Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Speak to a student at the Yamasa Institute, Okazaki, where I am doing an intensive Japanese course, and it's likely he'll tell you that the atmosphere here is pressurised. In fact, it’s a very rigid test-based regime. The motives for this are probably well-intended, since it’s in nobody’s interest – neither the teacher’s nor the students’ – to have too wide a range of attainment levels within one class. (For the teacher, lesson planning would be a nightmare, and students would either be over-stretched or bored, especially within large groups.)

He will also likely tell you that the overwhelming plus about Yamasa is its excellent, dedicated teachers. Lessons are invariably well-prepared and thoughtfully structured, teaching staff are approachable, and the quality of marking and feedback is exemplary. Yamasa's signature methodology is grammar-based, with in-context learning and a strong focus on accuracy, all of which are fine by me. The test-based programme also keeps up the pressure on students who might otherwise not place pressure on themselves. I moan about this at times, especially at 9 o’clock in the morning when we are handed our daily ‘quiz’ (a euphemism - the marks are recorded), but recognise its long-term benefits.

So, if you have come to Japan to study hard, want to be putting in the hours outside lessons (they give you plenty of homework) and don’t mind living in a fairly dull city, it makes for an excellent choice. For quality of instruction alone, there are plenty of recommendations out there on the Internet which will tell you that Yamasa’s is second to none in Japan. You do learn here, and consequently I have no regrets about my choice of language school.

All of this makes Yamasa a great place to study Japanese, provided you are in the right class. And this is where Yamasa lets itself and, in my view, its excellent teachers (who for all their dedication may find themselves with dispirited and resentful students for the reasons I'll come on to), down. Whereas its programme structures and teaching resources are expertly plotted and delivered, its tests and rules governing progression from one class to the next are not. Just as I have mentioned the good press Yamasa receives for its teaching on blogs and chat forums, it is worth noting that a significant proportion of the complaints levelled against Yamasa to be found on the Internet broadly echo what follows.

So far, I have passed all of my exams at Yamasa comfortably. I say this not to boast – I can well imagine failing one in future – but instead to make clear at the outset that these criticisms are not a case of ‘sour grapes’. My views, which are echoed in a number of other blogs, will remain unchanged whether I pass or fail. These criticisms also relate only to Yamasa’s Academic Intensive Japanese Programme (AIJP), the course I have begun at the lowest rung of the ladder (that’s 'L' Class, as in 'Learner').

So, the catch is…?

The Yamasa system is one that goes so far beyond maintaining high standards that it risks punishing failure, however isolated or exceptional, rather than rewarding consistency of performance and across-the-board attainment.

Students here sit three distinct examinations ((i) Speaking, (ii) Listening and (iii) Reading/Writing) three times every 12-week term, making for nine in total. The pass mark for each of these examinations is 80%. A student achieving less than 80% in any one of these must repeat the whole term (i.e. all 12 weeks) all over again, although students who have achieved high attendance are allowed to re-take any examination in which they achieve 70-80% once.

Given that most students at Yamasa have invested considerable amounts in course fees and accommodation to come here and progress in Japanese (I say ‘most’ as some are here only for a student visa, a quid pro quo which I suspect Yamasa may well be prepared to play along with), the possible cost of failing any one of these exams is high. And the consequences of failure being so great, there’s often a stressed-out atmosphere around the Yamasa II building where the AIJP course is run.

So, what’s the problem with Yamasa's high expectations?

1 In my view, its system rewards exam skills over language skills. With pass marks of 80%, it may only take one misread question or an 'off day' to flunk an exam and undo a term’s worth of good performance in class and homework.

2 The 80% pass mark seems rather arbitrary. Even at Yamasa, from one term to the next, there must be easy and difficult exams from one date to the next, but do they moderate the pass mark in light of this, just as examination boards do? No, it stays at 80%.

3 Officially at least, no account is taken of a student’s average performance across nine examinations per quarter. Contrast this with the (in my view, correct) approach taken by examination boards in England, which look at global scores based on the four skills of Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing and award a grade in the Language. In the absence of such an approach, and in light of Yamasa’s seemingly arbitrary pass marks, the range of a student’s performance counts for little. Exceeding the minimum in each examination is the name of the game.

4 It follows that students whose performance in examinations differ by no more than a couple of percentage points could quite possibly find themselves in sharply contrasting situations going forward: one re-taking a quarter; the other moving on to the next class up. At the same time, it is quite conceivable that the former student, who now finds himself ‘stuck in the mud’, may well have achieved a superior average across all examinations.

(For example, compare a student scoring 68%, 94% and 96% over three examinations with a student scoring 81%, 85% and 86%. Can Yamasa be sure that the latter student, with an average of 84%, is less capable of progressing to the next level than the former student, whose average is 86% and whose sub-70% mark may well be a ‘blip’ in one skill / paper? (Surely, to answer that question, it would need to look at the students’ performance and progress throughout the term? Yet Yamasa prefers the rigidity of the 80% baseline, and invests a great deal of faith in the infallibility of that system.)

5 The assessment criteria shared by Yamasa with its students do not indicate that teachers have any discretion to overlook isolated examination failures by having regard to the ‘holistic’ assessment of student performance. This 'my-hands-are-tied' approach strikes me as an abdication of responsibility for students’ optimal future progress, and therefore at odds with what should be Yamasa's primary purpose - helping the students who want / deserve to be helped to make the greatest strides possible. After all, unlike examination boards, Yamasa’s teachers presumably know their students, having tested and worked with them daily for a whole quarter. It should not need to pay heed only to the test.

What Yamasa has created for itself is in effect an extremely onerous back-to-square-one policy, which leaves its students playing a high-risk game of snakes and ladders. How would a student who has achieved high average results, but fails as a result of one blip, benefit from repeating a term, especially if it meant returning to an 'A-I-U-E-O' beginners’ class (possibly alongside repeating workshy / holidaying students who are here only for a visa). Subject to the above concerns, I could just about understand why it might be appropriate for a student to repeat the three weeks of lessons covered by the test, if such flexibility were built into the programme, but to repeat the whole quarter seems woefully disproportionate. Would he be expected to repeat, and his teacher expected to mark, the same homework and tests in which he had already performed well over the previous term? A flexible programme it is not.

Furthermore, the system could quite conceivably discriminate against current students at Yamasa: take the example of two students having broadly equal attainment levels in Japanese (based on the entrance exam which all students take every quarter), one of whom has failed to meet the 80% pass mark; the other who is beginning his studies at Yamasa. Since the latter student did not (have to) sit the previous term’s nine examinations, it may be possible for him to join a class beginning at the next level up.

Now, given the fundamental role of exams in the above process, the format, content and delivery of Yamasa’s examination should be expected to meet high standards, and should be designed in such a way that students’ linguistic proficiency, as opposed to examination technique, is being tested. However, despite having achieved over 90% in all of my examinations to date, it has been my - at times stressful – experience that certain papers are of poor print quality, have a congested layout and are difficult to read. In particular, in the Listening examinations we are permitted very little advance reading time, leading to rushed answers, and can only listen to each passage once (a practice which is completely at odds with examination procedure in the UK and which I understand, here at Yamasa, to be inconsistent from one term / teacher to the next). The overall impression is that, in the case of the Listening examination, the importance of the examination was not reflected in the rigour of its delivery or the quality of the examination materials.

Anyway, I have voiced these concerns here very much with the intention that, should I ever have to show them to Yamasa staff, it would not look like an overreaction or fabricated excuse for my own below-par performance (which I acknowledge may well also be a factor) in any given examination. It’s a measure of my thinking and feeling that something in the system is not quite right that I felt compelled to write it, and thereby scar my blog with such a dull post. If you are still reading it, no doubt you work in Education, are also a student here, or are my Dad.

So, there it is. With two examinations to go this Thursday, it’s off my chest … and - pass or fail - I’m looking forward to the holidays. Ise Shrines, here I come.

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