The Language Teacher

A Sonic Boom:
Impressions of JALT '90
Vol. XV, No. 3 March 1991

By Robb Scott

A festive atmosphere in Sonic City

The 1990 JALT Conference in Omiya was a wonderful success, from the opening day plenary address by David Nunan, in which he expressed a preference for teachers being "lost in thought rather than missing in action," to the concluding statements by Christopher Candlin calling for a conscious dialectic between what he terms "syllabus accounts" (the teacher's descriptions of what has occurred in the classroom) and the institutional curriculum guidelines. A festive atmosphere permeated Sonic City, with overflowing crowds migrating along the Sonic City walkway, landing on a regular basis over at Dunkin Donuts, where some of the most enjoyable if not most crucial discussions were held. The difficult matter again and again for me as a conference-goer was choosing whether to extend my conversations with former colleagues and old friends or go to a scheduled presentation; further complications arose whenever I chose the latter, because of the splendid array of options. Thus, I found myself rarely staying for entire sessions, instead running from one to the next, trying to catch the main idea in one before heading over for the conclusion of another. Omiya was a great place for a group with such healthy diversity to learn and play for three days; the clashes of ideas and demonstrations of unique styles contributed to the overall positive, constructive effects of JALT '90.

What really goes on in ESL classrooms?

At Friday's plenary address officially opening the conference, Nunan, of Macquarie University, encouraged teachers to look at what really goes on in language learning classrooms and to think about how to improve the quality of the learning experience for each student rather than to rationalize over unfulfilling daily classroom events by blaming them on a method, a text or the students themselves. He made a strong case for the learner-centered approach to teaching, in which students are empowered to understand and control their own ways of learning, negotiating the curriculum, setting their own objectives and evaluating their own progress in terms of their personal needs. According to Nunan, teachers can best adopt this approach by seeing themselves as teacher-researchers and constantly experimenting to find better ways to meet the needs of learners and to match students' and teachers' agendas. Most crucially, the teacher-researcher continually reflects upon classroom experiences, asking whether the teaching interventions are contributing to positive results for all the learners, whether the results last, and whether the results actually make any difference in the lives of the learners.

ESL students doing Neil Simon plays

That plenary was one of the longest periods of focused attention I enjoyed during the entire conference. Soon afterwards I started running into various acquaintances and the weekend turned into a series of talks, meetings, cups of coffee, quick meals and train rides, all blended together into a stimulating and enriching experience. Friday evening, the reception thrown by Prentice Hall-Regents was crowded to maximum capacity with a frenzy of conversational exchanges. At the theater performance afterwards, I was impressed by excellent renditions of two Neil Simon plays performed in flawless English by native speakers of Japanese. Not only was the English language used gracefully in both productions, but also the actors and actresses displayed true feeling for their roles, using gestures and tone to convey realistic emotions including humor and exasperation. The plays were directed by Jon Brokering, a Chuo University English teacher who believes that drama is the most effective way to teach language.

Positive signs from American branch campus programs

Saturday morning at the panel discussion on American programs in Japan, it became evident that friendly competition among the various programs had begun to produce positive results. The ideal towards which the American schools are striving views the teacher as a professional capable of creating materials suited to the learning needs of each unique group of students, stimulating students' imaginations by using relevant and sometimes controversial topics, and challenging them to think critically and express their own ideas in English. There is less of a tendency today to stereotype the Japanese learner as unmotivated of hesitant: American programs are instead focusing on the eternal teaching dilemma of connecting with and guiding the learner, and many teachers are reporting exciting interaction as a result.

A rousing talk from the author of "The Lost Secret"

Robert O'Neill, author of "The Lost Secret," gave a rousing presentation on the use of video in front of a spellbound audience at noontime on Saturday. With infectious intensity, he described boring, unimaginative and meaningless ways in which video technology is too often manipulated by teachers who percieve video as one more item in their "bag of tricks" or just "something to keep the buggers quiet." He would like to see more teachers utilizing the available technology to produce video materials for use as integral parts of a curriculum based on logically sequenced activities that expose students to interesting and meaningful language use.

Chubu's Masatoshi Sugiura on HyperCard CALL

Sunday morning there were two things I felt I had to see before heading home: a presentation on the use of HyperCard to produce CALL materials by Masatoshi Sugiura of Chubu University Junior College; and an analysis of task-based language learning by Christopher Candlin of Macquarie University. Sugiura explained that although currently available commercial software for language teaching is not very useful, teachers can design their own instructional programs easily with the HyperCard application offered by Macintosh. In HyperCard, a teacher with no previous computer experience can quickly learn how to create stacks of "cards" sequentially/logically linked together so that students choose correct answers, ask for more information or activate commands written by the teacher-programmer in simple English HyperTalk. Macintosh and HyperCard have been developed to make computer programming comprehensible to people who what to utilize computers for their own purposes rather than getting bogged down in esoteric programming codes and information structures. Sugiura demonstrated the use of several English instruction programs he has developed, including situation-based information gap exercises using voice. He encouraged teachers to try using HyperCard and to begin sharing their ideas via a "Stack Network Project" he is organizing in Japan.

Task-based language learning with Christopher Candlin

According to Candlin, a task is not the same as a "Lego brick unit." A learning task is a cooperative effort by learners who take on particular working roles so that they can perform actions in response to input provided by the teacher through authentic texts. Learners monitor their own progress towards goals they have set up for themselves within the context of the given task, report on the outcomes of the task and give feedback to each other as well as to the teacher. Candlin called for "principled selection" fo each new task, based on feedback: some tasks will be highly structured; others, more open. Tasks must be balanced, motivating, differentiating and strategic. Eventually learners should be able to design their own tasks for their own communication goals, suggest ways of evaluating tasks and their own performances, choose relevant content to work on in a given task, contribute to their group's successful completion of tasks and decide on appropriate modes of interaction. Because task-based learning involves the negotiation of a curriculum between learners and the teacher, a new way of looking at curriculum at the institutional level is required. Candlin described a dialectic between an institution's curriculum guidelines and individual teachers' syllabus accounts, or retrospective analyses of what occurs in class. If the syllabus accounts differ from the curriculum guidelines, then, according to Candlin, the guidelines must be changed through interaction between administration and faculty.

The ideal language learning classroom

This is what I learned at JALT '90. The ideal language-learning classroom is one in which students are given the power and the skills to negotiate their own curriculum based on their own communication goals. The ideal language teacher is one who sincerely attempts to perceive the needs of individual students, tries to match his/her agenda to the agendas of the students themselves and ponders deeply the ultimate value of what occurs in class in order to make "principled selections" of activities or tasks. And the ideal language-learning institution is one in which teachers are given the resources, the time and the authority to successfully negotiate the curriculum with each new group of students. The convention experience in Omiya has equipped each of us with some of the analytical tools and the spirit to work towards these ideals. That is why I believe this conference was a brilliant success.

This article was published in The Language Teacher, JALT, March, 1991. Copyright © Robert Bruce Scott. All rights reserved.