Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Japanese Education: For the Loss

Think about a school. All of the subjects that are taught and the teachers and students that work there. It is a junior high. Now picture a subject. Let's go with math. It is a big school so we will say that there are twelve math teachers. Eleven of these teachers have a reasonable exposure to math. One of them can do trigonometry. Some of them can multiply fractions. The majority of them know some simple algebra and all of their work has to be checked by the twelfth teacher who is completely proficient in the discipline of math. This teacher might make a mistake or two, but they know how to check on it and correct it and they understand the underlying principals involved. Not only can they do calculus and trig, but they use it in their life daily. The other teachers pretty much forget about math the second they leave the classroom. They don't read math books, or watch math on TV or navigate ships or moonlight as accountant. The one teacher who is capable of all this stuff, what do we figure about them? Are they the head of the department, or responsible for lesson planning? Do they get paid a higher salary? Are they tasked with making sure that the teachers who are weaker in the subject, much weaker in some cases, get up to speed and that their classes are imparting the correct information? Do they get bonuses like the other teachers? Is their job secure? If they find that some teachers are teaching students that 2 +2 =5 or that 20% of 100 is 33, do they have the ability to solve that issue and get things back on track? If the answer to all of these questions was a resounding belly laugh of a "no" would you be surprised? You should be. It would be absurd. Imagine the whole country hanging their heads and wondering why their math scores were so low and that their economy had been passed by China. Now, change the word "math" to "English" and substitute whatever you like for the equations. That is everyday that I am at work.

I am not saying this to aggrandize myself, although I think that I am good at my job, or to blow of some steam, even though the pot has boiled out and over and is burning through now that the last drop has evaporated. I want people to understand what a backwards, counterproductive, self-defeating system English education in Japan is. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous. Laughable. A farce.

It is test time here at the junior high. It has been going to be test time for the last half of this week since the schedule was made at the beginning of the school year. This means that with an English listening test happening first thing Wednesday morning, English teachers will be scrambling to throw something together about four in the afternoon on Tuesday.

It has just occurred to me that before telling you about the listening test debacle of yesterday, I should first take you on a tour of how the listening test is recorded. I will substitute our hypothetical math teacher with me, a somewhat hypothetical English teacher at the largest junior high in Osaka prefecture. Look it up. One of my jobs at school is to provide the voice on the listening test. Why? Because I can actually speak English. Not that every teacher can't. Some can, surprisingly. Usually a script is handed to me as we walk into the recording room and I realize how fraught it is with awkward or even mistaken English which I try to correct on the fly. The recording room here is like the recording room in most junior highs I have been in, a small, dusty room with stacks and stacks of unused, expensive equipment lining the walls and piled on the floor in boxes and cases, left sitting where they were brought of the truck. There is always a large soundboard, like in a radio station with an MD player and other audio equipment attached. Dust covers this pricey table as no one has touched it. Cardboard covers the inside of the windows but the sound of balls whacking of of the fencing on the outside echoes. Through this room is a door to a smaller room, like a closet where stacks of unused audio equipment, mixers and mic-stands and chords, take up the majority of the space. In the corner behind the door is an old desk, with its metal drawer smashed in. On the desk sit two VCRs, a mic and a small, two-channel, audio mixer. The VCR on the bottom is used for playing an old tape that someone made years ago of hand drawn letters on a piece of poster board that read "Listening Test" in Japanese. A line runs through the middle of the tape when it plays but sometimes it bounces up or down. It dances around and turns to a covering of static. Sometimes it disappears. The video output of the bottom VCR feeds into the top VCR which is there to record this image over and over for as long as it takes to degrade into nothing and then someone will wonder how to make a new one and probably rig it up just like this tape was in the first place. The little mixer and Mic, one you would probably pick up for your home karaoke set, has an RCA out which goes into the audio in of the top VCR so that its audio is recorded over the slowly dying video image. That is how we record listening tests. When it is finished and the time for the test has come, the tape is transferred to another VCR which broadcasts to all of the TVs in the school. It is much the same system that we used when I was a junior high school student and we found that we could record 1970s funk songs over TV ministers and laugh as they coincidentally jumped and pranced in time to the music. That was at least twenty years ago. But it isn't the worst that I have seen. At my last school they would carry cassette decks into the recording room, set them on the mixing board and record the test into the little mic embedded next to the speaker, as tens of thousands of dollars of equipment set unused in boxes on the floor.

I have tried to change these practices wherever I have been. The other teachers look at me as if I just suggested that viruses were caused by germs and not seasonal temperature changes and revert back to their old ways as soon as I turn my back like children sneaking cookies from the jar.

I was surprised last week when the older lady who teaches the third years, let's call her "T-sensei", asked me to make the listening test. She is one of two third year English teachers. The other is younger and went to college in America and, for the most part, teaches English very well. I praised him highly to our principal last year, and now he is the head English teacher and a year or two younger than me. Let's call him "O-sensei." I don't mind making the test. I was glad that they think enough of me to find me capable. However, I teach every class in the school, all 28 of them. All 1,053 students. When making a test it is very difficult for me to dead reckon the general ability level and what material has been covered in which class and so on, so I asked what was to be included. It was determined by T-sensei that there would be ten questions; four pertaining to "_______makes me______." Four on the subject of "______is called ______" The last two would be about how to give directions regarding trains. I prepared a rough draft and showed it to T-sensei on Monday.
"Hmmm. mmmm. It would be nice to have pictures."
"Let's not do ten let's do eight."
"Eight total questions?"
"Yes, let's do two on 'make' two on 'is called' two on directions and the last four on the present perfect tense."
"So ten questions total?"
"Yes, eight."
"Two plus two plus two plus four. Ten"
"Yes. Here are some examples in the book."

Needless to say this conversation between two professional English teachers took place in Japanese because one of them would have found it impossible in English. I ran out of time on Monday and was left having to skip a first year class to clear time to make it on Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday morning on the staircase T-sensei says to me, "I am thinking we should make the listening test easier this time. Their level isn't so high." That was okay with me, however all I have ever seen of their English tests is the script I am given to read. I have never seen the answer sheet that the students will read from or the grading system that will evaluate and process it. In this vacuum, I made the test, skipping two hours of classes, going over the teacher's edition of the text books, which I am not in possession of as non-Japanese are not usually issued teacher's editions and importing lots of pictures for the answer sheet as requested. I attempted to adjust the dialogues to subjects we had touched on in class. For example, instead of "I have a dog who is fat and white, but we call him 'Pochi.' Do you like foreign countries Ratna?" Or whatever oddness usually surfaces, I made the statement, "His name is Obama, but I call him Mr. President." As we had talked about in class how it is rude to call a head of state "Obama."

It was a very nice looking test. I returned to my desk, satisfied, with final drafts copied and scripts prepared. Not being able to locate T-sensei, I saw O-sensei at his desk. I brought the test over. We are on fairly good terms.
"Here is the test I came up with, tell me if anything needs to be changed."
(Again, this is all in Japanese. This teacher is the head of the English department but cannot converse in the language without a great deal of patience.)

He hung his head in his hands. "This won't work. This is no good. I can't understand it."
"In what respect?"
"What is this question asking? I don't understand. The students will never figure it out. This. It is too easy."
"Is it too easy or too hard?"
"I don't understand it."
I was fairly upset. "Then don't use it. Make a new one, but don't ask me to make a new one as the only guidelines I had were issued by you."
"I don't know anything about that. Who told you to do what?"
"What did she say?"
"She gave me a rough outline and some examples."
"It won't work."
"I am sorry. I am not in class everyday. I don't know their level."
"It isn't a level problem, it is a test making problem."
"Then don't use it. Make a new one. It won't hurt my feelings if you throw it out, but you can't asks me to make something and give me no information on what you want or need and then say it isn't what you wanted because I don't know what you want."
"Maybe we can use the middle two questions if we change the answers."
"I am not asking you to use my test to make me happy. I don't care. I have other things I could have been doing. If I am not helping you I have other work to do."

I will spare you the remainder, but anyone who has been in a Japanese conversation understands that the degree of forward progress is better measured with sundials and farmer's almanacs. It was agreed that it was T-sensei's job to make the test, and not mine. That I am here to help rather than to contribute and that they would call me when it was time to record.

It was now three in the afternoon and the second year teacher who had set-up a time with me the week before stopped by my desk and we went over the script and recorded without a hitch. Around 4:30 the first years teachers came to find me and asked if I could record. This was the first I had heard from them, but that had been expected. The teacher in charge of the listening test is fresh out of college and had never recorded anything before. I am not sure I have ever heard him speak English and I had to show him how to work the double VCR dubbing system. Going in to each recording I always tell the teachers that we are going to knock it out in one take. Partially to encourage them. Partially because the room is small and sweltering and smells like dust. But really, mainly, because I worked for years in radio and adults stumbling over a 5 minute script makes me bleed internally. Teachers whose job is to speak in front of 40 teenagers every day saying that they are nervous when presented with a mic strikes me as foolish.

Halfway through the script, the young teacher began a panic-stricken motion for me to stop. "I forgot that we never taught them question three." It had to do with "Where" and no one could remember if they knew "where" and it was supposed that maybe they learned it in elementary school, or not. As a picture of a cat was already on the answer sheet I suggested that we just ask "Do you like cats?" Everyone chuckled and then considered scrapping the whole thing and rerecording me doing a self introduction. It was now 5pm and I am supposed to leave by 5:15. No third year teachers are in the office. The questions are changed, we go in, knock it out and it everything we recorded disappears from the cassette tape. It takes a while but I find it, an oddity of cassette tapes that things can be lost on them. It is now 5:10.

I find T-sensei in the hall, checking whether students memorized sections of the book that they never understood the meaning of. I ask her if we can record and she cobbles together the scraps of paper that are now the listening test. I glance over them. I realize that some sections involve a part A and a part B so that I will need her to record with me. As we sit down to record she tells me she hasn't come up with questions so I will just have to make them up as we go. Fortunately I am a pro. Halfway through she ask that I stop the recording.
"What happened?"
"You forgot to say 'Number 2'"
"No, I think I said it."
"You didn't. We have to go back and record it again."
"I am pretty sure I said it, but we will check."

After rewinding at restarting, it is there "Number 2" and we are off again. As usual, the script is awkward and flawed. I will try to represent the last question to the best of my ability,

"Mr. Kato has visited Australia and India but he has never been to any other country. How many foreign countries had Mr. Kato visited?"

To me this sounds like a trick question involving a Mr. Kato who happens to have dual citizenship with Australia and India but a strong dislike of travel. T-sensei couldn't understand the issue. It strikes me as a very Japanese question involving several assumptions that could just as easily be not true and an clumsy use of "foreign" which can only be used to solve the problem by making sure that Mr. Kato is Japanese and that other countries only exist in relation to Japan. Maybe I am overthinking it.

It is now past 5:30 and I get my things to leave. This is an tricky point too. It states in my contract that I have to leave by 5:15. Sometimes I stick around when I am helping with soccer or working on something, but I usually take off. Mainly because there is nothing to be done. But it is a barrier. Japanese teachers, in my experience, are terrible managers of time and take great pride in how busy they are and how late they stay at work. So my time being wasted and mismanaged and under-utilized, shouldn't make me angry when I view it as a waste, I should feel satisfied that I did less than I could have and think up ways to do things more inefficiently and cause myself to stay later garnering more respect.

Sometime this week there will be a TV show where experts wonder how it could be that Japan is slipping. How could it be?


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attempting to silence the voices in my head.