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.

27 August 2008

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #6

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #6

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

Reason #6: The situation at universities (Pt. 1 - Entrance Exams)

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.

Basically, the reason/problem for this installment concerns the entrance exams of universities and colleges. The common explanation is that, due to negative wash back from university exams, senior high schools concentrate too much teaching and learning on getting ready for such exams. This deadens English at the upper secondary level. Also, the senior highs are locked into a similar situation because their entrance requirements adversely affect junior high English teaching and learning (especially year three, the final year of junior high or middle school in Japan).

The Japan HEO Blog agrees that entrance exams are a major issue, but some of the following analysis may not agree with the sort of 'causal explanations' you will hear at JALT conferences.

The university system in Japan is notorious for its entrance exams, and it is popularly thought that such exams exercise a negative 'wash back' effect on language teaching and learning at the senior highs. However, such explanations are flawed in their simplicity.

English of a sorts is indeed a prominent part of the national 'center exam' that most university applicants take and is also typically a major part of the second set of exams many students face. (These are the exams that universities, faculties and departments create and administer after the center exam.) I have also heard some at universities say that, unlike most of the other subjects on entrance exams, English always gives a "nice spread of scores" (meaning that there is something more like a predictable 'bell curve' in the ways scores are distributed). This can be a reassurance of some reliability if you have to make high stakes decisions on whom to accept and whom to reject

The arguments against the entrance exams usually develop into more elaborate explanatory theories with implied solutions, such as the following: Because the content of the exams tends to be literary, not practical, and includes a lot of translation problems, the wash back effect at the high schools means that they will not teach practical or communicative English. However, high schools are going to teach a lot of exam English--that is, preparation for exams--regardless of other considerations (such as whether or not students want to learn 'communicative' English). Do you think, for example, that if a university started using the TOEIC or TOEFL or Eiken/STEP for entrance qualification, high school teaching would be invigorated towards 'practical' and 'communicative' English? Would teaching specifically for exams like these actually create more practical and communicative English at the high schools?

Consider the example of the national center exam. It changed recently and now includes listening questions similar to the ones you might find on TOEIC, TOEFL and Eiken /STEP. This mostly resulted in senior high English classes increasing their listening components. It did not transform the English at the senior highs into a new realm of practical, communicative English.

Another problem with the theory of the wash back is it is wrongly one-way. As it turns out, high schools have a wash back on the universities. That is because most universities and colleges (except an elite group of the top 50 or so) are now desperate to get high school graduates to apply and enroll. Even if the top universities are not desperate in this numbers game, they are also in a new type of competition. That is, they are more eager than ever to identify and select the more capable and already-educated students from the high school populations. In other words, students ready to go quickly onto more specialized study and then graduate school.

So most non-elite universities and colleges really can not set too many difficult hurdles in way of admissions' qualifications. Moreover, university entrance exams are often authored specifically keeping in mind the sort of high school populations they have traditionally drawn on to get their quota of admissions each year. The institutional exams are really more a major way for the universities to earn income from the applicants. Not only do universities want to match their admissions quotas; their fiscal administrators tell their admissions offices they need to keep their number of total applicants well above the number they actually admit. The tests are written as part of the way to make money off all the applicants. Some have argued that such considerations actually go beyond the need to test any abilities, proficiencies or achievements of their applicants.

What would happen if, for example, most of the students applying to a particular department took a university's entrance exam and failed to get a qualifying score in English? Would the department fail to get a sufficient intake of students? No, it would simply lower the required score until the necessary number got admitted. In effect, it would waive the English requirement.

While it might seem strange for anyone to argue for a strong wash back effect from the high schools on the universities and colleges, that really is not the point. The point is, rather, if it ever existed, there is no longer any strong, negative, one-way wash back effect coming from the universities raining down on the the high schools.

If anything, the universities and high schools have disconnected and re-connected in a weaker but mutual 'wash back circuit' . That is because the university system in Japan has become for most institutions and most high school graduates a mass, near-open admissions system. If university entrance exams have negative wash back, it is mostly in terms of the nature of the students a given institution, faculty or department attracts. It is more and more a 'buyer's market' in university admissions for those high school graduates who have the money and time to attend higher education for 4 or more years. And once again we are considering a two-way wash back effect because universities manipulate the content and level of difficulty of their exams to reflect what they think are the abilities of the students they are most likely to get first as applicants and then as enrollments.

Overall, the entrance exams guarantee a level of basic literacy in Japanese and some numeracy for most of the students going onto higher education. And that is about it. 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. Which will help keep this discussion going into the next installment.

25 August 2008






A new issue of the online journal, Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development (SLEID) is now available. The articles are available in convenient PDF.

Vol. 5, No. 2 (2008) of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development has now been published online at http://sleid.cqu.edu.au/viewissue.php?id=16


Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development

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