1. What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects and what is on the back burner?
In April 2005, I officially retired from Miyagi University, but I continue teaching on a part time basis. In April I will teach thirteen 90-minute classes a week spread over four universities in Sendai, Japan. This is much more classroom exposure than I had as a university professor, administrative duties and research then occupied the majority of my time.
Most of my non-class work time is now devoted to developing materials for my classes. I am working on a text for a class in English conversation and writing fluency. The class is based on sets of leading questions about pictures. In small groups, the students answer the questions verbally and then make up a story which could be illustrated by the pictures. The students then move from group to group sharing stories and discussing ideas. For homework, the students must write a summary of their most interesting story.
For another series of classes I am developing materials that use a regular English novel as the main content. The course combines intensive work on a few pages at a time and extensive reading on the remainder. There are exercises for both.
I am also working with Keith Adams to develop materials for a course in Critical Thinking. This is still in a preliminary stage but I will teach it in the 2006 Fall Semester.
A back-burner project is my continuing attempts to understand the implications of modeling the language acquisition process through complexity and chaos theory.
2. How did you start your ESL related career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?
In 1974 my Japanese wife and I made the decision to reside permanently in Japan. I had prepared myself for making a living and then found that this way was no longer practical, due to changes in the economic situation. A bit of research showed that English teaching was probably the best way to support my family, so I entered the Masters Degree program at Goddard College, majoring in “EFL in Japan.” I am probably the only one in the world with such a degree.
Obviously a discussion of influences must begin with my BA and MA degrees from the self-directed programs at Goddard College. Being responsible for the content of your own program, rather than having someone tell you what to do, is a very enlightening experience that effects everything you do for the rest of your life.
The first formative experience that comes to mind was 30 minutes of private conversation with Wilga Rivers when I was a very green graduate student. The things that she told me about teaching in Japan had a huge effect on my teaching during my first years as a teacher.
I began my first full-time job as an EFL teacher in 1976 at Trident College in Nagoya, Japan. The next few years were very exciting, professionally. I was learning what it really meant to be a teacher. I was the founding president of the Tokai Association of Language Teachers and was deeply involved in merging that organization with the Kansai and Kanto associations to form the JALT (the Japan Association of Language Teachers). I was able to attend presentations and trainings by the continuous stream of people who brought news of the new methodologies.
I probably spent the most time in training seminars by Caleb Gattegno, completing two thirds of his full program. I also learned CLL, TPR, accelerated learning, listening first, and a host of other methodologies, usually from the originator or first generation instructors. I also took a Suggestopedia teacher’s training course from Gabriel Racle, the head of the Canadian government’s Suggestopedia program. Racle had received his training directly from George Lozanov, the developer of the method. This was extremely important for my career as I spent the next 10 years as the head of a Suggestology program.
The most influential trainings, however, were in NeuroLinguistic Programming, which I attended to better understand suggestion, the basis of Suggestopedia. I did a Practitioner training under one of the co-developers, John Grinder, and later completed many other trainings and seminars under various teachers. The tools and ways of thinking have been a strong positive influence on both my teaching and my life. I continue to give occasional NLP seminars for teachers to share this knowledge with others.
3. What are some of the language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher or learner? What insights have you gained through interaction with fellow teachers or learners in these language/culture contexts?
While I have traveled much over the years, I am really only familiar in depth with New England, the northeastern part of the US where I grew up, and Japan where I have resided for the past 30 years.
Almost everything I have learned about teaching Japanese students has at least been verified through interaction with other teachers. One of the most useful experiences was teaching with Janis Hanson. We taught from the same lesson plan and video taped our classes. After each class we would meet and discuss what had happened. When there were differences, we compared the tapes to discover what went right or wrong. It was a very humbling experience, but we both improved greatly as teachers.
Another example would be an informal study Kazunori Nozawa and I did in which we found that it took 3 to 5 years for a new teacher to adjust to the local culture, by this we meant that for the first period the teacher was observed to be different by the local people. After this initial period, the local Japanese people, apparently reading body language, would start to expect the teacher to understand Japanese and to be familiar with local cultural norms.
4. If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new teacher working with English language learners, what would these be?
Firstly, teaching has three components (pedagogy, psychology, and art) which must be integrated into a single whole for superior learning to take place.
Pedagogy refers to how the instructor teaches. My experience indicates that teachers are far more effective when they have studied, and used, a number of different teaching methods. In my case, this means Suggestopedia, Silent Way, CLL, TPR, the Natural Approach, the AudioLingual approach, Listening First, CALL, and more. This, by the way, means more than just a single class in a grad school methods course. I recommend that new teachers actually become proficient in a variety of the methods by using each in class for a year or more. I should point out that the one common thread running through these methodologies is a stress on meaning as opposed to meta-information about the language.
Psychology refers both to how students actually learn a language and how they react to learning it. The best training that I have had in this regard was the three week NeuroLinguistic Programming training mentioned above. I highly recommend such training to all teachers.
Art refers to considering the artistic aspects of each portion of a class. This means controlling the classroom itself when possible: hanging relevant paintings and posters on the walls, having the room clean and neat, having background music and a pleasant, artistic environment where everything relates to and supports the language to be learned. Music when used as an integral part of the lesson is very effective. Texts and supporting materials should be illustrated with artistic drawings, paintings, or photos. Also the linguistic content, depending on the course goals, of course, should include texts of some literary value: poems, short essays, stories, or even novels. This is in stark contrast to what is found in the usual language textbook.
Secondly, learning a language is about acquiring a skill, so it involves using the language, not studying about it. Meta-information about the target language seldom becomes usable language. In my experience, what is needed is an understanding of the meaning and then lots of practice with understanding and expressing meaning. Most language courses, particularly EFL, do not give the students enough practice with the language to build up a functioning ability without conscious control at the detail level. There is a growing body of research in cognitive psychology, too large and diverse to go into here, that indicates that language development is based on usage and understanding, not instruction.
Thirdly, your classroom personality is the most important factor influencing the students learning. Within this, the biggest factor is your rapport with the students. If you do not have rapport with your students, you will not achieve optimal teaching. Rapport in this sense is defined in “Introducing NLP” by O’Connor and Seymour as “The process of establishing and maintaining a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between two or more people, the ability to generate responses from another person.”
In addition to the above, I would like to add two more suggestions: First, if what you are doing does not get the results you want, do something different and, second, if you are getting the results you want, do something different. The reason for the first piece of advice should be obvious – if you keep doing the same thing, you will keep getting the same result. The second may not be so obvious – if things are going well, try something different – it is the best way to continue to learn yourself.
5. What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL and language teaching professions today?
Research: Most research in our field resembles literary criticism, rather than scientific endeavors. In my more than 20 years as a reviewer for various professional publications, I have seen no more than one or two studies that were written up in a way that made them reproducible. For this reason and due to the pressure to be original, there are few attempts to replicate research. Without replication of the research we will never be sure of what we are reporting. It will all remain personal opinions rather than scientific research.
Methodology: Due to the publishing industry becoming a big business with only a few companies, textbooks are tending to be more and more similar. There is little room for experimentation or new methods. This standardization is not going to lead to improved teaching. We must find ways to increase the effectiveness of individual exercises, courses, and entire programs, to bring back the flexibility that we used to enjoy.
Theory: Our profession is now in a period of consolidation. Theory is not important to many teachers. For those who are dealing with theory, much of the discussion is confused, and confusing, because of a lack of consistently defined terminology and the tendency to redefine the opposition’s ideas so that they can be more easily attacked.
Future: Where are we going as a profession and how are we going to get there is to me the most important problem facing us.
Interview by Robb Scott
2006 ESL MiniConference Online