June 27, 2005

How Japanese education works against critical thinking

I was recently asked to write some recommendation letters for a graduate of the university where I work. She is now in the UK and wishes to apply for an MSc. I wrote the following in my letter of recommendation:
Generally speaking, Japanese education, especially at the secondary level and even at the tertiary level, requires the memorization of a large number of facts. Demonstration of understanding of the significance of those facts is not a high priority, nor is the development of critical thinking skills. Even in smaller classes at university (for example “seminars”) which might be assumed to provide an environment conducive to the exchange of opinion and the testing of one's arguments by means of debate, such debates or other oral activities which might be considered normal, indeed vital, in higher education, are unfortunately rarely to be found. The dynamics of Japanese groups and the protocols of Japanese communication tend to strongly prohibit such activities, with the result that skills of self-expression (stating an opinion and defending one's thinking) and of critical thinking are sadly weak in the majority of graduates from institutions of tertiary education in this country.
This has both negative and positive implications: the negative ones are obvious; as for the positive, the fact that it is Japanese group dynamics and communication protocols that tend to so strongly inhibit the development of these skills means that it is highly possible for a Japanese, taken out of a Japanese environment, to learn and develop these skills. I quote from a recent academic article which discusses Asian students studying in Western universities (in this case, in the United States): “Speaking of Chinese students, Harris (1997:43) maintains that ‘many are serialist learners by acculturation not personal inclination’; given the opportunity, they will respond positively to alternative approaches with which by nature they are more in sympathy. Harris goes on to conclude: ‘if this is correct, it follows that it is feasible to bring such students to a point of greater learning versatility by the use of educational techniques designed to do just that.’ He makes the further point that [Asian] students may …become more flexible as their confidence increases.” (Harris, R. “Overseas students in the UK system”, in D. McNamara and R. Harris (eds). McNamara, D and Harris, R.(eds.). 1997. Overseas Students in Higher Education. London: Routledge. )
(Plagiarism and the culture of multilingual students in higher education abroad, Sowden, Colin, ELT Jounral Vol. 59/3, July 2005, p.228).

So, the theory is that Japanese students also might flourish and develop critical thinking and other skills necessary, once they are taken out of the environment that stifles the activities necessary for critical thinking to develop. To test my theory, I wrote to another former student who is now here studying this, asking him how he thought his education in Japan had (un)prepared him for studying in the US, especially for a Master's program. This is his reply:
Well, my list will be endless if I think of what I unprepared/underprepared for a MA.
note taking
critical thinking
relationship with professors (how much can i be friendly to them? How much can i get help from them?)

I would say that what I UNDERprepared is all academic English skills, especially in writing. Japanese people well know that they definitely need more work in oral skill, but they often tend to think "my writing will be okay even though it's not good right now." In a graduate program, in my experience, professors's expectations to students' writing skills is very high, higher than in undergrads....Taking writing classes for 6 months before getting to grad school was not enough for me. I needed more writing experience at the undergrad level. I think I didn't learn how to write in detail (paraphrazing, summarizing, making topic sentences, etc).

And unprepared things were, as you see, analytical/critical thinking. I never learned the importance of finding a deep meaning/description in texts. Good writing is based on good analytical reading. I could read. I could look up a dictionary; but I had real hard time 'reading meanings' between the lines (what theory? Based on what assumption?). Japanese students tend to just read, not getting used to interpreting the texts or interpreting the interpreation that an author made (Among my reading requirement are Derrida/Geertz/Foucault... yes, reading is also crucial for writing well).

But the biggest obstacle for me to survive in a MA program is Discussion. I knew how hard the reading and writing would be before getting into the MA, but I didn't imagine that in-clas discussion was that hard... teachers may ask student to be a discussion leader. Was I ready to lead an in-class discussion? Heck no. you know being able to talk and being able to discuss are different matter. i can speak English/talk with classmates, but I couldn't discuss a topic with classmates (and in front of a professor). So discussion was what i unprepared most, I guess, because I didn't know how to prepare.

Basically, I was unprepared/underprepared in all stuffs. So were other Japanese students and will be, I think. You know that is because of my long experience of "jyugyo wo ukeru"(= receiving a class, being presented a class by a teacher) in the japanese education system. I think i didn't have much experience of "jyugyo wo toru" (+ take a class from school/teachers). Discussion and critical thinking were, have still been, very foreign to me.

Umm... Japanese' abilities and suitableness for taking an MA program... Umm... Generally Japanese students who go overseas for a graduate school are very motivated and industrious. In Japan, going to grad school is not as common as in the US ( or in other countries?). Going to graduate school is very rare action for Japanese. "Positively abnormal", I would say! Strong motivation must be in japanese grad candidates' heart, and they will make the best effort to be successful in a program.
another possible advantageous thing that Japanese have is the ability to co-operate with people. I believe Japanese students are good at group studies or projects since they have a good sense of harmony ( and the attitude that they won't say 'no'!)....Adding to your comment, all Japanese have 12 years' experience of passive learning (though 1st&2nd grades of elementary school could be exceptional). Teachers talk, students listen and take notes, period. It is very hard for us to adjust to active learning suddenly at a college or oversea. The passive learning has alerady been normalized in them. Analyzing what teachers/textbooks present and rising a hand are foreign custom in Japan, at least in Japanese education, i think. Presenting your own opinion in class and share it with classmates is seen as just show-off. Non-active attitude in class is defintely culturally constructed and normalized.

When new [Japanese] students come to PSU and ask me for some tip to survive American school, I always say "Get used to making mistakes." this is my rule of thumb to learn a foreign language. I may have got used to making mistakes too much recently(LOL). recently I focus more on better conversation flow (how smoothly can i converse with native speakers) rather than grammatical accuracy in my speaking. I don't if this is good or not. but I believe that "getting used to making mistakes" was one of the biggest breakthrough that i had experienced. Now I speak English ok even in class because I accept the fact that i make mistakes. Classmates know that i am not American. I don't think like 'i take a risk' any more because having/presenting my own opinion is not a show-off here in the US.

Japanese college students will be fine with active learning environment once they get to feel okay about making a mistake!!

June 21, 2005

Constructivist theory in instructional design

Am cross-posting this entry on Marco's Blogstudent because I think it's relevant to autonomy in EFL. Creating our own learning materials that are interesting, engaging and instructional/informative, and also support learner autonomy is a big priority for us these days, tho we have no time to devote to it now until classes finish July 15th. Constructivist theory is something I only know a smattering about, but it seems to bear much promise. Any suggestions? If you know something about using this theory of learning in designing materials, please give us the benefit of your wisdom and experience!

June 16, 2005

EFL Geek: ESL & EFL in Korea - Schools not for learning (Autonoblogger)

EFL Geek and Scott over the pond in Korea get in on the conversation. EFL Geek: ESL & EFL in Korea - Schools not for learning (Autonoblogger)

Thanks for dropping by, guys!

"Required" vs "elective"? Won't cut it. Most of my classes are electives! I think the attitudes and behaviours have more to do with ambient culture and upbringing. I found this book very enlightening, tho depressing (tho as I'd already read this, I should not have been suprised). McVeigh writes about Japan, but it'd be interesting to see how much of it resonates with people teaching in other (East) Asian countries.

June 15, 2005

No test, please!

Isn't it odd that in a class where I only recently chose a textbook, classes were more fun and interactive when I had NO textbook than they are now. Why should that be?

It is slowly dawning on me that an English class without some clear performance goals (i.e. students must demonstrate a certain level of linguistic competence), the daily routine of class becomes meaningless; we become like a ship without a rudder. (We? OK, let it pass.)

So I'm looking to create similar performance/competence goals in other classes as well.

In the classes where I only recently chose the textbook, I quickly realized that me standing at the front and "conducting" the class like an orchestra, or like a drill-sergeant on the parade ground, take your pick of similes, was really a wsste of resources. So for the last 2 weeks I've been simply writing the list of activities on the board: Unit so-and-so, page so-and-so, activity #, then activity #..., then (etc.) Actually writing this up on the board was a huge favour I did them, seeing as I'd already spent precious sweat and tears posting these very same activities on the class blog.

Having posted the day's activities on the board, I quickly flipped through the textbook looking for actual examples of tasks I could set as goals, together with examples or models from the textbook. It was very hard. After 10 minutes I only managed to locate 4 tasks. Obviously the textbook is geared more towards busy work than actual linguistic performance.

Anyway, after this hard slog I needed a well-earned breather: what are my charges up to? Hmm, most of them have the textbook open in front of them. (To those who don't): "Where's your textbook?" "Forgot it." "Hm. So, what are you going to do?" After a few seconds, they poke the guy in front in the ribs and demand to borrow his textbook. Those that do have the textbook, what are they up to? Most of the activities I had listed were dialogues and speaking exercises. Straining my ears (and I have 20/20 hearing) I could detect the dulcet tones of the Japanese language, but of the language of Shakespeare's birthplace, not a peep. Stooping menacingly over a couple of gentle maidens near the front and flicking up my cool shades for dramatic effect, I ask them what they are doing: no answer, but I can see they are writing, and my memory tells me .... they are doing last week's homework. Duh. Obviously. Like, with no shouted instructions from the conductor's podium, or threat of a "test", like they're actually going to embarrass themselves with actually trying to speak English! And with each other! Obviously the safest thing to do, while still maintaining the appearance of actually doing something, is writing exercises, namely, the homework assignment (which no-one had done anyway, also obviously; what planet are you from, teacher? This is the Land of Wa, aka the Land of No Homework).

OK. Breathe deeply. Count to Ju. Ah! A hand is raised. I tootle over. "What kind of test will you be giving us?" Aha! I was thinking the very same thing! "Well, let's see now; what kind of test would you like?"

"Well, personally" (I can't remember exactly what words she used, but my memory tells me it was something to the effect of "us", i.e. if it's up to the students), "we don't need/want a test, but if you insist then I guess some kind of writing test, fill-in-the-blanks kind of thing like we're doing here now in the textbook. But really I think the best thing would be to base the grade on attendance."

Aha! My theories proved right! It's not about learning anything, or developing any kind of ability; it's all just about getting the credits in order to graduate.

"I don't like that" I blurt out. Should I insist on my own way? I decide to see how many others think the same way. I tell them my opinion: If the purpose of this class is to develop some actual communicative ability, then it makes sense (to me at any rate) to have a communicative test, an opportunity for you to show to me (and yourselves) what you can do with the language, assuming you're in this class in order to actually learn to do things with the language. BUT, before deciding on this, I'd like to know what you all think, so write me your opinion either on paper or by email by next Monday (June 20th).

June 14, 2005

Autono Blogger: Schools not places for learning 3

Autono Blogger: Schools not places for learning: Furthermore, how does one measure linguistic competency unless it is through testing, thereby reinforcing the goal oriented mentality that our students are so heavily conditioned by!
Good point. Possibly one way round this is by involving students in decisions concerning their testing and their learning, and course objectives. However, my own feeble attempts at this lead me to think that something else is additionally needed. Some kind of consciousness-raising.

No idea yet if it will prove fruitful or practicable, but I'm now reading (and enjoying) Theatre of the Oppressed and .Games for Actors and Non-actors by Augusto Boal.

Autono Blogger: Schools not places for learning 2

Autono Blogger: Schools not places for learning: Aaron commented,
some kind of minimal level of competency that should be demonstrated should a student be deemed to have successfully learned something.
Why the passive voice, I wonder? Who is doing the "deeming"? What I'm putting to students is the suggestion that they are learning English from a native speaker in order to learn how to use it (an idea that seems oddly novel). That being the case it makes sense a) for evaluation purposes and b) for their own satisfaction or sense of accomplishment, to have a) some kind of linguistic target and b) a means to show me and themselves that they have achieved their target. I am trying to get as far away as I can from the sense of a "test" which is primarily for the purposes of other people (i.e. not the learners themselves). It is this kind of education that has led (I believe) to an oppression of learners, to their subordination to the requirements of statist and corporatist goals, which has in turn led to the extraordinary (and yet hard to deny) result of the subordination of learning to testing (or, as McVeigh puts it, to filtering).

Autono Blogger: Schools not places for learning

Autono Blogger: Schools not places for learning: "learning comes and goes in different times and intensities, and expresses itself it different ways. It is really elusive and impossible to capture through a numeric evaluation. "

Yet institutions insist on numerical evaluations. Not only that, but I suspect that the combination of the emphasis on "teaching for tests" and the requirement for numeric evaluations has resulted in a serious downgrading of the importance or value of actual learning, by which I mean acquisition of knowledge and understanding. The result: a disproportionate emphasis on attendance as a "measure" of "learning". McVeigh even goes so far as to question whether students in this country are conscious of the distinction between attendance and learning.

June 09, 2005

Schools not places for learning

Aaron has this to say about learning and evaluation:
I like this approach Marco, for I agree that there should be some kind of minimal level of competency that should be demonstrated should a student be deemed to have successfully learned something. For me the problem is the fact that the institution of education isn't set up to accomodate learning very well. Like all natural processes, learning comes and goes in different times and intensities, and expresses itself it different ways. It is really elusive and impossible to capture through a numeric evaluation.

Furthermore, how does one measure linguistic competency unless it is through testing, thereby reinforcing the goal oriented mentality that our students are so heavily conditioned by!

To me, the answer lies close to the idea of doing away with grades and curriculum altogether, akin to an open school. Students have to achieve a certain level of proficiency in a certain number of classes in order to graduate. They go at their own pace and choose classes that they want to be in. I guess this is not going to be a reality anytime soon, so perhaps the idea of teachers offering two modes of study in a course is a way of compromising in the current system?

Well, I agree. That's where I'm "at" at the moment. There is a very real problem, tho, here, of course, of how you fight against "institutionalised learning" while remaining in the institution? As Aaron writes,
how does one measure linguistic competency unless it is through testing, thereby reinforcing the goal oriented mentality that our students are so heavily conditioned by!


One possibility is to simply not take attendance. But, as I suggested in my previous post, this will run up against some fundamental beliefs about university education in this country, beliefs held by teaching staff, administrators and students themselves. Therefore, it would seem to make sense to spend some time explaining the rationale for this; perhaps not directly, perhaps not by talking about attendance per se but by focussing on the the fact that the teacher a) genuinely believes that the learners CAN learn (as opposed to merely memorizing and passing tests), and that b) understands that there is a difference between learning (i.e. acquiring knowledge and understanding) and the "learning for tests" that students have experienced up to now. This is a distinction that could profitably be brought into students' awareness, I feel.

Another possibility is, as Pinky and I are doing in some of our classes, by setting genuinely communicative tasks as the "test". Yes, even tho this kind of feeds into the students' "goal oriented" mentality (I would say "test oriented" because it is not "goal" in the sense of some practical application or performance or behavioural goal), it is still different enough from the "test for the sake of testing, filtering and sorting"; it is (I hope) easier for students to see that this is something that might be of practical benefit for them, either immediately or some time in the future. But at least this is different from another brick in the wall, just another thing they have to do to be part of the system.

What I feel about the "testing" educational culture in this country is that it a system that students are forced through, and, for all the rhetoric, if is clearly not for students' personal benefit (other than the materialistic and rather far-off ones of getting a job), nor for their personal development; and they must feel that. They must get a sense (even if unconsciously) that this (their education) is something they have to endure as part of being good children, good citizens, that it is not about them and never will be.

Well, on a slightly different, but related, note, I have 2 speaking classes, and in these classes I use a dramatic story in 20 scenes of dialogue. The aim of the class is to give students input in terms of conversational English of a practical nature, both as reading and as listening. They then rehearse the scenes until they can perform them with actions, without the text. To pass the course and get the credits they must perform a certain number of these scenes with good pronunciation, good gestures and smooth delivery. I guess it was this that gave me the idea for the 10 tasks I mentioned before.

Anyway, I have not had to really preach or give any kind of rationalization or explanation for this. I simply stated the requirements, and in the first few classes taught students how to use the book and what I expected. They have now pretty much developed a degree of independence: each class I start with a quiz on the previous scene. At first, I gave the quiz (a dictation quiz based on lines of dialogue), but once they got the hang of it, I then let them create their own (similar) quizzes: they choose 10 items (single words, expressions, whole lines) from the previous scene that they would like to learn, and write them out (or write out the 'cue' for that response); they then hand the paper to their partner and have the partner quiz them.

The next stage is to work on the next scene. Here, too, they have developed some autonomy. After a choral read-through of the scene, they then work with a partner or in groups of 3, (the stage directions are in the English text and in the Japanese translation at the back of the book). I walk around, giving hints and tips, mostly on pronunciation. When they feel they are ready, they call me and we go to an adjoining empty classroom and I observe their performance and either say "OK!" or "once more" or "go back and practice some more, then come back."

In these classes there are a few students who have a large number of absences for various reasons. To those who show up, I merely point out that they need to be able to perform all the scenes that everyone else has done, at some stage between now and the end of the semester. They can take their time, and do the necessary performances at their own pace (I suggest doing an extra scene each week, or in cases where they have been absent a large number of times, each class [we meet twice a week]).

PAN-SIG conference, Tokyo, May 2005

A few weeks ago I attended this conference in Tokyo.

Looking at the website today, I noticed amongst the unvetted abstracts a couple of interesting items, neither of which I attended.

Here's one, on testing:
Mark Chapman will address the uses and misuses of the TOEIC exam by looking at, among other things, the decisions (university placement, promotion or salary increases etc.) which are made on the basis of a TOEIC score. Jeff Hubbell will discuss how formative assessment, unlike norm-referenced tests such as TOEIC which can encourage students to be motivated only by scores, focuses on describing what learners are capable of doing (writing short memos or e-mails in English, for example). It will be argued that this type of assessment can lead to more continuous and deeper learning.

In some of our freshmen classes (as I mentioned previously) we have created 10 communicative tasks for students to do, and we have the performance of these tasks as the goal of the class; that is the "final exam" (except it's not at the end of the semester; we've decided to have students work at their own pace and when they feel ready to do a task they come to the front in pairs and perform it).

We are asking students to show us what they can do with the language, which is something new, I think, given their previous educational experience of being tested to death such that the testing itself becomes the goal - it's learning for testing, and rarely the other way around.

Of course, the writer of the abstract above assumes that "deeper learning" is A GOOD THING and a desirable objective. I don't disagree, but, as Aaron points out here, educational insitutions are not created necessarily with this objective in view, perhaps particularly in Japan. So I think if this is our goal, we (teachers) need to spend a bit more time and energy making this explicit to our learners, talking about it with them, and by our actions (and evaluation methods) making it real. It was partly with this in mind that I have tried to start a dialogue with some students using the Internet.

June 07, 2005

Can you read this? You CAN??

A former student of mine, now in the wilds of Oregon, sent me this:
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rsceearh taem at Cmabirgde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr te ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat lteter be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Such a cdonitoin is arppoitaely cllaed Typoglycemia.

Amzanig huh? Yaeh and yuo awlyas thhuogt slpeilng was ipmorant.

June 06, 2005

Why take attendance?

Monday English People OC12 - Why take attendance?:
Homework assignment May 30th for this freshmen class of Pharmacy majors was to answer the following two questions:

1) Why is attendance taken in university classes in Japan?
2) And how do you feel about having your attendance taken each class?

Below are the students' respones to date (June 6th, 22:45JST). Transcribed/pasted exactly as received, no editing.

I received 22 responses (out of 36 students on the roll), 9 of those were handed in on paper, the rest were sent in by email.

The responses are revealing, and have prompted me to do a lot of thinking. Does "attendance" = "learning"? Why should the grade be linked to attendance? What is the connection between attendance and grades?

It seems clear that a preoocupation amongst students is evaluation, i.e. grading. It is also pretty clear that, in students' minds, there is little or no relation between the grades one receives and knowledge or skill acquired; it is assumed that the grade is the result of a "test" (which seems to usually mean a written test, tho perhaps I'm assuming things here). I sense from the responses that students have become so accustomed to being tested, and so accustomed to having testing as the prime purpose of education, that they have lost much sense of or desire for acquisition (of knowledge or skill) other than that necessary to pass the test (and get good grades).

At another school, I had a discussion on how to evaluate, with an older woman who is one of a slowly growing number of "adult learners" joining the regular student body. She said she thought taking attendance into account (i.e. having attendance be a part of the final grade) was important because otherwise the final grade would be based entirely on a single teacher's test, and she would never trust any single teacher's evaluation based on such a test, so using attendance as (part of) the grade was "fair".

Another argument made was that if attendance was not taken, few students would show up (an interesting assumption) and that that would be unacceptable to lecturers (their egos would be bruised).

A few students wrote "I don't understand it", which sounds pretty forthright and critical in English, but I suspect they may be translating the commonly used self-deprecatory phrase よく分かりません ("well, I don't really know much about it, but...") frequently used before making a statement of any kind to ward off any possible assumptions by listeners (or readers) that one is some kind of expert, or has given this matter a deal of thought.

This semester, in one of our freshmen classes, my colleague Pinky and I have created a kind of proficiency exam and set this as the bar to pass the class. We have deliberately avoided mentioning whether attendance will form part of the grade or not (although we religiously take attendance, like almost everybody else; in fact, just last week teachers were asked to hand in forms listing students who had attended less than half the classes by May 30th).

The object of the course is to be able to do 10 tasks to the satisfaction of the teacher. These 10 tasks cover about 15 basic situations or functions in English, including saying where something is, giving and following directions, introducing oneself (interests, hobbies, home, family, school, future plans), describing a process, telling about a trip, and so on. After reading the students' responses to the question "why take attendance", I realize just how revolutionary such an approach might seem: it unambiguously puts the accomplishment of a number of linguistic tasks as the goal of the course, and makes it clear that the succesful performance of these tasks is the key to passing the course. No mention is made of attendance or even effort (two issues dear to the heart of most people in higher education in this country). The goal here is, in linguistic terms, to learn to ride a bike: how often you fell off, how often you showed up with your bike (regardless of whether you actually tried riding it or not), how near you were to actually riding it, are all irrelevant.

Also irrelevant is, how much effort (how long it took to master the tasks) was put in: if someone can do all 10 tasks satisfactorily at the first try (in the first class of the year), they pass! Altho this hasn't happened (yet) and the issue has not been raised, I suspect that many students would feel this is "unfair": why should someone who spent 30 minutes on it get the same (or better) grade than someone who worked hard for all 90 minutes of each of the 28 classes in the semester?

This raises the question of exactly what students think is being evaluated, or what they think should be evaluated. I suspect that in either case, they would not focus as much on the competency or proficiency as Pinky or I would.

In the class in which I set these questions for a homework assignment, there is no such clear linguistic or competency goals, (merely a list of "topics" to be "covered") and I'm realizing that when these goals are absent, it makes it much easier (and tempting) to use attendance as a measure (tho of what, of course, is never clear!).

Pop on over and take a look at the students' responses, if you haven't done so already. And leave a comment, why don't you! It might help nudge students into starting their own blogs.