29 August 2008

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #7

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #7

Note: This is the SEVENTH of a series that is supposed to make it to at least TEN installments (Ten reasons why...). However, readers' comments are welcomed and will be added as reasons in the main series, with full credit given.

Reason #7: The situation at universities (Pt. 2 - Elite academics, non-elite students, mismatch of expectations, poor results)

The situation at the universities will actually have to comprise its own 'series within a series' and will result in more than one actual reason as to why English learning fails in Japan. This is the seventh installment of the series, but the second to focus on the situation at the universities.

The previous installment concluded with this statement: "The transition from a fairly selective small system to a mass system has probably had more to do with the quality of English education at the highest level than university exams." This will serve as the start of the current installment.

The higher education system of Japan is now a mass, near-open admissions system. This could be a good thing. Imagine millions of students enrolling in universities and colleges every year and freely choosing to study English as a foreign language (EFL) because they want to study it. However, as many who have taught EFL at a university, college or junior college here quickly come to observe, higher education can be a very difficult place to teach EFL.

So why is that? The author of the Japan HEO Blog has taught EFL in Japan for 19 years, 16 of which have been at the level of higher education (though not exclusively). Fortunately for the progress of this series, the author can say that in his opinion, there are a considerable number of related reasons why universities and colleges fail at EFL. Hence the confidence that this series could go on for at least 10 installments covering this complex of reasons for failure.

The first reason for the failure of universities and colleges at EFL is the mismatch of faculty with the student populations--which then creates mismatch with the learning requirements and needs of those students. The higher education system is mass and with near-open admission standards for many if not most institutions, departments and programs of study. Yet the university system continues to train and hire academics as if a very selective, elite system were the prevailing reality. So the university system expanded greatly in the 80s and 90s, the very same system, through its graduate programs, continued to create a core of academics to teach and do scholarship and research. Little wonder then that the faculties hire and promote academics with elite backgrounds that leaves them distant from the student populations in their charge.

The mismatch is somewhat similar to my experiences in the US. Take for example, the small state college where I got my bachelor's degree in 1979-83. Many of my professors were from well-to-do families who paid for them to go to elite universities, including a lot of Ivy League degrees. This was especially true of professors in the humanities and social sciences. Most had absolutely no clue whatsoever what it was like to grow up in area like rural south central Pennsylvania or to have to attend a particular institution for FINANCIAL reasons. Part of their elite arrogance was to assume that students were at a small state college because they had not achieved academically well enough to get into a higher-rated institution.

The situation in Japan is quite analogous. Many if not most of the people who are professors at the universities have had a much more privileged background than their students. This mismatch leads to a large breakdown in teaching and learning at the universities. First, many of the professors are hapless at teaching basic general education courses, including EFL. Their scholarly and research activities have been more likely limited to a very narrow academic specialty. Second, their teaching methods assume that most students should be like they were--attending a universities for academic knowledge and even a career in higher education.

Third, in the case of English, the breakdown happens in at least two areas, much to the detriment of EFL at the universities and colleges. Most of the professors assigned to teach English do not have any interest whatsoever in teaching EFL as a part of general education at their institutions. Their educational backgrounds and current 'research' activities more likely fall under labels like 'linguistics', 'English-language literature', and 'English education' (this last term refers to typically small departments that oversee English teacher training for secondary school education). Therefore, general education EFL, while extensive in terms of what is listed in the course catalog, is an embarrassment in the actual classroom. It flounders for lack of proper teaching, teacher development, program structure and evaluation. However, it also fails miserably as a specialized area of study. In fact, there are very few EFL programs at Japanese universities, and what programs do exist, you should remember, enroll only a small number of students. These programs and departments do not primarily exist to provide EFL to the rest of the institution. More than EFL undergraduate courses of study, you are far more likely to see programs in literature, linguistics, education, and cross-cultural studies.

The effects of this situation play out in problems, issues, and deficiencies that might exceed my ability to describe them. So I will instead try to generalize to a useful level of explanation. Students at universities will most likely take EFL classes as required General Education. These are large classes with an unmanageable mix of students. Students with low ability and low motivation, students with low ability and higher motivation, even the occasional students (typically ones who have spent time overseas) with high ability and, well, confused motivation. Students might also take EFL classes as options within an array of interdisciplinary classes. They have to take a certain number of credits to fulfill graduation requirements, but they have choices of what they can take. However, optional EFL classes are often designated 'enshuu', a term that I have difficulty translating. It is supposed to mean a course that is not run as a lecture course, but then it becomes hard to give a definitive answer as to what the other possibilities are.

In contrast to traditional lectures, an 'enshuu' is supposed to be more participatory and involve activities. This might sound like it has potential for a communicative EFL class, but its status as 'enshuu' can undercut students' perception of it as a legitimate university course. If you as a teacher of an 'enshuu' combine its already low academic status with language learning activities that students are not familiar with or which they see as 'non-academic', students may react by treating the 'enshuu' as a sort of play time. 'Enshuu' typically earn fewer credits than lectures and seminars. Also, when you teach an 'enshuu', the issue of placement will rear its ugly head. You might try to run a course called 'Advanced English Writing', and students who can not earn a valid TOEIC score because their proficiency is so low will register and attend.

How does all this relate to the 'reason' given at the start of this piece? My theory is that general education and optional 'interdisciplinary' studies are, in part, a mess at the universities because of the demographic (lower academic standards) and economic (greater affluence, or at least an expectation of it) shifts from a selective, elite system to a mass, open one. The universities and their departments, and the elite academics that dominate them, often have absolutely no clue whatsoever as to what role general education and interdisciplinary studies should play in the education of their non-elite students. As it turns out, neither do their students! The academics seem to expect students to emerge from senior high school ready to be trained in narrow academic specialties (the elite assumption being that there is an underlying level of educational achievement before admission to higher education). The students themselves simply want clear guidelines and training to enable them to pass, graduate and get a job.


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Get Accepted said...
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