Basic Grammar in Use

by Kevin R Burns
(Kanagawa, Japan)

Basic Grammar in Use - English Language Teaching Part 2


On Education in Japan & the West

Basic Grammar in Use, Junior high and high school becomes a ritualized experience to some extent. The students dress in identical school uniforms. They study in rote memorization style for the tests to get the one correct answer. (Then you forget it all a few years later.)


This Lack of Imagination Leads to Problems:

Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano has said officials were unaware of the risk that rice farmers might ship tainted hay to cattle growers. That highlights the government's inability to think ahead and to act, said Mariko Sano, secretary general for Shufuren, a housewives organization in Tokyo.

"The government is so slow to move," Sano said. "They've done little to ensure food safety."

--The San Francisco Chronicle

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."

--Albert Einstein




Teachers tend to lecture to the students from the front of the room in a very teacher centered style. The boards are all at the front and the desks face the front. The focus is on grammar. The goal is to do well on the tests. The cram schools take over where the regular schools leave off, or to supplement the regular schools, where classes are sometimes too noisy and disruptive for any real learning to take place.

Basic Grammar in Use - Sleeping is Okay at Uni

This ritual continues on the throughout university where students are so bored you can often see them sleeping right in front of their Japanese teacher, who does nothing about it. If students are physically present in the classroom (meaning their body is in the room - whether they are participating, checking their cell phone or sleeping) it is rare that they will be failed.

In fact, many universities in Japan make attendance more important than actual school work - so universities tacitly support this non-application (of the passive, non-participative)student phenomenon.

Universities need students, they have bills to pay too. So actual work - actual study, is not nearly as important as simply"showing up to class."

Good native English teachers are let go instead of giving them tenure. It is a tragedy that leads to lowered morale among the remaining teachers, and a brain drain of talent.



"It should come as no surprise that, if we think life is for learning, we would view the process of life itself as a classroom. But it`s not a dull, sit-in-neat-little-rows-and-listen-to-some-puffed-up-professor-drone-on-and-on classroom It is (as we`re sure you`ve noticed) highly experiential. In that sense, life`s more of a workshop."

--John Roger and Peter McWilliams, The Portable Life 101

Shouldn`t the classroom at school too be full of experiential learning? Shouldn`t our classes be more like workshops, than lectures?

Basic Grammar in Use - A Japanese Education Myth:

"You are not ready after university."



People believe the above myth, so companies will train you. I feel this is a positive. Companies in Japan do not care as much about what your major was, they look for good candidates. I like this more flexible nature, as it contrasts with Western companies that peg you based upon your major.

A friend of mine who had majored in commerce, and then worked as an English teacher in Japan, was asked by a Japanese company if he would like to be an engineer? The company would train him. This would be unheard of in Canada and most of the West.

In the West, your university education tends to "pidgeon-hole" you into certain career choices. Not nearly so much in Japan. Again I feel this is a very good thing. Why can`t say an accounting major, train as an engineer with the company`s blessing in North America? In the west we have become specialists. I do not feel this is a good thing. There is much to be said for being a generalist. Generalists are better at seeing the big picture.

Some suggest that "carefully calibrated mediocrity," is the result of rote memorization-style education. I agree!

Indeed the disconnect between effort and results is damaging to motivation. We see this all over Japan.

The West

Kindergarten and elementary school, like Japan is a time for creativity, learning, and experimentation. The teachers are dedicated and encourage exploration and creativity.

Japan and the west diverge from junior high school on. In the West, there is much more emphasis on asking for student opinions. Schools tend to be places offering more creative outlets, and more freedom. Part of growing as a person is developing critical thinking skills.

One day at a well known game shop in Shinjuku, I asked the clerk why they no longer carried a certain product. I thought the clerk was going to have a brain meltdown, as all he could do was keep repeating the word, "Why?,,,.... Why!?" -several times in exasperation. I finally said it is okay, I don`t need to know. But I wondered why it was such a difficult question to answer. It was a question that required an opinion.

Were my own children to study in the west, as a parent, I would worry about drugs and other negative influences. I don`t worry as much about this in Japan. As a child in Canada, I had to make a choice about whether or not to use drugs. I chose not to. Then I was forced to find some new friends. It would have been easier to indulge in marijauna smoking at lunchtime than not to.

Basic Grammar in Use - A Western Educational Myth:

"You are ready after you leave university."

Few people, fortunately, believe in this myth. Certainly companies do not. They know it is a myth, and that you will need a lot of training, hand-holding, and further training and follow up, to be a good employee.

Perhaps Japan and the West can learn from each other? There are aspects that are great to both.

Basic Grammar in Use

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