Saturday, 29 May 2010

Backo to Gakkou

During previous stints of employment as lawyer and teacher (call those lengthy interludes between study), one of the big professional development buzzwords that I became accustomed to hearing was ‘reflective practitioner'. Much like 'performance management', 'value added' - and countless others which time or sake have erased from my memory - the phrase followed me from one profession to the next. It became such a cliche that colleagues began to use it mockingly:-

You've missed the bus.
You've forgotten your packed lunch.
You've been caught in flagrante in the broom cupboard.
What would the reflective practitioner do?

Basically, being a 'reflective practitioner' came down to not thinking you’ve made it, realising you’ve still got a lot to learn, remembering you’re not the dog’s bollocks, and continually rethinking how you do things, notably from observing how others do them. All of which states the obvious, but even I can see this is sometimes necessary in education. After all, there are a lot of dog’s bollocks in schools - and not all the golden balls glitter.

In pursuit of this ultimate, a (languages) teacher can learn so much from observing other (languages) teachers, and I regret not having done so more often. Teachers who sat in on my lessons in the past may occasionally have seen 'good practice' but also plenty of bad: for the ‘reflective practitioner’; both are formative. (Deep down, faced with the pressures of the OFSTED / observation overkill age, most teachers are reassured to see the occasional lesson that sucks. Consistent excellence can be quite daunting.)

But frankly, when it comes to re-thinking one's own teaching, peer observation is no substitute for becoming a (languages) student again. Studying part-time in Ealing and full-time in Japan, a neat by-product of my classroom experience is that I have get to learn not only a lot of Japanese but also some more about teaching. (Or should that be ‘Teaching and Learning’ – another hideous buzzword which, once popularised amongst teaching staff, was updated / reversed by the politically correct mantra-makers to ‘Learning and Teaching’, just in case the reflective practitioner was in any doubt as to which should be his priority.)

I don’t envy my teachers, having a teacher in their classes. (Perhaps it's a bit like being a non-mother tongue languages teacher teaching mother tongue pupils.) Which is why I very rarely mention the fact that I am a teacher, and look to demonstrate professional solidarity even after the least illuminating lessons. Besides, as I’ve mentioned many times, and will stress again here, Yamasa’s teachers are - give or take the odd lesson - good. In some cases - the admirable Nie sensei being the obvious example - I'd say they are exemplary teachers. She has never come close to having a bad lesson, whereas I, in my capacity as a student, have had many.

Once a teacher, always a teacher. I remember reading that teachers typically identify themselves by how they talk to their children in public places, e.g. when in the supermarket – “leave those Weetabix packets alone, Tarquin” – and I suspect the same applies when a teacher (unenviably?) finds he has a teacher for a student. I really try to suppress any teacher-like urges in class, but there are certain habits such as marking my own answers in red ink, with ticks, crosses and self-commentary, as well as querying ambiguous images and instructions in listening papers which mark me out. Yes, I’m the one who questions the question. (See that critique of the Yamasa system, quite a few posts back, for further proof.)

I also suspect that our adult classroom personae are updates on our school days personae, a bit like watching the crew of the SS Enterprise on their final voyage and spotting the same essential traits from their youth. In my case, these are: occasional bouts of attention-seeking; wanting to be liked my teachers yet sometimes getting anxious and moody (a no-no in Japan) over minor points and throwing in the towel when I don’t 'get it' (teacher speak: he cannot 'access the learning'), a not infrequent occurrence when studying kanji alongside Taiwanese and Chinese nationals; days when I feel I’m the weakest in the class followed by days when I think I’m .. the dog’s bollocks. As a student, too, I need to reflect a bit more on my practice, I think.

As a teacher, I tended to see students as falling into one of two categories. Those who are aware of what they know (the majority), however little that is, and those who are aware of what they don’t (the minority), however little that is. The latter make for self-doubters, the former believe they can take to anything. The latter often get by on attention to detail and thoroughness; the former often get by on unwaivering self-belief and confidence. What they know is all there is to be learned. I fall into the second category (though it does not always appear that way in class).

Here at Yamasa though, there is a more obvious distinction to be drawn. Those who already know kanji (the Taiwanese, the Chinese), and those who don’t. As our studies become more advanced, it becomes increasingly apparent that this second group, to which I belong, really have to burn the midnight oil. The other classmates have it relatively easy, since they already know the written form and associated meanings of thousands of kanji and can concentrate on developing their linguistic and syntactic knowledge (which currently is no more advanced than mine).

It can be frustrating to share classes – i.e. tasks - with classmates whose reading speed differs so greatly from mine. For example, at our weekly ‘elective’ 'Kanji 2' reading class, I seem to be the only student who consistently needs to ask the teacher the meaning of new vocabulary. Even if the Japanese kana is new to the Chinese and Taiwanese, they can often 'process' the meaning from the kanji alone. Yet to me, the texts are so challenging that I regularly find myself asking the teacher for the meaning of a word only to be told it’s the name of a character in the story (alas, without capital letters, there is no reliable way of distinguishing proper nouns from other words).

Pity also that teacher, who somehow has to accommodate these two - warning: another English educational buzzword - 'learner profiles' within one and the same lesson, without neglecting either group's specific needs. It gives rises to all kinds of teaching inefficiencies. She can write up new, previously unstudied kanji when introducing new vocabulary but that's of no use to Westerners without photographic memories (that’s all of us, I think). Or she can use kana (hiragana, katakana), where the Taiwanese and Chinese would usually be better served by seeing the kanji they already know.

At times, this can leave me rather frustrated, given the slow pace I work at compared to many of my (extremely kind and charitable) classmates. I enjoy their company, especially that of the good-humoured Taiwanese, but I have my downer days. I dread the group reading, both of kanji-based texts and katakana (especially when this is a timed activity), as I feel I'm hanging out my weaknesses for all to see. I especially dislike choral reading exercises, which are survival of the fastest, like chasing an echo, and from which the slowest readers learn little other the fact that they are, well, slow readers compared to their classmates. And didn’t most of us at some time feel like that at school?

Teacher, please don’t make me read aloud to the rest of the class

My experience at Yamasa has also confirmed my dislike of parrot-style repetition-based learning. The classes in which we repeat sentences word-for-word and are then expected to recall dialogues from memory - something I am poor at - are the ones which leave me most frustrated. I don’t like rote learning. I’m a slowcoach student and like to work alone, dissecting and connecting, at my own laidback pace (ideally directed, of course, by inspiring and encouraging teachers). The best lessons, and teachers, recognise that knowing why is better than simply knowing, as I'm sure is stated in many more books that I haven't read. Alas, the pressures of prescriptive curricula and 'teaching to the test' often marginalise the role of spontaneous discussion and dialogue in lessons back home, and I certainly didn't always practise what I'm preaching here.

I also like all the fancy stuff like mindmaps and flowcharts and colours that we were tasked to push to students in so-called ‘Learning to Learn’ lessons a few years back (until these became Krypton Factor-style teambuilding sessions with dubious relevance to the original idea), a fad which no doubt will come and go as is typical of the cyclical fashions of pedagogical thinking. I even use coloured pencils. Yes, putting cynicism to one side, I buy in to many of the methodologies hammered home by government to teachers in recent years – especially the greater emphasis given to noting and addressing different learning styles. There’s a lot right in current educational thinking (hey, I’ve rejoined the establishment); it's just a shame there's so much of it.

It may just be that some of my own past students would identify with some of my own experiences here in Japan. Students who ‘didn’t get’ it and sulked as a result. Students who found I was going too fast, and therefore snubbed the process, boycotted the lesson. These were large classes, sometimes as large as 32 per room, so the contexts are not exactly comparable, not least because at secondary school -  unlike at adult language school - the proportion of willing learners will vary from 0% to 100% and you’ve got a fight on your hands getting them on side and on board.

But, in retrospect, the process of becoming a student again has undoubtedly generated some empathy on my part for those students who ‘suffered’ most in my own classes, whether through tedium, excessive challenge or sheer hatred of the subject. Or teacher. (Which is not to say that this was the experience of all!) Forget the frills and the whistles and bells and gimmicks. Irrespective of the content or the age of the learner, the ideal lesson - whether in London or Okazaki - challenges and rewards. If the sense of achievement is shared by the class, then so much the better.

As to my own journey in Japanese, the immediate future is likely to be a solitary one. This is not just because my visa expires at the end of June. (I would like to return to Japan to continue my studies at some stage but will be home in London for at least three months this summer.) As the language we study becomes more advanced, and the learning curve steepens, I suspect it will become increasingly difficult to keep pace with the Taiwanese and Chinese. The road has forked. Those who know kanji: this way. Those who don’t: that.

If there is a downside to studying alongside students of other nationalities, then this is it. Five months into my Japanese study, kanji classes remain ‘optional’ and discreet. If I were studying alongside Westerners only, I guess that this fundamental aspect of the language would have to be integrated into core classes, but here that would entail plenty of wasted classroom time for the Chinese and Taiwanese. So - for the time being - the other students have to get by on self-study (great if you have time for it - but that's unlikely on a course as intensive as Yamasa's).

As a result, my progress in spoken Japanese is now leaving my currently basic knowledge of kanji far behind. I don’t even use kanji in my tests because, with Yamasa’s penalty-based examinations system, it’s much safer to stick with hiragana and katakana. Get the kanji even slightly wrong and you’ll lose the mark. (This is in accordance with Yamasa’s negative marking techniques for examinations, which punish errors but don’t reward use or range of language.) And since I will almost certainly never catch up my Taiwanese classmates, there is always something extra that one could be doing ... but doesn't have time for.

I repeat: I owe Yamasa a lot. It has provided me with excellent value, high-quality education dispensed by supportive teachers in a organised and well-resourced environment. But now it is dawning on me that kanji should be my priority.

So, beyond June, the immediate future is reading, writing and nothing else. It makes sense and I'm looking forward to it. I need to correct my course. Grab a cold towel and sit in a library for a few months. Re-think my flashcards (see earlier post!). I don't even want to be taught kanji, most advanced students will tell you that self-study is the only way. How best to approach this is the key question: the debate essentially being pro-Heisig versus anti-Heisig ( ).

If all goes well, I might just return to acquisition of vocabulary, learning of grammar and … speaking. And possibly, hopefully, one day to Japan.

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