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Proposal for a Learning-Centred,
Computer-Enhanced Syllabus for
Japanese University ELT Classes
Gregory Poole
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1. Acknowledgements

The author thanks Takachiho University for a generous overseas research grant that supported this and other projects during the 2001/2002 academic year.

2. Introduction

Although often deemed reticent and unresponsive language learners (see, e.g., Oxford, Hollaway et al. 1992), young Japanese adults, if given the chance, can be quite independent learners. Collaborative projects and team learning is familiar to every Japanese student (see, e.g., Passin 1982; Rohlen 1983; Azuma, Hakuta et al. 1986; Beauchamp 1991; Rohlen and LeTendre 1996). The passive lecture-style of most high school and university language classes in Japan fits more with the otherwise 'western' view of "banking education" (Freire 1985) or "empty vessel model" (Brandsford, Pellegrino et al. 1999) than with the more learner-centred models employed in Japanese primary and secondary schools (White 1987; Benjamin 1997). With careful thought and planning, there is every reason to believe that a more flexible approach to the language syllabus could be successful in a Japanese college setting.

This paper, then, is a proposal for implementing more flexible teaching and learning methods at a Japanese university. First, the specific context is explicated to set the stage. The realities and attributes of ELT at Japanese schools of higher education are enumerated and the local setting is discussed to give the reader a better understanding of the issues facing language teaching at the school in question and how these could possibly be addressed using a more open syllabus. The next section delineates the actual aims and objectives of the proposed syllabus, relating these back to the different local issues previously mentioned. A brief survey of relevant literature on both learner independence and open methods of language instruction provides theoretical justification for such an approach. Finally, in the conclusion, a discussion of the possible challenges and hurdles to implementing such a syllabus finishes the paper.

3. Background

3.1 ELT at Japanese Universities

Japan has one of the highest rates of post-secondary school attendance among all industrialized nations, with 2.5 million undergraduates enrolled at over 600 national, public, and private four-year universities (Hirowatari 2000). Over half of all Japanese teenagers, then, apply to take a college entrance exam for admission into a tertiary institution. Most such admissions exams include a compulsory English proficiency sub-test although EFL is not a state-required subject at primary, secondary, or tertiary schools in Japan. Partly because of this university entrance exam focus on English, while only a handful of students are exposed to language classes in primary school, over 10 million 12 to 18 year olds, and another million or so university students, 'elect' to study English.

Not only is English a requirement to enter college, most students study the subject at some point during their four years of attendance. All universities offer foreign language courses, and EFL is by far the most studied subject of these. In fact, although students sometimes have a choice of different English classes from which to choose, EFL in some form is a required subject at nearly every tertiary institution in Japan. The nature of the English language teaching milieu at Japanese colleges corresponds closely to Holliday's description of Tertiary English and Secondary English Programs (TESEP) (Holliday 1994). These TESEP attributes include:

1. EFL as a part of a wider curriculum and influenced by institutional imperatives.

2. ELT has a role alongside other subjects in socializing students as members of the work community.

3. EFL is but one of many subjects taught and must work within parameters and resources that are delimiting factors for all courses.

4. ELT methodology choice is limited by institutional-wide approaches adopted across different subjects, as well as the expectations of the actors themselves (students, language teachers, teachers of other subjects, administrators, and the Japanese Ministry of Education Mombukagakusho).

3.2 Over-worked TESEP Teachers

Participant-observers in Japanese academia have noted the unbalanced time-allocation of professors to activities not related to teaching, class preparation, or research (e.g., see McVeigh 1997; Befu 2000; Poole 2001). Administrative responsibilities are at times overbearing in a Japanese college, with faculty responsible for the governance of the institution. Countless committees (Befu mentioned 24 at one institution) define a faculty member's weekly meeting schedule. There is a strong moral compulsion, "responsibility," to be present at the, sometimes, weekly general faculty meetings- open-ended affairs that are inevitably a "battle of endurance since 'consensus-making' is a mere euphemism" (Befu 2000).(1)

Although there is an expectation that teachers in Japan spend time informally befriending and counseling students, actual classroom teaching is usually neither monitored nor paid much institutional concern. In general, the priority at universities in Japan is not classroom pedagogy, although language courses are sometimes more closely scrutinized because of the growing awareness that lecturing is not the most effective way to educate students in another tongue. As a result, recently, language class sizes have been limited to between 20 and 40 students instead of the 100 or more that is the norm in many lecture courses. Generally speaking, the abovementioned TESEP attributes imply institutional and methodological constraints, such as overwork, that transcend individual teachers' abilities and good intentions.

(1) One faculty meeting held last year at the institution where this author works lasted seven hours, with still no consensus reached.

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