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Interview with Tim Murphey - Parts 3-5

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.

In parts one and two of this interview, Professor Tim Murphey discussed his booThe Tale That Wags and commented on Professor Kumiko Torikai’s views on English education. In what follows, Tim discusses teacher training, how universities are ranked, and the future for university entrance exams.

“...the entrance exams are unsound, and the hensachi calculations are based on them [so] the whole thing is a house of cards...a student could actually take an exam at a university that is way above what is recommended if they wanted to, because the testing practices are all over the place.”

Part Three: Teacher Training & Parent Training

Tim Murphey:
My MA students from Hawaii Pacific University, where I teach summers in their MA programs, they come back to Japan and complain sometimes because they'd really like to do all this neat stuff they learned in Hawaii at their high schools in Japan. But they are working in a group and there is a group mentality created by four or five teachers who are teaching the same grade who all have to have the same tests, use the same textbook, and are supposed to teach the same stuff. And so they feel that they are constrained about trying to do new stuff, and it's really hard to re-adjust for them.

When my university students sometimes ask, “Should I be a high school or junior high school teacher, which would be better? ” I say, “I love high school teachers, but it's a very hard job! You are caught between a rock and a hard place. JHS and University can be fun. In university we can do lots of different things and we are a little bit more free and we say “communicative language teaching ” to everybody, (but we are still having these entrance exams that are mostly multiple choice). JHS teachers get the joy of introducing the language to many students and they have a fresh start and it can be exciting and fun. They love it. But soon they worry about high school exams and teachers start getting scared their students won't pass, and so they revert to teaching to the tests at the end of JHS and through most of HS.
Russell Willis:
Is this reliance upon multiple-choice tests because teachers feel unable to make a qualitative evaluation of students?
Tim Murphey:
Actually, if you remember, the statistics even in the book, the listening and reading passages discriminate well and that's because it requires students to understand English in context, and more and more I think universities are getting things in context in their entrance exams but there are still these discrete item tests on grammar and vocabulary. And, that is probably the easiest thing for junior high school and high school teachers to teach to. But you've got to teach in context, teach the whole thing and that's hard. It is not just a simple question with a simple answer.
Russell Willis:
So if you waved a magic wand, and university entrance exams systems changed overnight and you had, listening in context and speaking-based exams–let's just imagine–would junior high school and high school teachers be able to handle it?
Tim Murphey:
Well, I think there are several people who have written articles on this. The university entrance exams have changed a little bit. They are leaning towards more context-based reading passages and things like that. But the high school teachers aren't following that change so much; the extensive reading people are in an uproar usually about high school teachers not giving enough reading materials and not letting them just run with it. Don't worry whether they understand the grammar and every word; let them just read, read, read. You know, go with it and let students who are ready do this, I think, if they have those resources also in the high schools, its great. So, it's part high school teachers are reluctant to change; university entrance exams may be slowly changing and using more contextualized testing, but our tests are still not being tested themselves. A master of arts in TESOL may help a teacher, but they end up being constrained by the culture of the group they are in, in the school they are in.
Russell Willis:
And what else would you wish for?
Tim Murphey:
Woo...If I had my way, I would send every 13-year-old abroad for a year in every country in the world just for cultural orientation even and just for being able to feel what it is to be part of a minority and coming back and realizing there are different worlds out there. It's just so amazing. I would definitely send more teachers abroad, even make it a requirement for being a teacher.
Russell Willis:
I agree with that. I am opposed to the JET programme as it is currently instituted. I think it's a waste of money. I think what they are doing is madness. Instead of spending this money to bring unqualified, untrained Americans and Brits over to act as tape recorders we should send Japanese English teachers abroad and get some actual experience of an English-speaking country and some real, practical teacher training. And if this were to be done it would inevitably cause a movement for change.
Tim Murphey:
There needs to be a critical mass. There were a lot of teachers going overseas in the 1990s. They were learning elsewhere for short stays of 3 months or for half a semester or even a year, and some even got a leave of absence for two years. But I can remember lots of the teachers in the Nagoya area, when they did it, they just felt so bad because all other teachers made them feel they were deserting their students, deserting your school. How could they possibly leave their job?
Russell Willis:
So this would need to take place before they actually joined a school. I mean, it should be part of the preparation for a teacher who is going to teach English, they would need to go before they joined a school and avoided that. Magic wand...
Tim Murphey:
The magic wand. I really respect the universities that are just sending all their students abroad. The English department at Kansai University, all second year students go abroad. Doesn't matter what your TOEIC score is, what you TOEFL score is: go abroad and you are going to learn something, and it's just great. Akita sends all their students abroad apparently and I think that's what needs to be done. At many universities, students have to pass a certain TOEIC or TOEFL level to go abroad and I don't think that should be a requirement. It's just go, go, go. Let them have that experience.

For teachers, once they become teachers, it's a different culture. You are in a group of people and you're being mentored by people who are older than you, and you kind of follow the line.

One thing they started doing in the States, the conference organizers, was: one teacher from the school, they pay, the second one comes for half price, the third one comes for free; trying to get a critical mass from a school because just one person learning something and going back to the school, probably doesn't change much but if three of them get excited about something, it will change a lot more.
Russell Willis:
Maybe they need to send some of the more senior teachers as well because if a junior teacher goes and comes back, they are still going to be stymied when they try and make changes based on what they've learnt. So, the senior teachers need to be on board and they won't be unless they go overseas.
Tim Murphey:
Exactly.
Russell Willis:
So, a complicated problem; Are you familiar with the way Japanese English teachers are currently trained to teach English? In your book Yumiko completed two weeks of in-class training.
Tim Murphey:
It's been expanded to 3 or 4 weeks and they still do a certificate course inside of each university, but they have to take on a pretty heavy load, which is another big problem: because it's so heavy they feel they can't go abroad to study. And sometimes they say, oh if I go abroad to study, I will have to do a fifth year of university which is a stigma in Japan – you are not supposed to do a fifth year. So, yeah, that needs to be worked out.
Russell Willis:
I am wondering what the syllabus is for those kind of training courses now. Again, this is 20 years ago, but I remember meeting teachers as an ALT and most had been never even come across the concept of having, for example, pair work or group work, or, you know, listening activities which involved an information gap or any of that standard stuff that was current when I was teaching. And it wasn't that they, you know, they knew about it and rejected it because of concerns related to exams, it was that they just had never heard of these approaches. Their method was to basically stand in front of the class, translate the English in the book and write katakana on the board. You know, that's the way it's done, right?

Are the teacher training syllabuses for Japanese English teachers anything that you or I would recognize?
Tim Murphey:
Those ideas are out there but they are familiar to the top 10% of academia only. And MEXT sends out these things periodically. But how much flows down to the junior high school and high school teachers is the real question. So, we don't know. I do some training in other prefectures sometimes for high school and junior high school teachers. I try and get them always to do what we call reality testing. After we do the training, they are supposed to send me an email 1 month later about what things they actually tried out in the classroom and it's interesting. So, really testing these things out in reality... and they work, you know, and it's amazing. Some of them will try three or four or five different activities.
Russell Willis:
These are the high school teachers?
Tim Murphey:
High school and junior high school teachers, but it still changes more than just giving a one-off teacher training and leaving with no further contact. But I think even better than that again if we can tell them you need to teach this to two other teachers…
Russell Willis:
Right, right.
Tim Murphey:
We learn when we teach and if we can get our students to actually teach each other, that's also a great way for them to learn. I respect high school teachers so much in Japan because they are in a really, really bad place. Their job is to get their students into a good university and the parents in the community are pressuring them to get their kids into a good university; that's their number one job. So, maybe I don't need to communicate only to junior high school and high school teachers, maybe I need to communicate more to parents about the testing system. Getting kids through these tests should not be the number one thing, you know. Do you want your child to be happy and healthy?
Russell Willis:
Right, right.
Tim Murphey:
There is this thing about stay-at-home mothers or fathers, they have stopped their career and they now measure it by the success of their children. So some end up making their children take all these tests –and get into the best elementary school possible, the best junior high school, high school, university and then hopefully get a great job and get married. Then they think their work is done, and done well. We need to reach parents somehow and let them know a child's life is more than what is shown in a test score.
Russell Willis:
...and this is a vicarious achievement for the parent but without actually being too concerned about what the kid is thinking or…
Tim Murphey:
...actually wants. So maybe we should invite parents to school more often and give them classes in how to foster a happy, healthy, and even more intelligent child who is not obsessed with grades and tests—children who are well rounded and motivated to live and contribute to the world.

Part Four: Hensachi • Ranking Universities

Russell Willis:
In your book you addressed the way in which universities are ranked, the hensachi system...
Tim Murphey:
Yeah, for me the hensachi is probably a house of cards. It's something that could fall over really, really easily...

I would like to see a Japanese magazine, like Newsweek, coming out that evaluates universities based on how many books they have in a library, how much space do they have on campus per student. What's the teacher-student ratio and then evaluate them on student feedback and things like that.

Canada does this very, very well and rather than hensachi, which is basically about how many people take your entrance exams and how many actually get in. If you get lots of people to take your exams but only a few get it, then you have a really high hensachi.
Russell Willis:
That sounds like it's a competition between marketing directors.

Let me confirm my understanding of the hensachi: you are saying that the hensachi's rating is based on the number of people who apply to a university versus the number of people who get in and so to get a higher hensachi, you could refuse more people but try and get as many as you could to apply, is that right?
Tim Murphey:
If I understand hensachi, that's how it works partially. And then apparently every school, every department, every student can have a hensachi that tells them their ranking relative to everyone else. The jukus use them to advise students as to what universities they should apply to.
Russell Willis:
I see.
Tim Murphey:
But because the entrance exams are unsound, and the hensachi calculations are based on them, the whole thing is a house of cards. For example, the jukus think that you can get into these five universities, but a student could actually take an exam at a university that is way above what is recommended if they want to, because the testing practices are all over the place.
Russell Willis:
Because the tests are being made up each year mostly by people who don't know how to make valid tests.
Tim Murphey:
But I think the hensachi that jukus give students are probably better than the hensachi they give universities. Because many jukus have testing experts, they analyze their results, do item analysis, and in fact are starting to make many of the university entrance exams tests nowadays.

A lot of universitie have outsourced their tests to jukus . But sometimes they use the jukus tests (calling it their own) but don't give the data back to the jukus so they can't do the item analysis. So you're back to almost the same old situation again.
Russell Willis:
Oh right, they don't get the database of tests scores and item responses etc.
Tim Murphey:
They don't. The university often says it's “private data. ”
Russell Willis:
In your book, you visit the head of research of one of the huge cram school chains in Japan. Obviously these companies and other organizations have influence on the education system. How are they part of this puzzle?
Tim Murphey:
It is a puzzle and what's interesting about society in general is that people often don't realize how powerful they are in a system. The people I talked to at the jukus did not realize their influence on universities. I think sometimes some people might know and some people in some positions might realize they have a certain amount of power, but a lot of them don't know. The system seems to magically control itself but no one knows who is really in control. Universities say they are afraid of MEXT when it suits them and MEXT, when it suits them, says they can't do something because of the universities. Who really has control? Perhaps no one and it is just the system, the entrance exams, gone out of control that is not very helpful.

Teachers unions in Japan, for example, think they have no power but often administrators shake in fear at their mention. If high school teachers were to go out on strike saying, “No more entrance exams. Let's just have the Center Test, ” wouldn't that be an improvement? And wouldn't that simplify their lives? That would be a rational thing for them to do and they have the power if they want to. I have been reading reports about how they were much more radical, with riots and all kinds of stuff back in the 1960's in the Tokyo area. Now, there's no radicalism in Japan – it's just not polite and that's why we like Japan! [laughter]

Part Five: The Future of University English Entrance Exams

Russell Willis:
You've made probably one of the boldest stands in relation to English education in Japan of anyone that I have ever heard of and I find it really, really admirable.

You did two things: First, you resigned from a tenured position on the basis that you wouldn't participate in a system inimicable to students' welfare and education. Second, you then went and did something about the problem, by first getting TESOL to approve a resolution at their conference regarding entrance examinations and obviously you have written about this in academic papers and have now released this book.

Do you think that others should be standing with you on this? I mean, TESOL obviously passed their resolution; what about professional organizations like JACET or Zeneiren or JALT for example, should other people be looking to – I understand the single and reckless issue, but do you think that perhaps organizations like JALT for example should be taking this up in a stronger way?
Tim Murphey:
I think the JALT Testing SIG is pretty progressive and pushes for change regularly. But I don't know if the whole JALT organization wants to do that. I don't think they want to raise a ruckus too much because they do have good relationships with other associations and the government. So, that might be part of it, I don't know…
Russell Willis:
What about JACET, for example, I mean that – surely that's the most, relevant body with regard to English university entrance exams?
Tim Murphey:
JACET published a paper of mine back in the 90s about the testing system. They asked for it, in fact. I haven't really followed their literature very much.

I wrote the book partially because I believe that most people really are not aware of the system and take it for granted that academics know what we are doing, something like having faith in doctors in the middle ages “blood letting. ” I definitely think MEXT should lead the way and should know how bad the system is that they have allowed to exist for so long. They have the know-how with the Center Test and they know what is happening in other countries.

As I was saying before, it's a system where most of us do not know where the power is but everybody has some power. So, parents have power, jukus have power, universities have power, teachers have power, the associations have power, but having the right combination of information and initiative is crucial. I wish MEXT would just say, “Get rid of your tests and just use the Center Test. ”
Russell Willis:
I think one of the issues that is problematic for a non-Japanese who wants to put forward this argument is that you risk being labeled a “Japan-Basher ”. I mean you love Japan, you love working here, you love living here, and you want to improve things like any conscientious citizen should. But it is true that criticism coming from someone who isn't Japanese can often be seen as Japan bashing. So don't we need a coalition of professors, Japanese professors, parents, high school teachers, students, ex-students, ordinary people saying, you know, all standing up because they believe they can make things better?
Tim Murphey:
I will try to enlist JACET more. There are people in Nagoya who understand these issues. I have worked a lot with Kazuyoshi Sato at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, Takashi Miura at Shizuoka University also; they are both ex-high school teachers and now they are both university teachers. What I found is that people who have actually taught in high schools and then actually go to university and become university teachers understand the situation a whole lot better and are much more sensitive to it and also enact more change.

Kazuyoshi Sato is actually going out into high schools as a university professor and meeting groups of high school teachers and asking how can we change the curriculum, how can we make it better, how can we make it more communicative and things like that and there is that kind of in-service personal touch where the professor is actually taking a step out into high schools.

Takashi Miura and his team are looking closely at entrance exam questions from various universities and analyzing the questions to see how much universities are changing and how much HS teachers could change to become more humanistic teachers.
Russell Willis:
Very interesting.
Tim Murphey:
It's all very, very interesting and hopeful. Miura and team are finding that maybe we do need to teach more intensive reading and extensive reading and the exams are not just about grammar and vocabulary anymore. So, there are pockets of hope all over Japan by Japanese who are actually voicing these opinions and that's wonderful.
Russell Willis:
Hopefully, some are them are single and reckless...
Tim Murphey:
Well, that's what's amazing. They're not single and reckless!
Russell Willis:
And they're doing it anyway. Wonderful. Thank you for your time today, Tim.
Tim Murphey:
Thank you, Russell.

Back to Parts 1 and 2

Tim Murphey's website is here.

Tim's very enjoyable novel, The Tale That Wags is available from ELTBOOKS.com



« Interview with Tim Murphey - Parts 1 & 2 | Main | Interview with Kumiko Torikai - Parts 1-2 »

Comments

Thank you for publishing this interesting interview and dealing with some important issues.

I had critiqued Tim's initial (Part 1) response on my own ELTNews blog (The Uni-files) but am happy to notice that he is very aware of the research which shows that many university entrance exams are in fact demanding wider-ranging and holistic skills from examinees. Tim points out teaching/pracrticing Extensive Reading as a skill that should benefit candidates.

This understanding though should temper or inform his initial wholesale condemnation of the entrance exam system. There seems to be a baby-bathwater meme at work here- a conflation of poorly-designed exams with all entrance exams. After all, if better designed tests demand extensive reading skills then the washback effect should be positive-- but it seems that Tim points the finger only at negative washback from the university exams.

But the one thing that Tim says which really flummoxes (bamboozles? gobsmacks?) me is his suggestion that ONLY the Center Shiken be used as a measure for entry. This proposal would seem to work against most of the practices or principles that Tim holds in value. For example, the Center Shiken has ONLY multiple-choice questions and is therefore much more receptive than productive in terms of the demands made upon examinees. This would likely have a washback effect in which teachers and jukus prepare students only in receptive skills and a 'multiple-choice' approach to English.

And, although the Center Shiken's multiple-choice format shouldn't lead a discrete-point pedagogy (the test is sophisticated enough to address a variety of skills) it is more likely to mislead juku/HS teachers into doing so than a well-designed second-stage exam.

Also, making the Center Shiken the only and final arbiter of entry success would create an even greater centralized, detached, mechanical and heirarchical system, with Tokyo scraping off the top few hundred, Kyodai the next batch and so on down the rankings. This, I believe, would also increase the stress surrounding the exams- an all-or-nothing one shot approach. Currently, with second-stage exams, individual universities can test paarticular subjects only, emphasize this or that major, appealing to the unique qualities of the particular institution rather than rather mindlessly pulling in a certain scoring segment of the Center Shiken.

This is also in accordance with MEXT's stated role for second-stage exams- that they be more idiosyncractic and reflective of the individual institutions' focus and requirements- to be more personalized and tailor-made, if you will. This further allows for those universities to produce entrance exam tasks that demand cognitive skills, the abilitiy to express oneself, to summarize, create or predict- plus personal interviews and short compositions on a topic directly connected with the candidates' intended major-all holistic, productive skills that I would think Tim would like to inculcate.

For this reason, I have argued (on my blog) that English actually be dropped from the Center Shiken but instead be a focus on individual university entrance exams where productive English skills can be emphasized and, hopefully, have a positive washback effect.

But there will never be a positive washback effect if HS/juku teachers keep believing, or being told, that success on university entrance exams requires receptive or discrete-point drudgery.

Hello Tim

I would like to comment on one point you made about universities having their students study overseas. Yes it is great to a certain extent. However, I would also suggest that many departments do this to absolve themselves from having any responsibility for quality of learning and teaching inside their department. From a different perspective it is a form of outsourcing which of course puts more financial burden on the student. If you look at the curriculum of many of these universities it is hard not to conclude that they have set up these programs because they are unable or unwilling to offer high quality language education.

Tim:
Your comments are nothing knew; the same issues have been written by others in past years. Indeed, all you seem to have done is paraphrased other academics. Like most foreign teachers in this country, you only look at the problem from a western point of view - have you given any thought as why the Japanese system is like it is? Pontificating on what "you" think needs to be done is a waste of time. The impression I got from reading the above interview, was that you consider yourself to be some sort of linguist linchpin, when in fact you are coming off as just another whining, overpaid foreigner who has scored a cushy university job. I apologize if my above comments have offended. As for you book, I'm interested in reading it and pray it is not full of quixotic, ostentatious ideas that at designed to impress, rather than help improve the Japanese English education system. The book's title is almost a anagram of the movie "Wag the dog". Thank you for allowing me to vent my frustrations with foreign English educators here in Japan.

In Asia countries, most school teachers who are aware of what education really should be do agree with tim's opinions. No one likes entrance exam, and no one likes to see his/her students suffering.The entrance exam only shows our "limitations"--our values,systems and how people think and live their life. The way to improve it is to understand our limitations. Thus, everyone in this society would be responsible for what sociey or educational system they have made.It's not any single one's responsibility. If so, even we don't have an ideal educational system, we need not to fight for it because we find our true power in our heart. That's the most important things I try to help my students find it.


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