Archive for category teaching + learning

Conceptual Thinking


Think Outside the Box

Originally uploaded by marissaxxx

(This is a follow-up to an earlier post: Where to set the bar for EFL classes at Japanese universities?

What is conceptual thinking? Is it important? Are Japanese university students weak in this area? Does it matter if they are? Is it suitable to teach concepts and conceptual thinking to freshmen university students? Even in English classes? Can it be taught? If so, how?

These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about, ever since a friend of mine complained that his Japanese students lack facility in manipulating concepts. (He does not subscribe to the belief that such ability has been declining; “they never had it to begin with!” he says.)

This is in the nature of an interim report, as I try and clarify my thoughts on this issue.

A few points first:

  1. Japanese students rarely ask “why?”, and are not accustomed to being asked this question, even in school. What does that say about their facility handling concepts.
    1. Why not ask “why?” Because to admit ignorance is highly embarrassing, even shameful, in Japanese culture. To ask why puts the interlocutor in a potentially embarrassing position. Thus, it is a type of question best avoided.
    2. There are even teachers in Japan (I’ve heard from their students) who do not like to be asked questions, and who make sure their students know this.
  2. Much has been written and said about a supposed decline in academic achievement among Japanese schoolchildren over the past decade or so at least (called 学力低下 “gakuryoku teika” in Japanese).
  3. The Wikipedia article on gakuryoku teika refers in its opening paragraph to the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for 15-year-olds worldwide once every three years since 2000. This report is referred to in a 2008, November 20th article in the English-language version of the Japanese Daily Yomiuri newspaper, about teaching elementary schoolchildren to think:

    The results of the 2003 PISA, which were released in December 2004, showed that Japan suffered a sharp decline in its ranking for reading literacy, dropping to 14th place from eighth in the previous assessment. Its ranking hovered near the same level, at 15th place, in the 2006 assessment. The PISA requires students to exercise comprehensive reading ability: They have to read and analyze some passages–texts, charts, graphs and so on–at the same time so that they can draw conclusions, decide what kind of actions they would take and express their own opinions. In other words, the participants have to think on their own based on their own knowledge and the available information.
    Alarmed by the PISA results, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry announced in 2005 a scheme to foster children’s reading literacy, under which it called for classes to be designed to meet targets in all grades and all subjects of compulsory education.

  4. In Japanese culture, the traditional method of learning is by imitation. (Many years ago, in the magazine Kansai Time Out, there was an article written by a young non-Japanese who was already a good drummer, and who, once in Japan, decided to learn Japanese drumming. His first lesson went like this. The teacher played “shave and a haircut” on a drum; the young man “replied” with “bom-bom”. The teacher shook his head, and again played “shave and a haircut”. This time the young man tapped out a sophisticated, syncopated riff. The teacher showed exasperation. Finally, it dawned on the young apprentice that he was expected to merely imitate the master. )
  5. Here is Ayn Rand on learning:

    There are two different methods of learning: by memorizing and by understanding. The first belongs primarily to the perceptual level of a human consciousness, the second to the conceptual.

    The first is achieved by means of repetition and concrete-bound association (a process in which one sensory concrete leads automatically to another, with no regard to content or meaning). … This form of learning is shared with man by the higher animals: all animal training consists of making the animal memorize a series of actions by repetition and association.

    The second method of learning—by a process of understanding—is possible only to man. To understand means to focus on the content of a given subject (as against the sensory—visual or auditory—form in which it is communicated), to isolate its essentials, to establish its relationship to the previously known, and to integrate it with the appropriate categories of other subjects. Integration is the essential part of understanding.

    The predominance of memorizing is proper only in the first few years of a child’s education, while he is observing and gathering perceptual material. From the time he reaches the conceptual level (i.e., from the time he learns to speak), his education requires a progressively larger scale of understanding and progressively smaller amounts of memorizing.  [“The Comprachicos,” Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 68.]

    Learning is a conceptual process; an educational method devised to ignore, by-pass and contradict the requirements of conceptual development, cannot arouse any interest in learning. The “adjusted” are bored because they are unable actively to absorb knowledge. The independent are bored because they seek knowledge, not games of “class projects” or group “discussions.” The first are unable to digest their lessons; the second are starved. [ Ditto, p. 78]

  6. The university I work for originally had just one department: Liberal Arts. This department changed its name to Human Science in 1999. Part of the reason seems to have been try to maintain popularity and to attempt to fend off the potential decline in student numbers caused by the falling birth-rate. This points to a declining “popularity” for the name or sound of “Liberal Arts College”. Deans of the Department told parents and guardians on a number of occasions that despite the change of name, the contents and general philosophy would remain unchanged, i.e. that of liberal arts. Could it be that this name-change masked a shift in values, away from those of liberal arts? Could it also be that this name-change drew a veil over the original concept of “liberal arts education”? (It is instructive in this context to read Ayn Rand’s thoughts on anti-concepts.)
  7. What is “liberal arts”? Here is the Wikipedia entry (my emphasis):

    The term ‘liberal arts’ is a college or curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing intellectual capacities, in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum. In classical antiquity, the term designated the education proper to a freeman (Latin: liber, “free”) as opposed to a slave.

  8. Here’s an editorial on the values of a liberal arts education by Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s president. The comments, both pro and con, are illuminating.

To be continued.


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The Immediate Method Autumn seminar 2008

The other day, I took part in the 8th Immediate Method workshop at Kobe University. I gave a very brief report on how I’d been using IM in a couple of different university contexts. (A more detailed report was published in the Conversations in Class newsletter #3 (pdf), which can be downloaded from the Alma Publishing website.)

In an earlier blog entry, I asked what should English teachers at university be teaching. I’m still pondering this, but I think that while recognizing the limits of students’ linguistic abilities, I should also remember that this is university and students are here to learn to think, to conceptualize and to do so at increasingly sophisticated levels.

The IM book, Conversations in Class, is quite good for this purpose. Firstly, it contains both basic and more advanced material in the same book, and it also includes some concepts related to English and Japanese pragmatics of conversation. It provides a valuable and relevant introduction to different ways of thinking by introducing the 3 Golden Rules (pdf) – 3 basic differences between English and Japanese conversational styles or pragmatics: even the idea that there might be differences can come as a surprise to students. The purpose of the “3 Golden Rules” is not to introduce students to cross-cultural communication theory, or to comparative linguistics, but to help them hold conversations in English.

Once the students are familiar with the 3 Golden Rules (avoid silence, give long and rich answers, and use a combination of questions and talking about yourself), these differences can lead, perhaps, to brief introductions to other, related, concepts, such as high-context and low-context cultures.

John Taylor Gatto, told his students that he did not really care if they came out of his class knowing or remembering nothing about Shakespeare or his plays; as long as they remembered and learned some basics of thinking and researching, such as making and testing a hypothesis, he would feel they had got the important thing.

I know that many (or perhaps even most) of my students, even though they are English majors, are highly unlikely to need English in the future. I bear this in mind and try and give them concepts, via anecdotes or stories wherever possible, that might broaden their outlook and understanding.

In order to do this, I need to use Japanese quite a lot, but I still think it is worth it.


I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Where to set the bar for EFL classes at Japanese universities?

(Photo credit: Limbo – “How Low Can You Go?” by sidneysealine3 on Flickr)

The other day, I met an acquaintance who, like me, teaches English at a Japanese university. We were attending a wokshop, and at lunch he asked me: is very basic EFL really suitable for university students? Isn’t the bar being set too low? “Passport” was at one point the most popular textbook amongst non-Japanese English teachers teaching university classes: what does that tell us about where the bar is being set?

A couple of weeks ago, I’d had a disappointing writing class, and I whined about it to a friend who, after seeing my online lesson plan, sent me this comment:

19 year-olds do need to reinvent the wheel of course, but all of these things take time away from other things, like learning to think and analyze… How about you … giving them a serious project to do that isn’t about trivia but also isn’t something so removed from them… I think it’s very, very difficult for us teachers to remember that their high schools kept them from engaging with adult concepts and ideas and so they really do need these 4 years at university to grow up… When you finally get to university in Japan, all you can think of is “Wow, what a relief not to have to memorize stuff for tests and read uninteresting books.” So giving them silly tests and HS type activities isn’t the way to go in my view, even though you make think, “This is all they are capable of doing”…I am continually amazed at how many people … have students do stuff that is quite childish and not really what university should be about.

At first I strongly disagreed with this: all my classes are English language classes, as opposed to content classes, and in addition my own students are of a lower English ability than his. However, I do agree that giving university students rather meaningless activities is an easy trap for teachers to fall into. The rationale, or excuse, often given is that teachers need to match what they offer to what the students can reasonably be expected to do given their level of English ability; a reasonable objection.

On the other hand, many students at university, even those in English Departments, are not realistically going to be using English in their careers. So what should EFL teachers teach and/or have students do in university English classes?  Below are some of my reasons for doing activities that require students to do some thinking, analyzing, conceptualizing and on various levels.

  1. One of my Japanese colleagues has expressly said she expects me to introduce students to new concepts and ways of thinking, not just teach them English (this colleague is an English speaker but does not teach English language).
  2. I know that many (most?) of my students, even my English majors, are highly unlikely to need English in the future. And their English level is pretty basic. So does that mean I’m limited to having them ask each other (or me) about their likes and dislikes, their favourite whatevers, because that is “all they are capable of”?
  3. In an earlier blog entry, I wrote briefly about one important role that I feel I can play as a non-Japanese teacher or “native-speaking English teacher” at university in Japan: the outside reference point, a point of comparison from outside their familiar context. This not only teaches them that there ARE different contexts, but also, by requiring them to explain their context in English to an imaginary non-Japanese person, forces them to think about that context from an outside point of view.
  4. A further justification for requiring students to think and analyze is the “kansoubun” syndrome.  Japanese students are very familiar with “kansoubun” 感想文.  What is  “kansoubun”? It’s a kind of “reaction paper”: students will write things like, “I liked this, I didn’t like that. I felt sorry for the main character. The hero was cool.”  Students seem quite unaccustomed to thinking and writing about the themes or ideas of, say, a movie or a novel, or a newspaper article.
  5. Marina Lee-Cunin in her book (2004) Student Views in Japan: A Study of Japanese Students’ Perceptions of Their First Years at University, St. Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago and Rochdale, UK: Fieldwork Publications. Paperback, 310 pages. References, Notes. ISBN: 095472450X quotes data that show that some students expect to be intellectually challenged at university and are disappointed; perhaps more students than we realize feel this way. (Lee-Cunin’s book is briefly mentioned in this January 2006 book review: Japanese Higher Education in Transition? by Peter Matanle in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies).
  6. Further reasons have to do with the kind of concepts and the kind of thinking students can or should be required to do.  I’ll leave that for a later blog entry.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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University students, part-time jobs, and talking about Japan in English


Last Student Loan

Originally uploaded by here_for_now

In my basic EFL Writing class last week, students created simple questionnaires, then asked each other, collated the results and made a brief report. A couple of students chose part-time jobs as their topic.They then posted their reports on their blogs.

One of the purposes of having students write in English on public blogs is to

  • encourage them to think of their audience, and
  • create a potential audience that is not necessarily familiar with Japan or Japanese.

Japan is a high-context culture, which means one where people are almost always talking to an in-group or other; their “nakama” 仲間. They are not used to explaining the context of what they are talking about to others who do not share that context; there’s hardly ever any need. So this is one area where I, as “gaijin” (foreign) teacher, can play an important and valuable role: I offer a point of comparison which is outside their frame of reference, outside their in-group. I do this mainly by pretending not to know what they are talking about.

The course is entitled Talking About Japan, and the premise is that the students imagine they are on a homestay in an English-speaking country. They create conversations between the visiting foreigner (themselves) and the host family on a number of different topics, selected by me (so far), starting with their name. I call them out to a quiet corner of the classroom, two by two, and they have a conversation in front of me, which I grade, and towards the end, I join in e.g.:

“You go to a what university? A private university! Are all universities private in Japan? No? Half? The majority? A minority? What percentage, would you say? What other kinds of universities are there in Japan? What kind of students go to a private university in Japan?”

Or,

“What’s that in your pocket? Manga? What’s manga? Oh, a comic! But you’re 19! Surely you’re too old to be reading comics! Do all Japanese 19-year-olds still read comics? Really!? Why? Most people in this (the host family’s) country stop reading comics after the age of about 10!”

Cat among the pigeons.

It’s fun. And it has a serious purpose: to give them a broader or different context from the one they are used to. The one they are used to is one where everyone shares the same context so there is no need to explain (and hence also little need to question or examine) the terms or concepts. “Everyone knows there are both private and public universities in Japan; everyone knows the national universities are harder to get into than the private ones (except perhaps for the very top private ones); everyone knows that undergraduate programs in Japan run for 4 years”, etc., etc. So, because “everyone knows” this background, this context, it goes without saying; it does not need to be said. But, in a different context, e.g. in a different culture or country, it does need to be said because the context is not the same.

In addition, they assume that the norm in Japan is the norm everywhere else, too. (In Britain, for example, most undergraduate programs run for three years, not four.) They have no point of comparison. They have never had to explain these kinds of things before, and perhaps consequently, rarely had to think about these kinds of things before. Despite the Internet, “kokusaika” 国際化 (that’s not a rude word – it means “internationalization”, whatever that means), globalization, etc., my students (at least; can’t speak for others) are still remarkably parochial and insular in their thinking. This is the main purpose of the class: for them to learn to see their own culture in a different perspective, in a different context, and my role is to provide the different context, the reference point of comparison which is outside their context.

All of which is a very long-winded way of introducing an article I found online today about a survey of British university students. It’s mainly about student loans, but it puts the subject of part-time jobs into an interesting context: financial survival! It also includes some interesting statistics, which I plan to use in my classes, in order to provide a badly needed point of comparison. Here’s a sample:

Three quarters of students have jobs. They spend, on average, almost the same number of hours being taught per week (15 hours) as they do at work (14 hours)… While a quarter of those who work spend up to eight hours a week doing so, almost half spend nine to sixteen hours in their jobs. Another fifth spend 17 to 24 hours at work each week, and 5 per cent work between 25 and 32 hours. About 40,000 students (3 per cent) work more than 33 hours a week.

(The Flickr photo I used above includes some comments which reveal just what a big issue student loans are now for British students. When I was a student, tuition was free. See Wikipedia for more details.)

Another reason I want to use this article in class is to help give them a clearer idea of what I mean by an “interesting subject”, and to wean them away from childish ways of thinking and towards more adult (i.e. more conceptual) ways of thinking. However, that topic deserves its own blog entry.


I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Conversation by numbers

Two weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Prof. Michael McCarthy at Osaka Shoin Women’s University, and sponsored by Cambridge University Press. The title was “The Learner’s Turn”, meaning both “It’s the learner’s turn to say something” and “How learners take turns in conversation”. Michael McCarthy is a linguistics expert specialising in corpora, and has authored several books on corpora and language teaching, including From Corpus to Classroom and the recent Touchstone EFL series.

McCarthy gave several examples from spoken English corpora of how fluent speakers take turns in conversation. He said, “Every turn in the conversation, except for the opening one, is a response to the previous speaker”, and proceeded to demonstrate how this works from actual examples. “Well, actually…” was one example, showing a speaker signaling that his answer was not a straightforward answer to the question that was put to him. Remove the “well actually” and you get an abrupt change of topic that sounds like a non-sequitur, and jolts the smooth flow of the conversation. The examples were all very interesting.

“Flow” and “fluency” were key themes in McCarthy’s talk, and ironically it was at one such moment when McCarthy was talking about “confluence” and “fluency” that I wondered whether I wanted to “go with the flow”.

McCarthy stated that conversation must flow; it’s not just an exchange of information. An example he gave was a short exchange between two strangers, one of whom asks the other for the time. The respondent, obviously searching for some kind of timepiece, but unwilling to simply remain silent (thus possibly giving the interlocutor a wrong message, such as “I’m deaf; did not hear your request”), says “Erm… uhhh….” before finding the timepiece and announcing the time. No problem with this; I teach the importance of flow in conversation to my students, and it’s one of the reasons I like and use AlmaLang’s Conversations in Class, especially its Cultural Golden Rules of English conversation (pdf).

McCarthy then gave another example of confluence or cooperation between speakers in conversation: leaving a question half-finished with a hanging “or?”, such as, “So, you wanna have lunch, or…?” with several examples from the corpora of spoken English. McCarthy pointed out that it would be odd, strange, abrupt for the interlocutor to follow this with a cold, “Or what?”, and this is the point, dear reader, where a doubt crept into your author’s mind.

I don’t disagree that it would be odd, or strange or cold to ask “Or what?”, but does this mean that speakers should avoid using this, simply because the corpora shows us that 99% of conversational exchanges show the speakers politely taking their turns and showing cooperation and confluence? There may be cases where you want to be cold and abrupt. Should we pattern our ways of speaking on that of the majority? Does the fact that “this is how most people speak” automatically mean that this is how I should speak? Isn’t this conversation by numbers?

McCarthy’s other main theme, apart from “fluency”, was that teachers can make use of this vast amount of corpora-data to identify what fluent speakers do with the (English) language, and then teach this to learners of English. The justification he gave was that by this means, teachers can help learners at least give an appearance of greater fluency. In other words, you take data on what most, fluent speakers of the language do, and then teach this to language learners so that they will sound like fluent speakers as soon as possible.

This has been tried before, in the area of language-learning strategies. The idea was first proposed by Joan Rubin and Anita Wenden in the classic A. Wenden & J. Rubin (Eds.), Learner strategies in language learning (145-156). London: Prentice Hall. The idea was, first, study efficient EFL learners’ language-learning strategies; then, teach those strategies to other, less efficient, learners, and presto!

This idea morphed into teaching autonomous language-learning strategies to less autonomous students, as it seemed that efficient language-learners were autonomous. I have had less than stellar results with this theory.

McCarthy did not address the question of why non-fluent speakers do not use the strategies of fluent speakers. Is it because they are less quick-witted than fluent speakers, or is there something else at work? The parallel that occurred to me is that of infants learning to walk or talk. Why not “teach” crawling infants the techniques that “successful walkers” use? Then they could perhaps make faster progress towards walking.

Or, why not “teach” speaking strategies to babbling infants? The babblers could perhaps then speed through the annoying babbling stage and move more quickly into speech (or perhaps into “speech-sounding” verbal behaviour), that would most assuredly impress relatives and neighbours!

But perhaps there is a reason why infants go through a crawling phase before walking? Perhaps there is a reason why infants babble before speaking? (See Wikipedia’s entry on Jean Piaget’s developmental process model for children). Similarly, perhaps there is a reason why fluent speakers use such words as “actually” and why non-fluent speakers do not; i.e. because the use of “actually” in conversation requires a conceptual understanding of the target language that is beyond beginners or even intermediate speakers. Perhaps the progression from beginner to fluent speaker requires going through stages, like the stages of physical and mental development in infants; stages that can neither be rushed nor bypassed.  (Cf Second Language Acquisition: Developmental Patterns).

Although the theory sells a lot of books, I remain sceptical. And rather than training speakers to “sound” fluent when in fact they are not, I  prefer a more cognitive approach: helping people to express what they want to say, rather than “selling” them the most popular expressions and turns of phrase.


I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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