In the school year 2004

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Curriculum Revitalization in a Japanese High School:

Teacher-Teacher and Teacher-University Collaboration


Kazuyoshi Sato & Keiko Takahashi

Top-down Reform and Teacher Collaboration

This paper describes curriculum development toward communication-oriented English in a Japanese public high school over five years. In essence, this paper compares and contrasts two two-year projects in the same school (see Table 1)—the first one from April 2001 and the second one from April 2004 in order to determine factors contributing to successful curriculum revitalization. In the first project, teachers in this high school resisted, struggled, and learned through trial and error yet they lacked the communication and collaboration necessary to develop the curriculum. In contrast, in the second project, four teachers volunteered and made a team. As these teachers collaborated to develop the curriculum, they generated more teacher learning opportunities in their school context. Furthermore, they found that their students were learning better. First, we will describe the school context and provide details about the roles Sato and Takahashi assumed. Then, each project will be delineated, incorporating Takahashi’s stories. We believe the stories of Takahashi, one of the teachers who participated in these projects, will offer a valuable insight about how these teachers actually revitalized their curriculum in this school.

Table 1: Overview

Year (grade level)


Goals (improving…)

2001 (1st grade)

Oral Communication I

oral communication skills

2002 (2nd grade)


speaking and writing skills

2003 (3rd grade)


discussion and debate skills, writing skills

2004 (2nd grade)


speaking and writing skills

2005 (3rd grade)


discussion and debate skills, writing skills

1st project (2001—2002 school year)

2nd project (2004—2005 school year)

The School/Curricular Context

This public high school is co-educational and located in a regional area of Japan. Each grade has six classes (38 to 40 students per class). The level of students is average, meaning some start to work after graduation and others enter universities. Therefore, each grade creates two special classes out of six to prepare those students for university entrance exams. There were 10 teachers in the school, including one native English speaking teacher (ALT), when the project started in 2001. The average teaching experience was 15.6 years (from zero to 31 years).

The main goal of these projects was to improve students’ communication skills throughout English education (three years in junior high school and three years in senior high school) in accordance with the guidelines on communication-oriented English implemented by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). In fact, the guidelines were renewed with further emphasis on communication skills in 2003. Overall objectives were “to develop students’ practical communication abilities such as understanding information and the speaker’s or writer’s intentions, and expressing their own ideas, deepening the understanding of language and culture, and fostering a positive attitude toward communication through foreign languages” (2003, The Course of Study for Foreign Languages). The teachers, except for Takahashi, were unwilling to implement the first project. Although they were required by the guidelines to teach Oral Communication (OC) to first-year students twice a week, they had been ignoring the subject and replacing it with a grammar class because they thought grammar was essential to prepare students for university entrance exams. Only when an assistant language teacher (ALT), a native English speaker, visited each classroom once a week or so, was OC taught using some activities such as games. As for other English classes such as English I & II, most teachers relied on the textbook focusing on grammar explanation and translation. This kind of hidden curriculum and traditional way of teaching have been a norm in Japan for many years (see Sato, 2002).

Table 2 shows the English curriculum of this school. In 2001, the project began with OC for the first-year students, followed by Writing for the second-year students. In 2004, the second project started with Writing for the second-year students, followed by Writing for the third-year students. In addition, English II (two hours) was an elective for the third-year students. The goal was to continue to improve students’ communication skills over three years (vertical articulation). Although there were some attempts to integrate two different English classes (e.g. OC and English I) in the same grade (horizontal articulation), the teachers could not succeed in achieving this. Therefore, this paper focuses solely on the vertical articulation (OC and Writing).
Table 2: Curriculum

1st year

Oral Communication I (2 hours)

English I (4 hours)

2nd year

Writing (2 hours)

English II (4 hours)

3rd year

Writing (2 hours)

Reading (4 hours)

English II—elective (2 hours)

Concerning the school teaching culture, the initial data analysis based on teacher interviews revealed three distinctive characteristics: 1) teachers lowered their expectations of students’ outcomes and often complained about their students; 2) managing students and keeping classroom order were particularly important; 3) teachers did not have enough communication among themselves about teaching issues and goals. McLaughlin & Talbert (2001) categorize this type of school culture as a weak school teaching culture, where most teachers are isolated and rely on routine practices (see also, Kleinsasser 1993; Sato & Kleinsasser, 2004).

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