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Response to Ms.Ohtani's Research Project

I really appreciated the posting of Ms. Ohtani's project in the R&R Cafe! It gave us a chance to rethink some of the terms that we often hear used these days, especially the idea of "international understanding". For the past ten years or so, "internationalism" has been a key word in talking about the new education and has been used to point toward a whole new direction in Japanese politics and society. Anytime a new word gets introduced into our psyche, we struggle to understand its meanings and create some sort of common meanings so that we can be talking about the same ideas when we use that word or refer to that concept. However after we get a bit familiar with a term, we stop thinking about its meaning and just assume that we're all talking about something that's "the same", which of course, we never are.

Redefining "internationalism"

Ms. Ohtani's research gets us to look again at her understanding of "internationalism" and gives us some data on how an English class can utilize the new technologies to develop their cross-cultural awareness. There were two aspects of her paper which I found particularly valuable: the first is that her educational methodology focused on the students' presentation of ideas; that is, on the importance of externalizing their learning in a variety of ways. I think this is one of the most meaningful and engaging ways of utilizing technology. Secondly, her paper emphasized the changes that took place in her students' thinking as a key factor in her evaluating her own teaching as well as the students' learning. Test scores, a more traditional way of evaluating both the teacher's performance and the students' learning, seems to me to be much more limited because the performance is mostly based on memorization of information, rather than deep or synthesized understanding based on the experience of constructing and presenting our own ideas.

Teachers as researchers!

Also, this research project is an excellent example of Teachers as Researchers, and a direction that we are beginning to see more and more of. Research should not be restricted to so-called scholars who step briefly out of their ivory towers to test their theories, but rather should be open to everyone involved in the learning community. In fact, often the scholars are so removed from these learning communities that their "objectivity" gives them such great distance from the subject that they end up in "left field", as we say for someone who is not seeing the important pieces of the picture. Ms. Ohtani's research is quite the opposite from this. Not only is she very much involved in the daily learning and lives of the children, but the children themselves are involved in expressing their perceptions as part of the research.

For me, this subjectivity makes the research honest, real and meaningful. Although Ms. Ohtani notes (in section 6, "Scope") that because of the interview style and limited number of students, the study "remains a qualitative research" as though this is a weakness, rather than strength. Personally, I feel that this limited size and the subjective, from the inside out approach, is a benefit, not a deficit. There are many quantitative reports based on questionnaires, including hundreds or thousands of students. While a good quantitative report will give us much particular knowledge from the general data, for me the stance of "objective data" leaves me cold. I much prefer seeing the actual work of learners, hearing their own ideas in their own words of what they are experiencing and learning, and of course in the direct observations of others.

Visit the site!

To really experience the full effect of Ms. Ohtani's work, it's necessary to spend time exploring the website of her class at http://www.tamagawa.ac.jp/sisetu/kyouken/A1 Remembering that this is a class for young learners of English (only in their second year of foreign language study), we can really appreciate the activities they were involved in. Many teachers would say, "What? Write Poetry? Give Speeches? Make Presentations? No Way! Let them learn basics for a few more years, then they can try." Of course, this attitude is what kills the spirit of mystery, surprise, engagement and fun in learning. So the design of her project deserves careful attention, and is at the heart of the environments she created for and with her students!

One comment I have about the use of the term "Case Study". It's a very important research style, but it usually involves some more intensive interviewing with the subjects. I think that the data Ms. Ohtani presented us with regarding the changes in perception about how students felt about the words "English" or "different culture" was interesting, but I think that some information, perhaps gained from more detailed interviews with the students, or looking at more indirect expressions showing how their perceptions changed - through drawings or poems for example - would have added another dimension to this already wonderful project.

I'd like to hear from Ms. Ohtani about this - aside from the questionnaires that she gave the students at the beginning, middle and end of the project, what other ways was she able to access the changes made in the students' perceptions about English study and different cultures. Even anecdotal evidence is important here, I think.

I'm looking forward to discussing this further.
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