Is CLT the Right Approach for Japanese High Schools?

Image offerening

In 2013, I observed a sample lesson at a middle-level high school in Japan. The purpose was to demonstrate a style of lesson and convince the attending English teachers to emulate it. One of the targets of emulation was teaching English in English, and the other was teaching English communicatively. Dozens of English teachers from across the prefecture were there, dutifully and cautiously observing the sample lesson, in which a teacher managed to conduct a textbook unit explanation and lead a productive task almost entirely in English.

Few doubts or complaints were aired by the observing teachers. They know which way the wind is blowing. They know that the education board staff running the lesson observation/training have an agenda, and that agenda comes down from the Ministry: teach English in English; do productive tasks; teach communicatively. They understand that  it is something that they should probably be doing, even though they did not experience this type of lesson themselves as students, even though they were never really trained to teach this way in college teacher training courses or on the job, even though they have doubts about their own English competence and are reluctant to put their shortcomings on display too much. So, they nodded politely, and promised to take the ideas back to their schools for further consideration.

Where, of course, it would be back to business as usual.

Nishino (2009) produced a paper that I still have trouble comprehending, but which I believe continues to sum up attitudes to teaching English communicatively in high schools in Japan. She found that Japanese teachers have pretty positive attitudes toward communicative language teaching (CLT), but mostly choose not to engage in it themselves. The reason, I guess, comes back to the lack of experience, training, and language proficiency on the part of teachers. But in my present position, it is my job to promote a greater use of English in the classroom by teachers and students, and that naturally involves more communicative activities.

For most Japanese teachers of English, however, this goes against their strengths, which often include techniques for grammar and vocab explanation, classroom management skills, and a proficiency with tasks that raise awareness of language features and encourage memorization. The CLT techniques my group (and the Ministry, and the BOE) are recommending often seem less than exemplary when observed in real classrooms, despite the authority of SLA research that stands behind the approach. This becomes painfully obvious when it is put on display, as in the class mentioned above, where the teacher had students write a short opinion about the topic and then share it with a partner and then the whole class. Even I couldn’t help thinking that the intellectual level was pretty low, and the pace was very slow. I’m sure many of the teachers observing with me had the following thoughts going through their heads: this is dumb and really inefficient.

And this brings me to the main point of this post. The dabbling with CLT that I have seen in classrooms here makes me wonder if it is worth the effort of teacher awareness raising, of teacher skill training, particularly if we see it as a goal unto itself. It seems that a little more CLT in classrooms is unlikely to make much of a positive difference in language classrooms. Students don’t seem especially more engaged, and the trite bits of incorrect language that often get produced are depressing–and are often incomprehensible to other students without a quick translation from the teacher. I know that  the system is failing pretty much at producing kids who can use the language right now. But I don’t think the fix will come with a few more CLT activities and a strict English-only policy on the part of teachers.

Of course, the answer cannot be business as usual either. Teachers have been yakking at students for years, explaining and translating, and that hasn’t worked out well at all. Van Patten (2014) in Interlanguage Forty Years Later, is particularly blunt in his assessment of the teaching of language by the teaching of rules, the kind most common still in Japan: “competence is not derived from explicit instruction/learning…[and that] holds true for all learners and all stages of development…” (pg. 123). Yes, instruction gets you something, but it is not competence. Form-focused instruction is very limited in what it can do for language learners, that much seems obvious to everyone–well, almost everyone….

So what it is the answer? I’m not sure, but more language, more language use, and more focused teaching seem to be the only way forward. Standing in the way, though, are the lack of proficiency of teachers (along with their lack of training/familiarity with alternative approaches), the culture of expectations that makes change difficult (the parents, the cram schools, the perceptions of entrance exams, the publishers, etc.), the passivity of students and their unfamiliarity with the kind of active use of the language needed to leverage learning, and the well-meaning souls whose hearts warm satisfactorily when students produce any kind of utterance (even when it is intellectually low, and mostly incomprehensible). Framed another way, what we need is more language processing and more responsibility for doing so in a comprehensible and academically appropriate manner.



The image above (from a presentation on vocabulary by Rob Waring) shows a bookshelf with Korean English textbooks on the left and Japanese ones on the right. Notice the size difference? That translates to Korean students being exposed to thousands of words more during their years in mandatory education. The poverty of input argument for Japan is pretty easy to make if we look at just the amount of language students are exposed to, compared to Korea or Mexico (as Mr. Waring did), both of whom now handily beat Japanese scores on high stakes tests (TOEFL iBT, 2013: Japan 70, Korea 85).

There may be other reasons why Korean TOEFL test scores are higher. But certainly language exposure is one of them. Perhaps it is time to admit that in Japan, teachers explain too much in Japanese about too little target language. Adding a little “communicative” jibberish to that is unlikely to make a big difference, and may actually be detrimental in the long run if it lowers expectations further. In my opinion, more language immersion in the form of CLIL-type lessons at the high school level might be an interesting option to explore , since it provides CLT with sufficient input, thinking rigor, and responsibility.




Has EFL Become ESL?


Years ago as a new teacher in Japan I learned very quickly to avoid materials that were not made specifically for Japan, very much a place where English is taught as a foreign language (EFL),  a context very far removed from the English-speaking world.  After a few painful slogs, I realized that, in particular, ESL (English as a Second Language) materials, or materials made to teach immigrants to England or Canada or the US, just wouldn’t fly in  classrooms in Tokyo. They assumed too much background knowledge. They contained too much content. They were long. They assumed that students would be much more active–in learning, in giving opinions, in communicating. What worked instead was easy-to-memorize dialogs, short, focused worksheet exercises, and zippy little info gap speaking activities. In a system with low expectations for communicative success and  limited opportunities for English use outside the classroom I guess we can say that it worked OK. At the time and for the most part, Japanese students  didn’t especially learn English to communicate with people from other countries and cultures; they learned English to pass exams and to appear more international/educated/cultured to other Japanese.

A lot can change, however, when  millions of people begin to travel overseas every year, record numbers of foreigners begin to visit, and just about everyone gets connected to the Internet. Indeed, the whole world changed. It has become, as this Economist article in 2009 suggested, much more difficult to find parts of the world that are not affected by the global movement of people and ideas. Japan included.


So what does this mean for English teaching in Japan? A lot, though you’d be hard-pressed to find changes in most jr. and sr. high school language classrooms in public education. A few teachers are making use of a few online resources, occasionally showing bits of Youtube videos for example, but most are oblivious to the fact that each student has in their pocket all the tools they need to learn English when they want to. The culture of learning is moving glacially, luckily for these teachers. Textbooks are still reassuringly analog, and teachers can still get away with explaining the content like mathematical formulas removed from wider communicative application. English is still being treated as a culturally distant “other,” needed in a certain way (mostly) for entrance exams, and otherwise put off indefinitely. And despite adding a few TOEIC courses, English conversation schools are still somehow managing to continue with a business model that basically sells access to native speakers, the same as they did in 1986.

But things are changing, make no mistake. Businesses are increasingly feeling the need to procure/cajole staff enough to double the number of people who can really function in English (from the 2012 level of 4.3% to 8.7% by 2017, on average) according to Diamond Weekly. And the larger the company, the higher the percentage. Companies with staff numbering over 2000 are generally aiming for having close to 20% of their workforce at a functional level (TOEIC scores over 730 at least). This is blowing back to public education, where there is increasing pressure to start teaching English earlier, and to start aiming kids at big proficiency tests earlier. In a Japan Times piece the other day, Osaka’s English Reformation Project is described. They are planning to put more emphasis on English, and more emphasis on the TOEFL test, believing that there is a global standard that needs to be accepted, and that Japan can no longer be an island that uses English in its own way for its own limited purposes.

Of course,  real change will only come when certain present mindsets change:  English must be learned in a formal institution; it must be learned from native speakers; you need to gain a certain proficiency level before you can begin using it for real communication; you prepare for entrance exams by cramming discrete vocab and grammar points; etc. Already we can see cracks. As the world continues to shrink, these cracks are likely to grow. Right now, if you can Skype and aren’t bothered by the accent of your conversation partner/teacher, you can begin practicing/learning English with a real live person for as little at 125 yen for 25 minutes. Similar services are sprouting up and there are more than a dozen companies ready to help you learn this way (not that you need a company, BTW), mostly making use of the large number of English speakers in the Philippines. The conversation school mentioned above doesn’t even have the Philippines on their map! But this, too, will change. The interactive multimedia do-it-yourself approach (as opposed to the go-to-the-bookstore-and-buy-a-book-written-mostly-in-Japanese approach, or the join-an established-conversation-school approach) has been slow in developing in Japan. But it is growing. It’s too pedagogically effective and cost effective to keep ignoring. Take a look at how some polyglots are making effective use of free web-based resources to learn any language they want. 


So where is this post going? Well, the point I really wanted to make is that the the shrinking world is also driving a new way of conceptualizing  English as a foreign language (EFL). With English on video, English on the radio, English podcasts, English groups and clubs, MOOCs, easy access to English books, and apps or websites available for any  language  learning  detail  you  can  imagine, does it make sense to assume that our students are really far removed from English-speaking opportunities and cultures? It may make sense to talk about English as foreign language as a starting point, but pedagogy should shift to recognize that English is no longer so, well, foreign. I have begun to think that all English teaching can now be thought of more the way that learning English inside English-speaking countries (ESL) has traditionally been defined. That is, what you learn in class, you can usually try out quite easily outside of class, if you have a mind to. Out of class time in EFL contexts can now be equally considered potential language use/exposure time.


I think this is one reason for the recent popularity of content and language integrated learning (CLIL, or content-based learning) in Europe and other places. This approach recognizes that English exists as a system of content and interaction that learners can plug into and work with. The idea is to create an immersive language learning environment in the classroom, wherever that classroom may be. This involves a rethinking of teaching and learning focus and goals, and more training for learning skills (such as discussion skills, presentation skills, and writing skills). If you are interested in further exploring CLIL or how to use rich tasks to facilitate better learning, I have two books to recommend. The first, on CLIL provides a good overview and rationale for this approach, while Pauline Gibbons’ book gets into the details of how to operationalize that in the ESL classroom, but as an EFL teacher, I found most of it attractive and applicable to the context in which I teach, a reaction I would not have had circa 1994. Click on the images for more information. The real question of what skills/language are most appropriate for the Japanese context is still being worked out, though. Test and test-prep schools have become so established that they cannot be ignored in any new approach. Certainly at the moment they are having a negative impact on learning English, at least for the purpose of enjoyment of communication and development of productive skills. A CLIL approach seems a interesting option, but it will require mindset changes, digital learning literacy; and cram schools and many entrance exams will have to redifine themselves.






English May Not Be the Right Choice for Everyone

A column in the Daily Yomiuri challenged me. It was by Mike Guest, who writes the Indirectly Speaking column once a month or so. He can also be found writing regularly at And I am an admirer of his work and regularly nod my head in agreement. But this one hit something of a nerve. You see, I work training high school teachers. But it is not fear for my job that is behind this post. Here’s the crux of what he said:

“So what do I suggest? I suggest a culling, a streamlining of the system. People who want to study English can and should, but it should not be a national mandate. Those entering fields in which English communication will be necessary or advantageous should. This will mean better motivation, more goal-directed teaching and learning, and better teachers–both Japanese and non-Japanese–since the subject will no longer be so monolithic and all-encompassing, but specialized and localized.”

While there are some things I agree with in the article, I think Mr. Guest is wrong–flatout wrong–in the approach he is suggesting for English education. It is a nice idea, to teach English only to the kids who want/need it. But we don’t know who those kids are. And they don’t either. In my many years in Japan, I have taught thousands of students. I am regularly surprised to find out which of my “unmotivated” students are now working abroad, married to non-Japanese, or using English regularly for some purpose I never imagined. It is not a matter of preparing a few students to go abroad to sell Toyotas anymore. That was 1968. It is a matter of being connected in the world so that you can take advantage of opportunities (information, contacts, needs, trends, etc.) as they arise, when/however they arise. That’s true for Toyota and it’s increasingly true for Taro. For example, one of the biggest groups of people in Japan being thrust into foreign contexts recently are young technicians, often graduates of industrial high schools. Their English education simply is not preparing them for that. They (and their teachers) bought into the idea that they would never really need English, and suddenly they have to try to get dinner, get along with co-workers, learn and explain things, avoid getting ripped off, or try to hook up or find a partner, all in English, at least at first. Do you know how many Japanese are going to live abroad in the future? I don’t either, but the average percentage of foreign-born people in advanced countries is 8% (as of 2009) according to this Economist article that might change your mind on “internationalization.” That means a lot of Japanese living abroad, and a lot of non-Japanese coming to Japan. And let’s not forget trips for business or pleasure. Or the Internet, where Japanese, like anyone else, can join communities of like minded individuals to explore the niches and crannies of unique interests.

As an English speaker, I often forget to thank my lucky stars for the enormous advantage I have because of English. Oh, the places I can go! Oh the people I can meet and then actually talk to, instead of just smiling politely. For Japanese native speakers, and I mean no disrespect to the people or the wonderful language, there is simply nothing similar. You may not find every sign, or menu, or whatever written  in two languages around the world, but if you see one, chances are one of the languages is English. That is simply not the case for Japanese. Try, oh go ahead and try, to find a place in the world where not one person speaks any English. It’s actually hard. But for most places outside of Japan, that is normal for Japanese. So, sorry, but for Japanese people, English is an important window to the world, it’s a Star Trek transporter, it’s a Lingua Franca, a common currency, a skill among skills.

And nobody knows which particular individuals are going to need it, more or less. It’s not fair, and technology is making it easier, that’s true, but that’s the way it is. So, sorry, but English has to be a “national mandate.” But it is at present a shameful national mandate, I agree. I have observed dozens of high school lessons. What is happening now is about as far away from language learning as chemistry is from food preparation. And it is often dreadfully boring. We can point to multiple culprits, but the situation is what it is, and the place to improve it is the classroom. Can it be improved? Absolutely! And right now, all across the country, there are dedicated teachers conducting wonderful lessons and bringing about real change. I’ve met a some of them and I can tell you that change is coming. But it will have to come from both the bottom and the top. And it will take time and effort. You don’t change an educational culture quickly. It’ll happen teacher by teacher, class by class, school by school. Try to find an English teacher who can’t speak English. They used to be common. They’re not anymore. In the future we might just as well ask about how hard it is to find a motivating teacher who puts her learners on the path to competency and autonomy.

As for the suggestion of taking English off the Center Exam, I believe there may be a short-term benefit and a long-term problem with this. My own view is we should tread carefully. The culture of education in Japan in 2013 features a huge emphasis on examinations. Some of the backwash from this is negative, to be sure, but some is positive. Implementing policy to get better backwash rather than no backwash may be a better strategy. I don’t know. And it really is a bigger policy issue that needs to be considered like a single chess move, by thinking several moves into the future.


The New Normal


I’ve been thinking a lot recently. And that has been changing me. It’s the same for everyone–an amazing ongoing transformation, an alteration of thought patterns and perceptions as we go about our daily lives and our brains try in their own quirky ways to make sense of things.

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s a wonderful  book that reminds me a little of In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel in that it is written by a giant nearing the end of his career. There is wisdom and balance and a lifetime of knowledge in it. I previously posted on a TED talk he gave about a year before Thinking, Fast and Slow was first published on the experiencing self and the remembering self. But something jumped out at me from the book the other day–the idea of how the brain makes things seem normal, even things that are very unusual. In the book he tells a story that reminded me of one of my own experiences. I was travelling around Europe, a 20-year-old kid on break from uni, with a Let’s Go guide. I moved along a fairly worn path at one point: Venice-Florence-Rome-Naples-Pompei-Corfu-Athens-Istanbul. I met a guy–I don’t remember his name so I’ll call him Guy X–in Rome, at a youth hostel we were staying at. He told me how he kept on meeting the same people as he traveled through Europe. His story sort of freaked me out. It was full of weird coincidences with different people in different parts of his trip. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was to become another paragraph in a story I’m pretty sure he’s been telling ever since. You see,  I later met him again at the youth hostel in Naples. Nothing strange there. The Let’s Go guide only listed 5 or 6 accommodation options for a city. But a few weeks later, I was sitting in a cafe in Athens, and there he was at the next table. And a week or so later, I took a ferry up the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea. And there he was, sitting in the seat beside me as we chugged past the Rumelihisari Castle. Mr. Kahneman, in describing a somewhat similar experience, notes that although it was unusual to meet Guy X a second (then a third, then a fourth time), it is even weirder to think about how normal it became to do so. When I met him on the ferry in Turkey, I was not in the least bit surprised. Guy X had become The Guy I Meet Unexpectedly. Indeed had I met someone else on that ferry that I had previously met once in my travels, it would have felt infinitely more surprising. Because that’s what brains do–they adjust to new events and make them seem normal.

And this got me thinking about culture again. Not culture in some quasi-national sense. And not culture in some don’t-stick-your-chopsticks-in-your-rice kind of nuggets of behavior. But culture in the sense of what we find acceptable; what we choose to include and what we choose to embrace, and what we decide we don’t need. That is to say, what we think is normal at any given time. Culture is the water we fish swim in. We notice changes, pause for a moment to let it register, and then swim on. The changes just become part of the environment if they are not life-threatening or similarly significant. But to go back and see what was normal before can be very shocking. A  kind of a Holy-cow!-Were-we-really-like-that? feeling arises because the new normal has become, well, so very normal. Watching the wonderful  drama series Mad Men makes this clear. In the early episodes, it is shocking to find people smoking in office meetings, or in offices at all for that matter. Men smoke, women smoke (even a pregnant woman!), and men drink in the office (“Should we drink before or after the meeting–or both?” one character asks). It was shocking for me to see this, and yet I when I thought about it, I do remember my father smoking in the car with the four of us kids in the back, unbuckled and inhaling almost as much as my dad. I remember my parents putting out cigarettes at parties the way my wife and I put out plates of olives. I remember smoke rising here and there at cinemas, the light of the projector catching it, or people smoking on airplanes. And I remember people doing almost everything with a cigarette in their hand or lips. You just don’t see that anymore. And we’ve all gotten very used to not seeing it anymore.

At my job, I often think of teaching as a collection of cultural activities. What is normal in the world of teaching is highly relative, but there are general trends and practices that are part of the ebb and flow of English teaching culture. And Japan has a lot of peculiarities when it comes to teaching culture. The widespread acceptance of of communicative language teaching, coupled with an almost equally widespread lack of implementation of its methodology, is one of the most glaringly peculiar, for example. I am always suspicious of teachers who make the claim that what they do in class is the “way Japanese teachers teach.” That’s because I have seen that change, and I know it will change again in the future, even if I am not happy about the speed (or tack) of that change. I once watched a teacher teach two back-to-back English lessons, one an English I lesson and the other an Oral English lesson. For the first, the teacher spoke almost completely in Japanese, and focused on explaining the words and grammar of the text. In the second, the same teacher spoke almost completely in English and led the students through a mostly communicative lesson. This seemed perfectly normal to the teacher in charge; yet it seemed very strange to me. At some point, this teacher will likely gravitate to one type of teaching–a type which is both effective and matches the needs of her learners and her own personality and style–and forget that she ever thought it was necessary to use two completely different approaches in two different classes. It’ll probably be proceeded by a change in the curriculum that acknowledged that a four-skills course like English I and a listening and speaking course like Oral Communication should be such separate critters. And then it will seem as natural and normal as anything ever was.

That’s how the new normal will feel, I’m sure. But getting there is still going to take some time.


Confidence No Confidence

The chart above comes from a recent MEXT report on emotional states of mind of high school students. They asked high school students in four countries about their opinions of themselves regarding their confidence and value as a person. The results are truly scary–if you are Japanese or have an interest in Japan. I earlier wrote about an Adobe survey that showed everyone in the world thought the Japanese were creative, except the Japanese themselves! Well, this survey, which I found out about through a Rocket News blog article that outlines the major findings, is even more dramatic. You really need to read it. Japanese students are well behind the norm for the region. The graph above shows the answers to the question of whether the kids think they have value as a person.  Do you have value as a person? 89.1% of American kids feel they do 57.2% feel strongly that they do. The Chinese kids were not far behind at 87.7%, and 42.2% believing strongly in their value. The Korean kids were more reserved at 75.1% overall but only 20.2% believing strongly in themselves. Only 36.1% of Japanese kids thought they had value, and only a small number (7.5%) thought so strongly. We can also view this from the opposite side: more than 60% of students think they have little or no value as people! That is not a small number. It mind-numbing! It sends shivers up my spine.


The Social State of the Union: David Brooks Recounts the Life Story of The Social Animal

Like  New York Times columnist David Brooks, I have read a lot of books and articles on evolutionary psychology, social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience in the last couple of years. Their influence seems to be everywhere, even if not recognized as such. There is a sense of a paradigm shift, particularly in education, but in other areas as well. People are talking now about learning as a social process influenced by–if not driven by–emotion, for example. So I’ve been listening to podcasts (The Brain Science Podcast, Radiolab, All in the Mind, etc.), following websites (Mind/Shift), following certain people on Twitter (BJ Fogg, for example), and reading books (Brain Rules, The Invisible Gorilla, Incognito, Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, etc.).

But David Brooks has read more.

And in The Social Animal, he attempts to summarize all of what he has read in a narrative following two people of different backgrounds and temperaments–from before birth right up until death. Along the way, he weaves in research findings from quite a dizzying amount of disciplines. The life stages and experiences of the two characters allow him the opportunity to expound the new insights researchers and philosophers (let’s be generous here; though we could call the authors of some of the books he cites armchair social and political critics). He talks about physical attraction, attachment, learning, self-control, culture, intelligence, choice, morality, and more. While he is an excellent writer and insightful critic, some sections are better than others. His passion and expertise just come through better. But along the way, we encounter little nuggets of research wisdom, clever descriptions of characters and character types, and a forceful argument that often challenges conventional wisdom. If you’ve read a lot in the field, you’ll see a lot that is familiar. But Mr Brooks’s historical background will help you situate these concepts in the landscape of ideas. That alone makes the book worth reading.

In the end, the book was for me the equivalent  of  a State of the Union address. It told me where we are, how it is different from what was thought before, and–in a way–how widely these ideas are being accepted. I say “in a way” because the book’s very existence is a kind of testament to the last question. The book is a welcome overview at a time when a lot of new ideas and new perspectives are coming onto peoples’ radar screens.  Its acceptance (bestseller) and the status of its author (TED talk here, for example), make this book a high-profile publication. That in itself says a lot.

I feel like a should warn non-Americans who are considering this book to be aware that this book is firmly rooted in American culture. Immigrants, the American school system, and business, and American politics are all covered in significant detail. People looking for something universal or global, may find that that they get a lot of American culture along with human universals.

I bought this book almost a year ago. I let it sit on my shelf too long before I finally got around to reading it. But once I started I found it pleasant enough to get caught up in. The reviews on Amazon are not all together positive, but I thought this book was well worth reading. It is a comprehensive overview demonstrating the extent to which neuroscience and related disciplines have permeated thought in the last few years. The story structure works, and Mr Brooks is a good enough writer with enough to say as he bounces from topic to topic. Oh, and he also manages to mention the chick sexers again!



The Creativity Gap

Rick Martin, writing in the Tech In Asia blog, recently posted the result of a study done by Adobe about attitudes toward creativity. The results are summarized in the article and in the graphic below.

And the results are eyebrow-raising. Japan is seen by everyone as an incredibly creative place–except by the Japanese themselves! And an astonishingly large number of people in Japan (78%) said creativity is something reserved for people in the arts community. I don’t mean to sound alarmist (OK, actually I do), but this should set off the same  bells and buzzers and active responses that PISA results do. But as Mr Martin and some of the response posters to his blog article state, Japan is a fantastically creative place. In fact, perhaps it may be because Japan has such a high level of creativity in almost everything, that people have a different view of creativity in general. This needs to be considered further…

Two Articles on Innovation: The Blue School and Sony

Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society.

The above quote comes from Wikipedia. It came up as I checked the spelling of “innovation”. What sent me looking for the spelling of innovation was an encounter with two articles from the New York Times, one from April 13 called At the Blue School (from which I also borrowed the image above), and the other from a day later called How the Tech Parade Passed Sony By. Both of these articles are very interesting and worth a few minutes of your time if you are interested in education and Japan. And both are focused on topics getting a lot of coverage recently.

Articles on neuroscience appear almost daily in the news, and several groups/sites/schools/programs have come into existence in the last few years. There’s the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University (mentioned in the article), The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author and Blue School board member David Rock, and also mentioned in the article), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom, to name some that I’ve come across in the last half  year or so.

Sony has also been in the news, partly for the transfer of power to a new CEO (from Howard Stringer to Kazuo Hirai), and partly for making a record loss ($6.4 holy smoke billion!). The Times article focuses on Sony’s problems, the subject of so many books (here and here in Japanese), TV spots, and articles that there are probably families who discuss it at the dinner table regularly. Well, maybe not dinner table, but certainly it is present at the heart of the debate about what is “wrong” with Japan economically and what can/should be done about Japan, Inc., the economic model many people grew up with.

Seeing these two articles on the same day got me thinking, wondering if there is any connection we can make between a school that tries a new initiative, garnering both academic praise (my neuroscience Twitter gallery went quadruple post on that link) and serious parental acceptance (it costs more than $30,000 a year to send your young elementary-age child to the Blue School), and a company that seems to have forgotten how to innovate. It is tempting to make the leap that schools in Japan, like their business compatriots, are resistant to change and are struggling to find their way in the face of a changing global environment (blah they can’t lose money but they can certainly waste it on ineffective English language lessons blah blah). It is tempting, but probably a gross (as in icky) generalization, and mostly incorrect. It is tempting because in my job as a teacher trainer for a local government in Japan, lack of innovation is something I see quite a lot of. It is tempting because the Sony article makes the following claim that seems to hook the two articles together:

Sony’s woes mirror a wider decline in Japanese electronics. Though executives here are quick to blame a strong yen, which hurts exports, a deeper issue is that once-innovative companies seem to have run out of ideas. And when a nation can no longer compete on abundant labor or cheap capital, ideas and innovation are paramount.

It is probably incorrect to make these connections too quickly because a single boutique school does not represent a nation, and while applying neuroscience findings to classroom settings is something I am obsessing about myself recently, I’m not sure a) people have completely figured out how to do so effectively yet, and b) good teachers probably do a lot of what neurofanatics say teachers should be doing anyway. Compare the Blue School classroom depicted in the article with this elementary school classroom in Kanazawa, for example. It may very well be true that the focus on creativity and the process of learning practiced at the Blue School may be exactly what more Japanese need educationally to get out of the past and into the global future. Certainly I would like to see more of that, more application of skills and less rote learning, in language classes in Japan. And I think we can say that adding more fun, personalization, emphasis on affect, and the collaborative, social side of learning, would make lessons more bearable for a lot of learners. But how well these things can be instituted, and how effective they can be when they are instituted, is still not certain.

When I read the definition from Wikipedia, that last part really stood out: “…that are accepted by markets, governments, and society.” I copied it and pasted it here because it raised a few questions, both inward and outward. Like most people (I think anyway…) I had always sort of assumed that innovation was all about creativity and newness. But acceptance is a crucial part of innovation, not necessarily at first, but at some point, or else it is not innovation. Innovation is the process of  social acceptance of creative initiatives. That makes me feel better about my job (where I do face  rejections of my initiatives). Change is a process, not an event (a quote I found attributed to Barbara Johnson, but repeated often). Yup. What the Blue School and Sony have in common is they have to go through the same process. Size, culture, structure, personalities, and the power of the idea behind the initiative all impact on this process.


What is it with Chick Sexing?

Come back with me for a moment to my old high school. It is 1977 and a group of us grade-10 boys is hanging around in the hallways after lunch, looking for something–anything–to take the piss out of. We pass the guidance councilor’s room, a dentist’s waiting room kind of space that mostly goes unused but whose door is always wide open. Some recently installed  new technology–a job search “computer”–pulls us in. Here’s how it works: there is a catalog of job names. You choose the job you would like to know more about and enter it into the machine; and then a few weeks later you return to the office to pick up your *computer printout* of the job info. We recognize it as a gimmick right away.  We patiently listen to the explanation and then flip through the catalog to find silly jobs we can use to try out this computer printout system. And there in the “C” section we find what we are looking for: CHICK SEXER. It’s a giggly treat of an item and with great delight we enter the request into the machine and laugh about it for the rest of the day. Weeks later the folded 2-sheet  ringed printout arrives with only two lines of text on the first page and nothing below the perforation: A chick sexer is someone who determines the sex of baby chicks. This is done by turning the birds over and examining their bottoms to see if they are male of female. And that’s it. No info on how to become one. No info on pay. Nothing on working conditions. Nothing on certification or the difficulty of learning the skill. No mention of the thousand-birds-an-hour speed that master chick sexers attain. And absolutely nothing on the Japanese domination of the profession. The whole incident was then added to the meaningless use of technology box in my long-term memory, in addition to the  juvenile prank box. And the term check sexer floated around as brain junk for the next three decades.

Then last year in the span of only a few months, I came across chick sexer again in print,  in not one, but two books: Moonwalking with Einstein and Incognito. Both books use it to illustrate the effects of intense, focused practice. OK, sure, but why not unicyclists, jugglers, violinists, or short order cooks? What is it with chick sexing, I wondered?  Why all the interest in this obscure profession?

As best as I can figure out, it seems that most academic interest goes back to Biederman & Shiffrar’s (1987) article on chick sexing, subtitled, A Case Study and Expert Systems Analysis of a Difficult Perceptual-Learning Task. They took two groups of subjects and gave one instruction and some training with images in determining from among the vast array of possible chick bottoms, which are male and which are female. There is apparently, outside of a few standard configurations, quite a bit of variation. A control group got no instruction or training. Both groups were then asked to sex a pile of chicks, and their performance was compared to experts. Well, the trained group got  a 72% accuracy rate, not bad but pretty far short of the 95% accuracy rate of professionals. The control group, however, was also surprising. They got a 62% accuracy rate–just by using intuition. The presence of a  “prominent bead” probably means a male, they reported.

After the Biederman and Schiffrar article appeared, academic interest seems to have veered in the direction of the difference between the trained and professional group and how pros are able–without always being able to articulate–how they can categorize the rarer types of chick bottoms. Cognitive researchers like Harnad (1996) and philosophers like Brandom (1998) seem to have taken taken interest in the phenomenon and chick sexers became standard go-to guys for cognitive psychologists interested in how people learn complex tasks. In 2002, Horsey published an article, The Art of Chick Sexing (linked to the Wikipedia page on chick sexing),with a clear emphasis on skills that “are hard-earned and not accessible to introspection” (pg. 107). In the case of both Mr. Eagleman in Incognito and Mr. Foer inMoonwalking, it seems to be Horsey’s article and  this “unconscious” acquisition, picked up through copious amounts of intense focused practice that is of greatest interest. Horsey says that we shouldn’t necessarily be so impressed by chick sexers and expert wine tasters, etc. Every one of us is constantly making categorizations like these in our daily lives. We do it so well we aren’t even aware of the complexity of our feats. An example of one such skill is reading. Like any skill, it started with instruction and selective attention to cues. Then came practice and lots of it, until we reached the point where it became an automatic process. Reading  is “not based on gestalt properties [but] on discrete cues” (pg. 114). In the case of chicken sexers, their remarkable ability can be explained through the same process, with the addition of time performance pressure, regular immediate feedback, the social pressure the instructional environment, and the rewards (financial and otherwise) of a very marketable skill in the future.

The Horsey article is short and makes for interesting reading. It suggests suggests that just about any advanced level skill is possible, given the right conditions and effort and time. For me, the  Biederman and Shiffrar article also was very encouraging in the way that it showed how learning can be seen in stages. Even total amateurs were not total beginners. And with  focused attention to cues and practice, anyone is capable of better performance. Expert level performance is not so easy to attain, but it is more a matter of hard work than talent or magic. That’s a message I want my learners to embrace. Julie Dirksen in her fantastic book Design for How People Learn, ends with a quotation by Kathy Sierra: “Kicking ass is more fun regardless of the task. It’s more fun to know more. It’s more fun to be able to do more. It’s more fun to be able to help others do more.” I think that if we approach learning as a continuum of increasing power and fun, all the hard work involved becomes more palatable, even if that involves looking at 1000 chicken butts an hour.

One detail that made the story of the chick sexers interesting to me was the fact that the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School  in Nagoya, Japan produced and still produces a ridiculous number of the world’s best chick sexers. Indeed the vent method of chick sexing was invented by two researchers in Nagoya. The pictures above show the original school and one of those researchers, Professor Masui. Here are some more pictures, all of which come from a film produced by the school in the 1930s and recently re-discovered by HIRUNAGI Kanjun of the Nagoya University Museum.

The school is still in operation and you can read a fairly recent piece done on it here. Aside from being interesting for cognitive scientists, chick sexers lived lives that allowed them to cross cultures at a time when it was not easy to do so. Many Japanese chick sexers, both men and women, went to the US, Canada, and Europe to work and live in the pre-WWII era. The stories of their lives make for fascinating reading. As chick sexers, they were a type of freelance worker and they traveled widely, taking their skills from farm to farm. A great collection of first person history can be found at this site. There are some remarkable stories here of some very remarkable people. I highly recommend a visit.


Biederman, I. & M. M. Shiffrar (1987) Sexing day-old chicks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13: 640–645.

Brandom, , R.B. (1998). Insights and blindspots of reliabilism. Monist 81: 371-392.

Harnad, S. (1996).  Experimental analysis of naming behavior cannot explain naming capacity. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 65: 262-64.

Horsey, R. (2002). The art of chicken sexing. London:  University College London Working Papers in Linguistics.

Hirunagi, K (2006). Original film of “Chick Sexing”: On the development and practice of baby chick sexing method was found. Bullitin of the Nagoya University Museum No. 22, 65-72.








Labs for Learning

One of the great things about the convergence of higher education and the Internet is the existence of websites for labs. Below are some that are great for teachers trying to stay up to date with recent research. Many thanks to the generous people who make their research available this way.

The Mindalab at the University of Western Ontario does research on categorization, learning, and affect that I have found both fascinating and useful.

The Brain and Creativity Institute as USC is where you can find work by Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and other very bright and readable researchers.

The Approach-Avoidance Motivation Research Group at the University of Rochester has some interesting research on motivation and cultural differences.

The Dynamic Development Lab at Harvard headed by Kurt Fischer has lots of great content that can impact teaching practices.