An Interview With Kensaku Yoshida

Peter Ferguson, Kindai University

Peter Ferguson: I was really happy when I saw that you would be speaking at the JALT Conference and talking about the Course of Study because I think many people might not be familiar with that document. Could you please explain what is the Course of Study and why it’s such an important document?

Kensaku Yoshida: To begin with, the Course of Study is a legal document, and it is passed in the Diet. What that basically means is that all schools, which are recognized by the Ministry of Education, have to follow the Course of Study. There’s a difference between public schools and private schools who have more freedom in how to implement it, but the basic principles have to be acknowledged and followed. So, it’s an important document, not only for English, but in all subjects. There are certain things that relate to kindergarten, but it’s basically from elementary school to senior high school. There’s no Course of Study for university. So, you have to know the Course of Study if you want to teach in those grades or if you’re interested in education in Japan.

I understand you were involved with the recent Course of Study that just came into effect around 2020. Could you please tell us your role and how the Course of Study is created?

Well, the Course of Study is revised every 10 years or so. About five years before the revisions actually happen and the document is released, a committee of specialists is convened by the Ministry of Education. I was asked to lead the discussion on the revision of English education. I was the head of the English division, and I was also the representative of the English teaching section in the more general committee, which included representatives from all the different subjects. This is the Central Council for Education (中央教育審議会 chūō kyōiku shingikai), which includes all the different subjects. I headed the first English education revision committee, and we had a lot of discussions with opinions flying all over the place.

Were these discussions about what direction English education should be going?

That’s right. What were the problems with the Course of Study at that time and how should we change it? And everybody had their own opinion about it. There were a lot of heated debates. Then in our second meeting, we focused more on the basic principles of how the new curriculum should be developed. And again, we had a lot of heated discussions. But, it was during these two periods that we decided what should be the basic principles of how English education should be conducted.

What were those principles?

Well, we decided to move away from the earlier structural syllabus, which determines the elements that have to be taught at different grades, and those principles were based on the difficulty of structure. For example, we start with the present tense, then the present progressive. Then from the second year, you get to the past tense, in the third year you learn the present perfect, and so forth. This meant each grade was divided based on the difficulty of grammatical structures, and this was true for many years. But about one or two Course of Studies earlier, things began to change, and people started to question this and ask, “Is it really important to subdivide these structures into different grades?” Even in the first year of junior high school, students want to talk about the past, but if you say, “You can’t talk about the past until you’re in second year,” well that doesn’t make much sense. So, what happened is they changed it to a system where they said these are the structures that should be taught in the three years of junior high school. Where you taught them depended upon the writers of the textbooks and the publishing companies, but this was still based on grammar structure.

And the recent Course of Study is different?

We said, “let’s get away from this idea of structure being the most important thing in English.”  Grammar structure is something that is very important, definitely, but it’s something that helps people to communicate in the language—to use the language. What’s more important is communicative ability. What kind of criteria do we need to actually get the students to use the language? And so, we had many discussions about that and adopted the so-called Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). CEFR refers to what you can do at certain levels of English proficiency. We felt that would be a lot more appropriate for getting the students to communicate in English. So, we changed the curriculum from being structure-based to being communication-based using the Can-Do Statements. Now, how objectively were these Can-Do Statements tested? I can’t say for sure, but we know they were tested at different levels ranging from junior high to senior high school. Then what they came up with were the Japanese versions of the CEFR criteria. Whereas the original CEFR had only A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2 levels, it was found that in Japan you had to make subdivisions, such as A1-1, A1-2, A2-1, A2-2, and so forth. And, the Japanese version was subdivided even further to make sure that the can-do statements would fit the different grades in a more appropriate manner.

And was that done for the students’ benefit or for the teachers benefit? Perhaps both?

Both. The teachers had to know what to teach, and they had to stipulate what they expected the students to be able to do at the end of the first year. As I said before, up to that time, it had been what do the students know at the end of the first year, but now it is what can the students do in English at the end of the first year. So, these Can-Do Statements underwent some changes from the original European Framework. That was obvious because they should change depending upon the environment. We adopted CEFR not 100%, but we relied on it when creating the new Course of Study.

This sounds like a very difficult and challenging job. How long did it take from start to finish? You mentioned before that the group first met several years earlier.

Let me think, we started in late 2013, or early 2014, and went all the way until the end of 2018. The elementary school Course of Study was released at the end of 2018 and later the junior and senior high school Course of Study in 2019, so that is about 5 years, I guess.

How many people were involved in creating the new Course of Study at the national level?

The discussion group at the beginning consisted of about 20 to 25 people. There were a lot of people. There were also people from testing companies because we had to deal, to a certain extent, with the entrance examinations. We were creating the contents from which the new entrance exams were supposed to be constructed. So, there were people from different test developing companies involved as well. After those discussions, we then broke up into smaller working groups. I was in charge of elementary school-English, and another person was in charge of junior high school and another person for high school-English. These groups were made from about 12 or 13 people each. It included actual teachers from schools, such as elementary school teachers and the curriculum specialists from the boards of education.  These people were not part of the original discussion groups. But when we broke up into these working groups to start writing the Course of Study, these people were called on because they actually knew what was happening in the classrooms.

There have always been conversations among researchers and English teachers about the entrance examination system and how that might have a negative effect on how English teachers conduct their lessons. Do you think the entrance exams for English need to change?

I think there have been some changes that have already been implemented. One major setback was that MEXT was bent on including writing and speaking in the common university entrance examinations for high school students that is administered by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, and this was supposed to happen in 2020. It didn’t happen. Two weeks before the announcement, the Minister said, “No.” And the main problem was because the National Center does not have the resources and the personnel to develop productive skills tests, especially speaking tests, which are extremely difficult to develop.

And to evaluate?

To evaluate and administer. The main idea that was followed from the earlier stages was to get the help of private testing organizations, like EIKEN, TOEFL, TOEIC, GTEC, and Cambridge, to use these tests, which had the four skills, as a measure for assessing speaking and writing. But of course, once you get into that area, then a lot of opposition comes in saying, “Why these private companies? They’re there to make money. And it’s too expensive. How are the students going to pay for this?” I mean TOEFL is very expensive. IELTS is expensive. It’s not that expensive to take EIKEN and GTEC, and they can be administered nation-wide. But still, if we take the college entrance exams administered by the National Testing Center, all the national universities and many of the private universities provide the venues for the administration of these tests, and that amounts to over 800. Now, it is very difficult for the private companies to come up with this number of venues, ranging from Okinawa all the way up to Hokkaido, where the students can take these tests on an equal and fair level.

That’s what always amazed me about this topic. If students are required to take some sort of speaking component for the entrance exam, how do you get raters so that they are doing everything equal for thousands and thousands of students? A tremendous logistical task and extremely expensive.

Yes expensive, but at least these private companies had already prepared for it. For example, EIKEN had hundreds of venues ready, and they had trained hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand raters. They were prepared and spent a lot of money. GTEC spent a lot of money. TOEFL didn’t spend that much money. They just said, “If you want to take TOEFL, just come to us.” And TOEIC basically said they couldn’t do it and they left. The private companies were trying their best to accommodate the students’ needs that were presented by MEXT, but still there were problems. Obviously, are the results of these tests really equal? That was another very critical argument that people came up with. We tried to make sure that each test was correlated with the CEFR criteria to make sure which score related to which level of the CEFR. We didn’t do it, but the companies did it themselves, and we trusted the companies. And I was in charge of this. I was at the top as far as the development of English tests were concerned. And when it went down the drain… Wow! So, no more speaking and writing.

Do you think it will come back?

I think that what will happen is that each individual university, as part of their admissions policy, will use the tests because they want students who are able to use English for communicative purposes, to use English for academic purposes because they have affiliations with foreign universities overseas. Maybe they have a lot foreign students coming to their campuses, and they’re sending their students abroad. The assumption was that these schools would adopt these private tests as part of their admissions policy anyway. Naturally, there will be schools that’ll say, “Ours is basically domestic, so we really don’t need that kind of test.” For these schools, maybe reading is important, but speaking is not that important. For those schools, the National Center for University Entrance Examinations has come up with a very good reading and listening test. It’s all based on the CEFR criteria and the new senior high school English curriculum that we created. The content of the test is quite communicative. They’re no longer just testing knowledge of grammar or knowledge of vocabulary. Now, it’s all embedded within the context in order to see if the students really understand the structure and the vocabulary included in the text. And in order to answer the questions correctly, they have to know the grammar and structures. That’s how the test has changed. Before, in the older university entrance examinations, there were questions that people called “indirect speaking questions” which were simply questions testing knowledge of pronunciation. And fill-in-the-blank questions, which was supposed to test writing. Now, that’s all gone because those questions weren’t really testing these abilities. But the listening and reading sections have been developed very well, so as long as these two areas are there, those basic abilities can be guaranteed.

Do you feel there will be a positive washback or a positive effect that will compel high school English teachers to change the way they’re conducting their lessons?

I think it’s already happening, but one of the major effects has been with the jukus or cram schools. These teachers, who are on their own, have been teaching their students to cope with the past entrance examinations—basically the old system. But, the system has changed, and the tests have changed. Now they don’t know what to do. They can’t teach the students how to cope and to understand the new test problems, so, the juku teachers are complaining.

Because they prefer the old style of grammar-translation?

That’s right. As far as the schools are concerned, they’re organizations so if the principal says, “We have to adapt to this ,new system,” then they will. But the individual juku teachers are having a difficult, time. But even there—in the jukus—I think things are changing.

In your plenary talk, you brought up many interesting points, but one thing that jumped out to me was you quoted some data from a survey conducted by MEXT. It had teachers ranking what they thought was important as they conducted English lessons. And even though 75% of teachers believed teaching in English was important, that was ranked seventh behind other factors that focused on students. So, what are your views on the policy of having teachers teaching in English?

I think the major change that is being implemented is not that it is simply using the language, which is of course important, but what to do with that language; what to talk about; what to write about; what to read. In other words, the content. The content is now a lot more important. I’ve been looking at the content and topics in the new textbooks. Many of these textbooks now include the SDGs, and there are topics and discussions about them. These points are in the textbooks, but how the teachers are including them in their lessons is a different problem. But still, the materials are changing quite a lot. It’s a lot more global in perspective, and I think a lot more international. And, if the teachers are really aware of the kinds of changes that MEXT is trying to implement, then they should be able to understand why these topics are being included and what they should be doing about it. So, it’s not simply conducting a class in English. That could be done by conducting 45 minutes of pattern practice. That’s not going to bring about any positive effects. So, what do we do? Well, we talk about it. And as we saw from the questionnaire, the students are interested in these topics. That’s why the students want to use English. That’s the main impetus for teachers to really conduct classes using English: to try to meet the needs and the interests of the students.

I remember about 20 years ago when I was teaching at the public elementary schools and English education was just starting up there. I was at one of the MEXT-designated pilot schools, and at that time, one of the directives from MEXT was something like kodomo no kyōmi kanshin o sonchō suru (子どもの興味・関心を尊重する) meaning respect the students’ interests and incorporate that in our lessons and materials that we were developing. I think it’s great this is finally going beyond elementary school and made its way into the junior and senior high school curriculum taking into account what the students want to do with the language.

I think that came about because we changed the basic principles from the structural-based syllabus to a more communicative one. Because when we had structure as the basic goal, then people would be teaching structure. Teaching grammar and perfection in grammar was the one thing the teachers were interested in. But, once you start focusing on communication, then the teachers are going to say, “Communicate what? What do you mean by communicating?” Simply greeting each other, is that communication? Now that’s not going to last 45 minutes, so, what are we going to do about that? Changing the basic principles has had a lot to do with the fact that the teachers now have to admit that they have to teach something that might be of interest to the students.

One interesting change for elementary and junior high school English is there are now more presentations being done. The new Course of Study explicitly introduced this point, and you mentioned in your talk how speaking is now divided into conversation and presentations. Students are talking more, and I think this is one positive change.

Yes, I think its increasing. It’s definitely increasing.

But for elementary school teachers, who are new to teaching English, many have told me that they prefer doing presentations because it’s easier for them to evaluate. Evaluating conversations is very hard.

Yes, elementary school teachers are having problems speaking English themselves in class, so it’s very difficult for them to do that, but that is because they’re focusing too much on the structure, the vocabulary and whether or not they’re saying it correctly or not. But, once they start to focus on whether they can communicate with their students and talk to them and exchange ideas and so forth, then things begin to change.

When teachers—at any level—teach students phrases like: “I don’t understand. Can you say that again?  Could you please repeat that?” then communication can happen more in classrooms. If students can use these phrases and teachers can evaluate this skill is very important. Not evaluating what was said, but how the students are communicating.

I talk about this a lot in my lectures when I meet with teachers. I think there’s a lot being done on teachers commenting on what the students are saying: “Oh, that’s interesting. Very good.” And students themselves commenting on each other’s presentations and saying simple things like, “I love it,” or “Me, too,” or whatever. But, there is very little of what we call negotiation of meaning in classrooms concerning what you were talking about—things like, “Do you understand what I mean?” or “What do you mean by that?” These types of expressions that are needed for negotiation of meaning are still lacking. It’s assumed that whenever somebody says something, everybody else will understand it, and that’s why they comment on it. But if they don’t understand, what are they going to do? That part is not really emphasized as much, but it is becoming more frequently emphasized at the higher levels, like in senior high school and even junior high school, but not really at the elementary school level. Elementary school basically has expressions like: I like, “I love it,” Good,” and “Wonderful.”

That’s true. Elementary school is great because the students don’t have any inhibitions at all. It’s really a wonderful age group. Do you think introducing foreign language education in the elementary schools and starting English earlier in Grade 3 is something positive?

I think it’s very positive. And probably because they have a lot more ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) now. The Japanese teachers are beginning to use English to teach the kids. The children are encouraged to use more English and to play with English in a sense—have fun with English. I think this is providing a very positive influence on the students to be more outgoing with English. Taking a more positive role and communicating with people.

Some people say one problem with foreign language education in Japan is that it only focuses on English and doesn’t include other languages. Japan is diversifying and more people emigrate to Japan speaking other languages, such as Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese, plus Korean and Chinese. So, how do policymakers balance encouraging people to learn languages other than English while also trying to improve English education?

When the Course of Study was created after the Second World War, it wasn’t just English; other foreign languages were included. For quite a long time, until about the 1990s, the curriculum and the actual syllabus was introduced not just for English, but in a very similar way for French and German as well.

Each language had their own Course of Study then?

Yes, there was a German syllabus, a French syllabus, and an English syllabus, and they were basically well matched. The problem was, beyond that stage, people started to say that French and German aren’t the only other foreign languages. “What are we going to do about Korean, Chinese, Spanish, and all these other languages?” Well, we can’t create a syllabus for all the languages. So, what happened was they created the syllabus and curriculum for English and said the same principles apply to any other foreign language to be taught. The problem was they did not specify what languages, which suggested that these other languages were not that important to many people. That wasn’t the original idea, but that was the unintentional message that was sent because none of these other languages were given space in the Course of Study with their own syllabi, and that is going on today. But at least at the present time, I think, if I remember correctly, there are over 100 senior high schools, where languages other than English are being taught. However, the percentage of Japanese high school students who are learning a language other than English is about 1.5%. In Korea, I think that number is 30%, which means that there are languages other than English being taught, but there are very few people in Japan learning them. Another reason why is there aren’t any teachers. In other words, if you take a look at the curriculum at the universities, where they conduct pre-service teacher training programs, almost all universities have English teacher license programs. Many, but not all, have French and German, and now there are a few with Chinese. There are very few with Spanish, and very few with Korean, although Korean and Chinese are major languages as far as Japan is concerned. This means there are very few teachers being trained, so, what is happening in many cases is that the English teachers, who are licensed to teach English and who studied—for example, French, Chinese, or Korean as a second foreign language in university—are the ones who are teaching these other languages in high schools. But, at least they have a license to teach English, so they’re official language teachers. Yet, they’re not necessarily trained to teach that other language, but they learned it themselves. So, it’s assumed that they have at least some ability to teach the language. This is probably true, but there’s still no official program, and there just aren’t enough teachers.

Are there any plans for such programs in the future?

For the past four years, MEXT has been providing research grants for major projects, some of which are still going on for people from universities, boards of education, and the high schools to come together to see what can be done with the teaching of second languages [other than English]. The main reason is because MEXT also wants to see how the teaching of these foreign languages, other than English, can be included in the Course of Study. I have been involved in that as well. I think they’re doing a wonderful job, but after four years I don’t see any conclusions yet. I was asked to write a short article on that earlier this year, and I said these projects are wonderful, they’re collecting data from the high school students and from different teachers, and they’re trying to give us a clear picture of what’s happening in these classrooms and lessons. But in four years, it’s still expanding, and I can’t see the direction in which it is trying to go. So, I’m afraid that if this continues, the budget is going to be cut. But, at least for next year’s budget, it’s still there. I was happy to see that the Ministry still has it in their budget proposal for next year. But for how long it’s going to continue, I don’t know—if they don’t come up with any conclusions. There has to be some closure somewhere.

Another issue with English, or foreign language education, is trying to get students to use and learn English outside the classroom. What do you think MEXT, the boards of education, and the schools can do to encourage students to engage with the language outside of English class, such as reading, watching videos, listening to music, and to try to use English to communicate outside the classroom?

I think things are being done in that area. One is the implementation of CLIL—content and language integrated learning—where teachers are becoming more aware of the need to include subject matter, like science or other subjects, to get the students to use English to study these other subjects. That’s one way that changes are being implemented. The implementation of IT and technologies in classes I think is another one. There are cases where you now have very well-created software, and the students are able to use this software for discussion purposes. Students have tablets now, too.

Yes, elementary school students use tablets in English class now.

Right, sometimes they’re using them in a very efficient manner. But, things are beginning to change, and I’ve also seen children in Japan communicating with people from other parts of the world, especially Australia and New Zealand, where there’s not much time difference, making it much easier. I’ve seen one school where the Japanese children were communicating with children in Australia. This was not part of the school curriculum, but it’s an opportunity for them to see if they can use English. Now, they didn’t really speak very much, but I think they were able to understand what the children in Australia were trying to say and at least there were teachers, the ALT and the Japanese teacher helping them communicate and understand. So, at least I think more opportunities are opening up. I think there will be a lot more of that as we go on.

I think those type of exchange programs or opportunities are really good because when you think about it, students are either speaking English to their classmates, who they know, or they’re speaking to an adult. But, when we can provide opportunities for elementary school or junior high school students to talk to kids in New Zealand, for example, now they’re talking to someone the same age, and that’s really big and important for young leaners. That type of communication is very meaningful for students. You can see the excitement on their faces.

But the only problem is, as I said in my talk, that Japanese kids tend to be very quiet (laughs). So, it’s going to take some time, but I think it’s catching on a little bit at a time.

You had mentioned in your talk and just mentioned it again about CLIL, and English as a medium of instruction—so do you think that at the university level, rather than just teaching about English or teaching TOEIC classes, university language programs should be moving in that direction?

I think that at least the major universities are moving in that direction definitely, but I’m not saying that all universities are. There are close to 800 universities, and so you can’t say that for everyone. But at least the top 100 or so are all moving in that direction. But, these institutions are also teaching TOEIC and TOEFL as well because these kids need English in order to find a good job or to go abroad and study. So that’s still there, but at the same time, teaching content in English is something that has become a lot more popular now. And, I think it’s not only at the universities where the teaching of content is being done. I’ve seen a lot of content lessons at the high school level and some at the junior high school as well, and as I introduced in my talk, a lot of things are being tried out in elementary schools, too.

Yes, I’ve seen science classes and cooking classes. They have the faculties. The home economics’ room is right there, so let’s go do a cooking class. The kids can learn English while doing: wash, cut, turn over, how do you say, “kogete iru (焦げている)”? Oh, that’s burnt. It’s a lot of fun for the students.

Exactly. As I mentioned in my talk, experiential learning is very important. And communicating—kids learning to communicate and trying to communicate in English—is very important.

Regarding English education and foreign language education, what do you think needs to be done in the future or what still needs to be addressed until the next Course of Study?

The most immediate need that we have is to get the teachers to understand what we did and what were the changes. There’s still very little knowledge and understanding of the actual changes and the actual meaning of the changes that were implemented in the new Course of Study, and that’s one major thing that we’ve tried to do. And hopefully, if we can do this in the next four or five years, before the start of the discussions for the next curriculum begin, then I think we’ll be moving in the right direction. If nothing happens within these four or five years, it’s going to be very difficult to see how the next curriculum in the Course of Study is going to change because people are going to be looking at the data. MEXT comes up with data every year from the English Language Education Implementation Survey (英語教育実施状況調査 [eigo kyōiku jisshi jōkyō chōsa]) about how well the new Course of Study is being implemented by the schools. This comes out annually, so every year we see data, percentages, and numbers. If those [numbers] don’t change, then it means we’re not going anywhere. So, how are we going to make these changes and what do these numbers mean? That’s another thing. Most teachers just look at it as a piece of data, but they really don’t understand what it means. So, our job—and also the curriculum specialists in the boards of education, their job is to try to get the teachers to understand the meaning of these numbers: to see where the problems still are and to see where we are going and to find out what is making sense, and what is not making sense to the teachers. And then try to spread the word.

Policy oversight.

Yes, so, we can say, “let’s move in that direction.” And I think that’s the most important thing. We’ve made the basic changes. Now let’s see how we’re implementing it. We have to start somewhere and keep moving.

Thank you very much for your time. It was wonderful to see you again.

You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.


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