Success and failure, pt. 1 – Motivating a 4-year-old and failing to motivate the same 10-year-old

We’re in the final week of school here.  Parents are taking books from our library home for the last time and we’re separating other stuff into “worth making room for at our house”, “worth keeping but no place to keep”, and “burnables”.  Actually, those last 2 groups are the same.  The most unexpectedly difficult adjustment is remembering not to say “see you next week” at the end of classes.

I’m also knee-deep in Orange County English School nostalgia, looking back on 11 years of determining curricula and choosing materials and the memories that those created.

I wrote a semi-academic article in the School Owners SIG Newsletter about how Dogme-style lessons didn’t exactly catch on like wildfire at my school, which I chalk up to students basically not trusting themselves to provide content.  There have been other instances where something I tried didn’t work, and times too of course where something worked brilliantly.  Here’s one story of success and failure in what will probably become a short series.


I don’t remember the activity behind this drawing, but I think we can assume it was a success.

SUCCESS!  Motivating a very young learner by communicative methods

We had a private student starting around 2006 who had been in and out of other schools in our industry since age 1, never quite gelling to the way they did things.  She was 4 or so when she came to us, and was clearly one of those eikaiwa veterans with good pronunciation but little will or ability to show her personality, i.e. to actually talk like a 4-year-old, in the L2.  She really lit up after 20 minutes or so with us when it became clear we were more interested in the content of her utterances than hearing her manipulate a grammatical form.  She got downright rambunctious at times as months went on, breaking into song and conducting conversations from a partial headstand.  This was greeted with bemusement by her family, who were very upper crust and not accustomed to seeing their scion act out in a classroom in this way, particularly with her teachers egging her on.  Her mom, being properly career-minded, had as a goal for her Eiken level 3, which is designed to be taken after 3 years of mandatory English in JHS.  We knew this but went along with our own curriculum of using English basically to goof around in a creative fashion.

(Side note: Eiken is often compared unfavorably with TOEIC as the inferior local product.  Actually, TOEIC seems even more than Eiken to be a product surgically marketed toward Japan, and the veneer of internationalism is part of that marketing.  It appeals to Japanese students’ educational values – grammatical correctness and fine distinctions in vocabulary – and features primarily business situations with BANA (Britian, Australia, North America) participants.  It is also underresearched and has no speaking section in its most common format, making its validity as a general test of language ability very questionable.)

Of course, we didn’t bring the test up in lessons until a few months before she was scheduled to take it, when a little run-through became necessary.  This was before the MA but I still had a gut negative reaction to any kind of instrumentally motivated language learning.  Anyway once we started doing sections of the test in class she had already gotten to the point where she found the listening questions funny rather than easy or difficult – a sign of truly fluent understanding.  And she could usually guess the answers to a lot of the reading questions without being able to explain why, which I now recognize as implicit linguistic knowledge, the kind most native speakers take for granted.  She failed the test the first time and passed it the second, also passing the interview a month after.  This was when she was 8 or 9.  Not the test, but her abilities and her recognition of her own abilities (which the test did help with) remains one of our proudest achievements.  Not to mention her classes were just relentlessly fun.

FAILURE!  The beast of instrumental motivation demands to be fed

That same student became a very different person in the years after the Eiken, and our experience with her went from validating our choice to become language teachers to disillusioning us in a rather embittering way.

The most major sign that not all was right was that she literally lost her vision for a few hours after she got the notification that she’d failed the Eiken the first time.  She tended to keep these kinds of negative things from us, but her mom reported this to us sometime between the first test and the second.  Now, I understand teenagers getting depressed after blowing a high-stakes test (leaving aside the various educational issues surrounding those tests), but a third-grader with hysterical blindness?  This was new, and I really didn’t know what to say.  She was slightly more reserved than usual those months, but nothing approaching the kind of behavior that would hint at a psyche capable of being destroyed by a bad test score.  This was probably my first very immediate experience with the negative psychological effects of Japan’s testing culture.

Even after she passed the test, I began to notice that she was no longer satisfied to talk about possible answers to a question or to play around with the premise of a situation; she just wanted to know the right answer, the right bubble to fill in.  Moreover, she didn’t want to search for it; she wanted us to give it to her so she could move on to the next question.  At quite a few points she would stop in the middle of writing her name and look up to us for verification.  All the creativity and playfulness went out of our classes; it became routine for the kind of open-ended questions we routinely explored for a long stretch to instead be greeted with uninterested silence and ostentatious disengagement.  If there was a question with a single answer that we knew the answer to (a “display question”, a bit frowned upon nowadays), she would refrain from making guesses until absolutely all doubt and ambiguity had been removed.

I’m sure I showed frustration at suddenly needing to explain why it was important that she open her mouth and say something.  I’d had students with extreme unwillingness to communicate before but this was a girl that used to light up the room.  Maybe because we were so friendly before she saw talking more as a favor for me than an educational practice, and I probably regretted the loss of a friendly face as much as the productivity of our classes.  I didn’t really have the background yet to explain why all this was important, not just to make the hour move by faster but because interest and engagement are vital for the formation of memories, and “play” provides context for whatever grammar, vocabulary, or points of pragmatic usage you want to cover to take on meaning.  The reason she could understand:

A: I didn’t break the window, Mr. Smith.
B: It’s OK, Jimmy. I (            ) you.
1 exchange      2 reach      3 believe       4 shut

is not because we’d drawn sentence diagrams or translated or even made flash cards for any of the words or grammar in that question.  We’d incorporated it somehow into a game or story that she was invested in.  At the time I was seeing this change from free engagement to passive reception, all I knew was these classes suddenly seemed much longer.

Looking back, I feel like the Eiken was a poison pill for her motivation that turned English from a medium for play and exploration into a tool for social promotion in Japan.  It probably helped her get into the private junior high school she ended up at, but I have no doubt it also ended her interest in English as a language.  That feeling may come back some day, but if experience is any guide, that will be after most of her major life decisions (college, work, marriage) are already made and any meaningful engagement with the world outside Japan more or less irrelevant.

Blaming an educational culture for an experience with an individual student is never productive.  People are not able to transcend the ways they’ve been raised just because they have seen a different way, or worse, heard a condescending explanation of why their way is wrong.  I can see now that I should have incorporated more of the new way she was seeing English into our lessons, a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down if you will.  Not doing this allowed us to lapse into complete nonimportance in the view of English that was coming to dominate her thinking, and dominates the thinking of the majority of adults here.  I think now our unwillingness to bend a bit cost us a lot of quality hours, and made her last year or two with us a bitter end to what should have been just bittersweet.

Blaming an educational culture is futile, but realizing you can’t change it or expect students to spontaneously rise above it leaves you the options of adapting, continuing frustratedly, or leaving.  As I have said ad nauseum in this space, we never did the first, and this week we’re right in the middle of abandoning the second in favor of the third.

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