Today I was team teaching in a class, and watching the kids chant their usual dictation in various ways, over and over. Many high school English classes here seem to consist of word memorisation, pronunciation practice of isolated words, and repeated drilling of passages. As a result, students can achieve high comprehension levels but are shy about speaking off script (ie. in every day life) and find it more difficult to express themselves.
It's taken me a while to get used to this: a couple of weeks ago I was asked to start the class by pronouncing a list of words for the students to repeat. They were pretty complex - things like "monarchy", "harassment", "revolution, "tyranny" and "apathy." At the end of the lesson, to fill in the last 10 minutes, I asked the kids to write a sentence or two in their journals. We'd been learning the grammar point "If I had___, I would...", so the subject was "If I had a million dollars, I would...". Many of them struggled, and I was truly surprised at the disparity of their ability in the two aspects of English learning.
This difficulty with more spontaneous expression isn't helped by the fact that in Japan, the onus is more on the listener to understand what is being said, rather than on the speaker to be clear (one of the many subtle reversals here of social dynamics that I'm used to taking completely for granted). So, speaking with a foreigner can represent a stressful situation for a shy learner.
However, this morning the chanting felt particularly strange and somewhat ironic. Why? The subject was media literacy and critical thinking. I couldn't help but wonder how these methods will prepare them for university and beyond - especially in a world where lateral thinking and research are fast becoming skills more prized than memorisation and regurgitation. Of course, the same could be said of the general school system in most developed countries - this article is fascinating - but for me it's particularly noticeable in Japan.
A month ago, my main general goal for school was to foster an enthusiasm for learning English in the students, to create positive associations and illustrate ways English is relevant to their lives. Now, increasingly, I also want to help them develop ways of learning that might be a tad more relevant in the real world. I've written before about the incredible work ethic of the students here. It's common for them be in school for a 12-hour day, study till midnight, and survive on maybe 5 hours of sleep. The ill-effects of sleep-deprivation on growing brains aside, I've seen what amazing results their practicing can produce - in recitation, dance, music, sport and in their English learning. But, I also think there's more to it than putting in the hours. We learn and remember better when we are actively engaged in making decisions, testing theories and solving problems - not only acting as passive receivers.
Once the chanting was over today, I had the students work in teams in scan a newspaper article, answer some of the questions it posed, pick out the most important parts, and summarise the main paragraphs. Even translated into Japanese, it took a while to explain what is meant by 'summarising', which I also found surprising. But, once they understood that they'd do better if they gave an answer, even if it wasn't 100% correct, they began to take risks and enjoy themselves.
It's only now, nearly 3 months in, that I feel I'm finally getting to grips with the varying tones and levels of each class, what turns them on and off, and to remember names and faces: the keen beans, the power nappers, the shy but gifted ones, the whisperers. I have a lot to learn, but as each week passes I'm becoming just as involved in my job as in the taiko, tea and travel.