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The Uni-Files - Courses Archive

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

March 06, 2009

The On-Campus Language Center ‘Solution’ (Or What Is University English Teaching Really About Anyway?)

In the last 15 or so years a number of universities have responded to MEXT-initiated reforms by moving their English education departments into separate on-campus language training centers (thankfully this has not happened here at the UOM although it has been suggested- and duly shot down- in the past). The logic behind the move works something like this: English-language training is considered not to be an academic course but a kind of preparatory, and peripheral, skill training. Therefore, in these language centers students will upgrade their general English skills before embarking upon more serious or in-depth research in their university departments, the latter which will be overseen by content, not language-education, specialists. (Of course, there are variations on this theme from university to university).

In practice, what this has also meant is a move towards hiring more part-time (hijoukin) English teachers with some of the old full-time guard now marginalized or having had their roles (and sometimes salaries) reduced. So yes, cost-cutting is also a factor in making these decisions since the ‘incorporization’ of public universities over past decade or so.

One large question underpins discussion of this shift to on-campus language centers. Is it pedagogically sound to segregate English education from the wider academic life of the university? On one hand it seems that language center proponents might have an argument. That is, if one thinks of university English as merely being an extension of, or companion to, Eikaiwa, a consolidation of high school English, or something akin to an Eigo Senmon Gakko (English vocational school), there may be some justification for this educational apartheid. And unfortunately, some teachers inadvertently buy into this educational philosophy as an acceptable model for universities.

Yes, a few administrators and fellow profs at my own university hold the belief (slowly melting away as we stake our pedagogical ground) that the general English courses are taught by largely academically unqualified native speakers who are doing ‘communicative’ lessons which are thereby believed to be little more than on-campus ‘How are you?’ sessions. So, if and when teachers actually teach like that in a university setting they are throwing gasoline on this fire of marginalization.

This approach seems to me to be based upon confusion about the function of a university and, in many cases, leads to a dumbing down of standards. Students will inevitably rise or sink to the level of the challenges we set before them. Universities should not be glorified Eikaiwa schools or high school review classes (and yes I know of university teachers going over the same things my 13 year old son is currently learning in the first year of junior high). And although Eikaiwa schools have a useful function in society it is clearly not the same as a university’s. A university is supposed to involve cognitive engagement with content, stimulating thought, furthering understanding of some chosen academic subject. At this level then, English should not be an end in itself but a means to an end.

Let me give you an example. I teach medical students. They are, not surprisingly, interested in medicine first and foremost. Therefore, my English classes focus entirely on medical content. In the first two years this involves them learning how to taking medical histories in English, completing medical charts in English, doctor to doctor (or nurse) correspondence regarding case studies, all in English. The content is engaging for them and they are forced to think about medicine (cause-effect, bedside manner, rhetorical organization). And, as they carry out these tasks, they are indirectly absorbing sound English forms and vocabulary in that (medical) context. Communicative need not imply ‘conversation’. Communicative teaching can also imply academic accountability.

In other words, their English study is tied directly to the fundamental mission of the medical faculty and thereby to their overall academic studies. It is an integral part of their MEDICAL education. And here’s the rub: It is NOT too hard for them (and yes, the bulk of the students are standard Japanese HS graduates, albeit generally from ‘good’ schools). True, they may make basic mistakes in English, but they also have a 6 year English foundation on which they can, and should, now build. By using this approach, their latent understanding of English is stimulated and challenged through cognitive engagement with academic, forward-thinking content. If they have the cognitive ability to engage the content they can, and in fact do, upgrade their English ability to deal with that content.

If we treat university Eigo as an extension of HS or Eikaiwa we can go on forever with their mistakes in using basic general English structures and their seeming inability to master certain simple functions. But you know what? At my uni we regularly host visiting doctors and grad students from other non-English based countries and they make general English mistakes just as basic as many Japanese HS grads and yet are able to function academically in English (presentations, lead lectures, academic correspondence etc). If our students are not challenged by deeper content most of them will be stuck on the Eikaiwa merry-go-round and (repeat) this is not the function of a university, although yes, it does serve as a good justification for an on-campus language center.

OK. Here’s another reason why separate language centers don’t work well. Hijoukin teachers aren’t really committed to ‘the program’. I don’t mean that they don’t care as teachers, that they are being derelict in their duties, or somehow otherwise lacking a moral compass. What I mean is that if you are coming in from outside for two only classes a week (as I do at a nearby university) there is no way you can have the same overview and sense of connection to the program and get involved in its planning and maintenance the same way as full-timers can. Part time teachers can’t be on planning committees, they can’t have special classes for remedial work or orientation, they don’t have open offices to discuss student progress and problems, and can’t get involved with extracurricular functions, even with the best will in the world. Neither can they easily bridge their English classes with other disciplines at the university.

So, yes, a separate language center staffed by part-time teachers might appear to save money and serve a specific function. But is this bang for the university student’s or the taxpayers’ bucks? Obviously, I don’t think so. Is it pedagogically and academically sound? Keeping English in the mainstream of campus academic life will make sense only if university English courses and programs are both viewed and carried out as academically challenging and content-engaging courses, by administrators and especially teachers, and not treated as lightweight conversation lessons with foreigners divorced from their REAL university classes..


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May 01, 2009

Notes from the new academic year

1. The true meaning of FRESHman
I teach a lot of 1st year students, which is fortunate, become they come into the university virginally innocent, idealistic, ready to fulfill their dreams. They are compliant and curious, eager and effervescent. This honeymoon period lasts for about two months after which, like most people, students lower their expectations and fall back into their old habits. This is not a condemnation of “the system” or “kids these days!”, it’s human nature. You know, the way in which you’ve attacked something new with promises and passion many times in your life only to see that flame of idealism either smothered or tempered into something more balanced and realistic. Like when you started learning the guitar and swore that you’d practice three hours a day and become an accomplished musician even if it took you twenty years.

In the first few months at universities, students have yet to develop cliques, learn what they can get away with, see through any holes in the system or develop attitudes. This is the time when I tell them that if they are planning to be doctors it is expected by the surrounding society, and medical professionals worldwide, to have competency in English. They trust me on this, believe me, and you can almost hear the rustling of sleeves being rolled up. Until day-to-day drudgery takes eventually hold, it’s a nice classroom atmosphere, one that I don’t encounter with most classes 2nd year and up (although some about-to-graduate students suddenly develop a lot of earnestness just before they are about to enter the fray of the real-world).

2. Good classroom cop, bad classroom cop

This is also a time in which I have to set about applying classroom rules and root out those questionable and annoying behaviors (I start out more bad cop than good cop- something you can’t do when students are more perceptibly ‘customers’ first and foremost). These include:

a. Not allowing students who I call upon to immediately turn to the person next to them for consultation.

b. Not letting students do the absolute minimum to complete a task and then begin chatting in Japanese as if it’s now Izakaya chinwag time.

c. Not allowing students to hold up papers to their faces or even scan them for non-existent answers when a paper has preceded a communication task (You gotta love it when both partners eyes’ remain steadfastly fixed on an instruction sheet throughout the actual activity as though their open-ended communicative responses are somehow going to magically emerge from the fibers of the paper).

d. Not writing down everything that I write on the board or stopping an activity because I am jotting down something like a monitoring note.

e. No sleeping. Duh. My classes are definitely not boring and I do not play that equivalent of teacher 10 minute drum solos: lecturing about the language. Not banning the head down position can let loose a virus of permissiveness. It’s rude to me and others. If you are very sleepy, even for the best of reasons, stay home please! (Sidebar- I am shocked how many students can nod off almost immediately after the lights are dimmed and the PowerPoint comes on).

f. Not being late (double duh!). Some students think that because any university class is described as a ‘lecture’ that they can walk in the back unobtrusively ten minutes after the lesson has started and just catch up on their note taking. Of course, it doesn’t work that way in a normal English class. In those first ten minutes I will have outlined today’s plan and goals, given a brief demonstration or instruction, have handed out some accompanying print, and made groups. When a student walks in after all that has been done and start with the “What am I supposed to do?” routine I become a bad cop.

g. Not allowing something I call ‘The English Sandwich’ which is the case where, in a communicative activity, students surround a tiny morsel of English meat with an enormous slab of preceding and post-scripting Japanese bread. Something like this (the bits in parentheses are said in Japanese).
A. (Hi. OK are you ready? I’ll go first. OK. Number one. This one I guess)
B. (OK. Go ahead)
A. Have you ever been hospitalized?
B. Yes. (I was once)
A. (Really!)

3. The good, the bad, the otakus and the jocks
During the first activity in my first class a few weeks back I heard one girl speaking English much like I’d expect to hear a British-educated Indian to speak. Curiosity piqued, I asked here whether she had lived abroad. Raised in Pakistan it seems. We get a handful of students like this who have extensive English-speaking experience each year. These students are either a delight (they catch on to things quickly, help lesser lights, and can converse with confidence and insight on a wide range of topics) or a curse (they become know-it-alls, lack respect for the teacher, and affect a ‘been here done that’ posture).

On the other hand, some of our kids from very rural high schools where their only real English experience might have been a few fleeting communication classes with an ALT or JET before the juken prep kicked in. I’ll take these tabula rasa types with good attitudes, basic intelligence and curiosity, and general good naturedness, over the fluent-but-I’m-not-impressed-by-anything returnees anytime.

Med classes are generally 55-60% male, although some years have seen a slight majority of females. Now, I’m willing to bet that most of you teaching in Japan generally find females to be more Eigo friendly, with less of that sullen classroom posturing and an uplifting sense that English is accessible and engaging. But among Med students I’ve noticed a very positive upswing recently in the skills/abilities and general attitude of the males. They seem to be more assertive and less stand-offish than before. They tend to create the energy and can-do atmosphere in the classroom, which in the past, was the product of the ladies.

The usual sub-types persist though. While medical studies might attract a few more otaku types than some other faculties, we get our share of school spirit/student council member types, wanna-be-your-buddy puppy dogs, jocks, achingly cool surfer dudes, ‘hot babe’ gals, fashion plates in designer clothes, finishing school debutantes, a few biker-like toughs of either sex, and some international backpacker-cum-borderline hippies. It’s a pleasant mix, as they come from all over Japan and tend to be a little older and more mature than the other faculties’ students because many spent years at yobikos, are transfer students, took time off to ‘find themselves’, or have already graduated or worked but now want to change the course of their lives.

4. The nursing students
The nursing students are very different, as you might expect, from the medical students. Most are local (South Kyushu accounts for the vast majority), right out of high school, have very limited experience with anything (including English) and are 90% female. Before entering the classroom the contrast with the med students is startling. The Meddies tend to be rather subdued before class but the nursing class sounds like a hen party. A very drunken hen party- which can either be quite a laugh or an annoyance depending upon how you approach it.. Don’t get me wrong- these classes have a lot of energy and the nurses seem to be less shy about trying out English and making mistakes (and just seem to be enjoying the whole process more). If the nursing students are ‘with’ you, the teacher, they are with you all the way. There’s more of a party atmosphere in these classes and I think that teachers who are too uptight or regimented would bristle in these sessions. Fortunately, my vast wealth of experience (wink wink) has taught me how to engage these potentially unruly classes and get the most out of them. There’s a lot of ‘go with the flow’ involved, but also the harvesting of anything of sustenance that flows down that stream with you.

(*More on varying teaching styles according to classes and teaching highly mixed-level classes in the future).

Mike

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June 03, 2009

English course exemptions and money matters

1. Class exemptions:

Most universities worldwide will offer course exemptions on basic courses to students who have transferable credits. We do too. Medical school attracts a number of transfer students, graduates, and even a few folks from the working public who’ve decided that they ‘have a dream’. If these students have a credit equivalent for English Communication or other basic English courses they are exempt from attending those courses at our university. I suspect that is true for most universities anywhere.

We have another exemption that is, in my opinion, less justifiable. A student with an 800+ TOEIC score is also exempt from the basic English communication courses. (In fact, at one time it was set at a paltry 550[!!!)). When students got word of that, a large number currently enrolled in the classes took a TOEIC exam and passed the 550 level easily, dropping out of my class halfway through the semester. It became an easy out, a credit given for success on a commercial venture- paper credit.

The biggest problem is that there is a huge difference between training for, and taking, a TOEIC test, and the interactive, process-learning, discourse-based English and resultant tasks that students practice (and hopefully master) in my classroom. A high score on an extracurricular, commercial examination has little connection to the contents learned and skills developed in my class. While that course is officially called 1st year Eigo Communication, it actually serves as an introduction to basic medical English discourse- and you can be sure students didn’t cover THAT on the TOEIC exam. The TOEICers haven’t gone through the process, and the process is what an interactive, COMMUNICATIVE course is all about.

Actually, neither have the transfer students. As a result, they enter general medical courses later on unfamiliar with the jargon, patterns, rhetorical style, modes of English medical discourse, what-have-you because they had an English 101 transfer credit from another university. A credit transfer from a course that had little or nothing to do with mine.

Ok. While I understand the need to grant some exemptions I wistfully recall the days when all 1st year students at my university were required to take the class- even if they were Tokyo U. graduates who had lived in the U.K. for 12 years and had TOEIC scores off the charts (and yes, we have a few students like that). Those students acted as mentors to others. They raised the bar. They raised the maturity level, the aura of seriousness in the class. They were role models. And I could still make tasks that challenged them because they were new to the whole medical discourse thing.

Some students with extensive English skills/experience do still take the Eigo Communication classes. But these tend to be younger students who lived abroad and are entering university for the first time and did not take a TOEIC exam. Naturally, there is a mixed bag. Some give off a “Been there done that” air (although the know-it-all-ism catches up with them pretty quickly). Some can be a bit too diffident in their approach to English or interactions with the teacher (the exaggerated ‘I know what students in America are like and so I’m going to affect those postures too!’ vibe). Interestingly, those who have daily-life English experience but who are still young and immature are often those most likely to start using Japanese in the classroom, poisoning the atmosphere, or be prone to putting their heads down to sleep or otherwise making ostentatious gestures of apparent indifference or boredom.( Again though, this is true of some, not the majority, of younger ‘returnees’).

I miss what the more mature, experienced students brought to the classroom. They knew how to be a student, they knew effective classroom habits, study habits, social interactions, and their influence could be felt throughout the classroom. I wish the exemptions didn’t exist. I feel like there is still a lot that my class could offer those students- but even more so there is so much that they could offer the younger students.

2. Money matters and education:

It is usually the ‘right’ thing to say something like, “We should take the money out of military spending and put it into something productive, like education” but sometimes I wonder. Have you ever visited those schools that have computer systems that could dwarf NASA’s but are used by a total of about 6 students for about 30 minutes a day each? How about those tiny, unused rooms that have state-of-the-art BlueRay setups so complex that no one at the school actually knows how to run anything more than the basic DVD program on it- and the rooms are usually locked anyway?

Getting money – or more accurately, procuring a big budget- generally just means more work for those of us at universities, since we have to preen and pose prettily for our yen in this era of semi-privatization (houjinka). These days, if you are getting grants you have to fill out several hundred elaborate forms, write dozens of interim reports, produce lushly illustrated pamphlets, lengthy account lists, follow newly-established FD protocols, and basically spend your time and energy doing things to justify having your big budget. And why carry out all this busy work? So that you can apply for the big budget again next year!!! And, frankly speaking, I’m not so sure that all of these materials we have to produce are looked at deeply by the officials who approve the funding. Sometimes I get the feeling that we could write, “We contributed the money to North Korea’s self-defence” or “We blew it all on booze and floozies” and no one would bat an eyelid (come to think of it, the latter might be considered a normal expenditure in some circles- nyark, nyark).

The treadmill goes round and round. The unfortunate thing, it seems to me, is that the expenditure-to-actual-educational-attainment ratio is negligible. Standard text books, magic markers, whiteboards and a visual display unit in classrooms should cover 95% of what teachers do (at least what English teachers do). Up to date computers and software? Yeah- for the teachers. Printers, copiers etc. too. But students seem to do 95% of what they do on their own keitais. Except for the very occasional extracurricular use of expensive E-learning software programs, on-campus computers don’t seem to get a lot of use (and I'm not just talking about my own little neck of the woods here). Now I’m not going to say that this is a waste of money. Installing a complex e-learning system probably keeps a few salesmen, business-types and factory workers employed. Keeping the money flow liquid is important in these times of economic downturn. I know that these things also lend prestige to an institution (they look good in pamphlets photos and explanations, and will inevitably be the type of room that visitors of note will be lecturing in). And I must admit that having my airfare, hotels and per diem for attending foreign conferences fully covered makes business trips doubly pleasant.

But the big question is, are we working merely to maintain budgets or to educate? OK- if that sounds a bit too St. Francis Of Assisi, meaning that it sounds like I’m heading in the direction of arguing that teachers should all impoverish themselves as servants to public service, here’s a suggestion of what to do with that extra money: Raise teachers’ base salaries! Seriously! National university professors do not make much money (and I’m sure this statement doesn’t hold true only for national university profs)! I have advanced academic degrees, 20 years’ experience teaching, and enough publications/presentations to stun an ox, but my monthly salary is equal to that of most Eikaiwa teachers I know with less than 5 years’ experience.

Don't get me wrong, I’m not pulling rank here- it’s just a fact. I myself earned more as a vocational school teacher 15 years back than I do now (cue violins). I have a friend who has been working at his school for 10 years. When his students graduate and find work their names, employers, and salaries are often made known. To his chagrin, my friend noticed that many students who joined the workforce straight out of high school were already earning more than he was- despite being a 10 year vet with a degree!

OK- Many university full-timers do get good fringe benefits. I’ll admit that. We get bonuses. Pension, insurance, health plans and housing allowances are the norm, at least at National universities. We get a retirement payment. Our study and research trips get fully paid for. The perks are quite generous. But the total is still not what you might think. The idea is, of course, that national university teachers are performing a type of public service. That’s fine- most teachers are happy to make sacrifices for the education of the students- but it still pains me to see money thrown around merely to maintain the budgetary cycle. Just like the road construction crews, the department has to spend its allotted budget in time in order to get the same funding again next year and repeat the Sisyphian task.

The end result? The feeling that my value as a worker is not so much to educate, or even to feed my family, but merely to keep the budget treadmill going.


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July 03, 2009

Lessons are not lectures!

Note to university personnel:
I wish you wouldn’t call my lessons ‘lectures’ in English. I know you are just trying to translate the Japanese but I find the word problematic. Sorry, but it's a personal thing. “Lectures” brings forth the image of a teacher expounding in front of the class for the whole 90 minute period, transmitting ‘information’ or, perhaps, spouting of personal opinion or research results. I don’t do that. And I don't want you to think that I do that.

OK, maybe that’s just semantics but the mentality behind the nomenclature seems to be pervasive、not to mention the effect it ultimately has an effect upon how students approach the classes. For example, note the requests that I put my ‘lecture notes’ online or have ‘lecture note’ provisions readily available for absent students. Although I sometimes have handouts outlining the tasks and procedures, and maybe a few examples of whatever language target I want the students to focus upon, but they are hardly lecture notes. My whiteboard will be full of scribbles by the end of the lesson, determined by the ebb and flow of the lesson, what needs to be clarified, highlighted, or reinforced depending on how the class is handling the task. That’s about as close to ‘lecture notes’ as I get. If students don’t come to class and try out the tasks and get on the spot guidance they will not learn- and no amount of ‘lecture notes’ will help.

Then there’s that place in the online syllabus where I’m supposed to write my week-by-week lesson plan. Trouble is it’s not as if I do one unit a week, something like “this week we’ll do the perfect tense, next week phrasal verbs”. Tasks and activities extend over a few classes, timing and positioning are flexible depending upon how I see the students’ progressing with a task. I might decide that an extra class or half is needed here or a review is needed there. The ‘one distinct unit per lesson’ approach tends to make students think that they can miss a class, get the ‘notes’, and then jump right back in without missing a beat, whereas in reality, with all the extended tasks and flexible time frames, they can easily become lost. I would hope that my overall classroom goals as stated elsewhere on the syllabus would suffice, rather than giving what would be a stifling and ultimately inaccurate week-by-week rundown.

And about that end of semester test season. The papers you send each semester ask me to fill in a date for my ‘test’. The implication here is that my class culminates in one final test that determines the students’ grades. And moreover, that this test is the final meeting with the students so that the students get no feedback on strengths, weaknesses- probably not even a score unless they are required to take a re-test. These forms further ask whether I will 1) do a test or 2) have the students write a report. Yet, in my online syllabus I have written that evaluation will be based upon a combination of in-class role-plays, in-class tests, other assignments, and effort/participation. Why this 'test OR report' binary straitjacketing?

Yes, this has an effect on students. They are fed this system so much that even though I outline the grading process in my first class, somehow in the back of their minds they are still convinced that the term-ending test determines everything and that if they miss a lot of classes or generally screw up, it will all be made better by writing a ‘report’ or just cramming up for the final. Go figure.

The ‘lecture’ mentality can even affect the actual classroom atmosphere. In purely lecture-styled classes students can come in late, surreptitiously slink into an empty chair at the back of the room and soon get up to speed on note-taking or whatever it is they do at lectures. But not in my English classroom. In the first few minutes I have usually introduced a focus or target for the lesson, maybe held some small interactions on this, have explained and handed out a print which outlines or guides the task, and have made partners or groups. Then Mr. or Ms. Sleepy wanders in late and I’m expected to go over it all again for their benefit so that they can participate. This is the legacy of thinking of every class as a lecture, something that you can just drop in or plug into or out of at any point.

Oh, and I don't really need that little lectern at the front of my classroom.

I simply wish that a questionable pedagogical approach (for EFL at least) would not be manifest in the university's official framework. Can we get past this?

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July 16, 2009

My students' English skills- it's not up to me

*I have edited the title since the original seemed just a little too...acerbic, especially when my blog is being hosted on a website where it might give off an unwelcome image

OK. Before you declare me negligent in my duties, unfit to be entrusted with the nation's youth, or lacking the basic sensibilities expected of a teacher, after reading this blog entry title, hear me out.

Maybe it's the hammer-like humidity of the summer, when the promise that sparkled at the beginning of the academic year has dissipated into the routine, even the banal, by the close of the semester. Maybe it's the fact that I've been suffering from a badly herniated disc and resultant sciatica which has, as of this blog entry, reduced me to a hospital bed with minimal
movement. Maybe it's the jaded culmination of twenty plus years of teaching swelling into cynicism- but many would also call it honesty.

OK. I know some teachers, especially private teachers of children who have developed and mastered their craft who feel honest-to-goodness joy at the growth and success of their young learners. More power to them. I can understand their enthusiasm. The glow on a child's face when you and they both know that a new skill has been mastered, can be heart tugging. It's a little like that moment when your child first gets control of their bike and you feel the tears well up. I'm not immune to, or unaware of, these Kodak moments.

But it's hard to feel that way at a university. First, you have a few hundred students, changing each year- maybe even each semester. It's hard to establish a personal rapport to the extent that you develop some emotional attachment. The students also tend to be more jaded and cynical too. This might be based on age, previous educational experiences, or the large classrooms (those who teach advanced tutorials and/or seminars or act as thesis advisers may
well feel differently). English too may be a required class when their academic interests are really focused elsewhere such that English becomes a class to merely get through. Regardless, personal attachment is more fleeting at the university level.

There's another factor too- one that reflects a personal pedagogical maxim. It's not up to me if the students don't become skilled at English or not. It's up to them. At this age more autonomy and self-motivation should be expected and if the student doesn't hear the clarion call of commitment towards English, then so be it. That's their choice. It's a little like being a counselor. If the counselee shows no interest in improving their own condition there is little or nothing you can do to help. And you can't let other people's priorities consume you as a professional.

Now don't even think for a second that this means I don't care about the quality of my classes, of giving my students the best lessons possible within the structure provided. Every class is well-thought out, meticulously prepared, with all pedagogy carefully groomed for maximum educational impact. I make a big effort in my classes both on the motivational/keep interest axis and the transferable skills/educational content axis. I find it anathema as a teacher to throw out some textbook assignment and have students work away while I skulk at the front of the class, looking at my watch and trying to will the minute hand to lunch time, when I will take a three hour off-campus lunch because I don't have any class after lunch. Not even
close. I am, as the sports cliche goes, giving it 110%. After a class or activity that didn't go well, I am like the hockey player who, after having given up the puck and heading to the bench will bang my stick against the boards and sit with my head down, determined not to make the same mistake again.

Nor, despite the title of this blog entry, does it mean that if and when students come to me for help or advice because they really want to take a step forward in their English abilities that I will be indifferent or standoffish. Far from it. I will feel pleased that they are making a choice or commitment and will do my best to offer advice and help but no, I don't feel excitement at being a part of their 'English adventure'. If they want to take a step forward I will be there for support but, again, I really don't care whether they make that choice in the first place or carry it out because that is ultimately up to them.

Yes, when a student comes to me after taking an advanced test, license or other qualification in English, or uses English to have a positive, mind-expanding experience out there in the world, again I can feel happiness for the success- but it is muted. It is not joy. It is not like the piano teacher who tutors a special talent and becomes so engrossed in the prodigy's successes or failures that they effectively become emotional extensions of their pupils- the kind where Sensei's tears of joy or sorrow are regularly shed.

At a university it is almost impossible to get that emotionally committed or involved with individuals (in fact, in some cases this could actually be dangerous). Here, professionalism usually manifested in creating pedagogically-sound classes, giving learners the best possible basis for, to use a sports cliche yet again, students to take the ball and run with it themselves. I can help set a foundation, but whether they use that foundation to drive down the field for a touchdown, is something I remain, for the most part, detached from.

I bet I'm far from being the only one.

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October 22, 2009

Universities as glorified high schools

University is when students should be expected to take charge of their own education, to become autonomous learners, to be weaned from the dependency and passivity of high school pedagogy. Why then do so many universities in Japan do everything they can to foster the image of a glorified high school?

Take the chimes, for example. Yes, in a university!!! Although I've become somewhat inured to them over the years, I was shocked whern I first heard that kin-kon-kan-kon echoing through the uni corridors. Having students depend upon an automated command to get them into their classrooms on time does not bode well for the development of self-reliance or independence.

Next- look at those timetables. Most students seem to have each koma filled with a scheduled class. Five days a week, 4 koma a day. Little or no time for reflection, absorption or, most importantly, extended reading and research. Universities should be allowing students time to integrate what they've been learning, allowing time for further independent exploration, but no. It's the familiar high school regimen of one lesson after another, encouraging a passivity to content, a tacit reaffirmation of the lecturer-recipient notion of education.

This is also reflected in much university classroom architecture. Sure, unis the world over have some amphitheatre-styled classrooms but, despite their popularity on TV dramas as being somehow representative of standardized university 'atmosphere', in reality one can usually find far more facilities suited for interactive seminars or tutorials. But while Japanese educators seem to be very aware of the utility of seminars and tutorials, the architecture in Japanese unis rarely reflects this. Rooms used for seminars in Japanese unis often not seem designed for such a purpose, in fact they are often makeshift storage-type rooms. Seminar-type classes are often scheduled in rooms with a fixed frontal lecturn and fixed seats, moulded to the floor like prison toilets. Trust me, this is not conducive to seminar or tutorial-style engagement. Once again, it's all so redolent of high school. (Of course, many universities were designed in the late 60's or early 70's when Japanese educational architecture was apparently going through its Stalinist-Brutalist phase).

After their classes, which also foster that junior high schoolish separation of males and females, (sidebar- what is it with this? When I was a uni student I made damned sure that I was always in close proximity to attractive females as a matter of course!), students are behoven to THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THEIR UNIVERSITY EDUCATION- BUKATSU! (clubs). I don't blame them because the timetabling system pushes them into a recess-playtime mentality whenever free time, and the concomitant dangers of possible 'asobi' (shudder), raises its ugly head. But again, where is the disjunction from high school?

Another thing that is likely to make students reminisce about the warm, familiar bosom of high school ed is the odd habit seen in many uni faculties of having the exact same students going from class to class together as a single unit. So much for meeting a wide-variety of peers and exposure to different atmospheres. They can instead function as a unified troop, an alignment
that can be particularly hard on teachers, who might appear as unwelcome outsiders in such closed and secure personal settings.

Now it's not as if Japanese educators and/or administrators are unaware of the greater objectives of university education, the goals of developing the whole person. Many are explicitly opposed to a corporate training-ground mentality and decry the same dubious 'academic' meme that I've described above. So what gives?

One positive move that I have noted is the introduction of many EAP (English for Academic Purposes) type courses for first year students. Instead of a standard rules-based orientation, students are shown how to carry out research, take notes, deal with textbooks and homework assignments in a manner that befits a tertiary instution (or at least prepares them adequately for the rigors ahead).

This is a worthy first step away from the shackles of a high school mentality but there is still a long way to go.

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December 17, 2009

Failing- and failing to fail

One of the more persistent and widespread beliefs about Japanese universities is that all students pass their classes as a matter of course. Students who sleep or don't hand in any work are still given the green light to pass through the system. Apparently, administrative pressure and/or teacher apathy are the root causes. Hmmm.

I say this with some hesitancy because I haven't meant any teachers who actually admit to being in this situation so, while I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't happen, the extent of the behavior might well be overstated- something of an educational urban legend. In this way, it's similar to the widespread NJ notion that Japanese English teachers primarily teach grammar-translation lessons (which I've blogged about previously and with the same caveat that I've not actually met any Japanese teachers who admit to doing so). In short, it seems to be only second-hand 'common knowledge'. Most university teachers I've met have shown an almost defiant willingness to fail the laggards.

Now please realize I'm not talking about high schools here. I have heard regularly from very trustworthy sources that auto-passing is indeed a common practice in high schools. To some extent, this is understandable. If high schools fail students it looks as if they have failed to motivate or educate them properly (putting emphasis here on the phrase 'looks as if'). After all, student stewardship is a big part of a high-school teacher's role. This will therefore look bad on their records and any stats or data used to woo the public for recruiting purposes- which is, of course, a special concern for private high schools in particular. So, in order not to give off the appearance of creating 'failures' high school grades or standards might well be gerrymandered.

But universities? First, universities have almost nothing to gain from automatically passing students. After all, public perceptions of quality is based primarily upon entry standards. The fact that a student may take six years to do four years' work is unlikely to enter any meaningful record that would influence public perception of the institution (and it might even enhance the university's reputation for being tough).

Not only that, but by having students do an extra year or two means more revenue- not a small concern these days. And then there are the professors themselves- they will not in any way cause damage to their standing or reputations by failing students. There is also no 'teacher's room' or all-uni meetings where pressure to pass students (for what purpose I do not know) would be applied. And office administrators do not and cannot lord it over professors on such matters.

Most university professors I've met in Japan (both J and NJ) are in fact quite at home with the idea of failing students who do not meet expectations. It's no skin off their noses (although the big disadvantage may be that the laggards might be back in your class next year). At the university level, it is understood that professors are no longer responsible for motivating these young adults (it's university after all) and therefore generally do not feel that they have been derelict in their duties should a student get a failing grade.

Personally, I have never felt any pressure whatsoever here at Miyazaki University to automatically pass students. In fact, when some dicey pass/fail situations have come into play in the past administrators have been more than supportive of the failing option. I teach part-time at a nearby liberal arts university as well and they too have a similar policy (with the exception of soon-to-graduate students who have already secured jobs).

In the MU faculty of medicine (my home base) we have a year-fail ratio of about 15-20%. By 'year-fail' I mean that students fail three courses within a certain year and thereby have to repeat that year (although they will be obliged only to take the classes they fail and electives). Moreover, in their first two years, if a students fails ANY required course (and Communication English is numbered among these) they will be duly dropped a year (this can be traumatic for many students as they tend to build quite strong bonds with year-mates). Over six years in this medical school about 90% of students will fail some individual class at some time. I fail a few each year myself. I allow that this should be the norm when you are educating future doctors. medicine, of all faculties, should not be a walk-through.

So how do students fail? Well, attendance policies for one thing. More than three non-medical absences means an automatic zero. A total score of under 60% is the other criterion. No one in the administration will question how or why a student got under 60% (the professor's word is all that matters- it is unthinkable that any administrators, aside from the head professor's committee- the Kyouju kai, would interfere in this process).

There is a small catch though- and a good one I think. When preliminary grades are entered into the system, those with a grade of 30-59% must be offered a chance at some type of re-test (in the case of incorrigibly bad students a 29% score will conveniently offer no further re-testing opportunities). On the whole though, re-tests are a good thing. After all, the idea of education is to help the student learn the skill, complete the tasks, master the knowledge and if that means they get their asses in gear a little late- well, at least they will have fulfilled the basic requirements. (Of course if the re-test consists of little more than the pithy 'writing a report' the re-testing system is meanngless)

And here's where testing, content, and methodology come into play. If a student sleeps through all the classes, contributes nothing, and studies nothing, there should be no way that they can achieve the necessary 60%, even with a re-test. This is not so much a moral policy as a logical one. What I mean is that the course should NOT measured only by a singular final test based on discrete knowledge (akin to, in many ways, some entrance exams). Since education (especially that at the tertiary level) should be a process- a process that involves carrying out tasks and the development of specialized skills, students should be graded on the completion of these tasks and skill areas; things that are learned and practiced only in that class and cannot possibly be attained by a last-minute cramming of the textbook.

In other words, a returnee student who does nothing but easily fill in a discrete point English test form at the end of the semtster would end up get a passing 60% for doing nothing. This would indicate that there is something wrong with the class content, methodology and grading policy (pretty much the three strikes as to what constitutes a good class). In my 1st year English Communication classes I can categorically state that it would be impossible for such a student to get 60% because the medical discourse and related skills I teach- and they subsequently practice in process-based tasks- are NOT something they will have encountered in high school or by living/studying abroad.

As for sleeping students, that is a matter of the individual professor's responsibility and/or policy. I keep mine awake because the classes are task-based, not receptive 'lectures'. Pair and groupwork forces them into action. If they did sleep for any length of time, they simply would not know what to do and this would lead to- at the very least- two or three nasty re-tests. The students learn this very quickly (sometimes the hard way) and therefore avoid both lazy absences and sleeping.

Teachers who measure the course with a single year (or semester) ending test will likely not have this luxury. Students will know (from their seniors) that all they have to do is get the basic attendance, study the textbook just before the big exam, and focus on a few points that will be tested (all university students can get hold of old exams). Basically this serves a recipe not only for sloppy students attitudes but is pretty much a blueprint for meaningless education. If teachers prepare tests/grades this way they are basically shooting themselves in the foot. (Again, I don't know of anyone who actually admits to doing this)

But, if passing is incumbent upon actively participating in class-related tasks, learning something new and unique to the particular class, or manifesting a new skill (or best, all three of the above) then students will involve themselves accordingly. Not only that, but professors will feel that this makes their classes meaningful, that they are involved in the process of education, and not merely 'completing a course'.

In which case passing actually means something; and failing is a real option.

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February 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 03, 2010

Putting together a half-decent achievement test

If you work at a JHS, HS, college, senmon gakkko, or university in Japan you have probably just completed several year or semester end achievement tests. After all, you need grades for your students so some kind of evaluation is required. But this is an area in which a lot of mistakes are made, a lot of educational principles violated...

I'd like to think that testing is something I know a little about, an area that I've become at least a little sophisticated with. It was one of my specializations during my MA days as well as one of those areas in which I've kept up the research level, so I'm hoping that a few of the things I mention below might carry some weight above and beyond the 'some guy on the internet' level of credibility.

First point-
Achievement tests are not placement tests nor, usually, are they proficiency tests.
In an achievement test you are evaluating the students' course work. That means the focus of test content must be upon what students have, or were supposed to have, covered in the course. This means that any content that was not dealt with in the course should not be part of the test. It means that the skill emphasis should match the skills that you were trying to teach in your class. Test tasks should resemble those tasks which were practiced during the course. You are not gauging the students' overall English ability or general skill- which would be more representative of a placement or proficiency test- so don't try to. The test should measure a student's ability to meet the specific course goals as set out in the syllabus.

Second point-
If you are an educator the test should have an educational function.
It should have a pedagogical purpose as well as an evaluative function. Students should be learning from their tests. This means that students must know what they did right, what they did wrong and be given a chance to fix it. In other words a good achievement test has a diagnostic function. This has several administrative implications:
1. You must give the test back to the students. It belongs to them.
2. There must be some type of review or feedback for the students.
3. You shouldn't give the test in the final class or else you can't review it.
4. Students should be able to find out what the correct or model answers are.
5. Students who did poorly should be made to do a re-test, or two, until they show that they have learned the material (or skill).
6. Why not have students obtain good or correct answers on those sections where they did poorly by checking with peers? I do a 'test interview' where students ask one another those questions they didn't answer correctly and if the partner knows the proper answer, they can teach (not just 'tell') it to the other student.

Third point-
You can and should diagnose your own teaching effectiveness from the test results.
If students do poorly on the test, or on specific items on the test, it is very likely because either 1) the question, task, or entire test was invalid ( the test didn't actually test what is was supposed to) or unreliable (if a similar test was given to the similar students at a different time and place scores would be very different- meaning that happenstance affected the test results, usually as a result of poor test design).
2) you didn't teach whatever it is that you were testing well enough.
This should be telling you sometyhing. After all, tests test the teacher's effectiveness as well as the students'.

Fourth point-
You need to test more than just recognition (memory) and discrete-item knowledge.
Memory is a limited skill. Not only that but memory is not just recognition (the most passive, receptive aspect of memory) but also recall (contextual understanding), and reproduction (application). If you were teaching a class that was expected to focus on developing productive skills but give a test that measures only memory-recognition you have an invalid test.

Likewise, language is not just a collection of discrete-item knowledge. It is a dynamic system that involves numerous social and pragmatic considerations. So again, if your class was expected to develop student skills in using English within meaningful and/or practical contexts, if you focus mainly (or solely) on discrete-items you will have made an invalid test, since the skills you are supposedly trying to inculcate will have escaped the net of evaluation.

Fifth point-
The test can easily be used as a study and/or review experience
Open-book tests are great. Students can once again review material and find those things that the teacher wants them to understand. Open-book test success also relies more on a general comprehensive understanding of a subject as opposed to memorizing discrete items. Of course, given that the test is open-book we should also expect standards to be high. I have come to notice that students who are well-organized and think actively succeed at these tests while the laggards who weren't paying much attention or making much of an effort all year rarely rise above their 'stations'- at least on the first test. This doesn't always happen on discrete-point knowledge-based TOEIC-type tests.

Providing students with the test tasks or questions or old exams in advance (they'll usually get them from their seniors anyway) can help too. By letting students know what to study for, you focus their energies on those things you really want to inculcate and leave less to random chance, circumstance or wasted/misguided student effort.

Sixth point-
Ongoing evaluation, especially if you are using a variety of evaluative means and measures, is more effective than the traditional 'one final paper exam' format.
Language learning is a process and so the evaluation should be process-based and focus less on the one, final 'this-is-your-official-result' mode of testing. Using a variety of testing methods and means allows students who respond differently to different challenges to strut their stuff. Not all 'good' students are sharp at paper tests and may do much better on a role-play, report, or some type of visual/tactile task. Ideally, using all test types you can get a panoramic view of their all-round skills, and therefore a more accurate reading of their English abilities (assuming that you are trying to educate them in holistic way, that is).

Weighting tests is also important. Putting something like 80% on a final test might not be a good indicator of actual student ability over the entire course of the class. Breaking evaluation up into 20% increments allows for more types of evaluation and widens range of the criteria. It also tends to keep students alert and focused.

Seventh point-
Let students have some say in the test content
Productive, open-ended tasks are to be encouraged as these allow for some self-expression and variety, letting students use the language while actively thinking and engaging it. Most teachers will tell you that in terms of marking, these tasks and problems are easier to grade- and tend to provide a more comprehensive view of actual student abilities. Even better, allow students to make some tests themselves. This will allow for a good review of content and also show the teacher what students have learned (or not), or feel is important (or not). And what a teacher learns from this can be applied to next year's lesson plans.

I allow my students to appeal their test grades too- as long as they do so in English. If they feel that the grade on a 'subjective' test or item was unfair they have the opportunity to explain to me why their score should be higher, a process which demands that they consider both the test result and content but also how they will plead their cases in front of me.

Reader suggestions on testing are more than welcome in the comments section.

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April 05, 2010

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

Two sections today.

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

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

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: How so?

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

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

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

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

Me: Is that a real possibility?

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

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

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

Me: Thanks for your time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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-
guages.

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.

Why?

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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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.

Anyway...at 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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June 17, 2011

Unsolicited advice- a small group project that hits all the right buttons

As most of you know, I tend to use this blog as a vehicle for being an opinionated blowhard. This is, of course, a good thing if you are blogging. After all, reading a blog that contains little or no fist-waving or finger-wagging (e.g. “Last night I ate curry rice. It was delicious. Here’s a photo”) is rarely gripping. And there is no blogger on earth that does not suffer from a degree of blowhardism- Hey, it comes with the territory!
(*the astute reader will notice that this opening paragraph duly constitutes blowhardy opinion).

But today I’d like to take a short departure from the realm of rollicking rhetoric and go over something highly practical instead- Yes, an actual lesson/teaching project suggestion in the uni-files!

Poster sessions work!

Here it is in bold- having small groups of students prepare and conduct poster sessions in English is a good thing. A number of vital pedagogical points emerge naturally from holding poster sessions. The students are being productive and creative. They take responsibility for their work. It is both visual and verbal- various skills are thereby engaged. It involves both cognitive activity (such as background research of the topic) and a prestige form of language- which leads to awareness and reinforcement of good language form(s). It contains rehearsed and practiced as well as dynamic, spontaneous elements. Oh yeah, and it’s fun.


The framework- nuts 'n bolts

Here’s how I administer these sessions:
1) Students have 4 (possibly 5) weeks’ prep from the initial explanation of the sessions to the final ‘performance’. Give them anymore time than that and they’ll inevitably dawdle until the week before, resulting in a cut ‘n paste mad dash at the finish.

2) The first week involves topic choice (more on the impotrtance of this later). The next two weeks will involve peer and teacher checks, and peer and teacher suggestions (for both content and layout). Surface error checks and formatting suggestions will come into play here too.

3) The week before the actual poster session should include a practice session and physical preparation of the posters.

4) At the actual poster session students should be divided into 2 sets-- to act as audience for one session, and as poster hosters for the other (thus, anywhere from 6 to 14 students makes an ideal number). In a 90 minute class that means about 30-40 minutes of postering for each set. You could invite other teachers or students to view these sessions too.

5) The week after the session should involve follow-up, self-reflection, and feedback about poster session strengths and weaknesses. I do it one on one for 7-10 minutes with each student.

6) The actual poster paper should be that wall-sticky ready-made ‘writing sheet’ stuff. The actual slides which form the poster content are best made as oversized (1 slide per page) Powerpoint slides. Magic markers, scissors and scotch tape should make guest appearances too.

Warning! Do not attempt this unless...

Now, here are the ‘chui’ (be careful!) bits. And this is the part you should definitely read closely if you’re interested in doing a poster session:

A clear, narrow topic that you want to talk about

The whole purpose of doing a poster session should be because you really want to inform others on a certain topic and you really want them to be interested or stimulated by it. Without the feeling of personal interest, and a desire to communicate that interest, the session will fall short. This means that careful choice of topic is crucial. Students must choose a topic that is a) of interest to them and expect it to be to others b) narrow and focused enough to be covered in 6 to 12 poster ‘slides’. A poor choice of topic hinders the later development of a meanigful, informative poster.

A lot of students initially choose a topic that is much, much, much (and did I say 'much'?) too wide (e.g., ‘Canada’ 'The Human Body'). Helping students get a handle on exactly what the topic is will be the focus of your first class. Clear and narrow are the keywords here: “A Modern Gomorrah- The Sleaze Bars of Belleville, Ontario”, “An Analysis of the Appalling Performance of the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven”, “How To Riot Like a British Columbian” are the type of things you want.

Topics that are too wide also tend to be shallow (duh!) and predictable. They tend to jump around a number of sub-topics in one ten-slide poster leaving the reader/viewer with no lasting impression.

Research is crucial- so is flow

Students should do at least some backround research and, in doing so, think carefully in advance about poster flow. Is the poster moving in any direction? This will affect the choice of what information to include- to determine relevance and order. The students should ask themselves-, what direction is it flowing towards? And how can I accentuate this flow to make it more gripping for the viewer? A lack of clarity regarding direction and flow leads to herky-jerky posters which tends to create bouts of ‘What’s-yer-point anyway?’ head-scratching on the part of viewers.

Too many students tend to think of research as simply listing a bunch of Wikipedia-type facts. (“Lady Gaga’s early life: Aug. 4th, 1984- Went bowling. Sept. 10th 1984- Borrowed a neighbour's hammer. Aug. 12th 1985- Wore fishnet tights---OK, I admit that last one could be interesting). Students must be encouraged to interpret and personalize the data so that it might become meaningful for the viewer. I do admit having to be harsh, but honest, with some students in this regard: “Ok, Keiko, that’s very nice but why would I be interested in knowing your cat's ten favourite toys?” (keep in mind that I teach university students).

If you too are teaching at a university you will probably want the students to focus upon a certain amount of academic and/or specialized material. For those students who plan to work in academic fields later the whole English poster session process is a very practical learning tool. But the teacher should make sure that such students avoid treating viewers as if they are either Oxford Professor Emeriti in the field or, conversely, as if the viewer is good old Cletus from the trailer park.

Students should also be clear about what they want to tell the viewer directly in the poster text versus that which they want to or have to explain- which will involve both content and English research. They should most certainly prepare the English for those parts they will have to expand on verbally- and yes, a lack of any prepared student distinction between the elements of poster text and verbal expression is a very common weak point.

Connecting with the viewer- the visuals

A poster is primarily a visual medium. Avoiding strict linearity and adding decoration that accentuates content, drawing the viewers’ eyes to all the ‘correct’ places, is essential. The slides don’t all have to be Powerpoint square in shape- students can cut and outline them to suit the theme and format they desire.

They should use a variety of fonts, including a number of different sizes and colours, and add graphics of some sort to most, if not all, slides. Magic markers can decorate the actual poster sheets to indicate direction or to draw attention to certain spots. Writing “Ask me why!” in a caption near a key point (redolent of the Krispy Kreme employees’ badges: “Ask me about our new Maple Frosties!”) is useful. Stark and bold splashes of: “Did you know this?” or “Unbelievable!” can accentuate a poster's key points (just like the subtitles on a Japanese TV game show).

(Cultural generalization warning) Frankly speaking, most Japanese students are excellent at the decorative aspect of posters- with a wonderful sense of balance and scale- but some care must be taken not to overdo these whistles and bells.

Making posters interactive

Good posters should be interactive. Not everything you want to express-- not even half-- should be written on the poster. The text on the poster should hint at the more expository, deeper points- which the poster host can explain in more detail to viewers at the poster session. Therefore, students have to maintain a delicate balance between being too text-heavy (too intricate, hard to read, often boring, making viewers passive) and too text-light (shallow, cosmetic).

To make posters interactive having some sort of Q&A element will involve viewers more fully. Hiding information behind attached cardboard doors for this purpose (the peek-a-boo effect) also works well here. Other tactile features (scratch ‘n sniff?) draw audiences in well too.

Finally, students should know that being a good poster hoster means engaging your viewers actively- using ones social skills. Looking down at your feet or shuffling to the side when visitors come is no more endearing than that customer service guy at Yamada Denki who always seems to find paper work to ‘look at’ when Mr. Gaijin customer looks like he wants some help.

While the students are doing their sessions, I observe and make notes on their hosting performances as well as the actual posters. I will also go up to each host and ask them questions or make the type of comments that a regular viewer would likely do. This all becomes part of the next class’ feedback session.

Trust me- properly handled, poster sessions really work.

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February 23, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Constantly reformulate classroom instructions and questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Confuse denotation and connotation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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