So, with all that reading, how’s it actually going in class? One conclusion I’ve come to is that a negotiated syllabus, or perhaps more inclusively, a participatory approach (see Adult Esl/Literacy from the Community to the Community: A Guidebook for Participatory Literacy Training), is vital when it comes to trying to develop or support autonomy in Japan. This is the same conclusion reached by Richard Smith (see Learner Autonomy Across Cultures)
A participatory approach is proving more difficult than I thought. First, it involves changing my 20 years of teaching habits: faced with a classroom full of quiet students who don’t want to speak up, and who ask nothing better than to be told what to do, it’s easier to make them jump through hoops rather than face the silence. I once observed a Japanese colleague’s class (he’s a teacher of education, not English): the thing that struck me the most in his class was that he was prepared to wait. He told me he’s prepared to wait several months if necessary, in order for them to make up their minds and say something, contribute to the class.
Another difficulty is mechanical or procedural: how to invite students’ participation? Especially when they’re not used to being asked? In the one “autonomy” class I have, I noticed students coming in, and asking, “What are we doing today, sensei?” It should be ME asking THEM! So in another class later that day, when I was feeling particularly tired, I started the class by asking them, what shall we do? Students slowly began making various suggestions, none of them to do with English. Eventually I got impatient and returned to the textbook we usually use. The following week, I asked the same class the same question, but this time added the condition that it must have something to do with English. One girl suggested “playing house” in English, but seemed to get no support from her classmates, so she abandoned it. Again, as there seemed to be no other suggestions, I played “teacher” and made one: strategic interaction, a role-play with conflict. They went at it like hammer and tongs, like a competition! There were 8 students. They made 2 groups, and each group chose 1 “player” to play the role. I set the rules: each player could call “time out” at any time to get help from their team, or even to change players. They kept at it long after I’d lost interest and was wishing they’d just call a truce, make a compromise! They kept at it for an hour.