Do we practice what we teach? Influences of experiential knowledge of learning Japanese on classroom teaching of English

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Peter Burden, Okayama Shoka University

Filling out this questionnaire reminded me of Mark Twain's comment "The only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school." (Comment from a participant in this study who has studied Japanese in a class for two years)

Inspiration for this paper came one day while sitting in my Japanese class, feeling slight dissatisfaction with my teacher's approach amidst an awareness that as a student of Japanese I was learning through activities that as a "communicative" teacher I discouraged in my own English "conversation" classroom. I enjoyed repeating after the teacher, my bilingual dictionary was a constant companion, and before each class I felt a sense of anticipation over the mini test of the previous week's vocabulary and the concomitant expectation of teacher praise. Perhaps it was my Japanese classroom learning, which I enjoyed, that was a true expression of my learning beliefs, and not the so-called "communicative" method that I had been instilled with when gaining professional qualifications.

Therefore, I decided that I wanted to see if other teachers had similar influences from their experiences of Japanese learning. As well as reflecting on "the existence of two separate worlds" (McDonough, 2002, p.404) of Japanese learning and English teaching, it would be useful to compare teacher-as-learner opinions of learning experiences. As Freeman (1993, p.102) has noted, curiosity, questions, or "simply feeling uncomfortable about something in the classroom" underpins much research. I felt I wanted to know other teacher's beliefs about learning Japanese in a class and whether reflecting on Japanese lessons could lead to a change in teaching practice.

Experiential learning

Edge (2002) and Wallace (1991) write very persuasively on the feeling of classroom unease caused by confusion over knowledge. We can learn from books and experts (received knowledge) and we can also learn from experience (experiential knowledge), while understanding our knowledge through articulation. These are two different ways of learning that produce different types of knowledge. Often there is incompatibility between intellectual learning and experiential knowledge and so maybe I am experiencing a clash between theoretical knowledge received through courses, and experiential knowledge assimilated through classroom experience of Japanese. If we view learning as an active and constructive activity influenced by an individual's existing understandings, beliefs, and preconceptions, then existing knowledge and beliefs probably play a strong role in shaping what we learn and how we learn. I wondered if I was doing my students a disservice by denying them classroom tasks or activities just because they are deemed inappropriate in some so-called communicative approach to learning.

Knowledge and beliefs

The way English teachers understand and respond in their classrooms is mediated by their experiences both in and outside the classroom, and values as well as professional knowledge (Golombek, 1998, p. 459). Much classroom knowledge is experiential, gained from practical experience, as opposed to received knowledge or facts, theories, and related specialized, or research based knowledge. Arguably, received knowledge may be better assimilated when learned or reinforced in an experiential way. As teaching is a knowledge-based multidimensional activity, the creation of teaching knowledge is a process in which "ideas are sown, germinated, thinned pruned and displayed" (Hegarty, 2000, p.454), and in which teachers need to reflect on the received knowledge in light of classroom experience. This creates conditions where classroom learning experience can feed back into the received knowledge. Eraut (1994, p.71) has noted that teaching theory comes from many sources, including school experience which Lortie (1975) has referred to as the "Apprenticeship of Observation." For the teacher-as- student, interaction in the classroom is not passive observation as it is a relationship which has consequences and thus is invested with affect. Therefore, reflection on experience of classroom learning has will contribute to knowledge of students and theories of human behavior but which are not clearly formulated or even explicitly stated.


Through reflecting on a teaching situation, teachers can solve problems in various aspects of their work, and we can recall images of experiences through examples of practice. If we want to improve our teaching through reflective inquiry, we must "accept that it requires deliberation and analysis of our ideas about teaching as a form of action based on our changed understandings" (Bartlett, 1990, p.202). For example, I became aware that I should avoid using overly simplified English when talking to students, which arose after a Japanese teacher spoke to me as if I were about seven years old. We should also hold images of good teaching, such as the enthusiastic teacher, or the teacher who actively used authentic material to make the subject applicable to our lives. These provide good role models and are easy to recall and remember. Drawing on images of "good teaching" we have experienced in Japanese class, and linking positive images to personality attributes we possess reinforces the appropriateness of the image and the model. It is the image of the kind of teacher we want to become.

As teachers, we should always be striving to improve our lesson content so that classes are more in tune with our learners' needs. Richards and Lockhart (1996, p.3) note that "the teacher who has a more extensive knowledge and deeper awareness about the different components and dimensions of teaching is better prepared to make appropriate judgments and decisions in teaching." Therefore, teachers' personal theories need to be uncovered before any development can occur. Through addressing our beliefs as classroom teachers we can engage with new ideas and accommodate them within our own belief structures.

Previous studies

Previous studies of language teachers reflecting on learning experiences suggest that "being on the receiving end" allows teachers to see connections with language learning, and thereby to become more sensitive to problems and processes confronting learners (Lowe, 1987; McDonough, 2002; Ransdell, 1993). Flowerdew (1998) notes that beyond empathizing with students and gaining insights into their thought processes, teachers are encouraged to develop insights into the language learning process as well as to relate and evaluate issues in teaching theory in the light of their experience as learners.

Purposes of this study

This paper focuses on the beliefs we have of our teaching and learning experience through reflection on our experiences as learners. This encourages imaging of both good and poor practice, which we can then as teachers actively experiment with and adapt in our classrooms. Through exploring our Japanese learning in class we can reflect on our teaching. The simple research questions asked participants to briefly consider what activities pleased or displeased them, and then more deeply to consider which activities in their Japanese class have influenced the way they teach. I also encouraged the participants to add any comments they would like to tell me about their classroom experience of learning Japanese.

Research method

A simple, brief, open-ended questionnaire was devised and designed to allow for distribution and collection by e-mail. Participants volunteered to take part by responding to postings on Internet web- based chat sites such as "JALTtalk" or "English Teachers Japan" volunteered to take part. I informed the participants that the study formed part of my postgraduate studies, that I would possibly like to use the data in a subsequent publication, and that I would guarantee confidentiality. Twenty-eight English teachers (women = 7; men = 21) who have, or are studying Japanese in a classroom kindly sent their replies as an email attachment. Table 1 shows the mean and median lengths of time studying Japanese, and classroom learning. The median was used because two teachers had been studying for over 20 years, while two had very recently arrived in Japan.

Table 1. Length of time studying Japanese (N = 28)

  Mean Median
Total length of time studying Japanese 7 years 9 months 5 years
Length of time studying Japanese in a class 2 years 10 months 2 years

Results and implications

Pleasing and displeasing activities and teaching approach

Comments from teachers-as-learners showed that structure is very important, especially deductive grammar explanations, clear presentation, reviewing opportunities, and error correction in controlled practice. There were many comments that showed respondents appreciated clearly defined lesson plans often using authentic material in a friendly and enjoyable atmosphere. Respondents placed importance on the teacher showing patience and understanding using tailor-made materials that focus on the individual, on being treated as an equal, on the teacher using appropriate tone, and on the teacher not speaking the learner's language in class.

Conversely, negative comments focused on the teachers failing to understand learner difficulties and especially on the use of inappropriate methods were most noted. These included a reliance on rote learning of learn kanji without explanations of their origins or components, 'drill and kill,' and the teacher assuming that what is understood through explanation can lead to productive mastery. Often teachers were text bound, lacking creativity: "She tends to go by the book 99% of the time. I'd like more real life situations and pictures not from the book to be used as practice." Participants commented on teachers being overly strict and inflexible with often ill-thought-out activities and a lack of planned structure. Teachers often wanted a single correct answer and were prepared to wait until students supplied it, placing too much emphasis on grammar and the constant correction of mistakes. Teachers used a one-pattern approach based on dialogue, questions, and grammar based on the dialogue. One participant lamented poorly thought-out grammar explanations resulting in excessive time spent writing on the blackboard, while it was also noted that teachers often did not suggest suitable learning strategies. One participant commented that the teacher demonstrated "(less-than-sound) teaching practice through the use of certain audiolingual techniques" and a lack of pair work using few communicative tasks.

Influences of learning on teaching

As teaching theory is mediated and strongly influenced by experiences learners have had, "People tend to teach, or… avoid teaching, in a manner similar to that in which they have been taught" (Eraut, 1994, p.71). As one participant pithily noted:

Filling out this questionnaire reminded me of Mark Twain's comment 'the only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.' Paradoxically, I often felt I learned most from my worst teachers: sheer frustration made me go out and learn on my own.
(2 years studying Japanese).

While this paper did not set out to be a criticism of Japanese teachers' methods, a surprising bi-product was the degree of negativity that underpins learning experiences. Reflecting on the why of good and poor experiences lead teachers to realize what they should discourage in their classroom and the need to be flexible enough to gain the opinions of their students on the suitability of tasks and methods. One teacher who stated that in all her experience of learning Japanese she had never had a teacher who asked her what she would like to do in class and urged me to show the results to Japanese teachers, while another teacher remarked pessimistically that he "had never had a teacher that pleased him in thirty years of studying."

Traumatic experiences influencing teaching

A number of teachers remarked on quite traumatic experiences in their Japanese classroom. Through capturing and reflecting on an image, our personal practical experiential knowledge is shaped by our experiences as a learner and therefore influences what we do as teachers. One teacher wrote, "My Japanese teacher made each student stand in front of the class and sing. Due to my total lack of musical ability, I felt that it was one of the more degrading experiences in my life" (30 years of Japanese, 1 year in a class). Therefore, this teacher only gets students to perform skits in front of the class so long as they volunteer and that the group dynamic is displayed rather than the focus being on an individual.

Another participant felt a lack of recognition of efforts as a serious student. Having bought expensive learning aids, dictionaries, and textbooks, and wishing to participate actively in the class, he saw himself as a serious student. But he remarked that his teacher thought differently: "Perhaps it was my manner—joking, loud, quick to chip in —she saw CLOWN (participant's emphasis)" (5 years in a class). This suspicion that he was perceived as a fool made him sensitive to real or imaginary slights such as when another student was given his turn or when he was not called upon to read a passage aloud. "So in short, I grew dejected or disinterested and I quit." This participant has reflected on this experience, noting that he is careful to respect the opinions of his students: "I suppose this made me resolve to make my classroom practices fair for all my students. I have often reflected about these classes because I felt it was due to my personality—attention seeker, clown, loudmouth, that my true worth as a student/person has been obscured." These two examples of recounting experiences illustrate three aspects of experiential knowledge: Firstly, the affective nature of knowledge as seen here in the participants' fear of being made to perform by singing, and being ignored or left out of activities; secondly, the moral nature of knowledge encourages them to consider how they feel they would like and expect to be treated; thirdly, critical in the classroom it is the consequential nature of knowledge which influences how they will treat their own students after reflecting on the experience. The two participants emphasize the class dynamic, getting students to volunteer, and by being fair so that all of the students are encouraged to take part.

Empathy with students

One participant noted the importance of studying in a class while teaching and how it influences his teaching: "When my Japanese teacher speaks too quickly or uses difficult vocabulary I am soon lost and tend to either get frustrated or just completely tune out. It reminds me to slow down and repeat instructions in my own class." He remembers feeling lost when the teacher asked a question: "I had no idea how to respond, so I was embarrassed in front of all my peers. I realized that is something I have done to so many of my own students" (2 years in a class). The importance of walking in the students' shoes, knowing how it feels to struggle, to not completely understand, and to make mistakes in front of peers is recalled. One learns empathy on the opposite side of the desk and reflecting on his experience, he states that: "I talk to them about my own troubles with Japanese pronunciation. Students seem to feel more comfortable and less self-conscious about mistakes knowing that I am hacking my way through their language."

Another participant cited teachers who displayed creativity as an influence as "I have discovered that I tend to retain more when I'm involved and having fun. Therefore, I try to use such activities in my own teaching" (7 or 8 years in a class). When this participant experienced mindless drills or boring, repetitive work, she vowed not to use them in her class while she has dispensed with exams, which she feels unnecessary to assess her students' development or achievement in language skills.

Poor teaching practice

One participant remarked that he feels his Japanese learning has had a negative influence on practice:

I have no memories of good practice I found little that helped me in most of the language classes I have taken. I also did not feel that the classes related in any way to whatever proficiency I gained in the language.
(1 year in a class)

However, reflective thought on his experiential classroom knowledge encourages him to "now avoid doing anything that she did in class, if at all possible." Another participant noted that in his Japanese class, the bulk of the time was spent on grammar rules, which encouraged looking at the ending of verbs to know the correct response form. He felt that even if he could memorize the rule, he still would not be able to use it when he actually had a conversation in real time. Therefore, in his own classes he tends to spend limited time on rules and more time on usage to reinforce whatever understanding of rules students may remember from high school or junior high school classes.

Another participant recalls a teacher's "dismissive attitude toward mnemonic devices" (2 years) and other such techniques, so he encourages an overview of available learning strategies so students will be able to recognize those that they may find personally useful. Another participant remarked that the Japanese course showed the value of using a variety of approaches in the language classroom (student - student; open class; groups; presentation):

I had one teacher who did the same thing for the 4 hours - all teacher-centered - it drove me nuts. By the end of the 3rd hour, I'd had enough and to be honest I escaped a couple of times.
(4 years in a class)

Meanwhile, another participant remarked on teachers who "slavishly" follow the text and never introduce anything new into the class because they appear to follow the teacher's manual as it was written.

Using textbooks

One participant also found that as a student he really did not like handouts, which he sees as a way to keep costs low, but "was a sure-fire way to losing interest in learning." The same participant disliked "superfluous" game-like materials when he had the serious activity of passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test foremost in his mind. Two points made him think of how to improve his own teaching. He now avoids too infrequent usage of textbooks, as carrying one in his bag to and fro annoyed him, especially when the chances of it being used were slight. Aware that the textbook often represents the face validity of a course, he now uses the textbook in every class session even if it is only one exercise and discourages bombarding students with handouts. He also now considers more deeply the appropriateness of the level of the text for students' abilities.

Socio-cultural influences

Another participant adds that studying Japanese helped him get an insight from a cultural-lexical viewpoint on how the Japanese language works and hence how his students might be struggling in the classroom. In Japanese he always found grammar difficult, so this has increased his empathy for students who might have trouble with pronunciation and L1 interference. Socioculturally, he gained insight into problems students must have with adjectives and the realization that although we can communicate in Japanese without making sentences in English this is almost impossible. Therefore, he felt "more aware of the different language culture that exists between English and Japanese and the consequent problems for learners in my classroom."


As our teaching knowledge is mediated by classroom experience of language learning in the past as well as the present, so our students' learning is mediated by their previous learning experiences. Besides musing on "why I have never had a teacher ask me what I want?" (8 years in a class) we need to keep the same question foremost in our own minds when planning our lessons. I noted earlier that after reflecting on my own teaching practice, I had an uneasy feeling that we may be doing our students a disservice by putting an emphasis on some form of communicative teaching. In thinking back to my teacher-education program, I felt an incompatibility between intellectual learning from books and my past experiential knowledge. As teachers, we often feel that what we are "told by teacher-educator or learn from a book does not gel with what we know to be true from our own experience" (Edge, 2002, p.19). Therefore, as teachers we should not make assumptions that we know best about our learner needs based on some principle of best methods. Teachers need to be aware of learner beliefs to avoid teacher/learner mismatch (Kumaravadivelu, 1991), over purposes for the task and future benefits for learning. Holliday (1994) argues that we need to look beyond the individual as much of what goes on is influenced by factors within the wider educational institution, the educational environment, and the wider society. McDonough (2002) reminds us to keep in mind that learner's often perform "bottom-up" focusing on individual tasks, whereas teachers approach with a "top-down" overall process in mind. Yorio (1986) notes that intuitively a close match between what learners demand and what programs supply leads to comfort for the learners and an increase in the amount of learning that is likely to take place. Occasionally teachers may find that what learners demand as consumers is contrary to what we as educators feel is good for them, so some adjustment or compromise will have to take place before a harmonious learning conducive situation can exist.

From the standpoint of behavior, there is a tendency for students to seek situations compatible with their own learning patterns. The students' learning experiences in high school may have relegated communicative activities to below the instrumental needs of passing exams. It could be said that such a teaching approach has fostered feelings of success, so it is very hard for students to dispense with it after they enter university. Considering our own experiences reminds us of how important it is to walk in our student's shoes, as teachers learn empathy when they are on the opposite side of the desk. Our beliefs about teaching guide us in our practice and are derived from sources such as experience and personality.


Ransdell (1993, p.45) noted that a single semester learning a foreign language "taught me more than I had learned in several years of attending conferences and sifting through journal articles." Reflecting on our classroom learning experiences and visually imaging teachers' good or poor practice makes us aware of good or poor examples of aspects of classroom teaching and activity selection. We can then use these images and reflections to consider our own practice, or appropriate methods, when we are facing classroom difficulties. In good examples of teaching, we can consider how the teacher copes with adverse situations. Through Japanese classroom experience, we gain empathy as two teachers noted:

Being a student helped me to understand how my students felt. This made it a lot easier to teach my lessons (8 years)

I am more in touch with the tasks I expect my students to perform…which makes me a better, more empathetic teacher, more interesting teacher. Since studying Japanese in a classroom, I am now much more conscientious about simple and clear instruction and explanation, and look longer and harder to find real life, practical opportunities for newly learned vocabulary and grammar structures in my English classes. (5 years)

I would like to suggest that considering the questions in this paper could encourage reflection on practice through articulating and analyzing and bringing discrepancies between effective and appropriate actions to our attention. As beliefs teachers hold influences judgments that affects behavior in the class, perhaps we as teachers need to consider our classroom roles. Is our practice being colored by our beliefs and are we doing our learners a disservice? Significant teacher change can only occur if teachers are engaged in personal exploration, experimentation, and reflection. It is possible to look at one's own answers, not for evaluation, but as a way to "recollect in tranquility" (Thornbury 1991, p.140) thoughts on teaching and to develop self-assessment skills. Professional growth is achieved through the adoption of responsibility for one's actions through the analysis and critical evaluation of practice. This is a stage to accommodate new ideas, which involves doubting aspects of one's current practice or beliefs. Through reacting teachers can confront and engage with new ideas, experiment, make adjustments in their own way of thinking, and incorporate new ideas within their own belief structures.


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Peter Burden is an Associate Professor at Okayama Shoka University. His particular research interests include student and teacher beliefs and the use of students' Mother Tongue in "conversation" classes. He would welcome any insights into the subject of experiential knowledge gained from learning Japanese and how this has influenced English teaching.