Any English teacher in Japan can read the following quotations and identify with the ideas:

…during the years between elementary school and high school, many students disengage from English and don’t regain their interest—to the detriment of their later schooling, and even their adult careers…

…by [the end of the first year of middle school], the pupils described English as less valuable than they had [at the beginning of the year], and reported that they were investing less effort and persistence in the subject than they had before…

Except that these quotations were not taken from a study on student attitudes and motivations toward English in Japan, but rather math in Australia. I just lifted and altered the quotations from a recent Mind/Shift blog posting that introduced a large study done in Australia by a University of Sydney professor named Andrew Martin. He and his colleagues looked at 1601 learners in 200 math classrooms in 33 schools. The similarities to English in Japan are powerful, however.

The two graphs above are from a 2009 study done by Benesse in Japan. The top one shows the results of a question that asked when learners in jr high felt most positive/motivated to learn English. Look at the two first numbers, the second highest and the highest on the graph. The first one is “just before classes started in jr high 1st grade” and the second one is “right when classes started in jr high 1st grade”. By summer of first year, only three months after beginning formal English education (these learners did not have regular/formal English classes in elementary school), the course/curriculum/teachers/textbook had managed to obliterate more than 90% of the delicate innate motivation these learners were feeling. And they never got it back. Not even close.

The second graph may help to explain the first one a little. It shows the responses to the question, “Are you good or bad at English?” Only 8 % say they are really good  at English. 29.5% say they are sort of good at it. 32.5% say they are sort of bad at it. And a larger-than-should-be 29.3 % state theyare really bad at it. We should be getting something more bell-curvsey here, I think; instead we get a pile of academic corpses in our lower regions. Somebody is doing something wrong almost everyone agrees.

Perhaps Mr Martin et al can help. The number one factor they determined in getting kids interested in maths was facilitating self-efficacy, that magical, elusive feeling that one is competent and able to solve problems. They suggest fostering this by restructuring learning to offer opportunities for success. Success is motivating. I couldn’t agree more, but jr high schools in Japan are so much in the business of separating learners out along the continuum that they don’t offer enough of these opportunities. It seems rather that schools give large numbers of low scores deliberately, like  switches to the backs of  heads of meditating monks  losing concentration. It works sometimes, but with many learners it does not. Many learners can only take getting hit with low scores so often before they give up. It doesn’t have to be this way.  Language, unlike math, can be successful without being completely correct. But in most jr high schools, communicative success is not rewarded. Close on English test question answers,  unlike hand grenades and horseshoes, does not count. When the spelling is wrong, the answer is wrong. Wrong, period. No points. And when the answer is different from the one in the text book (Wrong: this is the train to Machida; Correct: this is the  train for Machida, for example) it’s WRONG. NO POINTS.

The Australian math motivation researchers also found positive effects for family and school cultures that intrinsically valued math. That is, the learners got a clear message that math was important and math learning was important. When we try to apply this finding to English in Japan, we find some differences. Kids and (probably especially) their parents are embedded in a culture where doing well at English (not necessarily learning English as a language) is seen as a way to get into a better high school. Doing well at school has become the rationale for learning the language. They (the parents) expect their kids to actually pick up English later in their academic careers, but in jr high, they want them to learn vocabulary, reading, and test-taking skills. I can understand this up to a point–getting into a high school is a super important event in someone’s life and academic career. But wouldn’t you want your kid to learn to swim if they took swimming lessons, instead of memorizing the size of the pool and the names of the muscles involved in the activity? Wouldn’t you want your kid to get in the water sometimes? As the parent of a recent jr high graduate in Japan, I have been witness to this sorry condition, though I am sort of lucky in that I never expected the school to teach my daughter English; she’s mostly bilingual, and as a native English speaker and an EFL teacher, I have resources. But I feel sorry for the other students in her classes. They get an endless stream of seemingly discreet particles of the language that they just have to process and remember accurately. They never make meaning. Mistakes are never forgiven. They never feel progress, except when they do well on that high school entrance exam. And then it’s on to the next level. They never get the chance to realize that learning a language offers opportunities for expanding your world, meeting people, and exploring yourself. They just come away with the message that English is hard and they are not good at it–though all that has really been proven at that point is that they are not good at memorizing which letters go in which order and which words go in which order in short meaningless sentences. Oh, and they learn what a painful and pedestrian slog workbooks and classes are, and how juku (cram school) can drill that crap into you if you give up your free time and your parents can part with a lot of cash.

In many ways, Mr Martin’s finding could be more easily put to work with English than with math. Letting learners experience success is much easier. It is easier for partial, or flawed, or broken communication to still be successful communication. But it will take a mindset shift, definitely. In Julie Dirksen’s book on instructional design called Design for How People Learn (click here for my review) she has one chapter on designing for knowledge and one on designing for skills. The approach to each is fundamentally different. Designing for skills acknowledges that it is much more of a process, and it requires more practice and more formative feedback. Jr high school teachers do not seem to be approaching English as a skill, but rather as knowledge. That is both the crux of the problem and the opportunity for change.



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