(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.