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

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

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