A Term or Two

By Jack Hayashi

Those of us in the field of language teaching are under constant attack; a bombardment if you will. It’s a barrage of acronyms and initialisms. Let’s see how many of these you can actually say all the right words for. I’ll start with the easy ones.

  1. ESL
  2. EFL
  3. CLT
  4. TOEIC
  5. IELTS
  6. TOEFL
  7. CELTA
  8. TBLT
  9. CBLT
  10. ESP
  11. EAP
  12. WE (No, it’s not the Nintendo Wii in case you were wondering.)
  13. ELF
  14. EIL
  15. CLIL
  16. GBOE

I’m not going to tell you 1 – 13. Look them up. All I will say is that the list above is just a smattering from among the many and there constant throw-out-there-use in the literature I read is causing me pain and misery. In this article I want to write about 14 and 15, as these are especially pertinent to me in light of recent events, and the cause of my latest pains and miseries.

Did you get number 14, ‘CLIL’? Top marks if you did. If not, I can tell you it stands for ‘Content and Language-Integrated Learning’. What’s that you may ask? Well, damn good question as it turns out. There is no simple answer. I can tell you though that it is the latest in a long line of language teaching fads/methodologies to reach us here in Asia.

Now, why is it pertinent to me? Well, the fact is a project team of which I am nominally the head, has recently received a substantial grant from the research arm of MEXT (look that one up too) to research the viability of introducing CLIL into Japanese English education. As far as I can work out, CLIL means either integrating content from subjects such as math, science, music, PE, Social Studies, etc., into English language classes or integrating English into math, science, music, PE, Social Studies, etc. If you favour the former, it looks like it aims to turn language teachers into content teachers, while if you prefer the latter it might aim to turn subject teachers into language teachers.

Apparently, CLIL is a big deal in Canada, Spain and some northern European countries but its tentacles are spreading into Asia as we sleep. Anyway, I have recently been given the dubious honor of being made head of a CLIL ‘project team’. My name is at the top of the team-list by virtue of successfully attracting a large national government grant. The team was then also ‘rewarded’ by our university president (i.e. chancellor) with a further discretionary grant: another 1 million to add to the kitty! Oh, joy! So now, I’ve got a stack of money that I am legally responsible for to research a topic that I did not write the submission for (the submission was written in Japanese and my name added to it) and that from my reading thus far has as much chance as a snowball in hell of being introduced into Japan.

Why, you ask? The reasons are obvious to those of us teaching in Japan. Japanese English teachers have enough trouble teaching English already, without adding to their vocabulary words such as photosynthesis, trigonometry, and pentatonic.

From the other direction, why should subject teachers teach their learners English translations of the Japanese terms for the above, that they already use? There is absolutely zero motivation for them to do so, especially when it’s not backed now, or is it likely to be in the future, by government educational policy.

So, the long and the short of my first initialism, CLIL is that leading a project on it has sent my stress levels through the roof. By the way, I’m writing this anonymously because heaven forbid that anyone from MEXT reads this and learns of the dire straits the project is in.

Now, let’s move on to the number 15 initialism, GBOE. What does this stand for? I have to confess right away that I concocted this one myself. It stands for the ‘Great Blackboard Observation Expedition’. Let me elucidate.

Today, I accompanied my university’s first year trainee-teacher students to the first of two days of observing schools in action. Those of you that went through teacher-training college in a place other than Japan may be surprised to learn that Japanese teacher-trainees at national universities of education currently spend less than five weeks on teaching practicums during their entire four years of college. That’s correct – less than 5 weeks! That’s another story for another article, but suffice it to say that given such a short time actually on the front lines, it is hardly surprising that an official 2012 survey of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found that 48.8% of new teachers quit the profession by the end of their third year out. Only nurses quit in greater numbers than teachers.

Let me bore you further. In Japan, the university has very little to do with actual practical teacher training. The job of the university is to cram as much theoretical knowledge about education into its students so that they might pass the municipal or prefectural teacher’s examination held in July and August of their 4th year. The job of the grade schools connected to the universities is to cram the practical skills into the teacher, and they are given something like 20-25 days to do this over four years. Furthermore, what students do when they go on teaching practicums is entirely up to the particular school. So student A might teach 5 classes during a 3-week teaching practicum at school A, while student B teaches 15 classes at school B. Makes sense? No, it doesn’t to me either.

Anyway, back to today’s outing. Here’s how the day panned out. Forty-three eager beaver students and four university supervisors (including myself, the ‘coordinator’ of the group) turned up at our affiliated junior high school at 8:30am to spend the day doing in-depth study of how a Japanese junior high school operates. Or so I thought.

First we met the high school teacher in charge of the day’s schedule. “Imagine a guy looks like Guy Kibbee” – no, no, that’s the Neil Diamond intro… Anyway, in contrast to the rest of us, who were all gussied up in our ‘recruit blue’, some even with ties even though it was 34 degrees outside, the school teacher-trainer was dressed in sweat pants and a polo shirt. It turned out that he was a PE teacher, hence the casual wear. I wish I’d have known that earlier so I could have ditched the tie!!

Anyway, the first session, covering the first school period of the day, was a lecture given by two of the school’s teachers. The first teacher gave our students a general lecture about teaching and how they were no longer students but ’teachers’ for the day. Blah blah blah. The second teacher then introduced the day’s observation topic: that is the thing (singular) he wanted the students to pay attention to. He presented all the students with an observation sheet that had two questions with space for writing about each, and also two empty boxes titled ‘Lesson 1’ and ‘Lesson 2’.

These were the questions.

Q1. 板書は何のために行うのか

Q2. 板書のどんなところに注目して見るか

For those of you that don’t read Japanese, let me translate. Question 1 asks “What is the blackboard used for?” Question 2 goes into greater detail: “When using the blackboard, what should you pay attention to?”

Well, you can imagine my reaction! The first topic of a teacher-training practicum for first year students was “the blackboard”. I was gob smacked. Anyone taking a photo at that moment would have got a nice shot of my jaw hitting the floor.

Teacher-trainer 2 then spent another 10 minutes explaining the blackboard questions and how to fill in the boxes with notes. Yes, how to take notes even got airtime in his explanation. We then prepared to move out. The 43 students were split into two groups with Group 1 assigned to watch an English lesson in period 2 followed by a Kokugo (Japanese) lesson in period 3. Group 2 was to watch a Home Economics lesson followed by a Science lesson. For both lessons, the trainees were to concentrate on how the teacher utilized the blackboard. With the prep done and the trainees champing at the bit, the GBOE (Great Blackboard Observation Expedition) set off!!

20 students went one way, 23 went another way. In the vanguard of each group were the university supervisors who promptly got them all lost. None of the three university supervisors had bothered to check where the classrooms were. So we had two lines of trainees snaking around the school for ten minutes, passing each other at least twice as they followed their lost leaders looking for their classroom. The snake-lines eventually arrived at the two designated classrooms with a minute to go before the bell so the crush to get into the classroom was akin to boarding the subway at Shinjuku during rush hour.

Everyone crammed into the back of a classroom that already had 40 seated students and a teacher, so the temperature rose instantly by at least 5 degrees. The curtains had been drawn to keep the sun from streaming in and giving everyone melanomas. Two wall-mounted fans on the same side of the room were the only attempt at ventilation. Roaring at full power they succeeded in blasting hot air onto all within their range.

As for the actual lessons and the object of the GBOE, no one seemed to have told the subject teachers that it was their classroom blackboard work that was under scrutiny by a team of pumped and primed ‘inspectors’. The English lesson was taught by one of my ex-students as it turned out. I was pleased to see that he used an interactive whiteboard and a digital rendering of the textbook (something I taught him) so he hardly wrote on the actual blackboard at all. He spent most of the lesson on the iPad flicking through to the next page.

The home economics lesson was SEWING!!! I kid you not. So, one home economics teacher, 23 trainees, and two university supervisors were grouped around 13 junior high school kids watching them hand sew for 45 minutes. The scene looked much like a very still pride of lions eyeing up their kill, except they had clipboards. The teacher spent the entire lesson individually helping the students reproduce the stitches shown on the interactive whiteboard. There were three lines written on the blackboard that had been written there before the lesson had started. This was the ’plan’ of the lesson. I didn’t even see the teacher pick up the chalk. Moreover, she was so softly-spoken that I still don’t know if she actually uttered a word that was audible to anyone other than the student she was talking to. I’m almost convinced she was mute!! Mind you, if I had 25 sets of eyes studying my every move for 45 minutes, I doubt I’d be singing dixie either.

The Kokugo lesson was mind-numbingly boring but the standard thing I am well used to seeing after so many years visiting students on teaching practice. The students open the textbook, co-examine a passage with the teacher, the teacher asks a question, every student painstakingly writes an answer on a ‘printo’ (Japanese for a handout), and then equally painstakingly they stand up in turn and ‘report’ to the teacher. He then laboriously reproduces the students’ ‘iken’ (opinion) on the board. Again there were no air conditioners and it was unbearably hot. Two of our female trainee students ended up in the sick bay midway through the kokugo lesson. All the curtains closed, a couple of fans only, and the 60 people crammed into one classroom…go figure!

I subsequently decided not to subject myself to watching the science lesson, for three reasons: (a) they changed the scheduled location of the lesson at the last moment and when I left the kokugo lesson I didn’t want to spend that much energy looking all over the school for it. (b) I didn’t want to throw up from heat-stroke in a lesson that could potentially also have involved the use of bunsen burners, and (c) I have already seen enough science lessons that I don’t understand. I scurried to the only air-conditioned room on campus to wait out the rest of the 3rd period.

The trainees came back after their two-lesson GBOE and had lunch from 11:45 till 12:30pm. Then, they were split into groups of 5, given a small handheld whiteboard per group and Session 4 started. One person in each group was asked to act as recorder and write a summary of the group members’ opinions about questions 1 and 2. Then, you guessed it: it was report time. A trainee from each group got up and reported the findings. This took 30 minutes while the use of the blackboard was sliced, diced, and dissected.

After the students had their say, the school teacher-trainer gave a 15-minute summary of the major findings.

The major findings of the GBOE were…

(a) Don’t write too low down.

(b) Don’t write too small.

(c) Write legible kanji.


wait for it

(d) Use white chalk for ‘normal’ writing, yellow chalk to highlight points to pay attention to, and…wait for it…wait…just a little longer…RED chalk for really important things, such as things the learners need to be able to regurgitate for a test!

I swear this is all true. The teacher  – who shall remain nameless – actually told the trainees that when writing on the board they were to use the three colours of chalk for those three things. I was trying really hard to keep my face as emotionless as possible as the trainees nodded in reply to this sage advice.

The final session was to then ‘write a report’. This session was scheduled from 13:30 to 14:20. They then had to hand-in the paper to their university supervisor and they were out the door: the GBOE, which had accounted for an astounding 50% of these student teachers’ practical teaching experience for their entire first year, was at an end.

I wonder what next week’s Great Observation Expedition topic will be. The teacher’s dress code perhaps? Will it be the GDCOE?

Maybe an ICBM could put an end to my misery.