The Benefits of Incompetence and Bad Design

It’s weird for me to say, but I benefit from government incompetence.

If the Japanese government were at all good at making an effective English curriculum and education teachers, I’d probably be out of a job.

When I first came to Japan the thing I noticed right away was the huge difference in English levels between my younger colleagues and my older colleagues. The older colleagues had little interest in English–many of them hadn’t wanted to be English teachers–and generally followed the official government textbook. Fortunately for them, the Japanese English teaching system, even in 2014, allows a teacher to teach English without ever having to speak it. (More on that later.)

Instead, people like me were brought in to provide “real” English and develop speaking activities.

My younger colleagues, though, were more interested in English. They’d made conscious choices to become English teachers but found themselves managed by the teachers who couldn’t care less. They were also hindered by the odd Japanese English system.

The textbooks–with a few exceptions–are designed by committees following strict Ministry of Education rules. The rules dictate how many new vocabulary words can be taught in one book. Any book that fails a rule, is sent back for revision.

The result is several textbooks with different titles but identical teaching plans. Every textbook is a bizarrely disorganized mess that teaches grammar in a scatter-shot way by focusing on grammatical structures rather than verbs and verb tenses. “I am” and “you are” are taught in one unit but “He is” and “She is” are taught later in the book even though they are the same verb tense. The books also teach relatively complex grammar “My grandfather is a man who likes to play darts in the pub as he enjoys a pint brewed by a man who is an expert at making beer.” (Note: that sentence is not actually from the textbook.)

The books also require the teachers to teach at the same pace in the same order. If they don’t, students will have difficulty on the mandatory exams. This kills any real possibilities for new ideas and modern teaching techniques. When I was still in Niigata, I would stop teaching junior high 3rd year classes (9th grade) early in October because 1) my spoken English lessons did not fit the curriculum and 2) my colleagues didn’t have time for my lessons.

The result is students who study English for six years in junior high and high school and a year or two at university but can’t speak English.

It’s all silly and a waste of resources, but I hope the curriculum planners never get their act together.


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