In this issue’s Teaching Assistance I interview Naoto Miyazono, a university student who volunteered to assist teachers during three semesters at an elementary school. A senior education major, he also teaches part-time at a private cram school and helps conduct workshops sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology for Junior High School teachers.
Naoto Miyazono is currently completing a three-week practicum teaching English at a junior high school. In July he plans to sit an exam for his teacher’s license. To strengthen his chances of teacher certification he completed a summer internship at a language software company in Taipei and co-presented at an international conference hosted by the English Teachers Association Republic of China.
David McMurray: If you want to be a junior high school teacher, why did you volunteer to assist teachers with English and other subjects at an elementary school?
Naoto Miyazono: I like children and I like teaching so I volunteered to be a teaching assistant at an elementary school near my university. Once a week during three semesters I assisted homeroom teachers with grade 3, grade 6, and physically-challenged classes. I’m currently in my final year of university majoring in education and hope to become a junior high school teacher, so I think I should know how students are learning English from the very beginning.
DM: So, how was your debut class as a volunteer teacher?
NM: On my first day I met two teachers. The grade 3 class was led by a young woman. When I slid open the door to enter her class, she was loudly scolding them. During the entire year the classes were active so the children became noisy and chatted during classes. Scolding took place whenever noise levels seemed to bother the class. I didn’t have the confidence to emulate that technique.
DM: What was the other teacher like?
NM: A veteran female teacher was in charge of grade 6. She would sometimes scold errant students, but always in a quiet way. Seen from a distance, a parent might think that students feared her too, but over the course of one year I believe the students demonstrated a sincere interest in what they were learning.
I came away from my first day back at school thinking that even if children are noisy and chatting in loud voices, teachers must be calm especially when scolding children. I decided right then and there that when I help and talk with students, I’ll always try to be calm. When stressed out, teachers can’t teach properly.
DM: Can you recall your own elementary school days?
NM: Based on my observations this year, a lot seems to have changed since I was in grade five. To be honest, at that time teachers were to be feared. When I was an elementary school student I recall that my teachers were always lecturing in class. I don’t remember the teachers in charge of my classes ever having us do pair or group work. The only times we rose from our seats was to answer a question, serve lunch, or study physical education and home economics. By the time I reached grade five, the Ministry of Education had introduced English classes in schools. It wasn’t a formal subject, it was an option, so some classmates learned to use computers instead of foreign languages. Those new classes were also teacher-centered and we passively learned. We didn’t have an assistant language teacher.
DM: I understand that you have been studying child-centered and constructivist approaches that Paul (2003) suggests are effective for children “trying to make sense of the world” and because “by nature, a child is an active learner.” (p.173). What teaching method do you suggest for elementary school students?
NM: The elementary school students I observed took part in different kinds of learning experiences in every subject, whether it was math, science or English. I’ve come to believe that active learning methodology can improve learning in Japan. Constructivism theory, the idea that learners can build their own understanding, seems applicable at elementary school, junior high school, high school and university levels. All school teachers should innovate and use this method.
DM: Setting up the classroom seems to be a key part of active learning. When students are in rows in classroom style, it is very easy for students to become passive learners. In classrooms with stationary chairs and desks, students work in pairs or stand up. To allow students to experience a more interactive and conversational educational environment, don’t you think round tables for discussion and high-tech accessories for interactivity would be better for an active learning classroom?
NM: Standard classrooms with movable chairs and desks do not hinder students from quickly getting in groups to collaborate on a question or activity. I heard the teacher ask students to make groups at tables, by moving four or five desks together to form one group, or by putting desks in a circle or a semi-circle to encourage collaboration.
For example, during one class, students were discussing in a group made by putting four desks together. Once students are talking in groups, however, using the chalkboard in a teacher-centered style becomes difficult. It is hard to get their attention.
DM: I see, perhaps student-to-student discussion could be viewed as a positive result? Active learning is a student-centered approach. Discussion is one of the most common strategies for promoting active learning. If the objectives of a course are to promote long-term retention of information, to motivate students toward further learning, to allow students to apply information in new settings, then discussion seems preferable to lecturing. What major difficulties did you encounter during discussion sessions?
NM: At first, I couldn’t get along with the children at all. I tried to talk with them, but they felt some inhibition to chat with me. I was disappointed in myself so I tried different ways to build up a relationship of trust. I tried to listen intently to what the children were talking to each other about at all times.
DM: From your experience, how was teaching classes of children with special needs?
NM: I asssisted with one class for students with physical disabilities. That class was very hard to teach, but I came to realize those students are highly motivated. They always tried to answer questions from the teacher. However, the problem seems to be that teachers must help children closely on a one by one basis, rather than group learning.
DM: By 2020, English will become a subject for fifth- and sixth-graders, instead of a “foreign language activity” class where children are only expected to experiment with English by speaking and listening. The annual number of English classroom hours will increase to 70 from the current 35, and reading and writing will be taught for the first time.
NM: Children in grade six are used to school life. I observed that especially boys could easily become very bored and fall asleep. The teacher in charge advised me that, “Getting angry quickly is neither good for the teacher nor for these children.” Active learning could alleviate this boredom in the higher grades. I think that if many teachers add active learning components to their English lessons, language education in Japan will change greatly. Children can make themselves understood to other people. Active learning should be started now without waiting for 2020.
DM: Along with the curriculum change requiring English classes, the foreign language activity classes will become mandatory for third- and fourth-graders.
NM: Students in grade three are very active and sometimes they are very noisy. At the start of each class, the teacher in charge asked the children to meditate quietly. She created an atmosphere in which students should be silent. When one or two students still tended to be noisy and chat, I heard voices in the classroom pleading: “Be quiet. Please be quiet.” When I saw that scene, I was surprised and impressed. The class as a whole was taking responsibility for learning.
DM: Active learning is a teaching method that strives to more directly involve students in the learning process. In active learning, the student constructs learning–often in collaboration with other students. Bonwell and Eison (1991) claim that when actively learning, students participate in the learning process and students participate best when they are doing something besides passively listening. Did you notice this effect in your classes?
NM: I noticed in one class, children had to raise their hands before answering questions. An individual would shout out, “Yes!” and then the teacher in charge let them reply. In the other class, the teacher in charge freely allowed answers to be given without the raising of hands. To see this stark difference was very interesting for me. When children studied in a cooperative group they freely asked each other questions and freely responded. Perhaps if it were necessary to conduct a teacher-directed class, I would try letting one student answer on behalf of the group. Active learning, however, means students engage with books, participate in the class, and collaborate with each other.
DM: During your practicum with junior high school students are you going to stick to the teacher-centered lecture style that you grew up with?
NM: The head teacher advised, “If you are popular and get along with the students, you can create good classes for them. If you do that, they will follow your lectures carefully and answer you positively.” Perhaps a teacher with charisma could continue with the lecture style of teaching. For me, a lecture style of teaching could create problems if children become bored and they could fall asleep or simply chat. Therefore, classes that include chances for pair work and group work seem to be an ideal approach. In general, thirty minutes of pair work and group work should be included in every fifty-minute class. The advantage of adding group work is that if some children fall behind and can’t find the answer, they can cooperate with other students to get it. My role could be supporting groups.
DM: What goal will you place at the core of your lesson plans?
NM: As a volunteer I was told, “The teacher can’t make a perfect class every day. However, we ought to prepare our classes to help children understand.” During three semesters I saw many classes that were not perfect, but I realized that teachers were making great efforts. The teachers always hoped that children would study harder. Teachers hoped the young students would develop into good adults. This goal was tantamount. It seems necessary for teachers as well as parents to raise children to be productive members of society, too.
DM: Please leave us with a final message for readers who might want to participate in volunteer teaching activities?
NM: Before beginning this volunteer activity, I didn’t have very much confidence. It was the first time I’d ever taught children. But I learned the power of interaction. I can play a supporting role in helping many children to learn. I tended to spoon-feed and help older students in my private school individually so they can get the task at hand done quickly and help keep things going smoothly. At times, however, this inhibits the student’s motivation to learn and study. By pairing two students together to study and learn, they can ask and answer each other’s questions, giving them a chance to explore and discuss. I could stand by and try to help them discuss critically. Most importantly I was able to confirm that active learning is a viable method for children in elementary school. But I have to admit, it was also fun for me to be a volunteer teacher.
- Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Information Analyses. Retrieved from: <http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf>
- Paul, D. (2003). Teaching English to children in Asia. Hong Kong: Longman Asia ELT.