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Interview with Robert S. Murphy

Robert MurphyRobert S. Murphy is the author of Optimal Levels! – a unique series of textbooks that are designed to maximize student thinking and foster the construction of cognitive skills through the usage of the English language. Robert has his own language school, and lives in Fukuoka.

This interview was conducted by John Lowe on 16th January 2011.

JL:
Could you tell me a little about yourself?
Robert Murphy:
I am an Irish-Italian-Japanese-American. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and also in Kobe, Japan, so I’m one of those so-called haafu. My mother never really learned much English and my father never really learned much Japanese, so I was kind of thrown into a challenging linguistic context from the start, and was forced to understand two different cultures and two different language sets without direct bilingual support. That “forced” cognition/metacognition provided me with a very good backbone for the studies to come.
JL:
So you grew up in the US and then moved to Japan, and you’re totally fluent in both English and Japanese?
Robert Murphy:
That’s right -although my Japanese side is telling me that I’m supposed to deny that...(laugh) I moved to Kobe when I was 10, and studied at Kobe’s Canadian Academy International School until I was 17. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to graduate in Kobe from Canadian Academy as I had to leave Japan a year early with my parents. My father’s job took us to California, so I graduated from a public high school in LA -which was a kind of a tragic reverse culture shock for me (laugh)!
JL:
You do have a foot in both cultural camps, don’t you? Did you then go on to college in the US?
Robert Murphy:
Yes, I did. First I studied journalism in California and then I took a long break. I came back to Japan and started teaching but I didn’t have a Masters at the time. I got my Masters in TESL/TEFL from the distance learning program at the University of Birmingham (UK) in 2008.
JL:
Did you continue your research after completing your Masters?
Robert Murphy:
Yes! Well, actually I am now a tutor for the University of Birmingham... but, well, my initial studies in TESL/TEFL made me aware that there wasn’t much about neuroscience in the TEFL literature. The more I thought about the most effective ways of teaching, the more I realized that I really wanted to get a fundamental understanding of how the brain works... and I felt that without a proper interface with neuroscience, a lot of the reading around the topic in the world of TEFL/TESL began to look shallow and sometimes even quite circular.

And so, while I was doing research and learning from teaching my own students, I went through the process of realizing that neuroscience should be center stage, whereas it clearly is not. So... I started to look for opportunities to study neuroscience in combination with education and came across a Harvard program called Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE). They have a Masters program in this at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a related EdD (Doctor of Education) program... and they also have summer institutes! Being in Japan, I couldn’t take the regular Boston-based courses, but I did jump on the chance to go to their summer institute -since then have taken several of their newer online offerings. Although I live in Japan I visit the Harvard campus as often as I can to work on my research –this whole experience has really changed my entire perspective of education and its potential.
JL:
And are you aware of anyone else doing this in the TESL/TEFL field?
Robert Murphy:
Well, the first person I came in contact with in Japan once I started on this new journey of mine was Curtis Kelly, and we’ve been collaborating ever since. This summer, Curtis Kelly and I along with Tim Murphey, and Marc Helgesen will be doing what we are calling our First Annual Brain days (FAB1) and we will be doing events in Kitakyushu, and also in Kansai. We are putting that together for the first time this year, and we really want it to be a big annual event for EFL in Japan.
JL:
Have you set dates for the FAB1 events?
Robert Murphy:
Yes, July 9th in Kitakyushu, and Kansai will be July 10th - we are still working on the details but the local JALT chapters have been very helpful. People interested should contact JALT for details.
JL:
Who will be the audience for the FAB1 ‘Brain Days’?
Robert Murphy:
That’s a good question! (laugh) I did a questionnaire last year on the ETJ mailing list and a bunch of other mailing lists that are connected to English teachers in Japan... to see if there is an interest in psychology and neuroscience among EFL teachers here and I published those results in my first column for ELT News. The numbers were a lot better than I had expected them to be. So there seems to be a very keen audience out there...
JL:
Could you tell me something about your language school?
Robert Murphy:
Okay, yeah, let’s see... I worked for four years for the small town of Onga in Kyushu. I was working for their Board of Education as a privately hired Coordinator of International Relations, and part of my job was to teach adult lessons... and by the fourth year on that job, I had more than 100 adult students coming to the town halls taking English lessons from me. Around that time, Onga Town and I sort of agreed that it probably would be more beneficial if I just went private. And so, I was able to start my own school in 1997 with a very healthy number of adults and... well actually we had some children too. So, I was really very lucky. I was kind of jettisoned into running my own language school here.
JL:
And that’s continued to do well for the last about 14 years.
Robert Murphy:
Yeah, we are a small school - we only have two teachers and 150 students between us. It’s working out quite well for us though and it gives me the opportunity to do my research and my writing... and gives me the flexibility to go teach university classes as well. And like I said earlier, I have the chance with my higher-level students to actually teach what I am researching –that fortunate flow of events manifested three years ago into a new branch of the school called ‘Murphy School of Education’. There we are focusing on the neuro and psychological aspects of education within the ELT context. But yes, I have been very privileged to be able to create this atmosphere... this research rich domain for myself.
JL:
And so from your research, you founded your own company (Deeper Understanding Books) and published your own textbooks.
Robert Murphy:
That’s right. I was experimenting with so many of the textbooks that were out there and the more research I did on them, the more I felt I was tearing up the books and doing things that the authors weren’t expecting me to do. I was basically fighting with the pedagogical design that was in many of the textbooks and eventually it became more sensible for me to design something from the ground up. Those newer pedagogic designs naturally morphed into my textbooks -and I have nine out right now.
JL:
Did you publish in stages?
Robert Murphy:
The current nine books that I have all came out at the same time. I was able to do that because I basically have two strands of textbooks. I have my book ones and I have my book twos. Let me explain...

All book ones follow the exact same structure -so once I laid the patterns down for the first book one, I was able to write several of other book one varieties with the same teaching patterns. All of my book twos were then designed to work off of the anticipated skills built up from using the book ones. When I was satisfied with the synergy I felt with having my own students study with book ones and then the book twos, I sent all nine books out as a set for publication.
JL:
How do they work?
Robert Murphy:
Instead of focusing on the typical level brackets such as low, medium, and high, I have what I call flavors: I have a medical flavor, a fun flavor, I have what I call the original flavor (the first one I designed), and I also have a business flavor... and they deliberately all follow the exact same pedagogic flow. It’s very bottom-up and so the books are all what I call “non-textbook textbooks” because they provide a framework of learning for the students and they feature a lot of open space for creativity. The students actually fill in the books themselves. By simply following the framework, the students end up creating their own emotionally charged learning portfolios.

The book twos follow a more cognitively challenging framework that can’t really be jumped in to comfortably without the cognitive skill building that comes from having completed a book one. Now, for students whom have already completed a book one... well, we are finding that students who have completed any of the book ones simply devour the book twos! We really see students’ fluency skyrocket by the middle of book two. I’m proud to say that if students complete a book one and a book two, something that is, depending upon your contact time, capable in six months to two years time, their fluency levels and confidence levels will be much higher than I have even seen possible with any other EFL pedagogy that I am familiar with... and research regarding this is all now a part of my doctoral work. All these findings will be published soon. As you can see, rather than practice dialogues or grammar points, from the very first section the students are asked to come up with their own questions, and their own answers! When and if they need help, they ask their teacher. This way, the students automatically personalize their learning, and they are actually happy to learn the vocabulary and/or the grammar necessary for the task. So, instead of boring the students with potentially mundane grammar points and vocabulary, the students get exactly what they want, and only what they want, from the teacher –and are excited about receiving those answers! Only then do they go interview their partner. In this way, there is so much more of a personal investment in the interview process, isn’t there? –and because they have written down their own responses to their own questions, they are very intrinsically motivated to hear what their partner’s response will be! This opener turns the traditional process around and makes it so much more meaningful for the students. Equally important is the emotional content. As you can see, the students are asked to examine their feelings regarding the work on this page –and then discuss it. I added this because in neuroscience we now know, irrefutably, that emotions guide learning. There is no real learning without emotional attachment –therefore emotional analysis is a key feature in all of the Optimal Levels textbooks. There is so much more I’d like to share about this new neuroscientific pedagogy. Please visit deeperunderstandingbooks.com for free training videos on this topic!
JL:
So, these books were really designed by you as a result of your research and finding that traditional EFL textbooks were not fulfilling the needs of your students.
Robert Murphy:
Exactly. Because what my research was telling me wasn’t very compatible with the books that were already out there, I felt the need to do something about it. Over the years my research-based pedagogy organically evolved and manifested into what we now call the Optimal Levels books. I didn’t have a business plan -or even a writing schedule. These books just organically came up from my research so naturally that I just had to follow my instincts and complete the path by going into publishing.
JL:
Are the books used exclusively in your school or do you sell them elsewhere?
Robert Murphy:
Yes, we’ve just began selling them publicly in Japan via ELT Books and I just started putting them out on Amazon.com as well for the worldwide audience. I have no idea how well they will do on a global scale. But this year is a year of experimentation on many levels. It was an exclusive book series for me last year with my university students and my own school, and this year we are recruiting a bunch of university teachers and some Eikaiwa schools as part of this research to see how far their students’ fluency goes up. So we are going to have quantitative and qualitative assessment. The qualitative would be through teacher logs -because it’s such a new way of teaching. I thought the best way understand how Optimal Levels worked out in other contexts was to get candid remarks from the teachers, so that’s what we are focusing on this year.

For the quantitative, I have set some protocols within the frameworks. There are six modules per book, and each book ends with a short process writing task and then an actual PowerPoint or some other sort of physical performance (what we call a Performance of Understanding) that is peer-to-peer assessed and also teacher assessed. And so, by the end of the six modules we would have six grades that are all set up with a concrete set of protocols, and we will monitor the fluency growth through those six modules.
JL:
I have two questions. Can any teacher use them or do they have to have the research background that you’ve had?
Robert Murphy:
I hope any teacher will able to grasp the neuroscience-based concepts with only a bit of coaching in the background. That being said, I think it could be difficult for, say, a “grammar-translation only” teacher to jump in and be immediately successful with the books. But I think that goes with pretty much any new methodology. So, it’s probably not particularly more difficult, but again, that’s something we’ll be researching this year -a bunch of new teachers and teacher-researchers will be using the books for the first time in their own respective contexts. So, I am really looking forward to seeing how difficult/easy the teachers do find the methodology to be. Ask me again next year and I’ll have a more concrete response ready for you!
JL:
Do you have teacher resource materials or teacher instruction manuals to go along with the student books?
Robert Murphy:
I am developing them right now and they will be going on YouTube very shortly. They will be accessible via our website. I hope to have a few of them up by the time this gets published. The tutorial clips that I have produced so far have been getting positive reviews, so I am happy with that. More to come!
JL:
And are the materials for Japanese students only?
Robert Murphy:
Okay, let me backtrack a little bit to the actual pedagogical basis and the research that was done at Harvard to properly explain my answer.

I studied and I still am studying under Dr. Kurt Fischer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 1980, he came out with what is now called dynamic skill theory. It is neo-Piagetian. It’s based on Piaget’s original levels of development within children. Fischer’s major improvement on Piaget is the fact that he figured in a very strong scientific basis. He connected it to true neuroscience rather than just observational data. Piaget didn’t have the technology to prove it in his time, but Kurt Fischer did. And then Kurt went on to explain further how and why learning is hugely dynamic. This was the major step forward from Piaget’s work. Dynamic. What that means is that we actually go up and down cognitively in our learning and even in our daily cognition. Just because we reach a certain level of cognitive prowess at a certain point in our lives doesn’t mean that we are constantly cognitively functioning at that level.

Think about it, most of the day, we are not acutely focused are we? Most of the day, the opposite is true isn’t it? –I wouldn’t say we’re drooling most of the day (laugh), but we aren’t actually doing our best either, are we? That baffled a lot of researchers because they intuitively thought that if you are at, say, cognitive level AB3 (in cognitive neuroscientific jargon), why don’t you function at AB3 all of the time!? And so Kurt Fischer really started to define the phenomenon.... We have our ‘optimal levels’ but we also have ‘functional levels’ and we are usually only operating at our lowly ‘functional levels’. Why is that? Well, we have to be put in a context conducive of higher level thinking to be able to turn all those extra neurons on and function at our optimal levels. If we are not in such high support contexts, our brains do not have a reason to go to and peak out at their optimal levels. This is why my books are called ‘Optimal Levels’. The books are specifically designed to do just that –take us all to our optimal levels. Without teachers’ deliberate intention to deliver their students to their optimal levels, students may very well just end up coasting along in their classrooms at their functional levels, never reaching their true potential once in their classrooms. It’s a scary thought, but it rings a lot of truth doesn’t it? I’d say most of us know this to be true intuitively, but for any number of legitimate reasons, most of us have probably not taken that bull by the horns.

The SiR (Self-in-Relationship) research that I did connected cognitive level measurement with relationship interviews. I conducted one-on-one interviews with Japanese students. This interview process was also done in Taiwan, Korea, China, and in the US with protocols that were devised at Harvard. And what we found out was that when college level students come in the door and sit down and you initially ask them the interview questions, they will usually only respond at their lowly functional levels, which happens to be on par with the cognition of our junior high school students! Often the responses were naturally tinted by their cultural context, too. But if we design and implement higher-level question formats, incorporated with writing processes, drawing, working with color... manipulating graphs... what we call ‘high support contexts’... then by the end of the session, each participant’s brains would cognitively function at a much higher level and they would produce much higher or, optimal level answers, to all of the questions. We found out that a lot of the cultural issues that seemed to tint the students’ responses get filtered out as well when they are at their optimal levels. We can consistently work with students at their optimal levels if we know how to create a proper high-support context that is conducive of optimal level thinking. The SiR Interview process proves to us that a proper context and proper pacing can deliver students to higher level processing –and it implies that many classrooms and pedagogies do not deliver students to such states effectively- if only because there is no deliberate goal for doing so. Remember, by default, we -all of us, are only usually operating at our functional levels.
JL:
That’s very interesting.
Robert Murphy:
So, to answer your question... If we bring the students up to their optimal levels it doesn’t really matter where they are from –culture, country... doesn’t really matter. That’s the whole purpose of the design. It’s to filter out all the needless obstacles and get the students charged, motivated, and ready to have a go at tasks at their highest performance levels. It’s really fun for them too, because students naturally enjoy seeing themselves perform well. It feels great when you know you are doing well right? The working at optimal levels is quite therapeutic and we find that although there may be some initial cultural barriers, these barriers tend to melt away when students are performing at their optimal levels.
JL:
So, in fact the materials are cross-cultural and can be used in any classroom environment.
Robert Murphy:
That’s right. Ironically... I designed the materials so that they would help Japanese students filter out all the unnecessary baggage and focus on developing their own “English-speaking self” efficiently, but while I was purely focused on my Japanese students, it turned out that this obviously would work for any culture. I didn’t see this coming when I started out though! (laugh)
JL:
Have you tried to get your materials published with any traditional international EFL publishers?
Robert Murphy:
Well, as I stated earlier, when I first started out, I didn’t have any master plan or any business plan... However, recently a number of people working at different publishers have been asking me the same questions you’ve been asking me and there seems to be some sort of interest now building up in at some of the mainstream publishers. I am not sure how that will pan out, but it is an exciting prospect.
JL:
Perhaps you could look at taking these books to Korea, China, and perhaps Taiwan.
Robert Murphy:
That would be great. I guess I should be looking at the other Asian countries... Thank you!
JL:
So, we’ve talked about your background, we’ve talked about the reasons why you’ve developed the books so what are your plans for the next few years?
Robert Murphy:
We talked about how my studies at the University of Birmingham kind of blossomed into an interest in neuroscience and that took me to Harvard research. There is also a deeply personal aspect to this.

I have a son. His name is Kevin... and he’s now 11. When he was about seven years old, he was wrongly diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome here in Japan. Although he was being brought up bilingually and biculturally, he had a tendency to clam up in front of older, overbearing Japanese teachers. I used to be the same way... well, he was diagnosed as having Asperger’s just because of that.... Now, when he was about eight, Kevin approached me with a stern but committed face. I’ll always remember that face. He asked me what I could do to change the state of education in Japan. He thought that something was wrong with the system and honestly wanted to know what I could do about it. That certainly brought a tear to my eye. I gave him a big long hug. The honesty in his words and his curiosity regarding what I could do to fix the situation really struck a chord. That moment with my son has been a really strong and enduring motivational moment in my life. Inspired by my son’s words, I would really like to see how closely I can get the fields of neuroscience and education together in Japan. I am now just starting to build up good momentum -especially with the FAB1 brain day event that’s coming up soon.

One other idea that I have is an online training course for EFL teachers -to connect neuroscience to their classroom teaching. That should be happening very soon through MASH Collaboration...

So..., the more teachers that become involved in these studies, be it FAB1 or the online MASH courses, the more it becomes a movement to foster more understanding of how the brain works -here in Japan. We need neuroscience and psychology to be center stage. There would be less fighting between what the needs of the teacher are and what the needs of the students are that way. If we get more students and more teachers to understand how the brain works, then all of the teaching and all of the learning should become much more fluid. I guess that’s my goal - to make the teaching process more transparent and more fluid.
JL:
With the popularity of brain games, puzzles and brain training in Japan, is neuroscience already a popular topic?
Robert Murphy:
Unfortunately, so many of the people that seem to be latching onto brain studies are latching onto neuro-myths and there is so much rubbish out there! It’s a daunting task to do away with the rubbish and there is so much enthusiasm in recycling the rubbish. Too many people are making a quick buck selling this rubbish. I guess that’s another major job of ours in the future - to help do away with all these neuro-myths that are so die-hard. One example is the so-called ability to teach to the right side of the brain and/or to the left side of the brain -or even the fact that there are left-brained people and right-brained people! There is no scientific basis for assuming that this is the case. Frankly, it is an absurd notion. Our brains are so fantastically convoluted that it is ridiculous to assert that you can teach to only one side -or think with only one side of the brain. It is simply not possible. So, most neuro-researchers now just laugh at people who still talk about right brained and left brained people.
JL:
I see, so there’s a lot of bad science in this field.
Robert Murphy:
A lot, yeah. I heard one researcher say last year that probably 90% of what we read in magazines is rubbish, which is quite scary actually. What passes as science it appalling at times...
JL:
Do you come across a lot of skeptics in the EFL world?
Robert Murphy:
The presentations I do can get quite deep and I would say that by the end of the session maybe 60 to 70% of the participants are really positively charged and they get these glowing eyes... alluding to me all these new ideas that they have in mind for their classrooms... they openly want more science and deeper thinking, which is really fantastic. I am very privileged to witness this happening. It’s fascinating. But, to be honest, for some of remainder of the participants... when neuroscience and psychology disagrees with their current belief systems... it can be problematic. As you suspected, some people just won’t accept science –almost as it were some sort of blasphemy. Charmingly paradoxical, isn’t it? Anyway, it’s really interesting to see this spectrum of responses even from within the presentation framework.
JL:
Are there any familiar ELT terms you could use to describe your materials?
Robert Murphy:
Hmm... there is absolutely no rote memorization in my books, absolutely none. As shown above, the only dialogues that students come up with are the dialogues that they have created on their own. Most available ELT textbooks are necessarily top-down - because that’s the purpose of having the textbook in most cases - with a little bit of bottom-up processing mixed in to make it more encompassing. My books, on the other hand, are definitely designed more as a part of a bottom-up framework. The students are really creating their own learning and there is a lot of metacognition going on -it’s all about building skills, not trying to memorize things at all.
I guess the best ELT terms would be... hmm... I can say that Optimal Levels textbooks are student-centered, task-based, ...and designed for differentiated instruction to build all essential skills from the bottom up.

One more sample from the same book

This section opens with a familiar sight –or is it? It looks like a time-honored word map activity. However, if you look more closely, you’ll notice that student are asked to examine their emotions again! There are bubbles for the student to add PLUS or MINUS marks next to each idea they connect to the root word. This addition of adding emotional valences to this activity takes it to a significantly higher level of potency. Each spurt of creativity becomes cemented with an emotional charge and therefore works the brain in a much more convoluted way than typical word mapping or brain-storming can. This simple improvement is a huge leap forward in pedagogy. We all have neuroscience to thank for this! Students are then asked to write three sentences from their map connections above and draw pictures representative of those sentences. The picture drawing is a lot more cognitively taxing than you may think –but if done in progression from Section 1, it helps deliver the students to high levels of cognition, perhaps not their optimal levels yet, but there are five more sections that add on to these activities that ensure the students’ delivery. The activities get better and more challenging! It is a rewarding experience for the students and for the teacher.
JL:
Who has most influenced you in the world of EFL?
Robert Murphy:
Definitely, Zoltan Dornyei, who keeps coming up with fantastic books including the book I recently interviewed him on – ‘The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition’, for the TLT Journal. His ideas mesh with mine very, very closely, although we are working at different aspects. I started off as a very strong admirer of Widdowson’s work and then I moved on to Krashen because he was sort of the guru at the time. Of course, Scott Thornbury –we’re good friends now... and Nick Ellis. I guess from my studies at Birmingham, I was really turned off from Krashen’s views even though I grew up with them, because a lot of work he did was, and I quote one of my ol’ profs, “the repackaging of older stuff with fancier names”, so I stopped being a fan of Krashen –not only because of that but since that’s also when I started focusing more on neuroscience. I felt it was necessary to prove the points that people were talking about rather than following the never-ending “who said what about whom and why” game that we see happening in applied linguistics and other fields. Neuroscience tends to cut through all of that.
JL:
I don’t think there’s any one person who has combined TEFL with research into neuroscience and come up with similar findings to you. Would that be fair to say? I mean, it seems to me quite a unique view of the world of education and EFL that you are taking.
Robert Murphy:
Thank you very much for saying that. The MBE programs at Harvard are thriving and other universities are getting in on this. There is even an International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES) of which I am an avid member. They have an award-winning journal out too. Lots of great work going on there! However, regarding our EFL context over here... well, I am constantly on the look for people, let’s put it that way. I am sure there are people out there that just haven’t spoken up. So let’s join hands! Please come to our FAB1 events in Kitakyushu and Kansai this year!
JL:
Do you give a lot of talks in Japan?
Robert Murphy:
I started intensively focusing on Japan last year and that’s continuing on to this year. This year I’ll be presenting from Okinawa to Tohoku. And hopefully I will take that experience to other TEFL venues outside of Japan next year.
JL:
So, 2012 is the year for global expansion!
Thanks very much, it was really nice talking to you and hope to meet you soon at an upcoming conference.
Robert Murphy:
Yes, it was an honor and a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much!



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Comments

I am very interested in what you are saying. But, no one has come to Okinawa for many years. I believe that people here are not interested because of the large amount of English speaking people who they can have work for them because of the bases. These people really do not have a grasp of teaching English language learners here and much of the material they choose to use is irrelevant.

Nice interview. Did you ever work at Space World, Robert? I could've sworn I met you there once, around '97.

Hello Miko,

Thanks for the compliment!
Hmm... never worked at Space World. (I may have visited it in '97. Perhaps we did meet. Drop me an email sometime... m@murphyschool.com)

Robert


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