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I saw a fantastic TED talk the other day, and wanted to share it with you. I think it is very applicable to all teachers, including eikaiwa and university.
I would love to be half as inspiring as this woman.
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So the story I wrote about yesterday seems to have caught the eye and the imagination of people I know. I have yet to see a positive response, even among former JETs.
There are various reasons for that, but the most important one seems to be the opportunity cost of this plan -there are probably much more effective things that could be done with the money. I’d like to put all that aside and just focus on what could be done to make the JET Programme and wider ALT utilization more effective.
1. Make JET an up or out program
Almost all ALTs are excited, happy, enthusiastic, and motivated when they first arrive in Japan. That energy and enthusiasm, combined with not knowing anything about Japan, is hugely beneficial for students. However, after a year, depending on how their year has gone, how they have been treated by teachers and schools, and how their particular ALT community is, they will change. Some will pick up bad habits and stagnate in the computer room, some will settle into a comfortable existence, and some will learn as much as they can about teaching and work hard to improve themselves.
At that point I believe most ALTs should move on. JET is, as many have mentioned, an exchange program, a way for Japan to increase its soft power, and a way to internationalize smaller and out of the way communities. I think it works very well in these respects, but most of the benefits are in the first year.
A small number of ALTs should be chosen for promotion, given extensive training and more responsibilities, and put on a career track to become special teachers (with possible tenure, a normal pay scale and benefits, and the ability to teach by themselves). These special teachers would then assist with managing regular ALTs as well as be assigned to schools as English teachers.
This way the current goals of JET programme would be met while allowing it to serve as a source of high-quality native speaker instructors.
2. More oversight
Make schools and boards of education submit plans for how they intend to train and utilize ALTs, and follow up to ensure that they do. Schools that fail to find a useful and productive role for their ALTs should not receive one. The huge variation in how ALTs are treated is probably one of the worst problems with the system, and a lot of it is due to the ‘hands-off’ nature of the ‘recruited centrally, employed locally’ approach currently in use.
3. More training and guidance for schools and teachers
In many cases, teachers and schools aren’t quite sure what to do with ALTs. I would like to see the Ministry of Education provide more training and examples of best practice to schools and teachers. Often, the youngest teachers are assigned to be ALT supervisors, whereas in many cases the head of English would be more suitable.
Many ALTs are stuck in ‘tape-recorder’ team-teaching situations where they basically sit in on another teacher’s class and participate sporadically. This is not particularly useful or fulfilling. Instead, ALTs could take small groups aside for speaking practice (like the Spanish, French, and German language assistants in my own secondary school did), mark and check written work, help with creating written, audio, or online materials, or provide after-school teaching for students.
Having trusted and experienced native teachers as described in 1. above would also help here.
I don’t think the JET programme is all bad. Yes, I would rather see some of the money go towards training Japanese teachers or creating more effective teaching materials (particularly online). However, I think the JET programme provides some very positive results for Japan, and I would be sad to see it eliminated completely.
Finally, one potential positive for this plan is that it may go some way to reversing or even ending the trend towards outsourcing ALTs or teachers, which I think has no redeeming features. It is very possible that the new JET ALTs will not be adding to the total pool of ALTs, but rather replacing assistants provided by dispatch companies. That would be a fine result in my opinion. The sooner the parasitic ALT dispatch companies are driven out the better.
I look forward to your comments!
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I have a lot of history with the JET Programme. I first came to Sendai on JET, had three great years in junior high schools and an elementary school, then was involved in running the Miyagi program as the Chief ALT Advisor for four years. I think I saw the best and the worst of JET.
The best thing about JET is that it has the potential to take intelligent, educated, energetic, and motivated people and put them in a position where they can interact with, inspire, mentor, and befriend Japanese children and teachers. When this works it works incredibly well, and I have had the pleasure of working with some exemplary JETs in my time.
The worst thing about JET is when teachers and schools are not supportive, don’t provide clear working guidelines or support their ALTs, and host institutions are unwilling to actively manage JETs and provide feedback and discipline where necessary.
Assistant Language Teachers on the JET Programme are assistants. They are able to help, support, and contribute to classes when their colleagues and schools work to make that possible. Like many things in English education in Japan, training and implementation are going to make most of the difference, not spending more money or deciding to put an ALT in every school (whether they want one or not). There seems to be an expectation that ALTs should be radically improving English education in Japan, but to me that is like saying that the new textbooks should magically do that. It’s not going to happen unless the teachers and schools facilitate and allow it to.
In the spirit of my ‘if I ruled the world’ blog posts from last month (on elementary school, junior high school, high school, and university English education in Japan) I am going to come up with some suggestions for the JET Programme on the blog tomorrow.
In the meantime, what do you think about the proposal to double JET numbers? Any good or bad experiences with JET? Please leave a comment below.
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High school is a crucial step within Japan’s English educational system. It is the gateway to university, and currently has the most powerful external incentives for students. Get into the right high school, and you’ll have a shot at a good university. Graduate from a good university (and let’s face it, once you get in it’s not very difficult to graduate) and you’ll be set for life.
That’s how the script used to go. It’s shifting now, which is why we are seeing change on the horizon. Here is my take on high school English education in Japan.
The Current Situation
Most students attend junior high school then go to a separate senior high school. Entry is competitive, and students take the high school test or take advantage of a parallel ‘recommendation’ system (suisen). The system is designed to select candidates based on academic achievement and potential.
Once in high school, students focus on preparing for university entrance tests (if they attend an academic-track high school) or on getting vocational qualifications (if they attend a vocational high school).
From this month all high school English classes are supposed to be taught in English (something that was also part of the 2003 Course of Study but was not successfully implemented) but we will have to wait and see how widespread this turns out to be in practice.
My Thoughts on the Current System
High schools have a lot going for them. They select students based on academic ability. High school teachers are better qualified than junior high school teachers (see MEXT figures for English teachers here). Students are more mature and more conscious of their goals -sometimes
Ironically, English classes at vocational schools are often more practical than classes at academic schools. Freed from the pressure of cramming huge amounts of vocabulary/grammar for the university tests, teachers are free to work at the students’ level and have them work on their communicative competence. Sadly many teachers instead do an ‘academic lite’ class, reviewing junior high school vocabulary/grammar.
The falling number of children due to demographic change is putting a lot of pressure on high schools. The best public and private schools still have students competing to get in, but other schools are becoming less able to select as they only get as many applicants (or fewer) as they have places.
The governments plan to use TOEFL to screen applicants to university (which I disagree with) also has the potential to shake up SHS education.
These are the things I would most like to see changed in high school English education (many are similar to my requests for junior high school):
- Increase English input for students
This has three parts: teach students why input is important and how they can access it, expect students to do a certain amount of input-based self-study per week, and monitor their progress. Done well, this can have a significant effect on practical English ability, as well as helping students become independent learners. This should include extensive reading with graded readers, as well as online listening and watching videos.
- Increase meaningful English output from students
Students should be speaking and writing ‘real’ content regularly. Writing their reactions or ideas, giving speeches, and having discussions about topics of interest will help them build up their language proficiency.
- Introduce content-based lessons
Give students the opportunity to interact with news and current issues through English. This can include reading online, simplifying news stories for the classroom, and using contemporary stories as the basis for output activities as described above.
- Create meaningful English qualifications
I would like to see the government create meaningful English qualifications that students could take to demonstrate their ability. At the moment, the STEP Eiken, the TOEIC, and to a limited extent the TOEFL tests fulfil this role at the moment, but they don’t do a very good job of measuring overall English proficiency, particularly with regards to speaking and writing. Perhaps some kind of language portfolio would be the best way of achieving this. The qualifications would ideally be recognised by universities and employers, and provide incentives for students to work on developing actual English skills.
- Provide online courses
Based on best practice worldwide (see the Khan Academy or online university courses for examples) create online content using the best teachers. By flipping the classroom in this way, students can use class time for practice and interaction, and learn concepts for homework, in an environment where they can repeat or rewind as much as they need. This would have the welcome side-effect of reducing the importance of cram schools for university entrance. It would also reduce the influence of unqualified or unskilled teachers (only 50% of senior high school teachers hold intermediate English qualifications).
I struggled writing this one. By the time students get to high school, they’ve already had five years of English at school. Any problems have been compounded and it is unlikely that high school alone will revolutionise their experience. For the same reason, changes here will probably have less effect than they would do in elementary school or junior high school.
Still, the fact that students are academically streamed should make it easier for teachers to deliver content appropriate to most of their charges.
Many young people I speak to were profoundly disappointed when they started high school and found that the classes were a continuation of what they had been doing in junior high school. They had honestly been expecting to have things step up a notch and become more challenging/practical.
What do you think? Is senior high school English a lost cause? What practical steps could we take to improve English classes?
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I was very negative about the Japanese government’s proposal to use TOEFL to screen university applicants. It’s easy to criticize, to offer up reasons why things won’t work. It makes you feel important, contributing to the conversation in that way. It even feels productive sometimes, like you are saving people from making mistakes.
I still think indiscriminately imposing the TOEFL test on students in Japan is a flawed idea, and next week on this blog I am going to offer up some alternatives.
I will post my suggestions on how I think English education in Japan can be improved at the primary (elementary school), secondary (junior and senior high school), and tertiary (university) levels.
And then you can all have a go at criticizing me
* give yourself a pat on the back if you know who the guy in the picture is