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Introducing Discussion Skills to Japanese University Students Revisited (1):
A Life Skills Education Perspective
Robert W. Norris
2014. Bulletin of Fukuoka
University, No. 32: 1-16
Keywords: discussion skills, critical thinking, ESL, EFL, life skills
This paper examines Fukuoka International University's (FIU) implementation of a Life Skills Education Policy and its implications for practical application in an English classroom. The paper is divided into four parts. The first part discusses FIU's new Life Skills Education Policy, which is based on the World Health Organization's recommended Life Skills program components. The second part is a review of the research I did and recommendations I made in a two-part series on teaching discussion skills to Japanese junior college students in the 1990s. The third part is a summary of relevant research related to the teaching of critical thinking and discussion skills in Japan. The fourth part covers the rationale for the revision of my teaching approach for a discussion skills class in order to follow the new Life Skills Education Policy. It also introduces some introductory lesson plans for teaching discussion skills.
At the beginning of the 2012 school year, Fukuoka International University (FIU) began implementation of a Life Skills Education Policy as part of its curriculum reform. This was based on the World Health Organization's (WHO) 1997 publication Life Skills Education in Schools. The WHO defines "life skills" as "abilities for adaptive and positive behavior that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demand and challenges of everyday life." (World Health Organization, 1997: 1). The 10 key skills the WHO focuses on are critical thinking, creative thinking, decision making, problem solving, effective communication, interpersonal relationship skills, self-awareness, empathy, coping with emotions, and coping with stress. (World Health Organization, 1997: 1).
FIU has a single department – the Department of International Communication. There are four courses in this department: the Modern English Course, the Asian Languages and Culture Course, the International Studies Course, and the Business and Economics Course. Teachers in each course are now encouraged to introduce elements of the above life skills in their classes. This has provided the motivation for me to review, revise, and refine my teaching strategies, plans, and goals for all my classes. My Discussion Skills class provides an example of how elements of a variety of the above key goals can be introduced in a practical manner.
This paper is divided into four main parts. The first part is a summary of the WHO's recommended Life Skills program components, followed by a description of the areas adapted by FIU.
The second part is a summary of the research I did and recommendations I made in a two-part series on teaching discussion skills to lower-level students in the 1990s. It includes sections on the characteristics of Japanese communicative style, a brief description of the direct approach to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), and an explanation of the systematic approach I used to teach discussion skills to junior college students.
The third part is concerned with relevant research related to the teaching of critical thinking and discussion skills in Japan. It includes a simple definition of critical thinking, an exploration of the debate about teaching critical thinking in English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) settings, and a summary of the Japanese government and business viewpoints on this issue.
The fourth part covers the rationale for revising and fine-tuning my Discussion Skills class in order to follow FIU's Life Skills Education Policy. It also introduces some introductory lesson plans. The paper concludes by stating that a second paper containing more comprehensive and creative discussion skills lesson plans will follow.
Life Skills Education
WHO's Life Skills Education
The WHO's (1997) Life Skills Education in Schools is divided into three sections: an introduction, guidelines for the development and implementation of life skills programs, and an appendix that includes sample life skills lessons.
The introduction includes definitions of the WHO's 10 key skills (see Appendix 1), as well as how they can be paired into five main skill areas to form a foundation in generic life skills: (1) decision-making, problem-solving; (2) creative thinking, critical thinking; (3) communication, interpersonal relationships; (4) self-awareness, empathy; and (5) coping with emotions, coping with stress.
In rationalizing the promotion of teaching life skills, the WHO (1997: 5) says it is
The WHO (1997) guidelines for the development and implementation of a life skills program include suggestions for developing a support infrastructure, formulating objectives and a strategy for program development, designing program materials, training teachers, pilot testing and evaluating a program and its implementation, and maintaining the program.
The WHO (1997) guidelines are not intended to be a specific cure-all for educating young people around the world to enter society as responsible and capable citizens. Each country, region, or locality has its own unique set of educational situations and obstacles to deal with. The WHO (1997: 3) explains:
FIU's Adaptation of Life Skills Education
In 2011, FIU established a Life Skills committee to draw up a plan for integrating life skills education into the FIU curriculum. Based on the WHO model, the final plan recommended (a) using the five main skills areas outlined above, (b) providing a series of extracurricular activities for students to take part in and reflect on throughout the year, and (c) providing life skills lectures and workshops for teachers as part of the school's faculty development.
The WHO's five generic life skills areas were adapted and placed in the following five categories:
Extracurricular activities include foreign language speech contests and parties, cultural exchange visits with students from Korea and China, teacher training at junior and senior high schools, overseas study experiences, student government and committee activities, presentations of research projects, internships, and interviews with teachers. For each of these activities, students must complete a checklist on self reflection, as well as write a homework assignment outlining their impressions and thoughts.
In terms of faculty development, teachers are required to meet two to three times a year to hear lectures, give presentations, and share life skills teaching experiences.
Reviewing My Own Discussion Skills Research
The first step in trying to abide by FIU's Life Skills Education Policy requirements and apply them to my own classes came in the form of (a) returning to research I had done previously and (b) reflecting on what changes I needed to make in my rationale for different class contents, lesson plans, and actual teaching. The first class to consider was my Discussion Skills class.
In the 1990s, I published two papers (Norris, 1996; Norris, 1997) on introducing English discussion skills to lower-level Japanese junior college students. In the first paper, I stated the premise that basic English discussion skills could be taught. The premise was based on (1) an understanding of Japanese communicative style, (2) an awareness of then current CLT research, and (3) a systematic teaching approach. These three items are explained below.
Characteristics of Japanese Communicative Style
There are many generalizations of Japanese communicative style, often supported by empirical or anecdotal evidence, to be found in ESL and EFL research. The main sources I cited in my earlier research were from Ellis (1991), Anderson (1993), and Mizutani (1981).
(1991: 116) said the following picture seemed to emerge from the
Anderson (1993) identified four key characteristics of Japanese communicative style that differed from those prevalent in the West and were related to classroom behavior:
b. consensual decision-making
c. formalized speechmaking
d. listener responsibility
Mizutani (1981) noted two more characteristics that were important for Westerners to understand: (1) the Japanese aversion toward persuasion and debate and (2) the low expectation Japanese have for words (for detailed explanations and examples of the characteristics listed above, see Norris, 1996).
The Direct Approach to Communicative Language Teaching
In the field of CLT in the early 1990s, there were two major approaches: the indirect approach and the direct approach. The indirect approach, according to Richards (1990: 76), saw conversational competence as "the product of engaging learners in conversation interaction" such as situational role plays, problem-solving tasks, and information-gap exercises. The indirect approach was the main feature of CLT in the 1980s and, according to Williams (1995: 12), was characterized by the following features:
One of the hazards of this type of teaching was that the learners in these programs, despite their improvement in language development, failed even to come close to native speaker standards of accuracy, particularly in second language morphology and syntax (Harley & Swain, 1994; Swain, 1985).
The second major approach, i.e., the direct approach, involved "planning a conversation program around the specific microskills, strategies, and processes that are involved in fluent conversation" (Richards, 1990: 77). Dornyei and Thurrell (1994: 41) said the direct approach handled "conversation more systematically...and aims at fostering the students' awareness of conversational rules, strategies to use, and pitfalls to avoid, as well as increasing their sensitivity to the underlying process."
Dornyei and Thurrell's (1994) interpretation of the direct approach was based on an explicit conceptualization of what conversational skills and subskills involved. Dornyei and Thurrell (1994) provided a list of conversational rules and structures, conversational strategies, functions and meanings in conversation, and social and cultural contexts to serve as a menu for teachers as they designed syllabi for their classes. According to Dornyei and Thurrell (1994), the direct approach was not in opposition to the indirect approach, but rather an extension and further development of CLT methodology. In addition to the main activities used in the indirect approach to CLT classrooms, the direct approach added to CLT more conscious elements such as (a) including specific language input, (b) increasing the role of consciousness raising, and (c) sequencing communicative tasks systematically.
When I wrote my earlier papers (Norris, 1996; Norris, 1997), I believed this type of teaching was well suited to the type of learning background most Japanese students brought with them to college and university conversation classrooms.
A Systematic Approach
My step-by-step approach to teaching discussion skills was based in part on Littlewood's (1981, 1992) methodological framework for teaching oral communication, and incorporated the direct approach to CLT, which was seen as well suited to the type of learning background (i.e., dominated by teacher-centered classes, passive learning strategies, and traditional methods and materials) most Japanese students brought to junior college and university classes.1 The approach involved four stages: (1) introduction and practice of useful English expressions that signal turn-taking, encouraging, clarification requests, confirmation, and other functions relevant to discussion; (2) brainstorming of vocabulary and practice of grammatical patterns commonly found in the exchange of opinions, agreement, and disagreement; (3) short, cued dialogues that involve students in exchanges of opinion, agreement, and disagreement; and (4) longer, cued dialogues that lead students toward weighing both sides of a topic and learning simple ways of compromising (Norris, 1996).
The overall goal was to introduce students to the mechanics and rhythm of English discussion and to pave the way for a smoother transition to higher levels of proficiency in the future. My second paper (Norris, 1997) contained some detailed lesson plans and classroom procedures for each of the above four stages.
When I wrote those papers, I did not consciously consider any life skills criteria. My main concern was reviewing what the current research implied and what worked in the cultural context of the classes and students I was teaching. Over the past 17 years, my teaching experiences have led me to believe that most of the implications for considering the characteristics of Japanese communicative style and using the direct approach to CLT when carrying out my lesson plans still hold true.
The next step in trying to abide by FIU's Life Skills Education Policy requirements and apply them to my own classes was to determine what Life Skills areas were relevant to a Discussion Skills class and how I could fine-tune my lesson plans to apply them practically in the classroom. Pertaining to teaching English to students in FIU's Modern English Course, the key component of the set of Life Skills chosen by FIU to be introduced to all classes was that of critical thinking.
In the following sections, I cite a simple definition of critical thinking, explore the debate about teaching critical thinking in ESL/EFL settings, and summarize the Japanese government and business viewpoints on this issue.
Research Related to Teaching Critical Thinking and Discussion Skills in Japan
What is Critical Thinking?
What exactly is critical thinking? Scholars offer a large number of definitions. Mayfield (2001: 4) has comically noted that "there are as many definitions of critical thinking as there are writers on the subject." Hill (2013) offers a provisional definition, which he says is consistent with most other definitions: "critical thinking is questioning information, not simply accepting it, and using the questioning to develop well-supported opinions."
In terms of what specific skills are included in critical thinking, Long (2003b: 231) writes, "While there is no recognized authoritative list of skills that make up critical thinking, the following list summarizes the skills (or abilities) that many consider basic to the process of critical thinking (based on Mayfield, 2001)."
Thinking Skills in Japan
The teaching of critical thinking in Japan is not without debate. The main reason given by those who believe the above-listed critical thinking skills should not and cannot be taught in Asian EFL contexts is that these skills are culture specific and therefore inappropriate for teaching in non-Western contexts. Atkinson (1997) claims that critical thinking is a social practice that embodies Western cultural values, of which many are not appropriate for non-Western students. Reid (1998) reported that Robert Kaplan, then ex-president of TESOL, in a 1997 speech at Asia University in Tokyo, called the teaching of critical thinking in ESL/EFL settings in Japan a form of "xenophobia" [sic] and suggested that courses in critical thinking be called "Western-style of thinking" courses. Advocates of this point of view often refer to research indicating the differences between "collectivist" and "individualist" cultures. The research postulates that Asians (e.g., Japanese) are highly collectivist and tend to value collectivist ideals, whereas Westerners are highly individualistic and tend to value individualistic ideals. Although in ESL literature there is no clearly agreed upon definition of the terms, Niles (1998) lists some commonly cited characteristics:
On the other side of the debate are those who think that Atkinson's (1997) claim is a form of cultural stereotyping and that critical thinking is a universal skill of which students from all cultures are capable. Long (2003b) believes that critical thinking consists of a set of skills (see the above list) rather than a single skill. Long (2003b) criticizes the tendency of teachers to judge Asian students on the single skill of expressing opinions as their primary means of evaluation, thereby reinforcing the stereotype that Japanese (and other Asian) EFL students have poor critical thinking skills and cannot express their opinions well. Long elaborates (2003b: 231-232):
Long (2003b) rejects the idea that students from non-Western and collectivist cultures are less suited for critical thinking than are students from Western and individualistic cultures.
Government and Business Viewpoints
Long (2003a: 217) maintains that teaching critical thinking supports educational policy already being implemented from within Japan. Long (2003a: 217) cites the introduction of the Japanese Ministry of Education's "Period for Integrated Study" policy into the curriculum for national elementary schools in April 2003. Long (2003a: 218) explains:
In this age of globalization, Japanese business leaders are increasingly faced with the need to develop a more internationally competitive workforce equipped with such skills as critical thinking. This creates a dilemma within the society. Rear (2007, 17-18) elaborates:
This paradox of Japan, for its economic survival, appearing to be dependent on the very kind of individualistic traits that elements of Japanese society distrust creates an educational policy dilemma: How does the country produce the human resources it needs to succeed in a globalized world while maintaining its traditional social norms and conventions? Rear (2007, 21) believes this is an important issue and that English language teachers in Japan have a duty to add their voices to the debate.
By its implementation of a Life Skills Education Policy as part of its curriculum reform in 2012, FIU has clearly endorsed the side of trying to produce graduates capable of contributing to a society and business environment increasingly dependent on innovation and new ideas.
Planning My Discussion Skills Class
Having a good idea of what critical thinking is and entails, understanding the issues involved in the debate about teaching critical thinking in ESL/EFL settings, and being aware of the Japanese government and business viewpoints on this issue are important things to consider when designing class syllabi, but English teachers at Japanese universities also have to deal with the realities of student levels of fluency and what students are capable of at those levels.
In order to enter FIU's Modern English Course, students, by the end of their first year, must have achieved a minimum of 350 on the TOEIC test or its equivalent. They must take some preparatory English classes in their first year, then join a Modern English Course seminar in their second year. They are required to take 38 credits of specialized English classes before graduating. The goal of the Modern English Course is to help the students achieve a TOEIC score of 600 or better by the time they graduate. Clearly, students are not fluent enough in the TOEIC range between 350 and 600 to be capable of engaging in the requirements of abstract thinking and serious debate and discussion in a second or foreign language (see Appendix 2 for detailed descriptions of fluency levels), but they are proficient enough to be introduced to the basic patterns and vocabulary needed for performing the functions of giving opinions with reasons, agreeing, disagreeing, and compromising.
In a 1997 interview at the Center for English Education at Asia University in Tokyo, Bruce Davidson of Hokusei Gakuen University gave some practical advice on (a) how to deal with a potential language barrier between English-speaking teachers and Japanese students and (b) at what level to teach what kind of critical thinking.
As for lower-level students, Davidson said the following:
Taking all the above into consideration, I set about refining lesson plans for my Discussion Skills class. The basics of my original step-by-step approach remain the same, but I have incorporated more details in my explanations preceding each step of each activity in order for the students to understand the goals and their connection with FIU's Life Skills Education Policy. What follows is a description of the introductory activities that I use before proceeding to more comprehensive and creative discussion skills lessons.
In the first lesson of a discussion skills class, the first thing I do is put the students in small groups and have them discuss (in Japanese) what they think is the difference between a factual statement and an opinion. They must come up with a group definition for each. After a few minutes, I put the following on the board for the students to compare with their own definitions:
Next, I put some factual statements and opinions on the board and again have the students decide in small groups whether each sentence is a fact or an opinion. Each group must provide a reason for its decision. When the groups have come to their decisions, I lead them through an analysis of each sentence, pointing out the difference between fact and inference. Pictures can also be used to do the same thing. Long (2003b, 232) explains why this is a good introductory activity:
Once the students have a good idea of the difference between fact and inference/opinion, I introduce them to the two simple types of opinions we will use in class. Lubetsky, et. al. (2000) define three types:
In order to avoid confusion (after just having shown the students the difference between fact and inference/opinion), I concentrate on the first two and describe them as "comparison opinions" and "'should' advice" opinions. I give several examples of each.
Next, I start the process of how to exchange opinions. Lieb (2007: 75) advocates using a step-by-step approach:
The first part is learning how to express opinions, how to agree, and how to disagree. I hand out a printout with the following "linguistic support":
I think + (opinion) [weak]
I feel that + (opinion)
It seems to me + (opinion)
In my opinion, + (opinion)
If you ask me, + (opinion)
No doubt about it, + (opinion) [strong]
That may be. [weak]
I agree completely.
I couldn't agree more. [strong]
Do you think so? [weak; polite]
I'm not so sure about that.
I wouldn't agree.
I can't agree at all. [strong]
I explain that all these expressions show degrees of weakness or strength of one's opinion, agreement, and disagreement. I demonstrate by stating a simple comparison opinion (e.g., "Vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream."), then express the same opinion with each expression on the board. I include the appropriate tone and gestures to show the strength or weakness of conviction. Next, I present a variety of opinions (I normally include opinions on food, music, and sports) and have individual students agree or disagree with me by using the expressions written on the printout. For example:
I then change roles and have the students express opinions to which I agree or disagree. The next step is to expand the exchanges to four lines. I write the following discussion model on the board:
Before practicing exchanges that follow this model, more sample patterns and explanation are needed. I usually take time to review important patterns for giving reasons. Again, I try to simplify this by telling the students that for comparison opinions, statements of fact are useful for giving reasons. For "should" advice opinions, "if" conditionals provide good reasons. They are also easy to use because the original opinion can be used in the "if" clause as the condition. Examples of each case are below.
Next, I explain the importance of the "signal." This is a crucial step. As mentioned earlier in the section on Japanese communicative style, Japanese tend to use more back-channeling devices and consider the listener to be responsible for smooth communication (Ellis, 1991; Anderson, 1993). In a different paper, I elaborated on these phenomena (Norris, 2004: 26):
I provide more linguistic support by providing a list of "signal" expressions. I then explain that if speaker A doesn't give the signal, speaker B won't know whether speaker A is finished or not. The discussion will come to a halt. After the signal is given, speaker B either agrees or disagrees. If she agrees, she must also say "Let's go to the next one" in order to proceed to the next topic (with three or more in a group she can give the signal to speaker C to elicit further agreement or disagreement). If she disagrees, she must return to the first line and express her opposing opinion. I demonstrate both possibilities by acting out the A and B roles.
At this point, it isn't necessary for the students to be able to compromise or to come to an agreement. The important thing is for them to get accustomed to the rhythm and flow of English discussion. I next put the students in groups of three or four and have them go through at least one exchange each about sports, food, music, movies/TV, and a topic of their own choice. I walk around giving help with vocabulary, noting common errors for future structure practice, joining in on a few exchanges, and making sure the students are using the signals and useful English expressions from their lists in order to keep the discussions moving along.
The number of topics and activities that can be practiced using these simple cued dialogues is practically unlimited. Before asking the students to move into extended versions of cued dialogues, I add a few expressions for compromising (e.g., "I didn't think of that." "That's a good idea." "I give up. You win." "OK, You've convinced me." etc.) and demonstrate one speaker's reason being more convincing than another's, as well as how to compromise.
As students become accustomed to exchanging opinions, more linguistic support can be given in the form of expressions that show partial agreement (e.g., "I see your point, but…"); different types of reasons such as examples, explanations, expert opinions, and statistics; and expressions for adding reasons (e.g., "On top of that," "In addition to that").
This paper first discussed FIU's Life Skills Education Policy, which is based on the World Health Organization's recommended Life Skills program components, then reviewed my research done and recommendations made in a two-part series on teaching discussion skills to lower-level Japanese junior college students in the 1990s.
This was followed by a summary of relevant research related to the teaching of critical thinking and discussion skills in Japan. It included a simple definition of critical thinking, an exploration of the debate about teaching critical thinking in ESL/EFL settings, and a summary of the Japanese government and business viewpoints on this issue.
The final part covered the rationale for the revision and fine-tuning of my Discussion Skills class in order to follow FIU's Life Skills Education Policy. It also introduced some introductory lesson plans that have worked well for me since the new policy went into effect. A second paper containing more comprehensive and creative discussion skills lesson plans will be forthcoming.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to my colleague Professor Dominic Marini for his invaluable proofreading of this paper.
1. See Hyland, K. (1994). The learning styles of Japanese students. JALT Journal, 16(1): 55-74.
2. Lieb's (2007) paper is concerned with teaching debate, but for the purpose of this paper, I use both "debate" and "discussion" as examples of the similar critical thinking involved in formulating opinions, developing reasons, and developing analytical thought processes needed for refutation.
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The World Health Organization's Definitions of Core Life Skills
- Decision making helps us to deal constructively with decisions about our lives. This can have consequences for health if young people actively make decisions about their actions in relation to health by assessing the different options, and what effects different decisions may have.
- Problem solving enables us to deal constructively with problems in our lives. Significant problems that are left unresolved can cause mental stress and give rise to accompanying physical strain.
- Creative thinking contributes to both decision making and problem solving by enabling us to explore the available alternatives and various consequences of our actions or non-action. It helps us to look beyond our direct experience, and even if no problem is identified, or no decision is to be made, creative thinking can help us to respond adaptively and with flexibility to the situations of our daily lives.
- Critical thinking is an ability to analyse information and experiences in an objective manner. Critical thinking can contribute to health by helping us to recognise and assess the factors that influence attitudes and behaviour, such as values, peer pressure, and the media.
- Effective communication means that we are able to express ourselves, both verbally and non-verbally, in ways that are appropriate to our cultures and situations. This means being able to express opinions and desires, but also needs and fears. And it may mean being able to ask for advice and help in a time of need.
- Interpersonal relationship skills help us to relate in positive ways with the people we interact with. This may mean being able to make and keep friendly relationships, which can be of great importance to our mental and social well-being. It may mean keeping good relations with family members, which are an important source of social support. It may also mean being able to end relationships constructively.
- Self-awareness includes our recognition of ourselves, of our character, of our strengths and weaknesses, desires and dislikes. Developing self-awareness can help us to recognize when we are stressed or feel under pressure. It is also often a prerequisite for effective communication and interpersonal relations, as well as for developing empathy for others.
- Empathy is the ability to imagine what life is like for another person, even in a situation that we may not be familiar with. Empathy can help us to understand and accept others who may be very different from ourselves, which can improve social interactions, for example, in situations of ethnic or cultural diversity. Empathy can also help to encourage nurturing behaviour towards people in need of care and assistance, or tolerance, as is the case with AIDS sufferers, or people with mental disorders, who may be stigmatized and ostracized by the very people they depend upon for support.
- Coping with emotions involves recognising emotions in ourselves and others, being aware of how emotions influence behaviour, and being able to respond to emotions appropriately. Intense emotions, like anger or sorrow can have negative effects on our health if we do not react appropriately.
- Coping with stress is about recognising the sources of stress in our lives, recognizing how this affects us, and acting in ways that help to control our levels of stress. This may mean that we take action to reduce the sources of stress, for example, by making changes to our physical environment or lifestyle. Or it may mean learning how to relax, so that tensions created by unavoidable stress do not give rise to health problems.
(World Health Organization, 1997: 2-3)
TOEIC Fluency Chart
Note: This TOEIC Fluency Chart is a compilation of data from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (1986), The Chauncey Group International (2000), the Educational Testing Service (1982a, 1982b), and the Matsushita English Training Program Overseas Training Center (1990).