The following are excerpts from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, continued from last week, focuses on efforts universities have been making to improve their teaching methods:
HIROSHIMA–A recent English lesson for freshmen at Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University was filled with laughter as instructor Gene Thompson had them talk to each other about where they would like to take their honeymoons.
The freshmen were taking the lesson at a new facility opened in April, but none of the instructors there are faculty members. All of them, including the 30-year-old New Zealander, were dispatched from another institution in Chiba.
The facility, called the Bunkyo English Communication Center (BECC), was inaugurated after the Hiroshima-based university reached an agreement with Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS), a private institution specializing in foreign-language education, to improve the former’s English-language programs.
In the three-story building, students are supposed to speak only English on the second floor and above. Just after being enrolled this spring, many of the freshmen seemed reluctant to enter classrooms on the third floor, according to the center.
Students can use BECC not just to take lessons, but also to enjoy chatting with its instructors whenever they are not taking courses.
Always available at the center are advisers for learning English, as well as a lot of materials such as videos, CDs and comic books. To help students study the language on their own, the center is also equipped with small booths in which they can practice pronunciation as well as small rooms so that they can prepare to make presentations by filming themselves with video cameras.
To this facility, KUIS has sent four instructors and three staff members, all of whom are native speakers of English and have master’s degrees in linguistics, education or other related fields.
As higher educational institutions in Japan face the situation of having fewer applicants than admission spaces, more and more universities have been working in collaboration with others. KUIS is one such example. The school has been helping other universities’ foreign-language programs for four years, with Tohoku University as the first case.
Iwate and Kyushu universities have also asked KUIS for help. Having heard favorable reports of these cases, Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University President Hajime Kadoshige decided that his institution should follow a similar path.
Kadoshige’s university is a small institution with just a single humanities department. Like other private institutions outside the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, it has been operating in an increasingly difficult business climate.
To attract students, the institution has designed all of its programs to help them acquire certifications useful for their career development, such as teaching licenses for primary schools. Kadoshige believes that a focus on foreign-language skills will become an additional selling point for his institution.
“I also believe that if we can help our students develop a habit of self-learning,” he added, “that would encourage them to keep learning over the future course of their lives.”
Another driving factor behind the introduction of the tie-up program with KUIS was a discussion the central government has been holding regarding the possible establishment of a minimum level of academic abilities that university students should achieve before graduation. Foreign language skills are among the proposed standards.
Thus, BECC has been given the go-ahead, but in its inaugural year, lessons by its instructors are offered only for freshmen.
Many of the freshmen seem to be aware of the importance of developing English skills, apparently because the language will become compulsory at the primary school level under the upcoming revision of the nation’s teaching guidelines.
However, compared to students who chose universities specializing in foreign studies, those at Hiroshima Bunkyo are less motivated to study English. During the 2007 academic year, the institution surveyed its freshmen and sophomores, 52 percent of whom said they were not good at English when they were in middle and high school, while 43 percent said they disliked the subject outright.
The data suggest that the BECC staff has to tailor its lessons to meet the needs of the Hiroshima students. As part of this approach, they are allowed to speak in Japanese when talking to their counselors at the facility.
The BECC is expected to be upgraded in the 2009 academic year with additional instructors and staff members from KUIS.
(Dec. 25, 2008) Daily Yomiuri