12 Nov 2018

My month in Akita

JYU Post­doc­to­ral re­searc­her Dmitri Leontjev spent one month in Akita, Japan, in October 2018

First, I feel I should definitely say something about the part of the visit that the image above illustrates. The trips that we made in and around Akita were so inspiring! The Kakunadate Samurai village, the beautiful Senshu Park, and the breath-taking views of Oga (the picture above is from there) had a huge impression on me.

I am pretty sure my Facebook friends thought that all I did was having fun. But the visit was really intensive work-wise, with occasional evenings and weekends spent going out and going places.

The hospitality of the people at Akita International University (AIU) was unmeasurable. AUI provided me with an office space and offered me (and my wife, who accompanied me to Japan) free on-campus accommodation. The local people, incl. Dr. Dougherty, the head of English for Academic Purposes Program, Assistant Professor Cherie Brown, but above all, Mark deBoer and his wife, Shuku, made our stay memorable. Thank you, everybody, for your hospitality!

This was my office, by the way (not enough time to make as disorganised as my desk in JYU, but you can tell that the papers started piling up there, too):

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Having fun (net)working

I came to Faculty of International Liberal Arts to work on an edited volume in Assessment for learning in CLIL. Three seminars, one symposium, a lesson observation (field notes taken), two conference abstracts, and a completed analysis for a new joint paper (Methodology section written) later, I am fairly certain that I managed to do a bit more. They promised me I’ll be Japanese busy, and so I was. This is me running a seminar in AfL for the faculty, by the way, together with Mark deBoer.

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My major goal in these was not to impose my view of assessment but to learn about local researchers’, lecturers’, and teachers’ understandings and practices. Hence all of these sessions were interactive, me engaging them in discussions, both formal during the seminars and informally, chatting in the corridor and during lunches and dinners. I learned a lot during my stay about the assessment practices of L2 and CLIL educators in Japan, and many of them were not what I expected to be, having read about test-orientedness and controlled nature of education in Japan. Or maybe I was simply at the right place.

Broken stereotypes

I learned that AUI people’s understandings of teaching, learning, and assessment, and their relationships, were largely congruent with mine. Just like I do, many of them saw assessment as a continuous process whose goal is not just grading learners, but helping learners to succeed. Certainly, they also talked about their struggles in making it all work, asking for my advice. This was the first time that expert educators, each teaching content through English at tertiary level for many years, sought my advice--flattering but also a huge responsibility. I hope that my impostor syndrome was not too evident. Overall, I was positively surprised that despite the largely different educational context and a great emphasis that is still placed on formal testing in Japan, educators appreciate assessment for learning and make it a part of their practices.

The contact meeting in Academic Writing that I was fortunate to observe broke another stereotype that I had about education in Japan. Before coming to Akita, I imagined university teaching/learning in Japan being predominantly frontal, teachers/lecturers being ‘transmitters’ of knowledge. The one that I observed was the opposite. The responsibility for learning and assessing was placed onto the students, the whole lecture organised through pair work, when the students assessed their peers’ writing (based on the instructions) and then discussed their evaluations together. The teacher had the role of facilitator/mediator, guiding the students if asked for help. I made five pages of field notes during my observation (students’ written consent and the permission from the vice-president acquired), and these notes are the best reminder for me to always enter the field with the open mind and not to have stereotypes about the context. I could have, perhaps, noticed more, but the field notes are priceless in the shape that they are--students co-constructing their understanding of what quality academic writing entails and the teacher building on the students’ turns in guiding them. I am sure I will be able to use them in my current participatory research project back in a Jyväskylä Lukio for developing guidelines for assessment for learning in writing classes together with the teachers--not something I expected when I entered that classroom in Akita.

Symposium in Tokyo

The symposium on Assessment for Learning in CLIL that Mark, Dr. Naganuma, and I organised at Tokai University, Tokyo, turned out to be the highlight of the mobility period. When Japan Association for Language Teaching suggested Mark and I could organise such an event, we hoped that it would be productive, but we never imagined it to be such a success, with both local and international scholars taking part in it.

The discussion with which the symposium culminated was so engaging. We talked about what assessing integration in CLIL can look like, the dialectical relationship between language and content learning, teaching, and assessing in CLIL, discussed wonderful data from one of the presenters collected in EFL classes with more emphasis on content, where one could see learners creativity transpiring in their translanguaging, as they struggled to understand, express their understanding, and be understood and how much more richer insights into learners’ abilities (linguistic or otherwise) are available when teachers consider these cases in addition to fairly traditional EFL categories, e.g., grammar and vocabulary. This led us to propose that not only content teachers should be language teachers but also language teachers should be content teachers not overlooking the value of the content beyond being the context for teaching language.

That’s me again. I am sure CLIL researchers will recognise the book in the foreground.

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We worked on the book, too

To read all of the chapters once again, together with the feedback from one internal and one external reviewer each, synthesise all of these comments, add our own, during the process marking the direction where the volume is heading, was a really difficult and tiring but immensely satisfying process. I learned a lot about synthesising others’ writing and making sure that their voices are visible and heard. I also learned about the writing process from the editor’s perspective, e.g., what it means to the editor when I do not meet the deadlines or what it means to say ‘no’ after co-operating with the author for a while on her/his contribution, but also the feeling of satisfaction when everything works eventually. A long journey is still ahead with the volume, but the experience in AIU working together with Mark gave me confidence in what I do, which is really valuable. I remember before I said ‘yes’ to Mark’s suggestion to work on the volume, I talked with a number of people, read a number of books, and had a number of sleepless nights contemplating whether I am fit for this work. I never told Mark about it (though now he’ll probably read it =), but I almost decided to say ‘no’ to him. After all, I am not a CLIL researcher, so I had a really vague idea of what assessment looks like in CLIL. But then I thought that worst things to regret about are the things one never did.

Soooo, here I am working on an edited volume on assessment in CLIL. And enjoying it immensely. If it weren’t for it, I would have not gone to Japan, met wonderful people, and developed my understanding of assessment, CLIL, and assessment in CLIL. So next time someone asks me to work on a book/volume/paper beyond my comfort zone, I’ll be more likely to say ‘yes’ (unless it means that I have to work more than 24 hours day, which is fairly impossible, methinks), knowing that this experience could be priceless.

All of this would not have happened if I hadn’t received mobility funding form RECLAS. Thank you!

 

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About the author

Dmitri Leontjev