MITO, Ibaraki Pref. — The future of English education in Japan was the subject of a heated debate earlier this month as four panelists gathered at Mito College to trade their views. Panel coordinator Yukiko Amakawa, associate professor of Mito College, was joined by Gregory Clark, president of Tama University; Toshiaki Ogasawara, chairman and publisher of The Japan Times; Kenichiro Ohara, president of the Ohara Museum of Art; and Sophia University professor Shoichi Watanabe. Despite sharply divided opinions, the panelists agreed that English education in Japan should begin with building students’ listening skills, turning next to the task of giving them a solid foundation in reading. “Suggestions for English Education in the 21st Century, Part 2”, conducted in Japanese, drew an audience of some 350 students and educators. The debate focused first on elementary education and later turned to concerns in secondary and higher education. Following presentations, panelists exchanged ideas. Responding to the question of who should teach elementary English, Clark proposed a radical change in the classroom saying that teachers should be assistants only. “There’s no need for teachers,” he argued. “All you need are a tape recorder and a video tape player.” Meanwhile, Ogasawara pushed for mandatory classes at the elementary level. “Globally speaking, everywhere you look, English education begins at an early age,” he said. “If it’s going to be part of the curriculum, make it a requirement.” Amakawa, who was formerly a returnee student, spoke from her own experience. “Some people argue that learning Japanese and English at the same time is confusing for young children, but in my case it wasn’t that big of a problem,” she said. In the second half of the symposium, the panelists turned their attention to falling academic ability at junior high and high schools. In response, Watanabe spoke in favor of dividing students by skill level. “Japan’s emphasis on equality places unmotivated students in the same class as those who are there to learn,” he said. “The fact that this belief in equality then forces the class to accommodate the pace of those students who don’t care to study is the biggest handicap to education.” Ohara agreed, saying there was a need to divide “those people who can answer a request for directions from someone on the street from the elite who aim to use their English skills for negotiation.” Ogasawara disagreed, saying the future lay in studying overseas. “As globalization progresses, even those people who have had no connection with the English language will have to go overseas,” he said. “Now is not the time to make divisions between elite and non-elite. Especially in this day and age, all citizens should be able to speak at some level.” The panelists were split on whether to emphasize communication or reading skills. While Clark stressed the importance of tapes in a listening-based curriculum, Watanabe differed. “It is essential for Japanese to read and absorb information written in English,” he said. “Not being able to speak is due to a gap between actual ability and one’s powers of expression. In order to fill that gap, I recommend study abroad. “After learning how to read and write here, go to the States to get your degree. Just studying in Japan won’t teach you the thinking behind argument and debate.” The panelists also covered the pros and cons of current teaching methods, particularly the effect of study for entrance examinations on English education. An edited version of the symposium will be broadcast on InterFM (76.1 MHz) Dec. 19 from 7 p.m.

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