An Interview with David Barker

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Robert Swier, Kindai University

Robert Swier: I saw one of your talks years ago, and it was called something like, “What English Teachers Should Know.” I think about it often because I saw it before I started teaching at a university and it was one of the first things that got me thinking about what university English teaching should be. You basically said that you don’t like to call yourself “just” an English teacher, as if that’s a position that doesn’t deserve very much respect. As a first question, why do you think professionalism in language teaching is so important, and what are the things that make a language teacher a professional?

David Barker: That’s a good way to start. First, my take on this is a bit different. I think I’m quite unusual in that I was a language teacher before I came to Japan. I think most people are not. I had worked in an environment with a lot of English teachers. I had also done the CELTA and been trained by proper teachers. It wasn’t so much that I was on a crusade about this or anything, but when I got to Japan, I was appalled by how unprofessional it is here. For example—and I talked about this in the plenary—when I worked in Singapore, you couldn’t be employed as an English teacher or get a visa unless you had CELTA. You had to have some kind of qualification. Whereas in Japan, it was basically any foreigner that was qualified to teach English. I think Japan was just way behind the times on that. In any other country, you would have had to be qualified, but in Japan you didn’t. So, there are a lot of what I call “backpackers who stayed.” They never had any intention of becoming an English teacher—they didn’t know anything about English teaching—it’s just that they got to Japan, they liked it here, and English teaching was the only thing they were qualified to do, even though they weren’t qualified. But in Japanese people’s eyes, just being a foreigner and a native speaker of English made you qualified to teach here. So, my claim—my rant, I guess—is that this is a job for which there are proper qualifications. The fact that nobody asks about them in Japan doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I would say that the majority of people who teach English in Japan wouldn’t even be employed in another country because they’re not qualified. They don’t have a basic TESOL qualification.

It’s certainly true, at least in the context of Japanese universities, that English teachers are really the only people that haven’t studied anything related to what they teach. Well, at least for native English teachers. Because native English teachers get the English language for free. They learn it natively. So, it’s not something they have acquired through deliberate study. That is unlike any other teacher. If you go over to visit the engineers, they became engineers by studying engineering.

In a way. You asked what it means to be a professional teacher. I don’t like the word “professional” so much because you can get an image of someone who must wear a suit and tie and always be polite to the students. That’s not what I mean. What I’m talking about are qualifications. There’s a big difference between someone who can speak English and someone who can teach it to somebody else. The same is true with Japanese. The fact that you speak a language doesn’t mean that you know how to teach it to other people. The purpose of the qualification is to learn how to teach it to other people. Why do we say that? What’s the difference between this and this? That’s what a qualified English teacher is. So, I prefer that word rather than “professional.” “Professional” does include that, but you also get other things, like never being late and filing your reports on time. I don’t mean that exactly. The point I was making in the plenary was that in Japan, the only requirement for a teacher at a university is a master’s degree, and it doesn’t have to have to involve any practical element at all. So, you could have a master’s degree in English literature, or history, or politics, or something like that.

My degrees are in computer science!

Sure. My point is that in other subjects, this doesn’t happen. I’m sure that what you’re teaching in the classroom isn’t computer science, is it? It’s English as a foreign language.

Yes, exactly.

So, we have this kind of fuzzy area, where even though there are real qualifications for this, they’re not required in Japan. It’s treated like anybody can do it.

I don’t know much about the English teaching world outside of Japan. Is this state of affairs unique to Japan?

I’ve only seen it in Japan. Maybe in China or some other places in Asia? But in Singapore, definitely not. You wouldn’t get a visa if you didn’t have a TESOL qualification.

Your plenary talk was about efficacy, or self-efficacy of teachers. Do you think that language teachers who have studied language education specifically or who have some sort of qualification get better results on average than teachers who don’t have that background?

That’s an interesting question. First, self-efficacy has nothing to do with the results. In the talk, I was talking about teacher efficacy, which is the teacher’s belief in their own ability to achieve their goals. But yes, I think in general, that would be the case. Because you have more tools in your toolbox. Because the basic training teaches you to do the job that you’re doing. If you look at what teachers are actually doing in Japanese universities, most people haven’t been trained for that. It’s just common sense that if you have been trained for that, you’re going to be better prepared to do it. Whether you would get better results or not, I’m not sure about that. Because the teacher is only one part of the puzzle. If you’ve got students who are unmotivated, and they’re doing two classes a week, and they’ve got just 15 weeks, I would say it wouldn’t matter. You could have the dog teaching and it wouldn’t make any difference. I guess it depends on what you mean by getting better results.

I mean in some sort of measurable way.

In that case, yes. I would say that I would get better results than a teacher who doesn’t know how to do what I know how to do. Definitely. I’ve seen this time and time again. I’ll do what I’ll do, and we’ll show the results to other departments, and they’ll say, “Oh my god, how did you get them to do that?” It’s just basic language teaching. It’s not rocket science. It’s just that they don’t know how to do it. So, I wasn’t trying to have a downer on teachers who don’t know how to do this. What I was saying is that teacher efficacy is low in Japan and one of the reasons is that people haven’t been trained to do the job that they’re actually doing. So, a good idea is to go and get trained in doing exactly the job that you’re doing. That’s why I was pushing the CELTA because it’s only a one-week course. It’s not a huge thing. It’s very intense. But it’s specific training for exactly the job that you’re doing in the classroom. I said that teacher efficacy is quite low in Japan, and there are three areas that we could look at to improve it. One of them is training and qualifications. Because we have a lot of teachers who are doing a job that no one has ever actually taught them how to do—you do get teachers who are spectacularly talented, and you also get other teachers who just figure it out over the years. But even in those cases, it would be much easier to be trained. Because when you get trained, you’re getting the benefits of fifty years of experience from everybody—all that is known about ELT. And you get observed. You get someone who observes you and gives you feedback. My point in mentioning that is that we are in a slightly unusual situation because we have a lot of people doing a job that they are not qualified to do. And when I say someone is not qualified to do something, it has a very negative feeling—like saying a doctor is unqualified or something like that. I don’t mean that these people are not qualified—they are—they just aren’t qualified to do what’s being asked of them. So, what they are qualified for is different from what’s being asked of them.

That’s not to say that they are not able to do it, but they just haven’t been trained.

They haven’t had that specific training. Well, some people have, and I think Americans, particularly. America doesn’t have the CELTA. In America, a master’s degree sometimes includes a practical component. If you have an MA in TESOL from the states, very often it will have a practical component. But the Japanese don’t make any distinction about that at all. They just view it as an MA. They won’t say “an MA with practical component” because it’s not even asked for.

I know that a lot of universities ask for a master’s degree for part-time teachers, but there is no stipulation that the degree needs to be in any particular subject.

Which is weird. Like, in any other subject, you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t employ someone in the medical department and say that. The presumption is that just because someone is able to speak English, they’ll be able to teach it. It’s just that we need to check the “master’s” box.

It’s part of saying that we’re in the world of education, and we want someone who has shown some success in that area.

Exactly. It’s not that Japanese universities are taking in unqualified people off the street. I’m not suggesting that. They’re taking in often very highly qualified people who are just not qualified for the job that they are doing. It’s a different thing. And it’s just this huge fuzzy idea about what teaching English is. This is not a criticism of any of the teachers. It’s a criticism of the system, of the fact that even though these qualifications exist, no one ever asks for them. If we ask for them and if we treat those qualifications as worth getting, people will go and get them. If people go and get them, they’ll come back better.

What is it about English teaching that, at the university level, English teachers are the only people that study educational techniques to do their classes? What is it about English teaching that makes it different from everything else?

Because it’s a skill. It’s a practical skill. You’re teaching someone how to do something, not passing on knowledge. You know, there is another group of people that do what we do, and that’s the folks who teach the international students Japanese. They have to be qualified. There is a specific qualification in teaching Japanese as a second language, and all of the teachers who do it—certainly at our university—are qualified. You wouldn’t take a teacher who had a master’s degree in Japanese literature, and say to them, okay, you can go and teach Japanese to foreigners.

You mentioned that in your talk, that there have been comments in the past about language teaching not being particularly academic. I myself often feel that way. In my own classes—I take academics pretty seriously—but in fairness, most of what I would do in a communicative English class is not particularly academic.

But if you think about what they’re trying to do, that’s quite academic. The word “academic” means “with no practical purpose” doesn’t it? That’s the main meaning when you say, “that’s purely academic.” It’s a different thing.

I sometimes think it’s helpful for English teachers to think of themselves not so much as teachers, professors, or lecturers, but rather as coaches.

Yeah, I like that analogy. But the point is that we would get better quality education in Japan if we had more people doing the training for the job they’re actually doing. You just said it: when you go into the classroom, it’s not an academic thing. It’s something that you’re not trained for. It’s a different field. The problem is that we don’t respect it as a field. Are you familiar with the CELTA?

Actually, I’m not!

Well, there are various levels. There’s a higher level one called the DELTA, and that takes a year, and you’ve got two months of practical teaching. Now, I’ve done that as well, and that was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever done intellectually. It was really, really difficult. Because you really have to know the background stuff. When your students make a mistake, you have to know why they’re making the mistake, and how to explain it, and how to teach it in such a way that they won’t make the mistake anymore. What’s actually happening in the classroom might not be particularly academic, but the skills that you’re bringing to it are very academic. Well, not academic, perhaps intellectual. There’s a high degree of intellectuality to it. If a student says to you, what’s the difference between “I’ve written three books” and “I’ve been writing”? It’s the present perfect continuous and the present perfect simple. If you went to Singapore and asked 40 teachers that question, 40 teachers would be able to answer it. If you asked it in Japan, I’d be surprised if 10 percent could answer it. But you should be able to answer it because that’s what we’re doing. That is ELT. It’s the same when learning Japanese. When I’m learning Japanese, I want to know, what’s the difference between this and that. When do I use one and when do I use the other?

If you were to ask a random person on the street about a language they speak natively, they would know which is which, but the process of learning a language natively doesn’t require an ability to explain the grammar or semantics.

Right. In the process of learning to teach your own language, there is a process of learning to break down all of the things that you know unconsciously.

In your talk about teacher efficacy, you talk about this idea of having a belief in your own ability to be effective.

To meet your own goals in your own context.

The motivation for looking at that—you even quoted Henry Ford about this—is that there seems to be a relationship between one’s own beliefs about the ability to achieve goals and the actual ability to do so. Is that right?

Well, it’s a general tendency, yes. Generally speaking, you’re more likely to have a positive outcome if you go in with a positive attitude.

Do you think we would see better outcomes in Japan, and even perhaps more focus on teacher training, if there was more focus on actual efficacy? That is, if there was more focus on objectively measuring the actual gains (or lack thereof!) from language education programs?

I’m very much against that. I think, in theory, exactly what you said is right. If we could quantify what was working, it would make it much clearer. But there are two problems. One is that if you quantify it by means of tests, then the quickest way to achieve results is to teach to the test. So, you end up teaching TOEIC techniques. This is why I’m against it at Japanese universities.

That happens in high school certainly, where teachers are teaching to university entrance exams.

That may very well be true. The way you would get the best results would be to have Japanese teachers teaching in Japanese about how to take the test. You’d get better numbers, but that’s not the goal that you’re really looking for. The second reason that I would be against it is because ETS—the company that makes the TOEIC—they estimate that for an Asian student to make any significant improvement in their score, they would need 100 hours of study. Consider that a one semester course is about 22 hours of study. Even if you had four classes a week for a year, that would be just at the level where you might start to see an improvement. And even then, in a class of 30 or 35 students, it would be extremely unlikely to see any clear improvement. I think that we would really shoot ourselves in the foot if we tried to do that because I don’t think we’d see much change.

My background is quite quantitative and when I first learned about private language schools in Japan, I was surprised that they often don’t do any type of objective assessment at all. I came to suspect that is because it would show that no one was improving. It would show to people who have been coming to the school for years—and who have been told by the teachers that they’re doing a great job—that they are not actually getting any better.

Yeah, absolutely. An hour once a week when you’re tired at the end of the day doesn’t make a bit of difference. One might enjoy doing it, which is great, but… We don’t have perfect language tests, anyway. They’re always trying to make them better, but they’re not perfectly suitable. There are alternatives, though. For instance, at my university, we have a speaking test. And it’s a very narrowly defined test. And every teacher watches videos to calibrate themselves about what’s an A, what’s a B, what’s a C, etc. We watch the videos, and if it’s a fail, it’s re-graded by someone else to confirm it. So, it is quantifiable. We’re not really attaching a number to it, just using the letter grades. And we’re using can-do statements, so just looking at what the students are able to do at the end of the year. That has a much better effect than just having some sit-down chat with the teacher at the end of the year. It’s not that at all. This is a very structured test. So, tests are important, but it’s hard to put precise numbers on them.

Grading speaking performance out of 100 is kind of like scoring the results of wine tasting. It implies a level of precision that just doesn’t exist.

Exactly. We try to avoid that. In our system, we carefully define what someone at each grade level should be able to do, but we don’t go beyond that. The other thing that we need to do in Japan is proper goals, and the goal should not be a test. We have to make these assessments keeping in mind the situation in which we’re teaching. What’s possible to achieve in 15 weeks? We might not be able to make a TOEIC score much better, but we can find some things that students are able to do now that they weren’t able to do at the start of the semester.

I once saw, as part of a description of a university program, that one of the goals was to give students a positive experience in English. I liked that because it’s certainly an achievable goal, and I agree that it’s basically impossible to make big improvements in language ability given the time and other resources that we devote to these programs.

Well, we may disagree there. There can be big improvement if you set the program up properly. We were talking about speaking, but writing is an even better example. What we do with our students is we have them write a self-introduction on the first day of class. We say, that’s for us to get to know you. And we collect it. We spend a whole semester teaching them how to write in English. At the end, we have them write it again. It’s chalk and cheese. The two are completely different. They are demonstrably able to do something in July that they couldn’t do in April. It’s the same with speaking. We’ll have questions that they couldn’t even understand in April that they can now understand and answer at length the end of the semester. You just have to be very specific about what you’re trying to do. You have to narrow it down. In the literature on self-efficacy, one of the things they talk about is that being successful at something gives you motivation to do it more. If you define things very tightly and give people something specific that they’re going to be able to do, that can be very successful. Although this isn’t what we do, an example would be, here are ten questions that we want you to be able to answer by the end of the semester. And if I ask you now, you can give very basic answers, but by the end of the semester you’ll be able to answer them at length. I agree that giving students a positive experience is important, but I think a lot of teachers misunderstand it. A key to having a positive experience is the success. It’s the feeling of success. It’s not like being at Disney for a day. It’s not having a teacher who is a clown and makes you laugh all the time. Whether it’s positive or negative is whether you feel you were successful at it or not. In one program that I used to run, by far the best feedback came from the repeaters—people who had failed and were brought back in during the summer to try again. They had to keep doing it until they got it right. Some of them walked away in tears because they were so moved. They genuinely didn’t think it was possible for them to succeed, but they did.