What Works

The holy grail of English language teaching in Japan, the thing every educator wants to know, is what is the most effective and most efficient way to successfully teach English. It’s an impossible question, however, since there are many learners at different levels studying for different purposes. Success is rarely defined clearly: it might mean getting through a textbook, or reaching March without losing too much sleep or hair. For higher level schools, it usually means being able to obtain ‘certification’ by passing one of the many proficiency tests offered, or for seniors, doing well on the Center Exam or other university entrance exams.

But tests are only one measure of success, and not always the best one. Japanese students are pretty good at taking tests. As I’ve said before, “you learn what you learn in the way that you learn it.” And if you spend a lot of time focusing on tests, well, then you become familiar with test formats and develop strategies for attacking questions. But you don’t get good at English–that is, practical English for use between humans like the kind used in international  business,  academics, or government–without learning to use it and then actually using it. Companies are frustrated by the large numbers of people with certification but no practical skills. This has led a number of companies, especially ones hoping to expand beyond Japan, to enact pretty strong policies.

Often, the biggest lost opportunities involve the more capable students. It is nothing short of a national tragedy that the most capable learners often spend their high school English hours listening to droning explanations of grammar and vocabulary mechanics, line after line, paragraph after paragraph, all in the name of entrance exam preparation. And when they finish at school, they head off to cram school for more of the same. This system may help kids get into university, but it does them no other favors. It is not good for the learners, it is not good for the teachers, and it is not good for businesses that need a workforce with better English (and other) language skills.

But there is hope for these higher level schools. On the weekend I observed the early rounds of the All Japan High School English Debate Tournament held this year in Chiba. Visit the website for more info, but you can’t really get a sense of the amazing things these kids can do without seeing them debate. I mean, wow! Granted, these are kids from the best schools in the country, but still, it was very impressive to see them perform. I was expecting the prepared speeches that opened the debates to be very good and then everything else to be a series of pauses, mumbles, and jumbled utterances. But I was so completely and pleasantly surprised. They presented arguments, they listened, they analyzed, they asked questions, dissected arguments, and summed up. It was all in English, sometimes choppy, sometimes with phonological problems, but always understandable and often stunningly good. What I saw was the best of the best, but I became convinced that debate is a valuable activity for students at higher level high schools. I think it is a good alternative  to the English for Exam Purposes that passes as the be-all and end-all at most higher level schools now. It allows the students to practice all fours skills, develop critical thinking and higher level thinking skills, and develop research and presentation skills. In many ways, I think that debate may be just what shingakkou need.