Amazing Minds 2011

I’m on the train on the way back to Sendai now, after a long, tiring, and wonderful weekend talking and learning about teaching. Pearson Kirihara was kind enough to invite me to their annual study meet, Amazing Minds, held in Tokyo this year.

The basic idea behind the event is that the publisher’s sales representatives nominate teachers all over Japan who are then contacted to see if they want to attend. Pearson picks up the tab for travel, accommodation, and food, and puts on a two-day program of presentations, discussions, and informal gatherings. Apparently it’s supposed to be a chance for the company to give back to the teaching community, to join and contribute to the dialogue on teaching in Japan, and to get to know individual teachers better.

I was initially skeptical, although having two of my friends (John Wiltshier and Ann Mayeda) presenting made it a lot easier for me to say yes and make the effort to clear my schedule.

The program for the event was three blocks: one on Saturday followed by dinner, then two on Sunday. Each block consisted of an initial one-hour lecture followed by a ninety-minute group activity session, and finally a feedback session  to finish off. Each block was three and a half hours, a long time when you are out of practice concentrating. I got a good sense of what my university students go through most days (they have up to five ninety minute lectures per day).

The three lectures were:

“Two Pathways for Successful Language Learning”, John Wiltshier

“Teaching in 2020: Rethinking the Classroom Environment”, Ann Mayeda

“Lesson Analysis Checklist for Elementary School English Education”, Emiko Yukawa


I have to say I really enjoyed the presentations and came away with dozens of actionable ideas. Overall it was a great experience. I did notice a few things that could be tweaked to make it even better, but I have already passed those on to the organizers and don’t need to mention them here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the highlights.

Probably the biggest realization came during the first lecture, as John was talking about procedural and declarative memory, as well as the optimal period for language acquisition. It came to me quite suddenly that perhaps I am not a normal language learner. After all, I learned my first second language when I was five, in a total immersion environment. I have been at least intermediate in six languages, and find it fairly easy to pick up new ones mainly through input and trial and error. Very few people have this kind of background.

The problem is that I have made all sorts of assumptions about teaching and learning that are based on the possibly mistaken belief that my own experiences are generalizable -that I can teach my students as I would like to be taught and this will provide them with an optimal learning environment. If I am an outlier, however, this is unlikely to be ideal for my students. There will possibly be more effective ways of helping them learn and I will have to go back and examine literally everything I do once again with an open mind.

This seems fairly obvious when I write it here, but it seriously had not really occurred to me before.

Fortuitously, my beliefs about language learning are mainly a bias towards large amounts of input of the appropriate level, a desire to encourage my students to become self-directed and independent learners, and a tendency to believe that learners need to practice in order to improve (ie listen if they want to get better at listening, talk if they want to talk, and so on). I don’t think any of these are harmful.

The second, perhaps less revolutionary, but more specific breakthrough came from Ann’s presentation on flipping the classroom. Much like the Khan Academy, she is interested in ways teachers and learners can lever technology in order to do more outside the classroom, in turn allowing them to use their limited class time on more efficient or productive activities.

It’s a concept I have been very interested for a long time, as it ties in with my own beliefs about the best ways to learn a language.

Independent, self-directed learning is the only way students can possibly get the necessary amount of input and practice they will need to master English. The amount of time is several orders of magnitude larger than even the most specialized or intensive language course could provide. Using the power of the internet to facilitate this means that it is easier than ever for students to come into contact with foreign languages.

The only specifically new things for me in the presentation were several iPad/iPhone apps, but the real value came from the way I was reminded of various extremely promising ideas that I had meant to implement, but that had somehow ended up on the back burner.

Creating a Youtube channel for my students, pre-teaching things online so that students to go over them as many times as they need to in order to master them, introducing online resources in a more systematic way, monitoring and advising students as they explore various self-study options.

Hopefully I’ll be able to get started on one or more of these in the near future. I will definitely keep you posted.

Finally, Yukawa-sensei’s presentation gave me a good look at a systematic way of assessing classes and lesson plans. Again, there was nothing new in this presentation, but it was a great opportunity to once again go back and think about things in a slightly different light.

I used to do a lot of classroom observation when I was the ALT Advisor at the Miyagi Board of Education, and although I didn’t have anything as elegant as Yukawa-sensei’s checklist, I was looking at similar things.

I’ll be applying to checklist to my own classes this week, and predict that I will find several areas to work on during the next few months.

I really enjoyed the weekend and hope Pearson continues putting on these events for teachers and that they consider having me back again sometime.

That sounds wonderful, Ben. About how many teachers total were in attendance?

Hi Ryan

About twenty, I think. The focus this year was on young learners, so it was a very mixed crowd. Laura M. from Sapporo was in attendance too, so had some great chats with her.

11 Oct 2011, 11:16am
by Cynthia Akazawa


How do I get an invite next year?

Hi Cynthia

I’m not sure, to be honest. I think the sales reps nominate teachers from their local area, but I may be wrong. Make friends with your local Pearson rep?

I’d love to attend again too!


Laura M. came back from the conference very excited.

I was wondering about John Wiltshire. I had never heard the name before, and I can’t find anything he’s written online. But Laura was really impressed with him, and while we were talking, a lot of what I was hearing sounded similar to Scott Thornbury’s work on Emerging Grammar. Are you familiar with Mr. Thornbury, and if so, could you draw a fair comparison between the works… or if not, do you know anywhere I can find writings of John Wiltshire.

It will be a long time before I, myself, am invited to a Pearson Longman event.

Nick in Sapporo

Hi Nick

John is a good friend of mine: he also lives in Sendai. He’s a co-author of English Firsthand, a general skills book, and the new Our Discovery Island, which is a very exciting new series (apparently I have trial books in the post and am very much looking forward to getting them). He used to be a primary school teacher in the UK and has been a JET and private teacher here in Japan. Basically, he knows what he is talking about and is very sound. One of those people who you get lots of ideas from talking to.

I can put you in touch with him if you like. Not sure if he has much online, he tends to focus on writing for publication 😉

I’d love to get in contact with him. Actually, we are looking into using English Firsthand at our school which is why I was asking about him. Laura was really impressed with his presentation.

Thanks a lot!

Nick in Sapporo


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