Computer-Enhanced Syllabus for
Japanese University ELT Classes
The author thanks Takachiho University for a generous overseas research
grant that supported this and other projects during the 2001/2002 academic
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
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
1. EFL as a part of a wider curriculum and influenced by institutional
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).
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.
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).
KEY ISSUES IN NEED OF ADDRESS
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.
and Collaborative Language Learning as Tools for Learner Involvement
and Independence in the Japanese University EFL Writing Classroom"
general statement of what the learner might learn (cf. Laurillard 1993,
Students will learn to work collaboratively on EFL writing projects
in a technologically-enhanced classroom
more specific statement about what the learner will be able to do better
as a result, cf. Rowntree 1994, p. 50)
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
Be able to distinguish between and feel comfortable working in an achievement-oriented
atmosphere (intrinsically motivated) rather than a test-driven programme
Be familiar with computer-mediated communication and conferencing technologies.
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
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
Encourage students to write more.
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.
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
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).
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,
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.
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)
other concerns, including political issues such as loss of peer respect,
these fears are related to notions of teaching.
NOTIONS OF TEACHING
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).
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.
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).
NOTIONS OF LEARNING
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.
TECHNOLOGICAL COMPETENCE AND MOTIVATION
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).
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).
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 "
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
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
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.
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
faculty meeting held last year at the institution where this author works
lasted seven hours, with still no consensus reached.
feel guilty to stand up in front of the class." In Holliday, A. (1994).
Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge, Cambridge University
(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.
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
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."
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.
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.
five are hazards that point out how control can be undermined.
indicates how to erode "initiative."
last two relates to issues surrounding a focus on the teacher in addition
to the student.
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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: email@example.com
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