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The Uni-Files - the students Archive

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

January 30, 2009

Notes and anecdotes from the end of the second term…

A few things that I’ve noticed on campus and in the classroom in the past few weeks…

1. Choral repetition- "Now THAT’S English"…

OK, we all know that choral repetition is not the most efficient way to learn a language. This lingering legacy of the audio-lingual method is widely-regarded as a questionable methodology that looks particularly outdated in a university classroom. But I confess that I do use it every once in a while, usually to try to drill in just that bit more deeply some pattern or pronunciation issue. But it is not- and I repeat NOT- the focus, or main teaching method, used in my classes. Hey, I’m just as progressive and use as many of the new millenium methods as the next TESOLer.

What I do find interesting though is the reaction of the students to these peripheral and very occasional choral repetition bits. Suddenly there’s this rush of energy, a sense of involvement, an air of “Ok, now we’re doing some REAL English, dammit!”. With the more ‘methodologically-correct’ tasks I get varying student reactions, but with choral repetition? “Now that’s an English class!”.

2. The Center Shiken follies…

Yes, we are one of the universities that host this yearly flagellation session and, yes, it is always a spectacle to behold. A good chunk of the campus is sealed off with officials wearing black and yellow ‘STAFF’ jackets scooting around with frightening sense of purpose and efficiency, like a SWAT team before a visit by the President, making sure that all security is in place. All classes and events the day before the test are cancelled in order to prepare. Current students can’t get near the testing building, much like the common riff-raff not being able to enter the holy of holies in an ancient temple, less they defile it or, in some unfathomable way, compromise its purity.

The invigilating procedures and protocols (I escaped that duty this year) run to 60 plus pages in print, including advice on what to do if an examinee faints, claims sickness, gives birth, is kidnapped by aliens etc. It terms of tension, the whole process makes the guard stations at Panmunjom feel like a Caribbean limbo party. And did you know that there are back-up invigilators waiting in the wings just in case a 1st-stringer goes down? It’s true! Bench invigilator- now there’s a calling!

Ultimately, I feel really sorry for the examinees. The head invigilator increases the tension in the air even further by making regularly-timed declarations such as, “The biology examination of the 2009 Center University Placement Examination will begin in precisely three minutes and twenty seconds”, with all the official pomp and foreboding solemnity of a North Korean newscaster. In this edgy waiting period I recalled how students fumbled nervously with their pens and other on-desk apparatus. One poor sap spent the last five minutes of the build-up arranging and then re-arranging his seven regulation pencils in strict order according to size at his pre-determined Geometrical Spot of Most Convenience.

At least, unlike the second-stage entrance exams, there aren’t huddled groups of expectant-looking parents milling about outside and bowing more deeply to you than anyone ever has before while you pass by on your way to the john. The Center test kids usually come in chartered buses, waved through the blockades set up at the university entrance by attendants with fluorescent batons (Attica State comes to mind). I bet there are even back-up baton waving parking attendants somewhere in the wings too- just in case.

3. Anketos (class questionnaires)…

Pretty much every tertiary institution dishes out some kind of anketo as a matter of course at this time of year, usually in order to meet standards of quality control (which can affect funding). Personally, I’m not a fan of anketo. No, I’m not afraid of negative comments from the students. My ‘scores’ are just fine. In fact, just about every teacher I’ve ever met has thought that their anketo results justified whatever they were doing in the classroom (students will give most teachers a run of 4s or 5s). I hardly even look at the results anymore.

And that’s the problem. The results are entirely expected. After twenty years in the game I have an ingrained sense of what I’m doing well or not doing well in the classroom that is completely independent of what students may comment on. Call me arrogant (go ahead, I dare ya!), but I simply think students are not in a position to make certain judgements. OK, I admit though that it may give them at least a sense of 'having their say', but c'mon, do you think Sir Alex Ferguson would ask his players to rate his coaching performance with the hope that he might learn something constructive about his coaching methods from them?

Even when I’ve asked students to pointedly address a specific issue in the comments section of the anketo (“Am I using too much Japanese in this class?”), the result will be the predictable Goldilocks and the Three Bears mish-mash: one-third say too much, one-third too little, one third just right.

Of course, good anketo don’t focus so much on the teacher as they do the course, the students’ self-reflection, the learning environment, materials, whole curriculum etc. But nonetheless, the anketo ratings that students give will reflect whatever activity you did in this, or the previous, class. So, if the class prior to the anketo was a Christmas party where you gave a Christmas quiz while wearing a Santa costume, the anketo results will duly prove your 'worth' as a teacher. On the other hand, a pop quiz with some strict follow-up comments and practice would lower the anketo ratings, even if that lesson is methodologically stellar and even if all the previous lessons had been worthy.

Guess what I did in my anketo class this year?

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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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May 01, 2009

Notes from the new academic year

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

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

2. Good classroom cop, bad classroom cop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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May 21, 2009

Japanese university students and groupwork/homework

Screw the cross-cultural stereotypes and simplistic, monolithic generalizations. Japanese university students are generally not good groupworkers. In fact, I find them highly individualistic. Several common scenarios indicate this:

1.“Interactive pairwork” in which both members studiously avoid facing each other by burying their faces in books or 'prints' that are unrelated to the current task, as though they will somehow find an “answer” (even though there is no “question”) hidden there.

2.Forming pairs or groups in the first week in which students refuse to acknowledge each others’ existence. Postures are in the 'reject' position, the way Melinda the cheerleading captain and homecoming queen reacted back in junior high when Kevin, the pimply nerd from the chess club, was assigned as her in-class partner.

3.So-called 'study groups' wherein each member has their own dictionary out, covering the same words (or whatever), filling in the ‘team paper’ individually, and not telling their partners what they've come up with to complete the 'group' assignment.

4.Teamwork essays where sections have obviously been parceled out to each member, so obvious is the disjunct in tone and style in the final product. Sometimes the contributions of each partner haven’t even been checked by other members such that content duplicity is the norm. OK then- a screw up? Everybody shares responsibility!
(Sidebar- I have a 1st year assignment in which teams of 3 members write up and perform role-play style: a combination of 1) patient-doctor consultation, 2) doctor-to-specialist doctor data transfer, 3) specialist doctor-patient check. I tell them that the grade will be a team grade. But that still doesn’t stop some from parceling out each section to each member to write and leaving it at that- even though one section, written by the weakest member of the group, is painfully bad. I’d hope that all members check all sections- the very definition of teamwork- such that weaker members can learn from stronger members- but alas, often students are far too individualistic to do so).

5.Incredible hesitancy at the start of any team assignment. I’m talking about even how or where to sit. They just seem uncomfortable when not stationed behind their own individual desk and book. Making a group seems to be a rigorous, awkward process. (Another sidebar- and a totally subjective observation. Westerners are supposed to be highly individualistic, right? OK- Observe situations in which Westerners, especially those who don’t know each other well, are asked to form groups and carry out some impromptu task. You can see good examples at JALT or ETJ meetings and conferences. It takes about one second and- boom- the group gets going. But ‘collectivist’ Japanese seem uncomfortable with this, even when making groups with other Japanese [especially if they don’t already know each other] and take an inordinate amount of time to feel out the task, roles etc. I know there are further cultural explanations for this behaviour- involving sensitivity and delicacy to relationships- but it’s still a facet of classroom Japanese ‘individualism’).

Now, I don’t want this to sound like a whine about Japanese habits- there are already too many blogs like that out there. And I could balance the negatives perhaps by making generalizations about Western habits of everyone in an impromptu group having to make a big impression, a personality splash, or expressing a big fat opinion, but I won’t (heh heh). The main reason I’m mentioning this groupwork problem is because it belies what you always hear about alleged Eastern ‘collectivism’ and being aware of the reality might help teachers address it in the classroom. This, in turn, might allow students to get more out of groupwork, to be more efficient and productive (having encountered it so often I’m ready to address it and alter the behavior from the first class). This is not to make them ‘be like us Westerners’ (please, no!) but simply to be productive students who get the most out of interactive English classes by learning from others in the class, by being actively in tune with the team effort, period.

Almost all homework I give is in preparation for a next class, so that students can actually carry out a task in the regular class time rather than spending class time getting ready. In-class time is spent more productively with homework preparation. It also (usually) means that students have engaged the topic, prepped appropriate language forms, and are therefore ready to take a deeper plunge in the next class. It is very rare that homework is something that I have students hand in. It is all prep.

But almost none of my students see homework this way. They see it basically as something to be handed in to me for grading. Often, a student will have been absent from the class in question- the one which homework was the prep for- and will come to my office with a sheet of that homework paper, proffering it to me. “Actually, the class is finished, so you don’t you need it any more”, I might say. “But aren’t you going to check it?!” comes the reply (Lisa Simpson’s shrieks of ‘EVALUATE ME!’ come to mind). “No. It was to get you to think about the topic, to have you research some content, make some predictions, check the language forms you will use, and share all this with partners in the class”, I respond.

There is almost always a stunned silence at this point, one that seems to be saying, “THAT’s not homework! Why did you make me do it!!”. Sometimes I feel I should look over their work anyway, write ‘B+’ and some perfunctory comment, just to help them justify their efforts.

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May 27, 2009

Two grammar puzzles; Plus- What’s so good about working at a university; Plus- the reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-based lessons revealed!

A. Grammar puzzles
Below are two structure questions/problems that came up in recent classes that I couldn’t explain succinctly to students. What would you say?

1. “I live in Saitama, which is next to Tokyo”.
Fine, right? OK- Here’s the student’s question- Why can’t you say, “I live in Saitama where is next to Tokyo?”. After all, we can use “where” in a similar structure: “I went back to Saitama where my parents live”- but not “which”. What are the underlying rules governing the relative cluses here and how would you give a quick outline to students who ask this?
(*note- I had originally written 'relative pronouns' above, which was clearly not an accurate description)

2. “I like action movies so I watch them as much as possible”.
This too is OK, right? But movies are countable, so why can’t we say “I like action movies so I watch them as many as possible”? And why is it that if we remove “them” from the sentence we can allow the countable “many”, as in: “I like action movies so I watch as many as possible”? What is the rule governing this and how would you explain it succinctly?

B. What’s so good about working at a university?
I’ve been very cynical in this blog recently and cynicism is just too easy, the official sport of people with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. So, in a positive vein, here are several things that make working full-time at a Japanese university (as an English professor) worthwhile.

1. You have your own office. What a blessing this is! You can hold private conversations. Take an inconspicuous break. Catch up on Stanley Cup playoff scores. Loosen your belt and let your stomach hang out. You can put on a Jaga Jazzist CD and nobody will be thinking that you must be screwing around (and I’m not- the music spurs me to do more). You can spread papers around wherever you please. After having my own office, I could never go back to a teacher’s common-area (the kind with partitions or cubicles) layout. I’d feel watched all day, under constant pressure, and probably achieve less in the process.

2. Nobody tells you what to do in your classes. It’s true that part-time university teachers often get told: ‘this is the system, we want you to use this textbook, teach according to this formula’ and the like. That’s understandable when Mr/Ms. Hijoukin is in and out of campus in half a day. But if you are a full-timer, the understanding is that you are almighty in your classroom decisions (including less and less pressure to pass very marginal students these days- often a problem at many universities in the past), that you were hired to make the educational and methodological decisions, and that it is really up to you to make something of your classes and not spend time trying to figure out what administrators want you to do. They have no idea what they want you to do because they are administrators, not teachers. It’s not their job. You make your job.

3. Many of the students are at an age where you can hold adult-level conversations with them. There is the somewhat justified image of the Japanese university student who is basically interested in some combination of drinking, sex, shopping, trying out new away-from-home hairdos, reading manga, and hanging out, but that is true of universities anywhere (except for you and I, dear reader, who were always impeccably studious of course). But many university students are curious, have developed sharp intellects that need stimulation, or crave in-depth discussion (we English teachers have a tendency to underrate student intelligence if their English skills are not consistent with their intellectual prowess). Many students offer interesting outside-the-box insights or ask probing questions, or simply know how to engage society in a refreshingly adult manner.

4. When you re-enter Japan and the ‘occupation’ section on your customs declaration card reads “University Professor” the customs guys become much more pleasant and malleable. “Did you bring any fruit or vegetables from abroad, sir? No? Then let me give you some! Bon appetit!”

5. At a lot of institutions the administrators-as-aristocracy, teachers-as-peasants meme is paramount. In fact, I worked in one place where it was so comically pronounced that it was almost a deliberate provocation. Not so at a university. Professors are, effectively, the management. Those who are in purely administrative roles tend to be far from imperious, almost obsequious. Now I don’t need anybody kowtowing to me but it feels good to have some status or at least respect for your position. Administrators administrate and professors proffer. They don’t give orders (they ask politely) or behave like they are holding my paypacket strings as a carrot. In return, I am polite and very hesitant before I question their office policies. It’s all about respecting territory.

C. The reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-type lessons finally revealed!

This notion of course tends to be a Western teacher’s self-serving conceit. I’m referring the stereotype that “they” Japanese teach teacher-fronted grammar-translation lessons to huge numbers of sleeping students, lecture-style while “we” non-Japanese teach highly interactive, dynamic, living English classes that our students love and adore us for. Actually, I don’t think I’ve met any Japanese teacher who admits to using the GT/TC method- every Japanese teacher I’ve met decries it as outdated. J students will often tell me that their J high school teachers taught GT but I think that this is something that needs to be researched a bit more. I’m a bit skeptical about accepting it at face-value. I suspect that even J students maintain the association of ‘Japanese teacher’ with ‘grammar-translation’ uncritically, just as many students will swear that my class was about ‘teaching technical terms’ when in fact only two such items came up tangentially in the lesson, a lesson that was actually about…oh… academic writing.

Regardless, I’m starting to understand the attraction of allegedly Neanderthal teaching methodologies as my age advances and my body starts creaking and groaning. Why? Keeping a class of 30 or so not-always-so-highly-motivated students is tiring! Keeping up the pace of work, making sure everyone is following along and doing the correct activities, checking, monitoring, handling the classroom equipment, summarizing, dealing with problems (both linguistic and behavioral) is tough! After 90 minutes of politically-correct methodology I am exhausted! It’s funny how learner-centered methodology can be so tiring to the teacher, whereas teacher-centeredness is much more relaxing.

So, I can see why a teacher might go into the main lecture hall with his power point slides (updated a bit every year), turn off the lights, face the screen and speak on his topic for 90 minutes. Maybe students are bored shiftless. Maybe half are asleep. Who cares? He’s teaching to whoever may be listening. Those who make the effort will learn something, he knows. If students don’t want to attend or listen he doesn’t care. It’s university after all. It’s their choice- he’s not a babysitter and he’s not there to entertain. nd at the end of the semester he gives the big lecture hall a class a single paper test and fails the ones who didn’t meet the standards. He knows his content well enough- he knows that it’s sound- and he’s passing it on to whoever may be interested, even if that's only a few souls (like this blog, perhaps!). At the end of the 90 minutes he’s not tired at all. He heads back to the lab where he can do his REAL work with the select graduate students who he’s entrusted with on a day-to-day basis, students who are really into the topic. Where he really feels like an EDUCATOR!


Yeah, yeah, I know that this violates the “Good English” teacher code and that I should hand in my teaching license to the relevant authorities for even thinking of this etc. etc. and, true, I wouldn’t allow myself to actually ever do it. But I CAN see the attraction. Just sayin’.

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July 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 24, 2009

The Catheter of Damocles and the Perils of Grading 'Effort'


First, thanks to those who wrote showing concern about my condition. Although the hernia was very painful, it was not a danger and I'll be released from hospital tomorrow. Others also wrote words supporting my previous blog entry about not feeling responsible for student success or failure, but were unable to post comments for reasons that are still unknown to me (although it may have been me that screwed something up- I'm working on it).

Here's a little anecdote from the hospital, which is directly attached to the medical school I teach at, that may make you think about getting on a student's case or failing them because it may come back to haunt you:
During my convalescence I woke up one morning with absolutely no feeling in my private regions, including my entire butt. What I could feel though was a nasty pressuring pain from the left side of my abdomen. I called the nurse who told me that my bladder was backed up with urine- but with complete numbness down below I could do nothing about it. So, she called in the doctor, who just happened to be- you guessed it- an ex-student, and hardly one of the most diligent I have known. Not only that, but I remember haranguing him in class a few times for his lackadaisical attitude and I believe I made him do three re-tests until (reluctantly) passing him. Now here he was with all the power in the world over sensei, and was about to insert a catheter into my nether regions and all I could think was "He wants revenge!"
And that he could get it!

Well, as it turned out, he did his job well enough. He inserted the catheter (due to the numbness it was painless although still disconcerting, as any male will testify) relieving the bladder pain (in fact, it had built up to a critical point). It turns out that the numbness had not been caused by a rupture or other orthopedic complication but due to the anesthetic node (placed in my spine) becoming slightly dislodged, a much less serious condition.

Unfortunately, he then proceeded to drop many of the brownie points he had earned by asking me how to say ‘shinkei’ (nerve) in English (I communicated with all but one doctor in Japanese). That an orthopedist didn’t remember such a basic term was unnerving (pun intended).

So, if someday you are in the operation room and that student you harangued and badgered now looms over you with a scalpel you would be right to be afraid, to be very afraid. Those of you who teach at police academies or public officials may also want to keep this in mind. Of course, the other side of the coin is that I was able to get some special 'recognition' treatment from doctors and nurses too (and in the case of the former, the interesting register problem of exactly who should call who 'Sensei' comes into play).
But that's another entry.

Points for attendance, effort and participation- a dilemma

I bet most of you give out points for the above, right? Most teachers I know make it account for anywhere from 10-30% of a student’s final grade. After all any type of communicative English class is based upon process, carrying out tasks, facing challenges, using the language within dynamic contexts. But I’ve noticed a problem. Let me illustrate it using two students as models, Kimiko and Shohei.

Kimiko is a genki chatterbox. She is always cheerful and perky. She sits at the front and makes eye contact with you. She responds to your jokes, in fact any comment. She calls you over and enjoys asking questions in (often broken) English. She greets you in the hallways. You can hear her carrying out the tasks in the classroom because her enthusiastic voice rings out above most others. You learned her name in the first class.

You notice though that she has been absent twice, late once and forgot both her homework and textbooks on occasion. You also know that she has the habit of finishing tasks rather quickly and then ubiquitously chatting in Japanese to friends. When you chastise her she bats her eyelashes.

Then there is Shohei. He is pasty-faced and rather disheveled. He sits at the back of the class. He rarely makes any facial expression. On the rare occasions you hear him speak his voice is monotone and he does not make eye contact. He probably doesn’t greet you in the halls and I say probably because you’ve never really remembered who he is. When monitoring an activity in class he participates, but not so audibly. But you’ve never seen him sleeping or acting as if he has a divine get-out-of-this-activity-free card in his pocket. You also note that his attendance is 100%.

So, you have your tests. One is a role-play test, so more dynamic and unpredictable language skills are being tested. The other is a paper test, a little more discrete-point focused, with more writing, showing understanding at a more detached level.

And... Shohei whoops Kimiko’s butt on both tests. In fact, Kimiko makes some pretty fundamental mistakes (albeit while batting her eyelashes). Obviously, for all of Shohei’s standoffishness, diffidence, or anti-social personality, at some level he is making the effort to soak it in, while Kimiko is hit or miss.

I’m willing to bet most teachers would give the higher participation/effort points to Kimiko because of her engaging personality (no, she need not be a cutie pie), but in fact it may be Shohei that, in his awkward unsocial way, is making the greater effort to learn and master the subject. It’s something that the teacher will almost never be able to see, let alone gauge.

Food for thought.

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August 07, 2009

So, why teach English to medical students?

Yes, I know that most readers here do not teach English to medical students but I’m willing to bet that many readers teach some type of ESP, EAP, or teach to specific faculties so you can apply this to your own teaching circumstances. And while the titular question may seem obvious upon first glance I think it deserves a little deeper consideration.

I’ve listed responses in the order that most people (laymen?) assume to be accurate although it will soon become clear that I have different priorities.

1. If medical students have a non-Japanese speaking patient they will be more able to communicate with them- possibly even using the language to save a life

In my view, this is not a priority- in fact it is quite far down my list. Certainly students who plan to practice in St. Luke’s, Okinawa Naval, or other hospitals that have a high number of non-Japanese speaking patients can legitimately use this as a reason study English, but not most of mine. Most non-Japanese patients in Miyazaki hospitals (and in most of Japan outside Kansai and Kanto) will have some skill in Japanese, and in fact the majority of non-Japanese are likely to be Chinese or Korean anyway. But, more to the point, expecting students to put in a large amount of study on the one-off chance that 6 years later they may have an outpatient or two who can’t speak Japanese but understand English- an encounter that may last all of 5 minutes- is not sufficient motivation or purpose to study several English courses and credits at the university level.

This type of justification reminds of teaching English courses so that students can ‘enjoy’ a one week trip to Thailand or so that they may help a stray foreigner on the streets of Tokyo, cases in which the rather pithy and nebulous ends do not justify the means, especially so when one considers that the pedagogical forum is university education. Not only that, but the notion that a doctor will reach into his or her English lexical pocket 8 years after my class and remember the exact item or phrase BECAUSE THEY LEARNED IT IN MY CLASS is not going to occur enough to make it a primary motivation for teaching or learning the language.

2. To teach them medical terminology

Not at all. Why would I teach them medical terminology? They have dictionaries, don’t they? They can look terminology up when needed and, if it relates to their specific field of interest, they will be able to encode it without my explanation. Furthermore, there is a lot of medical terminology that I don’t know myself and, since I’m not a medical student or practitioner, I don’t have a particular interest in knowing.

Terminology in every field tends to be very narrow in terms of meaning range so such items are usually concrete and have strict 1-to-1 cognates between English and Japanese (in fact the Japanese is often just a katakana-ized version of the English). Although it is widely believed that such words are ‘difficult’ in fact they are generally very easy, in that definitions are precise and visceral.

3. Because medical professionals will have to read medical information in English, attend international conferences and possibly give presentations, write and read research papers in English, and engage with other professionals in the field

Now this is more like it. It is hard for a doctor to avoid all of the above. The chances of him/her doing some or most of the above regularly and consistently is far, far higher and of more lasting value (due to the focus upon skills over specific language items) that the belief that they will use English primarily to treat NJ patients or to learn terminology.

4. To provide a basis for those who really want to get more involved in the international medical arena, to offer them a taste and develop enthusiasm for the subject.

Although this may apply to only 10% of my students, the justification that my classes can provide a platform and serve as a stimulus to take the next step is a legitimate one. In fact, at my university we provide an advanced and intensive series of seminar and international exchange courses precisely to those who wish to answer that call, with my general courses serving as a foundation for those who want to take the deeper plunge.

5. Because having some awareness of English at the tertiary level should be a basic function of higher education.

I like this reason too. I often tell my students that when they become doctors many in society will think of them as elite, and as allegedly educated elites, it is expected that they will have some facility with English (and/or another language). This may not mean conversational skills, and it does not necessarily mean extensive grammar/vocabulary proficiency, but it does mean a greater sense and awareness of the forms of medical discourse, an overriding familiarity with the topic in English. (I plan to go into more detail on this in my next Yomiuri article later this month).

6. Because focusing upon content in another language is healthy for a learner’s cognitive development in general (especially at the tertiary level)

This is probably the best response, IMO- but the one least cited. When students are engaging meaningful content in a second language it helps them to more clearly organize the patterns of thought extant in their mother tongues. Also, when they are focusing upon meaningful content and tasks they are absorbing the forms of a second language naturally and often unconsciously, but are forced to think clearly and categorically in order to complete tasks. In short, it is good brain food and a hallmark of what university education should be all about..

I wonder if I have forgotten any valid justifications? And I wonder if readers find that the same is true in their own ESP, EAP, or other focused English teaching scenarios?

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October 08, 2009

Unintentionally positive discrimination, fraternizing, and all that

A potpourri of smaller items today.

1. Unintentionally positive discrimination
Here's a case in which native-English speakers actually receive a positive break in the university heirarchy.

Like all national universities in Japan, ours has a database in which our various achievements, duties, involvements and so forth are compiled. These are assigned points, depending upon the size of the achievement, importance of duty (usually meaning committee work) and so on. The total 'value' of your database score can be a factor when renewing contracts.

Interestingly, in our database, a presentation given abroad is given a higher ranking than a domestic presentation. So are papers published in English, especialy in foreign journals. This is obviously meant to emphasize the importance of international recognition and of furthering academic horizons for Japanese academics. But of course, this also means that without too much effort, almost by default, I can pick up a lot of easy database points.

So, here's the 'moral' question. If we operate upon the principle of complete equality then I should be subject to the same system and rankings as my Japanese colleagues, right? But clearly this 'equality' favours me in some respects as a native speaker of English. So it is quite arguable that this full equality is actually unfair. An interesting dilemma.

Here's the counterbalance though- not being fully competent in Japanese (and I mean hardcore academic or administrative Japanese here) means that I inevitably take a lower ranking in other categories- I will not be taking high-ranking roles on committees or positions of high influence within the community or wider society in general (which is a key section on the database). And this will always be my achilles heel as an NJ.

2. The unending mystery of contract renewals...
I've written on this topic earlier but I keep learning more, as the current Houjinka system has made contracts something of an open-ended free-for-all. Anyway, it seems that many university departments apply for grant money to establish new positions under the rubric of 'new researcher'. One of the conditions usually included is that the researcher not have worked in a university before. It is a way of finding new blood and giving these people a chance to get into the university system. As you know though, these are almost always limited contracts, dependant upon the nature of the grant or funding. Obviously, by definition, one can't be a 'new researcher' forever.

Many NJs are hired under such contracts (although the number of Japanese hired in this manner is inevitably higher). The notion is akin to that of a trial or probation period- after which there are several options. Once the contract expires, the idea is not necessarily that the 'new researcher' be kicked out on their asses but rather, if valued by the institution, they can be re-hired or re-contracted under a different, hopefully more permanent, designation which is funded from a different budget. This, in part, explains the musical chairs nature of some contract renewals.

Unfortunately this still also allows some university authorities the moral luxury of believing that NJs hired in this manner, and I mean those fully contributing, won't suffer much if the contract ends outright because they can always 'go home'. Luckily for me, my faculty does not think in this way and fully recognizes that we have lives and families in Japan. The upshot of course is that the NJ hired under such a contract is expected to fully operate as a part of the team, which includes...

3. Fraternizing (or not)
Recently I was asked to act as a Zacho (an academic Master of Ceremonies) for the foreign language section of a Pan-Kyushu university conference held in Miyazaki. This was a very Japanese conference with all the strict formatting and formalities you might expect. No, it was not just about foreign language study, but for all humanities subjects. It was a big suit and tie deal. As Zacho, I had to use very formalized Keigo (respectful) Japanese and follow the rather rigid 'way' of introductions, announcements and shitsugi oto (Q and A).

Now that was OK. I was glad to be asked to take part, which represented a further validation of my status at the university, plus a chance to learn the Zacho role and duly brush up on my Keigo. (even though it was held on a Saturday and with no extra pay- but hey, that's what you do to belong)

The problem was the party afterwards. I'm a family man and I had an important event with my son lined up so I told the organizer (from my uni faculty) that I wouldn't be able to attend the follow-up party. The effect was palpable. He did not criticize or attempt to dissuade me but there was clearly an air of having neglected my duty in his face, despite his "Oh, I see. Fine" response.

We all know that extra duty as a part of being on the team, including the post-kakari drinking and eating uchiage, is a sign of your commitment in Japan. But, and I'll be frank about this, the discussion and atmosphere at such events is not always so enjoyable for me. Sure, I like to have a few drinks and chat with colleagues but this was to be one of those more formalized- seiza ands speech- affairs with people who I really didn't have much connection with on a personal basis. And to be perfectly frank I feel more obligation towards my son.

Still though, even three weeks later, I have a sense of regret, that I have done the wrong thing as far as being in the university fraternity goes....

But on a positive note...

4. Good stuff from a student
Here's something that makes you feel good to be a teacher:

Last year I had a first year student who was a slacker. He missed too many classes and even in those he did attend he was inattentive and lazy. His evaluations reflected this and I failed him. Now at my university, General English is a required course and if you fail a required course you have to repeat the whole year (meaning you can take some second year classes but you will be classified as a first year student until you pass all the required courses).

Of course failing a student also means you get to see the laggards again next year and so this student entered my class once again recently for the second term. I expected much of the same from him but soon noticed that he was participating more actively, responding more dynamically with other students during the tasks, and generally seemed to be more into it.

At the end of class he approached me and told me in good, clear English that after failing last year he had asked himself why he had failed. Why did he suck at English and why was he so lazy and indifferent? To answer this he set a challenge for himself. He took six months off and went to Vancouver and focused on lifting his English skills up several notches.

And he did. His whole student deportment seemed to have been revitalized, his posture, the glint in his eyes. Here's a guy that realized he was lagging behind, challenged himself to pull up his bootstraps- and succeeded in doing so. Cool.

I wish I could say that his transformation came primarily from my teaching and my class but I'd be lying. Still, it's uplifting to see such students take the English bull by the horns...

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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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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 07, 2010

Monitoring the classroom- perceptions vs. reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 28, 2010

The Politics of 'Hello'

When Professor X, head of the English department, sees me in the hallway he gives a Japanese grunt of acknowledgement and waves his hand briefly, Ed Sullivan-style. I'm cool with that.

When Professor Y from the Anatomy department greets me he always says "Hi" or "Morning" in an unforced and friendly way. He recently spent a sabbatical in the U.S., enjoyed it, and is comfortable working within that idiom. No problem. More on this later.

But when Student Affairs official Z and I pass by me he invariably offers up an awkward 'Hello'. I've always felt a bit uneasy about this and reply in Japanese. Here's why:

First and foremost, can we please stop teaching Japanese students that 'Hello' is the standard English greeting, an equivalent to 'Konnichi ha/wa'? It isn't. 'Hello' is used to hail someone, to confirm the other parties' presence- not as a greeting per se. That's why you use it when answering the telephone. That's why you use it when entering a room, a shop or place of business, and no one's in sight. It's what you might well say to the unconscious or semi-conscious (Note how all these cases approximate the Japanese 'moshi moshi').

When it is used as a greeting (rare among English NSs) it is invariably marked. It's what Grandma says when visiting the grandchildren or what careworkers shout at the institutionalized elderly. And it's what native English speakers teach/tell to non-natives.
And that's why 'Hello' just plain sounds odd when someone greets you with it in passing.

Another, more socio-politcally based reason that I feel uncomfortable about (not "offended" please note) this 'Hello' is that it may be that the speaker thinks they HAVE TO talk to Westerners, even veteran Westerners in Japan, this way. Some such folks may feel it is burdensome ("Why do I have to greet someone in my own country in another language?"). I've sen this used as a platform for criticizing the alleged linguistic arrogance of english-speakers. The answer is of course that you don't have to do this- and in fact you shouldn't.

Some 'Hello-ers' may feel that it is a bit of a novelty. "These are the words you say to a Gaijin so let's use them". This comes off to me though as being a bit childish and as such doesn't reflect well on the speaker. (Or to be uncharitable, one might say it's on a par with making animal sounds when visiting a zoo- but I'm not going too far down that road).

Some might feel that this is my role at the university. That I am the guy you talk to in English and practice your English with- a token of internationalization. This one presents a little bit of a dilemma. I understand that most NJ teachers do not want to be treated as the walking eikaiwa school but rather as teachers, fully functional members of the institution. At the same time, there is an understandable undercurrent that I can help people with their English or bring an outsider's perspective into things that the school finds valuable. I suppose I'd say that it is a reasonable role but not one to be exploited for novelty. (In fact, special English help is expected to be reciprocated with some help from whatever that person's area of specialization might be).

At university-connected parties and extra-curricular affairs I am spoken to in about 50% J and 50% E. (These affairs usually involve university bigwigs- many of whom are quite good at English). Now, I am always happy to be talked to in Japanese, even when the content gets dicey in terms of my comprehension, for the simple reason that such people are not harping on my gaijin-ness, which can just get tiresome. Nor can they feel that it is burdensome for them or complain (explicitly or implicitly) that they are 'forced' to speak English with Westerners.

Worst are those whose English is clearly inferior to my Japanese but prattle on in English despite my attempts to ease the conversation (for their own benefit) into Japanese. Now, I don't want to discourage anyone from using English who wants to but not only is the pace of communication frustrating but I often get the impression from such people that they do not accept, that they refuse to hear, my Japanese. For obvious reasons, I feel like I am being targeted for an awkward, clunky after-hours English conversation lesson by these people and am not being treated as 'another worker at the bonenkai'- which just starts to piss me off. Not because 'my human rights have been violated by a racist xenophobe' as some would have it but because I'm being used, manipulated in perhaps the most boring way known to mankind.

As for those who address me in English, it depends. If their English is better than my Japanese AND if their manner of discussion isn't one of those overly affected J-Gaijin 'let's be international' schemas (like Professor Y above), then I'm fine. But I DO want them to know that at any time, should they choose so, speaking Japanese is absolutely ok and hey, I can take it! I always want them to be aware that there is no obligation to speak to me in English.

Students represent another dilemma. The extant goal in most schools is of course to have them improve theiir English communication skills and thereby to have NJ teachers, at least to some extent, provide them with opportunities to do so. As a result, 95% of my classroom language is in English. But, as a part of their wider understanding regarding NJ's living in Japan I do want them to be aware that there is no social obligation to speak to me or any 'visibly foreign' person in Japan in English.

So, what about outside of class, when it's about anything from administrative matters to just passer-by greetings? Here is a sample of what I tell all my new students in the first class:

"OK. Now I'm going to speak in Japanese" (ears perk up):

"I do speak Japanese, not perfectly, but for most matters Japanese is not a problem for me. Now, obviously I want you to improve your English so I will use English in almost all cases inside the classroom and expect, or at least hope, that you will do the same.

Outside of class though- well this is Japan and if you want to speak to me in Japanese that's perfectly fine. And if you want to challenge yourself or feel comfortable using English outside the classroom that's also fine. It's your choice. Whichever you choose, I'll respond in that language.

I do want you to know though that you have no obligation to speak to people who look like me in English at your part-time job or, after you graduate, in hospitals or clinics in Japan. Many non-Japanese can and will speak very good Japanese. If they don't, fine- you can switch to English.

I say this because I want you to underatand that English is not just a language for 'foreigners' but is a language for Japanese people too. And likewise, Japanese is for anyone who wants to use it- especially those who choose to live in Japan. Of course, we will usually be imperfect in second languages but that doesn't mean we have to stick to the idea of a Japanese code for Japanese people and an English code for 'others'. In fact, that goes against the basic idea of internationalization. Ok- I'm going to resume speaking English now and will not use Japanese much more inside this classroom".

Oh- I also tell them that if they want to greet me in English (which is perfectly ok with me), not to say 'Hello' but rather 'Hi' or 'Good morning'.

After all, would you say 'moshi moshi' to someone you can see?

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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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February 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 10, 2010

Some exceptional students; and one 'Debito moment'

I suppose the popular stereotype of medical students is that they are a bit nerdy, diligent and thorough, and come from fairly well-to-do families with a history of medicine in the background (Daddy runs his own clinic). As I've mentioned before, there is in fact a wide variety among our number.

Let me tell you about some students who stand out in particular:

Student Y: 5th year female. Exceptionally sociable, a real person's person. Comes from a family of seven (seven!) children and- get this- was raised by a single, welfare mother (her father was absent from the time she was born- I didn't ask why). Her mother worked at any number of odd jobs to help get her kids through school. When her daughter was accepted for medical school it was obviously a huge triumph for the family and for the mother in particular. Suffice to say that this student needs NO motivation and never seems to find the rigours of medical study to be too taxing. After all, it's probably a breeze compared to what she has already been through.

Student S: 6th year male. This is less 'inspiring' and more personally memorable. In their first year 'getting to know you' lessons students interview one another and one of the common questions is 'Who is your favourite singer/musician?'. The answers typically include the popular Western and J-pop divas, a few rap/reggae acts, the odd boy band (J or otherwise), indie J bands like Qururi or Spitz, and the odd folkie/MOR act like Kobukuro, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that one completed form had 'King Crimson' listed as 'favourite musician'. Somebody in Miyazaki U. knows (and appreciates) those dissident tritones! After talking to the guy, he admitted a fondness for Van Der Graf Generator too. Ahh- back to my musically mind expanding post-high school days of the mid 70's...

Students A and K: Y is in her 5th year and K is starting his 2nd. Both come from tiny, remote islands. A is from one of those Okinawan outposts of about 500 people where the idea of going to university, let alone becoming a doctor, is rare and exotic. K comes from an island of about 100 people off a forgotten part of the Kyushu coast, accessible only by a once-a-day ferry. He's clearly a diligent and bright fellow- one of those kind who is always thinking and challenging himself. Somehow the dilligence required to succeed despite his locale followed him through junior high school where he was deemed academically fit to get full-funding to an elite boy's school in Kansai and then on to medical study...

Student E became pregnant during her second year, the father being a classmate. They did the 'right' thing, had the baby, and grew up very quickly, supporting each other and the child all while studying. Neither of them have failed a course despite now having two young children and a third on the way (!). Compared to this couple, students who think that the notorious physiology test represents the ultimate challenge don't know what tough is. Suffice to say that I would certainly trust a doctor with this much energy and gumption with my health.

We have numerous other interesting students, some with disabilities that they have to try to overcome, some who were raised abroad (of course some people in the J education system might consider THAT a disability), a few Todai grads who returned to Miyazaki wanting to become doctors, a few students who scored at the very top of the Center Shiken nationally but chose to stay in Miyazaki...However, I haven't asked their permission to mention them here (unlike those mentioned above) so I'll end this section by saying something about discretion and valour.

My 'Debito moment'

If you read this blog much you are probably aware that I'm not a big supporter of Japan's most well-known (notorious?) NJ human rights actvist (agitator/gadfly?). Debito bats about .100 for me, with about one out of every ten of his pieces in my opinion being accurate, balanced or worthy ('culture' as an overused and convenient excuse for dubious practices and the obsolescence of the koseki system being two that I agree with). But I'm sure that all NJs have our moments when we feel a bit put out by authorities in this, our adopted homeland.

This story concerns getting an international driver's license (I have a J license already) in Miyazaki. First, in filling out the international license application form I noticed a section asking us what our 'birthplace' was. Now this is tricky for me because, as you probably know, my citizenship is Canadian, as is my passport. But I was born in the U.K. (my family emigrated to Canada when I was 1 year old).
So I asked the clerk, "Why do you want to know my birthplace?".
"Because your citizenship must be noted on the license", she replied.
"But what if my birthplace and citizenship are different?" This took a few seconds to register with her.
"Oh. Ok. The country of your passport should be written in". I duly did so but mentioned that 'citizenship' or 'country of passport' should be the category, not 'birthplace' (you can just feel the long arm of the koseki here can't you?).

I then proceeded to the bottom part of the form where I was asked:
1. Where are you going?
2. When are you leaving and returning to Japan?
3. What is the purpose of your trip?

Now, for a driver's license this seems to me to be rather intrusive. What business is it of theirs as to why I'm going abroad, or where? This isn't the freakin' immigration office, is it? So, I told the clerk that this was private information irrelevant to issuing a license and said that I didn't want to divulge my private information in this way and so wouldn't fill that part in. I said this kindly but firmly, mentioning that I'm sure she was aware of the current importance of privacy issues in Japanese public affairs.

So she did what you could expect. She called the old Kacho guy from the adjoining office and explained it to him. I have less patience with these kind of people. You'll soon see why. He approached me and said "You have to fill this in. It's a requirement".
"Because it's necessary"
"I'm afraid you didn't answer my question. Why is my private information, such as the reason I plan to travel abroad, necessary for a prefectural MV licensing center to know"
"Because we can't issue the license without it"
"Ummm you seem to be evading my quesition" (I then raised my voice- not in anger- but so that customers nearby could hear).
"It this because you plan to give citizen's and resident's private information to the police or immigration authorities?".
Saying this directly made him nervous, and rightly so. I didn't actually think this was the explanation but yes, I did want to rattle him.
"No. It's information like a census. If we know the applicants' travel data we can serve them better".
"Shouldn't it be voluntary then? After all this isn't North Korea, is it, where every reason for every movement has to made known to officials. Anyway, this data would already be known to immigration officials or travel agencies."
"We just collect the data, but it's not collated with the driver's personal details".
"It's not the Edo Period, where you couldn't move without permission from authorities, right? It's Heisei 22 and Japan is a democrracy, right?". (Now I was sounding like Debito. Yikes!)
"Look you don't have to write in detail. Absolutely anything you write there will do. But we can't move until you fill it in with something".

So under "purpose" I wrote "private". Under destination I wrote "various" (this makes sesnse of course because the license is valid for a year and therefore for multiple visits. It's not like sigle permit re-entrry visa). And under 'departure and retuirn dates' I wrote that day's date (although I am not due to leave until later in March). He took the form away for processing.

I then asked the clerk, "I'm sorry about this but privacy is a current issue I'm sure you know and none of this seems relevant for a prefectural driver's license office. So as a resident and as a customer (you pay ¥2680 for the license) I'd like to make a complaint about this application form and ask that these questions be abolished in the future. Please mention this to your superiors or however you may process complaints. Oh- and one question. I'm curious. Do Japanese people sometimes complain about these questions?"
"Yes," she responded, "a few".
"Thank you", I said, "So please pass my comments on".

A few days later some beefy men in sunglasses in an official DMV car came to my home, demanded to see my passport, and tore out my Japanese visa. They also ridiculed my wife for being impure in marrying a foreigner and my children for being of mixed blood. Then, upon leaving, one added that 'Only Japan has four seasons' (I'M JOKING!!!)

But I admit that I did do myself in a bit. By being obstinate about the departure date I inadvertently caused that date to be named as the starting date of my license's validation, and not the day I leave- as a result I waste about three weeks' validity. Of course, instead of asking the intrusive "departure and return from Japan" question they should just ask, "From which date would you like validation to begin?".

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March 25, 2010

ESS- How Tomoyuki lost his groove

(The following is a bit o’ fiction based on a series of real incidents, sewn together with a bit of -ahem- artistic license. The way in which peoples’ good intentions get misinterpreted and misdirected in a foreign language, and ultimately leads to tension and frustration, is an interesting topic for me)

There it was near the bottom of the list of clubs. ESS- English Speaking Society. Tomoyuki liked the sound of that. It had an air of sophistication and worldliness about it. Coming from a small provincial town Tomoyuki couldn’t really think of himself as a man of ‘society’, especially since until this April he had focused almost solely on the university entrance exam. But now, having entered a prestigious university in a bigger city he felt eager to shake off his provincialism and perhaps joining ESS was the way to start.

Ryota, the only other student from his high school to have entered the same university, tried to convince Tomoyuki to join him in the tennis club. “The seniors seem cool, there are lots of social events, and there are some freshman hotties who are managers”. But while Ryota was more of a sports and party guy, Tomoyuki yearned to be erudite and sophisticated. And joining ESS at the university was his first-stage ticket.

Although he knew that his high school English classes had not really been practical, despite Fukushima sensei’s attempts to give them life and relevance and the occasional visit from an ALT from Kenya (to whom Tomoyuki was one of the few to listen with rapt attention and respond to), he had scored well on the exams and felt that he had a better overall grasp of English than most of his classmates, who seemed to only be able to produce individual words or set phrases.

He arrived several minutes early for the first ESS meeting, eager to show his interest. A few students were already there, one or two faces he recognized as other freshmen from orientation, plus a sprinkling of those who were clearly seniors. He nodded at the few familiar faces but kept his head down. One older guy had a notably casual, almost arrogant, air about him. Legs stretched out forward, crossed at the ankles, a little too relaxed.

They’ll probably ask me to introduce myself in English, Tomoyuki thought, and started practicing the mantra in his head. Just as his brain was weighing up "come from" vs. "came from" he heard English chatter coming down the hall towards the ESS room.

The foreign teacher who led ESS, was Goertzen. Tomoyuki remembered the name from the class schedule distributed just the day before. He assumed Goertzen would start by introducing himself and welcoming everyone in English but instead Goertzen strode in chatting amiably in English with a female student as if they were on a private date. Somehow, that cavalier approach made Tomoyuki feel uneasy, as did the fact that the girl crossed her legs when she sat down.

But wait a second, he thought, the girl is good. I bet she’s a returnee- that’s why she’s so fluent. He heard her call the teacher "Dave". OK, Tomoyuki thought, foreigners are usually rather informal with each other, but this seemed to be overly familiar to him. It was almost as if the girl was saying, “I’m not one of you, I’m an English speaker”. OK, maybe you’re just feeling jealous because she’s fluent, he thought. After all, wouldn’t you like to be able to communicate in English with that degree of confidence and control?

Goertzen began. “Today Kanako, a fourth year student, will lead us. But feel free to speak at anytime. And relax!”

Relax, on my first day, yeah right! How long has this guy been in Japan? Then Kanako began to speak, just a little faster than Tomoyuki could follow comfortably, her chirpy banter filled with "yeahs" and "wannas". OK- tone it down already Ms. Returnee he thought, and then realized he hadn’t been paying much attention to what she was saying.

As fate would have it, she called on him first. A self-introduction is natural at this point, he thought. “My name is Sakai Tomoyuki, Tomoyuki Sakai” he blurted out, correcting the name order to suit the English style. “Sorry, what was that”? Goertzen butted in. What was what? Tomoyuki’s mind raced. “It’s my name”, he said. What did you think it was? “Tomoyuki Sakai” Kanako concluded with an air of finality, and fixed him with a look that was either of encouragement and compassion or condescension and pity. Tomoyuki assumed it was the latter.

Just as he was about to continue, Kanako asked him something else, ending in the word ‘from’. What? He wanted to check what her question had been. “My hometown?” he asked, but realized that his intonation was flat and that it had come out like a statement instead: “Where are you from?” “My hometown!” Duh!

He wanted to smack himself in the head. Kanako flashed him that look of pity again. A few other students shifted uncomfortably. Goertzen spoke up. “Well of course you come from your hometown. We all do. But where is your hometown?” There were a few chuckles, especially from Mr. Casual. Goertzen did nothing to discourage them. Tomoyuki felt his cheeks burning and answered, but in his lingering embarrassment the discussion that followed completely eluded him.

When he re-focused, the topic had changed and Goertzen was now saying something about “…six years of high school English …you can’t speak English yet.” Tomoyuki was angered by this. Why don’t we speak English?! Because this is Japan! Are we expected to suddenly change our national language after high school? Was Goertzen one of those arrogant foreigners who thought that Japanese people were somehow obligated to speak English, and who thought that people who didn’t speak English well were less than himself? Tomoyuki didn’t think of himself as being particularly nationalistic but now he felt that part of himself burning and thought he might redeem his earlier awkwardness by volunteering an answer to this question. Foreigners speak directly, he thought, so I will too.

“Because here is Japan!” he blurted out, inadvertently pointing to his nose. “I know this is Japan.” Goertzen looked a bit exasperated. “I just wanted to know how and why the English system here has failed the students!” Who said I failed English? Tomoyuki thought. I actually had one of the highest English scores in my high school! Was this arrogant gaijin already judging him?

“Ba chew wanna get better at English, yeah?” Kanako chimed in. “Yes. I want to be”, he responded. Then he realized that English verbs usually require objects. “It”, he added awkwardly several seconds later. “I want to be… it”. He saw Mr. Casual sigh and ostentatiously check his cell phone.

Tomoyuki wanted to smack himself again. Every twelve-year old in Japan can say, “I want to become good at English” and here he had messed up even this, the simplest of English sentences. He felt his cheeks burning again, kept his head down, and checked his watch.

Tomoyuki ran into Ryota in the passageway later that day. “How was that English thing you went to” “OK, I guess” “Any hotties? “I didn’t notice” “There’s still room for freshmen in the tennis club!” Tennis sounded good to Tomoyuki.

After the ESS meeting, Goertzen was chatting with Kanako in his office. “I’m not sure why that Tomoyuki guy came to ESS today. He didn’t seem interested in English and was even a little hostile. And he can’t speak it at all although I suppose that ESS can help him get a bit better”

“Well he’s a small town boy,” Kanako responded, “I tried to be nice and help him but he just seemed, well, awkward. He doesn’t know how to interact with people like us. Sometimes I pity people like that”.

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April 30, 2010

Fixing poor student study habits: Notes to self

Note to self-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June 15, 2010

Introducing Jiro (cheers) and Taro (hiss)

Oldtimers here may remember an early David Letterman segment called ‘Fred and Frank’ in which contrasting examples were given of the angelic Fred and diabolical Frank in various situations. Having been teaching EFL in Japan since the bubble days I think I can do the same regarding my students, so instead of Fred and Frank, let me introduce Jiro and Taro:

When Jiro greets you in the hall he says ‘Hi’ and nods his head with a smile. When Taro meets you in the hall he ignores you until he has just passed you and then says in his best goofball voice, “Harro!” and then chuckles about it to his buddies.

When Jiro sneezes in class he discreetly covers his face, turns away, and tries to minimize the force. When Taro sneezes in class, not only does it come out like a threat, but he also looks around the classroom upon completion to make sure that everyone else enjoyed it as much as he did. Droplets litter his desk and the hair of the girl who sits in front of him.

When Jiro presents his homework assignment it comes in a clear file with A4 sheets pinned together, his work typed and double-spaced. Taro’s assignment is written on the back side of a page torn out of a manga and appears to have been written in crayon. He signs it ‘Talo’. There are droplets on it.

Jiro lists his hobbies as “badminton, drama, foreign travel, and learning Korean”. Taro lists his as “sleping” (sic).

When you enter the classroom and ask students to take out the print from last week’s class Jiro already has it placed on his desk. Taro holds up what appears to be a scrap paper from last year’s German class and asks, “Kore?” (This?)

When you call on Jiro to answer a question and he doesn’t know, he quickly and clearly responds, “Sorry. I'm not sure”. When you ask Taro the same question he looks at you as if you’ve just arrived from the Planet Fungus, then looks at another student and says, “Ehh?”.

When you assign partners Jiro immediately goes to the partner, greets her, and rearranges his desk accordingly. When you assign Taro a partner, he doesn’t remember who you partnered him with and stays put in his seat until that unfortunate soul finally comes over to him. Then he says, “Ehh?”

When you announce that a test will be held in two weeks based upon textbook pages 15-30, Jiro makes a note and marks the relevant sections. Taro looks over at another student’s textbook and says, “Kyoukasho arun kai?” (Do we have a textbook?)

When Jiro comes in late he discreetly and quietly takes a seat at the back and then apologizes profusely because ‘I had a car accident’. You then see the fresh stitching in his shoulder. When Taro comes in late it is always during the listening exercise, where he bangs his stuff down ostentatiously on his desk, and loudly proclaims “tsukareta” (I’m bushed) to no one in particular before yawning. He then turns to another student (who is intent on listening to the recording) and asks what’s going on.

Later, you find out that Taro caused Jiro’s accident because Taro was ‘sleping’ at the wheel.

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June 25, 2010

Blowing your top and hitting the ceiling- some thoughts on classroom anger management

Every teacher I've ever met can recount tales of student malevolence, ignorance or just plain bang-your-head-on-the-desk classroom numbskullery but hey teach, there's no need to get angry!

I'm speaking of course as a university teacher. Now, I won't pretend that our students have exactly the same social or emotional issues that afflict JHS or HS classrooms, and neither are we expected to be social or emotional mentors or guardians in the same way that teachers at those level are, and classroom displays of anger just don't cut it. At this level students are responsible for their own choices and if they choose to mess up royally, then by all means... hey, it's your life.

I used to get worked up, feel the steam rising in my ears, and give the students a dressing down worthy of a Bobby Knight (or Nicholas Anelka?) on occasion but either I'm maturing and am able to control my classes better or I've become more apathetic over the years. Probably a combination of the two.

Anyway, here's why explosions of classroom anger don't work:

1. The Crying Wolf effect- Blow up enough and people just assume it's your personality at work. They'll think you're a volcano and that sometimes you're the type who's gotta let off steam. Ho-hum. Hey, that's your problem buddy, not mine.

2. In response to your gnashing of teeth, students may just try to placate you as opposed to absorb whatever it is they are supposed to be gleaning from sensei's rant.

3. Most people do not respond positively, either in terms of motivation or performance, to outbursts of anger. My wife may direct the occasional tirade my way over my supposed lack of common sense regarding housework (such as not slicing carrots into the 'proper' shape) but this certainly doesn't make me want to just get up and do an extra toilet cleaning for my own edification. (Note- She doesn't read this blog. I don't think. Do you, honey?)

4. The legacy of angrily targeting an individual or group can affect classroom dynamics for a year (or longer). Your anger may be gone by the next day but your tirade will be remembered long thereafter- and not likely for its pedagogical value.

5. Positive reinforcement almost always creates better study habits than negative reinforcement.

6. If someone is actually trying to get to you and you respond with anger, they've got you. They've won. Throwing a great purple hairy (now how's that for a throwback term?) over it simply shows them your weakness.

7. So your lesson isn't going as well as planned because some students are being thick-headed. Really, so what? If that type of event is so horrific and earth-shattering as to induce an angry outburst your life must be pretty stress-free in other areas.

8. Most of the students in fact aren't doing the malevolent, ignorant or stupid thing. It is always a tiny minority who constitute the bizarre or of the mind-bogglingly 'don't get it' variety. We shouldn't identify this tiny bunch with 'our students' as a whole, although we tend to.

9. It would be unacceptable for students to explode in a similar manner so, as a role model...... Do I really need to finish this sentence?

10. Lessons aren't your 'show' when you're 'onstage' so don't treat it as if someone's trying to upstage you or steal your teacher's thunder. Treating such behaviour as a personal 'dis' indicates that pride may be a little too much of a factor in your teacher's repertoire. Most public displays of anger are just self-indulgence anyway.

But, some might argue, there are reasons to justify classroom anger. Ok. Let's think of some possibilities:

"The bad student's disruption ruins it for the good students"- This is more likely to be a factor in HS or JHS where bullying and/or intimidation will play more of an immediate role. Now, if it is at the level of actual 'gakkyu houkai' (classroom breakdown) the issue runs deeper than any shouting or waving of arms is going to fix. At this point it's too late for a teacher hissy fit. As for the university level, it's rarely long before the other students deal with the doofus in their own way- the troublemaker's social standing is not likely to remain high for long.

"Students produce when they've been told off. A little fear of the teacher can be a good thing"- At certain ages yes, but for young adults? Is this a legitimate learning dynamic at the university level? Instilling an atmosphere of fear might yield some short-term results but its long-term effect is not usually going to be conducive to developing better academic skills.

"Students will take advantage of you if you don't put your foot down. And they'll respect you more too when you do it"- Being firm, exuding strength and flipping your lid are very different things. In the first case you indicate that you are in control, but in the latter you indicate that you've lost control. Which are students more likely to respect?

Finally some common sense advice-
Dole out cautions and criticisms with regard for the students' personalities. That's right- don't treat them all the same. Some students can take a lighthearted chiding from sensei as a matter of course, and many do in fact respond well to directness and firmness, but for some- well they might just crawl into a shell and hate you and English forever and drag their friends into it (potentially sexist comment warning: this happens much more with female students it seems). And you don't need the hassle, right?

Laughing it off (while adding your caution or criticism) in classroom at the time is very effective and good for your heart and arteries too.

Calmly and carefully starting all over on a section that the students have made a hash of is more effective than wasting time hurling invective over their incompliance.

Warn sleeping, late, or inattentive students rather than get visibly angry at them. Strongly but firmly. After all, if they choose to zone out it's no skin off your nose. You always retain the power to give re-tests or to fail them.

If you reach a situation where no one seems to be listening to you, you certainly will get their attention with a tantrum but it's not the kind of attention you really want. Allowing for a little chaos at times can be liberating. Classrooms that teeter on the brink can be fun and still pedagogically viable. Teacher-mandated absolute control doesn't ensure that students are actually learning. Waiting aside for the chaotic moment to reach attrition and subside is also more effective than venting your spleen and tearing your sackcloths into ashes.

Never, ever, ever indicate that a student is, or has said something, stupid. While this might seem like the most common of common sense, many teachers make those "What-the-?", 'Duh!" "Are you nuts?" faces, or derisive snickers, without their realizing it. Watch out for those cases when, although you'd never say "Are you an idiot!?", your facial expression is betraying your thoughts.

Finally, although I hate to play the overused 'cultural differences' card, there is a very good chance that blowing your stack will be seen by students more as a Gaijin-esque cultural quirk rather than a means of enforcing whatever point you were trying to convey.

Chill. (Man, it's hard to say that at my age)

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July 07, 2010

Riffing on 1) Extreme J student nerves 2) So-called "thinking outside the box", and 3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Three mini topics today...

1. Extreme J student nervousness

Today I held some role-play tests for my 1st year general English class (medical) students. These involve 2 students acting as doctors, taking a basic medical history, and putting the information on a chart while I act as the patient. Yes, it is a demanding test as it measures not only lexical and grammatical competence but also: topical knowledge, the ability to think on your feet and improvise, to predict and summarize. It also demands social and interactive skills and organizational skills for completing the medical chart.

I never expect perfection and that's what makes this test a learning experience. Tests should hold pedagogical value, value which is realized through having students face new challenges.

I naturally expect that students will be a bit nervous because this test does place them on-the-spot and, after all, a test is a test is a test. But I am often surprised at just how mindlessly nervous some students can become under pressure- which is not what you want to see in medical students.

Expanding a bit now, I suppose if I were to choose one widespread characteristic of Japan that I find negative it is this overbearing sense of nervousness. I'm sure you know what I mean. That scurrying and near-hyperventilation that accompanies most services and almost any sudden interaction between insiders and outsiders (not just Gaijin but anyone who might be considered non-household or friend). It seems that even the most innocuous situations, such as two housewives with kids at the same day care center meeting suddenly, are punctuated by this display of stress and tension.

Now, I understand that there is a 'cultural' factor involved to some extent here.This formalistic ritual expresses concern in Japan, that one is being attentive and actively involved in the other's sphere. Obsequiousness (is that even a word?) is a type of positive politeness, and a cool, relaxed exterior may be interpreted as a lack of concern for the other, that one is being lackadaisical or slovenly in one's relations. And as a cultural trait that's fine. Service is generally excellent in Japan, albeit over-laboured, and I have rarely met an arrogant or standoffish Japanese person in the service industry as a result.

But when students are taking a test they are not thinking about politeness or carrying out a social ritual. They are not partaking in the rites of 'Japanese culture'. They are all a-flutter merely because they are having a test. As a result one sees:
- students who almost completely lose their voice, on the verge of choking
- students who make a hash of the most basic patterns, the ones they've been absorbing for years
- students constantly breaking the lead on their 'shar-pens' due to excessive nervous force
- students becoming confused to the point of panic when hearing instructions such as, "Write your name on the top line of the chart"
- students writing the first stroke of an alphabet letter four times and erasing it each time for no apparent reason
- students dropping their bags and other goods off the desk after hurriedly placing them half on, half off
- students actively mopping their brows- the only times I ever see them sweating profusely

...this sort of thing. It's just too much. I mean, a certain amount of nervousness can spur one to a better result in many endeavours but too many students I've met here have it to the point of complete debilitation. In fact, you think that many would be so used to facing big exams that mine would be a yawner.

Anyway, this has negative applications outside the English classroom. Excessive J nerves when dealing with NJs can be annoying and sour relations. Communication becomes belaboured, artificial and awkward. The upshot of this is that many would rather duck away from an NJ rather than even risk the possibility of interaction (like the person who won't sit next to an NJ on the train out of fear that the NJ might possibly ask them a question in English).

It can come across as standoffish, self-absorbed, and exclusive when there is no such intention. For example, if you look at those (very, very rare) cases in which J business establishments have erected exclusionary signs the explanation/justification is almost always not that the person responsible had a pathological hatred of Gaijin, but rather 'couldn't speak English' or didn't know how to 'deal with foreigners' (Note- I'm not saying that these are legitimate excuses, but they are real). NJs make them nervous---- but as a result of trying to save face they end up coming across to the wider world even worse.

I've also noticed that Japanese people who make a lot of NJ friends tend to be those who are calm, cool, collected, and radiate what I might call that 'surfer bravura'. I find students who are not so tightly wound and wired to be much more pleasant to deal with. And the students who take my role play tests and try to engage me, the patient, with natural warmth and carry out normal interactive skills inevitably end up with higher grades for the test- not directly as a reward for having a desirable personality trait but because such students are more able to think on their feet, to adjust to the flow of the role-play content, and to find a way to circumnavigate tricky grammatical or lexical items.

But the question for you- dear readers- is... how can we reduce this high-tension sweat fest without removing any sense of challenge and authenticity (read: open-ended dynamic language use) from the classroom?

2) Creativity- Thinking inside the box

The theme for this year's national JALT Conference is, "Creativity- Think Outside the Box".
Hmmm. This bothers me for a number of reasons:

1. The term "thinking outside the box" is an old, drab, hackneyed cliche. Surely, if one wishes to address the issue of creativity one could conjure up a more original description?

2. People who like to use the phrase "think outside the box" generally attribute this skill to themselves and deny it to 'society', 'people' and anyone with any power or authority. And personally I've found that the self-platitude is inevitably a mismatch. In short, every mother's son believes that they "think outside the box".

3. This phrase reflects the dubious notion that creativity is indelibly tied with non-conformity or separation from confines, as if only outsider status confers the gift of creativity. To be frank here I find that a rather sophomoric, even naive, understanding of how a creative mind works.

4. People tend to make this claim about their ideological opponents- no matter what the ideology.

5. Real creativity, it seems to me, involves thinking from inside the box. We all live or have to work within box-like confines in one way or another and an undue emphasis on doing something 'different' is not always the most beneficial solution to a problem or the most endearing artistic expression of our lot. Creativity can easily be manifested by dealing with questions such as, "How can I re-arrange the contents of this box in a manner that most benefits myself and the others?" or "What contents of this box have the inherent ability to be manipulated into various shapes and relations- and which combinations of that will best allow problems to be resolved or truths to be expressed"?.

A great deal of twentieth-century art of all types has benefited from looking at the standard box, the detritus of normal life, and finding inspiration in the re-arrangement of the mundane, giving it voice through the commonplace, and ultimately finding creative expression in its repackaging of the banal. Show me that Brillo box again, Andy. I think I see something in it.

Kind of like this mini-treatise on creativity, if you will (wink wink).

3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Why on earth do English teachers in Japan pound the students with practice in giving self-introductions? Useless and boring? Indeed! Let me count the ways...

1. It is not a part of any naturally-occuring discourse. I have never in my life as a genuine, red-blooded native speaker of English given a self-introduction. The only time people carry this farce out is in EFL classes.

2. Self-introductions are inevitably boring because no one cares about the details and/or will not be able to remember 90% of what was said two minutes later anyway.

3. They take way too much time and, as such, are just a self-indulgent conceit. I've seen numerous 'International Symposiums' or round circles of some sort held in Japan where you have 15 people performing this pitiful soliloquy for several minutes each before you get to the actual topic of discussion, which by now has been now drained of any vitality.

4. Most people say the same thing or the bleeding obvious. For example, a foreign professor is meeting 4th year students at X university and each student duly says: "I am a 4th year student at X university". You don't say now!

5. I know that self-introductions may allow students to learn and practice basic identity statements. But if we want them to do so let's at least place them in the most appropriate discourse package. That is this: people reveal relevant self-information when they are asked for it or when the time seems right between interlocutors.

So, if I meet Dr. Y at a post-presentation wine & cheese doodad and start chatting, we may talk about any topic at hand. And at some point I may extend myself by saying, "By the way, I'm Mike". Now if Dr. Y wants to know where I come from, what I do for a living, or what my favourite type of Weisse beer is (Weihenstephan), I will wait until he asks, or there is sufficient reason to mention this. Otherwise I'm just a walking textbook pretending to engage in 'internationalization' by telling others data about myself.

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July 30, 2010

A very brief blueprint for Japanese university English programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. be academically viable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another 'featured' presentation I attended...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 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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September 29, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 26, 2010

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

Two mini-posts today…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody: Ehhhhh!!??

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Ummm, why not Sato?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody: Ehhhh!!!???

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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 03, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 26, 2011

The F word on trial

Here's a news item that caught my attention
. It regards a British teacher in Australia who was fired for using the ‘f word’ as a topic during an ESL lesson but won the ensuing ‘unfair dismissal’ court case.

In my opinion, this teacher did everything right. Let me explain…

Students love slang

Most teachers know that students are unusually enthusiastic about learning ‘slang’, especially those words that carry weight that they’ve seen in movies. Some teachers have used this inordinate interest in the underbelly of the English language to bring the offending words into the classroom, giving a type of legitimacy to the normally uncouth. When done egregiously or gratuitously there is likely some juvenility in the teacher’s motive, that titillating pre-teen thrill of breaking socially-acceptable barriers. Webster, the teacher in this case, used it much more judiciously (although I thought that in Australia the word almost constituted a standard greeting!). To wit he:

- Used it only peripherally (20 minutes in a two-hour lesson), which is where slang, colloquialisms, and idioms belong
- Used it only upon request from his students
- Explained it only in his advanced class
- Offered some extended details about its actual social usage and function, including mis-use
- Wisely recognized that his students were overusing the term, quite possibly because they were copying what they had heard in movie scripts (where people resort to dramatic or shocking expressions far more than people in real life do)
-Told non-native speakers not to use it

Rough language- swinging and missing

The last point is crucial. Using rough or socially questionable language should be left to those with excellent control of the language. I don’t say this because I’m a prude (I’ve been in enough locker rooms and bars to inure myself to the force of the word) but because if you don’t use it perfectly, in the right time and place, with the right speed, intonation, and collocations you can put your foot in your mouth big time. It’s like, to draw an analogy with something I actually saw recently: taking a huge swing at a ball at a batting center, whiffing on the ball completely, and having your momentum be so strong that you actually fall down into the protective netting separating yourself from the ground. Which is longhand for saying you can look pretty stupid if you miss (I also recall a non-native English speaker vehemently telling a co-worker, “I do not receive that shit!” as another potent example).

Being out of your language league

Let me tie this in with something a little more extensive as far as English teaching goes. Verisimilitude. What I mean is this-
I’m sure you’ve had students who spent some time abroad, perhaps enough to tickle their Wernicke’s area but not enough to develop fluency. But… they still want to sound natural. Fair enough. So, they liberally pepper their speech with ubiquitous ‘gonnas’ and ‘wannas’ having learned that these reduced forms (suprasegmentals?) are commonplace (especially if you happen to be Bryan Adams). It stands out from the rest of their cautious, uncertain speech like a bongo player in a string quartet. As such, they come off sounding much more cavalier, even trashy, than they intend it to be. In other words, there is a time and a place for wannas and gonnas but it has to harmonize with their overall language skills in order to avoid them sounding like Forrest Gump addressing the graduating class of Cambridge University.

I’m willing to bet that many readers have had experiences in Japan where they used rough ‘n ready Japanese in a way that initially seemed appropriate (Hey, it even says ‘tomare!’ on the roads!) and yet were rewarded with looks of embarrassment (probably because you tried to sound like some Yakuza but you came off like a complete wuss- or English teacher- instead) or got the receiving end of that schoolmarmish ‘We do not use such language here!’ expression (where you’re not sure if the underlying violation was that foreigners are somehow supposed to sound extremely polite OR that you really went waaaay over the top) from your Japanese peers. The bottom line is when you’re not in complete control of the lingo you’re like a knife-thrower doing an exhibition after downing several pints with a bunch of Scottish football supporters.

Where do colloquialisms fit in?

Actually, I’m not a big fan of “teaching” colloquialisms at all (as I mentioned in my earlier reply to Kumiko Torikai). I don’t mind mentioning them or pointing them out when they appear in a wider context but, like Torikai, I see them as being too localized and narrow to be much more than filler in the Japanese education system.

Lest some readers take this as an endorsement of some formalized rigid version of English let me point out that I do support the pedagogical value of speech grammar- the non-canonical way in which all manner of native speakers arrange their spoken interactions, use ellipsis, employ pragmatics using environmental cues, engage in negotiation, backchanneling, repair and other dynamic strategies and other forms that distinguish the spoken from the written word. But novelty items, which I would classify colloquialisms as being, do not suit the agenda.

So there is a place for discussing the use of profanities in the classroom, if only to steer our students away from potentially putting their feet in their mouths or even getting a beatdown. This was Luke Webster was doing. As for Mercury College, who had employed Webster, well I'm sure he has a few choice words for them.

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June 17, 2011

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

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

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

Poster sessions work!

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

The framework- nuts 'n bolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warning! Do not attempt this unless...

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

A clear, narrow topic that you want to talk about

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

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

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

Research is crucial- so is flow

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

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

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

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

Connecting with the viewer- the visuals

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

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

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

Making posters interactive

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

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

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

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

Trust me- properly handled, poster sessions really work.

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July 01, 2011

How to talk to Japanese women- EFL Version

I can imagine that some readers might have arrived here after Googling "How to meet Japanese girls" or some such thing. If you have, you've probably come to the wrong place. This is about how to manage English classes that are all, or predominantly, female in Japan. (In my university medical courses the M-FD ratio is about 55% M, 45% F. In Nursing classes it is 85% F. In the few classes I teach outside the university the Fs make up about 90%).

Let me start with what should be obvious-- the dynamics of female-dominated and male-dominated classes in Japan are palpably different (ask F teachers who teach all-male classes). Anyone standing in denial of this has probably not been in a Japanese university-level classroom (and is probably the type of person who thinks that Finnish and Brazilian cultures are pretty much the same because, hey, they're all just people).

Yes, it's true that neither classrooms nor genders are monolithic entities...
And yes, there are males who display some traits that we might normally apply to females- and vice versa. Yes, individual, idiosyncratic, psychological make up is always a significant factor-- but none of these change the fact that the general flow, rhythm, and atmosphere of all-female classes are not the same as with the men. So yes, some generalizations will ensue. And keep in mind that these comments are about Japanese students in an EFL classroom- they are not meant to represent all women. The interpretation as to which elements are gender-based and which are cultural or even domain-centered (the EFL classroom) is variable. So, YMMV.

All of this becomes especially pronounced when the teacher of the F-dominated class is a male, which is obviously the perspective I am taking today. After all, since I have never, to the best of my knowledge, been a female I cannot say anything meaningful about F teacher-F student dynamics.

So, how does the presence of overwhelming femaleness (dare I say feminimity?) affect classroom management? What adjustments or considerations should the M-teacher take into account? Here are 8 hints I can offer based on twenty years of dealing with numerous F-dominant classes in Japan, man of the teaching world that I am:

1. remembering JF names
All students want you to remember their names. It's validating-- they've made an impression upon your consciousness. But you know the situation-- you're walking down the hall and you see three of your students. You greet two by name but the third one eludes you. Most M students don't have a lot of trouble with this but the Fs take it very seriously. There is an almost automaic "He doesn't remember my name because he hates me and thinks I'm ugly and stupid and he remembers hers because he thinks she is pretty" quality in response to sensei not remembering JF names.

The (partial) solution? Make an extended effort to remember the names of quiet, simple, plain, unobtrusive Fs. They will very much appreciate this. The ones with big personalities or hairdos know you will remember their names soon anyway. And no one can claim that you are remembering names based on some vavoom or pizzaz factor.

2. notes/comprehensive detail
JFs are much neater and more organized than JMs in terms of sharp, crisp, clean note-taking and highlighting. This probably extends worldwide. JFs are usually much more comprehensive and careful about detail as well but this fastidiousness can actually hurt them. How?

Take the erasing fetish for example. JFs will often wipe out an entire sentence in order to 'fix' what, to them, is a poorly drawn dot on an i. Brainstorming sessions where "write six words you associate with summer" is written on the board will begin with her writing her name, student number, and "write six words you associate with summer" on a sheet of very new paper that she has carefully removed from her binder from deep within her bag, long after the scheduled brainstorming task time has passed.

Making a 'no erasers' rule and keeping strict time on such tasks may eliminate this unproductive behaviour.

3. cliques and partnering; chattering
I'll agree with a popular stereotype here. F students form cliques- and stand by them- more quickly and deeply than males and, related to this, will use more class time to chatter. Speech-based tasks make this clear. Many students, M and F, will quickly finish the task (often in a slipshod way). Ms will usually kick back or veg out at this point whereas Fs will almost inevitably extend the speaking task-- into personal chatter in Japanese. Sometimes when this happens the teacher assumes that the students are still dilligently on task.

Solutions? Partner or group students outside cliques or circles of friends (in mixed classes M-F pairs are great for getting both members to concentrate on the task). When extended chatter occurs sit down next to the pair as if to be 'listening in' on the task. They'll soon stop. Also- let students know that a task should be continued until a certain time and a have a follow up task or extension at hand to keep the chat devil away from those idle lips.

4. scolding/giving back bad results or re-tests
"Hell hath no fury...". Shakespeare was an EFL teacher in Japan it seems. Obviously humiliating students is never kosher but sometimes a firm hand is required-- hopefully to benefit the students as opposed to merely providing an outlet for the teacher's frustration. IMO, generally, males take scoldings much better than females. Perhaps they view it as a positive challenge. Many Ms seem to have been exposed to verbal tongue-lashings in clubs previously and thus take it in stride.

This is rarely so with Fs who will remember your vitriol for a long time, take it very personally-- possibly as an attack on her whole person-- and even drag her friends into an anti-teacher hatefest. Taking extreme care in scolding or critcism extends to giving back poor results or calling for re-tests. Some Ms seem to take doing poorly in English almost as a badge of male honour. The Fs do not. Feedback regarding poor work should be discrete and encouraging. That is a good rule for all negative feedback but doubly so for Fs.

5. dealing with Leggy Keiko/commenting on appearances
I'm sure that some male reader have scanned precisely to this spot. Fair enough. M teachers will know the experience of going into the JF classroom and being confronted by a pair of ostentatiously displayed legs or three, within obvious eyeshot (of course being the consummate professional I've only heard about this...). You will tell yourself, "Don't look at the legs! don't look at the legs" which is like telling yourself not to think of little pink elephants- now you are more conscious of little pink elephants than ever. Whatever your sex or sexual orientation, when there's an attractive person in the room you can't easily ignore her/him any more than you can put that sinister-looking, strung-out guy who's sitting behind you on the bus out of mind. You may even start to move like you've got a herniated disc in your neck in order to avoid gaping.

No less an authority than the wife has told me that the Fs always know it when a male takes a sidelong glance. Now, the lady showing lotsa leg may not care too much, she may be used to-- and may to some extent relish-- men checking her out. But every other student in the class will notice your roving eye and the resulting interpretation will less likely be "Sensei is a guy being a guy" than "Sensei is a randy pervert". Harsh, but true. Keep in mind that Leggy Keiko is not dressing up for your entertainment. Leggy Keiko thinks of you as a teacher first and has certain expectations about how a teacher should act. Ogling her probably diminishes your status in her legs... umm... mind.

It should go without saying that commenting on JF appearances can be a minefield. Make that a minefiled covered in eggshells. Everyone likes to hear compliments about how they look or have their new hairstyle/costly accessory/rad fahion statement noticed but let's face it-- there's a fine line between being pleasantly complimentary and coming across as a drooling lech who's paying just a little too much attention-- and we all know Ms who are completely oblivious to this line.

I've experienced awkward follow ups in the past by telling a F she had got a nice tan over the summer (she was on the rowing team but in fact wanted to be pasty white like many JFs so she didn't take it well), another that she looked like a young Kate Bush (She was an uncannily dead ringer!), and telling yet another that she could pass for a Thai or Filipina. The latter is a compliment from me but for what seem like socio-ethnic reasons I don't want to get into here, it didn't go down well. I now err on the side of saying too little unless I'm quite familiar with the student. I understand that it may come off that sensei's just paying a little too much attention to you- and is thus a bit creepy.

6. light talk and bad jokes from M teachers/teacher centredness
I've noticed that some M teachers seem to treat F students as if they are deserving of lighter, more frivolous talk or class content (whether in the hallway, ESS club, or classroom) than M students- a near dumbing down of interactions or topics, as if real women want to discuss nothing more than buying shoes and movie stars. Yes, I have noticed this in my own (past) behaviour too. Big mistake--Fs will really chew on a challenging, invigorating topic-- and of course being treated as intellectually and academically capable.

The same goes for treating Fs as a ready-made audience for bad jokes. I know that I'm riffing upon a stereotype here, but many Ms like to assume positions of authority with Fs. One way of buttressing the already-authoritative teacher's role is to reinforce yourself as the center of attention and assuage the ego by conflating this with admiration. The M teacher thinks the ladies will automatically laugh at his witty bon mots and in fact JF will often do so-- dutifully taking on the good audience role. It doesn't mean that your jokes really are funny, or even welcome, though. And we all know how teacher-centredness ranks on the scale of methodological no-nos.

7. being cavalier; pachi pachi eyes
In F only or F dominated classes the ladies will often be more cavalier in terms of behaviour, speech, and posture. This is not because of the presence of the M teacher but in spite of him-- they've forgotten that there are males present and therefore drop many so-called ladylike mannerisms. Consider it a privilege to see the inner workings of the JF natives on display. Don't spoil it by getting too close.

Having said that, there are still those who will treat the M teacher with exceptional male-only attention. This includes making coquettish poses and pachi-pachi eyes, especially if you look like you might be about to scold them. Call it culture if you want, but some JF students deal with most males this way- it's what they consider appropriate role-playing. No, it's not a singles-bar type of advance, Romeo.

This latter type of behaviour can negatively impact the teacher's small group or pair monitoring. On numerous occasions, I've sat near a pair or group of JF students to check how they're handling the task when they suddenly all turn to me as if, being both a teacher and a M, I must be there to lead, to assume authority, to tell them something. At this point I've become a 'jama' a bother or annoyance and they become passive. Eavesdropping nearby while pretending to do something else may be more effective.

8. room temperatures; 'stomach aches'
When a F student complains of a stomach ache in class let her leave to deal with it without prying. I shouldn't have to explain why but some Ms are (perhaps understandably) oblivious to feminine...discomfort.

JFs also seem to be more sensitive to classroom temperatures with what seems like a 0.1 degree range of comfort. Many are either fanning themselves like British explorers in the Sudan or shivering under Grandma's handmade quilts when even a moderate amount of air-con is applied. Encourage the Scott-of-the-Antarctic mimics to move to a desk that isn't directly beneath the air-con flow.

Is this the final word on JF students? Obviously not. If I've missed something important or you disagree with some item feel free to have your say.

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August 16, 2011

Students you never forget- In memory of Moe

In retrospect, it seems like fate that the student I met first on the walk from the parking lot to my office that morning was Aki. If anyone could confirm what I had heard, it would be her. After all, Aki was the one person I had seen with Moe regularly. But how to broach a topic like this-- to find out whether the shocking news was true or just another case of student exaggeration…

“Aki, I heard something terrible about a student in your class but I’m not sure who it was, or even if it’s just a rumor. If you don’t know of anything then maybe I’m mistaken, but if you know something can you please tell me?”
Aki needed no more prompts. She looked me straight in the eye.
“Yes. It was Moe”

I felt the shockwave jolt my body. Aki must have sensed it. We instinctively looked away from each other-- at nothing in the distance. I felt myself exhale harshly. There seemed to be nothing appropriate to say. Words felt superfluous.
“Are you OK?”
“I’ll be fine”
We headed off to the class in silence, our focus for work and study lost.

There’s a tiny black and white decorative cup and saucer in my office. It was given to me by Moe’s parents because, in trying to solve the puzzle behind Moe’s actions, they came across some flattering entries about me in his diary. The cup and saucer seem out of place in the teacher's clutter of my room, but at the turn of every August into September I place them prominently on my desk. I do this in memory of Moe because it was on September 6th, 2004 that Moe took his own life.

You wouldn’t forget Moe, for several reasons. I noticed Moe in the very first class when students were asked to make name cards for themselves and Moe, sitting with all the other guys near the window, had written only his surname.
“Where’s your first name?”
“I don’t like it. It’s a typical girl’s name,” came the reply.
Thinking it might be one of those names, like Masami or Kaoru that when Romanized could appear feminine, I checked the class list. But not only was the first name listed distinctly that of a woman, Moe was also explicitly listed as a female. Since the students were working while I checked the list, I snuck a quick look at Moe. He caught me looking, met my eyes knowingly and smiled-- with a nearly imperceptible nod. "Sorry," I said as I passed by a bit later.
Good question.

Moe was transgender. Biologically female, Moe had recently claimed his social identity as male. He had made a decision and seemed at peace with it. There was no further issue for me. If Moe thought of himself as a male then that’s how I would too. So at the beginning of the next class I suggested the name ‘Moe’ (as in Larry, Curly, and…) as a suitable moniker. He was quite happy with that.

Transgender issue aside you would still notice Moe. Moe was insatiably creative. He was no shrinking violet, racked by personal conflict, unsure of his social footing. Moe seemed to celebrate his outsider status. Moe was somebody who actively wished to imbue his print on any classroom activity, particularly role-plays and skits, where he would take over the preparations and proceedings with a singular vision that other students immediately acceded to. If anything, Moe had little patience for students who did not try to add a personal stamp to their classroom work. You knew that Moe would always have a unique take, an interesting angle, to present. Teachers notice those types of students.

Moe came to my office on several occasions, ostensibly to go over the various elaborate English class projects he was working on but also because I think he saw me as a kindred spirit. He once asked me about the experience of being a foreigner in Japan, especially in a small city. Was it tough psychologically, being an outsider? I answered that I had long ago accepted my Gaijinhood, that that's who I am and I make no apology for it. I told him that I expected some Japanese to be over-conscious of the fact, negatively or positively, and that I took that in stride-- but mostly that I had stopped thinking about it much. Moreover, I told him, when I stopped being acutely conscious of being different myself, the local people treated me less as a foreigner and more as a customer, teacher, colleague, neighbor etc.

Moe liked this answer. I remember him responding with a knowing smile, a re-confirmation perhaps of the legitimacy of his own identity. Moe also liked the fact that I allowed for student productivity, originality, and creativity in my classes. He seemed to see it as a healthy manifestation of my ‘outsider’ status, just as he associated his own aesthetic sensibilities with his gender situation. I rarely brought up the gender thing with Moe because his wide scope of interests naturally transcended it as a defining identity but I do remember once asking him if he preferred men or women romantically (we had developed no hesitation in being frank with each other). He said that he didn’t care- a beautiful person was a beautiful person.

You might expect that this article will conclude with a critique of an uncaring society, a world in which Moe was unappreciated or couldn’t fit in, and that it eventually broke him. But I won’t-- I can’t-- say this in good faith. In fact, Moe would roll his eyes if I wrote that because he would see it as too easy, too hackneyed, too… Hollywood-- and Moe had moved beyond that facile representation. His transgender situation could not have been easy but it wasn’t this alone that broke him. Rather, it was more his heightened sensibilities, the desperate romantic that he couldn’t contain-- the monstrous muse inside that he sought both to tame and to stimulate-- that tore at him. But I don’t think the two were entirely separate. One informed and even exacerbated the other. I became only too aware of this in retrospect.

Moe took my counseling in English elective class and seemed particularly intrigued by the edgy case studies-- the compulsive obsessives, those who were trapped within routines that they couldn’t escape from. He made no bones about the fact that his interests in medicine lay in this direction. Above all, he adored the visual aesthetics of the androgynous- particularly the goth/glam rock star oeuvre. But he wasn’t just your cookie-cutter fragile, artistic soul. Moe had a wry sense of humor and more than a touch of the cynic. He also cultivated his sense of the dramatic, the macabre, the tragic. I don't know if he knew of Ian Curtis but I think Moe would have felt some affinity for the Joy Division frontman—the lingering sense that love will indeed eventually tear you apart-- that perhaps you even want it to. In keeping with the theme, Moe surrounded himself with décor of stark black and white-- the raw emotional impact of opposites never fully conjoined. Like the cup and saucer that sit before me now.

You don't forget students like that.

This article was written and posted with kind permission from Moe’s parents.

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November 29, 2011

On Demo Lessons, English Contests, Heroism, Coddling, and Mental Illness

A number of issues to discuss today.

1. English Teacher as Hero?

Let me start by suggesting that you watch this life-affirming, heartwarming video showing an 8-month old baby boy with a cochlear implant hearing his mother's voice for the first time . I'm linking this because one of the doctor/professors at my university (one who I know quite well having helped with his English publications and played golf with him) played a pivotal role in the development of this device. The man's a hero.

There's a part of me, of everybody I assume, that wants to be a hero too-- something that can make you look back on your life and allow you to say that you contributed to humanity so that you will be fondly remembered. Actually, I'd settle for being one of those veteran teachers who received a batch of flowers, a teary speech of thanks from the graduates, and a Sensei-with-the-students memorial slide show at the annual year-end Thank you party.

But this always happens to someone else. I'm jealous. And even though these affairs are inevitably maudlin and a bit contrived, sometimes I want to be that special teacher who the students hold dearly in their hearts-- who they refer to as an inspiration later when they are inventing, oh, even better cochlear implants.

But the reality is that teachers who try to too hard to be loved by their students can also often be seen as saps, pushovers-- 'pashiri' in Japanese. It's a bit like that overly needy guy at the singles bar-- the eligible ladies can smell need like an investment banker can smell an unearned bonus. And, yes, sometimes the most feted teachers have reputations as hardasses.

And while the teacher who gains plaudits has often done something way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty, a real self-sacrifice of time and effort for his or her charges it is also possible that even if you do go all out you may still earn little no more recognition than an o-tsukare-sama from one of your peers.

While I think I am generally quite liked by my students (knock on wood) I just can't imagine myself being a life-changing force for them. Correct me if you think I'm wrong, but there seems to be little that an English teacher can do (at least with university students) to become that hit movie-inspiring catalyst; the To Sir With Love type of mentor. Perhaps English teachers shouldn't strive to be heroes but merely aim at doing a good, solid 9-to-5 job and have no expectations beyond a basic appreciation from the students (and a half-decent salary).

But what I'm wondering is-- have any readers been, or seen, English teachers lauded as heroes by students? How and why? I'm curious.

2. Demonstration Lessons and American Idol

Ok, admit it. You have watched American Idol, even though it is to music appreciation what Greece is to fiscal responsibility. Since the candidates are given about 15 seconds to strut their stuff, the talented ones are pretty much required to indulge in a bout of vocal histrionics the whole time to show range and, I suppose, 'soul' (even if the tune would be more effective sung in a near monotone- I'm still waiting for some Celine Dion-esque diva to cover 'Autobahn'). It's basically a display of surface showmanship designed to impress celebrity judges, and is hardly indicative of what being a fully-fledged 'vocalist' entails.

This reminds me a bit of English class demonstration lessons (which fortunately, we are not required to do here at Miyadai since we don't have to actively recruit, being a national university and all). The problem with demonstration lessons is that you are expected to do an appealing, representative, and educationally sound lesson-- but in 20 minutes, and with a bunch of students who don't know you, the school, nor each other.

Now, generally speaking, one's best lessons tend to be those that have the following properties:
1. The lesson is connected to the one before and will connect to the one after. It fits naturally into the overall curriculum and stated purpose of the course.

2. There is a balance between teacher talk and student talk.

3. There has been sufficient introduction, presentation, or other groundwork laid before the meatiest part of the lesson-- the main task for the students-- is introduced.

4. As mentioned earlier, the students are at ease with the teacher and with each other. And the teacher knows what the students' abilities are, as well as what they have or haven't studied previously.

5. There is at least 60 minutes to pace and flesh the lesson out, especially to reinforce key teaching points at the end.

And yet none of these qualities are options when doing the standard 20 minute song-and-dance demonstration lesson.

So, my question to those readers who do demos is-- How exactly do you manage it?

3. English Contests in Japan-- And who should really be eligible?

As most readers know, in Japan there are numerous English speech or debate contests. Theoretically, any student enrolled at a Japanese school school can enter (am I right?).

So what about Pete? Pete is Canadian and has been in Japan only two years as his parents have been temporarily placed in the Nagoya office. He is, in every sense, a native English speaker. If Pete enters the contest would it demotivate other students? Does it somehow detract from the meaning or purpose of the competition? So, do you rule Pete out? If so, on what grounds?

Then what about Tatianna. She's from Poland and has been in Japan for six years but has a pretty good facility with English due to her family's past and some education in Poland, not to mention that her father's international business is conducted in English. But she's not a native speaker so should she be eligible? If you were a judge and you saw her Western face would you judge her more harshly even though she's not really a native English speaker?

Would you judge her more harshly than you would Ryo? Ryo is as Japanese as miso soup but he spent six years in the U.S. so his English is pretty close to native. Other students might feel disadvantaged by Ryo's appearance in the contest given his lengthy sojourn abroad, but it would be hard to disqualify him. Or would it?

Then what about Izumi? Izumi's case will dovetail with many Uni-files readers', I imagine. Izumi is half-Japanese half-whatever, and of course a Japanese citizen, and has grown up almost exclusively in Japan. However Izumi speaks English to her Australian father at home so her English is native-like. And she looks more Western than Asian. Izumi has an advantage to be sure... but is it an unfair one?

Is it any more unfair than the student who excels in science contests in no small part due to the fact that her mother is a Professor of Biochemistry at a prestigious university?

If you were a judge, would you treat all of these contestants equally and objectively? And if not, shouldn't we tell the contestants who might not get equal treatment that they shouldn't waste their time because they have no chance of winning from the outset?

I understand how a judge might think it's unfair for Pete to compete against your regular Yusuke or Sayuri in an English speech contest but where and how would you draw the line for participation and equal assessment? I can understand that it might feel 'unfair' or against the spirit of the competition if Pete wins the English speech contest, Tatianna is 2nd, Izumi 3rd and all others, your regular Yusukes and Sayuris, just also-rans. And it might further foster the notion that 'English is for foreigners'.

But I'd like to know how you would handle this...because otherwise we might be wasting Pete, Tatianna, and Izumi's time and effort.

4. Mental illness? Anti-social? Or just weak-willed?

We've all come across students who appear to have mental disorders and, in some cases, clinically confirmed mental disorders. The big question is, how do you handle this in terms of grading and credits?

In some cases, you don't have to. The student with the disorder may be as intellectually capable and hard working as anyone else in the class and their effort and test grades end up reflecting this. And on the other extreme side of the equation, students who display full blown psychosis and simply can't function properly probably shouldn't be in class and need more intensive treatment. But I'm talking about that middle ground.

You know, someone suffering from diagnosed depression or PSTD that is affecting performance. Do we cut them some slack in terms of grading their performance or, while considerate of their situations, are we bound only to grade the actual class performance regardless of external factors because otherwise it is unfair to the other students, since their grades are connected only to performance and not to personal issues? And if we choose to fail the afflicted student,shouldn't we be worried about the adverse effect this will have on their already fragile state?

The choice to fail, or at least defer a passing grade, might seem callous but if we make allowances for students with depression, we can start making that allowance for a number of students in the class. We could make them for the anti-social students, the impossibly shy, the permanently sleepy, or the perpetually bored. After all, it is arguable that they too are suffering from some disorder even if it is hasn't been clinically diagnosed. Mental disorders exist on a continuum-- having had a doctor check it from a list doesn't make it any more real than the problems of a person who never thinks to visit the psych ward.

Claiming some sort of exemption due to depression could become a convenient excuse. Even if the disorder has been clinically diagnosed, well, that may not mean much. These days the mere suggestion that you feel depressed is often sufficient to draw a get-out-of-work letter and/or meds from psychiatrists (I read Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test recently on these matters-- I also know from Japanese doctors that this practice is much more common in Japan than it used to be). The problem is that since Fred feels depressed (as we all do at times), gets an official diagnosis and medication, we feel like we should go easy on him-- while Betty, who might have the same degree of depression as Fred, simply toughs it out and goes on with her work, home life, and social life despite how much of a struggle it all is. But we don't treat Betty with the kid gloves-- nor is she asking for them.

This raises another issue for me-- should depression be an excuse for rude and anti-social acts? Should we look the other way when students with a diagnosed depression walk into class 30 minutes late, immediately put their heads down on their desks, are unresponsive to the teacher or peers, and leave whenever the feel like it because, hey, they're depressed dammit!

It seems to me that depression should never be an excuse for anti-social or just plain rude, inconsiderate behaviour-- the pathology of being a sociopath is hardly a standard by-product of depression. The depressive is rarely psychotic and so can still judge the merits of their own actions. You and I both know enough people who have suffered from quite severe mental illnesses who still maintain a certain amount of social grace and persevere with duties and requirements even though they feel like zombies. (And yes, I've been subject to extreme changes where my spirit seems to be running out of my hands like water, where the real world almost appears like an apparition, and death and life do not seem so distinct-- thankfully much less so now than when I was younger).

So, the question once again is, how do you deal with students with diagnosed mental disorders?

5. Is it coddling?

As some readers may know I advocate giving students as much information, help, detailed outlines, and guidance as possible before they do tests or graded assignments-- with the goal of (hopefully) helping them to produce the best possible result. This includes giving them succesful old tests or assignments to look at, a list of textbook pages for study, I provide graphic outlines of what I expect them to do, do practice runs, prep classes etc.

But, after a recent presentation in which I mentioned this approach, one attendee suggested that this might be coddling students too much. This seems to me to be a reasonable argument-- that by giving them too many preparatory pointers I may actually be making them more dependent on the teacher, inhibiting the development of their autonomy, and not letting them use their own academic study skills to work things out.

So, the question (yet again) is... where do you stand on this?

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March 30, 2012

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

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

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

Shizu from Shikoku: "Tell us about Kierkegaard"

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

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

Ebi-chan in Tokyo: "Jama!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronald Carter's I-I-I methodology

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

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

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

5 more to come soon.

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April 15, 2012

More Weapons of Mass Instruction (Part 2- #6 to 11)

Today, I offer six more lessons learned in my teaching experience that have enabled me to gain 24 hour immediate access to Monkasho (also known as "email"), a seven-figure salary (ummm, in yen), and a supermodel wife (Yeah. That's it. That's the ticket!).

1. Stephen Ryan: Even the lowest level students can carry out research in English

Stephen Ryan (President of, St. Thomas University in Hyogo Pref.) is one of the finest ELT presenters we have in Japan. He exudes knowledge, competence, and provides a sense of professional reassurance on any given topic (as seems to be the hallmark of educated Brits). His presentations are concise and practical, yet theoretically sound. One of his best involved him demonstrating how even with poorly motivated and low-skilled college students could get produce some cohesive classroom research in English.

This presentation outlined a very highly-detailed, common sense, step-by-step process in which students come to understand, then develop, a research question or topic, develop a hypothesis based on that research topic/question, test that hypothesis (such as using surveys, looking for existing data on the internet), interpret the results of the test, and report the results back to others in English.

Thus, students learn not only a little about the scientific method but also something more of the topic they wish to explore. They develop a sense of ownership over the research topic and thus concern for the proper language used to express it. I have long felt that students at the tertiary level need more cognitive challenges in order to expand their English comfort zone but had often heard opposition to the effect that "That may be OK for your students, but MY students aren't good enough to do that yet". As Stephen Ryan makes it clear, that's not true. Students can do this stuff... although he'd put it more eloquently than that.

2. Former colleague Rapti: Opening each class with free talk

Got a good lesson that requires a certain degree of quiet focus but you're worried about students losing energy or simply not getting stimulated? Many years back, when some of us drudge teachers were moping about students energy levels being dragged down by quiet-but-necessary lessons, one of my colleagues, Rapti, mentioned that at the start of such classes she always held some free conversation activity, partner-to-partner.

I've been doing that regularly ever since. Of course I provide topics, invariably connected to the lesson's focus (for example, before a lesson on taking a patient history the topic might be "A time I was very sick/ was injured". I might offer my own brief story on the topic first as a little bit of listening content and to establish the theme (students like to listen to teacher stories if they keep them brief and at a suitable language level). I also allow students to look up vocabulary they may need in advance (only for a minute though) and encourage students afterwards to look up or study those phrases or forms that gave them trouble during the conversation.

In this way, the conversation practice can have some lasting value. Oh, and I invariably provide students with partners who they rarely talk to otherwise-- that helps to keep the topic focused, and in English.

3. Merrill Swain: Languaging

A number of readers will know Merrill Swain (and if you are doing a Master's in the field of EFL you are almost required the Canale/Swain 1981 article, which is on a par with Sgt. Pepper in terms of being labeled seminal it seems). Dr. Swain gave a very fine plenary presentation at JALT in Shizuoka a few years back about the notion of 'languaging' (yes, the emphasis should be on the 'verbing' aspect of the word).

Without going into the Vygotskian background (but namedropping him anyway) and neuro-linguistic details, suffice to say that languaging refers to the process of clarifying thoughts or cognition as a result of using language. That is, language functions not only as a conveyor of thought but the very process of using language helps us to crystallize our thoughts. Using language aids thinking.

This gives intellectual credence to the view (which I widely endorse) that a focus upon language production and cognition is not just a result of language skill but further engages, and thus enables, those skills. But Merrill Swain, ironically by using language to express herself, crystallized this notion for me.

4. David Willis: Raising awareness in preparation for prestige forms

Many readers will also know of Willis (who, with his wife Jane, comprise the Sonny & Cher of Applied Linguistics). During one presentation, 'Sonny' Willis was demonstrating how he might inculcate the perfect tense 'have' using the lexical approach,

One of the points that really stood out to me in this demonstration was Willis' argument that when students are required to produce a 'prestige' form, that is, some production in front of the class, under pressure or producing a grade, the student needs time to 'notice' or have their consciousness raised regarding the language form needed to carry out the prestige form. Since they are going onstage so to speak, students will be much more conscious of language forms they need and thus much more likely to internalize them.

As a result of this, before I ask students to provide even basic task answers during a lesson I give them time to check answers with their peers, since answering aloud serves as a type of prestige form. I don't want to put them on the spot (which often leads to embarrassed silence and even resentment) but want them to collect what they need to provide an adequate answer or response. It's good for classroom atmosphere, confidence and motivation, and helps students focus on the forms we really want them to learn.

5. 5th Year Student Takei on Re-tests- "He just really wants us to understand"

Miss Takei was still hanging around campus in mid-February. "I have a re-re-re test in Microbiology. In fact, there are about 12 of us who'll be taking it," she answered when I enquired as to why she was still about. I wanted to show her some sympathy. "A 4th test! Geez, that must be annoying. You'd think the professor would just let it go. It's the off-season now". (I said this knowing that failing students is a legitimate option in med school). "It's good for us," came the reply. "He really wants us to learn the content, so it's fine with me".

Well, whodathunkit? A student actually saying that a re-test was good for her?! But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Too often we think of re-tests as punishment for a lack of focus or success in the course tests but really the goal should be educational. That is, if you think the content or skills you are teaching are meaningful, and you want some sense of quality control, then teaching it over and over until students get it is a sensible choice. Testing should have a pedagogical function, and so should re-testing. It isn't about making students jump through hoops it's about helping them master what they need to master.

6. Colin Granger: The classic opening lesson: 3 Lies

Colin Granger was (is?) one of those teachers/teacher educators who clearly had a background in stage acting-- a big, booming, sonorous West-End theater voice. He is also both a live wire and an energy magnet. But what I remember him best for was a presentation given when I was a neophyte teacher almost twenty years back. His sample 'opening lesson' has become my default first lesson ever since-- one that I have used successfully hundreds upon hundreds of times since.

It basically involves telling lies, and thus engages our most natural instincts :-). I tell students some data about myself and tell them that I will include three lies and they have to later guess what those three lies were. This gives the students reason to listen closely (I let them take notes) and reformulate the content later as a question (after letting them confer regarding what my lies were in groups).

It also sets the stage for student-to-student lie-telling introductions to follow, such that the new students can learn about each other too-- something all new students are eager to do.

And a plug for your EFL edification...

If you are looking for something intellectually stimulating that is also likely to have an impact upon your teaching, try to attend the FAB 3 Conference on the relationship between neuro-science and ELT . All the main figures involved (who look like re-formed fusion band from the late 70's in the publicity photo) are not only engaging and knowledgeable presenters but are also at the forefront of research in the area of ELT and, well, brains. Unfortunately, this conference conflicts with my personal schedule so I won't be able to attend-- but if you are looking for the kind of thing that might allow you to add a Weapon of Mass Instruction to your arsenal I urge you to give it a go.

(*Oh- and kudos to MH who gets an HM for the 'supermodel wife' and Pathological Liar references)

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June 05, 2012

My how different you look! 15 years of university changes

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

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

More social support networks

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

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

Newly forbidden activities

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

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


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

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

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

Contracts and the DATABASE

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

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

A drop in academic skill and achievement?

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

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

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

Less bureaucratic tooth-sucking

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

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

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

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