Making EFL Matter Pt 1: Goals

As I write this, high school teachers across Japan are busy writing or polishing up  “Can do” targets for the students at their school, in compliance with MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Science & Technology) requests. The purpose is to get schools and teachers to set language performance goals for the four skills, goals they can use in creating curriculum and in evaluating progress. It is, from what I have hear, not going smoothly. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the novelty of the task. The challenge is to take the current practice of basically teaching and explaining textbook content and expand on that by setting more specific targets for reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Most schools did not have, nor attempt to teach, specific writing, listening, and speaking skills. In fact, I think it is fair to say that most schools and teachers viewed English more as a body of knowledge to be memorized than as sets of sub-skills or competencies that can be taught and tested. Even reading, by far the skill area that receives the most attention in senior high, is rarely broken into sub-skills or strategies that are taught/developed and tested.  So I see MEXT’s request as an attempt to break schools and teachers out of their present mindset; to get them to approach language teaching as a skill-developing undertaking, and to get them to focus on all four skills in a more balanced manner.

illustration of an opinion wheel featuring sections from agree strongly to strongly disagree

  As you can imagine, responses to the Can do list requirement have been varied. Of course schools are complying, but the interpretations of the concept of a 4-skill rubric for three years with can-do statements for each skill in each year don’t seem to be uniform. Some see the can-do statements as goals–impossible goals for at least some of the boxes of the rubric. So one problem is that many of the boxes in the rubric (especially for listening, speaking, and writing) will be filled ad hoc, never to be really dealt with by the program. Another  problem is that can-do statements as they are used in CEFR are not goals or targets, but merely descriptors. That is, they are meant to make general statements about proficiency. That is, even when schools do decide their can-do statements for the various boxes of the rubric, that will not be enough to make a difference. That’s because can-do statement can help inform in the setting of more specific targets at an institution, but they should not function as goals/targets themselves. A lot of people don’t get that, apparently.

That is to say, an important  step is missing. In order to design curricula, very specific sets of sub-skills or competencies must be explicitly drawn up. These are informed by the guiding goals (can-do statements), but are detailed and linked to classroom activities that can develop them. Let’s say we are dealing with listening. Can-do statements for a second year group might include something like this: Can understand short utterances by proficient speakers on familiar topics. This statement then needs to be broken into more detailed competencies–linked speech, ellipsis, common formulaic expressions, different accents, top-down strategies, etc., for example–that then need to be taught and tested regularly in classes. This is something that is not happening now in most public schools.

At the crux of the problem is the fact that many (actually I think we can safely say most here) teachers do not have a clear idea of the exact competencies they are aiming for in each skill area. Instead, most teachers tend to think of a few key skills that they develop with certain textbooks or activities. The MEXT assignment to write a can-do rubric could nudge schools and teachers in a certain direction, but it is a rather hopeful nudge for a rather complex problem. It could potentially be a game changer. If every teacher had to sit together and come up with can-do statements and specific competencies that they would develop in each skill area, the impact on English education could be huge. But that is unlikely to happen. The process of going from here to there is rather complicated and long hours of collaboration and re-conceptualizing are necessary. Instead,  schools are mostly assigning one unfortunate soul from the English department to do the whole thing him/herself. It is probably unrealistic to expect much change.

Actually, even if schools were to make good can-do rubrics and set specific target competencies, the real battle is only beginning. Making those targets clear to students and creating a system where learners are moving toward mastery is a tremendous challenge. According to Leaders of Their Own Learning, programs need to set knowledge, skills, and reasoning targets for students. These targets will necessarily come in clusters of micro-skills or micro-competencies. These are then reworded into can-do statements given to students at the beginning of each lesson, so students can know what they will be learning and how they are expected to perform. That’s a lot of writing, and it will require a lot of agreement to produce. And that can only come about after much discussion and conceptualization shifting and decision-making on the part of the teachers. But that’s not all. For these targets to work, everyone–teachers, students, parents, and administrators–must be on board. It is hard to imagine such vision and collegiality at public high schools in Japan.

Student-engaged assessment process diagram

From Leaders of Their Own Learning

The diagram above shows the process that Ron Berger and the other authors of Leaders of Their Own Learning recommend to improve student performance. Goal-setting is only one part of this, but it is an essential part. Without goals, none of the other activities are possible. In subsequent posts, I’ll be looking at some of the other parts, and some of the other ways that teachers and administrators can improve education.

This post is part of a series considering ways to add more focus and learning to EFL classrooms by drawing on ideas and best practices from L1 classrooms.

Part 2 looks at the use of data and feedback.

Part 3 looks at the challenges and benefits of academic discussions

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