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Interview with Tim Murphey - Parts 1 & 2

Tim MurpheyTim Murphey is a professor at Kanda University of International Studies and holds a Ph.D in applied linguistics. He famously quit his tenured position at Nanzan University over the university entrance exam system in 2001. Since that time he has (amongst other things) been working to change the university entrance exam system in Japan and has recently had published The Tale That Wags, a fictionalized account of his experiences in this area. A Japanese-language version is due for release shortly.

Born in Dahlonega, Georgia in the United States, Tim has been a barman, gardener, summer camp counselor and juggler, as well as a university professor. He has lived in Japan for around 20 years and over the next 5 years he plans to write 5 books and start "a few quiet revolutions".

Russell Willis sat down over coffee with Tim at a Starbucks in Tokyo at the end of February, 2011. Today we present parts 1 and 2 of our 5-part interview.

Part One: The Tale That Wags

“If testing is a serious matter in universities, it needs to be done seriously I think, and if it's not then universities should rely on somebody else's test – and that's okay.  But I just find.. the current situation...it hurts me… It makes me want to scream...” – Tim Murphey
Russell Willis:
I read The Tale That Wags over the weekend and I wish I'd gotten around to it sooner. I got two key messages from the book:

1) the university entrance exam system corrupts backwards through the high school and the junior high school system and has a soul-destroying effect on almost everything and...

2) that the exams that we are talking about are done by people who don't want the job and don't know how to do the job.
Tim Murphey:
That is very well stated and a good summary. Let me start off by saying I love Japan and I am very happy here and I have chosen to live in Japan for the last 20 years. It's kind of like when you are in love with people, you want better things for them. And the thing is that the ecology of the youth of Japan is too study-focused, too test focused; it's just unecological for their health, and its unecological for high school teachers and university professors and the teachers who are making the exams. Professors often just think of it as administrative work and then it doesn't bother them, but if they go deeper and they realize how it affects the whole system, and how unecological it is, then it becomes painful.

And then you feel like you need to do something, and I say again and again how my colleagues, many of my colleagues - most of my colleagues - hate the entrance exam system; but once you are married and you have children, there are different priorities in your thinking and you have to take care of your family and so you don't make an uproar over unethical things so much. You say “I don't like this, but I will do it because this is expected of me, this is what's mandated by the administration and I will do it.”
Russell Willis:
So you would say that professors are often not conscious of the entire context in which their job is being done; they are focused on doing their job as it has always been done?
Tim Murphey:
Right, I think a lot of the university professors don't know what the impact of the entrance exam system is on high school teachers for example. They just ignore it; they just worry about their research, their teaching, and think to themselves “This is just some administrative task I have to do every year.” Were they to be more informed and if they were more knowledgeable about it, if they read the articles and understood the ethics of proper testing they would probably be really upset.
Russell Willis:
In your book, Frank Sutherland, the protagonist, says that he is “single and reckless”.
Tim Murphey:
Right.
Russell Willis:
And you just mentioned that a lot of your colleagues are actually married and this is something that you think does prevent people from speaking out simply because there is a danger that they... it might affect their careers?
Tim Murphey:
Younger staff at universities are worried about getting tenure very often, especially Japanese staff, and they want to toe the line basically; do their given research, teach good classes, and do what the administration says. And understandably so, if I was in their position – that's probably what I would do. So, it's kind of an accident that I grew up as the youngest of five children and raised my brothers' and sisters' children and I never felt like I needed to get married and have children, and so I was single and reckless, yeah.
Russell Willis:
Are you still single and reckless?
Tim Murphey:
Pretty much so, yeah.
Russell Willis:
Well, let's see how single and reckless you feel for this interview... (laughs)
Tim Murphey:
Well, I feel pretty comfortable. If they don't like me speaking up, I'll find a job elsewhere. I feel that often I may be the only person in a university who can speak up against certain things like this because I am in that position. I don't have the responsibility of a family, and so I do feel a responsibility to say something.

It would be heavier if I had a family, and I can understand that, and so I just feel like, hey, I can be reckless if I want to and raise questions, but the universities I have been in – there's a lot of people who agree with me, and there's some who don't and then some of them just want to carry on with things as they are.
Russell Willis:
Going back to the book. I mean it's a work of – should I call it faction?
Tim Murphey:
Faction, yes. Facts within a fictional story, or a narrative built on facts.
Russell Willis:
Given the content and the point that it's trying to make, I assume all the statistics etc in the book are true. The book is based on your own life story...
Tim Murphey:
Again, it's faction. The entrance exam information is all authentic data. People do kill themselves because of entrance exam results and the faculty dialogs were pretty authentic, some of the emails were direct emails that I actually received or sent, and I just copied them into the book and changed names a bit. For the parts about the teachers in the high schools and the high school students, I have read over a thousand of my students' language learning histories, and that kind of gave me some sense of what's going on at high school and how much they hate the entrance exams. And I have given teacher training workshops to well over a thousand high school teachers who have often talked to me honestly about how they feel about the exams.
Russell Willis:
So you are familiar with HS teachers work as well?
Tim Murphey:
Yes, I am. One of the things that hurts me the most is when a middle aged high school teacher comes up to me and says, “Oh, you teach at XXX University. Great! I tried to pass their entrance exams when I was HS student but I wasn't smart enough.” And here is this 40 year old teacher who still feels low self esteem after all these years because he/she did not pass my university's exams. And I try to tell them, “You know, the exams are not really reliable measures of your intelligence,” but they shake their head and insist that the university cannot be wrong in their evaluation of them. And I want to scream!

In the academic article on the same topic, in TESOL Quarterly 2004, I actually say that I ended up identifying more with my students than I did with the professors of the university. I wasn't reading any professors' language learning histories or professional histories even, but reading all my students' language learning histories, so I did not identify with the university professors so much. The student histories were horrendous, and... I really felt bad for them.
Russell Willis:
And had these students chosen to study English…?
Tim Murphey:
Yes, these were English majors mostly, and I am sure it's much worse for non-English majors at the University. So, I started identifying more with them and that's probably where I got a little bit radical, …
Russell Willis:
So, you read a thousand student histories.
Tim Murphey:
At least a thousand, …I prefer to teach somebody once I know what their past was like and so I ask them to write their language learning history from when they began learning English all the way up until now. And what did they like and what they did not like. I never asked them to tell me about the entrance exams specifically, simply what helped them and didn't help, and what they liked and didn't like. But practically all talked about the entrance exams and about trying to get through the tests or the boredom of just attending many high school classes that are just about the tests. And so this test focus is doing an injustice to Japanese youth, I think.
Russell Willis:
You've written this polemic as a work of fiction. Why?
Tim Murphey:
Well, actually, I have several academic articles about the entrance exams and I have been writing them since the mid nineties. Unfortunately when people see “entrance exam” in the title of an article they avoid it, they don't read it. Whereas a novel engages more attention.
Russell Willis:
Aversion therapy...
Tim Murphey:
Sure, sure. Exactly. I mean me also. I am not interested in testing so much; I am interested in teaching and learning. And I had to study a little bit more about testing to find out what was happening here.

So, why did I write this? I wrote it because I thought that maybe if it did become popular, the public could know about it and then it would be more of a public issue. That's why I am really excited about the Japanese version coming out at the end of the month [March 2011]. In academia, people often only read the things in their specific academic domains and so there isn't much change in academia.
Russell Willis:
Most academic papers don't have sex scenes in them…
Tim Murphey:
Exactly…so I tried to make it popular, to add real life to it. And I think yeah, the people who contacted me, who have read the book, have really enjoyed it. The English version probably won't change anything because most of the foreigners in Japan understand how the system works already, but I don't think the general public understands what's going on. I really don't think they know. So I am excited about the Japanese version coming out.
Russell Willis:
The book is based on your life and in fact it's based around 1999 to 2000, which is I believe, the time that you did actually resign from your tenured position at a Japanese university over the entrance exam system.
Tim Murphey:
Right.
Russell Willis:
So you see the book and specifically the Japanese version of the book as better way to get your message across…And that will be coming out next month? [March 2011]
Tim Murphey:
Yes, hopefully.
Russell Willis:
You say that university entrance exams have a detrimental effect on high schools and junior high school teaching and you say that the people that write them really aren't experts in writing tests, don't really know how to write them and avoid volunteering to write them. And you are saying, it seems, that despite some changes, such as the introduction of a listening component in the Center Test, the situation is basically still the same as depicted in your book. Is that correct?
Tim Murphey:
There have been some hopeful moves to improve things. The Center Test adding a listening portion is one thing. Some universities farming the test prep out to third parties might be a good thing as well. There was a special conference last year at Tokyo Big Site which I wrote a review of.
Russell Willis:
The National Center for University Entrance Examinations -- that Big Site forum was sponsored by the Asahi Shinbun...
Tim Murphey:
Right, and that was hopeful... and actually I gave reader's copies of The Tale that Wags to a few of the people there who were speaking and to the head of ETS. One suggestion at the conference was to have a College Board in Japan as they do in the US which might be helpful. A College Board is basically a group of people from different universities who decide how we do exams, how do we do admissions, instead of it being simply mandated from MEXT.
I would love for MEXT to say: stop making tests, just use the center test, just do interviews, do holistic type testing, look at the backgrounds of your students. Right now, students and high school teachers spend hours and hours preparing materials to send to universities for entrance vetting and we're supposed to check all this material. I don't think we check it very much, and we basically go on one test score.
Russell Willis:
It's just too much of an overwhelming task for professors to go through all that material...
Tim Murphey:
Right. You don't have an admissions office per se at most universities in Japan. It's a PR office.
Russell Willis:
Right, “Come! Come to our university!”
Tim Murphey:
Whereas, I think in the States, in the UK, elsewhere probably, you have an admissions office year round that evaluates whether students are suitable for the university and can benefit from the courses it offers.
Russell Willis:
That's my experience in the UK.
Tim Murphey:
So, again, it's a little bit of the culture of Japanese academia, where teachers are supposed to do everything. And that's why high school teachers are overloaded with work and administration and are expected to go the police to fetch your child and things like that.
Russell Willis:
Bureacratic inertia and the role of the teacher are obstacles. What about the economic factor? Universities make a lot of money out of these tests, don't they?
Tim Murphey:
They do. If we do away with individual university exams, they would have to figure out where to get around US $7 million instead of doing entrance exams.

But they are wasting a lot of professor time and administrative time already on test making and taking already, and if they are going to do it, they might as well make it reliable. They might as well do an item analysis at the end to figure out what works and what didn't work, but most universities don't do item analyses at all.
Russell Willis:
In your book, Frank Sutherland explains the facility index and the index of discrimination and talks about how international testing standards have changed over the last 40 years and that we can now understand which test items are actually valid and which can discriminate between capable people and not so capable people...But somehow this just seems to have been ignored by universities in Japan. I mean even the best ones.
Tim Murphey:
I think, in factories, technology and science universities, everybody knows about validity and reliability checks for different procedures and different things like that, but it hasn't flowed down into university entrance exams, it's just not there...
Russell Willis:
I'd like to return to my question about whether anything has changed or not because you mentioned your study of “student voices” I believe, and those student voices are fairly recent.
Tim Murphey:
The YouTube videos are recent, just the last few years, and of course I have asked students to write their language learning histories (LLHs) the last few years also. But I have been reading LLHs since 1990, when I came to Japan, I've been reading about 100 every year or so. And they continue to complain about the test prep in HS, the lack of interaction and speaking, and the boring yakudoku.
Russell Willis:
So, if there had been a significant change, you might have spotted that in terms of their recorded experiences, having gotten better or worse or…
Tim Murphey:
I have not seen many changes in their LLHs. I had thought that especially with the students who are in my present university I would see a change because 60% of them come in through interview exams. But in their LLHs they most often say they went to private cram schools to practice the interview because there was little or no speaking in their regular school's English classes.

But back to the university exams themselves, the testing procedures and ethics of testing associations aren't looked at very much by the testers in the university. If testing is a serious matter in universities, it needs to be done seriously I think, and if it's not then universities should rely on somebody else's test – and that's okay. But I just find.. the current situation...it hurts me… It makes me want to scream...
Russell Willis:
The point of no return for you – the point when you realized you had to resign from a tenured position at a respected university – was when you realized that these exams just weren't valid. I mean, if they had been valid, perhaps you would still have been upset about the way they affect the rest of the system; but to understand that the tests weren't valid and that people were preparing for the exams and, you know, getting rather upset to the point of suicide about these exams, exams that nobody could intellectually justify as being worthwhile...
Tim Murphey:
I guess my resignation hinged on the fact that I was not going to be able to even try to improve the situation, I was expected to just do what everyone had always done. I guess I don't want that on my tombstone. I at least want, “He tried to improve things.” Whether I am successful, or not, is not as important as at least being able to try to improve things.
Russell Willis:
So you are not against testing per se…
Tim Murphey:
No. I think testing can be very useful... I like J. D. Brown's testing books and he corresponded with me during the time that I was researching the exams and gave me all kinds of information and helped me do a lot of the statistics, that I didn't fully understand. So, I don't think testing is so bad, but I think...it can highjack our higher motives.

Books like Drive by Daniel Pink talk about conditioning youth to the carrot and the stick way of thinking, that is, you won't do anything unless you get a reward or because you fear punishment, getting a good grade is more important than having a good idea. Basically, Pink is saying the carrot and stick are like Motivation 1.0 and, we need to elevate ourselves up to Motivation 2.0 which is much more about agency and having control of your life and having some direction and doing something that is meaningful – it's not just about carrots and sticks. Sadly, if we train young people to just respond to the carrot and stick, they forget about meaning after a while.
Russell Willis:
Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation.
Tim Murphey:
Right. So, they are just extrinsically motivated forever for grades and it's a shame, it's a loss.


Part Two: Kumiko Torikai and English in High Schools

Russell Willis:
Let me put two quotes to you, if I may, and get your response. One is from your own students. I took it from the video you produced and put up on YouTube: Student Voices
.

“The truth is too many high school and junior high school teachers are force-feeding grammar.”

So, that's the point of view of these students. I think that video is quite recent. Is that correct?
Tim Murphey:
Correct. Made in December 2009.
Russell Willis:
This is a quote from an interview with Professor Kumiko Torikai that she conducted just a few weeks ago with the Asahi Shinbun:
What always stumps me is why people are unaware of what English education is really like today. As parents, don't they ever try to find out how their children are being taught? Don't they ever look at their children's English textbooks? I really don't understand. Even at government council meetings, prominent business leaders complain about the state of English education in schools and lament that students are being taught only to read and write English, so they can't really hold conversations in English.

These distinguished individuals become quite annoyed whenever I open my mouth and point out to them, "English education has changed significantly over the last decade or two. The problem today is that conversation skills are being overemphasized. You say students can only read and write but can't converse in English, but that's an old story that is no longer true.”
How would you respond to that because it seems to me that what you are saying and what your students are saying, and what Professor Torikai is saying are in direct contradiction to each other.
Tim Murphey:
I would like to see the research that she has that her comments might be based upon, first of all, if she has any research. I am open to finding out if I am wrong or not... but from what I hear from my students still coming into university every year... and this is to a university that is orally based and 60% enter on these oral interviews... they are still complaining in their language learning histories, that, “Gosh, it feels so good now to be able to speak! All we did was study for the exams, you know, in junior and senior high school.”
Russell Willis:
And studying for the exams, meant studying grammar and comprehension?
Tim Murphey:
Most of them say this, most of them – and a lot of them are regretting it now – and regretting the decrease in the number of ALTs in their high schools. They say that they did like to talk to the foreigners because it was a reason to actually speak English.
Russell Willis:
English became real for them.
Tim Murphey:
Yeah. Others have complained in their language learning histories that they definitely do not want the Japanese teacher with the ALT teacher teaching together because when the ALT teacher speaks, the Japanese teacher just translates everything into Japanese and you have the English then Japanese then English then Japanese, until nobody listens to the English finally.
Russell Willis:
I can understand those comments being made by students 20 years ago. When I came to Japan about 20 years ago, and I taught as an ALT and you know, my experience was of Japanese English teachers at junior high schools and high schools. So my experience of Japanese English teachers was exactly that, and I, being a fairly bossy chap, would throw my Japanese English teacher out of the classroom if they tried to translate for me. But, that's what they wanted to do. Either do that, or use me as a tape recorder. Classic clichéd stuff almost. I mean you feel embarrassed to say it.

What Kumiko Torikai said – and I come back to her because she is obviously a very important and influential commentator, who appears frequently on TV, and this is an interview in the the Asahi Shinbun... What she said was that English education has changed significantly over the last decade or two; these are the decades you are talking about.

She's saying that the problem today is that conversation skills are being over-emphasized. The problem is that too much emphasis is being placed on conversation skills. She's saying that when people say students can only read and write but can't converse, that's an old story, that it's no longer true.

I find personally from my anecdotal experience talking to teachers at various levels, that this view is... at odds with reality, to put it politely.

Can you imagine why she might be saying this? I mean, we would hope it was true, obviously.
Tim Murphey:
Well, I would hope that was true, yes. I would hope that it was true. In general, when I go back to the States or go to England or go anywhere and give presentations, in academia, in the universities, in linguistic departments: Communicative Language Teaching, yes of course, everyone agrees that is what is best. That's what everybody does, everybody‘s for talking – discourse analysis and wonderful things like that. But you've got to realize that that's the top 10% of academia that we are talking about, that is following the theories and doing the stuff at universities, it is not JHS and HS at the lower levels. And I can imagine some university teachers are upset at a few students who end up talking better than they can write grammatically, and thus her comment. And I think probably universities have changed much more in the recent years, and I would agree with her there. That's at the university level.
Russell Willis:
She's not talking about universities, though.
Tim Murphey:
I know, but if all one sees is the top, they assume the bottom is the same. And hopefully it will flow down into the junior high schools and high schools. We'd hope that they have changed somewhat, but I don't know how much, and that's the key point here, how much have they changed.


Continue Reading Parts 3 to 5

Tim Murphey's website is here.



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