“Why don’t you stand on the other side of the room?”
“Why don’t you stand on the other side of the room?” Lisanne asked after observing my Kindergarten High lesson one Saturday. Lisanne is a teacher at MY English School. Prior to her observation, I usually stood on the side of the classroom where my back was to a glass window facing the lobby. That meant the children saw their parents, who were usually standing outside of the room watching their children. That also meant the children had more distractions because they could see all sorts of other things happening outside of the classroom.
The following week, I made sure to follow Lisanne’s advice. I positioned myself on the other side of the room. Almost immediately, I noticed a significant change in the classroom dynamics. With nothing but a plain wall behind me, the children had almost no distractions. It felt easier to catch their attention. It still wasn’t 100% full attention, but at least I no longer had to compete with a parent who was waving to their kid urging them to behave, or with whatever colorful distraction behind me that may catch the children’s wandering eyes.
The tiny change—in this case, the place where I positioned myself—led to a better situation both for me and the children.
“Why did you have only 2 lines?”
More recently, Alina, another teacher, observed one of my first-year elementary-age lessons. In our post-observation discussion, she asked, “Why did you have only 2 lines for Dice Bucket?” That was how I saw other teachers run the game; that was what I saw in a training video that I watched. Alina’s suggestion to create more lines only came to mind during our discussion.
Again, with the tiny change of making a third or even a fourth line during the game, it instantly led to some noticeable changes. I tried it in my other first-year class. First, the students got more oral practice of the target language (in this case, CVC words). Second, the waiting time between turns for the children was reduced. As a result, students were not as distracted.
Sometimes all we need to address a particular issue in the classroom is a small tweak in how we do certain things.
Following these two conversations and looking back on previous lessons, I realized that sometimes all we need to address a particular issue in the classroom is a small tweak in how we do certain things. I sometimes fall into a routine regarding how I do lessons. Feedback from fellow MY teachers on what changes I can carry out, big or small, is helpful.
How about you? What tiny change(s) have you made that led to a big change in your classroom? Are you able to get helpful feedback from colleagues? For those experiencing a classroom issue at the moment, have you tried reflecting on what changes you can make? If you have, what change was it?
Let me explain what I mean when I say I am an “unhappy teacher.”
I invite you to dissect with me the situation I experienced in my kindergarten class:
After months of trying, we finally managed to play a ball game counting to 20 without dropping the ball on the carpet.
You might not think that it’s difficult at all, but it’s actually quite tricky.
Small kids want to just projectile yeet the ball, preferably hitting someone or something on the way. Ideally, from the slinging student’s perspective, it should hit the light above their heads.
In my kindergarten class, we spent approximately three months trying to count to 20. I gave them three attempts every lesson, and after three fails we put the ball away. The first couple of lessons looked more like Gotham under the rule of Bane – pure anarchy, in other words. As weeks were going by, though, the ball hit the walls and the lights fewer and fewer times, and we were getting closer and closer to the magical number of 20.
After about three months we finally managed to get to 20. I still vividly remember the students’ smug faces when they yelled out “20!” and looked at me, expecting me to lose my mind over their achievement.
My reaction didn’t match their level of expectations.
I smiled, looked at them, and said, “Wow, you finally did it. Wanna try to count to 30 then?”
And so, the ball began to roll up to 30, and since the kids knew how to play the ball game, we could count to 30 relatively quickly.
I decided not to celebrate because I didn’t want 20 to be the end of everything.
So, going back to my inflammatory statement, I was happy, truly. However, I decided not to celebrate because I didn’t want 20 to be the end of everything. Because it isn’t.
A couple of years back at MY, our yearly company theme was “Raising expectations” (still my favorite theme, BTW). To me, raising expectations comes with being “unhappy.” Being overjoyed sounds like the goal has been achieved, while the goal, let’s be honest, can never be achieved. Not with language learning.
To be clear, I do not completely ignore my students’ successes. I praise them, but only after they truly struggled and achieved something. Even then, I only praise them slightly, encouraging them to be proud of themselves first. My praise is scarce. It is, as Pushkin said, “a fleeting vision, the quintessence, of all that’s beautiful and rare.” By making my praise rare, I make it sound genuine because my students know that it only comes if they went above and beyond and did something extraordinary. At the end of the day, “Whiplash” taught us that “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’”.
Praise is something that must be earned, not taken for granted.
When I think about who I am, I often describe myself as a self-taught optimist who’s fundamentally a pessimist. I often feel unhappy, even though I don’t know why. I could have tried to go against my nature and play up a character that’s not me. However, I made the choice that I will use my personality trait for good, maintaining the value of praise as something that must be earned, not taken for granted.
NHK’s Come Come Everybody doubles down on hundred years of largely failed English education, looking ahead to another hundred years of the same.
NHK wraps up this week its latest Asadora television drama series, Come Come Everybody. The story follows the lives of three generations of women in one family, starting in 1925, the year radio broadcasts started in Japan, and projecting forward to the present era. The serialized drama weaves together threads of English radio programs, jazz, anko sweet bean paste, baseball, and historical dramas over nearly a century to connect the individual and family experiences of Yasuko, Rui, and Hinata, a grandmother, mother, and daughter.
My wife and daughter have followed the Come Come Everybody series since it started last November, and I am sometimes pulled into watching with them. My wife recently commented that, during the final two or three weeks of the series, she has mostly stopped caring about the story. Too many melodramatic absurdities have made it difficult to stay interested. My wife’s breaking point was a professional jazz trumpet player switching to piano in middle age and becoming equally successful at the new instrument. Could it happen? A person might become proficient picking up a new instrument in his 40s or 50s, but at that professional level? I lack a strong background in music, and so I did not think much about this plot element. For my wife, her own experience with piano made this sudden transformation unbelievable.
For me, I gave up on realism in Come Come Everybody early in the series. Why? The show’s portrayal of English education.
English education myths
Come Come Everbody features the three heroines each learning English through radio programs as children. Each character presents a different relationship with English, but each communicates in English in critical moments during episodes of the drama.
The problem with Come Come Everybody‘s portrayal is that it credits radio programs for teaching English, even though the historical success of such programming is spotty at best. Can a child learn English from listening to a radio show? Possibly, a little, in some cases, if the radio program supplements deeper experience with English. Can a child have fun listening to a radio show? Undoubtedly. But learning English primarily or exclusively from a radio program? No. Children mastering English fluently enough from radio shows to communicate in complex situations? Not at all likely.
Come Come Everybody‘s portrayal of learning English through listening and translation taps into stubborn educational myths in Japan. NHK’s drama doubles down on these language myths by glamorizing outmoded and discredited teaching methodologies as if they still have value. Japan consistently sits at the bottom of international rankings for English ability and English education. Japan’s embrace of these harmful myths is a reason why.
Audio-lingualism and grammar-translation
In NHK’s drama, characters rely on a combination of audio-lingualism and grammar-translation to learn English. They listen to recordings of English and copy what they hear to produce language, while also using a dictionary to translate English into Japanese. In some episodes, characters use a modern audio-lingual variant, speech shadowing, in which they simultaneously shadow the recorded English while reading along on a script.
Audio-lingualism has historical roots early in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, new technologies allowed recorded spoken language and mass broadcasting. At the same time, linguists of the era were mounting efforts to record rapidly disappearing oral languages. Technology combined with societal and academic interests, which then filtered through the era’s prevailing behavioralist psychological theories. The resulting language teaching methodology focused heavily on listening to and imitating spoken language. It was, however, a theory rooted in many misconceptions about how the brain processes and learns language. For most people, audio-lingualism was never an effective, efficient, or sufficient method to learn languages.
Speech shadowing is a recent attempt to double down on the outmoded audio-lingualism of a century ago. Speech shadowing has gained some following in East Asian countries, particularly in small circles in Japan. However, the research in favor of speech shadowing for language learning has been decidedly underwhelming.
The grammar-translation method is rooted even deeper in history. This methodology was inherited from the 19th century, when Classical Latin and Greek were the two major languages taught in elite European universities. French, German, and English had become the primary languages for politics, science, and business, but Latin and Greek survived as relics of medieval and Renaissance education, despite neither language having any living native speakers. Latin and Greek were preserved in written texts, and so language learning involved reading classical texts and translating them into one’s native language.
For most of the world, grammar-translation faded as audio-lingualism took hold. The rise of structuralism in the mid-20th century then spelled the end for audio-lingualism as a widely accepted methodology. Constructivist theories of language and an emphasis on four-skills communicative language teaching have dominated foreign language teaching methods for decades.
Not for Japan.
Japan has slowly reformed textbooks and classes to timidly accept four-skills and communicative language approaches, but these reforms often feel like superficial efforts built on top of a foundation that is still solidly grammar-translation and audio-lingual. Why Japan has held so tightly to the grammar-translation and audio-lingual myths is curious. Grammar-translation was already losing relevance in the late-1800s, just as Japan opened itself to the world, but Japan’s technocrats and scholars were intent on copying elite European and American educational institutions. Audio-lingualism was the first “new” methodology to come along in the wake of the Meiji era’s aggressive internationalization. The history of English education in Japan can be summed up as embracing those two methods and never letting go.
From a historical perspective, Come Come Everybody is accurate in showing Japanese efforts to learn English through listening to dialogues on radio programs. Such programs had a huge effect popularizing English in Japan. That popularity, however, was to the detriment of English ability in Japan. Many people may have listened, formed fan clubs, and tried eikaiwa, but how many developed capable skills in English? NHK’s drama is unrealistic in pretending that such programming successfully produced capable English speakers.
The dramatic success of the characters Yasuko, Rui, and Hinata in learning English from radio programming promotes the myth that Japan’s English education methods can be successful. If a learner experiences setbacks, struggles, and failures, the solution is simply to work harder.
This myth saves face for the Japanese educational system. It saves face for NHK’s own educational programming. However, it flies in the face of everything I know about how language works and how people learn.
Even if a small handful of proactive individuals might improve some English skills from radio or television programming, the myth leads Japan to continue wasting time and resources on fruitless teaching methods. Ultimately, foreign language lessons on radio and television provide far more entertainment value than educational value.
The learning feedback cycle
Our brains construct language out of a need to use language. We learn from situations that require choices involving language and when that language has consequences. A hundred hours of radio programming provide less direct feedback to a learner than a single two-minute, face-to-face exchange.
The radio shows featured in Come Come Everybody or NHK’s long-running Eigo de Asobo children’s television show fail on a critical learning point. Such shows may gesture toward giving listeners and viewers interactive feedback, but they don’t. At best, programming offers superficial faux feedback. Feedback is imagined by what producers expect most people will do or say. Anyone whose language response is not what producers anticipated is probably left confused and frustrated. The success or failure of our communication attempts is confirmed by direct feedback from another speaker. The depth and complexity of that feedback are critical to learning.
Those who learn with radio or television programming typically use it no more than as a supplement. They engage and communicate heavily outside of radio or television programming. Effective learners create situations for themselves that produce learning feedback cycles. It’s not the radio or television programming that is successful, but the student.
Breaking tired, old myths for the future?
Sadly, far too many of the English success stories in Japan are about students finding success in spite of the education system. Japan is full of hard-working, dedicated people who want to help, but entrenched methods and myths stymie efforts. I have lost count of the number of public school teachers who have privately admitted to me that they hate the way that they teach and know it doesn’t work, but they feel constrained by the system from doing differently. The number of students who complain is even greater.
NHK’s vision for future English education is the most troubling element of the Come Come Everybody series. What will Japan’s English education look like in the Reiwa era? Come Come Everybody chooses to paint over a hundred years of failed English education. NHK could have written Come Come Everybody to show the struggles and failures of English education in Japan during the Showa and Heisei eras, with a hopeful vision for something better in the Reiwa era. They don’t. In one of the final episodes, Hinata, the youngest of the three heroines, dreams ahead twenty years in her future. Her vision? Producing a modern radio English program that is substantially unchanged from what her grandmother listened to.
In the drama, Hinata’s grandmother passed down a technique for making delicious anko by listening to the red beans and uttering a spell. Unchanged, the technique passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Tradition works well for anko. It fails for Japan’s English education. Japan’s education myths were not the product of success passed down over centuries. Japan picked up a broken methodology from the West at a specific moment a century ago without understanding the the tradition or context from which those methods came.
NHK’s Come Come Everybody doubles down on hundred years of largely failed English education, looking ahead to another hundred years of the same. From the perspective of an English educator, what could be more depressing?
Japan’s English education does not have to succumb to the vision that NHK paints at the finale of Come Come Everybody. However, with NHK continuing to program pernicious myths into viewers’ minds, Japan’s educators and learners face an uphill battle.
This is one takeaway I have from the last training day we had where Mike Griffin came here to present to us. More info the event is here
The IKEA effect
We like it better if we make it ourselves.
In the back of the “Finding Out” teacher’s book there are photocopiable cards that we can use for games. Recently I decided to let my students personalize them. I usually copy them and cut them without adding anything else to them to save time. Look at the photo. It takes time away from the lesson to get them made but it got my students more invested in the lesson and had them wanting to use them more in the classroom and lobby. A class of 8 will get everything taken care of in less than 10 minutes.
These cards come from “Finding Out 4”. They were made by year 4 primary school students.
Final tip, if you use regular laminating film for these the corners will be dangerously sharp. You can get a tool from Daiso to cut off the corners or use card style laminating film.
A very familiar situation, isn’t it? Regardless of the situation, whether it’s a language school classroom or our day-to-day life, not getting an answer to your question is upsetting, annoying and, truth be told, sometimes infuriating. Especially in a teacher-centered classroom not receiving an answer can be seen as straight up disrespectful and rude, or worse – as a sign that your students are absolutely clueless.
Or are they? That’s what I noticed when I joined MY. Sometimes,
after presenting a new topic I realised that instead of a wave of different
responses and answers I got only silence. And, as human beings, we hate when
silence falls upon us. Have you ever been on a date that suddenly went silent
and you wished that you were anywhere but there? At first, that’s exactly how I
felt. Thinking that this grammar target is the easiest in the world I hadn’t
been prepared for my students’ silence. Upon encountering this, our first
instinct is to avoid the situation – scrap the activity, move on to something
else, hoping that the second attempt later in the class would me more
However, after several months at MY I noticed that sometimes I
used to get a different kind of silence. Not the desperate, students trying to
avoid looking in your eye’s kind of silence (“not Slytherin!”). No, there was
something special. This was a curious, hungry silence of someone who knew
exactly what was going on, but wasn’t sure how to express their feelings.
Allow me to give you an example.
In one of my elementary school 2nd grade classes we started to study occupations, and the first question we were supposed to learn is “What do you do?”. Excited, I sat down with my students and “accidentally” asked them “What do you do?”. Being MY’s loyal students, my kids immediately asked me “What do you do, Alina?”, to which I proudly announced “I’m a teacher! “.
And then silence fell upon us.
Concerned, at first, I felt that maybe they didn’t understand the
question, and maybe I should either make myself clearer or do another activity,
allowing them to think over this new mysterious grammar point. But a few second
later I saw that students, instead of avoiding my eyes, were actively looking
for answers by looking at me and at each other curiously. That second a very
simple truth for an experienced teacher suddenly hit me.
What if they don’t know how to say “student” in English?
What I did was I gave them several examples. Smiling
mischievously, I asked my students
(Me)- “What’s “hon” in English?“
(Students)- “It’s book”.
(Me) – “Hm, I see. What’s baggu in English?”
(Students) – “It’s bag.”
(Me)-” Hm, I see. What’s….“
(Students)- “ALINA WHAT’S GAKUSEI IN ENGLISH??”
And at that moment I felt badass like never before. And, because this knowledge was obtained through a hard thinking process where students were allowed to think things through, and got the answer only after asking other follow-up questions, I realised several months later that this knowledge was retained by them. Even last year, when I just joined MY, some of my classes didn’t keep this knowledge and we had to recycle it way more frequently than I’d wished, and yet with this class even after a long time they were still able to ping-pong “I’m a student” to your “What do you do?”.
Becoming more comfortable with silence is one of the most
fundamental changes I’ve experienced since joining MY. In fact, I might say
that I Mia Wallaced myself – now I’m able to shut up for a minute and
comfortably share silence knowing that my students are figuring out the answer,
making sure that this knowledge gained after some elbow grease will stay with
them and go into their long term memory.