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Teachers must nurture critical thinking, confidence in English for a shot at 2020 goals

by Amy Chavez

Recently, it was revealed that Japanese public schools may start teaching English earlier (from third grade of elementary school), with more classes per week. The new “blueprint” for English education, to be implemented by 2020, even aims to have some junior-high classes taught in the target language. By high school, it is hoped, Japanese will be able to converse in English at a “viable level of proficiency.”

Uh-huh. It’s one thing to set lofty, desirable goals, and another to know how to achieve them.

As a native English speaker, teachers beg me to allow their Japanese students to practice English with me. As a former ESL (English as a second language) teacher, I am also pre-qualified for the task, since foreign language instructors in Japan are known to possess infinite patience along with the ability to speak artificially slowly and clearly. Furthermore, we are unlikely to surprise nescient learners with vocabulary or sentence patterns they haven’t yet studied.

If the students are high school age or below, they will introduce themselves with the predictable “My name is . . .” followed by “Nice to meet you.” Usually these two sentences are strung together and delivered rapid-fire as if they were one long 10-syllable-or-more word. While this method gets the task finished quickly for the student, I am rarely able to catch the pupil’s name among the garble.

Once the performer has finished, he retreats and the next classmate comes up to the plate to pitch the same scenario.

Sorry guys, but this is not English communication; this is memorizing English phrases.

If, God forbid, I should return the child’s greeting with “Nice to meet you too. How are you today?” he will be instantly befuddled and either giggle, stare silently at the ground or look at his teacher for the answer.

The teacher will usually give him a chance to try to answer the question. After much consternation, more panic and intense eye contact with the ground, the student might actually answer the question — but only after I exude extreme language-learner empathy by repeating “How are you today?” to coax an answer and then give him the luxury of a 60-second overtime allowance to mull over the phrase and realize that yes, he recognizes this phrase!

In a worst-case scenario (which is more often than not), the teacher will ultimately provide the answer, which the student parrots back — “I’m fine, thank you” — and that’s only if he manages to advance past the giggle stage.

We constantly hear Japanese teachers say, “Students are worried about making mistakes in English.” My immediate reaction is not sympathy for these second-language learners as, perhaps, it should be. Instead, I wonder, who is responsible for instilling in students this fear of making mistakes? After all, language is very forgiving. It doesn’t have to be exact; it just has to be close. English is spoken as a second language all around the world in different accents and with various foibles, yet we all manage to understand each other.

Makes you wonder how these pupils get through mathematics, where there is only one right answer. Yet you never hear teachers say students are afraid of making mistakes in math.

Similar to mathematics, however, language instructors need to introduce problem-solving skills. The only communication strategy students are taught is “Pardon me?” but even that doesn’t always help if the unknown words or phrases are merely repeated.

Sadly, more common than using “Pardon me?” is defaulting to the teacher, or another classmate, for the answer. I’d call this cheating, just as you would if a student asked the teacher or another classmate for the answer to a math question.

Rote memorization and teachers’ willingness to provide answers are two reasons why not enough critical thinking is going on in English-teaching classrooms.

Surely every non-Japanese English instructor has had the experience of conducting a class while a Japanese teacher “observes” on the sidelines. This observer thinks nothing of stepping in to the rescue as soon as the student looks their way for help. The teacher, therefore, becomes a crutch.

This hijacking of teaching methods by an observer on the sidelines is so common that I wonder if there isn’t more to it, something deeper. Teachers can either encourage or discourage critical-thinking skills in language learning. Why is it that so many choose not to? Is there some power struggle going on between teachers and students? Is it one way teachers maintain control of the classroom — by proving their knowledge to their pupils? Are teachers scared that students will no longer see them as role models if they don’t prove they know the answers? Are they afraid of losing face?

Japanese students look up to their teachers and never question them. Teachers clearly enjoy this relationship. Is it possible they want to encourage students’ dependency on them — the notion that the teacher is the safe one, the one to go to when you don’t want to deal with the scary foreign teacher with the difficult English pronunciation (poor dears!)?

Often, the most popular instructors are the worst sideline offenders because they are the ones who bow to students wants rather than their needs; they pander to their weaknesses (by giving them the answers) rather than challenging students to reach their full potential (by using critical-thinking skills). And who can blame the students for liking teachers whom they know will help them take the easy way out?

I believe in helping learners arrive at correct answers but I don’t condone giving away answers, mainly because this will not help students on tests, nor in real-life English conversation. English is spontaneous and needs to be taught with this in mind.

Which brings us back to students turning to their teacher for the answer to “Nice to meet you too. How are you today?”

Until English teachers start developing critical-thinking skills in the classroom and emphasizing confidence over competence, students will never be able to converse with native English speakers “at a viable level of proficiency.” We need to remember that this is ESL: English as a spontaneous language.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • kyushuphil

    So many superb Q’s by Amy Chavez here.

    Or, really, just one great Q — over and over: how to intro human communication in a system otherwise totally geared to robots and robot behavior?

  • Steve van Dresser

    How long can the Japanese ignore the elephant in the English
    language classroom? That elephant is the fact that most people who are “teachers” of English in the public schools are not fluent in the language they are teaching. With any other subject, students and parents expect teachers to be experts in the subjects they teach. Would you hire a teacher of mathematics who could add but couldn’t subtract? English education in the public schools seems to be the glaring exception.

    If anyone were to study Japanese in a public school anywhere in the world, the teacher would almost certainly be a Japanese native speaker. At the very least, a teacher would have spent years in Japan learning the language and its cultural and social environment. The idea that a person teaching Japanese in America had never been to Japan, nor had ever met a Japanese person, is unthinkable. Yet I have met a Japanese high school English teacher who told me exactly that; that I was the first native speaker he had ever met.

    If Japan wants to improve the quality of English education in Japan, it needs to change the rules. It should be possible, if not mandatory, that teachers of English should have native levels of fluency. It should be possible for native speakers of English to be public school teachers of English. It is insane to insist that all native speakers of English are less “qualified” to teach than current teachers of English who do not have command of the language. The “qualifications” currently required to teach English in the public schools apparently don’t require fluency. And that is totally nuts.

    When the teachers in the English language classroom know their subject, the performance of the students will improve. You really can’t expect students to become fluent when their teachers aren’t.

    • happyjapan

      Steve, not allowing non Japanese teachers to be employed in a full time role with benefits, and not allowing them to develop their own curriculum is a racist policy, pure and simple, and it’s tacitly supported by the Government, the boards of education and the teachers’ unions, none of whom want foreigners coming in , mixing things up and taking a piece of the pie from a Japanese, even if the Japanese can’t teach the subject.
      The only thing that will change this is what changes everything regarding racism in Japan: Outside pressure. People have to stop accepting joke, patronising “employment” as “ALTs” either privately or on the JET program, until these roles lead to career enhancement. If you are a non Japanese teaching in Japan, you need to recognise the fact that you will be treated as a second class citizen and discriminated against for pretty much your entire career. Do you really want to put up with that?

      • Gordon Graham

        Happy, I currently enjoy a full time teaching position in Saitama. My remuneration includes full benefits, a high salary and bi-annual bonuses as well as membership in the teacher’s union. I had to obtain a teacher’s license in Japan in order to qualify for my full time teaching position. However, that is the same as in my native country, Canada, which I don’t consider racist.

    • Toolonggone

      My goodness, Lord! You are making exactly the same argument many pro-private education and reformers are doing today in the US–that is, to blame public school teachers for nation’s mediocre achievement in science/math and/or economic recession. It’s same tactic to bash teachers–just like putting students into questionable standardized testing, firing teachers for student’s low test scores and replace them with young, inexperienced dudes from TFA (Teach For America). That’s the folks who will be sent to the classroom with a mere 5 weeks of training! That’s the folks many of whom leave school within 2-3 years after learning their dismal teaching experience in classroom, because they have trouble teaching students who speak English as a second language, and students with disabilities. It’s patently absurd to say anyone can teach English to students if you are a native speaker of English! Many ALTs don’t need teaching certificate or classroom experience because many Japanese employers don’t set the specific qualifications for screening. There’s not much expectation you can make since many of those ALTs don’t receive an adequate training. It’s typically, 5-14 days at private company, or 2-3 days at JET-program, prior to placement. Not even close to TFA.

      Fluency? Forget it. ALTs are 1) not guaranteed full control of
      Japanese classroom, and 2) don’t have job security and professional support. Besides, students are not gonna be fluent in language without intensive and continuous instructional assistance for a substantial amount of time (equivalent to minimum 2-3 years experience in ESL environment).

      It is true that Japanese teachers of English have so many daunting tasks for their professional development, but they are product of drilling and rigorous test-based learning. MEXT is held accountable for their failure to provide effective instructional training, language development and classroom management skills. MEXT has also neglected to listen to teachers regarding classroom experience and teaching/learning needs for many years. Shifting teachers all blame on Japan’s English language problem is despicable and wrong-headed.

      • Steve van Dresser

        A while ago, I estimated that about 800 people in my city of 400,000 made a living by teaching English. At the time, most of these people were not fluent, but all of them liked having jobs — in public schools, in cram schools, in English conversation schools.

        I have heard, but I can’t substantiate it, that at the end of World War II, Japan faced the same dilemma of how to meet employment needs of all the people who had been teaching military science in the public schools until the war’s end. Somehow, after the war, Japan instantly implemented an English language program for everyone in all schools all over the country. And these instant English programs were staffed with the surplus military trainers. There clearly weren’t enough really qualified English teachers with tenure.

        Things are much better today than they were 60 years ago. But there still aren’t enough qualified English teachers to properly staff the schools.

        For a long time, the JET program automatically disqualified anyone who had teaching credentials from becoming an Assistant English Teacher (ALT). This was done to prevent any possible conflicts over who was actually in charge of the classroom.

        There are plenty of people around the world who have been educated in Education or ESL or EFL, and who have native fluency in English. These people should be hired by Japanese public schools. This would improve English education in Japan far better than stop gap measures like using ALTs as walking tape recorders in the English language classroom.

      • Toolonggone

        Easier said than done. There are +30,000 public schools (elementary+ junior-high + senior high), and approximately 60,000 Japanese Teachers of English, including those homeroom teachers at elementary school. There’s no way the national government can deploy English teachers to each school. It’s virtually impossible. Simply replacing ALTs to TFA-look-alike folks (i.e., those native speakers of English or who may have some related qualifications but actually don’t have enough teaching experience) is certainly not the answer.

        Here’s the bottom line. You can’t hire tens of thousands of native-English
        speaking teachers and send them all to public schools to replace local teachers. But you sure can hire some hundreds or thousands of master teachers (who have minimum 5-year-teaching experience in the classroom) to help local teachers for pedagogy and instructional skills. Mentor Japanese teachers of English for teaching improvement. Give them a full-reign of teaching in classroom. Give them a special administrative position to supervise local/national language training programs or advising local & prefectural BOEs. That’s where the MEXT’s funding should go most.

  • Dikaiosyne

    “English is spontaneous and needs to be taught with this in mind.”

    The property “spontaneous” doesn’t properly apply to a language. Rather, it applies to a subject’s use of a language–and only after a certain level of proficiency is achieved by that subject.

    The severely overused and meme-like phrase “critical-thinking skills” raises an immediate red flag. It certainly doesn’t mean, or reduce to, “helping learners arrive at correct answers.” Equally problematic is a call for “emphasizing confidence over competence.” The US is replete with very ‘confident’ students who sorely lack competence.

    Unless you can find well-designed empirical studies to suggest otherwise, eschew the quaint and trendy English departments’ call to emphasize “critical-thinking skills” and student “confidence,” as neither are sufficient to produce second-language proficiency.

  • fun_on_tv

    This problem is the reason I make so much money lol. My kindergarden students at age 6 are better than some kids in elementary school. Some of my students actively try to speak to me in English.
    Japanese english teachers should learn from good eikaiwa “teachers”. Japan would benefit.

  • Whirled Peas

    Teachers of English need to be fluent in English, but they also need to know how to teach a second language. Just because a person is fluent or has native abilities in a language doesn’t mean she or he is qualified to teach English. Teachers need to provide a content rich environment (conversation, reading, writing, stories, film, records, songs, jump rope jingles, field trips, plus opportunities for immersion experiences), but also teachers must help student de-code the language. The English and Japanese syntaxes are very different. English speakers also have difficulty learning Japanese. Even Google cannot get their translation algorithm right! It comes out garbled. The trick is to strike the right balance between on one hand teaching the Japanese student to conquer the structure of the English language and on the other providing a learning experience through rich exposure and a certain amt of osmosis. Kinda of like striking the balance between teaching a child to read via phonics versus whole language learning. If is critical to provide a diet of both approaches.

  • Gordon Graham

    Happy’s comments are racist. I know many foreigners who have settled in Japan and have been welcomed by their schools. Happy is spewing misinformation deliberately, which is somewhat concerning. I hope this kind of animosity isn’t contagious.

  • Gordon Graham

    What are you asking…That I give out the names of my friends to some dubious poster spewing bitter diatribes about the Japanese? I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll tell you what brought me to Japan in the first place. Although I graduated in the top 3% of my University with an average above 95, I couldn’t get in the Education programme. I was flat out told during my interview that they weren’t accepting any white Anglo Saxon males who majored in English. That was York University in Toronto, Canada in 1990. I was told I couldn’t get in to the programme I worked very hard to get into because I was a white male! I had no such problem in Japan. I was able to find a teaching job the minute I received my license. I’ve been at the same school for the past 15 years and enjoy a very good relationship with my co-workers and I also enjoy a very good life in Japan as an Anglo Saxon…I had to leave Canada in order to get the life I’d wanted. I don’t miss it a bit. The racism you claim exists in Japan is something I’ve only experienced in
    Canada and it was blatantly unabashed systemic racism at that.