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

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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.

  • 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.