The Taipei Times on English Education

In a number of posts and letters to the editor, I have said that the mass media should not be involved in the evaluation and promotion of scientific research findings. The Taipei Times appears to have a somewhat different approach to this.

Remember back in February, I wrote about the King Car English Village that was being opened in Taoyuan County. One of my main points was that the article missed important pedagogical considerations. Well, the Taipei Times is back at it again. Today’s paper, contains a follow-up on the English Village with what appears to be expert commentary that supports the idea. This is a complete fabrication. Not only are there no experts that support the development of English Village-type amusement parks, the experts cited in the article have actually spoken out against this sort of experiment.

The article opens by talking about the idea of English theme parks and how they’re extremely popular in South Korea and Japan. It then goes on to describe the park that’s planned for Taiwan and all the meticulous care that’s being taken to make it appear like a “movie set” – that’s the term used by a King Car spokesperson. So far, so good. How can you argue with description?

The article then goes on to quote language researchers Stephen Krashen and James Oladejo. Ironically, both of these scientists have spoken out against the kind of education that takes place in these parks. Dr. Krashen, in fact, has spoken out specially against this park. This article taken from Dr. Krashen’s website contains a letter he sent to the Taipei Times addressing the issue of the English Village in Korea. The letter was also published by the TT on April 20, 2006. Dr. Krashen’s position on the the idea of an English Village is clear and summed up in the concluding sentence of the letter, “Other countries should think twice before investing in English villages,” Today’s feature article seemed to miss this.

The position of Dr. James Oladejo is more subtle, but no less clear. As I discussed in this post from my blog, Dr. Oladejo is a major opponent of the use of the untrained native-speaker teachers that are ubiquitous in Taiwan’s commercial language market. He is so clearly out-spoken about their use in this article, I doubt he thinks the King Car English Village is a special case where they are suddenly OK.

In fact, I have spoken to the authour of both these TT articles, Max Hirsch, about the positive spin he on King Car and their educational work. In an e-mail dated March 17, 2007, Max stated to me that,

Sure, English villages are not without pedagogical controversy,
but what about some of the foundation’s other stuff? I’ve usually been pretty impressed by the foundation, and I rarely come away from NGO press conferences feeling positive about whatever they’re doing.

But none of this is the point. And certainly none of this addresses why the English Village is coming across like it serves some language education need.

The reality is that English Village is a big waste of money and time. As I said here, it’s nothing more than a big buxiban with foreign teachers doing role plays. It’s a fun idea that rich men get to dabble with because they want to. Why would anyone think it would be more effective than doing role play in a language school downtown? Because the setting really looks like a bank?

Now I can understand that everyone thinks King Car is a great organization. Certainly they make great drinks, including Mr. Brown canned coffee
and a delicious orange soft drink that I like very much. I even like some of their charitable work. But they don’t seem to know anything about education, nor do they seem be consulting with any expert opinion while constructing their experiments with language education. These efforts seem instead to be driven by the same fads and fashions that power the commercial language teaching market.

And that’s OK, too. People get to spend their own money any way they want, even if it’s crazy. But none of this is related to the recent Taipei Times article. Let’s not pretend there is even one bit of expert support for this kind of program. In fact, if the article were to be honest about it, it could be quoting Stephen Krashen’s own writing in the Taipei Times about these places. But he doesn’t. And what’s the message there?

August 01, 2007 | Permalink
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The comment “untrained native-speaker teachers that are ubiquitous in Taiwan’s commercial language teaching market” makes me think of my ex-girlfriend back home. As an undergrad, she sometimes copied out my essays and handed them in as her own. She went on to complete a degree in education and become a “trained” teacher in Vancouver. She now teaches high school French and English. She wasn’t a good student at all. I wonder if she’s a better teacher than some of the really good “untrained native-speaker teachers” here in Taiwan?

Posted by: Patrick Cowsill | August 02, 2007 at 10:02

Although Professor Krashen’s and Mr. Sommer’s comments about the unproven efficacy of English villages are of merit, the controversy over English villages in Taiwan and South Korea do highlight one very important aspect of learning English – or any other second language. Namely, learning English is EXPENSIVE. To individuals, their families, and to whole economies. Learning English is in many ways definitely an investment, but it is also in many ways very expensive. In addition to the direct cost of school fees, there are the costs of preparing, delivering and taking tests; the opportunity costs of not working while you are studying; and the enormous cost to whole economies of sending tens of thousands of students out of the country to learn English – a significant capital drain on a small country.

I taught in Korea for nine years; given the vast amounts of money Korean parents send out of their economy to educate their children in English overseas, it’s difficult to be completely unsympathetic to efforts by governments to ‘stem the hemmorhage’, at least to a certain extent.

It’s clear that the primary driver to the creation of English villages in Korea and Taiwan is economic, not pedagogical. And although I’m a teacher by profession, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Yes, English villages should be evaluated as to their efficacy…as long as teachers admit that economics must play a factor in the delivery of English language education.

Whether we like it or not.

Posted by: Wayne Hall | August 03, 2007 at 07:10

I never cease to be surprised by the emotions expressed in discussions of the ‘untrained teacher’. Regardless, this is not my point here, nor is my point even the issue of pedagogical efficacy. I know of no study that would reflect on the issue of training of teacher and pedagogical efficacy in this case. In fact, there is virtually no research that involves language teachers who are not formally qualified for their job.

No doubt the real reason for the English Village concept is based in economics. But you’d never know this reading the articles I refer to. The original article from the Taipei Times actually called the village in Taiwan a language immersion program. The second article was written in such a way as to seem that leading experts on language teaching support these projects, when in fact they don’t.

From a classroom teacher point of view, this problem seems like one of teaching efficacy. In fact, it’s a problem of policy efficacy. Governments are now in the business of satisfying market demand. Failure to do this causes economic problems. The MOEs of East Asian countries have been unable to create policy through conventional policy pathways that deal with this problem in a way that satisfies customer-citizens. As such, they are increasingly turning to fashionable solutions. Unknowledgeable market observers attribute pedagogical characteristics to these policies. All of this continues in the tradition of language education policy being created through the whims of rich men and politicians with seemingly no in put from recognized experts. And then the inevitable surprise statement that policy’s not working and no one knows why.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 03, 2007 at 10:31

Mr Brown canned coffee a great drink? Are you mad?

Posted by: Murr | August 03, 2007 at 18:35

Of course it’s foolishness to think that it might be necessary to construct a village in order to teach or learn English.

People have been role playing and teaching each other by means of stories for millennia. It was (to cite an obvious historical antecedent) Jesus’ favored method of teaching his inner circle.

Investment in education is always needful, but the key factor is whether the investment is productive to the desired result.

I think it also needs to be said that years of academic work do not always produce a teacher who can reproduce his or her skills to learners.

Posted by: Daniel Loftin | August 04, 2007 at 00:35

I’m also surprised, and amused, to see someone taking pedagogy seriously. C’mon: it’s not like this is rocket science. Education students are, generally speaking, from the lowest wrungs of academia. Anybody with an ounce of sense could write an MA thesis in education in a couple of weeks.

The best teachers in the world are accidental teachers. They were always going to be something else.

Posted by: Patrick Cowsill | August 04, 2007 at 01:35

Patrick, do you have any evidence for this or did you just make it up? Certainly it’s true in the USA that education students are generally not the academically strongest. It’s not true in most other places in the world and certainly not Taiwan. But what about your other statements about teachers? I’ve never seen any evidence for this. Are you just making it up?

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 04, 2007 at 01:46

No, it’s purely anecdotal. I’ve been in school for most of my life, so I’ve got many first-hand sources. I would hazard a guess that there’s quite a bit of research out there to back up my theory.

I’ve also edited so many education thesises now that I know the time and spew (I mean effort) that goes into these things.

Posted by: Patrick Cowsill | August 04, 2007 at 07:10

In a number of posts and letters to the editor, I have said that the mass media should not be involved in the evaluation and promotion of scientific research findings.

Why not? It’s one thing to speak out against evaluation in error, as you do here, but it is quite another to argue, all elitist-like, that scientific research should be off limits to scrutiny by the media. I personally feel that more exchanges between science and the media could be positive learning experiences for both sides.

Patrick, do you have any evidence for this or did you just make it up?

On the totem pole of academic rankings, education is at the bottom, just above the lowest rung, TESOL.

Michael

Posted by: Michael Turton | August 04, 2007 at 08:52

I’ve also edited so many education thesises now that I know the time and spew (I mean effort) that goes into these things.

LOL. I’ll second that, but wait until you have a few score TESOL theses under your belt. Then you’ll start thinking longingly of those wonderfully constructed education theses.

Michael

Posted by: Michael Turton | August 04, 2007 at 08:53

Life is often a little more complicated than you think it is. After all, people believe the strangest things about medicine, science, and politics.

The implication is that there is something inherently wrong with education because of the nature of the work involved. The low status of education graduates that Michael points to is very much an America thing. But then, I never cease to be amazed how Americans continually argue that the USA is the world. This situation appears tied to low salaries of teachers relative to other university graduated professionals. In fact, the salaries in some US states are quote shocking.
Average salaries
http://www.aft.org/salary/2003/download/2003Table1.pdf
Starting salaries
http://www.aft.org/salary/2003/download/2003Table2.pdf

I have edited engineering papers in Canada and Taiwan. The only difference is that the papers in Taiwan were better written. Everyone has opinions, but I’m a little confused about why reading a few papers makes someone so profound that the mere statement of their experience should be overwhelming.

Patrick in all honesty, this is not forumosa.com or Dave’s ESL Cafe. Ranting about your prejudices against teachers and then saying “I spent my life in school, and I know…” may cut it at the Brass Monkey. But here on a blog devoted to education, it’s…well…a little inappropriate. So please, if don’t have anything more than a variation on the theme of ‘teachers are all bums’, there are places to post where this appears to be more than trolling.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 04, 2007 at 11:02

The problem with the phrase “untrained teacher” is that it’s very nebulous. What most people who use it mean, is “a teacher who hasn’t gone through some sort of TEFL certification course”. In my experience, those sorts of courses have very, very little bearing on teaching here. TEFL courses are relatively short and have little correlation with teaching success.

Even an education degree is no guarantee. I’ve met a number of hopeless B.Ed majors in Taiwan. Here, I’d go so far as to say that that sort of background is a disadvantage. Even in the US, the very most effective teachers, such as John Taylor Gatto and Jaime Escalante, didn’t get education degrees.

Posted by: Mark | August 05, 2007 at 03:35

I do not agree with the division you are making between trained language teachers and untrained language teachers. My disagreement is rooted in the historicity of my own second-language studies – that being Japanese and Chinese language courses taught at the University of Washington. With the exception of one intensive-course, all of these courses were taught by graduate students, who were not studying linguistics, but literature, and some of them were not native speakers of the language they were teaching. Nonetheless, I was successful in these courses, and speak these respective languages better than most students who studied abroad. And the reason why is simple. Skill in a second language is a function of the amount of work you put into the language outside of class. The teacher’s primary role is to correct your mistakes, answer questions, and drill patterns and vocab. The role of the teacher is invaluable, for it alerts you of what you are doing wrong. And ideally this role should be filled by an educated/responsible individual who is capable of communicating abstractly. But, however, they need not be an expert in language pedagogy, and so forth.

Posted by: Louis | August 05, 2007 at 07:10

I’ve never heard about one of these English theme parks in Japan, but could’ve been one of those ‘bubbly’ things that disappeared when the economy went down the drain.

I don’t see that it has to be a bad thing, though, or that it has to eat into the market for more ‘serious’ language teaching. After all, the people who have their photo taken with a mini Eiffel Tower in Tobu World are probably not doing it instead of going to France…

TEFLtastic blog- http://www.tefl.net/alexcase

Posted by: Alex Case | August 05, 2007 at 16:58

Mark is correct that arguments about teacher training are nebulous. The term is often used to mean many things. I think what I mean with the term is quite clear.

While I understand the point that Louis is trying to make, we can sum it up in the overstated position that teachers don’t mater. No one believes this about anything else, even learning about playing sports.

In fact, there is a vast literature on language learning while not directed at this point, helps us answer it. There are a vast number of clinical trials addressing such different kinds of teaching practices. You can read about this in any of the books by Rod Ellis
http://www.geocities.com/allhou/booksellis.htm
The literature on this point is clear that some instructional practices have more powerful efficacy.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 05, 2007 at 21:17

I do not think “teachers don’t matter”. On the contrary they are critically important. But I think most university graduates are capable, with some training, to teach a language in which they are proficient.

I agree that the quality of material used makes a difference.

I am going to look into some of Rod Ellis’s stuff; perhaps my understanding will change.

Posted by: Louis | August 06, 2007 at 06:07

So you agree with the Taiwanese (and Koreans and Japanese) that all you need is a degree is music to be teaching English? Is this a binary characteristic? Or do high school graduates have some sense of this ability? Would there be an audience for whom high school graduates could be appropriate teachers? Perhaps students in poor, rural areas that can not find qualified teachers? In fact, I frequently read on the Net that all one needs is language fluency and that formal education is unimportant; as such, some of the best teachers are the high school graduates teaching illegally. If you’re going to follow this line of reasoning, you’ll need to provide me with evidence that deals with these points.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 06, 2007 at 10:41

Scott, now that I’ve thought about the issue a bit more, I have to agree with you. You’re right that English villages can turn out to be a big waste of money, particularly if the teacher-training or recruiting aspect of the program is not given due attention. An English village is not going to be much better than a bushiban (sp?) if the instructors don’t know what they are doing.

As far as I know, the English villages being set up in Korea are government-managed projects; as such, they are probably better nested in a thought-out educational policy context than ones created elsewhere.

I just sometimes think, however, the economic aspect of ESL program delivery is not examined closely, either by teachers or program administrators. If English language teaching is a tremendous drain on a country’s economy and balance of payments, is it any wonder that some small countries in East Asia may turn to things like English villages as a perceived solution? As a westerner, I am also sometimes leery of telling other countries how they should teach their children. An argument can be made (whether one agrees with it or not) that it’s up to each country to decide how they will educate their children. It’s their country, their children; the role of a (foreign) ESL instructor is to let them tell us how they want English to be taught, not vice-versa.

Posted by: Wayne Hall | August 07, 2007 at 02:16

I’m based in Japan, so might be missing out on something but- everyone seems to be arguing as if all the points are either/ or. Surely there is room for opera and boxing (opera= intensive business courses in London, boxing= English language theme parks)and SWAT squads and volunteer policemen…

Posted by: Alex Case | August 07, 2007 at 14:15

Thanks Wayne. I agree that the economic aspects of the issue are not clearly understood. It’s obvious that they have something to do with all this. My take on the matter is that they point to a failure in national policy. The reason for an English village is that language policy conducted through public schools has failed miserably. Instead of dealing with this problem at its source, the governments of Taiwan and Korea have chosen to distract citizens and voters with learning fashions that have no more instructional efficacy than those used in commercial language schools. The obvious solution is to adopt methods used in nations that effective language learning curriculums. The problem is that the education system is not designed for the purpose of producing a learning population but rather to socialize citizens based on their mastery of political information.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 08, 2007 at 01:53

Scott,

Of course a BA is not a binary characteristic. As I am sure you know, it is impossible to categorize a large population according to some simple quality — like a BA — and make accurate, rigid, generalizations.

In regards to your comment on high school graduates, obviously one should not hold a teaching position without entering academia. They are unqualified such that putting them into the equation is a fallacy. It is like saying police officers do not need to go to the academy. For the situations where high school graduates are teaching English, it is probably a result of economics, and not a result of a concern for quality education.

I have question for you: what makes a university graduate unqualified?

Posted by: Louis | August 08, 2007 at 11:08

Louis, I like your reasoning.

Let’s step back and look again at what I was talking about when this topic came up. I was talking about the use of untrained English teachers at English village-type amusement parks to pretend they are police, clerks, and other types of workers. My point is that an English village is nothing more that a giant role play for and if role play in your class isn’t powerful enough to effect your children’s English proficiency, then the English Village in Taoyuan County won’t be either.

Almost all the English teaching in Taiwan is the teaching of children. Almost all the foreign teachers of English teach children. If knowledge of instructional technique doesn’t matter, then what could a high school graduate NOT know about English that would need to be taught in this situation? And if not a high school grad, what about someone who didn’t finish university, or a 2-year technical college graduate?

In fact, this argument is often given on websites for foreign English teachers. It is not at all unusual to see people argue that the “best” teachers are those with only high school graduation because they’ve had less exposure to the poor methodology of main stream education.

My suspicion about the real argument behind this is that BA holders argue that ‘a BA should be necessary’ and holders of teaching certificates argue that ‘teaching certificates should be necessary’.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 08, 2007 at 13:33

In Taiwan, the reality of high school graduates teaching English is increasingly disappearing. It is still alive and well in Thailand. I’ve just been surfing the Net and came across these testimonials from teachers in Thailand about teaching without a degree.
http://www.ajarn.com/Banter/degreedilemma.htm
I’m not defending anything with this quote. I’m merely pointing out the widespread belief that even a degree isn’t necessary.

“I taught at a University down the road from Sukkunvit 26. There were two young Canadian graduates who attended the same University. Over the one semester they became suspicious of my teaching credentials- and they had good reason, they both attended Concordia. They were newbies to Thailand, and didn’t have a clue about Thai culture, yet they were the most obnoxious example of the ‘Degreed Class.’ And every second day, administration hounded me for requisite transcript. But the faculty held onto me for another semester. I was a regular with the other senior teachers at a hole-in-the-wall bar along the klong. Martin, the head teacher, has since had a heart attack, and the other senior qualified teachers are now full blown alkies drinking lao koa. But there was one part-timer teaching in the Faculty of English Department, who came clean and said he didn’t have any qualifications. The students loved him, and so did administration. This ‘bar stool’ teacher would come into work disheveled and stinking of a night on booze down the road at Soi Cowboy. But he couldn’t do wrong, the student’s loved him and his approach to teaching was very non-academic and effective.”

Posted by: Scott Sommers | August 08, 2007 at 17:21

I believe that an understanding of teaching methodology is an important tool, which all self-respecting teachers should study and experiment with. This is where the importance of a BA comes into play. I am under the assumption that a university education changes the way someone approaches the world: there should be analytical as well as abstract notions underlying their thinking processes; and they should be able to approach discourse in a flexible manner. (This is unfortunately idealistic.) With these skills in hand an university graduate should then be able to apply English-teaching training to the job, even if this training is done individually — that is, through reading, rather than some 1-month course. And as a result teach well.

On the other hand, if the educational infrastructure is not designed to foster education, then the system is innately flawed, and the inclusion of one positive input — such as a teacher — may have few benefits. I think this is your point regarding English language parks and the majority of commercial schools — the system is not set up to educate.

Additionally, the student, and parents if the student is a child, are the active agents in education. No matter how good or bad (to a certain limit) the system is, the student has the choice whether or not he or she will learn.

In regards to the argument that high school graduates are the best language teachers because they are not tainted by a poor educational system, all I have to say is a fun teacher is not the best teacher. And if someone is intelligent, and wants to teach, what is stopping them from getting a BA — they should want to do it; it will only make them smarter.

I might as well throw in this side comment: I do feel there is a place for academics (experts) and research in education. I have the impression that Education is inefficient, and it does not have to be like this. A little rigorous research and application could probably go along ways in benefiting humanity: a goal-oriented infrastructure, based on research, and focused on education, coupled with intelligent teachers, does not seem like a bad model. But this is also idealistic, because as you mentioned politics seems to routinely take the forefront in education — no matter where you are.

Posted by: | August 09, 2007 at 02:13

You (we) have inspired a long post on missionary blog.

http://pagels.teamexpansion.org/sqjtaipei/

It’s the first post at the moment.

Michael

Posted by: Michael Turton | August 14, 2007 at 14:27

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