Suppressed voices, or just being polite?

Renata followed this up with an email. In response to my

these kids have been trained NOT to think, and NOT to rely on their own resources, to NOT trust themselves, to NOT believe in the value of their own experience or point of view – their “voice”, in short.

Renata responds,

Now I won’t agree there. Just they have been trained to not put it out in the classroom, which is a group of forty people, where too much personal brou ha ha can slow the agenda, which particularly at high school is entrance examinations…so like they separate the TPO to express their thoughts. That is to say, they just don’t let it all show in the classroom, in my experience. (Elementary school is quite creative and interesting, training independent opinions and the like). I’ve been working with a mix of Japanese and foreigners in the peace education certificate, and I see the foreigners can hijack the agenda with their verbosity (me too, arggghhh), whereas the Japanese are more able to sit and listen for longer stretches and figure out independently and ask questions after class if it’s not cleared up…if the Japanese system kills belief in own voice, as you say, how come there are so many wonderful and varied voices in a group of adult Japanese people when you get together to chat…

I agree. Japanese group dynamics mean that you really don’t want to stick your neck out in a large group, because as they say the nail that sticks out gets hammered. But that doesn’t explain the “stupid” behaviour in class which I described here and here. I’m not trying to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese population, I’m trying to understand what is going in my classroom, which is where I work. It’s all very well to say Japanese are quite vocal, creative and forthcoming in informal settings with people they feel comfortable with (that’s probably true of just about anybody, too); the logical extension of that is to abandon the classroom and classes and work with people in informal groups, which is certainly not a bad idea, and one that has been developed by at least 2 EFL materials developers.

I KNOW they are creative and intelligent. And I’m NOT asking them to show it all off in front of everyone. I’ll illustrate with an actual example. In my classes, students work in groups of 2-4, with a text and CD, at their own pace. I wander around sticking my nose and giving advice, making corrections (pronunciation usually). I come to one group of 3 girls, 2 of whom are practising a dialogue. The third mutters “I don’t get it, I don’t get it.” I ask her what she doesn’t get, but she can’t tell me. She can’t (or won’t) identify what it is that is her stumbling block. She won’t give me any help to help her. I suggest we go thru the dialogue and check her understanding, line by line. This way, we identify the problem: “as far as”. She’s with 2 other girls, and this group’s been working together for months. She doesn’t ask her friends what the phrase means, or ask to borrow their dictionaries (she doesn’t have her own, surprise surprise). All the students in this class signed up voluntarily, even knowing that it would be harder than the regular class, and they all RE-signed up again in the second semester, too (even tho they could drop out).

Then I stay and listen as she practises the dialogue with a partner (I even had to prod her to do this, to move onto speaking after listening and writing). She seems to have trouble even remembering very short phrases. She often seems about to give up. She obviously has little confidence in herself, and this isn’t about not wanting to “stick out” because both her partners are quicker and more fluent than she is. Maybe she’s just not that interested in learning English, but if that’s the case, why sign up for my class? Why tell me “I don’t get it” when I come near? That’s obviously a request for help.

I give her as much encouragement (stick and carrot) as I can, but I can’t shake this feeling that she’s either playing stupid, or she’s exhibiting behaviour which she thinks/feels is normal or required for class but which involves making herself more stupid than she really is. And most of the other students are not that way (or at least, not as bad!

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