Talking Points November 2015

One Shot Learner Development

Here Jim Ronald and Naomi Fujishima, with some input from students and from the Hiroshima LD Get-together participants, discuss whether a single lecture or meeting with students on the topic of learner autonomy can achieve anything worthwhile.

Naomi: First of all, Jim, can you give some background? Why have you been thinking about this?

Jim: Well, just a couple of weeks ago this is what I did, or tried to do. English Department teachers at my university each get one chance – a lecture of some kind – to address the 130 or so 1st year English Department students. So this is what I aimed to do: to help the students realize that they do have a choice, that it is up to them in lots of ways, that there are plenty of opportunities for using or learning English beyond classes and homework, and that they can get support as they try to do this.

Naomi: It all makes sense to me, but I sense that you wonder whether it was worthwhile. With what we might call “One Shot LD” like this, what can we hope to convey? And how? Is just telling the students enough?

Jim: I’m glad it makes sense to you – that’s a start! But I hope what I said also makes sense to the students; that’s the starting point. This means that I have to somehow meet them where they are, and that’s the challenge. For one thing, where they are might mean a different place for each one of the 130 students. What most of them share, though, is a previous twelve months in which they have had various disappointments.

Naomi: What, for example?

Jim: Well, most didn’t get into their first choice university, and most also didn’t get accepted on the “Global Course” that our university started eighteen months ago. Coupled with that, the dream of “studying English full time” at university that many students may have had has hit the reality, in their first year, of just one or two classes a week where they actually get to use English. My experience as a French student in a British university over 30 years ago was like that – finding that “French” was actually French literature, taught in English by British teachers, and that we only had one French language class, and that taught by a literature teacher who didn’t seem interested in language teaching.

Naomi: I know what you mean, and I think that for many of us then and now, we have a mix of excitement at being somewhere new, different from high school, looking forward to studying something we love, and then we hit a reality that doesn’t match up with our dreams. So, what about these dreams?

Jim: What impressed me coming to Japan from what feels like the more world-weary cynical culture of England (or was that just me?!) was that young people actually have dreams, things that they believe in and want to achieve. But for a lot of people these dreams have got a lot of battering by the time they get to university, and continue to get battered by various circumstances through that first year.

Naomi: That’s true, I’m sure – and not only at your university. So are these battered dreams where we should start? If the scenario you’ve described here is how things are for many people in their first year at a Japanese university, where do we go from there?

Jim: I think that our students’ dreams still have a lot of potential. True, they may be battered by various experiences, and they may be being overlaid by a feeling of “Anyway, maybe it’s enough to enjoy my life as a student – friends, club, part-time job, maybe boyfriend / girlfriend…”

Naomi: That seems to be a large part of students’ lives, here anyway. And in fact we tend to get used to that as teachers, don’t we? So you’re saying that in the middle of all this our job is to say, “Hey, remember that dream you had?” Do you think students are ready to listen to that type of thing, especially when digging out that old dream may be quite a struggle?

Jim: Maybe “ready to hear” – a kind of zone of proximal development – is a key factor in any of this. And I’d suggest that some will be ready to listen, and may be encouraged by the possibilities we try to lay before them.

Naomi: But don’t you think that, with this kind of talk, we’re in danger of just speaking to the front row, to those students with a pen in their hand and a shine in their eyes?

Jim: Yes, sometimes it feels like that, and you wonder if those very ones who are listening don’t need what you’ve got to tell them – that they’re already there. While the other 120 aren’t tuned in to talk about dreams, learner autonomy, support for independent use or learning of English.

Naomi: Sounds just a little depressing! But, I do know what you mean. Then again, maybe there’s a problem with seeing this talk of yours, this “one shot”, as being isolated, a lone voice crying in the wilderness that they only have this one chance to hear!

Jim: Thanks, we all need a reality check sometimes! You’re right, and a good dose of patience, modesty, and humility can help us recognize it for what it is – one of many shots, maybe confirming what they’ve heard before, or seen in a friend, or would hear or read months or years later…

Naomi: Which doesn’t make it pointless, but re-frames a talk like yours as one piece in a bigger picture, where there are various other pieces, reminders, perspectives relative to their dreams or goals that may appeal to students.

Jim: That’s true. If they have a friend who is a “buddy” for an international student, another who is studying hard to go abroad as an exchange student, or who is joining activities at our iCafe/L-Café or wherever, these friends may well be the ones that help them to start thinking about what they could do. And you’re right, it’s not as if I am a lone voice at all. Just a couple of weeks ago I found that our library had set up a “read an English book every day in November” campaign, complete with a personal record card for books read, and prizes!

Naomi: Isn’t that a good idea! I’m sure that type of thing will appeal to some students, and we can easily forget that when it comes to having English within reach, available at any time, you can’t do much better than a book. But before we finish, can I just ask what you do to try to help students with their dreams, goals, and visions of English as part of their future life?

Jim: Looking back at that 90 minutes, almost half was given to sharing the experiences of their sempai, students who have already graduated, or who are just about there. Those exceptions are an inspiration to us, both in what they did as students and in what they’re doing now, and I hope they may also inspire some of the younger students.

Naomi: Could we finish, then, with a couple of their stories?

Jim: Yes, sure. I’ll give one of a fairly normal student’s experience – one to which many students may respond with “Yeah, maybe I could do that!” and one more challenging example, more “Wow, so much is possible!” Please give an example or two of yours, too.

Naomi: Yes, sure. Students inspire me, too!

Jim: Anyway, I’ll talk about Yuki, first. An English Department student who I think I first met at our Spring English Camp – very cheerful, funny, and loved speaking Japanese at every opportunity! I lost sight of her for a year or two, and it was only on the day of the graduation ceremony this March that we happened to meet again. Our conversation was something like this:

Yuki: (in Japanese!) “Did you know, I’m going to be working as a cabin attendant for Korean Air!”
Jim: Wow, that’s great. Chukha heyo!”
Yuki: And I want to say thank you. You told me to really study Korean, to make it one of my languages – and I did! I went to Korea as an exchange student, too, and now I’ve got this job!

Naomi: Wow, nice! It’s the same for us. Most students seem to learn very little of their “second foreign language”, and only a few realize that being able to use another language may be very useful to them. Anyway, Yuki was certainly ready to hear!

OK, let me tell you about one of my students. His name is Saburo, and he was a student who first went to the L-cafe, a social learning space on our campus, to improve his English skills. He took the lessons there, but felt they were not helping him. Instead, he studied on his own to improve his TOEFL score and got accepted to study abroad in the US for ten months. He came back with excellent English skills and ended up helping my colleague, Garold Murray, and me with our research project by becoming a research assistant at the L-cafe. During that time, he observed what was going on there and reported back to us. Through his observations and his own experience, his advice was that if students really wanted to improve their English, the best way was to study on their own and really make that effort. Just taking English classes was not enough. He noticed students would say “I want to improve my speaking skills. I want to study hard,” but they wouldn’t do anything about it. He was truly puzzled by this. He just couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t do something about it if they said they wanted to improve. But I think most students are not as driven as Saburo was. Now he’s graduated and doing very well working for a major Japanese shipping firm in Kobe.

Jim: A true success story! It’s interesting that he saw that disconnect between expressed desires and behavior – the danger of the “dream” ending up as just a dream. If it’s okay, I’ll finish with an example from one more student, Takahiro, who, for me, is almost scarily independent. When I asked him to speak to the students for this one-shot lecture, he said that if he were free to say what he wanted, he would tell them to leave university now and study for themselves!

Naomi: Haha! He sounds very similar to Saburo. Not sure if our universities would like that particular advice!

Jim: Anyway, he didn’t take that advice himself – he’s still with us, heading for graduation in the spring, and with a good job lined up. In his third year, Takahiro went to New Zealand for nine months as an exchange student. He said that while he was there he realized that he wasn’t getting enough English. He decided to start up a kind of “Presentation Club” for other international students. Others were interested, and they’d meet up every week and give presentations to each other about their field of study, about what they were interested in. They invited an English teacher to come along and give them feedback. And they’d have a pot-luck party after every presentation session. Great for their English in lots of ways, great for making friends and contacts from people from all over the world. And he told me this club is still going strong – that he passed on its management to a friend when he left.

Naomi: He was a pioneer in New Zealand and has left his legacy! That must make him feel good to know that the club is still going on without him.

So, do you think that as teachers we’re doing enough or doing things right? Are we helping our students see the opportunities, know how to proceed, and have confidence to step out and really become competent, active users of English?

Jim: To be honest, in this time of abundant “global talk”, we, as teachers, have to be more aware, and more afraid, of that disconnect that your student Saburo noticed. To me, two meanings of the word “dream” encapsulate that danger. One meaning is something close to goal or vision, which is something we can identify in those students whose stories we have shared here. Another is closer to “wouldn’t it be nice, but, if I’m honest… it ain’t gonna happen!” We have to help our students to realize that first sense, and not let ourselves, or them, be fooled by the second. We owe it to our students, and to ourselves.

Naomi: As we continue as language teachers, those exceptional students are important, reminding us that we can help young people make their dreams come true, and the example of those students also keeps challenging us, spurring us on. Every small contribution we can make is significant. As they say, “Think globally, act locally”. And let’s continue to encourage each other with our dreams!

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