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The Uni-Files - theory Archive

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

February 10, 2010

Nationalism, 'Moral' Education, and English

"Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind”
“Nationalism, in my opinion, is nothing more than an idealistic rationalization for militarism and aggression.”

You might want to note the source of the above quotes: Albert Einstein

I'm sympathetic to this viewpoint. Nationalism is irrational and, in my opinion, little more than misplaced narcissism- projecting one's uncertain self onto a bigger entity, the nation. It tends to inculcate an us vs. them mentality, one that is devoid of deeper philosophical principles and based mostly upon primal tribal loyalties. In short, it is a gang mentality. The fact that you were born into a country/race/culture is quite an accident. It's not as if you somehow achieved it. My instinct is that those who look to membership in a nation or race as a source of personal pride must be lacking in terms of real personal achievement.

Whenever I meet someone who says, “I’m proud of my race/country” I feel uneasy because it’s really just extended egoism (what a shocking coincidence that the country you think is the greatest just happens to be the one you were born into!) and moreover, whether intended or not, it comes off as a type of challenge: My country can beat up your country.

Now you might be thinking, “Mike, aren’t you proud to be a Canadian”? And the answer is that being Canadian is not something I’m proud of per se (although I will be cheering madly for our hockey team at the upcoming Winter Olympics) but rather I’m glad that I’m Canadian. And I think I can be fairly objective saying this- I was lucky enough to be born into a prosperous, progressive, and stable nation (I think that Canada might be described as so by almost anyone) but it’s not anything that I personally achieved. I’m just glad that I was fortunate enough to grow up there.

OK- I can think of a few cases in which national pride might be justified (although I still instinctively feel uneasy about claims of ‘love of nation’, since 'nation' is often just a substitute for 'current regime' or 'status quo'):
- When you are officially representing your country or you have played a major role in making your country what it is
- When you make the choice to immigrate and take on the citizenship of that country
- For countries, cultures and ethnicities that have been decimated and dominated, where the people have lost a sense of self-worth, dignity or identity.

But Japan doesn’t fall into any of these categories. So I naturally feel a bit uncomfortable when I hear Japanese people talk about being patriotic, taking pride in being Japanese etc. It has nothing to do with the war record or anything like that. I simply feel uncomfortable when anyone from a strong, successful (as defined by most standard measures) country beams with national pride (which, as I’ve said, I always find to be implicitly contentious).

Japanese people already know who they are and what it means to be Japanese, quite possibly more than any nation on earth. There is no escaping Japaneseness if you were raised here. It doesn’t need any artificial buttressing, additional flag-waving or chest-thumping. Such acts seem to me to represent the pathetically forced bravado of the weak, and therefore is unbecoming of a nation like Japan, a nation that should have confidence and thereby no need for proving its self-worth.

So it is with interest that I have read of Education Ministry’s (Monkasho) attempts to foster patriotism and national pride in the past. Granted, the previous LDP administration tended to push this more so than the current Hatoyama regime (most famously the forced singing of Kimigayo and Hinomaru displays) but the current education guidelines were set in 2002 under the LDP, so any changes in the current administration’s mentality have not yet been enshrined in official guidelines.

Interlude- a few facts you should be aware of:
First, most ‘patriotic’ education is provided in classes called ‘dotoku’ (or morals) classes. The term might well make some people uncomfortable because 1) theses classes were the essential educational propaganda sessions during WW2 and 2) associating morality with love of country is a dubious enterprise. On the other hand, I have often asked my son (2nd year JHS) what goes on in ‘dotoku’ class and he has never noted anything remotely sinister, mostly content similar to guidance classes back in North America, and more of a focus on human/social problems and situations rather than pounding one’s breast to the tune of Kimigayo.

Second, Monkasho guidelines are just that- guidelines. They are not edicts. Teachers can apply them as they wish or even ignore them- and trust me, many teachers are unwilling to do Monkasho’s bidding.

Third, no such guidelines exist at all for universities. The professors and researchers would have none of it. Monkasho knows enough to stay far away from trying to influence the content of university education.

Fourth, the guidelines themselves are not so full of jingoistic rabble rousing. Here is a translation of one of the key sections on ‘dotoku’ classes found in the 2002 teachers’ guidebook (moral education guidelines):
“The 21st century is said to be "knowledge-based-society", in which increasing priority is placed on new knowledge, information and technology in many spheres of the society such as politics, economy, and cultures. In this kind of society, due to globalization there will be fierce global competition for ideas and human resources, while at the same time, there is an increasing need for coexistence with different cultures and civilization”.

And from another (source:
This basically states that moral education should be taught not only in ethic classes but also in different subjects while paying attention to the developmental stage of students. The purpose of moral education is:
"to nurture feelings of awe toward the human soul and life founded on the basic objectives of education defined in the fundamental law of education and the School Education Law" as well as:
"to create Japanese people who can respect other nations and contribute to peace and development of international society by learning the importance of the public good”In other words, an emphasis upon co-existence and cooperation permeates the document- that any sense of national pride should be subsumed under the rubrics of ‘international society’ and ‘the public good’. It’s hard to argue with that. Not nearly as insidious as some might think.

But how is patriotic education manifested in English classes? Here’s a section from:
B. Materials should be useful in deepening the understanding of the ways of life
and cultures of foreign countries and Japan, raising interest in language and
culture and developing respectful attitudes toward these.
C. Materials should be useful in deepening the international understanding from
a broad perspective, heightening students’ awareness of being Japanese
citizens living in a global community and cultivating a spirit of international

Regarding this, a (Japanese) high school English teacher I discussed this topic with stated:
“The guidelines for English is more balanced than other subjects like social studies and moral education. The only changes I noticed as far as I am concerned is that there is more content about Japanese people who are working outside Japan (like Sadako Ogata), or content that explains about Japanese customs or cultures, such as Japanese cuisine. There is a shift away from content based only on American cultures”.

This seems to be a move in a positive direction. Divesting students of the belief that internationalization or the English language is automatically associated with the U.S. is a welcome move (and I say this with absolutely no malice regarding the U.S.). And using internationally successful and/or significant Japanese people as topics can help students understand that Japanese can work meaningfully in the international arena.

What I hope to see teaches and administrators avoid is the old nationalistic motivation of learning English in order to explain about Japan and Japanese policies, culture and beliefs to non-Japanese. I’ve always urged my students to avoid this approach for several reasons.

For one, people no longer exist in service of their country. Students shouldn’t feel a duty to be a representative, a diplomat. Also, it may be that the individual’s beliefs, morals or habits are at odds with the alleged (often mythical) Japanese way. The notion that any given Japanese can and will represent Japanese thought implies a monolithic singularity that is nothing short of governmental hubris.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s just not effective. People want to meet people, not cultural salesmen or women. It gets a little too obvious, a little too staged, often pushy when your homestay guest pulls out his or her Japan rep manual bag of tricks. It actually works against genuine human interaction. People on the receiving end of rather forced national apologia (or equally staged ‘let’s exchange cultures’ motifs) will rightly feel they are being targeted and are thus likely to regard the perpetrator with greater distance.

Students should want to learn English so that they can communicate whatever they want to a wide variety of people, NOT so that they can merely propagate the national line. Whatever that's supposed to be.

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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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April 27, 2010

A companion piece to "Face Value Not Enough for Choosing Vocabulary" -Daily Yomiuri article of May 03rd

Today's post marks a sharp departure from previous entriess.

It connects to my Daily Yomiuri article of May 03rd. The article I originally wrote was much too long and therefore I had to cut a series of reflective questions which had punctuated each section. So now, the original article is in italics below whereas the original commentary is bolded.

What I'd like to propose today are several scales that may help teachers decide which vocabulary items might be prioritized for teaching. I'm going to start with a sentence I came across in a medical drama as our model: "What's the matter? Look, if you want to get used to using the defibrillator, you've got to keep working at it or else." Now, which three items from this sample would you be most likely to focus on for teaching intermediate-level post-high school aged students?

I'm assuming that the answers will depend upon your perceived level, needs and experience of your students as well as, to some extent, your understanding of what intermediate level means. But I'd like you to justify your choices even further. What was the rationale behind them? Were they based upon a sound understanding of lexis or merely the fact that your students don't know that word yet? If you've employed some of the following scales in making your choices you have probably made wise decisions.

1. Teaching vs telling
I've often been confused as to what teachers mean when they say they "taught" a word. Was it just that they told learners what a word means? Or was some kind of deeper explanation and subsequent practice required to absorb it? It seems to me that "telling" refers to cases where you translated, used a picture or some visual prop, or otherwise provided a quick gloss of the word. "Teaching" would seem to imply a more indirect process, perhaps one where learners gradually notice how an item works within a text and have their consciousness raised about it.

Question- For which items and on which occasions might you choose ‘teaching
’ over ‘telling’? And when might ‘acquisition’ of an item be preferred
to ‘learning’? (keep in mind the old maxim that that which is taught is not
necessarily that which is learned)

Scale 2:Meaning vs function

Some words don't have meanings but rather, functions. Think of modals such as "would" or "may." They don't mean anything but they add mood. Think of grammar words like the perfect tense "have." Think of prepositions. Other words have very specific meanings, with clear real-world referents.

A large number of words run between these two categories, items that we might refer to as being semi-lexicalized. "Get" or "keep" are good examples. They may appear to have core meanings (corresponding to the notions of "receive" and "possess," respectively) but they also serve grammatical functions and notions, making them rather difficult to master. Both learners and teachers often mistakenly think these words have been learned or mastered when in fact they haven't.

Question- Which would you say is the more frequent usage of ‘get’- meaning
‘receive’ or ‘become’? How about ‘keep’, ‘possess’ or
‘continue/repeat’? Are your students aware of all these senses?

Scale 3: Frequency

It might seem obvious that we should "teach" the most frequent items first (based on a large and balanced corpus), but it's not quite as simple as that. Generally speaking, the most frequent items are function words that can be hard for beginners to grasp fully. They need constant scaffoldlike reinforcement. Such items tend to be the workhorses of the language and since many of them have both lexical and grammatical functions, it is the mastery of these items that leads to not only understanding of how English grammar works but also an awareness of how vocabulary can affect grammar and does not merely fill in lexical slots.

Question- Do you really think your students know, or have mastered, the most
frequent items? Or do they have an inordinate knowledge of infrequent items
that they can’t put together into cohesive English communication? If the
latter, it could be that there is not enough focus upon mastering frequent
items. The student knows a lot of words but they don’t know English.

Scale 4: Meaning range (low density vs high density; valency):

"Defibrillator" might look like a difficult word, but it really isn't. It has a specific, singular meaning making it very easy to translate across languages. The technology behind a defibrillator may be complex and it may be hard to spell, but the item the word represents is itself very precise. In other words, it is a high-density item and as such has a narrow meaning range. Lexically dense items tend to be less frequent, and are generally related to more specialist topics or subjects.

However, "get," being a low-density item, is hard to pin down. It can mean receive, become (get cold), arrive (when we get there), must (got to), begin (get going), movement (get in; get back), and appears in numerous phrasal verbs. It has what is known as wide valency, the ability to attach itself to many forms in many environments. Mastery of such items leads to mastery of a language as a whole.

Question- Do you focus as much upon low density items as you do upon high
density items in your classroom, as befits their frequency and utility? Yes,
new, unknown words will often be high density items but how often will these
consolidate overall second language acquisition (for non-specialists)?

Scale 5: Intrinsic vs instrumental purposes

We might want to ask ourselves why we are teaching certain words. Is it for the short term only, for recognition or immediate recall (instrumental)? Or as part of the learners' overall, holistic second language system development (intrinsic)? "Defibrillator" is almost certainly an instrumental item; it won't stay in the active lexicon of anyone who isn't involved in cardiology

Question- Do you change your teaching method according to whether an item is
considered intrinsic or instrumental? Connected to this is…

Scale 6: Decoding vs encoding

Are we noting an item only to help students get through a single text or a section where the item appears (decoding)? Or do we wish the item to become a part of the learners' intrinsic overall vocabulary--something that will be entrenched in long-term memory and be readily retrievable for production (encoding)?

Question- Are you actively aware of dealing with vocabulary for both
encoding and decoding purposes, and do you change your method accordingly?

Scale 7: Single words vs chunks (set phrases)

So far we have talked as if each word is a separate entity, that vocabulary teaching is a matter of mastering individual words. Not so. Single meanings or usages are often applied to groups of words. Idioms and proverbs are one type. Phrasal verbs are another. (think about how much you use phrases like ‘shikata ga nai’, ‘so desu ne’ or ‘ii ja
nai” in Japanese without noticing the individual ‘words’ involved).

Prefabricated set phrases (or "lexical chunks") are perhaps the most interesting for our discussion. Note items like, "what's the matter?" "work at it," "get used to," and "or else." We process these as singular units, as if they were one word run together. (Think how much you use phrases like "shikata ga nai" or "so desu ne" in Japanese without noticing the individual words involved.)

Question- There are thousands of phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions in
English. How would you go about choosing which ones students to make the
effort to master?

Scale 8: Denotation vs connotation

Lexically dense items generally have clear real-world referents. Lexically lighter items often both denote and connote, in which case simply applying a headword from a dictionary does not make for a suitable translation. Understanding the connotations of an item, how it is actually used and understood in discourse, is just as important as knowing a "core" meaning. For example, "working at it" connotes a continuous application of diligence, and does not merely denote "doing a job." Some such items also have important signaling or rhetorical cohesion functions; "Look," for example, often connotes a follow-up explanation.

Question- When helping students to master new items do you help them to
become aware of connotation as well as denotation?

Now let’s put all this together. Can you see certain common denominators
running through these scales? Although it is not entirely uniform or
consistent I think we can patterns like these:
1. low frequency- high density- narrow meaning range- meaning based-
instrumental purpose- denotative- telling
2. high frequency- low density- wide meaning range- function based-
lexico grammatical- valent- intrinsic purpose- connotative- teaching
(consciousness-raising; noticing)- acquisition

Question- In which of these two groups have your emphases and priorities in
vocabulary teaching been?

And given our discussion above, would you change
any of the choices you originally made regarding our sample sentence?

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April 30, 2010

Fixing poor student study habits: Notes to self

Note to self-

Do something about the following student habits. You see these year after year and at some point you are going to have to address them directly:

1. Those cases when you give the students a homework assignment that includes a few concepts or vocabulary items they are not familiar with. Then, most students come to the next class with it incomplete (or worse, not completed at all) because they 'didn't know' certain items.

Figure out why this is happening. Is it because they see homework not as a preperatory research or study but as some kind of achievement 'test' to be immediately handed in and graded and therefore if they don't know it- they don't know it?

Teach/tell them that it is common sense for a university student to research that which they don't know. Look it up in a dictionary (duh!). Scan the internet to understand that concept or designation which you find troubling. Or utilize that age-old J university standby- your senpai (senior student)! But do something! Do NOT come to class after a week with that assignment sheet and tell me you 'don't know'!

2. Deal with those situations where students have a guided speaking assignment in English but as soon as they face the slightest bit of communicative adversity in English they switch over to Japanese, negating the primary value of the whole task.

Figure out why it is happening- Is it because the students think the only thing that counts is completing the spoken task and getting the necessary information or whatever from their partners? They seem to be inordinately focused upon the product whereas in second language acquisition going through the process is equally, if not more, important.

Teach/tell them that fighting through areas of communicative adversity (by language negotiation, circumlocutions, alternate strategies or whatever) is an essential part of developing their language skills. After all, if they want to be good tennis players how can they progress if they avoid working on their backhands and instead try to run backwards on every return so that they can utilize the more familar and comfortable forehand shot? Sure, you might spray a few balls into the bottom of the net as you work on that backhand at first but you'll never be much of a tennis player if you don't confront that weak spot directly. And after awhile it should become muscle memory; you'll be on autopilot. So with English. Add that when they are dealing with NJs outside Japan they will not have the luxury of resorting to clarfications with their interlocutors in their mother tongue.

3. Address those tasks where you are prompting students to be productive and creative, allowing for dynamic expansion for the purpose of extended communication, and they come up with little but dull, jejeune content which seems to exist more for the purpose of completing the assignment than communicating any content of note (e.g. Getting-to-know-you self-generated questions such as: "Do you like music?" or "How old is your father?"), or imprecise and vague content that does not technically violate grammatical rules but lacks a clear criterion, scope, or category (e.g., from the same activity- "What country do you like?" or "What are you interested in?").

Figure out why it is happening- Are the students more concerned with forming a 'grammatically correct' sentence than those which are semantically sound, pragmatically normative, or communicatively compelling? This may be a by-product of high school methodology- the notion that grammatical correctness equals correctness in all respects. You're going to have to hammer away at this deeply entrenched falsehood.

Teach/tell them that grammatical correctness is often meaningless or, to be frank, a lack of concern for the content of discourse can be stifingly boring for all participants. Give them Japanese examples which show this. Strongly express that as university students, especially given your own classes' discourse-based focus, that you (and your grades) are much more concerned with students creating and producing meaningful content.

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May 20, 2010

Why I never teach grammar tenses

I've talked before about how I find it strange when teachers talk of 'teaching' a vocabulary item. The notion that naming a discrete item in English equals 'teaching' seems odd to me. 'Telling' is more like it. If I show young Japanese kids a picture of a dog and say 'dog', or even 'Inu ha Eigo de dog to iimasu', I'm not really 'teaching' anything. I'm simply telling them what the English label or cognate is. 'Teaching' it seems to me, means having the learners come to understand at a deeper semantic level (that is, identifying the meaning range- think of an item like "worth", which crosses several Japanese lexical cognate boundaries) and the ability to use it appropriately and flexibly within meaningful contexts (e.g., swell- "My ankle is swollen. My calf is swelling up too. If it swells any further we will have to operate").

In doing so, I may highlight the new word and try to get students to raise consciousness about it but I can't say that I teach it. I may consciously use it in various forms in the materials I produce so that students may absorb or inculcate that item but any such acquisition is a by-product of the task it appears in, and not of explicit item-teaching.

The same goes for grammar.

The idea that you can 'teach' a grammatical tense seems absurd for me and doubly absurd at the university level. Why? OK- let's start with that old standard, the past tense: One might try to 'teach' it as follows: "We use the past tense when something happened in the past". Oh really? So, how about, "Yesterday, I was standing in the shower when...". Or, "I have been to Kabul three times". In other words, the 'past' is not always represented by the past tense.

Now what about the past tense inflection? We could 'teach' learners that most verbs take -ed as an ending but also that there are many irregular past-tense verb endings that you'll have to learn too (and of course most of the irregular verbs are the most common items). Since there's no way of learning them systematically, students will just have to memorize a list. And that's not the same as teaching or learning a tense.

The problem is that the notion of 'past' causes semantic difficulties across languages. Knowing how to make the inflection and knowing when to make the inflection are two very different animals. Using only the former criterion, coming from Japanese, the following would be ok:
A: Put the books down over there.
B: I understood.

This is because Japanese renders the moment of understanding as having been already attained ("Wakatta") whereas English treats it as a current state ("I understand"). Likewise, "I knew that he was married" is fine in English but a direct translation from Japanese would produce: "I was knowing...". So, knowing how to make the inflection, the mechanical transformation of the verb, is easy but this hardly constitutes understanding the past tense.

Rather, knowing how and when the past is rendered in English (or any language) discourse, psychologically or semantically, is a delicate and complex matter that is best developed by exposure to a variety of meaningful contexts in which time relations are juxtaposed.

The same principle can be applied to the passive voice. We can say that "The pedestrian was scared by the foreigner" is the passive form of "The foreigner scared the pedestrian" but the ability to make the transformation is just a matter of mechanics. It doesn't tell us anything about WHEN we would choose to employ the passive voice or what semantic or psychological considerations and choices would make us choose it. The factors behind a choice of voice can be quite complicated if taught as a discrete item. And again, Japanese and English don't match up here (e.g. "I surprised").

Most grammatical 'rules' taught in junior and senior high schools in Japan have been absorbed at some level in Japan by students, even if latent, implicit, and subconscious. But productive mastery of these forms (as opposed to passive, multiple choice, recognition) eludes almost all. University is precisely the time and place in which this latent understanding can be made more fruitful- by exposure to the contextual aspects in which grammatical and lexical choices are made. Simply going over 'the rules' again is to reinvent the wheel, and a flat one at that. Students are not suddenly going to 'get it' in university if they are 'taught' grammar tenses and the like all over again. Instead, they have to be presented within academic contexts that are meaningful to learners, contexts which reveal norms, choices, relations and meaning/application ranges.

University is the perfect place to do this. At university, Japanese students are declaring majors and (should be) considering content in greater depth and with greater interest. If English is a medium used to explore these areas of interest and research, the structures which express the underlying relationships, states, and actions will be more fully absorbed, married as they are to students' cognitive engagement (of course, there is no accounting for the militarily bored and uncommitted). That understanding of structure which they have retained in some vague, ephemeral state from high school, will be made manifest. The 'rules' will become applicable to semantic content.

One visceral example of this occurs with my first year medical students. In learning to take a medical history students are forced to think of relevant opening questions for patients in order to gather sufficient information. A number of these take on the perfective aspect (I say that because it's not really a 'tense' per se). To wit:
How long have you had it?
Have you noticed anything else?
Have you taken any medicine?
Have you had anything similar in the past?

Contrast these (and I do highlight the contrasts) with:
When did you first notice it?
What did you do when you first noticed it?
How long do they last?
Is there anything that makes it feel better?

As students understand the semantic range of each form (because the questions are relevant to their own interests, carried out in etended tasks, and presented within a meaningful context) they can begin to 'feel' the range of stituations that demand the perfective, as opposed to the other forms and tenses. In other words, the semantic range is known to them and they now see that certain meaning ranges demand the perfective. To 'teach' the perfective first, as a rule-bound structural discrete item, would be ass-backwards, since there is no underlying semantic range in which students can place the form.

Teaching grammar and university EFL- like opera and peanut butter.

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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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August 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another 'featured' presentation I attended...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 06, 2010

A gap in the university curriculum that you, O gaikokujin teacher, could fill

About 10 years ago the Faculty of Medicine here at the UoM hired a philosophy professor to fill a perceived gap in the General Education curriculum. The new course was to focus upon medical ethics and, since this hiring, this class has become a standard part of the medical students' training. But this professor noticed another, more fundamental, gap in the system and moved quickly to fill it.

This gap was teaching academic skills to 1st year university students. Yes, before this professor's arrival, the students here received no special training in skills such as carrying out research, writing a research paper, organizing case studies, debating, note taking, classroom conduct, critical thinking and the like. The course he established was originally called 'Japanese Communication' (some wisely asked why it should be called 'Japanese' since it was obvious that this was the lingua franca of the classroom for all students and teachers in the course- save yours truly- so it was recently changed to 'Freshman Seminar'). The focus in this course was/is upon how to operate and communicate appropriately within an academic milieu.

It seems to me that such courses should be obvious, mandatory, slam dunks. Now, please understand that this is not a Japan vs. everywhere else dilemma. I understand that some universities in Japan have treated this as standard fare for a long time, recognizing that high schools would not be focusing upon these skills. And in fact, in my own university days in Canada, I did not receive explicit instruction in such things, and had to live by trial and error. Looking back, I certainly would have appreciated- and most definitely needed- such a course.

These thoughts are inspired by comments based on my last blog entry, comments from Steve M. and Mark H. about the importance, roles, and functions of meta-cognitive skills and their development. Consciously learning how to learn, if you will. Certainly if students do not learn these skills even in their mother tongue, we can hardly expect them to do so in English without explicit teaching and practice.

The fact is, that if this Philosophy professor hadn't introduced this preparatory course we might still be floundering. Too often 'orientation' consists merely of data transfer: learning schedules, contacts and positions, calendar information, facilities, and, most importantly it seems, knowing where you CANNOT park your car. Learning how to function like a real university student somehow got lost in the song and dance.

So, I would modestly propose that EVERY university make the following learning areas mandatory for incoming students:
- How to carry out research
- How to write a research paper
- How to take notes
- How to carry out collaborative projects
- How to use several key computer programs effectively (MS word, Internet searches, Power point, Excel)

In short, how to start taking the reins of your education- to get out of permanent high school mode and become a real university student.

And this is where English teachers can contribute- by applying these skills in English classes. Offering a course in Academic Skills in English to, say, 2nd year students, as a required course would probably be attractive to the powers-that-be. These skills might include:

- How to write a research paper in English (formatting, organization of content)
- Basic rules of structuring written English (e.g., CAPS, using parentheses, spacing, commas and periods)
- How to use a dictionary PROPERLY
- How to make the best use of existing English resources and/or technologies
- International correspondence (Set/formal modes such as application forms, and/or informal modes such as email norms and netiquette).

My colleague (a fellow Canadian) and I have been chipping away at this in our regular English courses over the past few years, after previously having received all manner of reports, essays, and email that corresponded to no known norms of standard English (grammar and vocabulary skills aside).

You may be familiar with how they are typically written.
Each sentence is written on a new line.
It looks like a tanka.
There are no indentations
But suddenly one line might be pushed back for some unknown reason.
Punctuation is random.
so are capitals
It reminds me of the way non-Japanese use Japanese prepositions.
A shot-in-the-dark, hit or miss approach.

Random spaces occasionally appear too.
This may be because they tend to use Japanese fonts.
So the flow is choppy as well as visually unappealing.
This happens no matter what, the genre or register may be.
because there is little crossover concept of what sentences and paragraphs are
Between Japanese and English,
Unlike other European lan-

One result of which there can be no doubt is that the students are much happier to learn some rules and adopt some recommendations which allow their work, at least visually, to meet English norms. Among them is a palpable sense of having achieved something. After all, it should come as no surprise that Japanese students understand that there are places where propriety and correct form are to be observed and therefore absorb these guidelines pretty quickly. Almost immediately, those half-baked 'research essays', previously written in the last fifteen minutes before the deadline, in three different fonts plus a few unreadable scratches in pencil, with headings and paragraphs more or less randomly generated by the disorganization fairy- the type of submissions that will usually haunt you during the time you spend alone in your office- magically disappear.

For that reason alone, it is something that NJ university teachers should be looking into.

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September 29, 2010

What if university students don't appear to know even basic English?

Although this is the topic of a debate that I'm currently locked into at my own place of work, after a fair degree of peer hobnobbing I've come to realize that this is a pretty widespread concern.

Here's the deal. It is widely believed that academic performance standards in all subjects for 1st year Japanese university students are dropping, which should not be surprising given demographics in which, due to a low number of 18 year olds, competition for university entrance is decreasing. Therefore, universities have to accept students of lesser skill than before in order to fill their quotas.

The most often cited basis for these claims are the results of the English portion of the National Center Examination. Now, you should know that it's not that the Center Examination English scores have dropped on average but rather, since the total number of candidates has decreased, universities not ranked at the very top now have to accept students who have lower scores than they would have even ten years ago.

Of course, one may want to argue whether the Center Test should be the main barometer of English proficiency since, although the test is quite well made, given its function it cannot really address wide-ranging aspects of English proficiency. With more students exposed to foreign homestays, ALT, Super-English High Schools etc. in recent years, it is arguable that a certain sector of the youth population has actually increased in English proficiency

This is something I have noticed in my own classes in recent years. I certainly cannot say that the students of 12 years ago were any better than my current 1st year bunch. In fact, the newbies might even be better. But one reason for my intuitions may be the emphasis and weighting put on English on our Faculty of Medicine's Second Stage Entrance Exam, which naturally attracts students who are good at, or interested in, the subject.

However, many universities and especially individual faculties do not have English as a Second Stage Entrance Exam subject and thereby will attract students with only rudimentary English skills. This is the case with some faculties at my own university and, having taught in those faculties for several years in the past, I can vouch for the fact that many students are pretty much non-functional in English.

Two questions naturally follow. The first is, since the students have had six years of cumulative English study at the JHS and HS levels why can't they even master the very basics? After all, these discrete points of grammar and vocabulary would have appeared on tests in class, high school entrance exams, would have been a basic element of the more detailed HS curricula, and would have been a necessary element for any kind of success on the Center Examination.

The second is, given this state, how can university English teachers best address and correct it?

Let me answer the first question as a means of addressing the second.

Most of the 'academic' university-oriented JHS and HS classes focus upon English as a series of discrete points to be learned independently of each other, somewhat abstracted from larger contexts. The mode is almost always receptive, not productive. Student cognition is engaged only at the lowest levels.

The cognitive level is known as recognition. At this level, students know the item only in a passive, receptive way- for example, being able to identify it as the correct choice on a multiple choice question where text and potential answers are provided by the materials writer.

Higher levels of cognition, such as 'recall', 'retrieval' and especially, 'reproduction' are rarely engaged in JHS/HS. So, while the students 'know' the items in a certain sense, enough to complete receptive-focused tests, they don't know them in terms of any higher cognitive plane. This explains how they could make it through HS and all the entrance exams but still have only a tenuous, nearly unconscious grasp of all these discrete English items in vivo.

Let me give two examples here. If you have students of the caliber I'm referring to you probably often see student-generated texts such as, "University can join club" or "I borned in Fukuoka". (By the way, although Medical students are generally more proficient than others, a few come in to this faculty at that level too. And most of the Nursing students I teach- which has no English on the entrance exam- fall into this category)

Now, if you placed these two sentences on a multiple-choice type test, I believe 99% of these students would identify the forms written above as incorrect, and that most would choose the correct answers. To wit:
Q1. How should you express your birthplace in English?
A. I borned Fukuoka
B. I was born Fukuoka
C. I was born in Fukuoka.
D. I had born in Fukuoka.

The students thus, in some sense, know the best answer or at least, recognize some of the faulty ones. But they can't reproduce it in writing or speaking within meaningful contexts. Will having them do tests like this really help them to internalize the correct form? It's highly doubtful.

After all, they all know how to form a passive from an active sentence but are not cognizant of the fact that their own birth demands the passive. However, if you allow for meaningful and productive contexts in which they can see the correct form and be allowed to generate it themselves, with it recycled or revised in extended classroom tasks as necessary, they can- and do- get it. Higher cognition is engaged.

Let's look at...
Q2. How can you best express (Japanese phrase here) in English?
A. University is a join club
B. At university, we can join a club
C. University can join club
D. At university, can join club

Again, I'm confident that 99% of those who might write (C) above when trying to write a 'report' in English would NOT choose it as the answer in this question. So, again, in a sense, at some level they know it's wrong but only on a passive, recognition-based level. Therefore, 'teaching' how a prepositional phrase is needed since 'university' is not the direct subject of the verb, and that a personal pronoun is also subsequently needed to be the head of the clause, will not aid in them being able to reproduce the correct form but will simply reinforce a latent understanding at the level of recognition only.

Rather, to fix this, imagine nursing students generating lists of functions of different hospital departments and then, with revision, making posters to present them to other students. In it would be the formula:
"In the ___________ department, we ____________________".

Having used this repeatedly in a meaningful context that relates to their own interests and demands their own cognitive input and is largely self-generated, does anybody NOT think that they would internalize the form at a deeper cognitive level- and certainly one that is more in keeping with the notion of getting a university education?

So here our second question is being answered. Since we see that the cause of the problem is that their comprehension exists only at the lowest levels of cognition, a product of teaching English as an accumulation of discrete items through a receptive mode, the very LAST thing one should do at university would be to teach them this content again- as discrete items, in a receptive, de-contextualized mode.

After all, if the students didn't 'get' them in any holistic sense before this why expect that, using the same faulty methodology, that they will suddenly understand them now? Until higher levels of cognition are engaged, their knowledge of English will remain latent, fragmented and non-extendable beyond passive test-taking skills of the Center Examination variety.

It also means covering JHS content at a university, which simply obviates the whole point of being a university. Lowering the bar like this is unlikely to spur the students on to a deeper, more widely-focused grasp of English. For these reasons, remedial, review programs, especially those found in much E-learning, with it's generally de-contextualized, receptive, discrete point focus, will simply perpetuate the problem.

Instead, what is needed is the engagement of higher levels of cognition in students, such that latent knowledge becomes more conscious (and ultimately, productive) and fragmented understandings begin to take on a more holistic shape. We have to coax out that latent ability by giving it voice. This means allowing productive, meaning-based English learning to occur. And since students enter specific universities faculties from day one in Japan, contexts are ready-made. Not only that, but it more accurately meets the idea of what a university should be- a place of higher learning.

My expectation, in fact I should say my experience, is that by raising the bar, and in expecting that the students have the latent knowledge/ability/interest to engage the topic, they can and will do it. The passive turns to the active, the receptive to the productive, the discrete item finds a meaningful context for expression, content becomes more interesting, self-generated as it meets students interests, and cognition of the topic is increased.

Remedial approaches that try to 'fix' the problem simply by repeating the same faulty and limiting views of language, flawed methodologies, and thereby lower the bar with decidedly non-academic approaches are just shooting themselves in the foot.

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November 16, 2010

5 Reasons to take English off the Center Shiken

Let's get right into it.

I think that it would be better for English education in this country if it were not included as a core subject on the Center Shiken (hereafter 'CS'). I could possibly accept it being an elective Center Shiken subject. And I have no qualms with certain universities making it a core subject on their individual second-stage entrance exams- but it's not suited to the CS.


1. It perverts any holistic understanding, acquisition and appreciation of English, and possibly foreign languages as a whole. How?

The Center Shiken is administered to a huge number of students nationwide and demands strict standards for fairness and objectivity as well as allowing for the rapid machine calculation of results. It has to be measurable as a number, with no room for subjective or interpretive judgments. This means that the tasks and questions on the CS will ultimately be multiple choice items. This necessitates a reduction in task/question type and range, meaning that the focus will always be reduced to discrete points. The result is the atomization of the language, in which languages are treated basically as cumulative collections of discrete item knowledge. The backwash on high school pedagogy, although often overstated, is palpable (though I would say that the popular notion that this forces HS teachers to 'teach grammar' is false).

The CS has evolved over the yers to try and minimize the former narrow, discrete-point focus but it can never entirely eradicate that focus without compromising the necessary objectivity and calculation speed. This is not a criticism of the CS English makers- who do quite well within the restraints to capture a more wide-ranging number of skills and abilities- but the nature of the beast ensures that it will always fall short.

2. It is unfair, especially when it carries so much weight.

English could be considered primarily an academic subject, which then demands a calculated academic approach, but I think most would say that English is more fundmentally a skill, and a practical skill at that.

The CS shouldn't be testing skill subjects like this- even if they don't end up testing English 'skills' per se- especially those subjects which are largely non-academic (think of music as an example). Some examinees will, by sole virtue of having lived abroad, be quite competent in English but perhaps not academically suited to university. The current situation favours these students over someone who has simply had fewer social opportunities to engage the language. The student who grew up in L.A. might be less academically skilled than the student who grew up in Tottori. but the Angelino will almost certainly score higher on the CS. Although we can imagine all subjects containing some built in advantage for some students (we expect a student whose parents are biology researchers to do better on the science exam) none are determined by experiential happenstance to the degree that English is.

3. By having English employed more as a second-stage (individual university) exam subject will allow for more balanced teaching/learning and skill development.

The number of candidates at the second stage exams is fewer and more manageable from a grading/marking viewpoint. This affects test design and content. Attention can be paid to details of individual examinees by actual humans, humans who are hopefully certified and trained in the subject (absolute objectivity is less rigorously applied at this level, but a wider range of skills can be addressed, making it perhaps a more accurate measure of student English ability, 'objectively' speaking).

This approach, in turn, allows for more tasks that call for insight, analysis, use of cognition- the ability to discuss and elaborate upon content in English- a more holistic approach than multiple-choice or discrete-item approaches could ever allow for. It means that expression in writing, the ability to think in English become apparent, allowing the examiner to get a better read not only upon the student's English skills, but wider academic viability. Even spoken English interviews could be incorporated into the scheme.

I would expect the backwash to infiltrate throughout the education system to be duly positive. This would also have the effect of killing two birds with one stone- meeting the MoE's extant call for an increase in communicative skills while also addressing the need for HS students to prepare for university entrance exams.

4. It makes English more of an optional subject at the JHS/HS, allowing those who don't feel that it would benefit them (some kids who will take over Dad's farm in Iwate) much to put their emphasis elsewhere but allow those who are interested in the subject to develop more holistic, practical, and analytical skills. In short, preparing professionals who can actually use the language in discourse as opposed to the perpetual uniform national "false beginnerhood".

This would further rid the negative atmosphere associated with many English classes (by both teachers and students alike), emptying classes of students who see no value or have no interest in learning English, especially in the atomistic, mechanical way currently employed in many (most?) settings.

5. In education, streamlining is the catalyst for efficiency and higher-quality production. Freed from the drudgery and mundane, both teachers and students could focus upon more personal and/or extended\extensive avenues of English acquisition, with a focus on the productive as opposed to just the receptive, and upon the cognitive skill of reproduction rather than the lowest cognitive denominator of recognition. Local initiative would increase while the central bureaucracy's role would diminish.

Possible objections-:

1. The status of English in the Japanese education system would diminish.

That is, if status implies only core inclusion on the Center Shiken. It is problematic that many people view only the subjects that form the CS core to be academically legitimiate. In terms of what most people recognize as real academia, the ability to apply abstract knowledge into research or advanced self-expression or international communication would actually be bolstered.

2. The English study industry would suffer.

Probably. Billions of yen are made assuming to help students prepare for the CS. Obviously, guides and training materials would be helpful for English's inclusion on other exams but they would suffer. Even as I write this, some burly men in sunglasses and suits from "Eigo Corp" have entered my room brandishing very heavy dictionaries.

The CS is also a money maker for the MoE and some host institutions but, hey, are we arguing for educational or financial benefits?

3. The number of high school English teachers would decrease. People would lose jobs- including (possibly) some NJ.

The weaker end of the HS English teaching world might suffer- but is it not alreay argued that too many English teachers are ineffectual anyway? I also understand that NJs are often shunted out of the CS prep process anyway so...

Regardless, this more streamlined approach could even allow for more production-based, learning-centered classes due to decreased student numbers while retaining the same teachers.

What do you think?

*Apologies for typos in the original version- thanks to an impending migraine with zigzagging vision

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November 28, 2010

Corpses of corpora

Collecting corpora. How do they do it?

I visited a hospital in Singapore recently in order to conduct some on-site research as to what nurses actually say and do on the job- or an analysis of specialist discourse (to make it sound more pretentious). This was my first attempt at doing anything even remotely related to corpus development or confirmation and I’m hoping a few things that I learned might ultimately be of benefit to ESPers, those who teach English to nurses or other health care workers, or anyone carrying out English corpus or specialist discourse research.

First things first- recording these types of language domains is pretty much impossible. Even if you could closely mic one nurse it would come out as either nonsense or as impenetrable jargon. The resulting script would look something like this:

Nurse A: No. That one. (Unintelligible). Can. You need it now? 36- Dialysis. Yes.
Nurse B: (unintelligible)

It's a mess. It looks like the aftermath of a language accident.

There are also huge privacy and liability issues- doubly so at a hospital- and administrators are understandably hesitant to allow this type of intrusion. Triply so when someone is trying to do an important (and busy) job. You can feel like a real prat following people around, holding up mics and jotting down notes, ear cocked into the conversation from behind like a cub reporter trying to get his precious scoop. But I had no choice, so me and my trusty notebook trekked around several wards, attached to ‘my’ nurse.

But interestingly even this incomplete record of the workplace reveals a lot. One can immediately see the truncated speech forms, how herky-jerkily dynamic the interactions are, how ellipsis becomes an integral feature of speech, how specialist jargon is regularly and widely used as stand alone transactional content (lists of data figure heavily in medical discourse), and even how local varieties (the stand alone ‘can’ being very Singaporean) enter the fray.

This is, as you might realize, quite different from the types of dialogues one tends to find in English textbooks. Although textbooks are certainly utilizing corpora based discourse more than they used to there still exists the overriding tendency to represent speech in full sentences, invariably complete, orderly and ‘correct’. While this may have pedagogical benefits for the learner, the question as to whether this is accurately descriptive or not is of course another matter:

Idealized version: “Good morning Mr. Chen. I’ve brought you your breakfast”
Actual version: “Breakfast!”

It is also very interesting to note discourse framing features such as: the percentage of the time nurses communicate with patients vs. other nurses vs. other health workers (two-cent answer: nurse-patient communication ranks well down the list percentage-wise). Why and when code-switching (both in terms of register and English variety) occurs also makes for interesting analysis. How are structured speech events, such as roll calls and handovers, organized to maximize communication? Catching all this takes some serious effort.

Another factor also comes into play- ‘incorrect’ English. One has to try and determine, was a language ‘violation’ a result of the vagaries of spoken vs. written English, with the two following different sets of governing rules? Or was it just heat-of-the-moment sloppiness? After all, we all speak non-prescriptively at times; we get tongue-tied, are less than eloquent, and change logical courses halfway through our speech. Or was it the local English variety? Or perhaps again the person was not really a native-speaker of English.

A Japanese colleague is visiting the U.S. to research for a similar purpose and I myself will be visiting some other locales to get a better sense of other varieties of nursing English. Ultimately, we hope to piece together a rounded and accurate picture of what should be prioritized, or even included at all, in ESP teaching materials such as Nursing. But, man, this is much harder than I thought.

Comments on any readers’ experiences of researching, developing or using corpora-based ESP materials are welcome.

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February 03, 2011

When is a stone not ... important? (On course reviews)

A stone is unit of weight- about 6.4 kgs and the term is used mostly in the U.K. Most non-Japanese readers probably already know this.

I have been aware of the term since I was small- perhaps because my parents were British (I was born there myself, although I immigrated to Canada at age 1) and also because I watched my fair share of British football matches as a child. I weigh 10.5 stone. The Rolling Stones collectively weigh 51.7 stone. That's trivia. Please don't dwell on this stuff.

I'm bringing this up because the term 'a stone' appears in a dialogue in the textbook I use for my 1st year medical students- which is written using U.K. English. In the middle of checking symptoms for a fever a doctor asks a patient:
Have you lost any weight?

To which the patient replies...
Yes, I have. About a stone.

Whenever this passage comes up in class, I explain briefly what a stone is to my students, who would otherwise assume it equals the Japanese 'ishi'. I also tell them it's nothing to dwell on- I just want them to understand that particular passage clearly (EFL-heads will recognize this as differentiating between items of instrumental and intrinsic pedagogical value).

I'll get back to this 'stone' business later. the end of my courses I always have my students fill out a 'Top 15' list. This acts as a review of key items learned in the class. Students select 15 important or memorable words, phrases, grammar patterns, social features, cultural elements, stylistic points that they have learned in my class. On the left side of the paper they write the actual item. On the right side they have to explain why it's interesting/important to them.

They are encouraged to list a variety of item types and to vary the pattern of explanation too. Otherwise, most would list concrete single-word items followed by the explanation that 'I didn't know that'.

This is always a worthwhile assignment. Even if you have recycled items introduced in the course and have an interconnected curriculum which develops in increments, with each lesson being absorbed into the next (as you should if you are teaching a course- as opposed to 'a bunch of classes'), students have a great tendency to forget much beyond the last two lessons. So this 'top 15' serves as a refresher. They are given time to write it up and are encouraged to go over the year's notes, texts and prints thoroughly. Not only does it stimulate memory but it helps to consolidate things they learned in the course. It helps to prepare them for final tests.

It also serves a diagnostic function for me, the teacher. By seeing what students consider memorable, important or interesting language I can see what I need to emphasize more, focus on less, or what I might explain better (some out-and-out blatant misunderstandings appear on this list). And that's where 'a stone' comes in.

Even though, I gloss over this item in that one lesson and tell my students not to dwell on it about two-thirds of them still list it in their top 15's. And not just on the list but damn near at the top of it too. This speaks to me- students are memorizing, or internalizing, trivia. They are overvaluing discrete or concrete points that have clear definitions but little holistic value in terms of internalizing the language.

I think there is a very human element in this. We can all remember Sugar Crisp jingles from the 70's or which Dick played Darrin first on Bewitched (York, not Sargent. Duh!) but have trouble recalling the concept of biomass or why Kant is considered such a colossus in European philosophy.

But I think there are some systemic educational factors that cause students to think in these 'discrete/concrete' item terms. The first is that too many tests still focus upon these as if they were the bedrock of English acquisition (and because they are considered 'objective'- but then again so is the order of Bewitched Dicks- and no, that is not an offshoot of the Franciscans). Moreover, teachers often approach lessons as a matter of teaching 'words', a pile of discrete facts, as opposed to the more nebulous but effective process of developing language skills.

This review paper allows me to let students know what really was important (by checking and/or commenting positively on the truly valuable points) and what will simply take up valuable brain space (simply by writing 'this is not important for your English' next to it).

Some type of course review is deeply, highly, strongly encouraged by myself (just watch the notion rocket into EFL-world fashiondom now!). Why? Because it (and yes, I do note the wicked irony of reviewing an article about course reviews):
1. causes students to go over all their class notes/papers again
2. brings forgotten or near-forgotten items back to mind
3. helps to consolidate or connect concepts learned or practiced in class
4. helps the teacher to understand more clearly what the students are actually focusing upon and to address it if the student seems to have trouble grasping the essential from the trivial
5. can effect your future pedagogy by forcing you to respond to cases of the type found in point #4

So, now that you've read this far, what do you remember most from this article?
A. The various merits of having a review class and assignment
B. That a stone equals 6.4 kgs
C. Dick York was the first Darrin

Damn! And I told you not to dwell on that!

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May 23, 2011

Putting conversation in its proper place- a few ideas and practices

Imagine paying good money to go to Tennis School and having the coach tell you, “Don’t worry about your technique or skills. Just go out there, hit some balls, and have fun”. Wouldn’t be much of a “school”, would it? Smacking a ball against a wall or just going down to the local courts with your buddies and whacking the ball around would be equally productive- not to mention a lot cheaper. Nor would it be apt to describe such a person as a “coach”, especially if this coach believed that just batting balls around would significantly improve the students’ tennis skills.

This scenario doesn’t seem to me to be too far removed from the teacher who simply uses the classroom as a chat session- as if holistic English skills will magically evolve out of holding a conversation.

On the other hand, having a coach demonstrate swinging technique over and over while the students imitate him/her isn’t of much use if this technique isn’t soon put to use in some type of game situation. The most technically beautiful tennis swing in the world won’t mean much if the player has no game skills, if he or she can’t adapt to the dynamics of the game, to think—and react—on their feet. Likewise with the English teacher who merely has student repeat sentences orally, read set scripts out loud, or has students do single-word information gap exercises and considers it to be ‘conversational practice’. Reading other peoples' dialogues is about as far from conversation as AKB48 is from Chopin.

There is a place for conversation in the classroom (and I'll give you some examples of what I do later) but we first have to divorce it from the notion of idle chat. Perhaps if we label it all as Oral Discourse we can start to get a better perspective. Why? It seems to me that the entire notion of education, of a classroom, should imply that learning is taking place, that skills are being developed. This further implies some type of direction or target is guiding the conversation-- that discourse, and not just sonic clutter, is taking place. What exactly does this mean? It means:

Is casual chat in the classroom really meaningful?

1. The conversation or rather discourse, must have a purpose that is meaningful to students- it should encompass something that they really need or want to convey. A lot of casual chat fails in this regard- good friends can riff with each other on nothing in particular over coffee but those dynamics don’t translate well to classroom settings with people who you wouldn’t normally be shooting the breeze with.

This is why students who seem to improve little in classes in Japan take a huge leap in competence after they go abroad for awhile. Abroad, simply having oral discourse helps them improve because they need it for everyday life, for survival, to make the event meaningful. These parameters don’t exist in the standard Japanese classroom and cannot be easily replicated. What to do then? Well, let’s look at point #2

Adding a diagnostic function

2. The ‘conversation’ should have some diagnostic function attached. If the speakers aren’t conscious of what is working and what’s not working and make no room to note, improve upon, or study those shortcomings then they’ll just repeat the same mistakes over and over and, more likely a) use Japanese or b) not say anything. Since the latter options are not legitimate choices while abroad, such a student has a higher degree of consciousness regarding what’s working (which leads to the reinforcement of successful ventures) and what needs to be fixed. This element needs to be added to the classroom situation.

To inculcate this is my own classroom I give students a few minutes post-conversation to make a note on anything that they couldn’t express well- vocabulary, grammar patterns, strategies, useful hints they picked up from their speaking partners, and tell students to check these as self-study. These are to be kept as a list and submitted later in the year and often form a discussion element in final oral interviews. One positive is that when students choose to make their own notes on their own items of significance they are ‘owning’ the language and thus taking responsibility for it. This is crucial as point #3 is…

Language ownership and subsequent responsibility

3. Giving students ownership over the language they use. I don't think I have to tell anyone reading this website that repeating written sentences out loud or even 'saying' the individual words that make up an information gap exercise constitutes anything that could remotely be considered conversation or oral discourse. When the student doesn't have to engage any cognitive skills to produce English we can't expect much to occur in terms of deep internalization. They also need an emotional or propositional investment in the language they are producing. Engaged cognition makes for deeper embedding. And cognition is enaged more when #4 occurs-- which is...

Choosing stimulating topics

4. Topics need to be stimulating and meaningful. I admit, this a pretty banal bit of advice, right? You don't need a PhD from the Sorbonne to come to this intellectual epiphany. Yet all too many conversation activities involve students asking questions or otherwise discussing something they really have no interest in.

This extends to those, "What kind of movies/music do you like?" motifs. Frankly speaking, very few people care what kind of movies/music others in their class like. Movies and music are fun. So is food. Shopping is for many. But talking about these things isn't necessarily so. The conversation here is artificial-- the topic is given not so that students will be emotionally or intellectually engaged but more to fulfill a 'talking quota' or perhaps to draw out (awkwardly, in most cases) some discrete teaching point. The only person I might normally ask these questions too would be someone I'm planning to go to the movies with, when setting the proper musical mood for a party or, hey, if prepping for a hot date. Without the environment that gives meaning to these topics they usually seem static and forced.

What I'm driving towards here is point #5 which deals with the question...

5. Which forms of oral discourse have the greatest value in most classrooms?
And the answer is: Guided and/or prepared discussions. Here's where it all comes together.

First of all, although anything prepared in advance cannot by definition be spontaneous, prepared discussion treats the classroom and its members as, well, as classrooms with students, and not as makeshift bars or coffeeshops. Allowing for preparation also lets students gather the vocabulary, strategic and grammatical items they need in order to participate. This raises consciousness of form and usually makes for a better product. When students know they have to produce purposeful language in advance they will aim for a prestige form- much in the same way that any sensible NJ would carefully compose an double check say, a wedding speech before stepping up to the podium at a Japanese wedding.

This doesn't mean that everything need be written down- scripted like a professional wrestling match. In fact, I would discourage this in favour of general notes. Max.

Students feel ownership and thus, responsibility for this language. Advance preparation allows (demands?) that content be researched, which should raise the interest/involvement level for all. Giving students guidelines (e.g., to provide background info, explain keywords, include three new or interesting comments of substance, prepare commentary or questions) means students will not be intimidiated as they are at free-for-all open-ended chinwags and yet not feel so dominated restricted by teacher-centered activities as to lead to the passivity endemic to most teacher-dominated assignments.

One of the most succesful examples I've used with my own students (university medical students, small groups) is this:
Explaining the Japanese Medical System

The steps (and how they reflect what I think is sound methodology):

- With a colleague, I collect and write down 36 questions that are typically asked about the Japanese medical system by NJs. Obviously, these should be motivating topics to medical students who may not only may know the answers themselves but shouldalso kindle interest given the fact that this discussion allows them to prepare explanations to non-Japanese.

- The questions are sent to the students in advance by email. They can choose which questions (generally, 4 each) they'd like to tackle, as long as they make sure there isn't any overlap. This element of choice heightens the sense of ownnership and thus, responsibility. Again, with the students having the questions in advance they can (must!) not only research the topic so as to say something interesting-- and with confidence-- about it but can prepare a prestige form of the language, raising consciousness about grammar, strategies/rhetotical forms, vocabulary. Consciousness is raised-- deeper learning occurs.

- At the actual sessions I ask students one-by-one to give the answers to the questions they chose (they can make general notes but must not be read from a set essay form). Having prepped, this usually goes smoothly with very little hemming and hawing. However, all other students must listen closely because with each answer I will choose one to student to subsequently summarize it and another to add a comment or further question. This keeps them all actively involved- not only with the topic but also maintaining an awareness of the language being used to express the topics. This answer-summary-comment/question pattern eventually revolves among all the students. Open commentary on any other student's answer is also encouraged.

I think you'd agree that this amounts more to guided discussion than what we normally consider to be 'conversation'. It works. But it might beg the following question:

"Mike, do you ever employ more standard, spontaneous conversation activities in your classes?"

I do-- but I'm very careful with how I structure those activities. I usually do it with the following parameters in mind:

- I use it as a starter to wake students up, to get them actively involved, act as an appetizer for the rest of the lesson.

- The topics are always connected to the theme of the lesson.

- I have the topic written on the board in advance. Some examples are: "Have you ever been injured/very sick/hospitalized? When? Why? What happened? Talk about it" (this precedes a lesson on taking a patient history) or, "Your body: strong points/weak points-- What are they?" (before an anatomy-centered lesson). These topics are usually of interest to medical students and help to generate language (and cognition) that will be useful in the lesson.

- I usually give my own story/response in advance- about 3 minutes long. I don't want to overload them with teacher talk but nonetheless want them to understand the topic clearly. This short teacher-story time also allows them to think about their own responses before they get a partner and start speaking themselves.

- I give them one minute to look up and vocabulary they might want to use in the upcoming conversation, since they've had time to think about the content.

- I have them partner with students they don't normally talk to. This helps them focus on the topic at hand and not the upcoming nomikai.

- I give them about 10 minutes to discuss and I monitor the pairs.

The diagnostic function in 'free conversation'

- *This is crucial. After closing down the free conversation but before segueing into the main lesson theme I tell the students that they must write down any of the following that occured during the conversation:

1. Any Japanese that they coudn't express well in English (words or patterns)

2. Any words or patterns their partner used which they thought skilled or possibly useful for the future. Here we see the diagnostic function of the free conversation at work.

In noting what they couldn't do well, and any resultant personal frustration, the students are challenged and motivated to study, or ask me, about these weak points themselves. A year-long list of these items is kept and is shown to me (for discussion) later in the year.

And you???

All of which makes me want to ask--
How do you manage conversations productively in your teaching situations? The floor is open...

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September 01, 2011

Odds 'n sods; A potpourri of hodgepodged EFL mishmash

I often come up with EFL related items that I want to address in this blog but for many feel that just a few sentences might express all that I want to say. Trying to extract a full article from these snippets would be like drawing blood from a scone. So, in soundbite style, here are ten near-random EFL thoughts that have been camping out in my head recently...

1. Could GPAs motivate?
In most Japanese universities GPAs are a non-factor. As long as you graduate from the program with the university's name on your diploma nobody seems to care too much what your grades were. This seems to be only a minor factor in determining entry for graduate school too.

I teach medical students. Of course, since there is a doctor shortage students can find employment pretty much anywhere (yes, the ones who attend run-of-the-mill med schools can-- and do-- often end up working at the most prestigious university-affiliated hospitals). This means that a GPA has little influence-- it's just picking up the class credit that matters.

But what if the more prestigious companies, employers, and positions in general were reserved for those with the highest GPAs? What if a GPA became the key factor for graduate study? This might well increase the motivation in undergraduate courses. Rather than aiming at the low-bar 60%, more students will aim for the highest scores possible.

Perhaps raising the profile and value of GPAs should be a Monkasho concern. Thoughts?

2. Student writing and the (expletive) enter key
Where in the secondary educational system do students 'learn' that after typing an English sentence that the correct thing to do is to hit the enter key? The result is that the attempted paragraph reads more like a poem. What is the source of this behaviour?

A colleague has done some research on the experience of Japanese university students writing extended English using English writing software. Most have never used it and have little underatanding of formatting for any English script. They tend to stick with Japanese formats and software or (shudder) even try and compose from cell phones.

Addressing the issue of how to write in English on a computer should be a standard part of orientation, at least in an English department.

3. Sentences, letters, and names- student bafflers
"What's your first name?" "Watanabe" "No, your FIRST name!". Confused looks. What do you mean?

Many students still have trouble with the notion of what a first name is. After all the one said first in Japanese will be the family name (Watanabe in this case), so it's understandable they think of that name as being first. But even if they change their name order for English they often think of "first name" as meaning "primary name" which for them will still be the surname.

Similarly overlooked are the murky translations of the English words "word" "letter" and "sentence". With Kanji a "word" generally equals a "letter" so the two are often indistinct in student minds. Therefore, if you ask students, "What's the fifth word/letter in this word/sentence?" they'll often give you the wrong answer. The Japanese items/concepts "ji" "go" and "kotoba" also fail to match the concept of word or letter precisely, exacerbating confusion.

Japanese tends to use an all-purpose term, "bunsho" (or some variation of "bun"), to talk about just about any written text. It gets translated as "sentence" in many dictionaries but could just as easily be rendered as "text", "paragraph", "chunk" "essay" in many cases. The concepts are hard to pin down across languages.

This is another area that could be touched upon in English orientation classes. After all, before they start practicing the mechanics of English sentences and paragraphs students should have a clear mental representation as to what these actually mean.

4. Underrated in EFL teaching (1)- Strategic competence
We've probably all noticed how some students seem to be better English communicators than others despite doing less well on paper (or formal examinations) than their peers. There are some who are simply able to communicate well despite a paucity of grammatical skill or lexical knowledge. They make do with what they have.

These students tend to have good social skills and part of having good social skills is the ability to read the 'other', to negotiate and moderate where necessary. To pitch your communication in any way that allows your point to be made. The ones who do this better in Japanese tend to do it better in English too.

A big chunk of this is what we call strategic competence-- the ability to manage discourse when you are not in full control. This means the ability to manage breakdowns and repair, to ask for clarity or confirmation, to use circumlocutions or general words, gestures or facial expressions, and so on. We all have students who have a wide range of knowledge about English but little or no skills in the way of strategy. Noting how they manage discourse in their first language, let alone in English, might help them climb a few more rungs on the English competency ladder.

This is something that should probably be addressed more in EFL materials and curriculum development.

5. Underrated in EFL teaching (2)- Form vs. forms
This important distinction came to the forefront of the ELT world about twenty years ago and has been a key dichotomy since. Form-- the overall flow and pattern of a language or a text, is distinguished from forms--the individual elements that make up the structure of a language or text. Many teachers, especially those new to the field, tend to conflate the two, assuming that form is nothing but a cumulative set of forms. Therefore, the pedagogy usually goes, if you teach all these specific forms, such as the rules that govern grammar and lists of vocabulary, learners will naturally develop mastery over language form in general.

Except they don't. Those high school textbooks with 6000 sentences displaying endless samples of forms (next- 20 decontextualized, non-extended sentences employing the causative passive) are like a big language net, from which form falls through the mesh. Focusing only on forms is like trying to get children to understand a geopolitical map of the world starting with a street map of Tokyo. The bigger picture that a focus on form creates determines the individual forms that need to be employed. Focusing only upon forms alone is like teaching only the notes for playing a music composition and ignoring the timbre, texture, dynamics, and phrasing- things that make a piece actually worth listening to.

This should be popping up more in teacher training it seems to me.

6. Underrated in EFL teaching (3)- Presence
I like dogs. So I enjoy watching Cesar Millan, who you may know as National Geographic's 'Dog Whisperer'. The man's ability to calm and gain the respect of even the most aggressive dogs is stupendous. Obviously, I don't have the space to discuss his many techniques here but it is undeniable that when near dogs the man has presence.

Dogs read humans very closely. Friend or foe? Trustworthy or dangerous? Every nuance of human posture is calculated. Is this human in control or is he or she intimated by me? Every telltale facial tic is processed by the dog. What is the intention of this human? Do I resist, fight, or play along?

Now I don't want readers complaining to me that my students are not dogs, that I shouldn't compare the two, and that our goal as educators is not to tame or control the students. You know that. I know that. But there is nonetheless something similar to be said for a teacher's classroom presence and how much respect they gain from students based upon this presence. The postures, the facial expressions, the choice and delivery of language, the sense of purpose in managing a class-- all are aspects of overall presence. Students will start from a position of trust with a teacher who has it. A position of trust creates receptability for learning. The student will be open to where the teacher is guiding them. But teachers whose presence seems uncertain, betrayed by movements and measures that indicate that they are not in control of themselves, can lose students

Keep in mind that by presence, I definitely don't mean displaying aggression, using intimidation tactics, or being overly authoritative, flamboyant, or arrogant. Dogs can distinguish aggression from control, bluster from purpose. If dogs can do it, so can students. Overly aggressive teachers can appear to be covering up a weakness- their presence is threatening, not reassuring. Trust is not forthcoming.

Perhaps this is something that warrants more attention in teacher training.

7. A re-test formula that delivered the goods
A re-test for me is never a punishment but rather an opportunity for fixing and revising so that the desired skills or knowledge are finally attained.

But instead of having those students do the same, or a similar, test again (after giving general feedback on common weak points, model answers etc.) as a group I decided this year to have the students who hadn't performed to my satisfaction come to my office individually for 30 minutes to one hour each during the off-season.

They were told to bring along all their semester tests and assignments. Before the meeting they were told to fix, be ready to explain, and most importantly, understand the parts that they had done poorly on. Not only did this allow students to focus upon brushing up the areas they hadn't done well in (which again, is the whole point of education) but in dealing with them one-on-one I could go over in some detail the parts that they found confusing or troubling. They reacted very positively to this personal touch. It allowed me to underscore why certain learning points and skills were valuable for them and also provided me with a clear look as to what students found difficult-- and why.


8. A test idea that delivered the goods
I'm always thinking of ways to make my tests meaningful and pedagogically viable. How can I make a test that both serves as a valid indicator of student performance and helps the students master the content or skills aimed at in the course? This one worked well...

I defined eight skills/learning areas from the class that we had practiced in some detail-- areas of practice and study that contained a holistic emphasis but included new lexis, structure, content, social skills, rhetorical development, critical and creative thinking... the whole shebang. I asked students to create extended examples of each of these.

I gave them the test paper in advance with the eight tasks (I can't really call them questions) written on them. I told them that they would have to do only four of the tasks but that they wouldn't know exactly which four until test day. This meant that they had to prepare studying for all eight-- which forced them to carry out a thorough, fulfilling review of everything we had covered so far. That, of course, was the goal.

For test day, I made all sorts of random combinations of the four assignments (#3,5,6 and 8 for one student, #1,2,4, and 7 for another and so on) such that few students had exactly the same set. The only consideration was to make sure that each task was of the same difficulty so that some students wouldn't have an easier time of it than others. This meant that everything of value in the class had been covered in test prep but the test itself was not quite as heavy-- and easier to mark.


9. Has corpus-based research jumped the shark?
It seems like every EFL researcher and his/her dog is carrying out corpus-based research these days. The majority of presentations I've seen at ELT conferences recently, particularly by Japanese EFL practitioners, are focused upon corpus gathering or interpretation. Yes, I'm guilty-I've done it too.

I can understand the appeal-- especially to Japanese researchers whose intuitions about normative English might be flawed (not that NSs are flawless of course). Corpus study can be comfort food giving them a clearer idea as to what forms are normative. And it meets EFL academia's self-imposed research fetish for allegedly objective, empirical evidence (i.e. reducible to charts or numbers). Concordance as Bible.

But I worry that by focusing so much on the micro-forms (individual tokens or types) the larger question as to macro-form (the defining shape of the communicative event- who is participating, how does the exchanges begin and end, what the communicative goals are, how social signals and illocutions are being employed to serve the communicative goal etc.) is being ignored.

Henry Widdowson famously critiqued the hubris regarding the application of corpus research to pedagogy and materials development largely along these same lines. It's true that many current corpus-based studies are well-defined ("We examined the frequency and type of performative verbs used in air controller dialogues...") but I do worry that this is leading to a bottom-up, the-detail-explains-the-bigger-picture approach that might not be the best way of understanding how people construct communication.

10. Handwriting and scoring
OK. I admit it. The quality of student handwriting can influence how I score a paper. Even when the scoring criteria is content and/or form I have noticed that easy-to-look-at or even elegant penmanship positively influences me more than the scrawls and scribbles reminiscent of an eight-year old that a few students always display. It's understandable, but if penmanship is not the criterion it shouldn't affect the score at all. Have you noticed the same thing?

Of course, now that I am conscious of it I can deal with it but I have to resist the lure...

Comments are welcome but please remember that these thoughts are outtakes and impressions- not finished philosophical products.

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November 15, 2011

How to Read... a Bible (?!)

Don't worry about the title. I won't go all proselytizin' on ya! After all, while committed evangelicals would probably consider me lapsed or even apostate, hardcore atheists would still call me a theist. (I'll go with whatever God thinks, myself).

Today's focus is actually upon reading, reading for meaning and comprehension that is. And whether you think the Bible is an elaborate selection of fairy tales or God's Inerrant Word I think you'll agree that the Bible has had the most profound impact of any text on Western culture (although it probably holds greater currency in terms of daily affairs outside the West these days). And if so, it is worth understanding what it is all about, right?

Insular and incestuous reading habits

It also serves as an excellent model to show how many people these days fail to read carefully or with insight or depth; how prejudices and false expectations colour our reading. As a result, subsequent praise or critique often miss the point. You can see this occur in numerous forums. With the advent of the internet in particular more and people read only a limited number of genres, often by periodicals or pundits they are familiar with and thus who they are likely to agree with. Reading in an intellectual echo chamber is a by-product of the vast selection the internet allows for. The problem is that the style one exposes oneself to can become insular, the content incestuous. Preaching to the choir is part and parcel of modern polemical exegesis.

There is also the likelihood that people will read superficially, as attention spans decrease. With so much available to titillate many scan only headlines or the first paragraph. Should any twist, irony, or subtlety occur thereafter it is likely to be overlooked.

Genre- readers with 'blurry vision'

Many also fail to catch on to the appropriate genre of a text-- we all know members of the seemingly perpetual "they don't get it" crowd. We wouldn't normally start reading a horoscope with the same schema that we use when reading a phone book, a court document, or a love letter. But some people clearly have blurry vision, if not outright diplopia, when it comes to adopting the correct reading schema (and I'm not just talking about second language learners here, native speakers seem less and less adept in such tasks). They can't really read.

For example, I've had people assume that this very column is supposed to be a place for presenting research. Some have written to the Daily Yomiuri newspaper (where I have a monthly column) chastising me for not reporting the facts or conducting interviews-- which always gives the editorial staff a bit of a laugh considering that everything about the layout, location, and tenor of the column screams, "COMMENTARY!"

Tenor- and an 'IQ above the level of a Crustacean'

Speaking of tenor, this is another area that many readers fail to grasp. The archetype is probably Dave Barry's old 'Mister Language Person' humour 'advice' column where, as Barry put it, anybody with an IQ above the level of a crustacean should be able to see that it is all a joke. Yet, Barry regularly received hundreds of angry letters questioning his so-called language expertise pointing out his dubious 'explanations'. (Closer to home, I once wrote a parody to which someone objected that the target of the parody had not in fact said those things that I had parodied. Hmmmm).

Sometimes of course, the onus is also upon the writer to be cognizant of the conventions of the genre (both schematic and stylistic) that help the reader identify both genre and tenor. The lame 'I was only joking' response in cases where readers are left perplexed or even offended by the 'joke' doesn't cut it if the writer has failed to lay sufficient ground for humour-- if the writer hasn't used the signals and conventions that savvy readers might be expected to know. Regardless, the ability of many readers to accurately focus and interpret a text, particularly anything with complexity seems to be in a downward spiral.

Regent College (not Big Ed's School O' Bible Learnin')

Hence the Bible. Now, you might well be wondering if I have any authority to expound upon this topic. Well in fact, I did complete a Master's of Theology at a very well-known and highly-regarded place called Regent College, which is on the campus of UBC in Vancouver, is affiliated with UBC, and shares some faculty, credit and students. (Veteran readers of the Uni-files will know why I am stating all this-- because some people would like it to be believed that my degree was awarded by the academic equivalent of Big Ed's School O' Bible Learnin' and Transmission Repair).

Because of my interest in theology, I also developed an interest in language, interpretation, communication, translation, exegesis, and hermeneutics and, towards the end of my degree, I began taking several linguistics courses at UBC proper (some of which counted towards my Master's in Theology and others of which went towards gaining an ESL Teacher's Certificate from UBC proper). This was also my main field of interest when getting a later MSc in Applied Linguistics. So, I'd like to think that this is a field I know something about.

The Bible- not a self-help book by Dr. God

Now, on to the Bible. We might want to start with a 'big picture' question, that is, what genre is the Bible? I'll answer this first by stating what it is not. It is not an apologia for itself. I've never understood the Christian witness' logic of telling skeptics that if they would just read the Bible they'd get it, or that the answers to all the problems in life are all there like it's just a big, black self-help book by Dr. God. I can't imagine anyone sitting down with it, in an attempt to decide if they believe it or 'agree' with it or not, and upon completion saying, "Yeah, that sounds about right to me!" The Bible is not trying to prove its own veracity-- it is the story of God and God's relationship with his people.

Nor is it a handy-dandy rule book for living (save for bits of the Epistles, which were again written for very specific audiences) or some sort of cosmic legal treatise. The very Western (North American?) habit of prooftexting as to whether something is 'good' or 'right' or not by turning to some reference in the good book and using that to underscore God's alleged views regarding the issue of the day is, to my mind, often an abuse of the Bible. It could even be considered a light form of idolatry-- re-making God in man's image. No, Mabel, the book of Habakuk will not inspire you to know if carrot cake is the right item for the church bake sale or not.

And, as many know, by treating the Bible in this piecemeal, de-contextualized, read-what-I-want-to-read fashion it is easy to find passages that seem to contradict other passages. This is because the Bible was never meant to be a moral rule book. It certainly deals with themes of morality and sin (and much more so than sins- plural) but much more in a holistic sense than a list of, say, swimming pool regulations. It is supposed to be after all, God's Word (singular) not God's words (which also raises some interesting analyses regarding the relevance of the whole 'inerrancy' argument-- but which I won't get into here).

Yes, it is a narrative-- but is it 'historical?'

So the Bible is, first and foremost, a narrative (although yes, other genres-- such as the aesthetic song-poem of Song of Solomon make appearances-- so the reader does have to make a few schematic shifts). It is a narrative about God's interaction with his creation-- the breakup and reconciliation between God and mankind (God's people). This also raises the importance of intensive reading themes such as audience, idiom, and intention. If, for example, the idiom and intention of the Bible, or of a particular section, was not to be literal then treating it as so would, for the believer, be an inaccurate or even abusive approach to God's Word.

And, is it historical? It depends what you mean by history. Certainly the Bible refers to times, events, people and places that are real and does thus emphatically not take place in a Harry Potter-esque fantasy realm or some nether-bode of the Greek or Hindu Gods. Many of the references do correspond to what we know with certainty about history and geography. However, if you think of history of meaning, bluntly, a factual report of exactly what happened-- the truth and nothing but the objective truth etc. etc. Joe Friday School of Discourse model, then in fact almost nothing in the subject of history as a humanities discipline would meet the criterion, nor would the Bible. The bigger question is, does the Bible actually intend to be 'historical' in this sense?

Can you read a stained glass window? Can Walter?

In fact, the Bible begs to be read more with an understanding and appreciation of the development and realization of certain key theological themes (the lamb, kingship, purity, sin etc.) in tow-- much like a good movie or piece of music develops key themes, but often in a subtle or indirect manner, so as to have a more profound effect upon the viewer or listener. This can be difficult for modern readers much as 'reading' the stained glass windows of a great European cathedral is nearly impossible for most modern folks. We are, in this sense, illiterate. It could be said that, in a way, the Bible was not really written for Walter Steamkettle of Ames, Iowa (and his lovely wife Buelah).

On the other hand, even the modern, Western reader knows that Jesus' parables are stories, that they are fiction used to make a point. We know that Revelations is an allegory. We adopt those reading schemas for such passages because they are presented according to that idiom. We don't take the parables 'literally'. The big question then is whether or not this applies to other aspects of reading the Bible too, such as the creation story (I say, 'yes'-- the Jewish idiom of that time regarding a 'day-- as just one example--' is far, far removed from the motifs of twenty-first century Western legal speech or television reportage).

...not concerned with objective 'accuracy'

In this sense the Bible as a whole is not really concerned with providing detailed, objective 'accuracy'. In terms of providing the narrative (and the genre of the Bible is almost completely narrative) accuracy is subsumed by the need to make a theological point-- one that would not be lost on its original intended (Jewish in the OT) audience.

The genealogies are a good example. You might well ask, "Why are these boring lists even there?" The point is to establish the kingship lineage of the Messiah, Jesus. If you try to read it as a standard, modern, family-tree genealogy it doesn't make logical sense-- both in terms of the various who-begat-who scenarios or in terms of historical time frames. But again, that was never the point-- and the originally intended readership would have understood this. A modern, Western legalistic-based society doesn't.

Synoptic inconsistencies- not a problem

This is also evident in the famous so-called 'synoptic problem'. What is the synoptic problem? The problem actually refers to questions regarding the development of the Gospel texts but what I'd like to focus upon here are the alleged inconsistencies found between the first three (synopctic) gospel testimonies-- recounting the life of Christ. Now, if this really was a problem, the Nicean Council, and other early councils involved in the establishment of the Biblical canon would certainly have noted these apparent inconsistencies and alleged contradictions-- if they were modern lawyer-types they would have done their best to smooth out or otherwise harmonize all the details. After all, we're talking about people who knew every jot and tittle of scripture, people who scrupulously studied every minute detail.

But they didn't-- because that was never the point of the Gospels, the writers of which were concerned with different themes and angles from a theological perspective (read: different emphases). It is only 'the point' if your schema for understanding the notion of truthfulness is based upon that of alibis procured from suspects in a crime-- if they aren't consistent then, yes, someone's story is fishy. But in fact the Bible is not concerned with getting all the time, place and word details exact. It is more interesting in telling the story to make a theological point-- which was how it would be read at that time and place. The issue of complete and full accuracy is moot.

This also explains why the Gnostic Gospels and other texts were never accepted into the (standard) Biblical canon. Theologically they don't cohere. It's like having a tuba player in a string quartet. It's similar to the Halloween Simpsons episodes, where the rules of Springfield animation are broken (but at least the Simpsons' audience understand this once-a-year-we-make-an-exception idiom).

The Bible: A movie trailer

Most people would also tell you that, based on the Bible, Christianity presents a model in which good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. This popular reduction is intriguing because most of the Bible in fact presents something quite different. If the story were to be written as a movie-of-the-week trailer it would probably read something like this:

God (Morgan Freeman) makes mankind, a perfect creation, in God's image but mankind, using free will, rebels against God. This state (sin, played by Justin Bieber) becomes the cause of man's distancing from God and the source of all man's troubles on earth. Mankind tries to make his way back into God's good graces through acts of goodness and sacrifice but stained by that original rebellious act, mankind always falls short. Therefore, it is up to God to reconcile the relationship, which God does by making himself into a human (Jesus-- played by Johnny Depp) who becomes the sufficient sacrifice for all mankind (since he is not tainted by sin) through being killed, and thereby ultimately transgressing death, man's usual fate. Through this act, mankind is now reconciled to God, since faith in this man-God Jesus, whose act of sacrifice opened the door to all mankind.
P.S. No, I'm not going to explain the Holy Trinity.

It actually sounds like a decent science-fiction flick--- and I don't mean that in a derisive sense at all. All the meaningful human themes are there and on a grand, cosmic scale. It is actually very deep and complex yet something that connects to the human condition of all people.

Personally, I gave up on professional Christianity a while ago because there was so much in its modern manifestations and practices that was at odds with my... well, my spirit. But I still retain a sense of the mystical, the spirituality of things, and a lasting sense that behind this confusing, exasperating book-- there is something real and profound (although it would be a lot easier for me psychologically if I believed that life and mankind was just physics and chemistry).

Go ahead and ask me your theological questions and I'll do my best to answer-- as someone who has struggled with the big book both spiritually and analytically. And next week I'll be back on track talking about the ESL classroom again.

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February 07, 2012

Cognitive overload: Is the 'myth of multitasking' itself a myth?

Every child knows that when The Cat in the Hat bounces up and down on a ball while balancing a cake on a cup on his arm, with a fish in a bowl on his head, all while fanning himself with his tail and he says, "But I can do more!" he is going to fail spectacularly. Yes, even very young children can sense that as we increase the complexity of a task the more likely we are to drop the ball.

You know, like those one-man-bands that scour city squares in Europe busking for change, playing five instruments at once. Sure, he might be able to manage musically banal tunes like "When The Saints Go Marching In". But we know he's not going to be up to the task of playing Zappa's 'Inca Roads', finessing his way through microtones in 7/4 time.

Or when my wife calls me at work while I'm analyzing some particularly dense bit of statistical research and wants to talk about details of re-financing the mortgage I'm going to have to put one of those topics aside (and rest assured my wife will not lose this contest).

So yes, we all know that multi-tasking can be limiting. There's nothing particularly surprising about this. In fact I would say that we all understand this instinctively.

"Multi-tasking degrades each task"

This topic arises as a result of my attending Dr. Jeremy Harmer's plenary speech, 'The Myth of Multi-tasking and the Force of Focus" at the Thai TESOL Conference in Bangkok at the end of January 2012. Dr. Harmer appears to endorse, or at least considers very worthy of the attention of EFL/ESL teachers, the notion put forth by author Sherry Turkle (see the video link on Dr. Harmer's website) that when we multi-task we 'degrade' (her word, not mine) each task.

Dr. Harmer (who, by the way, is the author of the highly recommendable Teacher Training textbook, "English Language Teaching") thinks that this notion may be applicable to ESL/EFL teaching as well. He argues that having students multi-task may reduce the quality of their work and that a more pronounced focus on discrete content or specific skill might be better.

I beg to differ for three reasons that will eventually become apparent.

When does task-shifting become multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking, it is argued, is distinct from 'task-shifting' in which we move laterally from task to task as opposed to layering them. I have a semantic problem with this distinction though. Think of the chef who is managing several pots, pans, plates, ingredients, and heating devices at the same time so that the individual parts of the meal will be ready at the same time, or if it is a several-course meal, appear at proper intervals and in the correct order.

Using standard nomenclature most would say that the chef is multi-tasking, because within a short time frame she has to manage several distinct tasks yet all are geared to one final goal or product. But whether we choose to categorize this action as multi-tasking or task-shifting does not negate the fact that any experienced cook can carry this complexity out as a matter of course, indeed it is a necessity on the job.

When we ride a bicycle we are pedaling, a motion distinct from steering which of course we do simultaneously, and yet we are also watching out for traffic and road conditions and adjusting our movements accordingly. Surely this is also multi-tasking yet something that almost anyone can do (and probably while listening to Zappa's Inca Roads on an iPod too). This too is intuitive and, in a sense, unremarkable.

Clearly, multi-tasking is not a can/can't proposition. We can on some occasions multi-task with no ill effect. So what is going on in such cases? Why can we multi-task some things and not others? Perhaps the question should not be whether we can or can't multi-task successfully but rather why in some cases multi-tasking reduces the effectiveness of each task while in other cases this is not an issue.

Developing 'muscle memory'

Obviously the development of 'muscle memory' through practicing a complex action has to be factored in. Riding a bike is a matter of developing muscle memory, as are in fact all motor skills of complexity. Mastering more complex multi-tasks demands practicing them. Richard Thompson is one of the most sublimely skilled guitarists on the planet and yet while he plays complex and dynamic cadences he sings with tremendous power and emotion. This is not only a result of world-class talent but also of having practiced and experienced multi-tasking to the point where it becomes second nature.

And thus comes my first objection-- separating form and meaning in the EFL classroom to lessen the chances of overload will hinder a learner's ability to develop this linguistic muscle memory. Any separation of skills unnaturally divorces discrete language skills from meaning-making. This is precisely why many of our students can do well on a (receptive) multiple-choice, discrete-item English test but can't actively communicate. By dividing up the skills no path for muscle memory to occur can emerge.

When multi-tasking actually enhances skills

In some cases multi-tasking can actually enhance performance. Let me give you an example. Hockey (you knew that was coming didn't you!). Hockey involves ice skating, while manipulating a puck, while also avoiding being plastered by burly toothless men (an out-of-date caricature but what the hell), while attempting to make a strategic play resulting in a goal. Surely this is multi-tasking. But did you know that the discrete skill of skating is actually enhanced when you have to control a puck and avoid being checked? It's true. When you are less conscious of your feet but are focusing on the bigger, wider goal (the competition) you start to perform skating subtleties precisely because you are not so conscious of it.

So, here's a hypothesis: We can't multi-task effectively when the tasks are not complementary and have differing goals or purposes (i.e., the 'interpreting linguistic research stats vs. discussing the re-financing the mortgage' scenario). But we can multi-task, with practice, when we know that each discrete task is part of a larger unit, that they are complementary. And these discrete skills can in fact be enhanced when they are working towards a common goal.

The purpose of communication governs our grammatical choices

Communicative language tasks are such. They demand a combination of discrete skills such as knowledge of grammar/syntax structure/form, semantics, pragmatics, social skills and the ability to cognitively grasp meaningful content. But because these skills are complementary and work towards a united purpose they should not be taught in an itemized way, practiced step by step, as discrete tasks.

In fact, many of these discrete features might be enhanced by focusing on communicative goals first (those of you who speak Japanese well will probably have noticed how the 'difficult' parts of that language- such as the subtle distinction between 'wa' and 'ga'- fit in more easily when the wider communicative purpose is clear). I have noted how my medical students seem to grasp the perfective 'have' better after they have actively engaged it within extended medical contexts. After all, it is the purpose/goal of communication that governs our grammatical and lexical choices.

I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers...

This is not, of course, to say that no explicit focus upon discrete items should occur in the classroom. There is always a place for highlighting, consciousness-raising, and 'noticing' of form within a lesson but until it is subsumed by meaning it will always fall under the category of 'itemized knowledge about a language' as opposed to 'communicating in' a language.

Nor does it imply that sudden, jarring shifts in classroom tasks or trying to combine multiple learning targets in one fell swoop, both of which are hallmarks of inexperienced teachers, does not bear forewarning and caution. But I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers from at least trying to develop cognitively demanding lessons that enhance dealing with language complexity.

'Analyzes paralyzes'

In fact, not being entirely conscious of a discrete skill can help you succeed in more complex endeavors. Look at a golf swing, often referred to as 'the most analyzed move in sports'. Even non-golfers are probably aware that the swing is full of arcane instructions of the "the fingernail on the left ring finger must be pointed down at a 45 degree angle on the follow through" sort. But undue focus on such points when trying to make actual ball contact is likely to result in you spraying the ball about 10 metres at near right angles to your body-- not because the instruction is flawed, but because of the truth of the old adage that "analyzes paralyzes".

And here's where we (in Japan in particular) can easily draw parallels with our students. Having had a lengthy focus upon discrete items and forms in their learning experiences thus far, our students often stumble when having to put form and meaning together into productive goal of communication. They over-analyze, too focused upon form over meaning.

Content-based learning: "What about cognitive overload?"

This also provides, a believe, a suitable response to a question put forward to me at a recent presentation I did in Yokohama in which I was advocating content-based learning. The question was "What about cognitive overload?". After all, the student has to focus upon content as well as form under such instruction. Well, my answer is the same-- that when the goal is meaningful communication, form and content can work in harmony, that they can, and do, complement one another. Learners absorb form by focusing upon interpreting and producing meaningful content precisely because the form can be 'located' in meaningful discourse.

"But learning English will interfere with the mother tongue!"

I certainly wouldn't want advocates of the old school interpreting Dr. Harmer's suggestion as meaning that we should be focusing upon one form at a time until each is mastered and not be concerned with the bigger picture of meaning until then (which will take a lifetime for most second-language learners). But I fear that it could easily be taken that way.

And what about those who argue (wrongly, according to just about every piece of research done on the topic) that if Japanese youngsters start to learn English it will affect their ability to master their mother tongue? That Japanese must be fully mastered first or else it will lead to linguistic confusion? Criticism of multi-tasking seems to (inadvertently) play into the hands of such people. But we can do many things at once without degrading each. It's just a matter of knowing which tasks are complementary and compatible, and which aren't.

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 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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May 07, 2013

Provocative conservativism: Deciphering and dissecting one weirdass policy piece

I'm a bit of a sucker for cognitive dissonance, especially if the source of that dissonance is at least somewhat esteemed, experienced, and aware of the contours of whatever topical playing field they are addressing. A high ranking Tea Party spokesman who extols the virtues of some aspect of the welfare state-- now you’ve got my attention. A radical environmental activist who points out the virtues of corporate investment and indulgence—hell, I’ll give it a read.

Upsetting the pie of established EFL canon

The same holds when it comes to language education. I’m not really interested in a longtime ELT stalwart pointing out the necessity of fostering learner autonomy because, well, because frankly it’s a yawner. I don’t feel that my inner teacher is going to be nourished or stimulated by another layer of whipped cream on the pie of established EFL canon. But if that grizzled classroom vet offers up their views on why a teacher-centered classroom will actually boost learning-- then I’m all ears. Not because I innately believe the titular premise, far from it, but I expect that my pedagogical peptides might be upset, even offended—which is always a good way of getting me out of the didactic doldrums.

What then to make of this opinion piece (the original is now offline so I’ve pasted the text at the end of this blog entry) from the April 16th, page 17, copy of The Japan News (ex-Daily Yomiuri) by one Masakazu Yamazaki, noted playwright, critic, ex-Professor of Osaka University, and former chairman of the Central Council for Education. In short, a Japanese person of some note (short for notoriety?) and influence. The title (titles are almost always decided by copy editors, not the writer, by the way) seems promising enough: “Forget Cram Schools, Boost Compulsory Education”. Unfortunately, it soon descends into a doctrinaire stew, a pungent potpourri of pedantic pedagogical policy (sorry 'bout that) alternating schizophrenically between a slightly seductive post-modern revisionism and predictably old-school throwback flag-waving.

Crystalline insights and Luddite knuckle-dragging

I urge you to read the whole thing and try to place the logical puzzle together—if you can. I suspect a few key pieces are missing. Shards of crystalline insight are coupled with stains of luddite knuckle-dragging, but lacking the sense of irony that might allow these intellectually apposite bedfellows to blend into something resembling a cohesive philosophy. Normally, I would not afford such a screed the time of day but given that this is a man of apparent learning and influence and that his piece holds a prominent place in the newspaper that I contribute a column to, the educator in me feels a need to put up my hand—if only to ask to go and wash them.

Yamazaki describes current maladies in Japanese education as arising from “the public’s perspective of education,” “a mind-set deeply rooted in Japan”. So far, this in line with standard progressive modes of thinking—but he then goes off-track by defining this 'deeply-rooted mindset' as being post World War 2 educational reforms, “…a superficial replication of American-style education imported after the war”. Superior, he believes, is Japan’s pre-war education policy. More on that later. Now, if you are confused about how ‘deeply-rooted mindsets’ line up in this rhetorical picture, you’re not alone (not to mention that he seems to associate corporal punishment, the current center of much controversy, as a by-product of the post-war era too). But wait, there’s more.

Egalitarianism-- a bad thing

The post-war policy, he says, “prompted Japanese to seek egalitarianism and homogenization.” So…. egalitarianism is a bad thing? The devil’s advocate in me wants to bite at that interesting nugget but little support for this contention is offered. Nor is any forthcoming regarding the very dubious notion that pre-war Japan was not homogeneous. If Yamazaki wants to put forward an off-the-wall reading of history, fine, but it has to be backed up by something more substantial than his Osaka U. pedigree and person-of-merit awards.

The wisp of support he offers here is the argument that post-war education rejected “cram education” in pursuit of “higher educational backgrounds” (whatever that means) and “creative education”. Now, dear reader, you should be really confused because, in short- he is saying cram education= good, creative, egalitarian education (that ‘deeply-rooted, post-war hallmark of Japanese education apparently) =bad. In fact, it seems that the copy editor was confused too because this sentiment directly contradicts the article’s title.

Curing the dropout problem-- by kicking them out

We are then treated to a bizarre diversion. He argues, and many will be sympathetic to this, that the current easy entry into universities means that many university students cannot carry out even basic academic functions, connected to a lack of perseverance. And in high schools many are unable to keep up in class and high-school dropouts account (not surprisingly) for a majority of juvenile delinquents. He also laments the inability of teachers to fail students (perhaps part of his criticism of egalitarian education). So far, so good.

But then, Yamazaki goes on to argue that the reason for the number of High School dropouts is that primary and junior high school students with “poor ability are allowed to go on to high school”. Ummm, yeah. So if, as in pre-war Japan, only those with high academic ability went on to high school, the academically-challenged would/should be quitting after junior high school instead. You have to admire the stunningly twisted logic at play here: High school dropouts form the majority of JDs so if they drop out from junior high school instead delinquency would go down. It’s like saying that most welfare recipients come from lower educational backgrounds. Therefore, if you didn’t give them any education at all we’d have fewer welfare recipients.

Anti-elitist elitism?

To his credit, Yamazaki rues the lack of curricular distinction between those students truly seeking higher education as opposed to those who seek only basic education. It leads to a muddled mediocrity (my words) in which academically gifted students are left unchallenged and become complacent. Government aid should focus on supporting this academic elite, he claims, and it should be based upon intellectual merit and not just a perpetuation of wealthy students heading off to Daddy's elite alma mater. Fine. But this would presume a greater stratification in Japan’s educational system, although I’m not sure that a substantial hierarchy of this type does not already exist and was even more widespread before the war.

Thinking for yourself 'creates confusion'

But now we get to the real meat of the essay, as far as English teachers reading this blog (or the original article) would be concerned. Yamazaki contends that this higher academic education should focus upon… wait for it.. rote learning, as opposed to wishy-washy post-war imported John Dewey-based notions of getting students to think for themselves which, Yamazaki states, “causes ‘confusion’ in this society” (as if his essay wasn’t already doing that).

Now let’s just stand aside for a moment here, suppress our knee-jerk auto-correction instincts, and survey the proposed pedagogical landscape from a detached, objective point of view. There is in fact a place for rote learning in the education system (along with drills and grammar translation). As Yamazaki notes, it is almost impossible to internalize the basic multiplication tables without rote. Basic second language vocabulary also involves no small amount of rote drudgery at some (usually early) stage. But as a basis for education?? (and some might argue, although I do not, that rote learning is still the dominant model in Japanese education, pre and post-war distinctions be damned). Sorry, but at some early point languages, as with most subjects, have to be treated as dynamic, interactive, open-ended, flexible, context-dependent organisms in order to be internalized and hold the later potentality of turning into something more fecund and productive.

Does recitation equal understanding?

Yamazaki’s shoddy logic is herein exposed most viscerally. He states that in pre-war education, students recited, by rote, “all kinds of famous literary works” and further, that this helped students “memorize various ways of thinking and expression”. Just a second. One doesn’t come to understand something as all-encompassing and nebulous as a ‘way of thinking’ by memorizing it. These are not discrete knowledge-units in which comprehension can be reduced to recitation. Expressions too, have to be placed within a meaningful context to be understood and applied productively. Memorizing isolated, de-contextualized expressions alone aids in usage no more than memorizing an entire golf instruction booklet will help you shoot par at Augusta.

Yamazaki proceeds to argue that rote learning is most effective in moral education. And again, his initial point is not entirely without merit. A certain amount of what we consider courtesy and socially appropriate behavior is generated from repeated exposure to social norms. But it is precisely locating this behavior in the realm of human experience, with real social interactions, that help inculcate it. The repetition of greetings “with a loud voice” will not lead to becoming “more considerate to other people” unless one equates mindless adherence to procedure and ritual with morality. A conditioned, cowed response is not a ‘moral’ one.

Young people as corporate fodder

Finally, I encourage readers to note the final sentence of Yamazaki’s piece, where he discusses how hardship encountered in practical, continuous real-world education (again, the kernel of a good idea) can bear fruit in terms of “contributing to the growth potential of corporations”. Ouch. Here I stand sandal to sandal with the 'progressives'. If the bottom line of Yamazaki’s proposed new policy for Japanese education is to ultimately treat young people as fodder for the strengthening of corporations, I have just felt the floor drop from under his tenuous scaffold of an argument. He’s out of touch with both the ceiling and the floor.

OK. I’ll give the man his due. He’s not trying to be popular, he’s not pandering to tired notions of progressive thought—what he’s arguing is truly “alternative” (meaning you won’t find the Birkenstock and pony-tail crowd hammering these points home at a teacher’s conference anytime soon). I like the fact that he doesn't buy the norm and wants to twist and re-tie the popular narrative. I’ll even forgive the lack of cohesion in his argument, as the rigid, formulaic analyses typically employed by teacher-types to make tepid pedagogical claims is soporific in the extreme. But I can’t ignore his selective views of history, the standard elderly persons' blinkered nostalgia for a Golden Era that never really existed, the confining dualisms, and most of all, his simplistic, almost child-like, view of rote learning. I can’t help but think that this is a man who perhaps should have eaten his daily bowl of imported Dewey and not be so sanguine in extolling the virtues of a mindset that helped bring Japan close to international pariah status and near total destruction.

Here's the original piece:

Forget cram schools, boost compulsory education

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration considers education reform
as one of its top priorities. As the future of Japan hinges upon
establishing a social foundation that fosters intellectual development,
the government should make an enormous effort to nurture human resources
to this end. Against a backdrop of a recent stream of cases of corporal
punishment and bullying at school, it is understandable for the prime
minister to emphasize the importance of child discipline and moral
education. As the government is responsible for education, it has no
choice but to advance structural reforms in school administration in
implementing its education policy.

I am eagerly looking forward to seeing the Abe Cabinet's initiatives
on the educational front achieve tangible results. However, I cannot
help thinking that the root cause of Japan's education-related problems
lies in a malady that cannot be easily cured by administrative reforms
in schools. It seems to me the public's perception of education,
together with a mind-set deeply rooted in Japanese society and its
conventional wisdom, has distorted the country's education system. The
malady stems from the social trend following the end of World War II
that gave rise to "popularization," prompting the Japanese to seek
egalitarianism and homogenization.

In a nutshell, the trend can be summarized as a combination of two
phenomena--the insatiable pursuit of "higher educational backgrounds"
and the rejection of "cram" education that emphasizes rote learning and
memorization--the latter idea coupled with a naive yearning for "
creative education." Needless to say, the two phenomena represent the
public's antipathy toward Japan's prewar education and a superficial
replication of American-style education imported after the war.

Postwar Japan adopted the so-called 6-3 compulsory educational system
--six years of primary school and three years of middle school.
Eventually, students going on to high schools started to increase, with
the high school attendance rate now standing at 98 percent. Likewise,
the enrollment rate for colleges and universities has risen to 50
percent. This was accompanied by an increase in the number of colleges
and universities, but the expansion was so rapid that, technically
speaking, their combined capacity is large enough to admit all
applicants. To support the trend in which virtually everyone can receive
a high school education, the former Democratic Party of Japan-led
government acted to make high schools tuition-free.

Despite the emphasis on the popularization of higher education, there
has been no genuine increase in the country's overall academic ability.
For example, some students admitted to universities do not even know how
to add or subtract fractions, while many students lack perseverance--
they cannot be bothered to read through the lead story of a newspaper's
front page. According to government statistics, high school dropouts are
said to account for the majority of juvenile delinquents, evidence
perhaps that many high school students are unable to keep up in class.

The reasons for this are simple. Primary and middle school education
falls short in terms of quality and students with poor academic ability
are allowed to go on to high schools. The postwar educational system
does not permit primary and middle school teachers to fail students and
let them repeat the same grades. In other words, schools are like pasta-
making machines--they allow failing students to graduate year after year.

Although the competence and devotion of teachers has to be questioned
as to this situation, it should be noted that parents focus primarily on
the diplomas their children obtain rather than what they actually learn.
In one case, a primary school teacher was so enthusiastic about teaching
students with poor records he gave them extracurricular lessons. The
parents were so incensed they stormed the school to denounce the teacher.
These helicopter parents--known as "monster parents" in Japan--accused
the hapless teacher of "bullying."

Screen students more strictly

What this country should do is concentrate spending--out of a limited
budget--on programs to improve primary and middle school education
rather than make high schools tuition-free. It may be a good idea to
hold a universal graduation examination for primary and middle schools
throughout the country. But, first of all, every primary and middle
school should carry out frequent exams of their own to determine which
students are failing and help them improve their academic abilities. A
provisional enrollment system could be introduced to allow high schools
to accept students with lower academic achievements, as long as they are
given supplementary courses a few hours a week in subjects they did
badly in at middle school.

In the realms of higher education, there should be stricter screening
to divide students into two groups, with one seeking early employment
and the other going on to universities. Of course, students wanting to
pursue careers as athletes or entertainers should be permitted to do so.
To nurture future leaders in the development of a knowledge-based
society, excellent students seeking a higher education should be
entitled to receive grants that cover not only tuition but also living
costs. At present, Japanese university students spend an average of only
four hours a day studying, including hours in and outside school.
Students chosen to receive scholarships should be obliged to study by
themselves for more than 10 hours a day.

My proposal is not aimed at widening the social divide--it envisages
a completely different goal. At present, an inordinate number of
students entering top universities are from wealthy families and many of
them attend private cram schools and middle schools specialized in
entrance examination preparation. I am confident that improving
compulsory education will rectify such inequality.

If our society can rid itself of the social malady caused by the
pursuit of "diplomas of higher education" and "poor academic ability,"
it may be possible to eliminate the chronic mismatch between job-seeking
university graduates and employers. This mismatch undoubtedly results
from the belief on the part of students that "I'm a graduate of a four-
year university, so I'm supposed to land a clerical job at a major
company." In reality, this delusion only narrows students' job

Rote learning suits Japan

As I mentioned, the second characteristic of postwar education is the
rejection of "cram school" education, a trend that favors creative
education to encourage students to think for themselves. The person
behind this idea is John Dewey (1859-1952), an American philosopher and
education reformer. There is little space here to elaborately criticize
Dewey's ideas, but I have to point out that they caused needless
confusion in our society. For instance, when students are told during a
composition class to "freely write whatever you think about," they
probably are at a complete loss about what to write.

For human beings, language is a basic cognitive tool that allowed us
to become thinking animals. In other words, we cannot do anything
specific without learning a sufficient number of speech and writing
patterns in the first place. In prewar schools, students recited all
kinds of famous literary works. They were therefore given rote learning
lessons to memorize various ways of thinking and expression. What must
be done now is to reinstate this tradition and cram kanji characters,
phrases and the usage of metaphors into students' memories.

The same thing can be said about science and mathematics. Everyone
knows we cannot take those courses without memorizing the multiplication
table first. I remember a TV program that featured a Columbia University
professor who invited a group of middle class students who did not like
science to join an ad hoc class. The teacher had the students memorize
genetics material while listening to hip-hop music. After acquiring a
basic knowledge about genetics by rote learning, the students,
surprisingly enough, began studying science on their own.

Rote learning is most effective in moral education. What children
find easy to comprehend are not patriotism and filial piety but things
related to daily discipline, such as saying "Good morning" or "Good-bye"
in a loud voice, or "Clean your classroom when you make it messy." Once
children are used to doing this, they will become more considerate to
other people and conform to accepted standards. This will be achieved
only under the cram school model.

Education never ends

Finally, I want to emphasize that education does not end after a
student leaves school. For many years, I have said people should put off
planning their lives by 10 years because of the declining birthrate and
aging society. To be specific, the mandatory retirement age should be
extended to 70 and university graduates should become eligible to find
full-time jobs at an average age of 30--with the exception of police,
firefighting and defense personnel, because physical strength is needed
in these professions.

In the 10 years after leaving university, graduates should have the
option of studying abroad or participating in nongovernmental
organizations to obtain social experiences in Japan and overseas. To
earn their way, they could work in the agricultural, fishery and
forestry industry and at artisans' workshops, among others. A decade of
hardship would surely become the most meaningful period of
apprenticeship in their lives and, from the perspective of employers,
employing these young people would be a superb way of contributing to
the growth potential of corporations.

(Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun)
Yamazaki is a playwright and critic. Previously, he served as a
professor at Osaka University and chaired the Central Council for
Education. The government has accorded him a Person of Cultural Merit

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July 16, 2013

‘Is it only me who thinks so?’- Local vs. Universal English Teaching and Learning Traits

Below are eight mini-hypotheses I've been entertaining, wondering how valid they are outside of my own experience or that of Japan:

1. Little boys and little girls

Does language interest or skill follow gender lines in a mixed-language family?

We are an international family. My wife is Japanese. I have a daughter and a son. I speak mostly Japanese to my wife but almost exclusively English to my children. My son has always responded to me only in English and has always been perfectly happy using English media, such as TV shows, English versions of games etc. My daughter almost never replies to me in English and seems to dislike English media, much preferring Japanese. My daughter understands my English well but is loathe to use it. Not only that, but my son’s English was better at the same age that my daughter is now.

So here’s the hypothesis I’m putting out: When families have dual language codes, boys tend to copy father’s language while girls see mother’s language as the ‘true tongue’. This seems to be consistent with other international families I know but, hey, maybe I live a cloistered life. Does this seem to be widely true? Not a universal, but a significant trend perhaps? I’m asking you…

2. 1st year vs. 2nd year students

It seems that almost everyone loves first year students. At any level. At any institution. First year students are eager, earnest, pliant, starry-eyed and bushy-tailed. They are untainted, pure, innocent, respectful, and obedient.

Switch to second year. Those students have now formed cliques. They know you and your foibles. They know what it takes to pass the class with the minimum effort. They’ve learned how to game the system from their seniors. The noble intentions that they entered with last year are put to rest. Postures change. They skip classes more. The work produced is more slipshod. They are more likely to challenge you or talk back, and not in that productive, give-and-take debate manner. There’s a tired been-there-done-that aura surrounding the classes. You’re no longer fresh or interesting to them.

Ok, I’m not saying that every first year class I’ve had has been angelic and the second year versions always diabolical but, generally speaking, the atmosphere of a first year class is palpably fresher and brighter than most second year sets. Or is it just me…?

3. The exotic local lingo from a distance vs. from the inside

When you don’t have hands-on familiarity with a foreign tongue it is easy to exoticize them. The Spanish apparently focus upon motion in a verbal phrase because their language is so constructed. Mandarin speakers organize thoughts more vertically than horizontally for the same reason. Koreans pay greater attention to the shape of countable objects because it is explicitly represented in their language.

This is the basis of Cognitive Linguistics, the belief that not only do languages reflect local culture and thought, but that they also inform and influence them. Note that I did not say ‘determine’ them, which would be a strong and largely discredited Sapir-Whorf model, but rather that cognitive influence exists at the level of ‘paying attention’.

Except that I sense this goes out the window to some degree when you are competent with that foreign language and use it widely (if not perfectly) on a day-to-day, face-to-face basis. Let me use my Japanese as an example. Most readers of this blog will have some familiarity with Japanese and know that for example, Japanese does not distinguish between jumping and flying, that expressions of being tired are used as greetings, that roles are used as address forms instead of names (in many, many cases), that there is a different word for water according to whether it’s heated or cooled, that simple verb inflections, even the root lexical item, will change according to the level of honorific required. You can think of hundreds of others I'm sure.

But it doesn’t take long to realize that there is no mystery or no revelation of mysterious underlying cognitive twists when using these terms and patterns, that the uptake and cognitive processing and emotional commitment one wishes to express remains the same, regardless of the language forms used to convey it.

I plan to write more about my doubts about CL here in the future but for the time being I’m wondering if others feel the same way…

4. The best speakers of L2 are clear speakers of L1

If a person is clear-headed and articulate in their mother tongue they tend to be better L2 communicators than those who are muddle-headed in their first language as well. Likewise, people with well-considered, complex thoughts that have been articulated in their minds in L1 will be more effective communicators when employing a foreign tongue.

I see this all the time. Students who ask me how to express something in English that they can’t even articulate clearly in Japanese (or can’t even communicate that need in their first language). Basic communication skills, or a lack thereof, transcend the language they are encoded in. I’m talking about people whose first language conveyance is so vague and undefined (intelligent though they may be) that they can’t even begin to form an adequate frame around those utterances in L2.

As a result, I’ve often told students that if they haven’t developed a clear notion of what they want to express in the mother lingo then there’s no way they’ll be able to do any more than flail away in L2. Attempting ‘to language’ your thoughts in L1 actually helps you to apply foreign language rubrics more accurately and effectively.

This is what Vygotsky was saying, like. Sort of. You know what I mean?

5. There is a local crew of foreign teachers who view the ‘host country’ as the enemy

I’ve heard about cabals of disaffected gringos, gwailos, gaijin, waegook, muzungu, and farangs in just about every country that has a substantial foreign EFL teaching population. The stories seem to follow a set pattern. Such people maintain a strong us-and-them division regarding the locals, while ironically often claiming that they are functionally excluded from full immersion in the local society and are treated as second-class citizens.

This apparently reflects the allegedly innate local racism, nationalism, or chauvinism. Local teachers get all the breaks, they get shafted. The local educational authorities are corrupt, the administrators incompetent, and the local language teachers inept and methodologically in the dark ages. The malcontents feel that local teachers and students should become more ‘like us’ and idealize the progressive nature of their homelands.

They believe the students are not free or critical thinkers. Fellow expats who feel comfortable within their adopted homes are considered to be ‘apologists’, Uncle Toms, even somehow traitorous. They are quite convinced that the country they work in represents the absolute nadir of progress, equality, and human rights. Nearly every local pronouncement is interpreted as a slur, such is their heightened sense of victimization.

But if they are men, they like the local women…

True enough in your world?

6. Students will wait until the last moment on classroom team projects

Let’s say you have a classroom team project and you’ve allotted three classroom periods for preparation and development before performance or submission day. But, until near the end of that third class very little has been done. The team members circle around the topic, even changing topics, until just before the prestige version is due. A lot of hemming and hawing occurs. Vague proposals are put forward, mulled over, but little actual progress appears to be getting made.

But a few days prior to the big day there is a flurry of productive activity and sure enough, sometimes shockingly so, a reasonably good product emerges from the preparatory abyss (although on occasion, the result is predictably mediocre). I often feel that if I had given students twelve weeks to do it, the same dawdling until the final few days would still have occurred. As a result, I now limit the prep time for such projects to ensure that class prep time is also used productively and install very strict and specific prep check schedules.

Now is this just a Japan thing or…?

7. Big boys and big girls

I’m expecting that this one is culturally relative, but I think it’s safe to say that English is considered more of a girl’s subject in Japan (if the language were gendered it would be prefixed with a ‘la’).

In many Japanese institutional scenarios it is the secretary (invariably a woman) or some other Eigo-no-onee-chan ('girl who speaks English') who is expected to handle the English communication. English specialist courses and schools seem to have a far greater number of female than male enrollees. My impression too is that Japanese women tend to pursue English more either as a hobby or actively seek out foreign experiences for learning English than men. Even the stereotypical model ‘local English teacher’ is usually a female (kind of like the image of the sultry Spanish/French teacher in North America).

What I am wondering though is if this actually has a washback effect on how students appropriate English in Japan (or other countries) according to gender. That males may resist learning to some degree if it is considered a subject that women are supposed to be good at—in other words the prejudice or stereotype actually produces what it believes.

I also note that, on average, female students in Japan tend to take better notes, focus upon more significant aspects of the language, and are more linguistically organized than the males. On average, of course. So, it is just me? Or just Japan? Or…?

8. The teacher’s knowledge of obscure, technical items defines them

If you teach ESP (I teach medical students), you’ve probably come across this phenomenon. In reading some technical English prose, a student comes across an obscure technical term that they are not familiar with. Say this happens in a classroom. And let’s say that this term is ‘endometriosis’. And the student asks you what it means.

Now, as an English teacher, even as a teacher of English to medical students, you are not particularly concerned with that term, it is well down the list of must-know lexical items, and in fact you actually don’t know what it means (at best you can make a rough Latinate estimate).

Your pedagogical concerns are far more focused upon having students absorb the ebb and flow of medical discourse as a specialized speech community, helping them to gain both knowledge and sensitivity regarding speech events, such as taking histories, transacting patient information, explaining diagnoses/prognoses etc. as opposed to spoon-feeding them the meaning of every obscure item, most that they could easily look up and understand more fully by themselves.

Yet, if you admit that you don’t know exactly what ‘endometriosis’ is, to most students it is the equivalent of saying that you don’t know what a verb is, or that you have no idea how to start a patient introduction letter. How can you be a qualified English instructor and not know the meaning of every damned term in the field? Forget your skills at classroom management, scaffolding tasks, and gradating language items and skills to enhance the learners’ holistic English skills—if you admit to not knowing that one obscure item, in the eyes of such students, you’re a bum.

Or, again, is it only me who senses this reaction?

I await your comments and responses.

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