The Slow Drive to Data in Japanese EFL

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Japanese public school education, as a whole, is remarkably cost efficient, or so it seems at first glance on paper. Japan spends right around the OECD average per child for both primary and secondary education, and much less than the U.S., the U.K., or the Scandinavian countries, or indeed most European countries. Yet, Japan continually scores high on international tests of achievement in reading, math, and science. On the most recent PISA test (2012), for example, Japan was 4th in reading and science, and 7th in math. This is a stunning achievement, one that most countries in the world would love to emulate.

No doubt some of these impressive results are at least partially due to factors outside the school and classrooms of public or government-mandated schools, however. We really can’t underestimate the effects of high expenditures by parents on supplementary education, expensive cram schools, or juku  in particular. There is an industry built up around these school-companies that boggles the minds of the uninitiated . They come in many flavors, but generally speaking do only one thing—prepare kids to take tests, especially entrance exams. They do this through a combination of tracking entrance exams and demographics, and providing intensive preparation for taking those tests. They are data collecting and processing machines, making extensive use of data for all parts of their operations–from advertising, to information gathering, to student performance tracking. They do this all in a way that is extremely impressive.  There is in Japan both a strong cultural emphasis on the importance of education, and a climate where frequent test taking is considered both normal and important. The jukus have leveraged that to create an industry that is huge, ubiquitous, and because parents are paying 35,000 yen-50,000 yen  per month per child to these businesses, economically very significant. Combined with the general education, this is  an education system that, although expensive and requiring serious commitments in time (evenings, holidays), is effective for the education of reading, math, and science.

But somehow not for English. PISA does not test English, but comparisons on norm-referenced proficiency scores across countries reveal Japan to be a poor performer. TOEFL iBT scores from 2013 show that Japan is not punching at its weight. If we look only at overall scores, Japan (70) is woefully behind China (77), South Korea (85), and Taiwan (79), but remarkably similar to Mongolia, Cambodia, and Laos. And if we look only at the scores for reading, the skill that receives by far the greatest amount of attention in the school system, the results are not really any better: Japan (18), China (20), South Korea (22), and Taiwan (20). The scores on the IELTS tests a show similar, though less pronounced pattern. On the Academic version, Japan again scores lower than its Asian neighbors: Japan (5.7). South Korea (5.9), and Taiwan (6.0). Now I know some people have validity issues when comparing countries using test data, and certainly that is true for TOEIC scores by country, because that test is so widely applied and misused. But the TOEFL iBT and the IELTS are high-stakes tests that are taken by a fairly specific, highly-motivated, and well-heeled demographic. The scores say nothing about average students in those countries, not to mention the less proficient students, to be sure, but I do think they are fair to compare. And I know that students and programs are much more than the sum of the ability of students to take tests, but come on. It is not totally wrong to say that almost the entire purpose of English education in junior and senior high school, and the accompanying jukus, is to get students ready for tests, and yet the results are still pretty poor.

graph showing percentages of jr and sr high kids who go to juku

Percentages of students who go to juku (and how often per week) from elementary school to high school

So what explains the problem? Well, this has been the subject of endless debates, from what should be taught to how it should be taught. Lots of people blame the entrance exams, but let’s be careful with that. It is probably more accurate to say that the type and quality of the entrance exams is certainly preventing the power of the juku machine to help improve the situation. What I mean is that the types of tests jukus and most schools focus on are different from tests like the TOEFL iBT or IELTS. The TOEFL iBT and IELTS assess all four skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking), and they do so in a way that judges whether the test taker can use the skills communicatively to understand and express ideas and information. Entrance exams in Japan, however, very often have an abundance of contextless sentences and a abnormally large number of grammar-focused questions. Simply put: the preparation students engage in to pass high school or college entrance exams will not help all that much when students sit down to take the TOEFL iBT or the IELTS tests.

If entrance exams tested four skills and the quality of written and spoken expression, you can bet that the jukus would find a way to prepare students for that (and a very large number of parents would be really willing to pay them handsomely to do so), instead of the (mostly) discrete vocabulary and grammar items they can get away with focusing on now. You can be sure that they would find ways to bring data collection and analysis to bear, if they had to deal with this new reality. The fact that their system works so well for multiple choice items  and the fact that productive skills of English are not well-suited for multiple choice assessment is probably one of the biggest problems for Japanese English education.

But it’s not only the tests that are a problem. The current official policy for public school classrooms favors a better balance of the four skills, using the L2 more predominantly in the classroom for procedural and communicative interaction between the teacher and the students and between the students themselves (communicative language teaching, or CLT). However, what the Course of Study pushes for and what the teachers in classrooms are able to manage is not always the same. Of the recent policy mandates, it is the Teach-English-(mostly)-in-English directive that is causing the most consternation among teachers, probably because it is so obvious and measurable. Teachers are mostly, if often tepidly, complying with this policy, and in many cases are trying hard to make it happen, according to statistics I’ve seen. These statistics on use of English are tracked regularly using questionnaires and self-reporting by teachers. And the numbers show that about 50% of teachers are now using English at least 50% of the time they are in classrooms—although there is great variation between teachers at the school level, district level, and prefectural level. Almost no one is recording classes regularly and counting the minutes, however, with this group the only exception I know. The case of CLT use is fuzzier and less reliable still, partly because interpretations of what are and are not CLT activities vary. Compliance with CLT directives is happening, but its deployment is certainly not systematic, and it is not widespread, and it is not receiving a lot of classroom time. Even these modest changes (inroads?), however, have taken tremendous effort to achieve, both in terms of government resources and effort on the part of individual English teachers who, in most cases, never experienced lessons taught in English (or using a CLT approach) themselves as students, were not trained to conduct lessons that way in pre-service education courses or training, and received very little in-service guidance or training as they attempted to comply with government directives. It’s a lot of effort and resources going toward something that might not work, something that is debatable; because not enough clear evidence exists to prove it works. Not yet, at least. Neither the public school system, nor the Education Ministry have the resources, expertise, or system for gathering English subject performance data effectively and efficiently. In classrooms, teachers rarely track performance. At the school or program level, there is no concept of tracking micro-skill development over months or years, at least none that I’ve seen. Maybe it’s happening at some private schools, but my guess is that all anyone is tracking is multiple choice test-taking performance, with maybe some vocabulary size and reading speed in programs that have their act together a little.

The reason I bring this up, however, is to make you think about what is driving this policy, why people have the faith they have in approaches, methods, or materials, without really knowing if or to what degree they work. In the world of EFL in Japan, a lot of faith drives a lot of programs—more specifically, a lot of faith and a lot of tradition. Walk into any mid-level high school and you can find students in English classes being prepared for multiple choice tests they will never take, for example. Within existing lessons, there is a lot of tweaking to make interventions “work” better, no doubt. And while sometimes that means more effective, it could also mean more time-efficient, or easier for students to do. The honest truth is that “effective” is often hard to determine. By definition, effective interventions (even those that have been carefully researched) must be sustained for rather long periods of time—months at least. Micro-skills are hard to decide, hard to set goals for, and hard to track. But the potential effect is great.

Adding more English to classrooms might make students a little better at listening (though Eiken scores comparing prefectures that differ greatly in the amount of classroom English used seem to show no correlation). And I haven’t seen any data that suggests that students in Japan are doing better at anything English-wise because their teachers have tagged a little bit of “communicative” writing or speaking to the end of regular explanation-heavy lessons. I’ve made this point before: a little bit of CLT dabbling is unlikely to have much effect (though this should not be interpreted as criticism of introducing more CLT or any CLT activities into a classroom—you gotta start somewhere, you know). I have spoken to more than a few high school and university teachers who express great alarm at the state of grammar knowledge of the students they see regularly. The suggestion I hear is that all of this CLT stuff is coming at the expense of good old grammar teaching. While I am sure that this may be impacting the ability of students to tackle entrance exam questions, my own experience and my own opinion is that students these days are indeed more able to use at least a little of the knowledge of English they build up over the years in schools, something that was really not the case years ago. And, by the way, if you have ever sat through grammar lessons in high schools in Japan, you probably won’t think that more of that could be better for anything.

But that brings me to my point. We are all slaves to our own experience and our own perspective; as Daniel Kahneman  calls it, what you see is all there is.  All we seem to have is anecdotal evidence when it comes to program-level decisions. If only there were a way to take all that data generated by all that testing in Japan and make it work better for us. In closing, I’d like to leave you with a quote for John Hattie’s wonderful book Visible Learning for Teachers:

“The major message, however, is that rather than recommending a particular teaching method, teachers need to be evaluators of the effect of the methods that they choose” (pg. 84)

Is CLT the Right Approach for Japanese High Schools?

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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.




Fine-tuning Your Classroom Skills: Doug Lemov Catalogs How to Teach Like a Champion

Teach Like a Champion Book Cover

Hey! EFL teachers in Japan! No disrespect, but you probably need this book.  If you  are a native speaker EFL teacher in a country where there is more interest  than accomplishment in learning English, you probably need this book. You might be one of the few educated, trained, and disciplined among us, but chances are, you are not. More likely, you belong to the majority– by and large and by most accounts, a ragtag bunch of misfitsMost of us fell into this profession and were not trained as teachers exactly; I mean, not in the sense of teachers who went to teachers college, studied theory and techniques, did practicums, and got jobs in school systems run by school boards, with standards, supervisors, paperwork, and training. Many of us were waiters, travelers, English majors, or other such mostly unemployables who began teaching EFL and then learned how to do it in a combination of certificate courses, graduate courses, conferences, and keeping our eyes open on the job. Or you may be a Japanese teacher of English as a foreign language, teaching in senior or junior high school after gaining a license that required only a few extra undergraduate courses, completion of a two or three-week placement at your old school, and passing the tests for the prefecture you are now employed by. You know your basic grammar, have a fairly good vocabulary, and are pretty confident that with a little prep time can explain anything between the covers of a textbook. But you have gaps in your knowledge of English usage and classroom management almost as impressive as the unwarranted overconfidence your native English-speaking colleagues bring with them into your school, so full or self-righteousness and irresponsibility. Both you groups of teachers would benefit from this book because not only were you never trained specifically for classroom and learning management, a lot has been learned about teaching and managing classes since you were at school. There is now a good mass of knowledge and techniques that I bet you never took a course in and most likely are unaware of. 

This book is not aimed at EFL teachers, not even a little. But it will tell you, and show you, how to do things with your students that will get them to pay more attention, learn more deeply, and make the most of the time you are now probably doing a good job of frittering largely away. This book by itself will not solve your problems, and you’ll likely find it pushes more regimentation and rigor than either  you or your students need, but man ‘o man there is a lot to be learned here. 49 techniques, roughly half of which you can adapt very nicely for an EFL classroom, are presented by Mr. Lemov. He gleaned them from observing teachers who were getting better-than-expected results in schools whose demographics made those results look almost miraculous. These are techniques that took chunks of a doomed demographic and put them on the Path to College. Some of them are techniques you might indeed be using. But I have managed enough native-English speaking teachers and observed enough Japanese teachers of English in high schools that I can say with quite a bit of certainty, you (and your students!) will benefit from this book. Mr. Lemov provides us with clear explanations, warnings against pitfalls, and short illustrative video clips to make the points easy to understand. Putting them to use will be more difficult, but not impossible, as most of the techniques require only slight adjustments in timing or language. But it is those small changes that can make a huge difference. Techniques such as Cold Calling (picking the student after you have asked the question), Pepper (asking a rapid sequence of questions as review), and concepts such as Ratio (getting students to do more of the thinking) and At Bats (maximizing practice opportunities) can transform the one-way slog of some English classes or the whimsical frivolity of others into real learning environments.

The book has a website. Go there first and look around. Learn a little about Uncommon Schools or Mr. Lemov himself and what he does. Watch some of the videos and see the control and confidence and learning on display. I am quite certain you will begin to see where you may be falling short now. These are schools and teachers who refused to let demographics get in the way of success, who challenge their learners to perform at a higher level, and demand their attention and effort. If you don’t know how to get to that point with your learners, then you probably need this book. It is not a panacea, however, and you will still need to adapt the ideas to fit your subject and classes. In general, the techniques are very cognitive and very behaviorist and so Japanese teachers of English will likely find them more immediately appealing as they will mesh more nicely with current practices. Teachers would do well to not forget the affective and emotional when planning lessons, something Mr. Lemov spends too little time on (from a language teacher’s perspective). But this book can give you a lot of help learning and improving techniques you probably were never exposed to in your education and your own training. It can help you make whatever you are doing more efficient and more effective.


Ratios for English and Thinking

I’ve been reading Doug Lemov’s wonderful Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. It’s not because I want to put more of my students on the path to college necessarily–actually the only students I teach these days are college students. No, I got interested in this book because Mr. Lemov did (and still does) something really interesting. He looked at schools that demographically-speaking should have been doing poorly but were actually excelling and he looked into the classrooms for reasons why. His studies of these outlier teachers (videoing and cataloging their techniques) led to this book.  (I find that much of what he says lines up nicely with what Dylan Wiliam recommends as well –see my posts about his Embedded Formative Assessment). I think he is onto something important for learning and teaching–promoting more thinking and more thinking about thinking. Some might argue that that this is an L1 issue, but I don’t think so. And some might argue that it is a little regimental, but again, I don’t think that is the case with most of the techniques. Instead, I find the bulk of techniques are academically healthy and do not preclude more interactive, humanistic approaches. I also find that many–very many actually–of the techniques can be adaptable for EFL and some can be used just as is. This post is about Ratios, an idea–a lens really–that Mr. Lebov uses to talk about cognitive work, but I think can be useful  to consider in EFL teaching.



The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (MEXT) has been pushing for greater use of English in the classroom these last few years but especially starting this year in high school. Many teachers accept this and are trying to follow this directive to some degree; but many teachers have already decided they’ll be using much less English than MEXT wants. At my institute, we’ll be observing classes and measuring the percentage of English teachers use with students to produce a ratio. Some teachers will try to up the percentage of English they use in the classroom while we are there, no doubt. Some will just go ahead and teach the way they’ve always been teaching, explaining things in Japanese mostly. The simple ratio of English to Japanese used in the classroom is too simplistic, some teachers argue. Some things are more efficiently taught in Japanese, some say. Students won’t understand if English is used, some say. They’ll complain and shut down, some complain. But the official MEXT line is for teachers to just do it and let the pieces fall where they may. And it was with this English-in-English issue on a back burner in my mind that I came across the technique labelled Ratio in the Structuring and Delivering Your Lessons section of Mr. Lemov’s book.  Mr. Lemov has a lot to say about ratios, not in language teaching, but in thinking teaching.

One of the most important goals as teachers is to cause students to do as much of the cognitive work–the writing, the thinking, the analyzing, the talking–as possible. The proportion of the cognitive work students do in your classroom is known as your Ratio  (pg. 92).

I really like this idea because it addresses something I see happening all the time in classrooms: the teacher is at the front working really hard; yet many, if not most, of the learners are not engaged and not thinking. A failure to keep learners engaged  at all  is one of the shortcomings I regularly observe, and when we talk about it, some teachers come back that it is not their job to “entertain” students. This misses the point in two ways. First, engagement and entertainment are  different things (though there is overlap). Without the attention of learners nothing can happen. You can “hook” them in many ways. You can bring in a little multimedia, do something unexpected, react to the content of the text,etc. But that is not the only thing missing from many lessons. There is also a definite lack of cognitive engagement in most classes, a point that many teachers seem to miss as well. Learners sit, minds passively waiting for the answer, for the chance to enter info into notebooks, with as little cognitive effort possible. “Thinking is hard,”Daniel Willingham says in Why Don’t Students Like School? “Unless the cognitive conditions are right, [people] will avoid thinking” (pg. 3). Mr. Lemov acknowledges that students need to be trained to think more actively. They need to be engaged in that thinking process as the teaching happens, as the lesson unfolds. He distinguishes between thinking ratio and participation ratio, two related but not exactly the same ratios. The goal of increasing  the participation ratio is to have students apply and consolidate their knowledge as often as possible. But challenging students to think and actively wrestle with unfamiliar ideas is also important. By just giving the information to students, a chance to make them think is missed. Students need to be encouraged to think whenever it is possible. Making them think and vocalize their thinking gives a good thinking ratio.

A successful lesson is rarely marked by a teacher’s getting a good intellectual workout at the front of the room. Push more and more of the cognitive work out to students as soon as they are ready, with the understanding that the cognitive work must be on-task, focused, and productive (pg. 93).

So how is this done? Well, Mr. Lemov provides 10 methods for integrating this while the teaching is happening. Instead of just giving the information, ask questions to pull it out of students. Break problems into smaller, more answerable parts, facilitate deduction with examples, ask for reactions or whys, and just generally teach the habits of discussion–the process, the language, and the need to support statements and opinions. This leads to better participation and thinking ratios, and ultimately to better thinking habits and better, more active, learning.


Back in the EFL classroom, we can see a problem right away with the Teach-English-in-English ratio. It is too teacher-centered. It assumes that simply using more English in the classroom will result in more gains in proficiency. Um…it might over years of English classes with various subjects and instructors, but  I’m not sure most teachers buy into this cumulative effect aspiration.  It also ignores the thinking ratio and the participation ratio, which are very important because they focus on what is going on inside the learners. It can be argued that without a better thinking/participation ratio, more English will not necessarily result in significant English learning. Most of the gains will be exiguous at best. Students will get used to hearing some commands, some comments, some greetings, some procedural language–all important, yes–but they will not get used to engaging with an interlocutor in English, understanding ideas, reacting to ideas and feelings, evaluating and forming opinions, soundly supporting ideas, etc.  in English. Not unless there is engagement and thinking on a regular basis.

Teaching English in English effectively involves engaging learners in English and making them think. It is communicative in the most personal/academic/cognitive/affective way. That’s why I like the lens of thinking ratio. That’s why I think Mr. Lemov has something to offer for EFL classes. If teachers try to improve their thinking ratio and English ratio at the same time, I think there will be an improvement in both.



Approaches to EFL High School Teacher Training in Japan

I work (mostly) with  high school English teachers in Japan. These teachers are Japanese native speakers whose proficiency with English ranges from good to native-like. My group has been doing this training for two years now and we are starting to get a better idea of the needs of teachers and the benefits and limitations of training programs. EFL teacher education is both important and challenging. Compared to many other countries, the number of required courses and the amount of pre-service training in Japan is remarkably low. There are almost no graduate teachers college programs, and for example, English literature majors who take only a couple of supplementary courses at university and complete a three-week in-school training session can and do become licensed teachers. As long as such teachers stick to the textbook, they usually have enough subject matter expertise to suffice (with a little preparation). But many such teachers have never experienced communicative language lessons themselves, have not really received much TESOL training (if any) and are likely not confident at all about their own English skills.To reiterate, many, many teachers have limited experience, limited training, and limited subject matter knowledge and skills.

There are structural and logistical problems associated with providing in-service training. At present in public schools, there is often little coordination, sharing, or in-school mentoring or training for English teachers. But that is another topic. Instead, let’s look at what is done in training programs. In looking at teacher training in general, we find three main approaches are being used in Japan (probably everywhere): providing models that also motivate (super teachers!) to demonstrate activities; working on the language proficiency of the teachers themselves (subject matter expertise); and getting teachers to engage in action research. I’d like to talk a little about the benefits and limitations of each one and then talk about our flagship program, which makes use of all three. I don’t mean to suggest that we have managed to figure out the absolute best way of training teachers where others have not, but I think it should become clear that deploying only one approach is unlikely to produce significant improvement.

Motivating models. Common at conferences or on DVD, super teachers (and yes, they are actually called Super Teachers), demonstrate activities that usually illustrate new approaches. There are several goals but the basic idea–in addition to raising awareness  about or teaching techniques or approaches usually connected to some pedagogy–is to get around the isolation of the teaching profession. Teachers generally work alone. If they are lucky, they can regularly observe and discuss lessons with colleagues, but often there are few opportunities to do so, and they may not be surrounded by teachers overflowing with innovations. Super teachers are trusted  near-peer role models who show concrete examples of activities. But there is another benefit of observing these super peer models.   Through them, teachers can see possibilities that exist beyond the walls of their own schools. Most change happens as a result of individuals taking risks. Very, very few schools have more than one or two of these individuals. Individual risk-takers or potential risk-takers almost always feel isolated. Motivating models on DVD or in books  or at very infrequent conferences can feel like a lifeline. There is a strong motivational feel-good aura that accompanies super teachers. But if we consider using them for training, limitations emerge. One problem with these models is that schools in Japan are at different levels of academic ability in addition to having different school cultures, and so wholesale transfer of techniques and approaches is often just not possible. And in the case of many super teachers, although their  performance is impressive and inspiring,  it often feels more like it is the result of their personality rather than pedagogy. In other words, what they demonstrate is often perceived as not replicable. And in any case, it is usually just one part of a lesson. Very often it is the most impressive part, the part that makes them look like super teachers. It’s impressive, but it leaves you with questions about what has led up to this point. Super teachers are important as models, but without detailed explanation (and discussion) about the process and  the approach, they often generate more heat than light.

Improving language proficiency. Research shows that the results of teacher expertise training are mixed. But proficiency with English is very much connected to the confidence EFL teachers have. This year, education boards across the country are pushing for teachers to teach English in English. There is, however, a lot of resistance. At least some of that stems from the fact that teachers are not proficient users of English themselves, either in or beyond the classroom. This is no doubt common in EFL settings. Teachers, it must be remembered, are largely products of the system they are now part of–a system that rarely if ever offered opportunities for communicative use of the language. It was almost all grammar translation and memorization in years past. But the present teachers themselves were successful at it, or they wouldn’t be teachers now. Many of them managed to develop impressive speaking, writing, and listening skills in addition to acquiring huge vocabularies and detailed knowledge of grammar, but it was almost always outside of the regular secondary school institutional English classes they experienced. Their teaching styles, however, tend to reflect the way they were taught in high school. Times have changed, but perceptions of what is appropriate for high school English classes still seem to be lagging behind.  In an age where trips and studying abroad are not uncommon and the rest of the world is just an Internet click or two away, you would think that the outside world would be an ever-present entity enveloping the EFL classroom, but that is not often the case. The notion that even beginners need to start hearing and using language communicatively is surprisingly not that widely accepted. No, let me re-phrase that. It is widely acknowledged but not widely embraced. My non-native English speaking colleagues feel very strongly that improved proficiency leads to improved confidence, more communicative use of English in the classroom, more willingness to take risks, and improved status with learners.Language is a skill. It is observable. So unlike math knowledge or science knowledge, teacher expertise in language (knowledge and skill) is essential for EFL teachers. But just being proficient at English does not make you a good teacher. I have observed many teachers talking over the heads of students in English and then only really becoming comprehensible to them when they switch to Japanese. Providing good input for learners, interacting with them communicatively, and using English to activate and build schema are also important skills. They are easier if teachers are more proficient with the language, but being proficient with the language does not ensure that teachers have these skills. But as far as teacher training programs are concerned, the bigger problem is time. Improving English proficiency takes hundreds of hours. Giving a few hours of writing or presentation skills practice might make participants feel a little better, but let’s not kid ourselves about any bumps in proficiency. If language skills are going to improve, it’ll happen through a concerted effort by the individual teacher who weaves language use and learning into his or her daily life. For training programs, the best we can do is introduce language learning a practice resources and hope participants will find them worth using them for self access.

Action research. John Hattie in Visible Learning for Teachers stresses how important it is to get teachers talking and thinking about learning rather than teaching. Action research seems to facilitate this. It never ceases to amaze me how many teachers just accept the culture of teaching they grew up in and just continue doing what has always been done, never questioning whether it is effective or not. Action research challenges teachers to look critically at what they are doing in a systematic way. For many teachers, it causes a crack in the iceberg of teaching culture they are part of. It is a catalyst for change. But it is a real burden. It is  hard for teachers to understand, plan, and undertake action research in their own classes. It requires experienced guidance and support and quite a lot of time. And time is always a problem. Unlike teachers in many countries, teachers in Japan have a vast array of duties beyond teaching. There are club duties, homeroom duties, event planning and coordination duties, and even sometimes locking down the building at night. Teachers come early every morning, leave late, and come in on weekends and most days during the summer. Long chunks of time for participating in professional development are an impossible dream for almost all teachers. But it’s not only the time. Action research has a narrow focus. In order to see some real improvement, more drastic approach changes are sometimes necessary. Action research is better suited to tweaking activities than comparing completely different approaches.

So which of these three approaches do we take? Well, we combine all of them. It is our view that each reinforces the others, though it is action research that is the key approach. Without it, the others are too easily ignored.  Real change here in Japan can only happen if confident, competent teachers look at the current culture of English education critically, keeping what works and replacing what doesn’t with something  different. This requires critically examining current practice and knowing what alternatives are out there. This mindset develops through action research, but action research by itself is probably not sufficient. In a context where one’s own learning experience is not always a good source of ideas, where insufficient pre-service training is the norm, and there is little time for in-service professional development, maximizing impact of that precious in-service training time is crucial. Just showing a video  of a super teacher or just providing a few hours of English language training will not get you far, though they are fairly easy to do. It has to be the teachers themselves who make the discoveries and the changes. They have to see them, consider and discuss them and process them a little, and they have to feel confident enough to give them a try. This is a long process.

Over the last few years, I have become convinced that our training unit has rather serious limitations. We are too far away from the students. We are too detached from the schools  where our teacher participants are working. Our program runs for ten days spread out over the course of a year. We video the teachers twice, near the beginning and near the end but schedule limitations mean that the process of change mostly remains hidden to us. Although we stay in touch with past participants, there is not really any follow-up. Creating a more resilient community is one of our goals. But in the present state of poor workplace collegiality, the pace of change will be slow indeed. Schools need to make it easier for teachers to share ideas and observe each other’s lessons and provide good feedback. There needs to be more focus on learning, and sharing and implementing ideas that promote learning. Without this, I’m afraid, real effective change cannot spread.

Photo credit: Okinawa Soba. Accessible online at