Just had a great day yesterday at the David English House seminar in Tokyo, held at the British Council yesterday. In case you don’t know, David Paul, the English-born founder of David English House, is a truly wonderful person who seems to have devoted his life to helping teachers in Japan (and beyond) and their students, by spreading ‘the gospel’ of a more student-centered approach to teaching than is the norm here. It wasn’t only him speaking yesterday- there were Alistair Graham-Marr, Dr. Rob Waring, and Grant Trew, all of them experts in their field. If you are an English Teacher anything like me, you have had the usual compulsory training by someone who is trying to motivate you but isn’t exactly at that level yet, so it is very inspiring to hear some advice ‘from the horse’s mouth’ so to speak.
Student-centered teaching is all about making the teacher far less conspicuous and making each and every student feel that the lesson is directed exactly for them. They may come into the room with myriad individual thoughts, but if they can all be engaged and feel the teacher cares enough to tailor things for them, they will basically be happy to be taught and also remember what they were told a lot better. This is all done through open-ended activities, many of which seem like games, where the students come up with answers, the more creative the better. As evidence of this working, everyone in the room was ecstatic to take part in the activities David laid on and he created a warm, safe atmosphere for everyone to relax in. This is the second time I’ve been to one of David’s’ seminars (the first was for teaching small kids) and again I was most impressed by the way in which he breaks down cultural barriers by making everyone feel so safe. The people here are from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures, not only the traditional ‘English speaking countries’ but from many more where of course English is also spoken. Seeing so many different people giving their heartfelt thanks for David’s guidance is quite a moving sight.
The other speakers were also excellent (though not quite on his ‘guru’ level yet, sorry guys!). They injected humour into what might otherwise be boring and dry and the sheer relevance of what they taught made us all feel that coming there was well worthwhile. Alistair was especially sympathetic, teaching about how it helps to disguise your lack of language ability (‘strategic competence’), by pausing and ‘umming and awing’ in the appropriate way- he can go into a shop here and put the shocked shop-keeper at ease with a ‘eto-ne…’ or two before he starts, seeming like a native speaker by doing that. A Korean businessmen sitting in front of me had come for tips on the kind of natural, pragmatic communication needed for business and felt that this warm, fresh approach was just what he was looking for. The fact he had us all in stitches didn’t hurt, either. The other speakers, Rob and Grant also had some excellent advice on the more technical matters of vocabulary retention and Japanese tests, respectively and they certainly made their subjects were entertaining and helped me a lot with doing my job better. *(See more below). Because, believe it or not, dear reader, my job is teaching English, not writing these silly little blogs! Whether the fact that I find so much time for them means that I’m lazy or inspired, I’ll leave for you to decide:)
Lunch and desert afterwards was great, as I made friends with a bunch of other teachers from all over. Qamar, an Indian guy who had recently lived in England but was now in Japan (and who’s homemade basmatti rice Indian lunch-box was about 10 times as good as our pasta lunch!); Doris, a Peruvian lady who knows Tokyo pretty well and her very pretty team teacher Emiko, from their school in West Tokyo; a kind and mellow Fijian and Colette, an incredibly bubbly fellow Brit, who was there to get tips on making her own school. We had a great lunch together, (see above) and then headed off to Harajuku for some desert at ‘Fujimamas’, recommended by Doris, which had an amazing selection. I think I actually went there for breakfast once before it was remodeled, there was something familiar about it. Since it was his first time there, Harajuku was quite a revelation for Qamar, it’s a place and I love for its European, neon-light-less feel. It was great to openly share experiences and (abridged) life-stories together, a bit like entering university again. I have to again thank David for creating such an atmosphere, and also our good luck for having bonded so quickly, all of us with a common aim of enjoying life in Japan whilst being good to those around us. Another thing much like university is the assignment that needs to be done to get the ‘Introductory Certificate in Teaching English to Japanese people’ (we’ll have to go to the other session next year to get the full certificate). So homework for teacher
* Apparently, the so-called’ forgetting curve’ is built into us, meaning that we discard information that our brain deems unnecessary fairly quickly, which in terms of teaching means that even if we think our students have learned new words, actually they need to be practiced or seen a lot to be retained. Most texts just teach new words once, which means that reviewing is definitely necessary. Also, did you know that there are about 2,000 words which form 85% of the words in any given text?! This means that learning such words is a prerogative for any student. A word like ‘the’ is common enough to form about 6% of the English language, which makes you wonder if it isn’t so redundant that we should leave it out all together!
Regarding tests, much of the English teaching in Japan is simply to pass tests that have no real relevance out of the testing suite, this applying mostly to TOEIC, for which there are actually few materials for native speakers to even teach. But they do help in career advancement here, as they are used as an ‘IQ test’ of sorts. Whilst they used to have very strange forms of English that Japanese teachers would show me they were teaching and I’d have to honestly say that it wasn’t real English, these days better-informed people and native speakers have helped make for more relevant contents. Aside from this are the very necessary tests for airline pilots, flight attendants, studying abroad, which must be a huge pressure on the students to do well at, as their lives pretty much depend on it (or other people’s lives, in the case of airline pilots!).
Effective learning and test approaches such as scanning and skimming tests are a must here. Seeing this from the student’s point of view gave me a new sympathy. There really is a need for good teacher here, it’s just a shame that so many systems concentrate on ‘sales’ or ‘not rocking the boat’ rather than what we are here for- ultimately, I think it’s the students, often paying students, who suffer the most from such pressures, which fortunately aren’t a big part of my school life.