Essays on English in Japan

Getting Real in the Classroom: What about Students as Experts?

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Many others have highlighted the necessity of experiencing real and authentic opportunities to communicate in English classes in Japan. Getting real in schools will involve changing the roles that teachers and students assume. As long as the model applied is teacher as distributor of knowledge and students as recipients of this knowledge, authentic opportunities in the classroom for using English will remain out of reach. That paradigm needs to be transformed in ways to narrow the gap between teachers and students, or possibly make it blurry.

Rather than theorize on possibilities, here is one case. At my college, Osaka Jogakuin College, I have taken the roles of teacher, mentor, and learner in a 4th year senior thesis course. In my course, students select their own topics in the area of communication, culture or language. Some topics that students have chosen are: What do children learn through studying at Kumon, What “culture shock” is hard to overcome, why do Japanese have difficulty making friends abroad, and how do families raise their children bilingually in Japan. After selecting their very own research questions, they must read academic articles on the topic, plan research, carry it out and write it up. When written this way, it seems so straightforward, but…

As the students work through this process, my role and their roles shift.  Without thinking, I move from teacher to mentor and to learner while students shift from student to mentee to expert. So how does this work? Initially, as students, they listen to my lectures about doing research, such as what interview questions to ask, how to probe, what types of questions to put on a questionnaire to elicit rich data. Yet, at this early stage students often do not know what is important in their research, what types of questions to ask or what their results will be. They have learned a useful phrase when telling me about this, “I do not know what I do not know.”

As they begin to write their interview questions, a transformation begins. They visit my office for one-on-one sessions. I may have them “interview” me with their newly composed questions; the students soon realize what it means to write questions that lead nowhere. For example, “What age is good to start learning English?” For a survey, this question might be useful to compare a group of respondents, but with a case study of one, the answer “6 years old” is a long way from a 20-page paper. A light goes off in their heads. By asking their own questions, they understand the purpose of asking in-depth questions. Though the lecture introduced them to how to write questions, as mentees they experienced the why by bouncing off ideas with the mentor, former teacher.

Thus, through this one-on-one with the mentor-teacher the student-mentees learn to create interview questions that will provide rich data. Of course, progress is made through more one-on-one sessions with the mentor and mentee examining more questions.

After interviewing people for their research and collecting their data, students then need to categorize, compare, contrast, and analyze the data. Of course, I had given a lecture demonstrating how to put the data into tables to analyze, compare and contrast. However, after asking the interview questions, students came to the one-on-one meetings proudly showing their pages and pages of interview data and beseeching me, “Now what do I do?” After asking, “Remember what I showed you in class about making tables on Word to put the data in for analysis?” and getting blank stares, we sat at my computer and created a table together. Eyes opened and students uttered, “Ah! I remember.” As a mentor, I sent them off to work on their tables and encouraged them to bring the data on their flash memory sticks next time.

Students became accustomed to our new routine. These mentees knocked on my office door, came in, and unlike students in other courses, made a beeline to the seat next to my computer, taking out their flash memories to start work analyzing their data and finding patterns with the mentor-remember that is me.

At this point, roles altered in several ways. Symbolically, the mentee now sat in the chair near the computer, so that she could explain her data and her problems; the student-mentee was now the initiator of the discussions. She asked questions like, “How do I use this quote in my paper?” or “Should I paraphrase this or use a quote?” The mentee became the expert concerning the data, and needs some mentor’s assistance in organizing the paper.

With time, the mentees took ownership of their topics and research. They became the experts and had more knowledge on their topic then I had. I became the learner, asking clarifying questions, and more often than not, responding to a detailed explanation by the mentee with, “Wow, that is very interesting. Do you have another example to support it?” The teacher-mentor is fading into the background and the learner takes front stage.

With the role shifts, student-mentees had to utilize all their English and critical thinking skills, some they did not even know they had acquired. They were listening to my questions, reading their papers over and over and revising examples, adding transition, clarifying points, and arguing a point, all in English. Without even knowing it, they were using and improving these skills through their interactions with the teacher-mentor-learner.

Obviously, in writing this essay, I snatched the positive aspects of this one-on-one interaction. Not all students came as scheduled, some were able to explain better than others, and some waited to almost the last minute. But even these procrastinating students had a learning experience, though less intense. They all shifted from learners to experts.

This role shifting, as described in this course with 12 students, would be hard to implement, as is, with large classes. However, this course clearly highlights the role shifts between teacher and students, and the development of language skills by the students. Key is the shift from the teacher as expert and keeper of knowledge to a role in which the teacher becomes a mentor and learner. At the same time, the students take on meaningful and authentic roles in communicating through English. With these role shifts, everyone learns.

Scott Johnston

Osaka Jogakuin College

May, 2009



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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.