Proposal for a Learning-Centred,
Computer-Enhanced Syllabus for
Japanese University ELT Classes
Gregory Poole
- 1

1. Acknowledgements

The author thanks Takachiho University for a generous overseas research grant that supported this and other projects during the 2001/2002 academic year.

2. Introduction

Although often deemed reticent and unresponsive language learners (see, e.g., Oxford, Hollaway et al. 1992), young Japanese adults, if given the chance, can be quite independent learners. Collaborative projects and team learning is familiar to every Japanese student (see, e.g., Passin 1982; Rohlen 1983; Azuma, Hakuta et al. 1986; Beauchamp 1991; Rohlen and LeTendre 1996). The passive lecture-style of most high school and university language classes in Japan fits more with the otherwise 'western' view of "banking education" (Freire 1985) or "empty vessel model" (Brandsford, Pellegrino et al. 1999) than with the more learner-centred models employed in Japanese primary and secondary schools (White 1987; Benjamin 1997). With careful thought and planning, there is every reason to believe that a more flexible approach to the language syllabus could be successful in a Japanese college setting.

This paper, then, is a proposal for implementing more flexible teaching and learning methods at a Japanese university. First, the specific context is explicated to set the stage. The realities and attributes of ELT at Japanese schools of higher education are enumerated and the local setting is discussed to give the reader a better understanding of the issues facing language teaching at the school in question and how these could possibly be addressed using a more open syllabus. The next section delineates the actual aims and objectives of the proposed syllabus, relating these back to the different local issues previously mentioned. A brief survey of relevant literature on both learner independence and open methods of language instruction provides theoretical justification for such an approach. Finally, in the conclusion, a discussion of the possible challenges and hurdles to implementing such a syllabus finishes the paper.

3. Background

3.1 ELT at Japanese Universities

Japan has one of the highest rates of post-secondary school attendance among all industrialized nations, with 2.5 million undergraduates enrolled at over 600 national, public, and private four-year universities (Hirowatari 2000). Over half of all Japanese teenagers, then, apply to take a college entrance exam for admission into a tertiary institution. Most such admissions exams include a compulsory English proficiency sub-test although EFL is not a state-required subject at primary, secondary, or tertiary schools in Japan. Partly because of this university entrance exam focus on English, while only a handful of students are exposed to language classes in primary school, over 10 million 12 to 18 year olds, and another million or so university students, 'elect' to study English.

Not only is English a requirement to enter college, most students study the subject at some point during their four years of attendance. All universities offer foreign language courses, and EFL is by far the most studied subject of these. In fact, although students sometimes have a choice of different English classes from which to choose, EFL in some form is a required subject at nearly every tertiary institution in Japan. The nature of the English language teaching milieu at Japanese colleges corresponds closely to Holliday's description of Tertiary English and Secondary English Programs (TESEP) (Holliday 1994). These TESEP attributes include:

1. EFL as a part of a wider curriculum and influenced by institutional imperatives.

2. ELT has a role alongside other subjects in socializing students as members of the work community.

3. EFL is but one of many subjects taught and must work within parameters and resources that are delimiting factors for all courses.

4. ELT methodology choice is limited by institutional-wide approaches adopted across different subjects, as well as the expectations of the actors themselves (students, language teachers, teachers of other subjects, administrators, and the Japanese Ministry of Education Mombukagakusho).

3.2 Over-worked TESEP Teachers

Participant-observers in Japanese academia have noted the unbalanced time-allocation of professors to activities not related to teaching, class preparation, or research (e.g., see McVeigh 1997; Befu 2000; Poole 2001). Administrative responsibilities are at times overbearing in a Japanese college, with faculty responsible for the governance of the institution. Countless committees (Befu mentioned 24 at one institution) define a faculty member's weekly meeting schedule. There is a strong moral compulsion, "responsibility," to be present at the, sometimes, weekly general faculty meetings- open-ended affairs that are inevitably a "battle of endurance since 'consensus-making' is a mere euphemism" (Befu 2000).(1)

Although there is an expectation that teachers in Japan spend time informally befriending and counseling students, actual classroom teaching is usually neither monitored nor paid much institutional concern. In general, the priority at universities in Japan is not classroom pedagogy, although language courses are sometimes more closely scrutinized because of the growing awareness that lecturing is not the most effective way to educate students in another tongue. As a result, recently, language class sizes have been limited to between 20 and 40 students instead of the 100 or more that is the norm in many lecture courses. Generally speaking, the abovementioned TESEP attributes imply institutional and methodological constraints, such as overwork, that transcend individual teachers' abilities and good intentions.

3.3 Takachiho University (TU)

TU is a 4-year college with an undergraduate enrolment of 2800 students and a very small MBA graduate program. As explicated above, like at most Japanese universities, indeed the "small culture" of most TESEP situations worldwide (Holliday 1994; Holliday 1999), ELT methodology at TU has been largely determined by "tradition" (for a similar U.S. context cf. Gandolfo 1998), practices that are common across the college curriculum. Consequently, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed, bearing in mind methodological appropriateness for the context of TU (Holliday 1994).


• Limited number of classroom hours
The reasons for this are the institutional and governmental parameters that affect all TU classes. First, the university calendar in Japan lacks flexibility, not least because the lack of a semester system and the subsequent 90-minute lesson per week that meets throughout the school year (officially April to March, but in actuality, no more than 25 or 26 lessons over the year). This amounts to less than 40 contact (classroom) hours per year. Secondly, the institutional decision to limit the number of required course credits in English - presently 4 credit hours (two classes) over the four-year management and commerce curricula.

• Lack of continuity between classes and grade levels
Although partly rectified with a more integrated curriculum in the 2001-2002 school year, traditionally there has been little or no integration of language classes throughout the four-year program at TU, and a discontinuity between grade levels. Students normally receive little direct guidance from department faculty except for a 15-minutes explanation during the one-day orientation program for incoming "freshers."

• Poor student attendance, lack of motivation and self-confidence
TU students tend to follow learned behavior patterns consistent with societal expectations and notions of the institution of "university" in Japan. This perception is not unlike the social contexts, the "small culture", of many TESEP situations, namely, there is a general lack of learner involvement in the learning process. Students have not learned to draw real world parallels between what they are learning in class and themselves as active participants.

• Intradepartmental communication, low staff morale
Because of institutional and societal norms, there is limited communication between the hijookinkooshi (part-time, adjunct faculty on yearly contracts) who teach upwards of 70% of all language classes at TU, and the senninkooshi (full-time, tenured staff) who are the only teachers directly involved in curriculum development and institutional decision-making. The daily "teachers' room gripe session" reveals an endemic negativism amongst many staff characterized by low expectations of, and overall frustration with, TU students.

Bearing in mind these issues, the following programme of a more flexible syllabus is proposed.

4. Programme Proposal

"Computer-Assisted and Collaborative Language Learning as Tools for Learner Involvement and Independence in the Japanese University EFL Writing Classroom"

4.1 Aim

(A general statement of what the learner might learn (cf. Laurillard 1993, pp. 184-185))

• Students will learn to work collaboratively on EFL writing projects in a technologically-enhanced classroom

4.2 Objectives

(A more specific statement about what the learner will be able to do better as a result, cf. Rowntree 1994, p. 50)

After students have successfully completed the programme they will:

• Take on more responsibility for their own language learning.

• Demonstrate an attitude of confidence about and be able to give examples of their improved ability to communicate simply in written English.

• Actively participate both in the classroom (synchronous computer-assisted classroom discussion, CACD) and out of the classroom (asynchronous computer-mediated communication, CMC).

• Be able to distinguish between and feel comfortable working in an achievement-oriented atmosphere (intrinsically motivated) rather than a test-driven programme (extrinsically motivated).

• Be familiar with computer-mediated communication and conferencing technologies.

4.3 Methods

In a classroom teaching environment, of all possible media computer conferencing is the one which best allows a teacher to simultaneously give each learner unique, personal feedback while asking learners to answer questions about the subject and building each learner's ideas into the teaching. (Rowntree 1994, p.68). The following are examples of methods that might be employed in order to achieve the above aims and objectives, bearing in mind this media.

• Add the stability and carefulness of written discourse to the dynamic of classroom exchange.

• Provide students and instructors with an instrument for informal, written communication.

• Improve the quality of student invention, drafting, and revision.

• Create alternative means by which students may work in small groups and receive quick and detailed feedback from instructors and peers.

• Establish an interactive classroom environment that enhances the process-based approach to writing.

• Encourage active learning.

• Prepare students for lifelong writing and learning in an information society.

• Encourage students to write more.

This learner independent programme not only addresses many of the issues facing ELT at TU, but is supported theoretically by the research literature on applied linguistics.

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).


Kubota (1999) has argued for a more careful evaluation of the often essentialised "features" of Japanese students in the research literature on ELT. Holliday (1994), in his argument that "'learner' carries the implication that the only purpose for being in the classroom is to learn… [while 's]tudent', on the other hand, implies roles and identities outside the classroom" points out a similar danger of assuming too much. An excellent example of such an over-generalisation, evident in the context of this paper especially, is the following description of Asian students. "Japanese and Korean students are often quiet, shy and reticent in ESL/EFL classrooms, indicating a reserve that is the hallmark of introverts. These ethnic groups have a traditional cultural focus on group membership, solidarity and face-saving, and they de-emphasize individualism" (Oxford, Hollaway et al. 1992, p. 445).

5.2 Student Culture

On the contrary, Gardner & Miller (Gardner and Miller 1999, pp.42-43) demonstrate clearly that Asian learners do accept and work well in more learner independent situations, which was also mentioned above when discussing teaching notions in Japan. This is supported by Holliday's cry for relating ELT methodologies to local (n.b., not pseudo-'cultural', or "large culture", cf. Holliday 1999) realities, "'students' and 'pupils' contextualised in the classroom situation and being influenced by a myriad of social factors both from within and outside the classroom." Globalisation is a force of socialisation that is affecting students worldwide, especially those in more industrialised societies (cf., Appadurai 1996). Japanese educators (e.g., Kawai 2000) have pointed out certain indicators of Japan's globalization and have emphasized the importance of this with respect to autonomous foreign language learning. In this process of globalisation(4), perhaps the most ubiquitous influence on the resulting "student culture" is a "modernising" one.


Understanding the global student culture is essential if teachers are to have success in motivating students. "The aim of teaching is simple: it is to make student learning possible" (Ramsden 1992, p.5). However, if educators' are not prepared to understand students and what they are interested in learning, this aim of teaching is not so simple after all. Even Chomsky gets into the fray on this point. "The truth of the matter is that about 99 percent of teaching is making the students feel interested in the material" (Chomsky 1988, p. 181).

The students being discussed in this paper, Japanese business college students, have a high degree of technological competence. Wireless communication technology is the most common of these competences. Any traveler to Tokyo, no matter from what country, would be surprised at the number of mobile phones. Through its development of internet-capable cell phones ("i-Mode") NTT Docomo, the main subscriber service in Japan, is now known worldwide even though its services are only available domestically. Among college-age adults, mobile email use has approached market saturation (5), and the next generation video cell phones are now all the rage. Tokyo college students' commuting time is spent "typing" email messages to friends on their handsets- reports of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is becoming more and more common amongst "thumb-typing" young people. Boring lecture classes is an ideal time to catch up on a backlog of "mail" communications with friends or purchase tickets to their favorite bands next gig, and students are quick to take advantage of this "slack time"(6).

One does not have to be a linguist to realize the affect this is having on language styles (e.g., Kitade 2000), nor a teacher to understand the communication potential for pedagogy in the language classroom (Skinner and Austin 1999; Warschauer and Kern 2000). Findings (e.g., Laurillard 1993; Laurillard 1999) that computerised communication can have surprising side effects, including more active student participation in a course if e-mail is an option, are not surprising. The concern sometimes raised that students will become anti-social is not supported by any research, empirical or observational. In fact, by practicing skills through this type of discussion, computer-mediated communication (CMC), students are "…not in danger of becoming isolated, unsocial individuals; rather, they are building up their confidence so that they are better able to cope with the difficulties of face-to-face interaction"(Laurillard 1999, p.185). L1 studies (e.g. Pea and Kurland 1987) have shown that email and chat lines are encouraging a greater deal of literacy simply by students expressing themselves through the written word in order to communicate. A more learner independent, computer-enhanced syllabus ensures that business college students are learning the essential professional practices of email, word-processing, and CMC. Collaborative learning using communication tools to negotiate work through the written word is an important practice of teamwork skills, reinforcing Japanese students self-esteem in both group and individual settings.


6. Conclusions

Learner independence is an approach to language teaching and learning that is rarely questioned. Pennycock points this out quite clearly.

"It is not an easy task to write critically about learner autonomy in language learning, principally because autonomy seems such an unquestionably desirable goal… Like other common terms such as 'communicative competence', 'authentic materials', or 'student-centred education', it has rapidly achieved a moral status backed by dominant beliefs in liberal, progressive education. By questioning any of these concepts, we apparently betray ourselves as old-fashioned teacher pedagogues interested only in teacher-centred, authoritarian teaching in which students have little or no chance to use the language, where inauthentic language use is the norm, and where the main goal is to hold on to educational power for as long as possible" (Pennycock 1997, pp. 39-40).

On the other hand, there is learner independence and autonomy must be thought in pluralities; there is no one method to achieve or result in applying this approach. Indeed, situationally relevant applications are a requirement for success, and depending on the circumstance different yardsticks might be used for measuring this success. Nunan (Nunan 1996, p. 13) is aware of this when he explains how "…autonomy is not an absolute concept." He elaborates.

"There are degrees of autonomy, and the extent to which it is feasible or desirable for learners to embrace autonomy will depend on a range of factors to do with the personality of the learner, their goals in undertaking the study of another language, the philosophy of the institution (if any) providing the instruction, and the cultural context within which the learning takes place. Each of these factors will, of course, interact, so that the learner whose personality and preferred learning style is positively oriented towards autonomy might, in an institutional or cultural context in sympathy with autonomy, become largely autonomous, and, in a context antithetical to autonomy, develop little in the way of autonomy" (Nunan 1996, pp. 13).

The programme described above in section three is one degree of learner independence, learner autonomy that is appropriate for the TU situation, the existing teacher and student cultures. Implementing such a syllabus will not be without challenges; more humanistic and student-centred approaches to ELT are inherently hazardous (see Appendix). Understanding the greatest potential for pitfalls proactively would allow for a smoother transition, obviously. The issue of technology logistics for CMC is not a major obstacle. TU has an ample number of computer classrooms and computer labs(7), with one of the lowest student to computer ratios among all institutions of its size in Japan and a commensurate technical support team. Issues of control and initiative would not be difficult for students to handle. TU college students are part of a global student culture that is accustomed to "modernising" change, and embraces new technology. Introducing computers to a language classroom would be a 'cinch' for them.

The biggest challenge that might be faced in implementing a more learner independent, CMC syllabus would be from us, the teachers. Immobilist attitudes (cf., Schoppa 1990) are not merely endemic at an institutional level. "We often view traditional structures and pedagogies-academic calendars, semesters or quarters, credit hours, lectures and discussion sections-less as the structure imposed on the teaching and learning process than as the process itself. Any threat of change in those structures and pedagogies can be a threat to who we are as well as what we do" (Gandolfo 1998, p. 37). Miflin & Price also point this out when they state how important it is to "understand that the beliefs and presuppositions of teachers about teaching and learning are powerful and that very subtle forces can interfere with effective curricular change and remain for the most part unarticulated" (Miflin and Price 2001, p. 102). Given the importance of "tradition" at TU one would expect similar resistance to flexible models of learner independence. Nevertheless, with a bit of nemawashi (8) and the right introduction of this approach to a few sympathetic teachers, a more autonomous English learning environment could be created successfully.

(1) One faculty meeting held last year at the institution where this author works lasted seven hours, with still no consensus reached.
(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.

(4) E.g., doubling of the number of non-Japanese residents in the past ten years and the rise in international marriages and resulting number of "international children" being born (7% of all newborns in Tokyo).
(5) Estimates of mobile phone short messaging service (SMS) use in Japan exceeds even Britain, where over 1 million are sent every hour BBC (2001). The Joy of Text: The Fastest Book Ever Made. London, Transworld Publishers..
(6) MPs in Japan are now banned from using mobile phones to send or receive text messages (SMS) or emails during Parliamentary debates. Younger representatives have protested the ban because it prevents them from "up to the minute" communications, though any eyewitness to these sessions of Parliament would understand the real reason for interest in SMS-tedium.

(7) A "computer classroom" is a computer-equipped and networked room where students meet during class time. A "computer lab" is a room where students go for work that is supplemental to regular classwork. Papert, S. (1994). The Children's Machine : Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf.
(8) Nemawashi means literally "to bind the roots of a tree before its transplantation" and is a term used often in business and institutional situations in Japan to refer to the common practice of explanation and negotiation on an unofficial level beforehand, to smooth the acceptance of an idea among decision makers in an official meeting context.

7. Appendix

Seven hazards in the "humanistic approach" to ELT

1. Expectations may be raised that can not be fulfilled when the teacher announces that the class is going to be "learner-centered"

2. A well-meaning intent to be "nonauthoritarian" may inadvertently abdicate responsibility for content and technique-"doing whatever you want."

3. Simply copying the surface structure and concrete techniques of a "proven" method to ELT can prove too much for the teacher to handle in the classroom when things don't go as expected.

4. There may be a conflict in verbal and nonverbal messages that the teacher is giving to students.

5. Not enough balance between student opportunity to contribute to the course, and opportunities to examine the work that has been contributed.

6. The teacher may be tempted to use the class for their own ends-to show off their techniques and demonstrate amazing results.

7. As much as there needs to be a focus on the students, there must be a focus on the teacher's needs as well-feeling of adequacy is strengthened when her students attend class regularly, behave themselves, learn well, and show personal respect/liking for her.

The first five are hazards that point out how control can be undermined.

The fourth indicates how to erode "initiative."

And the last two relates to issues surrounding a focus on the teacher in addition to the student.
(adapted from Stevick 1980, pp. 31-33)

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Gregory Poole graduated from Brown University with a degree in anthropology and has since received graduate degrees in both linguistics (University of Surrey) and Japanese Studies (University of Sheffield). He first went to Japan in 1986 as part of the Monbusho English Fellow (MEF) Program and has since held numerous positions as instructor, tutor, and lecturer at both Japanese and British universities, as well as various private language schools. Presently he is working on an ethnography of higher education in Japan as well as looking at language learners as ethnographers while pursuing a doctorate in social anthropology. Greg can be contacted at:

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