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The Uni-Files - rants Archive

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

January 21, 2009

Regarding Gregory Clark's comment on foreigners teaching in Japanese universities

Gregory Clark, Vice-President of Akita International University, and well-known as a provocateur to the Arudou Debito breed of gadfly, recently penned an article for the Japan Times entitled, “Antiforeigner discrimination a right for Japanese” (it can be found here - note that if this link expires, it has been reproduced on many Japan-based gaijin blogs, just do the obvious Googling). The article has been dissected and (mostly) slammed by the usual sites and suspects. What starts out as a possibly deserved jab at the “Nihon-girai” foreigner cliques and habits soon descends into the very same type of vitriolic over-generalized, simplistic, vilification that Clark accuses those ‘Japan-haters’ of. ‘Nuff said- I don’t want to dwell on this. But since this blog is about university English teaching, there is one aspect of Clark’s spiel that I do want to address.

Clark makes mention of the widespread belief that foreign university instructors are discriminated against in Japan and counters with the rhetorical question: “How many Western universities would employ, even as simple language teachers, foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language?”.

Let’s address this for a second. Is it really true? Is Clark’s point telling? After all, Clark isn’t the only person to have ever made this argument. Some point-by-point responses follow.

1. Although Western countries that have a strong secondary educational base in English (think Norway, Holland, Denmark, Germany etc.) are unlikely to hire native English speakers to teach English at universities, there are certainly university positions open to qualified NS teachers in places like Spain, Portugal as well as other Mediterranean countries, and no shortage of such teachers/positions in Eastern Europe. And of course, most of the developing world in an EFL teacher’s oyster.

2. It’s not really fair to compare proficiency in English at a university in an English-speaking country with Japanese at a uni in Japan. Why? English is the lingua franca of academia. The two languages don’t have reciprocal utility (*note to the overly sensitive or PC reader- this has nothing to do with the relative intrinsic worth or beauty of either language, and it has nothing to do with a myopic, chauvanistic Anglo-Saxon worldview or anything like. It is just a geopolitical fact. Live with it.). Almost anyone, regardless of nation, who has academic expertise or competence will have some facility in English. To be more accurate in the comparison we should compare Japanese to a language like Finnish, Slovenian or Czech, which is functionally limited to the national borders. Now, do all foreign professors working in these countries have competency in those languages? Although I suspect that a Brit working in the Czech Republic or an Aussie researching in Finland would start to pick up and use the local lingo while living there, you can be pretty sure that they wouldn’t have mastered those languages, and wouldn’t have to, before being hired.

3. If one held a strict rule that teachers at a Japanese university must be proficient in Japanese (in all aspects of the language), it pretty much follows that 99.9% of all the university teachers would be Japanese and an even higher percentage (99.999) of non-Japanese, including ohhh Stephen Hawking, would be excluded from consideration. On the other hand, if a university in Canada requests English competency for a certain position, academics from a huge chunk of the rest of the world will still be able to apply confidently. Keep in mind that this is not due to Canadian or native English-speaker largesse, it is simply a linguistic reality.

4. Universities want to invite scholars and instructors who can best help students develop skills. Hence, in Western countries you will find numerous scholars from non-Western countries, several of whom may have limited degrees of English skill, hired because they are good at what they do and can do it better than a local.

5. It is probably true that the less facility an academic has with English, the more he/she must be a scholar of international repute. It is also true that most (but not all) NJ university teachers in Japan did not develop scholarly reputations abroad and were subsequently invited (as you may have suspected, that goes for me too). But as I said above, universities want to invite scholars and/or instructors who can best help students develop necessary skills. If they believe that a qualified NJ might be able to help upgrade university student English skills sufficiently then the most important criterion for hiring a university instructor will have been satisfied.

6. Very few NS English university instructors in Japan are hired to be scholars in the strict sense. They may be expected to conduct research and be involved in professional societies but, generally speaking, they are viewed largely as language instructors first and foremost. Almost everything in their job descriptions, duties and roles at the university will reflect this. Although this may feed the (unfortunate) distinction that we see these days between the view of such instructors as being “on-campus language center employees” (more on this in a soon-to-come blog entry) and being utilized as fully contributing members of the university’s academic society, if we are not invited scholars we should accept this as our de-facto role. However, as an English NS’s academic credibility develops, and his or her Japanese skills increase, the roles and expectations should change accordingly (the operative word being “should”).

The verdict? Clark’s statement was a (conveniently) inaccurate oversimplification. On the other hand, while it would be good for university English teachers in Japan to remind themselves that they don’t have the same status as invited, established academics, their overseers should also view them as having more to offer than temporary Eikaiwa instructors.

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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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April 20, 2009

Contract renewal at the uni; The Ninkisei song and dance

If I had known how it would affect my life 25 years later, maybe I wouldn’t have taken those backpacking trips back in the 80’s. Yeah- after graduation I went through that time-honored rite of passage, the lengthy overseas backpacking trip, first to Europe for about 6 months between my undergrad and grad studies, and then the better part of a year in North Africa and the Middle East while between graduate studies. So, I was learning about the wider world, gaining life skills, growing as a social being, right? You’d think. But when these gaps of non-study and non-employment appear on my CV in Japan they look to my employers like (to quote the waiter in the Monty Python 'dirty fork' sketch) ‘a huge bowl of pus’.

Not only those travel gaps, but also the year I spent volunteering and working sporadically as a counselor in church-cum-community centers, are black holes on my resume. So, why would this period of self-sacrifice for next to nothing in community service not be a bulwark of my personal working history, you ask? It seems that because I wasn’t contracted to any one organization and don’t have some official papers to ‘prove’ this experience I was not really ‘employed’. And travel is, apparently, ‘play’. As far as my employers in Japan are concerned, I might as well have been spending all that time playing Space Invaders in my buddy’s basement. You see, for each year, or even part of a year, that you are unaccounted for work-wise, your salary is reduced, or at least it is so when you work for a National University in Japan or any similar job in which you are designated as a civil servant.

I have a colleague who, after high school, worked as a drummer for several years, doing the get-in-the-van-and-let’s-haul-it-to-the-gig-in-Moncton thing. Again, you’d think this would be a worthy life experience, building up character, learning the ways of the world, but on his CV it amounts to a huge vat of nada.

These things become viscerally apparent every time I fill out a resume here. So why am I filling out a resume now, I who am gainfully employed for the long-term, you might well ask? Well, in fact this month I received the bulky preparation forms for my ninkisei contract renewal.

I’ve explained about the ninkisei system a bit in earlier posts on this blog. It’s the new system under which all National University workers are on contracts, and these contracts can be renewed only after a very detailed listing of what you’ve achieved during the first section of your contract. This is my fifth year on my current contract, and my renewal period is five years so I have to my song and dance now. I has to show dem what I gots.

As I’ve written here before, the purpose of the ninkisei is to make people accountable, to be able to show measurable achievement to warrant your contract extension. The ostensible goal is to rid the system of deadwood, or at least to put deadwood to some use. And in a sense it works- if you know your contract renewal is coming up and if you’ve got little to show for it, you worry- as you should. The process is said to be a slam dunk unless you’ve committed some egregious sin, but unfortunately for me, just filling in the forms takes time and effort away from the very things I’m trying to sell myself on- my in-class pedagogy, my research, my involvements in various organizations and societies- in the first place. (Ironically, being active and responsible is penalized by having to fill in much, much more and to offer proof as well). I also worry that despite all my efforts to impress and be comprehensive, the overseeing committee that performs the review will take only a perfunctory glance at all I’ve done.

This huge stack o’ shiryou (reports) was given to me on the very first day of classes for the new academic year, so just when things are getting busy class-wise, around come these official and very important documents, 17 pages long when it arrives on your desk, but after completion to be about 30+ pages. In order to originally apply for this job I filled in a lengthy stack o’ documents but this one is even larger because now I have to include my working achievements, roles in the workplace, and the like.

(Warning- whining and moaning follows) What I really dislike about doing this is the fact that we have a database at the university (as all universities do) that we’ve spent considerable time filling in comprehensively. Yet, for this renewal, I have to put my personal data, education, working history et al in from scratch. What’s the point of having an accessible online database if the people from personnel make you fill all this out from alpha to omega each time??? Can’t they just put that in themselves from the database and then have you add any changes, additions and amendments??? Isn’t that the whole purpose of a database??? Welcome to a paper-based society, folks.

Another thing- this database also leads to your gaining a ‘score’ or rating, a combined total of your ‘value’. The problem is that some people are very good at manipulating the database to get a high score- knowing where a minor item scores big; knowing that being a largely ‘in-name’ advisor on some dubious and obscure MEXT committee (say, the Standing Sub-committee for Textbook Font Reform) will score five times as much as a solo research paper of note that took you three years to complete (note- end of whining and moaning).

Yes- and of course it is all in Japanese and I have to fill it all in Japanese by the end of April. This of course makes it three times harder for me than for any Japanese employee but hey, that’s a part of the game. I live in Japan, and I work for a Japanese institution, under the same rules as any Japanese. I would not expect a Chinese researcher in Canada to complain about having to list their achievements in English so that their overseers could make judgments about their work for contract extension. But the fact remains that instead of working more on my actual classes, student report, or upcoming research and presentations, I will be focusing inordinately upon this baby.

And it’s not normal Japanese either. The lingo is akin to the kind of pseudo-language you can see on American tax forms. Things like, “List any and all quasi-committee functions, but not roles, unless contained under the rubric of Faculty Development’. Okay, I exaggerate but you get the point. I ask Japanese colleagues to help me decipher this stuff but they can’t understand it either.

Speaking of committee work, you now begin to realize why there are so many meaningless committees in universities- it is largely to pad these types of resumes. Some, like the entrance exam committees, do real productive work. But some meet once year for a literal sleep-in but, hey, if you are on it you can claim this brownie point on forms like the ninkisei renewal. Just getting the names of the committees absolutely correct is no easy feat either. For example, while I may usually refer to it as the ‘Evaluation standards committee’, I have to list it by its proper name which is in fact, the “Committee for the proposal of reform, development and procedure in observation and evaluation standards”. And I have to add to that my role in the committee- well, what was it exactly? “Working group B sub-chief of questionnaire standardization”. I think.

And then there are things that just don’t translate well to a very Japanese format, for example, my ‘honseki’. We don’t have that concept in Canada. I was born in the U.K., moved to Canada at age 1, and grew up in an around Vancouver but I have nothing which proves this, no ‘juminhyou’ or anything like that. Still, I suppose that Vancouver is my ‘honseki’, for what that’s worth.

Listing licenses and qualifications, as we must, can be problematic too. The standard degree titles translate well and fit into the format easily but I also received a certificate in counseling waaay back when living in Vancouver, and you really should list anything. I took several courses and got a piece of paper and I don’t know who it was authorized by because in those days it just didn’t seem to matter. In Japan, licenses have very clear authorities and titles, “National Pachinko Appreciation Licensing Examination- Advanced Level” that sort of thing- but what can I say for my counseling license? “Like, I took some courses and stuff, ‘n got some kind of certificate, from the city of Vancouver- I think”. It just doesn’t fit well.

The same goes for things like publications and presentations. For example, we are expected to write the official themes of the conferences we attend or present at. You guessed it, most of mine were written in English and have to be translated into Japanese but these themes tend to be nebulous titles like, “The notion of practice- feasibility and procedure in the age of post-modern pedagogy”. How the hell do you translate that?

As far as publications go, they seem to be most interested in numbers so, interestingly, your half-page My Share entry in the local English associations’ bi-annual newsletter seems to account for just as much as a cover article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The centrality of the ‘Number of publications’ section is also the reason why medical departments in particular include the name of everyone in the department in their research papers- that way everyone gets listed 10 times a year when in fact only one paper may actually be their baby.

Then there are the intimidating sections where it asks you how many scholarships, awards, grants, and so on you have received. Well, English is not exactly an area in which awards of this type are abundant. What can I say here? “Yes, I got an award for ‘Lifetime Achievements in Information Gap Task Design’ from the Shikoku JALT sub-committee on Task-based learning”. Actually, I could probably list stuff like that and nobody would question it. It’s like those faux internet site awards: “Voted fifth best site on vestry design in Belgium, 2002!”

There’s also a section in which we are to list ‘rewards and punishments’. I think this is amusing. Who would list their punishments when going for a contract renewal? It reminds me of those customs declaration forms at immigration that ask, “Are you bringing any illegal drugs or firearms into the country?” “Oh yeah. I’m in tight with both the Colombian cartel and Al-Qaeda. For got to jot it down. Sorry!”

‘Roles’ in society and the community also makes up a large chunk of this form. Okay, my Daily Yomiuri articles come under this heading and there are plenty of other outside-university activities that I’ve been involved in so I can make this section nice and fat, but a lot of English roles are rather nebulous (there’s that word again) when applied to strict Japanese categories. For example, this very blog is sponsored by an English education organization and it relates to my job as a type of ‘community involvement’ since it is about university life in Japan but how do I categorize my role here? ‘Blogger’ sounds like I’m just playing around with my own personal site for ego enhancement and amusement (come to think of it, that may be more accurate than I’d like to admit) but ‘regular commentator’ doesn’t quite cut it either.

As a result of trying to master this form, I spend an inordinate amount of time not only not doing the things I’m really paid for (the things I’m trying to write about on this God-forsaken form), or even filling in the damn thing, but instead getting prior clarification on the actual meanings of various sections, as well as acceptable formats and protocols from the person responsible over in personnel. Now, you might expect this character to be some greasy old bureaucrat in a cheap polyester blue suit and a bad comb-over, the type who doesn’t make eye contact, smells of cigarette residue and dried squid, and dislikes pesky Gaijin, but in fact the person responsible is a very pleasant and eminently helpful middle-aged woman who takes a lot of time to explain clearly and thoroughly what Mr. Not-so-fluent-in-reading-Kanji is supposed to do. She’s apologetic about the bits that are hard to translate or don’t fit into a Japanese context well, and it feels just wrong to whine and complain when she’s being so very pleasant and helpful.

So I’ll do that on this blog instead. Back to filling in the forms now…

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May 07, 2009

Two rants for the price of reading one blog entry: Global Warming overkill, and positive learning ideas for new university students


My proposed penalties for bringing lessons about “Global Warming” into the EFL classroom

1. For teachers who base an English lesson on Global Warning:
Punishment- Automatic loss of teaching license and other academic credentials

2. For any EFL teacher who claims that, “Japanese students don’t learn about things like global warming in their other classes so we need to tell them about it”:
Punishment- Deportation; with no possibility of re-entry to the country

Why you ask? Is there any topic that has been so done to death as this hackneyed old standard? I mean there are comic book characters now fight global warming! There are daily messages, guidelines, and notices given to the public through every arm of the media on the effects of global warming and steps to take for reducing it. Every second product on TV shills their product's environmental virtues. It seems like half the extracurricular classes at elementary schools focus on the problem of global warming and what we can do about it. Textbooks used in elementary schools have sections on global warming (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it). The issue is even addressed on Japanese cereal boxes, the ultimate arbiter of how cheesy a social issue has become. The global warming problem has become fully ‘establishment’, something passed down from authorities to which young people naturally start to develop a (healthy, in many cases) skepticism towards. My 13 year old son lampoons the whole business with a made-up character called ‘Eco-Santa’. Entrance exam designers at universities have long abandoned the ‘environment’ article as a standard exam text. It became too predictable and is now a boring cliché.
(Those who are not well acquainted with the Japanese language and/or wider Japanese society will often remain cocooned inside stereotypes which maintain that only progressive people, such as enlightened Westerners like themselves, are aware of and concerned about these ‘big issues’ and that Japanese media/society shield Japanese from awareness of these important issues. Uh, yeah- and they all wear topknots too).

So, when Mr. Brown, the teacher from Canada, comes into English class with his lesson on Global Warming to ‘inform’ his Japanese junior high schoolers of this important issue (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it)- it’s time to unleash the EFL police on ‘Mr. Brown from Canada’ and carry out the punishments proposed above.

[An aside- I once used an article in an EFL class which criticized some of the standard proposals on how to reduce our environmental footprint concluding that many of the standard proposed solutions often in fact led to greater energy consumption or other non eco-friendly results. In the workshee that I made to accompany this article I asked students to, among other things, 1) summarize the article in a sentence or two and 2) think of a suitable title. Although none of the environmental topics in the article addressed global warming, and although the tone of the whole piece was a questioning of popular environmental solutions, a large number of students 1) concluded that the article was about (wait for it)... “Global Warming” and 2) in summary, it was telling us that “we should do X to save the planet” (even where the article had explicitly criticized doing X).
Thank you very much for your contributions to mindnumbing social issues “discussion”, Mr. Brown from Canada].

Final note- global warming is a reality, a serious issue and is a multi-faceted, complex problem. But thanks to educational overkill, cloying oversimplification, and a resultant reduction to the lowest common denominator of ‘discussion’ it now has as much social impact as talking about Tsuyoshi Kusanagi’s nekkidness.

Some positive encouragement for students:

In my earlier blog post about the new academic year I listed a number of frustrating classroom habits that I hoped to divest students of as soon as they entered university. Since this focused almost entirely on negative behavior I thought it would be a little more life-affirming if I also listed some positive classroom attitudes and practices that I try to inculcate early on. These include:

1. Making the most of a limited vocabulary and grammatical flexibility. That through negotiation, questioning and rephrasing you can communicate a lot using very little.

(Sidebar 1- Students are hobbled by the expectation or belief that unless they produce perfect English that they simply cannot express themselves and what they’ve tried to express is a completely uncommunicative mess. In fact, that is rarely the case as there are more non-native than native English speakers in the world and these people consistently engage in this type of imperfect language negotiation. And people who argue that specific ways of thinking are indelibly and irrevocably tied to specific languages (they are not! It’s the 21st century folks!) contribute to this sense of impossibility, of exaggerated distance)

2. That you can learn from your partner in any communicative activity. Don’t always depend on the teacher to learn! When your partner uses the ‘perfect’ English word, phrase, response pattern or grammatical form that you would probably not have been able to produce yourself- MAKE A NOTE OF IT SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW for future reference.

(Sidebar 2- many students assume that education is an amalgam of discrete items transmitted from teacher to student. It is disheartening when, after a lesson in which I’ve had students interact on a certain medical issue that involved active thinking and cognitive engagement, helped them to use certain rhetorical patterns to express this content, and helped them arrange all this in an acceptable written format- all in English, that what they remember I ‘taught’ from the lesson was one or two peripheral words that came up in the lesson, almost as an afterthought)

3. Learn from yourself. When you are trying to complete an in-class task or express yourself in English in any circumstance there will probably be times that you can’t recall or reproduce the word, phrase or best means of expressing whatever it is that you want to express. If so, keep your weakness in mind and STUDY OR CHECK IT LATER so that you don’t scrounge for the right expression the next time you need this item. Check the dictionary or a grammar reference. Or ask me, the teacher. Or ask another student.

(Sidebar 3- Students are often passive about their own shortcomings. They’ve made a mistake but tend to think ‘that’s it. It’s over. I can’t correct it now’ as if this communication is a one-time test that has been handed in and will be duly graded and there is nothing they can do about it now. Only the sharper ones realize that these tasks provide practice platforms for skill development and future language usage).


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May 15, 2009

Language Yaritori + 6 Frustrating Student Behaviors

First up today:
Language yaritori (give and take)

I suppose this qualifies as a rant- one directed at those who think that because I am officially in the same position as Japanese instructors at my university, I should do exactly the same work as a Japanese person.

At first it sounds reasonable, right? After all, since my position is not one founded on some kind of citizenship-based discrimination, such as being a designated ‘foreign’ teacher, I should perform the same duties as a Japanese. Equality is equality, right? But there’s a catch. Effort-wise it will take me at least three times as long as any Japanese person to read and/or fill in the various documents and other administrative paraphernelia that comes my way. So doing the same work as a Japanese person will require an unequal amount of effort from me. In effect, by trying to be equal it becomes effectively unequal.

Likewise, those many Japanese, both university faculty and staff, who have to deal with communication in English for whatever reasons (international exchange, business, research, lesson materials etc.) will take far, far longer to carry out those duties in English, than it does for me. It’s not equal. The effort will not be equal- so the actual contents of the job, and resultant expectations regarding language usage and skills, should not be the same.

Now, you might expect that since I’m living in Japan- and have been for almost twenty years- that working in Japanese should be second nature for me. And, as far as verbal communication goes, I’m pretty capable and comfortable. Cultural protocols are also fine with me. But reading, writing, and the capacity for all levels of interaction in the language? Whoa! Wait a second! I was not a Japanese major in university. I did not study Japanese in any way before coming to Japan. My job is not about teaching in Japanese- I am expected to teach in English. I have no natural or professional training preparing me for a fully 'Japanese role' and nor was I expected to have any when I was hired. I wasn’t hired as an administrator. It is natural that I can’t read, write or process Japanese (especially given the highly bureaucratic, academic, and dense Japanese used in administrative and managerial contexts) in the same way a Japanese person can. There was no Japanese anywhere in my life or surrounding environment until age 30- which can't be said for any Japanese person regarding English. So cut me some slack.

I cut Japanese colleagues slack as far as English goes. I COULD say that since Mr. X is an English professor he should be competent enough in English to require no help with developing educational materials, and that his English research should need no checking or revision, and that I would not be needed when there is some communication breakdown between him/her and folks abroad. After all, Mr. X was an English major, and that means- unlike myself- he has had concentrated study- direct, intensive training- in that ‘other’ language, and was actually hired to teach that subject as a qualified expert, a professional. None of this can be claimed regarding me and Japanese. But, hey, the reality is that they are not native English speakers and as such, and being separated from the English-speaking world on a day-to-day basis, I don’t expect native-level performance from them. So, I cut them some slack and help them with English where and when that help is needed. Even though THEIR job descriptions (and this goes for people in international affairs sections and related roles too) might assume that they should be completely functional in English, the reality is otherwise. And that’s fair enough- it’s just good common sense

So, that same principal that should be applied to me and the Japanese language. If people really expect me to operate at the same level of a Japanese person, logically, I would need at least a couple of years’ sabbatical from my regular work to fully concentrate on Kanji study. But it’s not going to happen. Just like in order to be absolutely and fully functional in English, all English-faculty and international affairs-related Japanese staff should regularly spend extensive and intensive time in English-speaking areas. But it's very hard to do so. Instead, we should give and take on the language issue and help each other out, regardless of our job descriptions.

So, on a committee where an English native-speaker’s touch is essential I would be happy to take a leading role. And on a committee which deals largely in Japanese esoterica, I will sit in the background more passively. When I am asked by some administrator to produce a lengthy Japanese report regarding my research trip, I will do the bare bones but I expect a Japanese person to help polish it, even though technically I am in an –ahem- ‘Japanese position’ and required to carry out this duty. But, when a Japanese professor of English has to write a research paper, or the Kokusai Koryuu (international exchange) chief has to make up an English document, they will come to me for more precise wording and an overall check, even though it technically falls under their own job descriptions.

It’s just common sense. It’s give and take and it’s best for all involved. Tell me that I should do exactly what a Japanese does, sink or swim, because of my ‘Japanese’ position and then I should duly refuse all those requests for helping Japanese faculty and staff with English because, hey, "that’s not what ‘Japanese’ do". Cut me some slack with the expectations about using Japanese and I’ll be happy to be a resource for aid in English. This sword cuts both ways.

Second up today-
Frustrating student behaviors part...?

1. The “Eh?” hiccup virus-
The students are in groups doing a communicative English task that involves some kind of question and response. Student A says something that student B doesn’t quite catch. Student B looks a bit panicky and says “Eh?”. To which student A replies, “Eh?”. After which student B turns to student C, next to him/herself, and says “Eh?”.
As if it is forbidden to say, “Sorry. I didn’t understand”.

2. The whiteboard trumps all part 1
You’ve got students focused on a task, in pairs, deeply involved. So you make a few notes on the board, maybe instructions for the next activity, maybe a language note to be explained later, hey- it could be your planned lunch menu, whatever. Suddenly, when you stop writing, you notice that all the students are looking at what you’ve written on the board and are either copying it down or are scratching their heads trying to fit it into the task they’re supposed to be doing.

3. The whiteboard trumps all part 2
You start off with a topic-based free talk in English. On the board you’ve written- “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened? Tell your partner about it”. You tell your own story for a few minutes as a sample, make partners and then tell students to go ahead and free talk. And then you hear one student turn to his/her partner saying: “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened?

4. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 1
You tell students that a certain English word does not always mean X, that in this case it actually means something rather different. For example, that Japanese “byoki” is not always “disease”, that “your condition” is often a better way to talk to a patient. So some student looks in his/her dictionary and tells you, “No. The dictionary says that ‘byoki’ equals ‘disease’”.

5. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 2
A new word or phrase comes up in class, let’s say it’s “preventative measures”. You explain the phrase, saying “things you do to prevent, or stop something from happening”. You give an example like, “It’s what Japanese officials are doing at airports to contain the H1N1 virus- checking all passengers from North America before they are allowed to leave”. You note for them the very revealing context in which the phrase arose in the class in the first place.
And after all this explaining, students just open their dictionaries and jot down the matching Japanese headword anyway.

6. The devil-word-you-know trumps the newbie
A student uses an inappropriate word while doing a speaking task, for example, “The virus is not so strong”. As a teacher you suggest “mild”. The student writes it down, thanks you and, as you walk away, you hear them say, “Because it’s a not so strong virus”.

Any others?

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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 30, 2009

The So-Called Off-Season or No, I am not eating a banana pancake in Kuta as I write this

The other day one of my genkier students popped by my office to chat and check up on my condition (see the previous blog entry). Her opening line was, "Oh! You're here! I thought you would be probably be away on your summer holidays". This was 4 days after the last regular class had finished.

Why do so many people- even colleagues- assume I'm on my 'summer holiday' as soon as the last class is completed?

OK- I can forgive the parents in the neighborhood who, having their kids at home, assume that Sensei is equally free to frolic as he/she pleases. But students and colleagues? C'mon!

Here's the deal, folks. I work at a national university so I am considered a civil servant and civil servants don't get 'summer holidays'. Yes, we are officially allowed to take 20 workdays off over the course of a year. We are rarely able to take them.

True, we are also given three extra summer work days off. (We can choose which days but interestingly, the majority of my Japanese colleagues take the three days that correspond to O-bon, which is one of the worst times to travel of course, but with extended family obligations and celebrations...
As for me, I tend to use the days in mid-September when prices and crowds drop)

The reality is that actual classes take up very little of my total time and effort, and again, I know this is true for many teachers out there. But for those who think I'm getting a full body massage in Goa as I write this here's what we do during the so-called university off-season:

1. Tests and re-tests (automatic passes at university? Hah!)

2. Grading (including lengthy essays) and entering the marks followed by a disgruntled student who comes by and wants to know exactly how you calibrated his final score of 64.

3. Meeting one-on-one with students whose assignments need further work- and rarely those students you really want to meet

4. Committees- things like the bi-annual meeting of the Committee to Statistically Re-Confirm the Auxiliary Status of General Committee Contingency Planning. I have several of these babies. And we are required to produce sub-committee reports

5. The bulk of entrance exam content enters the mold at this time. Native English speakers are inevitably involved in this

6. Summer course and special classes have to be taught- I have to teach a concentrated course (15 sessions in 4 days) in Comparative Culture and English Education at Kumamoto U. next week. I have a similarly concentrated English for Medical Purposes 5th year course to teach at the end of August. Both demand a fair bit of preparation

7. Fall is conference season. The proposals have already been put in but summer is the time to work on the presentations, power point slides, and accompanying papers

8. This is one of the few times during the year in which you can concentrate on doing, writing, or editing research. Considering a university teacher may be expected to produce three or four items per year, this can take up an undue amount of time and effort

9. Lengthy write-ups for kaken-hi research grants

10. This is the time of year that doctors and medical researchers come to my office and ask me to check their English. This holds true for many office workers producing English documents too

11. A large national conference on Medical Education is to be held in Miyazaki in early September and I have to give a report and presentation on our English education system. This involves a fair bit of advance co-ordination since we are serving as quasi-hosts

12. Yeah- that thing I forgot

So, no, I'm not back in Canada for a full two months. At best if I decide to visit the family in Canada I could grab about a week or so before work obligations would come a knockin'. And no, I'm not backpacking around the beaches Thailand while I blog.

So, now you- dear reader- know the score, and no doubt many of you are in a similar boat. But why oh why would many of my colleagues also assume that I'm off sipping Pina Coladas in the South Seas? 'Because that's what we've heard foreigners do on their summer vacations'? Why would they assume that I don't have committee work (like them), don't apply for grants (like them), don't research and publish it (ditto), don't have to teach or serve at special courses and events...keep on going...

The popular notion that the native English teacher must be hitting the bars of Siem Reap as soon as the final class bell rings troubles me. Can you see the light on in my office every morning from 8:30? Well, that's me!

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August 19, 2009

Why I Don't Get Statistics

I don’t get statistics.

OK, let me qualify that a little. I don’t get statistics the way they are used in a lot of EFL/ESL research. It’s true that I am not a stat boffin, although I was one of those kids who would memorize things like the projected 162-game pinch hitting averages for entire major league baseball teams. This, of course, might be considered to be more ‘numerical data memorization’ than statistics per se. Nonetheless, I have a basic non-academic understanding of stats and can appreciate when they are used to make interesting predictions about the natural sciences or explain social trends. Trust me, it's not jealousy at work here.

Now I know there are people out there who are very passionate indeed about statistics. In fact, many such people like to view anything and everything statistically, even the spouses' mood swings. And the fact that you would definitely not want to invite these people over for a pool party is totally beside the point.

What is thoroughly connected to the point though is the trend of many EFL/ESL journals to try and make themselves look more academically ‘rigorous’ by featuring several charts and tables featuring what I can only regard as stat porn. Now this isn’t my own blog site so I will not name the more egregious offenders and I will guess that you, dear reader, can easily find examples of what I’m talking about.

And what I’m talking about is:

1. Cases where the stat tables and related discussion actually serve to obscure a worthy point:
A statistical table should serve to illustrate the point you are making more viscerally, not obscure it. If you have reliably discerned that “discrete item grammar point test preparation has little or no influence on university entrance exam performance” then for crying out loud, say it! Don’t hide it in some statistical quagmire that would take Mossad codebreakers to unravel.

2. Cases where an elaborate statistical analysis ends up stating only a completely mundane point:
So, you’ve ‘proven’ that ‘students who have extended study abroad experience tend to be more familiar with English colloquialisms”. And you believe that this is something that can be seen as a result of your intricate statistical analysis. Hmmm.

3. Cases where that which is actually not mathematically complex is dolled up in sexy, saucy stats to make it seem intricate and deep:
OK. You asked 15 of your students if they felt that pre-activity vocabulary lists helped them more than deep-ending or post-activity highlighting. 10 said yes, 5 said no. There it is. t-values, standard deviations, chi-squares and the like mean virtually nothing here.

4. Cases where the numbers involved are so narrowly differentiated that they cease to mean anything:
So, the mean of sample A is .004572. The mean of sample B is .004578 and so on down through sample F, which has a mean of .004569. What the hell does all that mean? Is this a significant difference? I don’t know because when I look at numbers like these I might as well be looking at Thai or Arabic script.

And this is to say nothing (Ok- obviously I am saying something) of the fact that many stat-based research papers in EFL/ESL are based upon surveys and/or highly subjective calculations of nebulous phenomena.

With surveys, your output is only as good as your input (duh!). Are the questions valid and reliable or vague and loaded? Are sufficient options given? Are the questions comprehensive- in relation to the hypothesis being tested? Are the subjects taking the survey seriously? Is the sample sufficient and representative? Are they being guided into certain responses? Are there other affective factors which would invalidate their responses? I have seen many studies involving elaborate and detailed statistical analysis in which the surveys that provided the input were poorly designed and quite obviously contained faulty and biased assumptions. Some were clearly designed to prove the hypothesis the researchers already believed in NO MATTER WHAT!

However, the writers or editors seem have been dazzled by the glossy statistical display and have overlooked more tactile shortcomings. This can be doubly vexing when the writer (or subsequent citations) take the view that the sophisticated stats ‘proved’ their point- as though the stats actually created the phenomena. I should also add that some of the most dubious research papers that I’ve come across have displayed low Margins of Error. Well, yes, that's because statistical Margins of Error ironically often fail to notice blatant, ummm, errors.

By ‘highly subjective calculations of nebulous phenomena’ I am referring to those types of studies where emotional reactions to input are classified and then, artificially gauged or otherwise numerated. For example, you are comparing Japanese responses to FTA’s (face-threatening acts) to British. And you are doing this by observing the responses of each subject in a clinically designed FTA scenario. You have classified no reaction as a 0, a slight visible reaction as 1, and so on all the way up to major confrontation as 5. First, you should recognize are only measuring your own subjective skills of observation and interpretation and that representing this wholly subjective enterprise via a number does not lend it instant objectivity. And we might also ask if the 1-5 scale is an accurate measure of the alleged categorical differences? Or is this akin to some Pinball games giving you scores in increments of millions while another pinball game tends to calculate scores only in increments of thousands (thus leading the average 15 year old in 1975 to deem the former game to be the ‘better’ one).

The most obvious example that I can think of is Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions (the link sends you to a site which offers a quick scan of the theory. The man’s own website is This research is supposedly to aid us in understanding cultural proclivities (although oddly Hofstede seems to associate one country with one culture). I urge readers to take a look at the categorizations and subsequent valuations made and ask if they cannot immediately intuit that there is something very wrong going on here- not the least of which was asking people in each of the target countries to characterize themselves (the old ‘emic perspective must be true’ motif).

Yet of course because these ‘conclusions’ are ultimately manifested in statistical form it has a greater ‘truth’ impact upon many readers. After all, the MAN HAS CRUNCHED NUMBERS! AND NUMBERS DON’T LIE!

Personally, I tend to very old school, meat and potatoes, in my approach to surveys and the like. I certainly try to avoid the hubris that my numbers ‘prove’ anything and at best might say that they ‘suggest’ or ‘bring into question’ X, which is often about as far as you can go in a lot of EFL/ESL research. Anyway (shameless self-plug warning), I recently published the results of a survey suggesting some reasons why those Japanese who are excellent at English managed to outdistanced their peers, on the online ETJ Journal. I think it’s easy to read and understand, if not definitive. Take a look.

Most of all it does NOT contain any stat porn.

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August 31, 2009

Handy-Dandy Guide to Sloppy Cross-Cultural Research

If you’ve read many of my pieces in the Daily Yomiuri or have come across some of my articles in The Language Teacher, ETJ Journal, or JALT Journal you may be aware that culture in ELT is something that I get particularly stoked about.

Not because I’m passionate about 'learning about different cultures' or 'experiencing the rich cultural mosaic of the world’s languages' or anything like that (although I like to think that I’m a seasoned traveler and a bit of a human geography boffin), but mainly because most of the research is so blatantly poor and basically serves as a foundation for, or reinforcement of, prejudices. It also, if you ask me, fosters a sense of psychological distance from others, promotes simplistic binary logic, creates false dilemmas, and serves as a platform for stereotyping, xenophobia, and exclusionary thinking.

That so much of this 'research' is accepted as fact in pseudo-academia and is subsequently regurgitated by teachers and other ‘authorities’ it is no surprise that it has taken root among both the gemeinschaft and the zeitgeist (not to mention the meme) of the general public. And no, I’m not just talking about Japan so please don’t think of this as some kind of Debito-lite harangue. I am, however, talking about the kind of mentality as expressed in this type of TV presentation (lifted from the Japan Probe site), likenesses of which can be found worldwide (note that this example came from South Korea).

Anyway, without further adieu, here’s a template for carrying out your own legitimate sounding but nonetheless sloppy cross-cultural research:

Let's start with a sample social experiment-
At the bottom of a series of steps (such as the entrance to a museum or large public building) in two locales place a prominent sign that instructs all those walking up or down the steps to take two steps at a time. No reason or further instruction is to be given.

Observe people responding to the stimulus in one such place marked representatively as THE EAST (let’s say Seoul) and one representing THE WEST (let’s use London). Assume that whatever happens in Seoul must be essentially ‘Eastern’ and that which occurs in London must be quintessentially ‘Western’. (Also pretend also that Easterners and Westerners are simple monolithic categories- it makes the research that much easier)

Note how many people followed the two-step instruction (or not) in both locales. The results will be different. Don’t mention that results would also be different even if the test was being conducted in two different locales in the same city, even in the same neighborhood. This is crucial because the study can then legitimately be called a CULTURAL difference!

Now the key point: It doesn’t matter which locale had more people follow the instructions or not because what’s really important is to confirm your existing prejudice about Eastern or Western people. It’s great! You can ‘prove’ your tautologies and convenient a priori reasoning can be achieved regardless of which group followed the instructions! How convenient! Let’s see how this works next in our all-important analysis section!

All important analysis section:
OK. Let’s imagine that in Seoul 120 out of 200 people followed the two-step at a time instruction whereas in London 105 did so. (Don’t mention that the notion of Westerner might be very foggy and imprecise in highly multi-cultural London because that might compromise any pre-conceived conclusions). Now we can do the all-important racial stereotyping… oops I mean cultural analysis. To wit: “This result shows that Eastern people place a great emphasis on social harmony as evidenced by their willingness to follow a rule believing that it was for the social good. Westerners on the other hand do what they think is best for them personally without regards to social harmony or society at large.” Pretend that the above is not making a judgment about which is better but is just a matter of stating ‘cultural differences’.

That’s a pretty pleasant way of describing the alleged Eastern mentality isn’t it? And conversely, rather hard upon the selfish, narcissistic Westerner. OK, I can imagine that some Asia fans might want to stop right there. Case closed. But hey, if you feel uncomfortable with Asians and their 'deviously inscrutable ways' and weird cuisines, you might want to alter this analysis to something less sanguine for the East. So let’s ‘analyze’ the very same results again: “This result shows that Easterners are cowed by any apparent authority and have little ability to think for themselves. Westerners on the other hand, think more deeply about the justification, necessity and other complex philosophical concepts”. Pretend that this analysis too is not being judgmental but merely explicating ‘objective’ and ‘visceral’ cultural differences. Repeat either of the above analysis to school children with the added belief that this will help them to ‘understand and appreciate other cultures’ better. Do your best to stifle the mocking laughter that should be rattling your conscience at this point.

But we can go even further! Let’s imagine the results were exactly the opposite of what we said above, with London having the more ‘compliant’ populace. Then, if we are partial to the West we can say: “This shows the sense of public duty and obedience to the rule of law found in Western institutions” whereas if you are one who feels threatened by the ‘resurgent, ascendant East’ you can add: “...whereas Easterners display little regard for laws, social propriety, or public duty”. Sounds like something out of 19th century British travelogue, doesn’t it?

And the Uncle Tom/’apologist’ Asiaphile or cloistered Japanese/Chinese/Korean nationalist can play the same game too- only with the qualitative analysis reversed: “This result shows the Western fetish for iron-clad rules and bureaucratic minutiae as opposed the warmer and fuzzier logic of Eastern people where sensibility is determined by an awareness of surrounding environment and circumstances”. Feel free to add something about harsh, stark desert cultures vs. fecund harmonious agricultural societies here. This will help children learn that agriculture never existed in Europe due to the harsh desert climates of Ireland, Norway, and the like. Add that it will also likely lead to major cultural clashes when sorting out garbage in Japan.

Garnish all of the above with a few university eggheads to lend it the tang of academic credibility then serve it up to the general public for consumption. Do the same thing with some alleged feature of two languages under the banner of ELT research. Inject this type of thinking into government ministries and boards of education.

Hey- it’s all about generating cross-cultural understanding, right?

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September 09, 2009

Emulating our heroes- and 'Mr. James'

Way off (the usual university English teaching) topic today.

I don’t get the hate for McDonald's Mr. James.

OK- I’ll admit that there’s one place in which I agree with the naysayers. Representing every and any Japanese syllable that comes out of a foreigner's mouth in katakana, as though a foreigner's Japanese- whatever the level of competency- can’t possibly be “real” Japanese is annoying and frankly, tired. (Not to mention that some of Mr. James’ vocabulary is not the kind that a Gaijin familiar only with katakana- as though hiragana would be beyond him- would be likely to use. "Tamaran!” anyone?)

(Late edit- It seems that Mr. James has in fact graduated to hiragana. Good.)

But the rest of the protest escapes me. Somehow Mr. James is supposed to ‘represent us’. I suppose this is because he is a white man in Japan (I’m sure some readers of this blog are not white but I’m pretty sure you see where I’m going with this). Funny though- I have never thought of Mr. James as representing me- and I am also a middle-aged white guy who wears glasses and has increasingly poor metabolism (albeit with a much better haircut than Mr. James- and matching clothes!).

In fact, when I see a white male character in Japan I never think that he somehow is supposed to represent me. Sorry, but I don’t think in those terms (and I'm pretty sure most Japanese don't either). Perhaps I’m insensitive to the vagaries of the pernicious Japanese media but I certainly don’t feel that those famous Gaijin actors and athletes who appear in Japanese ad campaigns are meant to represent me. Neither do those strapping handsome young Gaijin models who grace the TV or the papers. So why Mr. James, (apparently a visitor) should be viewed as representing white male residents of Japan is beyond me. There certainly may be some NJs who resemble Mr. James in style and manner but not yours truly (checks mirror again to confirm). In short, if you think Mr. James is supposed to represent you, you’d better check how high you wear your chinos.

However, according to the naysayers Mr. James is ‘a stereotype’ of a Gaijin. Now, the word ‘stereotype’ implies that the character represents a widely held, but possibly harmful and erroneous, view. But are white Gaijin in Japan really widely viewed as awkward but lovable, harmless buffoons? A look at the history of the comments posted by many James-haters indicates that Gaijin are more widely stereotyped as ‘dangerous criminal types’. Now you can’t have it both ways- either we are viewed, and subsequently stereotyped, as dangerous rogues OR as lovable harmless buffoons, but not both. Maybe anytime a Gaijin appears in a Japanese ad campaign he/she will be viewed by such people as a ‘stereotype’ who is supposed to ‘represent’ us- in which case any type of character ascribed to them is set up to fall short of the everyman ideal.

Anyway, what I find particularly disturbing about the naysayers’ logic is the binary us vs. them racial uber-consciousness that underpins it all. The naysayers associate themselves with James solely on the basis of having the same skin color (and, presumably, not because they wear ties with polo shirts or wear their chinos pulled up around their midriffs). James is white, I am white. Being ‘white like me’ is apparently the crucial factor (blinded by the white, we might say). So, the way THE JAPANESE (cue standard minor-chord ‘oriental’ musical motif here) have portrayed him must represent how THEY view US. Racial politics lurk behind every sofa cushion.

But it doesn’t stop there. In supposing that Mr. James represents what ‘the Japanese’ think of Gaijin (note how a singular monolithic view gets ascribed to the entire nation) or that Mr. James will influence or reinforce ‘the Japanese perception of gaijin’ (as if ‘The Japanese’ are so throughly naïve and gullible, and have no other experiences of viewing a foreigner) the naysayers unwittingly reinforce the very us vs. them racial dichotomizing they pretend to oppose- with no shortage of stereotyping applied to ‘The Japanese’ in the process.

There are other criticisms. Let’s check them out one by one.

1. Mr. James speaks awkward, broken Japanese whereas in reality some NJs speak Japanese extremely well.

True, but most NJs, certainly short-time visitors like Mr. James, don’t. This is an indisputable fact, not a slap in the face of those of us who have made the effort to become competent and would like to have our efforts recognized. Given that James is supposed to be a tourist with a limited amount of experience in Japan, his awkward Japanese would seem to be par for the course. So, if McDonald’s were to use a fluent NJ as their mascot it could be argued that this does not accurately represent Gaijin in Japan either. That some long-time residents, naturalized citizens et al might speak Japanese very well is beside the point. Mr. James is simply not meant to be one of those people. And hey, it’s not as if Japanese people are not aware that foreigners have varying levels of competency in Japanese (unless one wants to stereotype alleged ‘Japanese beliefs’ once again).

2. Using a first name with ‘Mr.’ is disrespectful.

When people say things like this it seems to me that they are hoping to be disrespected, that they are actively seeking out disrespect because that would justify their righteous indignation. Being disrespected can be strangely empowering. But in fact the analysis (if one wants to call it that) here is wrong. When one does not use explicitly respectful language in Japanese it doesn’t necessarily imply disrespect. It usually implies familiarity, a sense of lightness or playfulness. Surely Mr. James falls into this category. He’s a McDonald’s shill for crying out loud, not a visiting Cambridge Fellow!

3. The character is reminiscent of Steppin Fetchit, the buffoonish generic ‘Negro’, or Mr. Moto, racial mockeries from the past that virtually no one in North America would endorse now.

But wait a second. The Fetchit characters were nothing but buffoons, they had no deeper identity, not even the slightest pretense of being anyone except an anonymous ‘negro’. Popularized during a time in which many believed that black people were little more than buffoonish golliwogs at best this was unquestionably a negative stereotype. Moto too represented nothing but the collected oddball characteristics ascribed to Asians in general, and Japanese in particular. But Mr. James is presented as an individual. The blog he ‘writes’ gives him a history, a family, a personality, a home (Ohio). He is hardly the generic white man. He may be a lovable buffoon (he loves Japan with an unbridled giddiness- which I sense may be the real catalyst behind some of the critical commentary) but at least he is given a personality. He was never meant to embody some generic Japanese notion of Gaijinhood en masse.

People like to emulate their heroes. And are there any who are more universally accepted as heroes than the likes of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King? These heroes overcame oppression and discrimination, fighting their way up from the bottom of their respective societies to eventual dignified places of honor. So, to be like these heroes one has to paint themselves as oppressed victims. They have to see themselves as marginalized, as underclass victims. But why would anyone deliberately take this route- particularly white Westerners who made the choice to come and work in Japan, and not out of economic hardship? Why would such people actively, even proudly, proclaim themselves to be members of the lowest strata of Japanese society (ignoring the illegal workers, homeless, burakumin, etc.) in order to try and legitimize their claim that they lack rights and representation. Well, for one thing you can try to score pity points this way. Hey- some chicks might really dig it! But more poignantly, in some pathetic way they may feel that they are emulating their heroes!

This also means that you start seeing everything in representational terms- us vs. them, Gaijin vs. Japanese. It means that you start looking for reasons for being offended, that every perceived slight is based on the default premise of your being a visible minority, allowing you to forget that being offended is a choice, and need not imply an actual offense. But, if you are trying too hard to be oppressed to justify your sense of offense isn’t that disrespectful to those who really have been on the skinny end of the justices carrot throughout history? Sometimes, trying to emulate your heroes can actually be insulting to them.

Isn’t claiming victimhood by proxy, or by actively seeking it out, and then ‘finding’ it in representations of ‘your people’, an affront to those who are truly victims? And what about crying wolf? When some poor NJ is the obvious victim of discrimination and the naysayers take up his or her case, don’t you think someone might look at their previous record of actively seeking out victimization? “Oh, aren’t you the people who protested vehemently against a McDonald’s ad campaign character? You guys say this stuff as a matter of course, right?”

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October 13, 2009

(1) Japanese English teacher stereotypes and (2) boring academic journal writing

1. What REALLY goes on in Japanese English teachers' classrooms?

Someone should do some fact-checking on whether Japanese English teachers really do teach largely grammar-translation classes, as per the popular NJ stereotype.

I ask this because I'm not so sure that we should believe the worst without reason. I sense that NJ teachers often spout the 'J teacher's teach grammar-transalation' line uncritically to uphold the rather smug (and often unfounded) belief that "we NJs" (apologies to Japanese readers but I think you know what I mean here) are invariably progressive teachers who have exciting, meaningful, and dynamic classes. On the other hand, the J teachers supposedly read the textbook and translate the English texts into grammar, putting everyone to sleep, and actually hindering the students' English ability in the process.

The truth is that I have never actually met a Japanese teacher who admits to teaching with a GT methodology. The vast majority that I've met certainly seem up to date in educational theory and practice and use what I would say, as a veteran teacher, are productive, progressive methods in the classroom. Of course, I tend to meet such teachers at conferences and training centers, so it is quite possible that the teachers who make the effort to come to conferences or training centers might be precisely the kind who tend to carry out more productive teaching methodologies in the first place.

But I've also watched several JHS sankanbi lessons (parent visitation days) and am familiar with some JHS and HS textbooks, none of which seem to focus nearly as much on discrete items or grammar or translation as most think.

Interestingly though, many J teachers I've met claim that while they don't personally teach that kind of content or use that kind of methodology, they believe that most others do. But if everyone is believing that it is only true of "others"...

Now, here's where it gets weird: If I ask my university students what kind of English they studied in high school with their J English teachers, almost all of them will say something along the lines of "discrete-item grammar translation". Fine. Except that many of them went to high schools where I know with certainty that old-fashioned methods are not used, and in some cases I even know the individual teachers involved- generally very progressive, inventive types.

So, I can't help but think that most students are not a reliable source on this. They BELIEVE their teachers taught them GT-styled 'preparation for uni entrance exams' English because they believe that's what is supposed to happen in a J English teacher's high school classroom. Pre-conceived notions are automatically fulfilled.

To wit- recently I asked several of my students what they were studying in my J colleagues' English classes. Now I happen to know that he is focusing upon discourse-based writing skills and developing their abilities in academic writing. Nevertheless, the students said that he taught them "grammar". There you go.

But of course the same type of uncritical prejudice may be applied to myself, as an NJ teacher. You see students are convinced, no matter what I actually do try to inculcate in my classes, that what I have REALLY taught them are "some new native-speaker words".
(I happen to know this because one program requires that students write up session reports after each class and I have to help fix them up, hence I see what they wrote regarding my own classes). So, even if I was actually teaching how to put medical data into a format in which doctors confirm or add data in collaboration with other doctors with a focus upon pathology, many students will remember primarily that I taught them: 1. "that the Japanese 'KY' can be expressed as 'X just doesn't get it' in English", because that item happened, by chance, to come up in that session, and 2) that I 'taught' them the words 'cirrhosis' and 'intubation'', although these were simply accidental items included among the data for carrying out the speaking task.

This reverse prejudice also seems to appear in many J teachers' and students' views of what NJ teachers are supposed to be doing in their high school classrooms. The stereotype here is that NJ teachers 'play games' and teach 'daily conversation'-. You know, Hello! How are you? English, regardless of what the NJs actually do (not that some don't just play games and teach 'Daily Conversation'). The unwarranted (and often self-serving) stereotypes cut both ways.

Anyway, it seems like refreshing, air clearing new research is in order to confirm or refute these stereotypes.

2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:

So, I've called for confirming research above but I do so with some trepidation.

I've written here and there on this topic before, but the reason why I feel uncomfortable with (many) academic ELT journals became clear to me while forcing myself through yet another such article (related to an upcoming presentation) the other day. Here's what I realized:

Articles in which there is too much quoting or too many references is BAD WRITING! It breaks the flow. It becomes, alternately, dense and jarring. It's thematically restrictive. It is rhetorical overkill. And most of all, it's boring. Having 80% of an article consisting of summarizing what previous researchers have said (and believe me they've said some quite contradictory things in our pseudo-scientific field) is simply a case of arguing that "somebody else said this so it must be true". Why write about what other people have said? It reeks of academic insecurity.

Yeah, yeah I know. It is expected that academics show that they have read the research, that they know the intellectual playing field, that they've done their homework. But why the apparent need to fill two-thirds of an article with this stuff?

Here's what I think. Many editors think they are dealing with papers from grad students- because that's what they actually do at their home universities. You know the situation- a thesis has to make clear what seminal works in the field the graduation candidate has read. So the candidate has to go out of his/her way to prove that they have read all the right stuff by dropping all the 'right' research names and dates all over the essay, like sparrow poop.

But we are not grad students anymore. Nor are the people who might read these journals reading them in order to grade or correct. So why demand (at least implicitly) that scholars write like grad students trying desperately to impress their thesis advisors? This has gotta change...

Editors work hard and perform a thankless service. But certain priorities and beliefs about academic and journal writing should be reconsidered.

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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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October 28, 2009

Needs analysis nonsense

Say your kitchen sink isn't functioning well. Water's not going down and the smell is starting to infest the whole kitchen despite your best efforts with the plunger. Call a plumber, right? So, he arrives, takes a perfunctory glance at the reeking drain and says, "I need to perform a needs analysis". Then he leaves. And he researches the causes of sink stoppage- what the symptoms may tell us as to best course of plumbing action. Two months of research later he returns and announces that research shows that "a coagulating agent may be blocking the drain".
Really now! And you know what else, balls are used in soccer!

Doesn't sound like much of a plumber, right? After all, a trained and licensed plumber should be able to make a quick diagnosis, based on his training and experience, and then immediately start getting inside the damned pipes and unclog them. And, if in that process something unexpected pops up, such as a family of decomposing badgers, we expect that he'll be able to adjust accordingly and improvise a solution. That's the idea of professionalism, n'est ce pas?

Right- except apparently for English teachers who seem to think that professionalism requires them to carry out a 'needs analysis' regarding their students. (I'll take a stab at the answer here- they need, um, English, right?).

I've expressed my criticism of 'needs analyses' as being uneccesarily obtuse and eggheaded elsewhere and I stand by it. So, do I think about my students' needs? Yeah. When I started working at a medical school I thought about it for, oh, five minutes or so. Here's what I came up with (and they still hold true 13 years later):
1. Medical students need to know medical discourse.
2. They will probably have to perform or attend English presentations at some point in their careers.
3. They will have to do academic reading, and likely writing, in English.
4. They will probably have to be able to communicate with non-Japanese fellow professionals at some point.
5. Some will never use much English again.
6. Some will work abroad in English intensive situations for long, sustained periods of time.
7. These students are generally right out of high school or yobiko and therefore will have a standard HS english education up to this point.
8. Some students will have been exposed to English abroad- perhaps extensively.

End of needs analysis. With this 5 minutes' worth of thinking in mind I started designing my courses. It hasn't failed me yet. Exactly which aspects of medical discourse they will be weak in and those which may be a priority is something I have gradually learned over teaching my classes, a constant refining to be sure. But I presume that every teacher learns about 'needs' this way and not by some detached in-advance 'study', as if the 'needs' are somehow out there just waiting to be discovered by a research project, like genomes in a petri dish (or wherever one finds genomes these days). Any teacher with the slighterst amount of classroom sense should also be able to make any adjustments based on perceptions after a few classes, and incorporate those insights into the program design for next year.

Very occasionally I have made use of corpus data but my educated-teacher common sense usually takes priority. Awareness of, but not blind dependence upon, copus data can be useful in designing lessons but a general awareness of authenticity is hardly the same as a 'needs analysis'.

Of course, the one thing you want to avoid with anyone under 23 years of age in a school or university is asking the students themselves what they want. You'll get the expected rigamarole of "to make friends", "for travel", "to learn about the world",, and in the case of medical students "to learn medical terminology". The bmost appropriate paraphrasing of the first three listed above might be "Whatever. I dunno", and as for learning terminology, well they don't always know what's good for them do they? That's why they're the students and we are the teachers.

And it seems to me that any teacher with training and qualifications should, by virtue of those credentials, have an almost immediate understanding of student needs. And if it's not clear then, take two more minutes to ask an administrator where most grads end up doing what and go from there. It's not that hard.

Now imagine that you do ask an administrator at your school where your students will likely take their English educations and he/she replies, "Well most of our males end up in construction crews and the majority of the girls gravitate towards the 'entrtainment' industry". What will you do then? Teach the females 'mizu shobai' lingo on the one-off that someday a client might be a non-Japanese speaker sampling the bright lights? Teach the guys some 'work talk' on the small chance that they will work with someone from a developing country (who will certainly be looking for the chance to brush up on their Japanese anyway)?

This exposes a problem with needs analyses- it treats language as largely instrumental. In a case like the above (admittedly extreme, but in order to make a point) sometimes the purpose of English might be instrinsic, mere exposure to the language in order to gain an appreciation of something that might be mind-expanding and could be applied at some later point if any individual chooses to do so. That doesn't come out on a needs analysis.

And it's fine when you have very narrow, specific goals that apply to ALL students, such as 15 grad students ALL needing to get a TOEIC certification and then going to research nuclear physics in the UK. But more often than not the expressed 'needs' will be both general and varied. And the inevitable conclusion that 'there are many needs' is not some kind of revealed truth that is hovering out there waiting to be discovered by 'analysis', it's something you should be able to gather from minimal exposure to any teaching situation.

Imagine what our students and colleagues must think when the allegedly trained professional shows up at his/her workplace without any apparent innate sense of what his charges 'need'. What impression will be created when he or she has to do a survey, a statistical compilation, and collate all the data before offering a sense of what might be best for their students?

It doesn't sound like professionalism to me.

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November 06, 2009

1. The image of MEXT and 2. Learning from open-ended conversation tasks

1. The Popular Image of the MEXT Headquarters:

On Tuesday Nov. 3rd The Daily Yomiuri newspaper printed my most recent article in which I outlined some positives (and negatives) found in Monkasho (MEXT) guidelines. One of my reasons for writing that article was to show that a lot of typical criticism directed at MEXT policy is unfounded- although there are clearly still aspects of policy very much open to criticism.

However, it seems that some people don't like any mitigation in the negativity expressed towards MEXT as I found out thereafter (looking at some responses). Hmmm. I get the impression that some people's image of the Ministry of Education's home base is something like this:

MEXT is made up of a pair of greasy bureaucrats in blue polyester suits, with bad combovers, chain smoking in a poorly-ventilated Nagatacho back office, plastic bags of dried squid covering their cluttered desks. One, Ukon, can be assumed to be a rabid nationalist, whose main aim is to keep the pernicious influence of foreign languages out of the grasp of the natives, while the other, Makoto, is an uptight nerd from Tokyo University whose hobby consists of compiling obscure English minutiae to be placed into the national curricula or entrance exams. Oh yeah- and they harass the poor OL's in the office.

In fact, many of those involved in educational decision making are well-established professors and other highly-regarded cosmopolitan professionals in the field (including, at certain levels, native English speakers). Policy and rationale behind guidelines are freely available online, and many have English translations.

2. Getting Something Out of Conversation Tasks:

I've written and stated elsewhere on several occasions that the idea of 'teaching conversation' seems daft to me. Conversation is a social skill- if you are a skilled interlocutor in your 1st language you can usually carry over those traits to the 2nd. It's not like you have to learn again to be good at conversation when take up a new language (although it's true that you will need to gain awareness of peragmatic norms, discourse markers and the like- but that's not what people normally mean when they talk about 'teaching conversation').

Teaching conversation spawns images of Cyrano De Bergerac coaching the inarticulate Christian in his attempts to seduce Roxanne. This is surely not what ELT educators have in mind.

The other aspect of 'teaching conversation' that comes to mind is that of inculcating formulas and mantras to be learned. Highly instrumental ready-made samples of how to order a hamburger or what to say at immigration. This is not language teaching. In such cases you might as well just use a Lonely Planet guide as a textbook.

Yet I do carry out conversational tasks or activities in my classes. Why, you might well ask? One reason is quite obvious. Students can feel constrained if too many activities are limited in scope and teacher or text controlled. They do not feel that the language being used belongs to them, they are not really actively producing communicative content, they are detached from the communicative process.

It's like being a sport coach. Yes, you have to work on muscle training and technique but sometimes you just have to let the athletes play too.

But the big question has always been: How can students learn from an open-ended conversation activity? Won't they just be using the same language forms that they already know, making the same mistakes and basically driving in the same linguistic ruts that they always do?

Maybe. But they can get better from conversation practice if you do the following (which obviously I try to):
After the open conversation section students should be aware of which words or ideas they could not express well in English, which grammatical or lexical patterns did not communicate well, where they got bogged down.

These must be fixed. Students should study precisely these areas after the activity (or ask a teacher). In other words, the goal is to learn from your weaknesses. Once you know your weak points you can focus on them and polish them for the next round. I tell my students to make notes on these points immediately after any and every open-ended conversation-based task.

Another thing students can do to learn from conversation tasks is to note vocabulary or structural patterns that were used well and succesfully by their partners. We've all felt the 'Yes! That's the phrase I often forget' moment of recognition and inspiration when talking to others in our L2. But if they are not explicitly noted these useful tidbits are likely to fade from memory quickly.

So, students can learn from conversation practice (which is, of course, very different from the notion of 'teaching conversation') but it must be done using explicit conscousness-raising and note taking in order to be effective.

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November 12, 2009

Q. When is a Native Speaker not good enough to be a Native Speaker? A. On the TOEIC test

Have you ever wondered if you might fail an English test that your students take even though you are a native speaker of English? And if you did fail, what would that say about the test (Assuming that you were giving it your best shot)? It could happen. It has happened...

One of the more memorable ELT presentations I've attended recently was given by Terry Fellner, Associate Professor at Saga University. Terry is not only a native speaker of English (duh!), he's a particularly well-educated and articulate one. But earlier this year Terry, out of curiousity as well as a means of 'testing the test', decided to take on the new Speaking/Writing TOEIC test (also known as 'Walmart').

I won't keep you in suspense here regarding the results. You can probably guess what's coming:
Terry's score was not in the highest percentile but in the second rank, which meant that Terry was judged not to be a proficient speaker/writer of his native language. Among the weaknesses cited were:
- errors when using complex grammar
- imprecise use of vocabulary
- minor difficulties with pronunciation, intonation, or hesitancy
In none of these categories (or rubrics, if you will) did the highly articulate Terry Fellner deliberately or willfully fall short.


Terry was also judged to have some problems regarding the relevancy of his responses (readers should note that the test was all done online in real-time but obviously in a depersonalized manner). And this is where it gets interesting.

Terry decided to test the pragmatic preconceptions of the test by giving slightly unexpected responses but responses that were nonetheless, given the questions and tasks, logical, orderly, comprehensive and, of course, expressed with fluency. Let's take a look at some of these...

1. Terry was asked to describe a photograph. What he chose to do though was not start with an explanation of the foreground image (apparently a cart and horse) but rather focused upon the surrounding qualities of the picture: the weather, the background scenery etc. In one sense his choice might seem to be facetious, deliberately obverting the evaluator's expectations, but why should examines be expected to conform to certain narrow Western notions of centrality or importance on what is purpotedly a test of INTERNATIONAL communication?

Not only is it considered to be a cultural trait by many to focus on background and surroundings before articulating the 'center' but some personalities may also have this attribution (a skirt-chasing friend long ago displayed an incredible to spot, focus upon, and remember any 'hot babe' at locales such as The Parthenonor Notre Dame cathedral while forgetting what city he was in). A better example may be to look at a classical Chinese landscape painting. While there may be a hermit/poet scrawled in a lower corner somewhere this is not what the painting is 'about'. More central is the background- the atmosphere of the mountains, the textures and shapes that surround the 'subject'. Notions of background and foreground are blurred, mixed.

This can happen with music too. In many non-Western music styles the 'melody' is not nthe foreground or center, but rather tonality, timbre, texture, polyrhythm etc. Fans of modern classical music and most modern jazz, which tend to incorporate non-Western tonalities, will also be familiar with this aesthetic.

In other words, the test assumed a Eurocentric model of both viewing and description- again for a test of INTERNATIONAL communication. But wait, there's more...

For one speaking task, which required Terry to propose a solution to the problem of high office expenses, he suggested the use of clay tablets to replace computers and paper. This he supported logically and consistently (in keeping with the demands of the task) arguing that it was 'proven technology', with cheap and easily accessible materials, that are environmentally friendly, and that clay tablets could also recoup costs by being resold as housing material.
Maybe not what the test evaluators were suggesting but still expresed with relevance, logical consistency, sufficient support, and of course, fluency.

Terry also assumed a very familiar stance with his superiors in the task, going as far as to apologize for his lateness as being the result of a hangover. Here he was testing the TOEIC's notion of appropriacy- what kind of appropriacy? Whose standard?

Similarly, in a writing task in which he was required to respond to an email from a real estate agent with two requests and a question, Terry complied by not only thanking her for the email but expressing surprise that she was now out of jail. He also requested a location that would be near, among other things, a nunnery and a German bakery. His request was to pass along a hefty 'gift' to a police sargent while asking how the buasiness license was coming.

Socially inappropriate? In some (but certainly not all) cases. Does his response display a lack of knowledge or understanding of English discourse? Not at all. Was it unconnected to the demands of the the task? No. Was it expressed in an intelligible manner? Certainly. So where did Terry go 'wrong' on the test? What was the scoring rubric? And was it geared towards certain localized 'norms' that do not reflect a flexible, or international, standard? Seems likely.

It goes on..

In an essay writing task in which he had to explain qualities that Customer Service Representatives need to be succesful he responded by expounding upon the ability to project false sincerity and the willingness to work for a low salary. Again, he met the demands of the question, and utilized his English skills but not exactly in a way that the evaluators would be looking for. Perhaps then the place that they are looking is too narrow. To pragmatically focused upon a North American model. Culturally loaded. Morally loaded too.

Apparently, a lage number of TOEIC test takers end up being placed in the same percentile where Terry was rated. So, if a native speaker ends up there, what does this say about the accuracy and relevance of the scoring? A huge variety of skill levels seem to converge onto this one evaluation slot. It becomes rather meaningless.

And what about the feedback he received? Doesn't it sound a little like an o-mikuji bought at your local shrine at New Year's, where one's allotment of good luck or bad luck is already printed on the paper, prefabricated 'fortunes' completely independent of the individual actually buying them?

Now this isn't meant to rag on the TOEIC people. I know how hard it is to make a comprehensive test that is completely valid (it tests what it claims to be testing) and reliable (the result will be unaffected by happenstance). In many ways the TOEIC is admirable and comprehensive, but it is very very far from being foolproof- especially on the new Speaking/Writing version. I'll go even further. It is still very far away from being an accurate measure of a students' ability to speak or write English for international communication.

Recently, many universities have been getting all hot 'n sweaty about the alleged 'objective' value of TOEIC scores, which is supposed to represent an evaluation that is better than that of a trained in-house English teacher. Terry Fellner has shown though that this is still an illusion. Universities who think that a TOEIC orientation should replace normal communicative English learning had better think twice.

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November 26, 2009

Two mini entries: 1. Grammar, plurality, agreement and 2. Formalized brainstorming

Sorry the lack of an update recently- it's presentation season.

First today, some thoughts about grammar, plurality, and agreement:

OK. You'd say "The Beatles were great" right? After all, the word "Beatles" is explictly plural. Now what about King Crimson or Genesis? King Crimson were great or was great? (By the way, Fripp and co. are still active). Certainly both answers are possible and acceptable although I'd lean towards "was" myself. It seems that our ultimate choices will be informed by how we percieve a rock band in our minds- as a set of individual members or as a collectiive singular unit.

But let's take the same equation and apply it to sports teams. The Detroit Red Wings are really strong. OK- like The Beatles, there is an explicit plural so there's no controversy here. But how about the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Minnesota Wild? NO ONE would say "The Wild is struggling" or "The Lightning has improved this year". Now, like King Crimson, sports teams are collections of individuals and could thus be viewed collectively or as a plurality right? Yet there is little doubt that we would use plural verb agreement ("are" "were") for the sports teams.

So, what's the basis for the difference? It is true that grammatical norms are often determined by perception (i.e. when to deploy the perfect tense) but how/why are the rperceptions of rock groups functionally any different from those of the hockey teams?

Any ideas out there?

Second on today's menu- a beef. The hassles of classroom 'brainstorming'.

You know the scene. You want to start your class with a 10-minute warm up designed to get students focused, talking, on topic before launching into the main teaching task. You want it to be quick, sharp and clear. Except that your students make it laborious and time-consuming. Here's how- or at least here's how it happens in my case (using my most recent example):

I have pre-written on the board in black the following-
Today- first (10 minute opener):
my last visit to a doctor/hospital/clinic
duration and/or frequency
treatments and/or medications

Next to each category is blank space in red.

I tell the students they have six minutes to think of their own 'last visit' and to write down their answers in the blank spaces. "Write only your answers for each of these on a piece of paper" I say. "Fill in the red blanks according to your own case". I also add that if they don't know the word or phrase they want to write in English, they should look it up in a dictionary (although they are quite familiar with all the categories listed above).

The goal is to then have them tell partners the above information in full sentence form. While I presume they are writing their lists and/or looking up the any new words I write my own answers on the board in the red spaces. I then say them in full sentences as a model. My plan is for this to segue into a section in the textbook about giving data in medical referrals.

Then I check on their progress (the full six minutes have almost passed). About one quarter of the students have jotted down their words appropriately. A few more are looking up words to add to their lists. OK. More than half have spent the time copying down only the categories I have written on the board including "Today- first (10 minute opener)". Several have just finished writing their names and student numbers on the paper. A few are still getting a piece of paper out of the depths of their sports bags.

Damn! The students are all over the place! Now, this used to make me angry and I would let students know so but I have since come to see that what was making me angry was the fact that my tight 'n sweet lesson plan wasn't going to form, that the students were ruining my pretty picture. Figuring that my anger was self-indulgent I have since decided to focus my complaint elsewhere.

I focus it here: When I give the students their partners (3 per team) only one is ready to do it properly, one is half-ready and will therefore stumble and stick Japanese in, and one is still wholly unprepared and will be thumbing his/her dictionary while the other students tell their 'stories'. This is rude! Listen to what your partners are saying, I tell them. And you can help do this by BEING PREPARED!

But what I really want to get off my chest, but don't, is the following. I know that no students read or know of this blog so I'll just vent here...

Apologies to those students who got it and complied right away.

There, I said it. Take a deep breath and relax, Mike.

I wonder if readers have similar experiences and how you may handle it. And trust me when I say that I outline everything clearly and comprehensively in advance.

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January 14, 2010

Japan- Love it, Leave it, 'Change' it, Or...?

Japan- Love it or leave it! Does the old redneck adage hold any water?
I think it might.

OK- Today's entry is not about English teaching or universities but I hope you'll let me indulge in a little socio-political discourse anyway.

I think we've all come across NJs who are so unrelentingly and persistently negative about Japan, with the badmouthing becoming so predictable and boring that we can't help but wonder, yes I'll say it out loud: WHY DO YOU STAY HERE? After all, I can't imagine many of us are refugees, who can't return to our countries of origin for fear of losing our lives. And we are not usually so destitute or neglected that we are economically forced to endure (Yes- I am talking about English-teaching types here). OK- some have been assigned to Japan by a company but those 'sentences' are usually temporary. I also can't imagine too many such people would be reading this blog.

Does this then mean that the choice to stay here forces us to be non-critical, appreciative of whatever Japan puts in our paths? Obviously not. But I certainly think there is an heirarchy for complaining- that is, some bases and motivations for critique are more legitimate than others.

So then, what exactly are my criteria for legimiately carping about Japan?

First, the legitimacy of a complaint has to be connected to how much one has invested in this country. So, greater complaint legitimacy resides in the following order:
1. Citizens- those who have gone through the naturalization process have the greatest right to present their beefs. They've made the ultimate investment in the country. Score a 10/10 for griping privileges.
2. Permanent residents- they have also made their intentions of full participation in this society known. Their beefs may not carry the same pure weight as that of a citizen but they have still made a notable investment.
3. Other NJ tax payers- These people either haven't yet or don't wish to make the same commitment to this society that the above two categories show. But as tax payers and participants in this society they have some legitimacy in complaining, although it cannot- and should not- resonate as much as that of a citizen's.

Running parallel to the above are those who can answer 'Yes' to the following questions:
1. Do you have children who are Japanese, and especially, do you intend to have them grow up in Japan? OK- That's an investment. Give yourself some legitimacy points.
2. Is your spouse Japanese? Ditto- but not quite as big an investment as with the kids.
3. Are you a land, house, or business owner? Yes.You have legitimate interests too. Give yourself some carping kudos.
Of course, you will generally find that those with the greatest 'citizenship' commitment to Japan are those who have the family, business, land/house cards to play as well.

But wait, there's more...
What is the scope of your critique? If you are, say, a land owner and you want to moan about land reform practices or deed titling in Japan the fact that the content of your beef and your investment match adds more credibility to your rhetoric. But if your scope is a critique of ALL OF JAPAN, INCLUDING EVERY INSITUTION AND THE PEOPLE THEREIN, then you're just bitchin'. OK- This might be acceptable in a bar or some such place where a certain whining quotient is a given but don't expect it to carry any social or political clout. Don't whine when 'nothing is done' about it.

Next- what's the motivation for your complaints? Is it truly out of concern for 'building a better Japanese nation'? OK let's be VERY careful here (tangential rant warning)--

If this is your motivation I will argue that this is the mandate of the citizen first and foremost and those with immediate family as citizens close behind. But for others who take this line let me raise the missionary, neo-colonial charge- and this applies in particular to pasty-faced, melanin-challenged Westerners like me. Listen up- how do you think it looks when folks like us presume to be 'saving' other nations by demanding the establishment of attitudes, institutions, and values that only had validity 'back home'? "Look Japan, we want to lead you on the path to light and righteousness which we know of, for we have seen its shining virtue back in Flin Flon, Manitoba". A bit patronizing n'est ce pas?

Imagine, if you will, some VietNamese people in Australia saying that they are protesting Australian human rights to 'help Australia become a fully modern nation'. And imagine that this notion of saving Australia and changing it into a fully modern nation consists largely of telling Australians that they should have more VietNamese values, that they should adopt more progressive VietNamese traditions and institutions. Add to this the fact that most of these protestors have not taken out Australian citizenship, nor do they plan to. Pile on top of that a hypothetical in which many of the whingers have little or no English ability or understanding of Australian society or history- or that they get most of their alleged insights from dubious internet websites written in VietNamese.

So, people who want to think of their complaints as somehow being beneficial to Japan, that you are gracing this country with your noble spirit of opposition, that your protests operate under the banner of personal largesse, think again. (rant concluded)

The above applies of course to those who say they don't want to leave Japan, but to 'change' it. I mean, if someone married to a Japanese calls for reform of the koseki system, this kind of call for change seems reasonable. But to 'change Japan' as a whole, as in alter the very fabric and foundations of this society? Uh no. (Prepare for tangential rant #2)

This is for you, Mr/Mrs 'I want to change Japan': When you first chose to come to Japan (and for 99% of us it was a choice) were you not aware that Japan was not a Western country? That the society was based upon certain principles and values that were, shall we say, less familiar to us? And wasn't this in fact part of the attraction? That you were truly living somewhere else and not in a facsimile of Adelaide, Milton Keynes, or Columbus? If so, why would you want Japan to become 'not Japan'? Did you not expect that as a visible minority (don't play PC games with this term please, you know what I mean) you would be marked as different- positively AND negatively (just as you will be in most of the non-Western world)? Did you not expect to be thought of- and even think of yourself as- an outsider? If not, why didn't you do your homework before you came?

Now- does my little rant above excuse those occasional cases of out and out hostility and exclusionism that we all know of and perhaps have faced? No. But the NJ who claims he/she wants to 'change Japan' is talking about reforming the very country they have chosen to live in, not just how to deal with the occasional bigot or ignoramus (I suppose some may feel that ignorance and bigotry are systemic here, a wholesale national violation of 'human rights', and is therefore endemic to the populace at large- such attitudes usually reveal more about the speaker/writer's own prejudices rather than 'human rights' issues per se).

Anyway, don't you think that most Japanese would find this attitude at best arrogant, and at worst, threatening? Hell, I do. Sure as eggs is eggs, I wouldn't want Japan to suddenly change into Vancouver- East. Because, with warts and all, I chose to live in THIS society and within THIS culture. Now that doesn't make me an Uncle Tom or a willing punching bag. There are some things that I think could be improved here and in my small, grass roots way I can and do work for change in those narrow areas (especially those which I'm knowledgeable about and have a vested interest in) but I'm not on a God-given mission to 'change the country', especially into a version of what I left behind.

(rant #2 finished)

(Back to the main script)
You also lose credibility points if your motivation is smugness or sanctimony. Let's face it some people just love, in fact make a virtual cottage industry of, telling others how wrong and backwards they are. Such people actively hope for, actually go out of their way, to try and induce racism or ignorance in others so that they can them triumphantly claim 'victim' moral highground. These are the kind of people who are trying very hard to get offended, to find fault as a matter of course, and then interpret it in the worst possible way. This way they can feel justified when they put their hands on their hips and shout 'xenophobe' (which apparently is supposed to shock the alleged xenophobes into becoming tolerant, accepting people). Yeah, right, sure.

You also lose brownie points if you are doing nothing about whatever you find so objectionable. And, damn it, too many people conflate whining or bitching with showing concern, with 'activism'. As if those who don't chime in with the bashing are apathetic or tacitly accepting the status quo.

OK. Visible in-your-face protest might fall under the rubric of 'doing something' but here again we are subject to the legitimacy criteria I've outlined above. Is your critique focused or just a verbal volley of spittle launched at Japan en masse? Are you doing it mainly to point the smug finger of accusation at 'them'? Have you invested enough in this society, or that aspect of Japan that your objection addresses, to make your protest relevant?

There's more to consider. Is your oppositional rhetoric based upon sufficient knowledge regarding the background to the situation you are questioning? Or is it just a sophomoric knee-jerk riposte against Japan Inc. (or the comic-book villain-style 'Team Japan')? Can you read and speak the language sufficiently to make a well-founded, informed claim? If so- kudos. Your claim has a stronger foundation. Are you familiar with the background to, and the wide-ranging function(s) of, the object of your wrath? If it becomes apparent to Japanese associates that you aren't you will obviously lose legitimacy points.

And guess what. At that point, if J or NJs start thinking, "If you don't like it here, why don't you leave?" it will be because you've actually lent credence to that old redneck adage.

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February 03, 2010

A bunch of words about lyrics

I have a lot of problems doing English lessons or activities based on song lyrics. This is not to slam people who do manage to make a worthwhile lyric-focused English lesson. Paul Hullah (ex- Miyazaki U. colleague and currently teaching British Literature ad Culture at Meiji Gakuen) once gave a very good JALT presentation on using lyrics in the classroom, but this has never gelled for me personally. Even though I know that lyric lessons are, generally speaking, not considered to be hardcore English study and are thereby used largely as supplementary or novelty material, my own experiences using lyrics in the classroom have always left me cold and, yes, cynical.

Here's why:
Lyrics aren't discourse-based. That's just a fact. In teaching university students, my focus has always been upon helping learners understand how English is used as discourse and to start using it themselves in extended meaning-focused texts. These classes are usually content-based and very much purpose-oriented.

More to the point, people don't talk, write (except for ..... well.... songwriters), or use English in general, in the manner found in song lyrics! Choices of lyric are often made primarily to suit the beat or meter, for alliteration or rhyme, or even just because it rolls of the singer's tongue more easily. Many songwriters don't pretend to have their lyrics make complete sense or even make much sense at all. Many rock lyrics are built around initially improvised vocals in practice or jamsessions- it's not as if each phrase is chosen with a point to communicate.

As an example, two of my favourite lyricists are the early Brian Eno, and David Byrne (both with Talking Heads and post-TH as a solo artiste). But here's the catch- neither ever gave much credence to the 'message' of their lyrics but rather how the words sounded acoustically or rhythmically, as an enhancement to the music and not vice-versa- much like a modern painter might not paint an object but focus upon the textures and colours for their own sake. In this regard, Eno and Byrne are certainly amusing and clever lyricists but they don't have cohesive 'messages'. It's certainly not discourse in the normal sense. It may be artistic and amusing but as fodder for an EFL lesson??? No.

But even when lyricists are trying to make sense they often come up short- and the result is that much more bizarre. We are so inured to many such well-known lyrics that we overlook the absurdities they hold, oddities that would not bypass the filters of an EFL student. Try the middle section of The Eagles 'Take It Easy' on for size:
Well I'm standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (why Winslow, Arizona is central or in any way important or even meaningful here remains a mystery)
It's such a fine sight to see
There's a girl my lord
(My lord! An actual girl! Sounds like something the Comic Book Guy would say)
In a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me (fair enough)
Come on baby. Don't say maybe. I've gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me (So let me get this straight, a girl in a truck, whom he has presumably never seen before is giving him the eye and his response is that HE MUST KNOW IF HER SWEET LOVE WILL SAVE HIM. Hmmm- I'm not surprised that he's hanging out on corners because this seems to be pretty psychotic behavior).

Or how about Elton John's 'Your Song', often presented as the quintessential romantic from-the-heart love ballad? (Although given Elton's state at the time he was probably dedicating it to cocaine).Let's take a look at some of the lyrics as Elton describes the intimacies of songwriting process, trying to come up with descriptions worthy of his love object:
I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss
'Cause a few of the verses well they got me quite cross

(As we all know when we are a struggling with writer's block the natural thing is to do is to climb onto one's roof and kick some moss down, which is marginally better than standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona I suppose).
Then, Elton appears to be getting whimsical:
If I was sculptor (OK. With this set-up we now expect something along the lines of 'I still could not capture your essence'- or something like that. But instead we get--- wait for it)
But then again no.
(What the hell is this??? It's not coherent, it's not grammatical, and it sure doesn't take the sculptor motif anywhere: "You know, if I was a sculptor. But I'm not." That's sure is a romantic sentiment, Elton!) And he continues:
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show,
I know it's not much but it's the best I can do
(Hmmm. I understand that the bottom line is his modest dismissal of his lyric (does it come as any surprise?) but what on earth does the carney reference have to do with anything before or after? No wonder he's already apologizing for his song before he's even finished the thing!)

Now one teaching point that some teachers claim to get out of such songs is finding some colloquialisms or cultural nuances and 'teaching' them, using the song as a contextual backdrop. Well, maybe, but by the same token I could do the same thing by showing my students an NHL hockey game and use that to point out a few announcer colloquialisms and justify the whole match as being emblematic of Canadian culture... but, hey come on, this is waaaay down the priority list in terms of holistic, academic, well-rounded, English education.

While I'm on a roll, let me bring up two very popular pop songs that act as virtual poster boys for EFL lyrics but have started to grate on me:
1. Imagine-John Lennon
OK- this songs hangs together well- it is coherent and cohesive, it makes sense lyrically. There is a lot to sink one's philosophical teeth into here- the guy is saying that if there was no private property and no religion, there would be no murder and people would live as one. OK- I don't buy the simple panacea John describes and I don't think "all the people living for today" will be helpful in bringing about the brotherhood of mankind but at least there's material here for debate where one can legitmately say, "I think Lennon is full of it. This is pie-in-the-sky idealized crap. Human emotions aren't that simple...".

But what bothers me is that many teachers don't really put Imagine's lyrics up for this type of debate. Rather, it is treated as a default 'good thing' because, hey, John is talking about love, peace, and brotherhood! In other words, teachers are ignoring the actual lyrical content and focusing instead on the 'correctness' of the sentiment, with all the edu-political baggage that entails.

2. Tom's Diner- Suzanne Vega-
This must be the all-time standard EFL classroom lyric, in no small part due to Vega's incredibly clear diction. But what irks me about this fleeting, stream of consciousness, slice of life lyric is that I regularly hear EFL teachers say they are using it to TEACH the present continuous (or present progressive, if you prefer) -"I am sitting in the morning... I am waiting at the counter...".
Well sorry sensei, but first if EFL students can actually hear and decode the lyrics THEY ALREADY KNOW THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS! Trust me on this. Kids absorb this pattern from as far back as Eigo De Asobo on TV or neighbourhood Eikaiwa introductory classes.

Secondly, this pattern is not actually used much in real speech or writing. Think about it. How often do you say, "I am ---ing"? Perhaps in response to the question, "What are you doing?", and, discursively speaking, that's about it! There's no productive, discourse-based, natural reason to use a string of "I am ---ing" patterns. Also, generally speaking, a narrative is in the past tense unless you are specially marking it for literary effect- as is Suzanne Vega.
(Sidenote- Luka is a far superior Suzanne Vega song for students).

On the other hand, one of the bigger benefits of lyrics in an EFL classroom is probably the internalization of stress and meter that students can attain if they become comfortable with a certain lyric. For example, although I'm sure we can all agree that the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe' is one of the two or three most execrable pop songs ever written, you cannot fit "So, tell me what you want, what you really really want" into the number of beats allowed if you are using katakana pronunciation. You just cannot. You'll go about 15 over the limit. It really forces you to acknowledge English sentence stress and de-stress patterns.

[Tangent 1- I don't think the above is the case with Japanese lyrics. Since Japanese- being mora-based- is already quite regularly timed in normal speech, sudden and unusual stresses tend to occur quite often in J songs if the note demands it. Note how often the usually de-stressed 'shi' in 'ashita' (or any similar mid-word 'shi') can be drawn out unnaturally. Same with the usually imperceptible (to many English-speaker ears at least) 'o-u' combinations. In fact it sounds similar to the way in which many Japanese-language beginners might (mis)pronounce the language at first (wakarima-soooo-ka?).
End tangent 1]

[Tangent 2- I realize that the negative pay off with students internalizing the stress patterns of many pop lyics is that they often start to use 'wanna' and 'gonna' in situations where it is better not to sound inelegant- and it often sounds forced and artificial as well, especially if the rest of their English phonetic system hasn't caught up with those popular contractions. End tangent 2]

Ok, a change of pace-
A good classroom lyric (obviously I think there are a some more worthy candidates if one is going to embark on a lyric lesson) is usually a narrative, one that is cohesive and well structured, as a narrative should be (meaning it NARRATES) and is not just laid out as a chant over top a beat. Two of the best artists in this mode are:

1. The Handsome Family-
No, not the brothers Hanson (don't even THINK about associating the two!) but the ultimate Americana Noir husband and wife duo. The lyrics are the focal point of the music and they are incredibly rich, bleak, distressing, and highly literate. They are also very very American. Brett Sparke's voice is sonorous and rich, and so is easy on learner ears. They also tend to focus upon narrative and character sketches, providing a framework that allows EFL students to grasp and appreciate what's going on in the songs.

2. Richard Thompson-
In many ways, Thompson can be thought of as a British equivalent to the Handsome Family. Highly literate, very English, also dark and brooding, his songs are full of richly drawn characters represented in captivating narrative, all expressed with a booming baritone.

All this translates well into the EFL classroom if one MUST do a lyric lesson.

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February 10, 2010

Nationalism, 'Moral' Education, and English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 20, 2010

Fear in the TEFL academic community and how it is connected to my utter lack of professionalism

I know, I know. As an Associate Prof at a national university I'm expected to read the research of my peers and be up-to-date in the world of TEFL academia, at the very least in order to provide a foundation for my own research. But I don't feel like doing it.

There. I said it.

I don't feel like doing it because reading most TEFL research- at least most of the 'trade' journals- is an unpleasant task. So unless you are looking for suitable citations for your own paper why embark on this unrewarding journey?

I know that I've touched on this subject before here but... most of the research journals make for poor reading. First, there are far too many references. To me, such researchers ought to add huge asterisks to their citations which would mean: *I'M FRIGHTENED THAT MY PAPER DOESN'T LOOK ACADEMIC ENOUGH AND I WANT IT TO LOOK LIKE I'VE READ ALL THE FOLLOWING ITEMS SO THAT YOU'LL ACCEPT ME AS BEING CREDIBLE.

Ok- obviously sometimes you need those sources. A claim like, "The prevalence of crime wherever English has become the established lingua franca is well known" is going to need a little backup to be sure. But why all those "my Dad can beat up your Dad" citations? I mean those where the researcher cites notions and ideas solely because they agree with their own: "Our conclusion that classroom shape affects degree of structural internalization is echoed by Humcrush 1980)". So Humcrush said the same thing you do! Are we supposed to respect you more now? Hey- if Albert Humcrush said it in the Paraguayan Journal of Bioethical Semantics thirty years ago it must be true! I give in! I capitulate!

TEFL's infatuation with making the research look more scientific than it really is is nothing but a big display of fear. Fear of not being taken seriously. A pre-teen girl in big sister's fashionable clothing- not fitting well, trying too hard, a wannabe.

You'll also be confronted by references for the most banal, innocuous claims: "English acts as the world's major lingua franca (Schlorp 1997, Klumpfartz & Hosemobile 2003, Dogflopper 1993)", "Motivation is a primary factor in developing second-language competency" (Greedler 2005, Pumpy & Chunky 1991, Toadmart Jr. 1987) and so on. And this kind of stuff generally fills up the first three or four paragraphs of a given article. One piece from the Nov. 2009 JALT Journal (that I am currently holding in my hands and which has inspired today's post) has no fewer than 28 citations within the first paragraph and a half. Oh, wait a minute, maybe I should add (Guest, 2010) to that last sentence.

Therefore, I do not want to read the article. It's boring, frustrating and ultimately invasive (Guest, 2010- there we go). It's as if the author and editor are trying too hard to impress me. Why? Because they fear judgment- the judgment that maybe this research emperor has no clothes so they've tarted it up and plastered it with cheap make up to try to entice the reader into a dubious tryst. Sorry. Ain't buyin'.

The other thing that makes reading this stuff annoying is stats. Stats and charts. They often get in the way of comprehension precisely when they should act as an aid to same. Look, here's a rule that shold be adhered to:

In fact, research has shown that only a complete weirdass would actually look at these charts in any detail anyway (Gullible, 1996). So why are they so ubiquitous? Fear, my friend. Fear that we might NOT be viewed as smock-wearing bi-focaled research lab number crunchers and instead be thought of as- ugh- English teachers!

From the same issue of the JALT Journal I am now looking at one 20 page article that relies on lists, statistics, and charts for approximately half of its length. They could put in all kinds of meaningless digits here and no one would bat an eyelid not only because no one is reading it but simply because too many numbers stun the brain. Ergo, it is anti-academic.

Sorry. I did it again. I should have expressed that artiicle's ratio of charts/lists to actual prose above in a more visceral way, such as by- ahem- employing a statistical chart or list. Then, as we all know, it would be more valid, scientific, and objective. So here you go:
n=no. of pages (n=20)
Average size space of A5 paper = (20cmX35cm) ~factored as
> n (Cx20)= Y
Amount of text devoted to charts/stats by percentage (rendered as Y)
Per-page proportion of Y (using Latrix Scale):
1= 0
7= 55...

Step 2: Render the above as a graph and ascribe graph type to (Someguy & Hisfriend, 1994)

OK, STOP PLEASE! First, I know I could place some total bull number in there and you'd never know any better. Second, once you figure out the formula and understand what a 'Latrix scale' is, well.. it's just not worth it to absorb the point, which is (if you recall) that the article had too many charts and statistics to make it easily navigable for readers. Here again, the affective factor is fear. Bludgeon us with enough tables to obscure the fact that you are not saying much of significance.

Now, I'm willing to bet that someone is reading this right now and bristling, thinking "Guest doesn't really understand stats or the rigors of academic writing" (Somereader, 2010).
But here's where this reader pulls the rug from under his (women don't read this stuff, do they?) own feet: HEY, YOU READ IT THIS FAR, RIGHT? And even if you think I'm full of it, my diatribe has caused you at least to re-think your arguments in support of your position. And you must admit that reading this has been at least slightly more amusing than reading your average TEFL journal article- or else I must ask that you leave town immediately.

And someone else might be thinking: "But Mike, you've had your own research published in these types of journals. Was it trash? Were you trying to deceive the reader? Do you think that your own poop doesn't smell? Hypocrite!"

(A third may be thinking, "Why so many uncouth, unsavoury references in this post? How unprofessional!" Yeah, the real pros don't sound like real people. They always sound like academic writing, even in the bedroom)

Anyway, here's my apologia: I have never written any academic article where I felt that I wasn't saying something that was at least one of- noteworthy, different, unexpected, surprising or otherwise against-the-grain. And I always tried to make the articles in some way capture the reader's interest, even if doing so involved a tug-of-war with the editor. After all, it seems to me that if the article does not hold Joe Q. Averageteacher's attention for more than a moment then it's just an exercise in academic onanism (or, I suppose, fodder for future researchers). And I've always tried to make the conclusions meaningful and accessible to that same Joe Q. Averageteacher. Most (but not all) editors have been sympathetic to this and, fortunately, have cut me some slack on the conform-to-the-scientific-method criterion.

So then, here is my humble, unsolicited and probably already-well-known advice to those hard-working, selfless editors who toil at these journals with little credit or recognition (and I'm not being facetious at all here- most editors do a great job of communicating professionally, pointing out sloppy structures and vague assertations, round research into the established format and try to allow for the author's self-expression):

1. Don't sweat so much about trying to make your periodical look like a hard-core scientific journal.

2. Don't beat up yourself or the writer (or your readers for that matter) by forcing things into pre-designed research categories and boxes, unless of course they really are doing hard-core scientific research (which is rare in the world of TEFL). The so-called standard scientific paper method is a fossil (Nobackup, 1998). You might also want to take a peak at how engaging the style and format of journals such as Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine actually are without being so rigid.

3. If the crux of the article isn't really hard science or scientific at all, then don't force it into those formatting confines but let it stand as it is. Remember what I said earlier about big sister's clothes, tarting up, trysts and all that (of course you do!).

4. Don't drive for dryness as if that somehow indicates academic sobriety, objectivity or, gasp, professionalism. Instead think- What will readers want to read? What will leave a greater impression on readers? What will make people pick up your journal when they have some spare time at work?

5. Please focus upon what the main point is and make sure that the writer is saying something that makes the reader's journey worthwhile.
(Diatribe warning) What's the point of wading through 10 to 20 pages of obtuse academia only for the reader to come to the conclusion that "Students lose motivation when not given challenging tasks". Hey! We knew that before we read the article- most of us knew it before we entered primary school! So please focus on whether the writer is saying anything of note and less on whether the writer has sufficient citations for her claim that "English is a standard university entrance exam subject in Japan", or if he has enough zingy-looking charts and graphs, or whether the ampersand in the reference list for multiple editors of a conference proceedings booklet should be in italics or not, because nobody cares except you.

And if the article affects people, makes a splash in the TEFL community, great! But trust me, it won't be because of the hot citations and the wild 'n crazy charts.

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May 13, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 01, 2010

One man, his son, and the J school system

Getting away from universities for a moment, I thought that readers might like to hear a few impressions of the Japanese public school system based on my own experiences, or rather, those of my son, who is now 14 and a third year junior high school student. He is a dual Canadian-Japanese citizen although he looks more Western than Japanese. He was born, and has lived his entire life, in Japan- save for a few holidays abroad.

Obviously the experiences of one school, one parent and one child cannot be generalized so take it for what it's worth. Also, as he has not started high school yet I have nothing to say about the educational meme at that level.

Allow me to do this 'interview' style- it's always much easier to organize my writing that way.

Q. Let's cut to the quick. Has your son ever been bullied because he doesn't look Japanese?

Mike: No. Not once. Even in minor schoolyard skirmishes no one has ever played the 'race card'. Discrimination of this sort is strongly, strongly discouraged at this school- and all others that I am aware of. In fact, when I've asked him about any such cases he has reacted as if the concept was foreign and confusing. All the kids have known him for several years and while they might have noticed his slightly different physical features when they first met him (when he was asked about it, he said "My dad's from Canada"- end of inquiry), nobody at school seems to notice or care anymore.

Q. Is he treated differently in any way at all?

Mike: Well, he speaks English well so kids ask him for help in that subject- and the guys want to know English swear words etc. He's quite happy to be regarded as 'good at' or knowledgeable in this regard. He's also seen as a bit of an internationalist as he has travelled abroad more than others.

Q. Has there been a bullying problem at his schools in general?

Mike: Not at all. There have been a few minor schoolyard scraps and a small handful of classroom outbursts but these are rare enough to have been big news on the school grounds, not run-of-the-mill occurrences.Compared to where I went to JHS (Whalley, B.C.- one of least desirable areas for young teens in Canada I'd have to think) my son's school is heaven. In my old JH school, brutal fights were a near-daily occurence (even teachers were attacked) and there were drugs, alcohol, sexual assaults- you know the situation. The idea of any of these infiltrating my son's school is just preposterous.

Q. How about any experiences of odd treatment by the teachers?

Mike: Yes, he's been on the receiving end of a few odd T-initiated experiences (although these are dwarfed by normal treatment).

Once, in elementary school, his teacher was setting up the lunch distribution which, that day, included pineapples. Suddenly she asked, "Does anyone know where pineapples come from?". One kid ventured, "Hawaii". "Right, and which country is Hawaii in?" she continued. "America," came the answer. Then she asked, "And who in our class also comes from America?". The kids were confused. They looked around. My son was confused and looked around. Then the teacher said my son's name. The kids all went "Huh?" because they think of him as Japanese and know that his Dad is Canadian. My son found this all rather amusing- not at all hurtful and thought his teacher to be a bit naive (and rightly so). Not long after it was revealed that this teacher was suffering widespread emotional problems so....who knows?

Another time, in junior high, when the social studies teacher was teaching U.S. geography he suddenly asked my son to sing the U.S. national anthem, which he doesn't know from Schubert's Seventh. The teacher thereafter asked him to name the U.S. states which again, is not something he has any special knowledge of. Later, as the class ended, the teacher asked him personally (and not in a nasty way) if he was going back to the U.S. sometime. This did piss off my son a little bit- as it should have. He clarified who he was to the teacher and, fortuitously, some of his buddies backed him up: "He was born in Japan, sensei! He's never been to America. How can he 'go back' there?".

This teacher was transferred around that time although I don't know why. I also heard though that my son was being a bit of a goof in that class and his behaviour may have triggered (but not justify) the odd requests from the teacher.

Q. Did you bring these situations up to teachers or other school authorities?

Mike: His mother did- in a polite way at sankanbi (visitation days). The teachers clearly understood. The point was made.

Q. Since he is fluent in English has that led to problems in his English classes?

Mike: Not much. He says he has trouble with teacher's accents sometimes but in fact the writing and spelling lessons have been helpful for him, as has some of the more detailed grammar practice. Some of it actually serves as good discipline for his English too- in which his attitude is almost too free and easy.

But here's one example of a recurring problem found on tests and worksheets:
My son will give answers that are discursively correct and represent the natural use of communicative language but do not conform to the official answer. The most salient example of this was a test wherein the students were asked to match characters from a story with certain items, utilizing the scheme "Which X is Y's?". My son duly matched a blue jacket with the character Jack and to the question, "Which jacket is Jack's?" answered, "The blue one". Which is wrong, you realize, because the 'correct' answer was, "The blue one is".
The criteria of treating a verb as necessary in this type of construction is obviously artificial and redundant. He finds this frustrating (as do I) but now plays along.

Q. What about the good old 'history textbook' issue, specifically Japanese WW2 history?

Mike: I've seen and read parts of the JHS history books, at least the 'relevant' parts. They are (IMO) well-balanced, accurate, and thorough enough for a JHS history book. The negative actions of Japan during WW2 and its current legacy vis-a-vis East Asia is made clear. Nanjing and other atrocities are dealt with without mitigation.

(Tangential rant warning: Most people who talk about the so-called 'whitewashing' problems in Japan's history textbooks, quite frankly, have no idea what they are talking about- which includes most of the Western press, who seem happy to regurgitate popular, unfounded prejudices as fact. There are, in fact, several approved JHS history textbooks and all have been required to deal with the WW2 issues in a manner that makes Japan's responsibilities clear. The most controversial of these books, chosen only by a tiny minority of Japanese junior high schools, had to make adjustments in order to pass scrutiny. You can find accurate English translations of these online.

I wish every country's history books were as well-balanced about their wrongdoings as Japan's are. Fringe, in-denial weirdos here are just that, a fringe, the same types that you can find anywhere. It is not at all normative in Japan.

The other thing to remember is that history is an academic subject- with a particular focus on cause and effect and the flow of ideologies and custom. It is not supposed to be a mere compendium of 'what happened' for the purpose of some 'hansei' (guilt reflection) upon one's wrongdoings or a prosecutor's interrogation intended to force one to admit guilt by national association. Rant ends)

Q. What's the hardest part of being an NJ parent with a child at a J school?

Mike: I can't help him with kanji- which is the basis of pretty much every subject, save English. Even in Math (which I'm not good at anyway) the goal or point of the problem is written out in Kanji. I suppose the other thing is the huge amount of notices and requests you get everyday. There's always something needed for some event and the details are (IMO) overly thorough. J parents may expect this but NJ's are likely to think, "OK, enough's enough".

There are some useless school rules and regulations too. These often seem like authorized bullying to me and have the negative effect of causing students to confuse rule-following with morality. As one example- my son's school tie was brought from the official school uniform supplier shop (expensive!) but was apparently cut from the last bit of cloth. This meant that near the bottom of the tie the design ended and the pattern from the next cut began, leading to a sort of linear discontinuity in the design. Upon school inspection he was scolded and told to get a 'proper' tie. We told the teacher responsible in no uncertain terms that this tie had been purchased at the school-designated shop and that we had paid (too much) for it. The teacher backed down immediately and apologized.

Q. What do you think are the strong points of Japanese public schools, at least based on you and your son's experience?

Mike: Every teacher has been hard-working and in 99.5% of all situations- extremely professional. I've seen excellent classroom management and teaching technique/methodology. My expectation that it would be more redolent of a Victorian era boarding school, with rote memorization, in-your-face authority, and with no emphasis upon creativity or autonomy has been undermined. Although schools naturally vary, I see this common belief among some NJs as a prejudice held by people who believe, offhand, that that's just what 'the Japanese are like'.

The teachers seem extremely concerned about the welfare of the students. And communication channels between teachers and parents, what with home visits, the aforementioned sankanbi, and in-depth notices, and PTA ongoings, is also excellent.

Most of the teaching I've seen or heard about has been learning centered, not teacher-centered, nor learner-centered- and the form/content of homework has almost always been helpful and pedagogically relevant, not just busy work or rote memorization. Many of the classroom methods I've seen practiced have been clever and innovative (although that should not imply off-the-wall avant-gardism). Math, in particular, has been noted worldwide for the interactive and innovative ways in which it is usually taught in Japan.

In fact, my biggest teacher worries have been regarding the native-English teachers- ALTs, JETs or otherwise. While some are indeed very good and seem to know about language acquisition, methodology, classroom management etc. either by instinct or by training, some really know very little in terms of how to teach languages, manage a classroom, or develop a curriculum. I feel unsure about entrusting my childrens' education to such people.

Q. What don't you like about the system?

Mike: For one thing there are too many days given over to preparing various special events, ceremonies, sports and culture days etc. The planning is almost too detailed and meticulous. In most of these situations, students spend a lot of time following orders and sitting around- getting 'form' right. It may be a show for the parents but I find it overbearing and a matter of wasting time- the 'show' backfires.

Of course, this may be said to have some cultural relevance but what justification is culture other than saying: "Well, the people here before us did it so we have to as well"? Although the undo-kais (sports days) are incredibly well-planned and run they can also be terribly annoying given the amount of time students (and parents) have to prepare, sit through meaningless speeches, partake in militaristic pomp and ceremony (usually while crouched in the hot sun), and spend very little time doing (or enjoying) the actual sports.

I think the teaching could also move more from the receptive to the productive mode- more task-based, demanding active thinking and creating from the students, a greater focus on cognitive engagement rather than just getting through the prescribed content, although those are far from being Japan-specific problems.

I'm interested in hearing how my experiences and feelings correspond with those of parents and/or JHS/elementary school teachers reading this blog.

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August 07, 2010

EFL big shot critiques two presentations- Live from suburban Hanoi!

This dispatch comes from Hanoi (somehow the word 'dispatch' seems to collocate naturally with Hanoi- especially with words like 'shelled' and 'bunker'), where I am attending the AsiaTEFL conference and, having just concluded my presentation, am now free to run wild- at the computer.

The conference is taking place at a hotel complex that's a bit of a throwback to 80's Viet Nam or China- that Official Communist Party Guesthouse locale, a dated rabbit-warren of low-slung buildings of "Serve-The-People Residence Block 3" style architecture, surrounded by high cement and barbed-wire walls, dimly lit, and staffed by some grim-looking folks (unlike the very friendly conference minders and organizers). It's also a bit of a distance from the center of the old town so attendees stuck there seem to be getting a bit stir crazy, since there are virtually no attractions within walking distance (although you really wouldn't want to walk in the Hanoi summer humidity with what is probably the world's most intense, in-your-face, traffic).

Fortunately, I'm not staying at the conference venue but at a hotel closer to the city center- hence I can write this in comfort and ironic detachment. How sophomoric.

I always enjoy Asia TEFL because about 95% of the conference attendees are Asian, no surprise there, covering pretty much every country on the continent. On the first day however I attended only presentations made by Japanese EFL researchers, eager to see what they were up to. Two caught my eye in particular, both in a critical way, enough so to warrant blog commentary.

Now, I'm not going to use this blog to point fingers at specific people (unless they're REALLY asking for it) or denigrate other people's research, since the same charges could be levelled at me. So let me start with this caveat- the following presentations were well-delivered by pleasant and knowledgeable people with strong academic credentials. But each contained something unsettling that compels me to write...

The first was a presentation on using a manga about non-Japanese residents of Japan to sensitize Japanese students to ethnic diversity and NJ identity in Japan (the manga sample involved an ethnic Korean resident), the scenarios they face, their status, histories etc.

Since many Japanese may be unaware of NJs in their midst, or what limits in terms of rights, different standards etc. they may be facing, this issue is relevant and was handled sensitively- no bashing alleged of the 'the Japanese are xenophobes' variety, no overdramatizing the plight of the NJ, and, especially, less of an emphasis upon finding the 'cultural differences' than one usually encounters.

(Tangent- I was, however, taken aback by the presenters' final call to 'celebrate differences'- I say this because it is precisely this overemphasizing of differences that leads to otherizing and any resultant notion that NJs can't really be culturally Japanese or just can't/don't fit in. Since the whole point of using this manga as educational tool was to emphasize the common humanity of the characters, who the Japanese had assumed to be fully Japanese, the sudden intrusion of the 'let's understand the differences' mantra seemed to take the wind out of the rhetorical sails).

More dubious though was a preamble about racial majority 'privileged groups' who set the societal 'norms' and thereby see themselves as 'superior' but thus 'don't recognize the plights of minorities' and 'are in denial' even if they claim not to hold such attitudes (claiming that others are in denial when they do not confirm your beliefs is of course a sloppy and fallacious argument). And, yes, this initial example served up that predictable old target: White Americans.

Now here's the rub- you are giving a presentation on trying to remove ethnic/racial discrimination and prejudices from young students and what do you do? You proceed to make blanket statements about how a whole race apparently thinks! Talk about pulling the carpet of credibility from under your own feet. And yes, as a North American white guy I did feel uncomfortable listening to people tell me about what I apparently must believe because of my skin colour.
(Tangent- I've been told how white people like me think we are superior and look down on others numerous times in Japan. I always complement such people for knowing- and subsequently telling me- what I apparently think about other ethnicities based only upon seeing my degree of skin pigmentation. I might also add a little bit about how their view was actually the norm a few generations back but that anybody who has an education, or lives within any interactive social milieu of sorts in N. America is likely to have had such views confronted from day one. And oh yes, I do realize that I have been privileged. I got through Sociology 101, thank you very much).

Now, to be fair, the presenter (again, who was Japanese) DID apply these same claims to the Japanese ethnic majority with regard to minorities in Japan- that most Japanese were in denial about it, but felt superior and so were unmoved by the sufferings of others, ignorant of diversity, etc..

So, at the end of the presentation I asked her outright (privately- and in a fairly congenial way I might add) if she would feel superior to me if we were both in Japan. She knew where I was going with this (I think) and duly dodged the question- not waning to apply her generalization to herself. But I pressed on with the argument that labeling entire races/ethnicities of people as having superiority complexes or of being ignorant of others was not a viable way to confront discrimination and racial-ethnic ignorance.

She also dodged my next (and yes, loaded) question about whether she thought that I, personally, being of pale skin and all, probably believed that I am superior to non-white people. After all, according to content of her presentation, I probably should. Of course, SHE didn't feel that way about NJs in Japan herself and implied that she believed that I would not feel that way about non-whites by saying that 'although not everyone feels that way many are still in denial', but then why use the 'present company excepted' escape clause after you've just indicted an entire race?

Go figure.

The next presentation was very different in tone and scope, focusing upon Japanese student turn-taking difficulties in English. The research locus (and the research data was very professionally compiled) was that of a Native English speaker (NES) chatting with three different small groups of Japanese students in Japan, and subsequently having the researcher analyzing the turn-taking mechanics of the conversations.

The native English speaker was asked his impression of the quality of each discussion (good, bad, or so so) and his evaluations were correlated with the number and type of turn-taking mechanisms used by both Js and NES parties in the discussions. As you can probably guess, most of the turn-taking signals and acts were initiated by the NES and, what's more, the fewer the Japanese initiated or signaled a response to a turn, the worse he rated that conversation. (You know the scenario- you have to do all the topic selection, ask all the questions, do all the repair and backchannelling while students simply nod or make mundane textbook-like sentences in response).

So far, so good, right?

It was the conclusion that was worrying. The researcher concluded that because English and Japanese turn-taking styles and conversation management are so different it leads to communication problems. Therefore, Japanese students should be taught English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies.

Still seems reasonable? OK- I should add that the researcher's view of J conversation management is that it is not a Japanese cultural convention to topic-select, interject, and backchannel but apparently to patiently wait until a turn has finished before venturing a support statement. Yeah. Right. This will come as news to anyone who has seen a Japanese variety TV show, drank with Japanese in an izakaya, or- hey- has seen any group of Japanese friends simply hang out together.

The reasons that the conversations between the NES and the Js was stilted seem obvious to me. For one thing they were staged, and thus seeing them as formalized, the Js did not follow normal discourse patterns- that is normal JAPANESE discourse patterns such as: topic self-selection, backchanneling... and so on down the list. It seems pretty obvious to me that there was a power dimension at play, that the NES was seen as a type of authority figure. So the responses (or lack thereof) from the Js was not a cultural factor but one of perceived power relations. They would react similarly to a Japanese person perceived to have power or authority. They were clearly not acting as Japanese people managing a conversation, but as Japanese talking in a formalized situation with a supposed authority figure.

So, what they needed to do in order to make the conversation flow better was NOT learn so-called English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies but to use JAPANESE norms and strategies, such as support statements, repair, backchanneling, topic-selection- you know, stuff that humans, not specific cultural groups usually do, in informal situations.

Why bring in the canard of 'different cultural norms' as the explanatory factor for everything? We're not all that different!

And, yes, I did raise this point (again in a congenial manner) in the follow-up Q&A sessions. The presenter seemed rather surprised and I didn't want to put her on the spot but my comment did draw a strong and supportive response from other audience members (some of whom disliked the presenter's implicit notion that it was incumbent upon the J students to learn alleged English cultural standards when conversing with NES's in Japan).

At least these presentations stirred me up. Made me think. I suppose this is why I'm here. And I can't help but wonder if anyone was thinking similarly critical thoughts about my presentation...

(Tangential ego-inflating section:
I was in the line for visas at Hanoi Airport when the guy behind me (to be fair I initiated by asking him something about visa formalities) said, "You're Mike Guest, aren't you?". "Umm, yes, how did you know?". "Oh- you're world famous (?!)". Although he was obviously exaggerating, this caused the other people in line to turn around, eager to see the world-renowned celebrity in their midst. They saw me instead.

At another recent conference, where I was asked to do a keynote speech, I overheard one attendee say to a staff helper in reference to my good self, "That's the famous guy". I hope he was being ironic because I'm not exactly fighting the fame groupies off.

At this conference too, I've had a few people say, "Oh so YOU'RE Mike Guest!" (which I can never, nor am I intended to I suppose, accurately interpret as either, "You're my EFL hero! Let's make children together!" or as, "Why does the Daily Yomiuri let unqualified, self-absorbed and height-challenged people like yourself write such crap?"). The world of EFL is so insignificant that it's a bit unsettling and awkward to have people treat you- even for a fleeting moment- as though you are anything more than what you really are, that is, a mere English teacher. Thinking that you're a big shot in the world of EFL is like boasting that you have the best outhouse in the Ozarks...

But, hey, since I'm now in the downside of my life span, if people want to say "Hey I really liked your presentation" or "I'm glad you wrote what you wrote" then I guess I'm happy, I'll take it. Being a mere English teacher you'll take whatever recognition you can get.

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September 21, 2010

Marching and morality

I have a request for those junior and high school teachers who make their students practice and perform military-style marches during PE classes, sports days and the like. Please, stop it! Kakko warui (it looks bad)! Dasai (it’s old fashioned)! Jikan no mottainai (it's a waste of time)!

I wonder who the teachers are trying to impress with these insipid performances. Certainly not the kids. My son doesn’t want to be a soldier. Very few kids do these days. They don’t even play with toy soldiers anymore... or haven’t you noticed? My son feels stupid acting like Private G.I. Jackboot and rightfully so, as the solemnity of the display reaches levels of near self-parody. Not only is rigid symmetry aesthetically unpleasing but it actually belies what should be the joyous nature of a sports day. Why mark it with what amounts to a displaced military parade?

You might say that all students should learn about adherence to set procedures and selfless teamwork. Fine. But if I wanted those qualities inculcated in this way I would have sent him to cadet school. I didn’t. Yes, I understand that military discipline and team precision, even mindless adherence to regimentation, might be useful for soldiers, firefighters and the like but- and please read this closely- no one sent their kids to your school for that reason! It’s a basic educational tenet- match the practice with the purpose!

Perhaps you might think that the students’ order and discipline will impress us. It doesn’t. It doesn’t show us a sense of discipline as much as it indicates that the students can be manipulated into performing meaningless regimented activities by someone who is more powerful than them. It shows us that, like circus animals, people can be coerced into performing mindless routines. Strangely, I do not find that impressive.

You might argue that it has some latent moral value- that it reflects concern for the other, submission to the group. But the moral message conveyed is actually quite the opposite. It tells students that if you have power you can, even should, harangue the less powerful with orders that serve no other purpose than to make them display submission. If that is the school’s notion of morality then I’m sorry but you’ve failed as teachers.

Morality is a matter of developing a set of principles that individuals can apply in ways that are ethically sound and harmonious. If your highest idea of ethics and social harmony is determining whether a child’s knees and elbows are symmetrical or not then your sense of morality is, frankly speaking, immature. Wouldn’t time be better spent having students work out thought-provoking moral case study dilemmas than forming lines in the gym and then marching rigidly in place for an hour?

In short, what students learn about morality from such displays is that morality is just an arbitrary force to be exerted upon others for the sake of exerting authority. Dog eat dog. Eat or be eaten. Is this the ethic you are trying to teach? If so, I don’t want you teaching my kids.

Now, you might think that I am one of those namby-pamby types who gets all misty-eyed about airy-fairy notions of self-expression and independent exploration (not that these are bad things). But you’d be wrong. I think discipline, order, and an active regard for others are foundations for a healthy society and that these virtues can be inculcated in microcosmic societies like public schools. But surely more thoughtful, complex, wide-reaching means of developing self-discipline exist than practicing rituals more suited to military service or disaster prevention units. In short, this stuff is out of place in a general education curriculum. And, if so, again the practice has not been suited to the purpose. As such, it represents a pedagogical failure on the part of the teachers.

I wonder about the grandmas and grandpas watching this spectacle and what they think. Does it bring back any memories of wartime? Do unpleasant associations with an unpleasant past arise? I also think about this society’s alleged valuing of the so-called ‘Peace Constitution’ and the aversion to almost anything that could even remotely look like an international military exercise. And when I think of these things somehow, these high school military parades seem very, ummm, un-Japanese.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Countries in which mass games, military parades, and rigid marching formations (not to mention local politicians haranguing the masses to ‘do your best’ over echo-drenched loudspeakers) are popular tend to be those whose regimes are hostile towards Japan. Why Japanese teachers would want to emulate societies whose values are antithetical to that of their own is beyond me. So, if you think these exercises are somehow related to ‘love of country’, well exactly which country are you talking about?

You might argue that this is a part of ‘Japanese culture’ and perhaps that as a non-Japanese I am not sensitive to such national cultural nuances but, as I’ve explained, there are significant sectors of indigenous Japanese society who equally loathe this type of display and don’t want their children to behave as if they are living in a foreign dictatorship or under a military regime. Something more, well, Japanese would be appropriate, don’t you think?

Also, while some appeals to culture can be substantial, if that appeal consists of little more than arguing, “Well, this is what we’ve always done” then that’s an insult to your ‘culture’. You’ve basically characterized your ‘culture’ as a product of mindless mimicry. Personally, I hold Japanese culture in higher regard than that.

You might wonder what concern this is to a university English teacher like myself. Other than the obvious fact that my own children are being educated in Japan I have very good reasons for questioning these goose-step routines. Universities should be places where students develop learner autonomy and take the bull by the horns, taking responsibility for their education, as they should be on the road to becoming independent learners and researchers, right? Except that’s not happening. Students arrive too passively, waiting for directives from the teacher. They are not prepared to take the lead, waiting for someone to give the orders, to show them the correct manoeuvres. This not only affects the quality of their education, but ultimately the quality of the product for Japanese society.

Part of a high school teacher’s role should be preparing students for university. But there’s a big difference between preparing students for university entrance exams and preparing them to be an actual university student. And right now the latter is not being addressed well. And the cause is most painfully evident when we watch these horrid military exercises on sports day.

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January 18, 2011

Curmudgeon time: annoying student challenges and questions

You might want to file this one under "You know you've been in Japan too long when...". It works like this:

Japanese university students are not particularly known for being pro-active, at least in terms of asking questions when the opportunity arises or challenging the teacher. Now, I realize that while this is a bit of a stereotype, I think it generally holds true. And it’s also true that there are cultural factors that come into play- perceived power relations, the role and function of classroom lectures and so on. Of course this doesn't mean that Japanese students willingly swallow all that teachers have to say. They're far from gullible. The truth is they may think that you are the most ignorant git on the face of the earth, that you know diddly squat about whatever it is you're teaching- but they are unlikely to express their feelings out loud. Or even hint at them.

Western students, on the other hand, are supposed to be much more pro-active in their questioning, openly skeptical, even combative. Moreover, Western teachers are generally expected to even encourage this type of inquisitiveness in their students. It's considered a virtue- the hallmark of active, critical thinking. Except when you're a Western teacher in Japan, that is. Ok, maybe not you dear reader, but certainly me- and many other Western teachers I know here. The fact is that a small minority of students can be annoying, pushy, picky, aggressive, almost spoiling for a fight. Sure, I welcome those students who have legitimate questions about English or the topic at hand. It's a delight. It's the rare ones (one or two in every large class?) who are habitual doubters and nitpickers who grate.

I would also argue that when it happens, it seems worse in Japan precisely because Japanese students don't normally behave this way. And that which is not culturally normative comes across more astringently, more poignantly. It's like seeing a flash of a woman's ankle if you've been in Saudi Arabia for any length of time. In other words, the behaviour stands out more as a challenge here precisely because of its relative infrequency. Explicitly expressed student doubts about a teacher are viewed in Japan, and thus may be intended, not as an exchange of possible pedagogical virtue but as a challenge to one's credibility. Even though it rarely happens, you may not applaud their critical thinking skills but rather start feeling indignant about those students who doubt or question what you say.
Konogoro wakamono- namaiki! (Smartass kids these days!)

My top (?) half dozen annoying comment/question types are:

1. The ‘exact detail’ guy:
This is the guy (and it is inevitably a male) who comes to your office with questions like, “Sensei, you said the response essay had to be about 250 words long. Is it OK if I write 247?” Or, “You said that our survey questions should include at least 3 ranking and 3 scale type questions. Can I make 4 of one and 3 of the other?”

2. The ‘I don’t get it’ guy (usually, but not always a male):
This is the student who can’t seem to understand any instruction or activity even though he is good at English and obviously quite bright (a fact that he tries to prove to you as often as he can). In fact, this is the type who thinks just a little too much… “How should I finish this open conversation you want us to have about why we want to become doctors?” or “I don’t understand this vocabulary matching exercise in the textbook” “Why not?” “One of the matching words on the right is spelled differently in my dictionary.” “It’s a UK spelling”. “Yes, I know. It’s very confusing for us” (looks doubtfully at the textbook).

3. ‘I hate sensei because he criticized me’ students:
A minority of students simply cannot accept the fact that they have to do a re-test because on their initial test, well let’s face it, they sucked. Even though I go over my rationale for their results in some detail (‘You were merely memorizing a script written by your partner, you used no medical vocabulary, your speed was poor, you made no attempt to interact with your partner…’) some students seem shocked (shocked!) that they (they!) could possibly have fallen short. They decide this must be the teacher’s fault.

[Sidebar- Jocks, to their credit, rarely do this. I can be blunt and harsh to sportsmen (and sportswomen) and they take it with an almost masochistic acceptance and vow to improve. I suppose they are used to having coaches telling them to get their asses in gear and so on, so they take it in stride. So do attractive girls (at least those who think they are attractive). Perhaps they have never heard a male use harsh words with them before and the realization that batting eyelashes doesn’t qualify them for a get-out-of-a-re-test-free card sometimes spurs them on to better things.)

This I-will-get-revenge crew usually consists of rather shy but haughty types who’ve always taken pride in their academic abilities, perhaps to counter their lack of social skills. Those who didn’t attend competitive high schools or jukus can especially be prone to the ‘How dare teacher say my work is not good enough’ syndrome.

4. ‘Nanka ne, ano, nani datta, eto…’ students:
Sometimes students will come to my office, call me in the classroom or approach me after class with a question. Fine. For some reason, even though they have taken this positive initiative they often cannot spill out a single meaningful word in English OR even in Japanese when they open their mouths. The most amusing/annoying of these is when they start the exchange with, “What?” and look at their friend who has accompanied them to Sensei’s lair but have no idea what their buddy wants to ask. Thinking that this may just be an English skills/confidence problem I have often told them to go ahead and ask in Japanese- but they can’t even frame the subject in their mother tongue (for non-Japan based readers the Romanized Japanese after #4 above translates to something like, “Umm so, well, what was it, uhh”). If I was a rock star perhaps I could take this as a sign of mindless worship and idolatry from a fan, but as an English teacher… well. Often this Shakespeare-worthy bit of articulation is followed by a ‘meaningful’ silence as if I now obviously must be in sufficient position to respond to their comment. I suppose if I was more culturally astute I would be able to intuit their inquiry from this (I’m joking of course!).

5. ‘I deserve a half point more’ types:
These are the students who would do very well haggling in the underground bazaar in Istanbul. They aggressively campaign for the slightest possible upgrades on even the most minor classroom quizzes. “Sensei, you gave me only a half point for writing ‘I will remove it after five minutes is gone’ on the test but you gave Takahashi a whole point when he wrote ‘I’ll remove it in 5 minutes’”. “Yes, Takahashi’s answer is more natural and compact” “But mine isn’t 'wrong', is it! So why do I lose a half point?”
...And why would a student lose any sleep over this? That whole half a point will make up about .01% of their overall grade anyway. I don’t mind explaining why I docked them the point, but they seem to be less interested in the pedagogical reasons than they do in squeezing every possible point they can out of me. For sport, apparently.

6. The ‘I don’t believe you because my dictionary/junior high textbook says otherwise’ types:
You will soon learn that in Japan the dictionary is the inerrant, inspired, and immediate word of God. So, as a teacher, you can mention all you want that ‘condition’ often does not mean ‘level of wellness’ but in fact can refer to a sickness or disorder (as in ‘a blood condition’), and even offer concrete examples of usage from an authentic source. But there will still be a few doubting Thomases who shake their heads upon looking it up in their ‘Genius’ dictionaries and discover that it doesn’t confirm what you said. Out-of-date forms, awkward/unwieldy phrases and special field usages can get the same response: It doesn’t say so in the dictionary so someone must be wrong- and it can’t be the dictionary!

Any more I should add?

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February 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Teach Japanese students about Japan:

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

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

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

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

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

4. Ask general questions in large classrooms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 to come soon...

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December 27, 2012

A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions

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

So, let's get right into it.

1. It's not the government's fault

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

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

MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'

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

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

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

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

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

2. The university entrance exams are not to blame

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

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

'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'

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

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

3. So is grammar-translation to blame?

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

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

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

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

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

5. Is there really a problem?

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

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

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

The international test results canard

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

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

'Japan needs English for... whatever'

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

6. So just who is responsible?

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

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

Stop blaming...

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

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

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January 28, 2013

What the fashionable English teacher is doing this year: The 2013 ELT collection

I managed to attend and present at a number of English teaching conferences in the past six months, allowing me to feel like I'm not so isolated from the real world, despite living down in savage Miyazaki.

Trendspotter that I am, I couldn't help but notice how many of the 'cool ELT kids' have moved in new directions over the past few moons. So, if you don't want to commit some horrible faux pas at your next ELT-related ball or state dinner, some inexcusable gaffe that will reveal your total lack of Eikaiwa-world sophistication, the pedagogical equivalent of wearing a leisure suit to your kid's high school graduation ceremony, you'd better read on.

1. Beyond the post-method era

Sorry, but if you think that saying you are post-method in your teaching style marks you as contemporary you are also likely to think that 'cho-beri-ba' is current hip J-street slang and that the 'Boku ikemen!' guy is all the rage on the Talento circuit now. It seems that we have now gone one step beyond post-method. Just ask Scott Thornbury.

In a plenary speech late last year in Seoul, Thornbury elucidated upon something that I had been slowly growing aware of-- namely that previously derided and denigrated methods like audio-lingual, grammar-translation, and their offshoots, are finding a place again modern, progressive methodologies (for the record, Paul Nation has said something very similar). Of course, these are just considered parts of the new eclecticism, the notion that these much-maligned methods do have a role and a function that can be used to produce something of use or value in the language classroom. But they are, in a limited sense, back.

So you can no longer snicker condescendingly when fellow teacher X walks by with their 1950's methodology showing. It's retro-hip, it's back-to-three-chords and a breath of fresh air, it's the-past-is-the-future.

2. Plain presentations; Whistles and bells are just so... 2008!

You know how the more prestigious the academic institution is in Japan, the more rundown its premises are? (Many of highly-ranked Kyushu University's facilities look like abandoned onsen town ruins). So it seems to be these days with academic presentations. With a few rare exceptions, the more prominent and qualified the speaker, the more their presentations are just plain, stark text.

Perhaps the subtext is, 'This content is so powerful and intellectually rewarding that I need no cosmetics to enhance it'. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who still uses 1990's style clip art in my presentations although, in my defense, I never ever used twirling and flashing animations to liven up slides saying, 'Introduction and Outline!'. Nonetheless, the current meme seems to be that flashy presentations, style over substance, are for salesmen, not serious academics.

3. Low-tech classrooms- Sensei, what's that big white board for?

There's money in edu-tech and private institutions in particular like to display their super hi-tech state-of-the-art language labs as a selling point to prospective students. There used to be a lot of presentation and seminars with titles like, "Using iPad Retina Mozilla as an E-Preposition Correction Tool" complete with a demonstration as to how this gadget could not fail but increase your students' TOEIC test scores by at least twenty percent (it's always about raising TOEIC scores somehow). But I've been told by more than a few conference planners and organizers that the number of attendees for such presentations is dwindling significantly.

So, as Che sang in Evita, "That's all gone now." I get a very palpable sense that teachers are suffering from gadget fatigue that the tipping point of electronic teaching aids has been reached and breached. I've talked to some teachers who feel alienated from their students by the intervening technology, becoming the pedagogical equivalent of sound engineers-- as opposed to musicians-- in a recording studio.

4. Beat-you-over-the-head, thick-as-natto-on-mochi, referencing (Sayonara, 2013)

I was taking a gander at The Lancet recently and noted how, for such a reputable journal, how thoroughly readable it is. It's not hard to grasp why. To put it bluntly, The Lancet, and an increasing number of academic journals, are not citation sluts.

You know what I mean, those journals that seem to think the more references you provide, the more 'well-grounded' or 'objective' the article is. Which leads to 'easy' citations, where the author has clearly trawled the Net looking for someone, anyone, to backup their claim that, "English is an important means of communication".

Not only that, but the citation method is moving to the so-called Vancouver-style (superscript in the text, simple reference at the end of the paper), as opposed to the clunky, bureaucratic, brain-numbing APA dinosaur. I'd like to think that as a native son of Vancouver that I have had some positive influence on this advance although it's more likely that editors have simply realized that by using the newer style people might actually want to read the journals!

5. Young guns and their hot, stiletto stats vs. dowdy teachers in sensible statistical shoes

When I was doing my Applied Linguistics MA, statistics was not a required part of the program. Consequently, while I'm good with mental arithmetic and can still probably give you the goal-scoring stats of every player in the 1974 NHL regular season, I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to statistical analysis in ELT research. And I know I'm not the only one.

Perhaps I'm envious of youth. Some of these younger teachers are impressively well-versed in statistical nuance. It sure looks scientific anyway; all the variables have been quantified and all conclusions 'measurably objective'. But something leaves me cold with this approach, and, after speaking recently with some journal editors on the matter (three to be exact, with a standard deviation of 0.5), I realize I'm far from being alone on this.

The problem is when these young bucks display their research results in a presentation the slide often looks like it could have a screen shot of today's Stock Market Report from The Times, for all I can absorb in the ten seconds that I'm looking at it. You see, I'll believe them just as much, if not more so, if they tell me, for example, that, "Student breakdancing in English skills improved 5.9% when using the 'Timberlake Remix' as a soundtrack", if they show me a giant-sized '5.9%' on a slide, as opposed to what may be, for all I know, the Higgs-boson equation.

And the journal editors I talked to feel the same way, stating that they are exhausted (and sometimes bored) by bulky appendices of raw data gracing their journal's pages. So, perhaps this statistical minutiae has reached attrition, or has even jumped the shark-- although I bet that a few maniacs are even now trying to establish whether what I say here can be validated statistically.

6. I'll show you my culture if you show me yours!

Do oldtimers remember when textbooks, presentations, and articles about "Cultural differences" (Contrastive Analysis) and their apparent impact upon language learning and teaching were all the rage; when they were about as sexy as Kumi Koda? Now it seems they're as dated too.

I'd like to think that some of the things I've said and written on this topic (in short, that it fosters othering, increases a needles psychological gap between L1 and L2, and endorses monolithic stereotypes-- and that's without even mentioning that most fans unwittingly invoked the execrable hard version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) have rendered this once-fashionable corner of ELT into semi-consciousness.

The fact is that I see fewer and fewer academic journal articles these days extolling the dubious virtues of, for example, Hofstede's cultural categories (Hofstede is, for my money, the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of cultural theorists), and a quick perusal of six recent conference guidebooks revealed only two presentations of this type (I would have put that number at about twenty a decade ago). This, I say, is a good thing. Not only was most of this horrible social science but was also actively feeding students an already exaggerated diet of us vs. themness.

7. Are activist teaching SIGs slinking offstage left?

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the fortunes of Critical Pedagogy-types ("The language classroom should be used as a place to subvert the system!") and Special Interest Groups that are basically activist communities are on the wane?

There's a lot to discuss regarding such interest groups but I'll leave that up to a (near) future post.

Any other ELT fashionistas out there keeping up on what the well-versed ELT teacher is saying or doing this year?

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May 07, 2013

Provocative conservativism: Deciphering and dissecting one weirdass policy piece

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

Upsetting the pie of established EFL canon

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

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

Crystalline insights and Luddite knuckle-dragging

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

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

Egalitarianism-- a bad thing

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

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

Curing the dropout problem-- by kicking them out

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

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

Anti-elitist elitism?

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

Thinking for yourself 'creates confusion'

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

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

Does recitation equal understanding?

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

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

Young people as corporate fodder

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

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

Here's the original piece:

Forget cram schools, boost compulsory education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen students more strictly

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

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

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

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

Rote learning suits Japan

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

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

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

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

Education never ends

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

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

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

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