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Proposal for a Learning-Centred,
Computer-Enhanced Syllabus for
Japanese University ELT Classes
Gregory Poole
- 3

5. Rationale for such a Flexible, Learning-Centred, Computer-Enhanced Syllabus

In the 1980's, the movement towards learner independence in ELT was complementary to the communicative and humanistic approaches that had developed a decade earlier. Indeed, the educationist Bruner was a proponent of learner independence back in the '60's, as had been Dewey even earlier. "Instruction is a provisional state that has as its object to make the learner or problem solver self sufficient… [not] to create a form of mastery that is contingent on the perpetual presence of a teacher" (Bruner 1966, p. 53). Sheerin points out how this movement for learner independence "springs from the powerful yet commonsense perception that it is learners who do the learning…" (Sheerin 1991, p. 2). Not only philosophically, but empirically, as well, research into the attributes of a "good language learner" (GLL) tends to support this notion of learner independence (e.g., Rubin 1975; Wenden 1987; Naiman 1996).

Arguments over definitions characterized the early days of learner independence-What is 'autonomy'? What is 'self-directed learning'? What is 'individualization'? Recently, though, these "concerns seem now to have been superseded by the more urgent practical need to develop effective mechanisms for allowing students a degree of choice and for helping them to exercise it" (Sheerin 1991, p.2). These mechanisms include what in language teaching has come to be known as 'learner-centredness', a term that, as Brookes notes, has since subsumed other aspects of learner independence. "One corollary of learner-centredness is that individualization will assume greater importance, as will the recognition that the autonomy of the learner is our ultimate goal." (Brookes and Grundy 1988, p.1)

The term "learner-centredness" is not unproblematic, however. Hutchinson and Waters argue for a more culturally-contextualised view of language. "We feel the term 'learner-centred' is misleading, since it implies that the learner is the sole focus of the learning process. Education is, by its very nature, a compromise between the individual and society. Thus, we would reject the view that a communicative approach is learner-centred: rather, it is learning-centred, and this implies taking into account the needs and expectations of all the parties involved." (Hutchinson and Waters 1984, p.108) Indeed, considering this "learning culture" model becomes important when justifying a learner independent approach in the TU language syllabus. Certainly, this author's experience teaching in Japan (Poole forthcoming), supports the view that cultural notions of teaching and learning are not necessarily "culturally bound" (cf., Valdes 1986) but instead fit well with "western" ELT research into classroom culture. This in turn, is supported by Holliday's (1999) concept of a "small culture" view of the global classroom.

5.1 Teacher Culture

As explained above, the "teacher culture" at HE institutions in Japan can be partly characterized by an overworked, undertrained staff which results in low morale. Although a learning-centred model would potentially benefit EFL students, such an approach could seem threatening to the teachers. Holliday (1994) points out how this is probably a concern for TESEP teachers around the globe who are accustomed to more didactic teaching modes. They are not given direction with the vagueness of learner-centredness. Because of the perception that students are to be "set free" by this approach, the power and status of the TESEP teacher's position is eroded.(2)

Among other concerns, including political issues such as loss of peer respect, these fears are related to notions of teaching.


Esch points out that in the "west", if "we believe that the chief responsibility for initiating and shaping the language learning process rests with the teacher as the learner's chief source of knowledge about the target language, we are likely to think of [more learner independent] systems as a form of teacher-substitute…" (Esch and Little 1989, p.30). Though similar mental barriers to learner-independence exist at many colleges in Japan, notions of teaching at primary or early secondary school often purport "learning-centredness" models (see Cave 1998).

What has been emphasized by "western" applied linguists in recent years is not far from the notions of teaching that are to be found among Japanese educators. "The terms 'individualized teaching' or 'individualization of teaching' or 'individualization of learning' cover a wide variety of different practices… The common feature of all these practices is a desire to increase the degree of adequacy of the teaching for the recipient, the learner" (Holec and Europe 1981, p.6). Indeed, the entire educational system in Japan is presently being swept with koseika, or "individualization" (Cave 2001), the next in a wave of such post-war educational "movements" in notions of teaching, beginning with kindaika (modernization), and then kokusaika (internationalisation) (cf., Goodman 1987; McConnell 2000). Large lecture classes being the norm in most subjects at Japanese colleges and universities, this notion of teaching in an "individualised" manner is often said to be "not practical". What is forgotten by observers however, though not necessarily by the teachers themselves, is that individualised notions of teaching is a "norm" in schools in Japan, and certainly not foreign to any competent zemi (seminar)(3) lecturer at tertiary institutions either.

Shidoo kyooiku, or guided-learning, is a Japanese notion of teaching that fits well with some of the warnings about what L2 educators need to be wary of in adopting a learner independent model. First, Naiman (1996, p.ix) asserts "…the notion that learners each have their own preferred strategies and that these should not be disturbed is pretty nonsensical. Teachers have a responsibility to extend the repertoire of individuals' learning styles, for individuals are not fixed entities." Then, Nunan (in Harris 1997, p.ix) repeats this qualification of learner independence when he states "[i]t is a mistake to assume that learners come into the language classroom with a natural ability to make choices about what and how to learn." And certainly notions of zemi and shido kyooiku fit with what Holliday is implying when he explains his views on mediating learning. "The purpose of teaching should be for learning to take place… [T]hat the learner is the recipient of this learning goes without saying, but this does not tell us what to do" (Holliday 1994, p.175).

(2) "We feel guilty to stand up in front of the class." In Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
(3) This is a project-based class at Japanese universities that involves collaborative research and presentations. It is decidedly student-run and student-centred, if not always learning-centred.

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