't want to be a part of it.

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October 31, 2011

Workshy, layabout teachers should pay back salaries

The first part of this entry's title is, I admit, my own paraphrase. But the second part comes straight from the horse's mouth, in this case, this recent (Oct. 21st) article in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Since I know that some readers are unlikely to click the link and read the original from start to finish, let me summarize it. The article talks about how spot checks on 855 teachers at 191 public schools in four prefectures were found to have 'misused' a total of 4575 working hours over "recent years". These ne'er-do-wells will be asked to pay back the amount of salary they absconded with in terms of absenteeism.

30 seconds per day

First, let's do some math. 4575 misused working hours divided by 855 teachers is just over 5 hours per teacher. Let's choose two years as the base timeline-- that's about 580 working days. So, a whole 5 hours per teacher on average were found to have been wasted over two years. This amounts to about thirty entire seconds per day not spent on activities related to their work. As a taxpayer, I am appalled that thirty seconds which could, indeed should, have been spent putting a happy face sticker on one more student's report on "Prefab Huts- Our Underappreciated Friends", has been spent doing something as unproductive and self-indulgent as, oh, getting some exercise.

According to the article, "The Board of Audit [aka 'Hall Monitors'] intends to ask in its audit report that the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry [now, apparently, the Justice and Labour ministries as well] order such teachers to return part of their salaries to the state". No doubt the money will be put to public service of great utility, such as providing one extra twenty-page 'shiryo' for the sub-section chief's assistant secretary who missed the meeting on, "Confirming the previous sub-committee's decision to acknowledge Septic Tank Appreciation Week in specially-designated parts of Gunma Prefecture."

It's payback time...To me!

Here's a novel idea. If teachers who misused working hours should have to pay back that proportion of their salaries how about paying extra for all the work that teachers did outside their prescribed working hours!? You know, all those extracurricular activities, PTA doodads, extra help for either gifted or troubled students, not to mention test-making or marking at home and other above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty sacrifices that most teachers make. I mean, if you want to get all anal about working hours, well, that sword cuts both ways.

These shiftless, parasitical teachers' apparent misdemeanours included, "engaging in activities unrelated to their jobs." OK, some were found to be involved in union activities and related work during their working time. That is indeed in violation of public workers' protocol. And yes, teachers who simply disappear for a day or don't even bother dropping by on work days should be reprimanded, especially when their absence forces somebody else to carry the load. But those rare frequent-absentee types are hardly the kind of teachers this wrist-slapping seems to be targeting.

'Holidays' and 'vacations' as working time

How so? Well, another claim made in the article was that at 82 schools in Hokkaido, just over 2000 hours was lost because some teachers did not work "during working hours even though they were required to be at schools during long-term holiday periods such as summer vacation".

Now, did anyone else catch the oxymoronic (or just moronic) conflation of "working hours" with "holiday periods" and "summer vacation" above? Again, over a one-month summer holiday plus period, about 24 hours per school was lost- or one hour per day among the entire staff! And, yes, we are talking about the season when students do not come to school yet teachers are still required to be at their prescribed working stations from at least 8:30 to 17:15. Why? Is school supposed to be like a bank or something with set public opening and closing hours?

Criminal evidence exhibits

How did the audit board discover this scandalous deception? One way was by noting that, "... in some cases teachers turned off the security systems after working hours started or turned them on before working hours ended".

Yeah, they left work and correctly activated the security system. Does not being in their seats mean they weren't working? Conversely, does being in the school mean they were being useful or productive?

More evidence of criminal behaviour: "In one case, the reported training venue was a library, but the facility was closed on that day". This happened one whole time! It seems that this scofflaw behaviour has reached epidemic proportions.

Charged with attempting to better yourself

More skullduggery is exposed: "At 19 schools in Okinawa Prefecture, teachers took extended breaks in working hours during schools' summer vacations, or attended meetings of educational research organizations not related to their work without using their paid holidays for the purpose. There were 208 teachers involved in these cases, who misused 1,183 hours".

Now let me get this straight. These teachers are being criticized for attending meetings of educational research organizations (such as, I presume, going to something like an ETJ or JALT conference or workshop) during their summer 'holidays' and should be penalized because they didn't use their official days off to do so?!?! I mean, these teachers are using their work time to better themselves as teachers, to learn more about their craft, and yet they should be regarded as moral lepers? As if they would be achieving much more of value for their profession by sitting at their teacher's room cubicles reading newspapers or trying out 50 different fonts for the new, seasonal PTA o-shirase forms?

Or maybe they took lunch breaks that lasted longer than the standard 45 minutes. Yes, I too confess to occasionally jumping into my Swift and going out for a decent meal when I'm not rushed for lunch. It may last up to a whole (gasp!) hour. But the next day, with classes right before and after lunch, I'm shoveling a 150 yen tuna 'n ham Sando down my throat over 10 minutes while dealing with some bureaucratic twaddle (and there is a staggering amount of this stuff at the national university level) which was emailed this morning with a 1 PM deadline. That's my lunch break.

Teaching is neither retail nor factory work

The audit board (aka "The Man") apparently gained their data by checking entries in the teachers' attendance records and by interviewing teachers. As we all know, asking teachers about the activities of their peers is a sure-fire way to get statistically objective truths. As for 'attendance records' -- I mean, what is this, a Springsteen-esque factory from the 50's? Punch in time- punch out time--- with time cards collected and checked before paypackets are dispensed? Mother, or rather bossypants nanny-types, know best. Sure, I can understand that if you work in retail you can't just walk out of the shop for a stroll while customers may be at the door. And I understand that factory workers can't just shuffle off home at any hour without having to face the music. But teaching is neither retail nor factory work.

I find the whole attitude towards work in this article to be an unwelcome throwback to what should be a bygone era. It reeks of the "real work means sitting at your desk in an office" mentality, which is one of the things I find least endearing about typical Japanese workplace settings (and I'm sure that many Japanese will agree with me on this). Of course, while being observed by big brother at your cubby hole you will do your best to string one hour's worth of work over eight. It's far from being productive (which is what the real criteria of working should be based upon) but, hey, it looks like you're working, so kudos to you.

It also reminds me of the opening scene from The Flintstones. When the quarry end-of-shift alarm rings Fred immediately lets out a joyous whoop and slides off his dinosaur to head home. The alarm sounds so his work day is done. Or it's redolent of some industrial revolution Dickensian sweatshop where well-fed men with whips monitor the workers to make sure that no one is so much as rubbing their eyes while on the bosses' time. Should this be the model applied to the teachers' room?

But I'm also wondering about the psychological and physical costs invoked by having people sitting dutifully at their desks for 10 or so hours-- how much they end up spending on drink or cigarettes to reduce boredom or stress, how much they spend on chiropractic treatment or days taken off because of general poor health. Let's weigh all that against the money 'lost' by the miscreant teachers.

The heights of self-indulgence-- producing from home!

The fact is that most teacher-related work can and does get spread out over and beyond non 9-to-5 times and the fact is that much can be done at home. Again, it's not an office or factory job. For example, since I live near my campus I occasionally drop by my home for a short time during 'working hours' because I can actually concentrate better on things like making teaching materials, grading, writing up research etc. Sometimes I actually-- oh I am a slave to self indulgence-- play a CD to enhance my concentration while I do so. John Taxpayer must surely be bristling. Come and get me Audit Board! You can drop by and check what I'm up to on Saturday or Sunday but-- oh--- I might be busy marking homework or making new materials in this, my-- ahem-- free time.

In fact, this approach to work spawns a whole cottage industry of looking-like-you're working-hard behaviours, such as leaving work and locking your door but keeping your lights on so it looks like you're hard at work. And even if you are in your office, nobody can see that you are actually deeply engaged in a epic bout of World of Warcraft. Everyone thinks you're putting in your 'working hours' and hey, that's what counts.

Then there's the morning vs. evening impression-making factor (at my university at least). I have a lot of morning classes so I arrive at or before 8 (and yes, after reading the article I want to be compensated for the work I do between that time and my official work starting time) and no one else is there. I go to my morning classes 8:40-12:00 (lights off in my room-- environment and all) and upon my return to my office, see that others have since arrived, at 10 or 11. These same people stay until 7 or 8 PM, which in Japan is when you get real credit for 'working hard,' while good old Mike is heading off at 5:15 to pick up his daughter from nursery school. The lazy git!

The hockey vs. soccer player working models

Working styles differ too. Myself, I'm the type who works feverishly for spurts of one hour or two. When I concentrate I am, with all due modesty, probably in the very top percentile of human productivity-- but I can't keep this up for eight or more hours. Yet I get everything done-- and then some. So, after an intense spurt of activity I do take some time to watch a Youtube video, check hockey scores, or book a hotel for an upcoming family trip. For these indiscretions I think I owe each taxpayer reading this article approximately 2.6 yen. Hansei shimasu.

The fact is, I work more like a hockey player than a soccer player. The soccer player has to (usually) stay on for the full ninety minutes and thus must pace himself, whereas the hockey player has to go all out for one-minute shifts before heading to the bench for recuperation. Since my productivity is equal to (or even exceeds) most should I be penalized for my working habits? (This is a rhetorical question. Don't say 'yes').

"Moral failings as members of society"

The symphony continues:
"About 9.4 million yen was spent on this misused time in Hokkaido and Okinawa Prefecture".
Ummm ok. And how much did it cost to carry out this audit and produce the report, pray tell?

And then: "Teachers should never be paid when they're not actually working," said constitutional expert Prof. Setsu Kobayashi of Keio University. Let me speculate as to what Professor Kobayashi might want to add to this statement:
"If them coolies ain't actually pickin' cotton or diggin' ditches theys be sluffin' off. Ain't happenin' on my watch!" (Cocks his gun on the plantation wraparound verandah).

In fact, the good Professor also said, "This is not just a problem with them as teachers, but a moral failing [as members of society]." Yeah. And maybe Professor Setsu "Monty Burns" Kobayashi and the Audit Board should update their understanding of what 'teaching' and 'work' mean to,oh, a post World War 2 model.

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February 23, 2012

10 Dumb Things That English Teachers Do in Japan (part 2)

A continuation of the previous #1-5 dumb things...

6. Teach culture as a series of discrete-point contrasts (othering):

The belief that Japanese ways and habits are quite distinct from those of 'foreigners' is quite widespread in Japan. It often creates psychological barriers for communication, not to mention intercultural paralysis, and often results in awkward stiltedness or standoffishness in J-NJ relations.

In extreme cases, it can adversely affect interactions. Spurious claims to the effect that "Foreigners won't like futon", or "They won't understand how to use an onsen" because customs elsewhere "are different" can be interpreted as exclusionary and easily end up drawing (often fatuous) claims of racism. The vast majority of such instances are not malevolent-- they are attempts at 'taisaku', taking preventative measures to avoid causing offense or problems-- but often, paradoxically, lead to more of the same.

I've had highly positioned people assume that foreigners can't understand the concepts of goodwill and modesty or don't value their families because, for example, "care for the family is a Japanese value"... and foreign cultures are different (I'm not claiming that such bold instances are normative but they are nonetheless an outgrowth of the general 'foreigners are different' perception).

In the overwhelming number of such cases the problem is not so much a Japanese belief in superiority over, or fear/hatred of, foreigners but an unwarranted hypersensitivity to potential differences, an over-stimulated "we are not you" syndrome, founded upon a heightened 'different cultures' motif.

So why feed into this? Why teach culture primarily as a series of discrete points highlighting differences, as though this is the fundamental definition of culture? I'm shocked by how many so-called Culture courses are prefixed with "taisho" (contrastive) or "hikaku" (comparative), and are marked by a series of how 'we are not you' samples. This leads to essentialism, the belief that everything a person of culture X does is indelibly marked by that culture, which becomes the interpretative mechanism for all that person's actions and beliefs. It also leads to 'othering', the distancing of outsiders by exoticizing, or at least exaggerating, the differences.

How many times have I heard Japanese students say they are interested in other cultures because they want to learn "the differences". It is true that one way of defining something is by outlining its distinctive features in comparison to similar items. Beer is not wine. A table is not a desk. But this divisive approach is hardly the only, or even primary, way of defining or understanding an item (or a culture) or isolating its essence.

Endeavors and common values that we share as humans which come under the rubric of culture can be outlined and discussed without drawing a big red circle around the differences. Distinguishing the personal from the social is another valid analytical tool that helps avoid culturizing.

Buying into this "culture = differences, so let's confirm how I'm not like you" mentality is to perpetuate a sense of distance between Japanese and non-Japanese. If there's one thing I want to leave behind for my students it's a sense that our instincts and feelings as humans are largely the same, and when they differ, (national/racial) 'culture' may well not be the decisive factor.

7. Constantly reformulate classroom instructions and questions:

The quality of teacher talk is probably more important than the amount of teacher talk. One class energy-sapping habit I've noticed among novice English teachers and visiting lecturers (who are invariably content specialists, not English educators) is a tendency to obscure questions and tasks by over-talking. You often hear something like this:

"So, I want to ask you... Is there any way we can diagnose this patient with certainty. Can we be sure of our conclusion?" (The students are with the teacher at this point but the teacher doesn't hesitate long enough and...) What I'm trying to say is perhaps we haven't gathered enough information. I'm just putting this possibility on the table. So let's just explore this possibility. (Now the students are getting lost-- which becomes apparent to the teacher). So, do you understand me? Our diagnoses are not always foolproof. (Silence and staring at the floor, awkward twiddling with pencils) . Do you understand what I mean by foolproof? (More silence) Do you understand diagnosis? (A few very, very hesitant, slightly embarrassed, cautious nods) I see. (Aside to me): They don't even understand what a diagnosis is! And they don't seem to be aware of the fact that their conclusions might be wrong!"

Suggestion- Make all task assignments extraordinarily clear and succinct. Use numerical stages of instruction and write them on the board if they are at all complex. Practice the wording before the class. Focus all questions clearly, to specific students, and ask once. Allow time to gauge visual responses and to allow the student some 'prestige form creation time'. Don't elaborate unless students ask you too. Repetition, if necessary, is better than circumlocutions.

8. Assume English for specific purposes (ESP) is mostly a matter of teaching terminology:

I have a particular bug in my asphalt about this one. Teaching medical students, I am all too aware of everyone and his cardiologist assuming that medical English equals general English + terminology. It doesn't. Specialized English domains have standardized and institutionalized norms of discourse which includes everything from ways of processing information to the intricacies of social relations. Knowledge of numerous disease and treatment jargon will hardly ensure that a doctor can take a decent patient history.

And no, terminology is not 'hard'. Many people assume so because the terms are rare and localized, have a narrow meaning range, are often hard to spell or pronounce, or are lengthy. But terminology, having a very narrow meaning range, usually have very clear one-to-one cognates in other languages. If you know the item in L1 it is very easy to find the dictionary equivalent (which is why they don't usually need to be explicitly 'taught') in L2. Try doing that with any language's equivalent of the 'be' verb. Now that's hard!

9. Confuse denotation and connotation:

Not long ago, an English professor I know balked at the use of the word "tribalism" in a jointly-made text. He argued that the notion of "tribes" was an oppressive category employed by whites to demean African ethnicities. I argued that the term "tribalism" simply described a way of thinking, a type of local identity that was exclusionary, and thus suited our descriptive purpose in the test. He responded that since tribalism was negative we shouldn't use the word (of course the word 'murder' is negative too I argued but that shouldn't stop us from using it as a descriptive term). He was confusing the connotation of the word with its denotation. Sure, Referring to Africans or North American Indians by 'tribe' may be dicey by connotation-- redolent of a colonialist mentality-- but merely mentioning the concept of tribalism (denotation) is hardly so.

It's the same problem (just reversed) when someone argues that "Japs" is just short for 'Japanese' (denotative). It's not. It's full of all sorts of derogatory connotations-- you can almost feel the spittle flying out from the mouth of the redneck hurling the epithet. You'd have to be particularly out of touch to be unaware of such connotations-- yes, even the most outback-ish of Aussie farmers will be aware that Australian TV announcers do not refer to Japanese athletes, for example, as "The Japs". Connotations.

In a less politically charged vein-- teachers often mess the two up in the language teaching classroom when students ask about word or phrase meanings. What, for example, does 'sit through X' mean? Giving a mere denotative response (i.e., "attend") doesn't do it justice. The term, like many, is marked wholly by its negative connotations (e.g., "I had to sit through Mike's entire lecture just to hear his predictable rant!"). Imagine saying, "I sat through my sister's wedding on Saturday".

So is 'set in'. Fog and darkness 'set in'. The sun doesn't. Depression sets in. Happiness doesn't. If a teacher offers up 'changed to' or 'became' as an equivalent they are missing the connotative essence of the word.

Or how about explaining the word “dining” as eating? “I dined on a bowl of Cap’n Crunch this morning!” . Somehow, the connotation of the word has eluded the speaker—which is the source of a lot of comedy.. (Of course, being middle-aged I don’t actually eat Cap’n Crunch anymore- I prefer Froot Loops).

Many teachers have a fetish for the purely semantic explanation but language doesn't work only on the semantic level. Prosody, the attitude or stance that a term implies, is often of primary importance when explaining items to students. Connotation is all about prosody.

Although this distinction might look rather academic it is actually very practical and common-sense. And just as a caution, please note that this is all very different from 'evaluative vs. descriptive' language scenarios.

10a. Support the idea of autonomous university 'language centers':

Wonderful! That is, if you think the language teachers and teaching should be seen and treated as an adjunct to the 'real' university-- divorced from the academic core, serving as a de facto on-campus Eikaiwa or TOEIC training center. Expect more part-time, in-and-out-the-door, teaching contracts and few chances at promotion or taking on important pan-university roles under this system.

10b. (tie) Assume that a bunch of lessons equal a course

A course has goals, some sense of direction, movement, some connected purpose. Fifteen disparate, disconnected lessons does not equal a course. Without a sense of flow and direction, less is retained by students and the language practiced is more likely to be processed as ‘a bunch of stuff’ as opposed to skill development or internalization of content or form. Lessons in a course should be interconnected and gradated, recycling and incorporating previously learned skills and content. The discrete lesson approach reflects more of a ‘if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick” mentality. Avoid!

Is there anything that you'd like to add to this list?

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March 30, 2012

Weapons of Mass Instruction- Lessons learned from students and teachers Part 1

How did I get to be so highly esteemed as a teacher that I was granted my own eltnews.com blog spot and the unlimited admiration, gratitude, and neckrubs of my students, not to mention the coveted all-access pass to the secret teachers' jacuzzi here at UoM? Sure, wearing sunglasses in your profile pic helps, but kickass fashion accessories alone can't elevate most teachers to such lofty heights. The fact is that sometimes other teachers, teacher trainers, and students have helped me reached this level, one where I am routinely offered spongebaths by the entire steering committee of JALT just for putting in a conference proposal.

And although not all of the following points are pedagogically earth-shattering, I am most grateful to the following people and ideas. So, clutching my most highly-prized chalk, with tears brimming, I would like to thank...

Shizu from Shikoku: "Tell us about Kierkegaard"

What did Shizu do? In my second year of teaching in Japan, in Tokyo, she asked me a question. About Kierkegaard (this was just after a student had asked about my earlier major in philosophy). And I could see that she, and a significant portion of the class, were bracing themselves for an edifying answer. Until that moment, I had believed that Japanese students were more interested in expressing the fact that they went 'shopping for shoes in Shibuya' and not very interested in academic content. And my lessons tended to reflect this facile focus.

I was wrong. Although I didn't get into the intricacies of Kierkegaard's ethical dialectic vis-a-vis Hegel, I gave them a reasonable synopsis as a response and they seemed to genuinely appreciate this validation of their adulthood and cognitive abilities. I learned from Shizu's question that university-aged students generally don't want to talk about shopping in English, that they want stimulating content.

Ebi-chan in Tokyo: "Jama!"

"Jama" literally means "bother". Functionally it means, "You're in the way!" Ebi-chan, as this extroverted character was universally known, decided to hold back the tatemae and let me know with a certain amount of punch (panache?) that my classroom interference was not appreciated. And that was a good thing.

What had I been doing? Well, I have been always been a make-groups-and-monitor type of teacher. But I also had the habit of butting into the students' work, telling them what they might be saying wrong, offering suggestions, fixing the plane in flight. What Ebi-chan painted indelibly on my mind was a picture which said, "Let us, the students, carry out our tasks as best we can, even if we make mistakes. Stay out, teach, until we've at least given it a trial run!". From that time on I learned to shut up and let students sink or swim, injecting myself only if task-destroyingly egregious errors are being made. I can help fix and revise later. Student task time is for student exploration and experimentation. Anything else is "Jama!".

Writing feedback- focus only on one or two points (from Hugh N. and an unknown presenter at JALT 2006)

I don't remember her name or where she worked, but in her short presentation she made a convincing argument that generalized error correction on student writing was not productive feedback, that to be effective it had to be, at least, highly focused and localized. This was borne out not only by research on the topic but more importantly (for me) by my own classroom reality in which I noticed students making the same damn mistakes over and over again despite my 'helpful' feedback.

A little while later, longtime fellow Miyazaki-an teacher Hugh Nicoll responded to my complaint that I was spending a helluva lotta time correcting student compositions, by saying that he always focused upon just a few salient points as feedback-- that this aided student attention and focus, avoiding the demotivation associated with students seeing their work covered in more red slashes than a teenage splatter movie (ummm, the latter is my image, not Hugh's).

Full error correction, aiming at perfection, is fine when someone asks you to fix up their about-to-be-published paper or their Powerpoint presentation. As a classroom pedagogical tool though it falls short. Now, seeing how my current students respond positively when I limit my red flags to but a few, I know this.


Miss Azuma says, "They ALL ask me to help them"

Miss Azuma was fluent in English. After all, she had spent several years working for Japan's national police agency in the U.S. (and I just want to mention in public here what a fine agency it is too). One day, she asked me to help set up the video system after hours in a classroom. No, not for surveillance. Rather she wanted to go over a section of video (a medical vid) that I had assigned to the class (different parts for different groups) to do a sectional listening, commentary, and creative extension on. When I got to the classroom Miss Fujii, a standard everyday student, was also there, pen in hand, looking a bit sheepish.

"Does Fujii-san want to see the video too?", I asked Azuma. "Actually, I'm helping Miss Fujii to write down the speech from the video because she can't catch a lot of it," came Azuma's reply. "But, but, students are supposed to do this at home individually!" I argued (or 'I fought the law').

Azuma shot me a 'you poor naive man' look (they practice this at the NPA I assume). "It's a listening exercise and she can't catch it. If she gets the dialogue correct you'll give here more points, right? So that's why she's asking me to help". "But,...". I can't finish my sentence... visions of future harassment at kobans dancing in my head. "They, the other groups, have ALL asked me to help them," Azuma continues. And of course, she's really saying that she doesn't want to do the other students work for them but I've put her in a position where she has little choice but to comply when her classmates ask. And she's right.

So... I never organized a task like that again (police orders, so to speak). Points are now given mostly for real-time production, so that no proxy student can do the behind-the-scenes work. And if the assignment is take-home, I will invariably hold a follow up discussion with the authors/creators, to make sure that they are truly aware of what they have written and have not just handed the bulk of the work over to the poor, harried kikoku-shijo (returnee) and have merely jotted their own names on the final product. I also emphasize that informative and meaningful content weighs much more than formal accuracy on homework assignments. We'll deal with accuracy at other times.

Ronald Carter's I-I-I methodology

Many readers will know of Carter, and his academic doppleganger, Michael McCarthy, authors of numerous influential articles, course/workbooks, and academic texts about spoken grammar. Prior to hearing Carter speak at a conference in Seoul in the mid 90's, I had carried out the tired old P-P-P (presentation-practice-production) methodology assuming it to be the default, the only and obvious method of organizing a language lesson. It's like believing that beer has to be fizzy yellow carbonated factory lager.

I-I-I stands for Illustration-Interaction-Induction. If you want students to reflect upon language, to notice or raise consciousness about forms, if you want students to develop a degree of learner autonomy or carry out a trail-and-error approach in which language is used for meaningful communication. If you want it to be retained at a deeper level because students have actively engaged it-- this approach makes a lot of sense.

I-I-I is the methodological backbone of what I do. The P-P-P method is, for me, too mechanical, too teacher-centered, too manipulative of the learning process to have intrinsic value for most post-pubescent students. Does I-I-I sound enticing? Well, Google is just a click away...

5 more to come soon.


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June 05, 2012

My how different you look! 15 years of university changes

As the old saying goes, "If you turn a corner slowly enough it ceases to be a corner". Actually, that's not an old saying. I just made it up but it makes me feel clever and it is appropriate for today's entry so there you go.

This year marks my fifteenth teaching at a university in Japan. Having kept the same office on the same campus and using many of the same classrooms for all of that time, on a day-to-day basis it appears that not too much has changed. But if I was to enter into a time warp and go back fifteen years, I'm sure that I'd notice how much-- besides the inevitable construction of new buildings and parking lots-- has been altered.

More social support networks

The first would be social support networks. Now, there is a campus ombudsman and a women's support center, both with full-time staff and both in regular contact with teachers, administrators and committees about protocols, procedures, and sometimes, personal issues. There are now very clear, well-supported avenues one can take in regard to power harassment, sexual harassment, academic harassment, and even alcohol harassment. This, in turn, has forced potential violators to consider their actions as highly visible campaigns are carried out to discourage them and inform victims of possible recourses of action.

Unfortunately, this has also lead to more spurious claims of harassment, such as against a professor for warning a student about slovenly work and possibly failing a class, or a section manager asking an underling to carry out some standard procedure. Fatuous claims are, unfortunately, the reverse side of the otherwise healthy open-avenues-for-redress coin.

Newly forbidden activities

Smoking has pretty much gone the way of the leisure suit and the mullet. Fifteen years ago students smoked right outside the classroom, and teachers, researchers and office workers did so in their offices or hallways. It looked like a scene from Mad Men on occasion. Now, except for a small, hidden outdoors gazebo purposely-built, smoking on campus is utterly kinshi!

Even the notorious campus festival pre-party has been toned down. I'd say this was inevitable because it really couldn't have been 'toned up'. I'm no shrinking violet, but even I was shocked when I witnessed my first zenya-sai. I know that medical students worldwide are renowned for letting off steam but I had no idea that anyone would do that on a stage with a bucket of nattou, a flower arrangement, and a pair of Speedos. How they got the octopus on the lighting rig I'll never know. It's far more sedate now (a surprising number of OBs and OGs think the current students are a buncha wimps) and senior students now patrol the campus pot-fest for unruly behavior or to thwart drunk driving. (It is amazing to what degree, both positive and negative, the influence of seniors can weight upon the behavior of the juniors).

Money-chasing

The semi-independent status provided to national universities from the Ministry of Education, Textiles, Aquarium Maintenance, and Banjo Appreciation (or whatever it's called now) has had a palpable effect too. The first involves the need to raise funds for research. The importance of applying for, and hopefully, receiving, Scientific In-Aid grants has increased exponentially. The ability to gain research funding probably trumps pure educational skill in terms of value to the university. That might sound facetious, but it does mean that you can't afford to not be involved in research-- that universities are seen as research institutions as much as they are educational.

Transparency and full accountability has become a major issue. The requirement for full documentation, with all T's crossed and I's dotted for expenses, travel, and research activities, has probably increased everybody's paper-workload by about 20% but, as a public institution this is paramount. But even things like Valentine's gifts from students or o-miyage for fellow staff have become frowned upon for fear of being seen as an impropriety-- as a type of bribe. Visits to teacher offices by students are also now supposed to be notated-- day, time, purpose etc.-- in order to ward of possible subsequent claims. Unfortunately, this makes teacher-student relations less fraternal, less collegial.

(addition) Connected to this is a greater cognizance of privacy issues. Teachers used to be issued a booklet containing all student contact details, backgrounds etc., which I found very helpful. But now, due to privacy concerns, a request for any information must go through the Student Affairs Division. The same is true for using any existing patient information as classroom materials for students. It has to be scrubbed down and sterilized. The irony of course is that the new concern for privacy goes hand in hand with the call for transparency and openness.

Contracts and the DATABASE

Contracts have changed too. Tenure, in the old-fashioned sense, no longer really exists in national universities. Permanent employees instead are issued multiple renewable contacts. This wards off the possibility of maintaining academic deadwood, since one has to maintain one's database score. Thankfully, the old Gaikokujin Kyoushi positions of the late twentieth century have been laid to rest. And the ephemeral nature of research budgets means that part-time staff live a precarious existence-- roles and some income dependent upon whether the research proposal is passed or not.

Speaking of the database (which perhaps should be written in caps as: DATABASE) this incredibly complex item has become ubiquitous in recent years. Managing this ungainly collection of performance data (cynics might even say 'manipulating' it) is a necessary and time-consuming skill that never used to carry much import at all. Now, you might think that a database is (and please excuse the dense, technical terminology that follows) a 'base' of information from which specific 'data' can be collected. But you'd be wrong. When some committee or department or research project wants certain pertinent data from you they can't go to the DATABASE. That's because the DATABASE is an evaluative tool and therefore is not accessible to all and sundry (especially sundry). The committee or department instead has to make their own data form from which you input all your stuff once again-- except now the categories and details overlap or are somehow different, which means that a simple cut 'n paste won't (pun intended) cut it.

A drop in academic skill and achievement?

Have the students themselves changed? Demographic changes mean that competition for national university seats has decreased and thus cumulative admission scores are on average slightly lower than before-- especially at the lower end of the entry scale. However, I haven't really noticed this effect qualitatively upon the English skills of the incoming en'eki (straight from high school) students. What I do notice though is fewer mature students than in the past-- who often had real-world English experience, not to mention general academic and social maturity.

My students still don't have potential employment issues-- the dreary employment climate has had little to no effect. As medical students they know that their skills and qualifications are in demand so there is no extrinsic pressure to perform well as students merely for employment's sake. And, thankfully, we don't actually have to engage in song-and-dance recruitment tactics. Yet.

The M-F medical student ratio has remained about the same-- about 60-50 in favour of the males (110 students are admitted every year). But there has been a recent campaign to get them to stay in Miyazaki after graduating since we were losing large numbers to the bigger burghs for quite a while or enticing Miyazaki residents who studied other subjects at elite universities like Todai to return to Miyazaki and take up medicine. This has meant a more localized student body too-- as well as more students gaining entry based upon recommendations (such students tend to populate either the very upper or lowest tiers).

Less bureaucratic tooth-sucking

The university has become actively international. There is a pretty constant influx of students and researchers from sister universities in other Asian countries, international health care organizations, more visiting experts from abroad, and more opportunities for our students to pursue health care activities abroad. International contacts and relations produce less bureaucratic procedural tooth-sucking than they did fifteen years previous.

This openness has extended to on-campus commercial activity too (although this could still stand improving). When I started, there was one bookstore and food supplier that had a monopoly on our book-buying and on-campus eating choices. Now, local entrepreneurs are welcome (as long as they follow the rules) and we can buy our books from whoever we damn well please-- and with much, much less of a mark-up.

Of course in writing this I run the risk of unfairly applying my own university's situation to the bigger Japan picture. After all, one major development arising out of the new semi-independence scheme is that individual universities can be more flexible and idiosyncratic in their choices, that fewer and fewer general guidelines are passed down from Monkasho. So I ask you-- have you noticed similar-- or different-- changes at your own?

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December 27, 2012

A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions

Here are some 'unpopular' opinions that have been tugging at my ticker after reading several articles and websites about English education in Japan. I don't expect that these are going to go down well with everyone but, hey, that's why you're reading this piece, right?

So, let's get right into it.

1. It's not the government's fault

Sure, sometimes governments enact policies that backfire, marginalize half the populace, or were never meant to benefit the citizenry in the first place. But let's face it, blaming the government is often a default, knee-jerk reaction, an unexamined, uncritical, stock response to any perceived shortcoming in society. Which is fine for chinwagging over brews at your local nomiya but is hardly a substantial riposte when actively dealing with the issues- issues like the alleged poor English competency of EFL learners in Japan.

Blaming the government is like blaming 'society' for some wacko's gun rampage-- ultimately you are effectively holding no one responsible and thus cannot expect positive change to be enacted. It's the political equivalent of blowing a dandelion fluff into the breeze and praying that somehow everything will turn out fine. You are crafting responsibility into thin air.

MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'

So let's apply this to English education policy in Japan. I know the popular image of MEXT policy makers is that they are a bunch of blue-suited, middle-aged men with bad comb-overs and the faint scent of whale meat on their breath. But unfortunately, the caricature does not match the reality.

Have you ever met a MEXT English education policy maker, or heard one speak? I have on numerous occasions. They have always been, in my opinion, experienced, fairly cosmopolitan, bilinguals with a sound knowledge of language acquisition theory and pedagogy. In fact, many have been drafted or borrowed from the ranks of academia, such as Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia U. or Osamu Kageura (go ahead look 'em up). These people know their stuff, and, no, they don't need comb-overs.

Critics should also take a gander at the MEXT English education policy website . There is an English version. There is no endorsement of grammar-translation or audio-lingual methods or the expectation that English = diagramming sentences. Over the past two decades there has been an explicit policy move to foster Japanese who have practical competency in English as well as fostering a sense of English for enjoyment and communication. The rationale statements say all the 'right' things.

One popular, widespread belief is that MEXT determines classroom policy in detail-- syllabi and curricula are defined by bureaucrats to a T and teachers are duly bound to follow suit. Nonsense. MEXT guidelines are just that, guidelines. The textbooks, methodologies, and materials used to expedite MEXT's policy goals are almost completely left up to the local education board, individual school, or teacher. No, every English classroom in Japan is not doing the same government-mandated lesson at the same time, not even close.

So, the bottom line is that if there is a methodological or materials problem it ain't the government that foisted it upon you. (Aside- the prejudice that national governments decide everything in Asian societies is a monolith and an outdated stereotype, and in many cases is based upon 'othering' ignorance. Let's get past it).

2. The university entrance exams are not to blame

Another auto-pilot whipping boy, where critics assume that equally antiquated university bureaucrats make the exams and fill them with obscure, arcane, grammar-translation questions that washback into the public school system, 'forcing' antiquated methods upon teachers.

The truth is easily discovered. You can peruse the Center Shiken or any university English entrance exam at your local bookstore quite easily. I've investigated these tests quite thoroughly in published research and, repeating what I've stated on numerous occasions, most second-stage entrance exams focus mainly upon cognitively challenging tasks, or at least demand competencies beyond mere ei-wa sentence manipulations. The vast majority of tasks address and measure a variety of skills (although, obviously, interactive, dynamic speaking skills can't really be carried out in these tests).

'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'

And you know who makes these tests? Probably a huge number of readers of this blog-- most NJ university teachers I've met in Japan sit on, and often take prominent roles in, these committees. So, if you want to point the finger at the university entrance exams you'll be pointing the finger at a number of well-educated, progressive, knowledgeable foreign teachers, not to mention that many of the Japanese teachers on these committees are well-versed in testing, pedagogies, SLA, and teaching methodologies too.

Ditto for the Center Shiken. Due to its nation-wide status, it has to be designed to be quickly calculable, machine-read, and as objective as possible-- but it takes only a quick scan to see that a variety of skills are being addressed and that a student coming from a grammar-translation based methodology will not be rewarded. I can also tell you that the Center Shiken committee is made up of prominent university professors (I know of a handful) who know the issues, know the field-- both in classroom practices and in theory, and would come across to any reader of this blog as being well-informed. And, yes, they include several gaijin too.

3. So is grammar-translation to blame?

Not really. Grammar-translation, as Paul Nation has stated, has a role to play. There is a place for it in our classroom, as long as it is balanced and supplemented by other supportive methods. It's not a 'bad' methodology per se, it's just limited and should not be the automatic choice or a methodological priority.

And while I'm at it, can we please toss out the tired, old dichotomy that assumes that Japanese teachers do GT while NJ teachers do the 'communicative' stuff that students really love, the stuff that helps them? It's getting old and does not correspond to much of what I've seen and/or heard from both camps (based on friends, colleagues, meeting academics, reading research and policy by both NJ and Js on the topic, not to mention having a 16-year old son in the system). It's a huge oversimplification, which often allows NJ teachers to be unduly smug and self-righteous. Equally odious is the reciprocal binary equation-- that J teachers do all the serious teaching, while the foreigners merely play games or teach 'How do you do?'.

4. So the problem is that English taught in public schools is not really practical?

I don't really buy this-- for several reasons. Public school education should not be oriented towards instrumental goals like helping students to order hamburgers abroad, chat with foreign guests, or help lost Gaijin on the streets of Kyoto. Public school education should be about setting foundations (which is why grammar-translation, drills etc. have a place) that can be later adapted to practice. There must be a formative, academic rationale behind public school education. It's not a place to practice chatting. It's not Eikaiwa land.

Now, here's the kick. The teacher who can set these foundation in such a way that they can easily be transferred into extended and meaningful forms of communication, and the teachers who can enable that transfer from the passive to the productive, are the ones who are likely to get positive results. More on this in a moment. But first we must ask ourselves...

5. Is there really a problem?

All along, we have been assuming that Japanese non-proficiency in English is a problem, that someone has to be 'blamed' for. But is this really a fair depiction?

Sometimes I can't help but think that many J English education critics have not travelled widely-- or at least in their travels have been limited to speaking with people in the tourist or related industries, and thus have a skewered notion as to the relative English proficiency of countries X and Y vis-a-vis Japan. In Japan instead, they would have been subjected to a wider range of interlocutors, many unwilling, most by force of public school education, mostly geographically removed from Shibuya Center Gai and the like. So, naturally Farmer Hayashi's kid in Oita Prefecture is not going to sound as adept as the receptionist at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.

And, to be honest, when I do the 'tourist/visitor' thing in Japan (stay at Tokyo hotels, go to restaurants/bars in such an area, attend conferences, go anywhere in Ropponngi/Hiroo- God forbid) I see little difference in comparison to Japan's neighbours.

The international test results canard

Of course, someone probably feels duty-bound now to bring up Japan's low-ranking composite scores on international proficiency tests, where they tend to edge out, oh, Bhutan and Montenegro by maybe a few decimal points. First, there are many, many 'hobby' test-takers in Japan, not to mention people ill-prepared but who are encouraged by English teachers or institutions to do so a bit too early. But my main problem with introducing the test score canard is that many of the same people who raise this objection are also people who would argue that discrete-point proficiency test scores are not an adequate measure or actual language ability. Somehow, this paradox seems to be lost on them.

And it should not be lost on those Canadians like myself who studied French, a national language, for five years and can't communicate in it as well as our average Japanese can in English. Think about it.

'Japan needs English for... whatever'

Finally, I must mention the ubiquitous but dubious 'need for English' criterion. Slogans like 'Japan needs English for...' sound sensible at a glance. But although young Ayaka from rural Wakayama might intuitively grasp that some Japanese need to be able speak English to sell Toyotas to Americans, that has little impact upon Ayaka, who plans to work at a nursery in her town of 50,000 people. Last time I looked, nurseries weren't peddling Priuses to the great American public. Grand policy statements using the monolithic 'Japan' rarely apply to 'every last Japanese person'.

6. So just who is responsible?

If you think your students are not where they should be in terms of English skills- you are! And when I say 'you' I do mean 'me' as well. Giving up by passing the buck onto 'the system' or 'the man' is a cop-out. We are instantly absolving ourselves of responsibility. You see a weakness? It is your responsibility to try and fix it.

Lookit. There have been NJs teaching wide and far in Japan for three decades. The ALT/JET system has been around since the bubble period. Eikaiwa schools are on every block, staffed mostly by NJs. More and more universities have NJ professors in long-term, policy-influencing roles. If the English proficiency situation hasn't improved then we have to start looking at ourselves. We are culpable here. We have to stop assuming that we, and our methods, are the solution but the 'man' keeps us down.

Stop blaming...

Do you want to see improvement? First, ask yourself- is it really necessary for my students to become proficient at English? (MEXT thinks so). And then ask yourself, are my students really so bad? And if the answer you give yourself is 'yes' then please do the following:
1. Don't blame MEXT. Or at least get informed as to what MEXT is actually saying or doing.
2. Don't blame university entrance exams.
3. Don't blame the 'other teachers' (usually meaning the old, racially-charged, NJ-J dichotomy)
4. Don't throw out the grammar-translation/drill baby with the methodological bathwater.
5. Don't assume that public schools are institutions where students should be learning immediately practical 'street' skills in any subject.

And, more positively, think of what you can do as a teacher to enable students to transfer their latent, foundational English skills into more cognitively-engaging, meaningful production. It's all about helping our students' skills develop-- the basis of what it means to be a proficient teacher.

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February 12, 2014

Mike’s Handy Dandy Five-Step Guide to Fixing the Japanese English Education System

Unless you’ve been living in a Gaijin bar for the past few years it is hard to deny that the Japanese government has been intent on revitalizing public English education. Among the reforms we have seen introduced or proposed recently are:

- lowering the age of introduction of English into the formal education system
- requiring that classes be conducted only in English
- reforming the university entrance exam system so that the emphasis will now be placed more upon communicative proficiency (meaning-based proficiency, not conversation) and less upon memorization of discrete and decontextualized facts about the language.
- encouraging a wider variety of standards (read: more holistic) for entry into universities (not just composite test scores)
- providing for specialized English classes and schools that focus upon more interactive and cognitive functions using English (note- this most certainly does NOT mean practicing conversation!)
- increasing the number of assistant language teachers recruited from abroad

However, a quick online cruise through both a handful of English teacher blogs and online English media in Japan reveals to me that many practitioners connected to English language teaching, and foreign teachers in particular, seem to be unaware of these policy shifts. The criticisms and solutions routinely offered for Japan's alleged 'English problems' (see a representative sample here) seem to me to be well behind the wider English education discourse curve—it’s still stuck in the Juliana’s era of policy criticism. To be frank, a lot of the ‘solutions’ proffered also seem to me to be either glib pop, soundbites and/or maintain a grossly misinformed or unrealistic view of English education.

So, under the banner of glibness, I present to you today:
MIKE’S HANDY DANDY 5-STEP GUIDE TO FIXING THE JAPANESE ENGLISH EDUCATION SYSTEM

1. Stop propagating the false and unhelpful notion that ‘Japan’ has to learn English.

This popular fallacy is, if put into practice, a recipe for mediocrity. First, countries don’t learn English-- people do.
(I hope I’m not the only one who thinks that substituting ‘Japan’ for ‘each and every soul in Japan’ allows for specious, and often dubious, jumps in logic. If you count yourself among those who see think in terms of the unified, monolithic entity ‘Team Japan’ you should consider yourself in an intellectual bunkbed with the most virulent Nihonjin-ron spouting Japanese nationalists- May God have mercy on your soul).

Second, not everyone in Japan needs to learn English. The vast majority will never have reason to use it. Since both learners and Japanese teachers are very aware of this inescapable fact, as long as English is advertised as being a ‘necessity for your- Yes, yours, Taro and Hanako! —internationalization, teaching and learning will become an exercise in meaninglessness and drudgery. The lowest common denominator will be targeted in the name of universal and equal education. Spread wide, spread thin.

Why? Because the goal of international communication is so far removed from the average Japanese junior high school student’s list of perceived needs that the whole pretense of English's imminent instrumental importance is for them a transparent sham. This decreases interest in the language--heightening the belief that learning English is a matter of jumping through hoops-- and, worse, spreads more thinly the number of qualified teachers, watering down the quality of lessons, and lowers the bar for what can realistically be achieved.

Instead, the entire English education system in Japan should heed the call to...

2. Streamline! Streamline! Streamline!

Recent government proposals to implement specially designated schools for advanced and/or intensive English education are a good start. This had already existed to some degree with the SELHI (Super English Language High Schools) designations that have been around since the turn of the millennium but have been hampered by the cumbersome university entrance requirements (more on that later). English should be offered to those who want to learn it and be required only for those who need it.

Who needs it? I teach medical students-- they need it. Check the Required box. Izumi wants to become a pilot. Check. Takuma wants to be the go-to ‘global’ guy for his company. Check. Hiro thinks he'll stay in Niigata and work at his Dad's cake shop. Fine. But uncheck.

Of course, we often don’t know what our needs are at a young age. Such students could take an elective English course that will provide a foundation for future advancement in English skills, if someday they so choose to follow a serious English path (or another language, if they wish- and no, a late start is not an automatic impediment).

How about adult students who now need English but bypassed it earlier? Well, that’s what Eikaiwa schools and Community Center-sponsored English classes could deal with, not to mention what proficiency test prep classes (TOEIC, TOEFL) might offer.

JHS and HS English teachers would be more motivated with a streamlined English system because their students would be more motivated. Higher-level functions could be practiced with smaller classes. Content and methods would be more tailored to local needs with fewer teachers-- but those who teach would really know their stuff.

And speaking of qualified teachers...

3. Hire qualified teachers who can actually teach the language (not merely ‘native speakers’)

Let’s face facts, call a spade a spade, and get down to brass tacks. Being a native speaker of a language qualifies a person in precisely zero ways for teaching that language. I truly don’t understand the implicit, underlying belief that somehow listening to Johnny Anglophone will have some sort of osmosis effect upon students, as if hearing Johnny's ‘real’ English will magically manifest itself in student competency.

The average native speaker of English doesn’t know English any better than a five year old child playing in a playground knows the mechanics of running. Untrained, unqualified ‘teachers’ don’t know how to put a reasonable language teaching syllabus together, how to choose or pitch adequate content, they lack systematic and objective understanding of how languages work (no, that doesn’t just refer to a knowledge of grammatical minutiae), they don’t know how languages are typically acquired, or the cultural/environmental affective factors that may impede acquisition, and they often have no idea how to manage a Japanese school classroom. So let’s stop hiring such people with our tax money and school fees and hoisting them upon our children.
(I hope you know that the JET program was never considered for teaching purposes-- the stated ideal is for JETs to serve as something more akin to being mini-cultural ambassadors. How very Meiji period!)

Instead, hire qualified teachers who know how to teach, dammit! There are many experienced, qualified people in Japan scrambling for piecemeal work, while 22 year olds armed with nothing more than a BA in Psych from Some Western U. are imported from the great beyond at greater cost but with precious little return.

I don’t care if the qualified teachers are from Canada, Japan, or the Iraqi Marshlands. I don’t even care if their English doesn’t precisely conform to that found in style books or match Queen E’s clipped version (insistence upon conforming to 'correct' native standards is to fall into the abyss of hard prescriptivism and, more to the point, implies that Japanese students should be focusing upon achieving the level of instinctive grammatical correctness/awareness that native speakers have by intuition).

The above points may come across as a slight to JETs and some ALTs. It’s not (although I am pointing my finger at those without qualifications who feel that they should be given the responsibility of a full syllabus and lesson planning simply by virtue of the fact that they happened to be born in a certain country-- Don’t go near my kids flashing your English teaching creds, please!).

It is true that many former JETs and other ALT’s, recognizing their need to increase their qualifications, have gone on to eventually become excellent English teachers. But these are the people who need to be hired-- and duly valued and compensated-- in the first place!

4. Get English far away from the Center Shiken or any similarly unified national university entrance test

As I’ve said countless times elsewhere, the English portion of the Center Shiken is a well-designed test. Even exemplary, I'd say. Except for the minor intonation/stress section (too random and specific for my liking) I doubt I could make a better exam, given the severe constraints they have-- and testing is my thing, man!

The key word above is ‘constraints’. The problem is not the construct validity or inherent reliability of the test itself, but rather the fact that every Center Shiken candidate (usually 400,000 plus) is required to take it! This means that the test will always be focused upon receptive skills and be required to include ‘objective’ tasks-- so that the results can be considered uniformly fair, be machine readable within a week, and be used to bolster a nationwide ranking system. The very nature of the test means that English will be reduced to a shell of its real self.

English should appear on the entrance exams only at the individual university level-- as per the expressed purpose of that individual university or faculty. This would mean that examinees number in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands, and thus candidates could be asked to carry out productive and holistic tasks on the exam, further buttressed by essays or interviews, all allowing for a more well-rounded picture of Jane Jukensei. Now imagine, the washback effect that approach would have on high school English education!

To be honest, it baffles me that some universities still trot out a localized version of the Center Shiken as their second-stage English exam. I mean, what’s the point? They’ve already had those types of skills measured on the Center Shiken, so why repeat the process? Yes, I am here implying that universities should have people who know something about test design serve on the entrance exam committee, as opposed to old Prof. Teinen who gets a seat solely because he is a greybeard nenpai but actually knows diddly squat about testing.

5. Stop propagating the ‘Japanese need conversation skills/daily English’ trope without understanding what it really implies

This is where some corners of the foreign teaching community have to get their heads out of their collective assumptions. I’m talking about the false dilemma that pits the mechanical teaching of grammatical detail against ‘having conversations’ and thus reduces English education to a superficial methodological binary, a pedagogical either-or, when it comes to English teaching content.

First, while it may be convenient for rescuing your dear old Aunt Gladys when she gets lost in darkest Koenji while visiting you in Japan, the bald-faced fact is --cue repetition mode-- that most Japanese don’t need and don’t use English conversation in their daily lives. Junior high school and high school English should be academic. School-- compulsory education-- is, by definition, divorced from the street. Let’s stop pretending that our classrooms are supposed to be Maple Street, South Dakota. Having Japanese students in Morioka practice this stuff is about a relevant as a Kenyan colonial subject memorizing lists of British monarchs back in the thirties as the brunt of her 'history' lesson..

Academic English can be practical, whereas English conversation, for most Japanese, is not, I repeat not, practical. Please, let’s decouple the rhetorical train which assumes that English practicality is tied to the ability to converse in real time. Pssst buddy, you wanna know what’s really practical? At the early stages, building up a foundation in a second language so that you can read it comfortably and gain a feel for how it is put together to express meaning. Now that is practical.

Later, practicality would mean having business people learning English to be able to decode and compose correspondence adequately. Being able to give an English presentation or to understand another person’s presentation if you are a professional of some sort. Being able to expound a point logically in English to a non-Japanese audience if your office in life calls for it (and not merely to toe the government's implicit line that every Nippon-jin abroad should master English to serve as a national apologist-- explaining the 'Japanese' point of view to gaijin)

So how does conversation-- let's call them interactive skills please, it's much more befitting-- fit in here? Well, going back to Amy Chavez’ JT piece linked earlier, Japanese English learners need, for one, strategic competence-- the ability to manage breakdown and repair, to deal with vagueness and the inevitabe, ongoing negotiation of meaning that characterizes much non-native speech (which, as you know, constitutes most of the English that is spoken on this planet). Unfortunately, Ms. Chavez seems to have confused strategic competence with ‘critical thinking’, which itself becomes glossed over as 'speaking skills' in the subsequent commentary. Strategic competence is an interactive skill whose value goes well beyond manufactured conversation practice.

Getting past our cherished but outdated ideals

English education policy makers in Japan have been aware for years that there are problems inherent in the system and have been trying to act upon some of the better educational principles (the MEXT homepage for the rationale behind the guidelines says all the 'right' things), but sadly, certain corners in the foreign teaching community have long lagged behind in the dialogue.

Outdated ideals cherished by many in this community (ideals such as hiring more NSs simply because they are NSs and therefore can 'speak English correctly', the belief that ‘Japan’ must speak English, believing TOEFL to be a reasonable measure of proficiency for university entrance in Japan, the belief that practical English is reducible to average Japanese people learning how to converse, that starting English study earlier in life-- as opposed to learning it better-- will raise the national Eigo standard, or believing that English lessons should be taught completely in English-- hey, somebody just discovered the audio-lingual method!) have actually influenced government policy-- sometimes negatively.

Juliana’s is done and gone, folks. Let's get past it.

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