26 Dec 2014, 2:16pm
evaluation personal

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Looking back on 2014

2014 end

Well, this year went by fast! In a lot of ways 2014 was a good one for me.

I was able to do a fair bit of travelling and presenting, things went well at both the university and Cambridge, and I learned a lot.

Unfortunately I neglected this blog, and haven’t posted as frequently as I would have liked to.

Here are my highlights of 2014:

  1. ER@TU
    The Extensive Reading at Tohoku University project went incredibly well this year. Not only did we receive special funding of 5 million yen to buy more books, but we were also noticed by the university administration. We’re working on rolling extensive reading classes out to more teachers and were selected to receive a prize for the project.
  2. International Textbook
    I was really pleased to be able to contribute to Oxford University Press’ new textbook series Stretch. I wrote¬†the presenting skills curriculum.
  3. Presenting
    I was able to present at a number of international and domestic events this year, including delivering my first plenary at VUS TESOL in Vietnam, presentations in Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand, and a number of events in Japan.
  4. Guest Lectures
    I really enjoyed giving guest lectures at Miyagi University of Education, Nika Junior and Senior High School, Sendai Second High School, and Tago Elementary School. It was a great experience to present on new topics to new audiences.

I will be working on my annual review and plans for 2015 over the next week or so, and will post some of my educational goals here in the new year.

Hope you are all enjoying a bit of a break. Happy holidays!

Ken Robinson’s latest talk

Ken Robinson, the most popular speaker on the TED website, and someone who talks about education to boot. I’m guessing many of my readers have seen this talk already, but just in case I’m putting it on here.

Ken Robinson is one of my favourite speakers. He is incredibly skilled. Notice how he speaks for 20 minutes in the video above, with no notes, no slides, nothing to support him, and still manages to be compelling and stay on track. I can only imagine the hours of practice that went into that one off-the-cuff seeming talk.

This particular talk struck a chord because it seems to go against everything I’m working on at the moment in terms of setting standards and expectations at my university. However, once I thought about it, our programs involve setting expectations but then giving students a lot of leeway as to how they meet them (which books they choose to read, how they talk about articles, which websites they choose to use). We don’t expect the same from all students, but we expect all students to put in similar amounts of time and effort (or understand the consequences of not doing so).

Having watched the talk, do you see any connection to your own teaching practice?


Japan to use TOEFL as university entrance hurdle?


You may have read about the Japanese government’s suggested plan to use TOEFL as a screening test for university entrance. If not, here are some online articles:

Japan Times (March 25) “Abe Wants TOEFL to be Key Exam”
Japan Times (March 25) “LDP urges TOEFL scores as college entrance, graduation requirement”

I am not an expert on the TOEFL test, and I am not privy to the details of this plan, such as what kind of scores they are planning to require, or how they expect high schools to prepare students for the TOEFL. However, I think this is a horrible idea.

I am really opposed to using tests out of context, for purposes other than the ones they were designed for. This applies especially to the TOEIC and TOEFL tests. As far as I am aware, TOEIC is a test designed to measure English proficiency within a working environment. Apart from the language, it also requires test-takers to have some idea of working environments and tasks. I find that young people with no experience of working in office or professional environments are at a real disadvantage taking the test -basically it is not designed for them.

I believe TOEFL is designed to measure how well candidates will deal with studying in an English-language institution. It is looking at whether they will be able to understand lectures, write papers, take notes, participate in discussions, etc.

Using these tests indiscriminately to measure general language proficiency or achievement is surely less than ideal.

I am opposed to using the TOEFL test to pre-screen candidates for university entrance, as suggested in the articles above, for the following reasons:

  1. The test is inappropriate to measure English achievement over the entire student population, as opposed to a select few who intend to study abroad
  2. Regular high schools are not in a position to prepare students for these tests, which means that students will have to go to the private sector if they want to go to university, which means that only relatively affluent students will be able to go to university
  3. The bar will have to be set so low on the TOEFL iBT in order for normal students to pass it as to render the whole thing meaningless
  4. A foreign company like ETS should not have this much influence on Japan’s national curriculum: giving it to them is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Ministry of Education
  5. The test is expensive, and presumably most students will take it several times to try to maximize their score, adding 30-50,000 yen to the cost of applying to university

Basically this is the latest in a series of ‘reforms’ that start from a positive goal (improve students’ practical English abilities), then completely fail to implement steps to achieve that goal, due to lack of knowledge, political will, or sheer incompetence.

What do you think about this idea? Is it going to help Japanese students?

ER@TU (Extensive Reading at Tohoku University)


I gave this short (30m) presentation about our ER program here at Tohoku University. The presentation is in Japanese.

New (Academic) Year’s Resolutions

Now that we are two¬†three months into 2010 2012 (can you tell when I started writing this post?), it seems like a good time to think about new year resolutions. I didn’t make any specific ones this year, but I would like to make some for the next academic year.

In Japan the academic year runs from April to March, and at universities at least classes finish in February, allowing teachers some much-needed downtime to do admin, write papers, and think about next year’s classes.

So what am I going to focus on next year?

One of my priorities as a teacher and learner is effectiveness, or maximising results. I want to continue making my classes as effective as possible. I define effectiveness as the amount of learning over a certain time.

For my university classes, I am working off the following assumptions:

1. my students have already studied enough grammar
2. we only have a maximum of 22 hours together
3. my students actually want to learn English
4. most of my students don’t know how to get better at English
5. there are things I can teach my students that will help them improve their English
6. tests and quizzes, while very useful for assigning letter grades, are not very helpful

I am going to be teaching the following classes next year:


I have already submitted my syllabi and know more or less what we are going to be doing, but I would be very interested to hear any advice or ideas about what I should do in each of these. I’ll be posting the contents later in the week. Please comment below.

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