Problems in English Education in Japan: The Three C’s

Everyone involved in the language education sector in Japan will freely admit that English education in the country has been on a level at best over the past couple of decades, and many arguments could be made that the standard of English from school-leavers is actually decreasing. At the same time, education in South Korea, China, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia are experiencing English language booms with children becoming very proficient in the language from an early age. While there are a number of reasons causing this relative decline in Japan, I think there are three main contributing factors resulting in this status quo. These are a suppression of creativity in students, and the lack of challenge presented to them.

Creativity

I write this from the standpoint of a teacher at a junior high school, although the latter factor certainly applies to later grades of elementary school, and is an issue I will go into later. The education system in Japan revolves around a set event, and preparing for it. At elementary school the students are focused towards getting into Junior High School; once they get there their sole goal is to pass the high school entrance exam (for those that will go to high school). Once into high school, the aim of every student is to pass the “Centre Test”, the Japanese name for the university entrance exam, which will focus the rest of their lives. Anything that is not involved with getting to these goals is deemed unimportant, and grammar points not to be tested (even if important to learn for English language comprehension) are passed over.

At the senior high school level, I was lucky enough to teach at a high level school, which offered two English-based subjects that were not on the Center Test: Model United Nations and PCLL (a subject with 3 components: speech, skit and debate). When these subjects were introduced, teachers were met by a strong resistance from parents, who complained that their children shouldn’t be wasting their time on things that wouldn’t directly be tested. It took a strong principal and group of teachers to defend their position and to try to explain the benefits that the subjects would have; both within the English language skills spectrum, and throughout their range of studies and beyond. The argument was made that these subjects were not just preparing students living in a small village in Okinawa for a single test, but giving the adults of tomorrow the skills, knowledge and means to develop for life in a truly global society. I know there are a whole bunch of buzzwords in there, but it’s the best way to explain it. And whenever I meet former students from that high school (who are invariably doing very well in their lives), they remember clearly those classes, the themes discussed, and the skills they learnt.

It was a high-level school to begin with, but the fact that it was willing to look a little outside the box transformed it from being an average to low level school 15 years ago, to one of the top 3 in Okinawa today. But look down to the general situation of English language education at junior high schools in Japan (even more so in Okinawa), and things are much different. Scarily enough, I am still unaware if there is any actual syllabus set out by the Ministry of Education in Japan that states what students should know at the end of each year of learning. The textbooks that are approved by the Ministry of Education certainly teach different material at different points to students, so there is no consistency there. But what there is consistency in, is removing all traces of creativity from students. At elementary school students learn that the answer to the question, “How are you?” is, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”. There is no other response. At junior high school you would expect students to be able to be given range to express their real feelings, but even then they are limited to a handful. You are allowed to be good, fine, tired, hungry or have stomach ache. Other feelings will not be on the end of year exam and so should not really be discussed.

Students are spoon-fed information so much that they become unable to think of even the simplest things by themselves. A perfect example of this would be earlier in this academic year. The sentence being learned (sentences are almost always learned in phrase form, meaning students are frequently unable to understand how the grammatical structures in them are formed) was “I visited my grandmother at 8 o’clock”. After a little practice most of the students were able to say it reasonably well, and I wanted to give them a chance to control what they say, so asked the first student to say the sentence but change the time from 8 o’clock to something else. This was explained in Japanese so the student understood (more on that later too), who made as big an acknowledgement as your typical Japanese junior high school student can muster that they understood. And then they were given the floor to make a modified sentence. And for almost 2 minutes the class waited. The student put their head down, looked into their book, looked out of the window hoping focus would shift off them, consulted with two or three of their classmates, and then eventually gave the same original answer, “I visited my grandmother at 8 o’clock”. It took another student a minute before they could actually change the time to nine o’clock. A similar barrier was created when the family member was asked to be changed from mother. This seems to be the norm, rather than the exception. They get drilled into them a sentence structure (in this case “my mother… “) that it is the only thing they can comprehend. When given the chance to use a word like “father”, “brother” or “sister” in place of it, the choice seems overwhelming to them rendering them unable to make what many would deem to be a simple and unimportant choice.

This lack of creativity being observed, and even encouraged by some English teachers, affects the students somewhat when they come to exams, but much more it is rendering many incapable of communicating effectively in English in a real-life environment. Because they learn certain phrases and set structures only, whenever anything goes outside of those boundaries, the students are unable to follow it and respond. Originality is something that is seldom heard or read, as the set phrases are the only way the students know how to express their ideas.

I should not that this is definitely not the case all the time. Students frequently have the ability to impress and surprise with their English and willingness to try connecting grammar points they have learnt, but not necessarily learnt together, in order to communicate their thoughts. These students, even if they don’t have the best raw English ability, are usually the ones that see the biggest improvement in their language skills. But it is definitely the majority from my experiences.

Challenge

The second large part is the lack of a challenge for students. I am a firm believer that if you challenge students then you will get the best out of them. It is a fine balancing act, as pushing them too much and in the wrong way can provoke resentment and a student simply refusing to learn (especially as the student enters their teens at junior high school). But I feel many teachers in Japan are catering their classes for the lowest level learner present (some who try hard but find English very difficult, and others who are unwilling to learn in any of their classes). This means the majority of students who actually start the activity (many just wait for the answers or do nothing at all) finish quickly because the activities are not at all testing for them.

Let me give you an example. A handout that accompanied a textbook chapter was recently given to 2nd year English students (13-14 years old). The page was roughly set up as you can see below:

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Grammar point: “Yes, I am.” / “No, I am not.”

Explanation in Japanese about meaning and usage of grammar point.

Question 1

  1. Are you going to clean your room tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

Question 2

  1. Are you going to see your friends tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

Question 3

  1. Are you going to visit your grandmother tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

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It then went on using the same style but for “No, I am not”. Learning then went on to cover the “you”, “he”, “she”, “we”, and “they” forms, but the activities were virtually the same; simply copying the answer from the section above. Following that worksheet, focus was moved onto another point and this section just covered could be checked off the list and forgotten about. No expansion of answers, experimenting with making their own questions (studied in the previous class) and asking their peers was permitted, because it wouldn’t be in the test and therefore was superfluous. And there was no chance to take what they had learnt and take it to the next level, increasing their understanding of that point and giving them the chance to link it to other points that know now and will learn in the future.

Vocabulary tests are infrequent, and when they occur students are usually given 5 words to learn, with them knowing the exact order in which they will come in the test. Consequently, you have students only practicing in the last 5 minutes before the test and then being desperate to get the paper so they can write down what is in their short term memory before they forget it. Asking a student the meaning of one of their test words 15 minutes into the class is akin to getting blood out of a stone, as it has long since disappeared from their short term memory banks. Once again, no real assessment of English knowledge or ability is attained by conducting the test; it is only seeing who can spit out the exact words they were given in the 30s-1min between closing their books and receiving their test paper. I can only speak from my point of view, but at the junior high school I had weekly vocabulary tests (either L1->L2 or L2->L1, or a combination of both; not known until the test was given), which comprised of at least 20-30 words, with 10-15 being chosen at random. When this was mentioned previously to co-workers they remarked it must have been so hard for students to do. It wasn’t easy sometimes, but it made us very efficient learners.

Once again the students who try to push themselves (which must be done individually, due to there being no “gifted learners” class or similar in most schools) by working to understand more than the brief outline presented to them reap the rewards, when it comes to test time and also outside the classroom, when conducting any activities in English.

But now that I mentioned tests, it brings me onto another “C” that is a large factor in why English education, and in other subjects too, is undergoing such problems in Japan.

Consequences

Consequences, or rather lack of them, cannot be underestimated in the mediocrity of English language education in Japan. Thinking back, I feel I studied pretty hard at school, mainly because I know my parents had given me a great opportunity, and I didn’t want to waste it. In certain subjects I worked hard through fear of incurring the wrath of the teacher; others have said they worked hard to get into a good university, because they wanted their parents to be happy etc. Homework was always done to the best of my ability and tests were studied hard for. We all knew that if weekly vocabulary tests were failed (under 50%), retests would occur lunchtimes or after school every day (same vocabulary list but different test words) until 50% was achieved. Some students found it difficult at first or didn’t like the retests, but within a month or so everyone was trying hard to get the best score possible. At the other end of the scale, high scores were put towards points to a “Good record” in your homework diary book; a record of every piece of work you had to do at home, and which parents had to sign each week, so they could see how well you were doing, or trouble you had been involved in at school. This was a simple system but motivated some people greatly as they wanted to impress their parents and show what they could do.

Now let’s jump over to Okinawa and the vocabulary test I mentioned above consisting of 5 words that the students already know the order of, and they are the only words they have to learn. A student doesn’t study at all, sleeps for the duration of the 10 minute test and gets 0 points. They don’t really care because there is no consequence of the test. It may or may not be put into the student’s final term or year-end grade, but since these grades have no real meaning either there is no incentive for them to put any effort in. Retests are non-existent at lunchtime or after school (in the case of the latter I was told, “Students want to go home or have clubs”, and sports clubs usually take precedent over academic things). So you can end up with a student at the end of the year who has completed no homework assignments, got 0 in every test and possibly mustered the energy to write their name on their end of year exam before going to sleep, and just being told they must work harder next year. They don’t, and so the process continues until they leave the school system. There is a reward system in place in the form of stickers or stamps, at a lot of junior high schools, and these motivate some students to volunteer and do work. But I always remember reading a quote from someone much more skilled than me, who said that prizes/bribes/rewards are good, but care should be taken to ensure they don’t become the sole reason for learning. Once this happens, and the reward is removed, so is the motivation for studying.

The discipline system does leave a good deal to be desired too in Japanese schools. I’m not advocating bringing back corporal punishment (initially wrote “capital punishment”… a Freudian slip, perhaps?), but students seem to wield complete power, even more so than in Western schools. It is virtually impossible to remove a student from a class because it is “depriving them of an education”, even if their actions are depriving the rest of the class of the chance to learn. Which can lead to anarchic classes sometimes. In a class I witnessed a few weeks ago there were 20 students; 7 were sleeping, 6 were talking with each other across the classroom, 3 were reading their own books, with only 4 students attempting to listen to the teacher. Every so often the teacher would try to wake up some of the students or stop them talking to each other. The students would just wave or push away the teacher and go back to what they were doing. In addition, principles and vice-principles are not involved in the disciplining; that role being assigned to a different teacher each year.

This has ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be, so thank you if you’ve stuck with it and got through it all. These aren’t all the issues involved, and there are some good sides to English education here. Hopefully in an article I the near future I will take a look at some of the other factors involved in teaching English here in Japan.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said.