Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Difference Between Thai and Japanese Middle/ High Schools

(To the left is an English class in Thailand taught by Japanese teachers.)
Today Eri, Ayu and I had an interesting talk about the differences we observed between the middle school/upper school we visited in Ayutthaya and the middle schools we have taught at or been students at in Japan. Cube, who will be going to the school this month, also participated in the discussion. As Eri mentioned in her blog, it is hard to tell for certain what the differences are because we were only in Thailand for a brief time and only saw one school. So this post will be about the differences we observed.

  1. Both Ayu and Eri mentioned that when they studied English in Japan, their teachers focused on vocabulary and grammar. Ayu said she felt the Thai students were a little more fluent because they spent their time in class practicing and learning phrases. Eri said that the school she observed tended to focus more on listening and speaking than in Japan.
  2. Eri mentioned that in the Thai classroom the teacher stood closer to the students. In the Japanese classroom the teacher stands on a podium and is farther away from the students.
  3. Another big difference was that at the school in Ayutthaya, the teachers made their own materials. In the Japanese classroom, teachers tend to use a textbook.
  4. Japanese students are required to have textbooks. In the school we visited students were not required to have textbooks and quite often the teachers provided the material.
  5. In the Japanese English classroom it is more difficult to call on a student. Let me give an example: I ask a student in class "How is the weather?". The student mumbles something I cannot understand. So, I ask "Excuse me, can you say that again?" The student looks embarrassed and freezes. He asks his friends what he should do. His friends tell him to say the phrase again. He hesitates to speak. His friends encourage him more and eventually he says the phrase again. Even if I still do not understand him, I will pretend that I do because I do not want to waste any more time. When I taught in Thailand, I asked a student a question. She answered, but I did not understand her. I asked her to repeat what she said in a louder voice. She repeated what she said without hesitation and I understood her.
  6. At the school in Thailand, all students in all classes had to do an independent project. In Japan, there tends to be less project work and more test-taking.
  7. In Japan classes usually start on time and there are very few changes to the schedule. In Thailand, the schedule seemed to change quite often. So classes quite often did not start on time. I actually found the unpredictability kind of exciting.
  8. In the Japanese classroom, the desks are usually aligned in (close to) perfect rows. In Thailand, the desks were not aligned in perfect rows.
  9. In Thailand, the students had to take off their shoes before entering their classroom. Teachers, though, did not have to take off their shoes. In Japan, students wear "indoor shoes" when they are in their classrooms and leave their "outdoor shoes" in a locker in the front hall of the school building.
  10. According to a Thai colleague of mine the goals of the national English curriculum are the following:

1) Communication: Students have to improve their four skills.
2) Connection: English should be connected with other subjects such as technology, history etc.
3) Community: students have to use English inside and outside the school
4) Culture: Students have to be able to understand about the culture of the other countries.

I believe that the national curriculum for English education in Japan has goals similar to 1) and 4) and perhaps 2) also. To my knowledge, they do not have a goal similar to 3). At the school in Ayutthaya, was that teachers had the freedom to design their own syllabus and create their own materials to accomplish these goals. In Japan, teachers do not have as much flexibility. Quite often a textbook will be chosen for a teacher by his department or school.

The above are the subjective observations of Ayu, Eri and myself and should not be taken as fact. If you would like to add something to the above or correct something, please write a comment!


AJ Hoge said...

Thailand & Japan

Interesting observations. Ive also taught in both Japan and Thailand and would add one more distinction:

Thai students take more risks than Japanese students. I believe this helps them to learn faster than their Japanese counterparts.

My Thai students rarely seemed worried about making mistakes. They were most concerned with communication... with getting me to understand what they were trying to say.

My Japanese students, on the other hand, were far more concerned with "perfection". They seemed terrified to make a mistake and thus were timid in class. As you described, they hated to speak and if I didnt immediately understand them, they became embarrassed.

My mantra in Japan was always, "How can I get my Japanese students to relax and take risks?"

Guy Jean said...

Interesting observations. I wonder "why"? Why does the Japanese teacher stand farther away from the students? Why does the Japanese teacher use a textbook that is usually chosen for him/her by the department or institution?

JH said...

This is in response to some of the comments made by Marco Polo and AJ:
1) I don't know if Japanese teachers actually stand farther from the students. The power-distance though actually seems much greater because many classrooms have a podium for the teacher to stand on in front of the classroom so the teacher hovers over the students. Many university classrooms also have this kind of podium which I try not to stand on. When I stand on the podium I feel like a giant monster who could easily stomp on a delinquent student. I prefer moving around the class and standing or sitting at the same level as the learners.
2) Concerning textbooks, I will have to find out how schools specifically choose them.
3) Should we just accept the fact that many Japanese students will not take risks? Most of my students in Japan are hard workers and can function in English when put in a real-life situation. However, many of them, as AJ noted, will not take risks in front of the class. Maybe that is not so bad though.. As long as learners have comprehensible input and the chance to experiment with the language in small-groups, maybe taking risks in class is not so important. If I take a hard-line view, maybe taking risks in class is just something that works (for the most part) in Japan and we should accept it.