How Accurate? (Teaching)

事実を見るには・・・

As Charles Darwin so famously said…

どのくらい本物のように?(教育について)

How well does something need to mimic the authentic?

The Words We Teach

Recently, I’ve been trying to get as much input as possible from the elementary teachers about what phrases and activities are important in the English-language classroom. I have my feelings and opinions, but also my biases as well. As a native speaker, I want to focus on phrases that are meaningful and—controversially—actually said by native speakers. Not, as some of them would like, phrases that Japanese adults easily understand. “I like cat.” is somehow better than “I like cats.”, the latter being harder to understand. Thankfully, these teachers are in the minority.

When it comes to activities however, many of the teachers have really good ideas. Some have been teachers for a while, which means that while their ability to incorporate new ideas might be weaker, the sheer number of activities that some teachers have under their belt can be staggering.

As for the content, I’ve run into occasional disagreements. For instance, I felt as if the 1st graders and 2nd graders had had enough practice with numbers, but the teacher insisted we do more on it. My mind is set to: “How to we use numbers in a meaningful way?” This teacher was focused on making sure the kids could count in another language, as if it served a good purpose.

Truthfully, this is one of those areas where the information is useless from the get-go. These kids can already count in their own language. Their math will all be in Japanese, until perhaps the university level. And by then, they’ll have years of English education under their belt. But as someone looking to find the practical use of foreign-language numbers for a 7 year old, I have to find something to go on. Some interaction.

In class, we practice the numbers. In the field, we practice the phrases.

“Push me!” a girl shouts in almost-perfect English. She’s sitting on the swing, excited that she just saw me come out.

I start jogging over. “Okay,” I say. “How many times?”

“えっと… Three.”

“Hmm?”

“Push me…times…three.”

I start to walk away, a little smirk on my face.

“Push me three times!”

“Okay!” I respond, and start pulling the swing back, getting ready for a big push. The girl is beaming.

A few minutes later and a first grader shouts, “Hey! Punch me!” It’s a little game we play. They shout “me” or someone else’s name and I punch that person. It sounds more violent than it is.

Another kid shouts, “Super punch me!” I start chasing him now, fist outstretched. One kid says, “You’re super punch me!” to which I ignore. He’s combining the “You’re angry. / You’re super angry.” And trying to combine it with the punching scenario. Not bad, kid, but you can do better. He hears another kid shout and copies, “Super punch me!” I start chasing this kid now.

Eventually, I get a little tired and decide on a new game. 算数鬼. “Okay,” I say. “What’s two plus two?” I have two fingers showing on each hand.

The first graders look a little puzzled. They’ve done this before, but not recently. “Four!” a second grader shouts. I’ve had a little time to rest, so now I’m rejuvenated to chase this kid. Everyone goes wild. When I need another breather, I ask another problem. Now the first graders are answering too. Some connection between neurons is building.

Classes at Different Levels

When we get back to class, the teacher wants to have everyone holding a card with a number on it and find someone else with the same number. I want them to say “What number?” He wants them to say “何を持っていますか?” We both agree the answer should be in English, otherwise nothing’s getting learned. I’m not opposed to his method. He’s focusing on the value of learning the numbers. The pronunciation. I want a phrase too, but I realize that having to memorize more than the numbers could be distracting. I let the activity go his way. It goes well, but I still think it could be better. The teacher doesn’t look satisfied. But then, he never looks satisfied.

At the higher levels, there’s a greater focus on phrases. This week, the 3rd graders’ phrase was “Where is~?” Such as: “Where is the eraser?” “Where is Momoe?” It’s a useful phrase, as I can use it in the school. “Where is Takumu?” is actually a question that’s worth asking, and knowing how to respond to.

For the 6th graders, the phrase was “Where do you want to go?” from the Hi, Friends textbook. It’s not a bad phrase, as I can ask them about vacations with it. Or dreams, and traveling to foreign countries, for those ambitious few. And when I say in class, “I want to go home,” they all let out a chuckle. The teacher silently objects to me teaching my natural pronunciation of “Where do ya wanna go?” directly, but I don’t let it change how I say it. And the kids learn to say it and answer to it easily enough.

I’m left with a little bit of trepidation however. What if the next ALT after me is from some place that says it in some completely different way? They’ll understand, right? I don’t want to confuse the kids too much, but I do want to give them “the authentic pronunciation”. I consider it, walking back to the staff room from class.

In the middle school, I have a different dynamic. Being in the assistant role, I’m there to help the teacher more than anything. When the teacher says something with a slightly weird pronunciation, I’ll sometimes mimic it if I know what he’s going for. I say “often” and he says “often.” I change my often to his. Offen. Offen. Consistency, after all. Once the students have the initial knowledge, they can build off of that. A stable base makes for a strong house. A muddy base makes for no house at all. Something like that.

It makes me think back to that authentic pronunciation. Is there value in it? Is there value in teaching phrases that native people actually say? Or should we be working from simpler phrases, ones that people don’t say, in order to build that solid foundation?

“I have a game. I have a ball. I have a… apple,” I say, standing in front of the 4th graders. I want people to get the base of “I have a” before I go pointing out that it should be “I have an”. After all, it’s better than their previous “I have apple” that they’ve been saying. Add too much complexity, and the students overheat. Baby steps, even if they’re through mud. At least we’re moving.

The Power of the Non-Truth

I think there’s a lot of power in the truth. That is, of course, some of the foundation of our civilization. That the objective truth is out there and worth knowing. It’s how we hold power over the material world.

But for the human mind, objective truth is often both complex and, honestly, boring. We might learn about all the ways elements interact on a molecular level, which is all—more-or-less—truth. Objective. No feeling. Boring. Useful to the right people in making things that improve our daily lives, sure. Controlling the inanimate matter that surrounds us. But, to most people, boring. Oftentimes people will forget the information unless they’re planning on using it. And don’t bother teaching chemistry and physics to a first-grader, truth or not. It’s too complex to be understood without a lot of background information, even though it is correct information.

But language? Language, which is so devoid of truth, is power over the mind. Everyone can use language. They can use it to represent some semblance of their thoughts. They can influence people by saying things that they know will affect others, true or not.

Books and movies and songs and games all use this non-truth called language to point to the truth. They influence your brain so that you might be more susceptible to the truth. So you care about the truth.

I wonder if this is applicable to teaching, as well. Even if the things you’re teaching aren’t 100% real, they’ll help someone get to reality someday.

We bemoan our teachers for telling us that there were different places on the tongue for tasting different flavors. And for saying that Christopher Columbus was a hero. That it was necessary to drop two bombs on a country that was actually going to give up because Russia was on its way. But didn’t these lies make finding out the reality more memorable? Would we have cared, if the first thing we heard was the truth? Maybe. Would we have remembered? That’s the question.

The fear—and a well-placed on at that—is that you’re just putting useless information in people’s heads. Or worse, that people will stop once they have some information. They’ll finish with the lie and never move on to the truth. They’ll only ever know the lie.

I don’t know. I don’t have any answers.

I have only my thoughts, made of all their powerful lies. With the hope that these lies will eventually lead me to some kind of truth.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “How Accurate? (Teaching)

  1. In the end, I think the only difference is how the students feel about the English they’re studying: Whether they feel like they’re ‘speaking English’ or having their confidence crushed by complexity.

    After reading Importing Diversity, it seems fairly reasonable to doubt the role of ALTs was ever to teach anything at all, and as a result, it leaves a lot of questions about what the purpose of having students go through English classes is.

    And after using a number of ES/JHS English textbooks, I have a number of troubling things that I will now limit to two. First, the English in the textbooks, while understandably shoe-horned in to fit the example dialogue, tends to follow Japanese sentence patterns instead of Englishes ones when there’s a large syntactical difference between the two languages (“My name is Sakura” v. “The boy who is sitting on the chair is Ken”).

    Second, the authors named at the end of the texts include both Japanese and Western names, but while the former might number ten or twenty, the latter is only two or three, and invariably at the bottom of the list. Why suppress foreign influence in a textbook for a foreign language?

    Many ALTs are teaching students a foreign language, but they are also students of a foreign language themselves. Outside of ‘-masu form first,’ there’s not nearly as much coddling that takes place in Japanese language textbooks. The authors of those textbooks take into account the possibility that the student might actually go to the source country and have to use the target language, while the authors of English textbooks here know most of their students will never leave Japan, and even if they do it’s more likely to be as part of an all-Japanese tour group than as a long-term visitor (and it seems like parents who support the idea of a child spending time overseas or in an English-speaking environment enter their children into extracurricular English classes, despite or in spite of the classes provided by schools).

    It helps that ALTs are adults who can choose to study the language, it helps significantly that they’re immersed in the language. But it also helps that our textbooks are written by people who speak the language natively and are less worried about our feelings and more concerned with making sure we don’t embarrass ourselves or are taught incorrect language.

    So if I were a parent, I’d rather my own child be taught math in a truthful, relevant, and interesting way instead of math that presumes from the onset that they won’t be able to understand it and is then dumbed down. I feel the same way about English.

    • I just want to thank you for such an insightful comment. It’s given me a lot to think about.

      I’ve seen it referenced quite a few times, but after this comment, I think I’ll have to pick up Importing Diversity. It is pretty apparent that the ALT job, at least at its creation, was not to be teachers. Forgetting the content, even basic rules (such as: ALTs should never be left alone in a classroom without another Japanese teacher) speak to the lack of trust the government has in ALTs.

      That said, I think it would be fatal to give up completely in affecting change. While the decks are stacked against us, it doesn’t mean that our job is impossible to do. Indeed, the amount of control I’m given over the elementary school curriculum at my school is staggering. I can, within some boundaries (such as how often my classes are, a general feeling by the principal to not include written components in elementary school), do what I want. This allows me to focus on material that I believe will prepare them better. I do presume that the students will be able to understand me eventually. I use language that is a little above their understanding, and don’t fully explain the reason for everything. ‘Lo and behold, many of my students understand what I say even without the ability to translate it into Japanese. I think my biggest limiting factor is the English level of the Japanese adults around the kids. But, that can be worked on in my own interactions with them.

      Going back to the textbooks, it actually wasn’t until I read your comment that I realized the truth in it. It’s funny that Genki and other Japanese textbooks are made by native speakers and yet the English textbooks used in Japan are made by Japanese people. English speakers of some level, no doubt, but ones limited by their own understanding.

      While I wouldn’t trust the majority of ALTs to write the textbooks, having the textbooks written by foreign professionals and then adapted to Japanese might produce the best result. But then, we have similar problems with public school textbooks in our home countries as well.

      Given that most Japanese students aren’t going to go abroad, what is the best way to change the textbooks? Or, is that even a given? Would travel abroad increase if there were more confidence and ability in English?

      • The textbooks might be fixed most simply by rethinking the hierarchical nature of the endeavor. Instead of an army of Japanese authors choosing and creating with a few non-Japanese revising or proofreading, a lot of the problems could be fixed by reducing the number of authors and then making the proportions more equal, both in number of authors as well as role as authors. In this way, you could get people working together to create something that balances the interests of the exam-focused Japanese and the communication-minded native speakers.

        Of course, MEXT sets the guidelines of what English is to be studied, and if I’m not mistaken, they approve all the textbooks that are used in public schools too. As long as entrance exams include English tests, MEXT will focus on setting guidelines to pass those tests, JTEs will focus on test-prep over communication, and nothing will really change.

        As an ALT, my hands are tied. I disagree with the value of most of what I’m teaching because it all seems to skip foundations of language and focus entirely on play, and also seems designed to create the illusion that students are studying ‘English’ that is more like an algebraic expression of Japanese. (This past week I realized students at my new school didn’t understand the words ‘please prepare,’ despite five years of so-called English classes, and I also noticed the Hi, Friends! 2 DVD referring to a ‘New York, America,’ not ‘USA,’ one of many, many examples of syntactical re-ordering of translated Japanese.)

        But I agree with you that the sad state of English education in this country does not mean nothing good can come of the ALT situation. Even considering how often ALTs can face scorn or disrespect from both non-teaching professional foreigners and Japanese teaching staff, ALTs can put a face to the nebulous idea of ‘internationalization.’

        Even if our students fail to learn a single word of English, they will have experience with people who are not Japanese from a very early age. It’s the lack of this very experience that leaves a lot of their teachers and parents and other adults with anxieties that serve mostly to push foreign people and things away.

        As you and other bloggers have pointed out, there is good that we can do here, and I focus on that. Basically I only started succeeding at my job when I started thinking about being a positive, friendly presence in my students’ lives, and to let them have one hour a day to enjoy this abysmal word-math class as much as possible.

        Frankly speaking, when we think about international relations, Japan puts a lot of energy into broadcasting a positive, somewhat romantic, image of itself outward, while at the same time trying desperately to insulate itself from foreign influence. I think that despite the low opinion some sectors of society have of us, the ALT can be a powerful force to bring Japan towards having a less fearful reaction to the idea of interacting with foreign people.

        Your reply has made me think a lot about the English situation and the gaijin situation in Japan. By my own crude estimates, a number of things need to happen before any real progress occurs in this country, and basically, it’ll be 2050 before the investment of our time and energy bears any fruit :).

        Thank you for your reply, and thank you for your wonderful, thought-provoking blog.

What're ya thinkin'?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s