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Critical Thinking in Japanese L2 Writing: Rethinking Tired Constructs

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250 ELT Journal Volume 56/3 July 2002
©
Oxford University Press
Critical thinking in Japanese
L2 writing: rethinking tired
constructs
Paul Stapleton
Asian learners of English are often characterized by constructs which claim
that they lack an individual voice and critical thinking skills. In addition, it is
said that unlike their Western counterparts, because of collectivist and
hierarchical tendencies, they hesitate to express adversarial views. These
behavioural patterns are claimed to be reflected in the rhetorical styles of
Japanese learners when writing in English. Contrary to these claims, in an
attitude survey of 70 Japanese undergraduates, the present study found little
hesitation to voice opinions counter to authority figures. Moreover, participants
possessed a firm grasp of elements of critical thinking. These results suggest
that traditional constructs describing Asian students may no longer be
accurate. Furthermore, trends in education in Japan may point to a new type
of Asian learner who has an individual voice.
Introduction: In recent years there has been extensive discussion about the need to
using cultural consider the culture of the learner in order to improve teaching practices.
patterns in
ELT These discussions often use the culture of Asian learners as a focus of
comparison with Western culture. Constructs which characterize Asian
learners as group-oriented, harmony-seeking, hierarchical, and non-
critical thinking, are typically contrasted with the individualistic,
adversarial, horizontal, and critically-thinking behavioral patterns of their
Western counterparts (Atkinson 1997; Fox 1994; Ramanathan and
Kaplan 1996).
These constructs are also often used to describe the rhetorical style of
Japanese learners when they write in English. In the mode of traditional
contrastive rhetoric, Hinds (1987) examined organizational patterns in
Japanese and English expository writing. Specifically, his study looked at
whether patterns exist and how main points are presented. His findings
revealed that in contrast to English, where the writer has the
responsibility of conveying meaning, Japanese have a preference for an
inductive style of writing in which the reader has more responsibility in
deriving meaning. Hinds (ibid.: 151) goes on to say that this contrast
should be pointed out to learners in an e¤ort to develop a ‘new way to
conceptualize the writing process’.
Ramanathan and Kaplan (1996: 26) contend that presenting a strong
voice is a Western notion that is not necessarily relevant in other
cultures. This notion assumes that Asian cultures lay greater emphasis
on participation and interpretation on the reader’s part. Likewise, Fox
(1994) claims that the critical thinking which results in what is perceived
as good writing is a product of U.S. culture. However, says Fox, very few
cultures share this way of thinking. Atkinson (1997: 80) suggests that
‘the very notion of critical presupposes that individual conflict and
dissensus are a social reality, if not a tool for achieving socially desirable
ends, while thinking—at least in the Western context—assumes the locus
of thought to be within the individual.’ Atkinson contends that such a
supposition naturally conflicts with the sociocultural norms of certain
cultures outside of the United States; he specifically discusses Japan as a
contrast focus, stating that critical thought is more of a social practice
than a teachable set of behaviors.
Since the 1980s, theoretical constructs about Asians and others have
come under criticism by postmodernists who believe that these cultural
patterns are simply essentializations created to hold power over non-
Western people. Various recent studies in L2 writing have pointed out
problems in characterizing whole groups of people based on nationality
or native tongue. For example, Kubota (1998), in a study of 46 Japanese
university students learning English, found that the learners used
various organizational patterns, and that there was no negative transfer
of culturally unique rhetorical patterns. Further, Kubota found that the
quality of L2 writing among her Japanese subjects depended more on the
quality of their L1 writing, i.e. subjects who wrote well in Japanese
tended to write well in English, whereas those who wrote poorly in their
native tongue also fared poorly in English. Finally, Kubota advises that
notions of sociocultural patterns regarding text structure, as in, for
example, the inductive East vs. the deductive West, should be used with
caution. She found in her study that students could even take on certain
stereotypical beliefs about the superiority of English rhetoric over
Japanese. Likewise, Sasaki and Hirose (1996), who rated the L2
expository writing, including persuasiveness and organization, of 70
Japanese university students, found that the key indicators determining
writing quality, were L2 proficiency, L1 writing ability, and
metaknowledge (about English expository writing). In other words,
individual di¤erences played a larger role than notions of sociocultural
patterns.
A recent study comparing Asian and European students’ attitudes has
raised further doubt about prevailing constructs that portray Asian
students as passive learners lacking in critical thinking skills. Littlewood
(2000: 34) found that ‘Asian students do not, in fact, wish to be spoonfed
with facts from an all-knowing “fount of knowledge”. They want to
explore knowledge themselves and find their own answers’. Accordingly,
these findings suggest that a new generation of Asian learners is not
being depicted accurately by conventional constructs.
Questionnaire In order to further investigate whether Asian learners display elements
of critical thinking and an individualized identity—which some
researchers claim they lack—a questionnaire was issued to 70 second-
year students from five di¤erent faculties at a large university in northern
Japan. The nine-item questionnaire, which was given out midway
Critical thinking in Japanese L2 writing 251
through the semester in an English writing class, asked participants to
score their degree of agreement with several aspects of critical thinking
and voice, as displayed in their own writing. Some elements of critical
thinking were adapted from Browne and Keeley (1994) who stress the
importance of impartiality and multiple perspectives. Notions of voice
were taken from Ramanathan and Kaplan (1996), and weaved into
questions that probed students’ attitudes towards this issue.
Answers were scored on a 5-point scale, where ‘1’ corresponded to ‘agree’
and ‘5’ to ‘disagree’.
QUESTIONNAIRE
When I write a report
1 it is important to state my opinion clearly, even if the topic is
controversial.
Mean 1.70 S.D. .75
2 it is important to agree with the teacher.
Mean 4.17 S.D. 1.06
3 it is not important to support my ideas with reasons; my personal
opinion is good enough.
Mean 3.94 S.D. 1.31
4 it is not important to mention the opinion of those who disagree
with me as long as I write my own opinion clearly.
Mean 4.06 S.D. 1.20
5 it is not good to write with too much emotion.
Mean 2.14 S.D. 1.15
6 if the issue is controversial, it is better to be vague.
Mean 3.91 S.D. 1.13
7 being objective is better than being subjective.
Mean 1.99 S.D. .99
8 my personal experience is as good as evidence from a research
study or statistics.
Mean 2.88 S.D. 1.12
9 if I support my opinion, it is okay to disagree with the teacher.
Mean 1.68 S.D. .95
Although the questionnaire was written in the participant’s second
language, English, some of the more diªcult words were glossed in
Japanese. As a measure to determine whether participants fully
comprehended the English in the questionnaire, two sets of questions
with similar meaning, but di¤erent and reverse wordings were included,
Questions 1 and 6, and Questions 2 and 9. The mean scores of these two
sets of questions, (Question 1 = 3.94 and Question 6 = 1.7; Question 2 =
4.17 and Question 9 = 1.68) when leveled to account for the reverse
wording show strong convergence, indicating an acceptable level of
252 Paul Stapleton
reliability. In addition, the wording in Number 4 included two negatives
(‘not important’ and ‘disagree’), in other words, a rather less than
transparent meaning. However, the responses to this question, discussed
below, were consistent with the pattern established by the other
questions indicating good comprehension.
Questions 1 and 6, which dealt with clarity, were included to see whether
subjects would show tendencies towards avoiding strong positions on
controversial matters. Contrary to Atkinson’s (1997) claims that Japanese
seek to maintain harmony, participants’ scores reflect a belief in stating
their views clearly whether they will upset harmony or not. Twenty-nine
out of seventy participants scored ‘1’ (agree) on Question 1, while only
one participant scored ‘4’, and no one scored ‘5’ (disagree). Likewise, on
Question 6, which was worded roughly in reverse, 22 participants scored
‘5’, while only 3 participants scored ‘1’, indicating both concordance in
meaning and a strong tendency towards clarity. These results stand in
contrast to the ‘indirect’ and ‘inductive’ labels often associated with
Japanese rhetorical patterns.
Questions 2 and 9 were also concerned with harmony. While less
similarly worded than Questions 1 and 6, these two questions had a
somewhat parallel meaning with reverse wording. Reliability was
confirmed with the participants expressing their most fervent feelings in
their responses to these two questions among the nine items in the
questionnaire. Of all the participants, only three scored either ‘1’ or ‘2’ for
Question 2. The same result appeared in reverse, with only three
participants scoring ‘4’ or ‘5’ for Question 9. Again, contrary to claims
that Japanese are empathy-seeking, and reluctant to break harmony, the
questionnaire results reveal otherwise.
In order to display critical thinking skills, it is important to question the
claims of others, as well as to go beyond simply duplicating what they
have said (Browne and Keeley 1994: 8). To fulfil the requirements of
such a process, the status of those making claims, while perhaps relevant
to some degree, must not deter counter or alternative views. Ramanathan
and Atkinson (1999), in citing studies performed on students from
interdependent cultures (Chinese and Japanese are most often
identified), claim that maintaining harmony and preserving face, as well
as observing the norms of social hierarchy, result in the avoidance of
criticism. This behavior is contrasted with individualistic mainstream
American social practice. Two clear implications can be taken from
Ramanathan and Atkinson (ibid.) and many of the works they cite.
Firstly, they imply that in order to think critically, one must harbor an
individual voice. Secondly, this voice should not be influenced by
concerns of group cohesiveness, or the status of those making alternative
claims. The first notion is shared by the thrust of this study. Based on the
results of this study, however, the second notion, i.e. the idea that the
Japanese, as collectivist and hierarchy-oriented people, are unable to
overcome these cultural attributes to express their individual voices and
think critically, may be open to question.
Results for Questions 1, 2, 6, and 9 are related to critical thinking in the
sense that respondents reveal the degree to which they will, or will not be
Critical thinking in Japanese L2 writing 253
dissuaded from their views by factors that lie outside the issue at hand.
Siegal (1997) claims that the critical thinker has to reject partiality, while
seeking reasons and evidence. Any e¤ort to achieve harmony with one’s
audience on a contentious issue, whether it is one’s teacher or not,
compromises the product of what may be critical thought because it takes
into account a factor (interpersonal relationships with one’s audience)
which are extraneous to reasons and evidence. It is pertinent to note that
participants’ responses were specifically focused on their writing
product, as opposed to their thinking process.
Questions 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 looked at more technical aspects of critical
thinking and individual voice as displayed in writing. In all cases,
respondents revealed tendencies towards a critical, identity-driven
perspective. Questions 3 and 4 were both similarly worded, forcing
respondents into a ‘disagree’ position if they were to take a position
favorable towards critical thinking. Mean scores of 3.94 for Question 3
and 4.06 for Question 4 reflect a considerable tendency toward believing
that the writing product should display support for opinions as well as a
recognition of other viewpoints. Question 5 isolated participants’
attitudes on the use of emotion in writing, which can lead a writer into
making ‘fallacies of pathos’ (Ramage and Bean 1999: 239) where the
writer attempts to persuade the audience by appealing to emotional
premises. Responses to this question (mean 2.14), showed a tendency to
agree that too much emotion detracts from the thrust of one’s argument.
Responses to Question 7, which asked for participants’ views on
objectivity, failed to reflect the preference for subjectivity said to be
common in Japanese communication. Instead, responses (mean 1.99)
show a strong preference for objectivity. This preference, however, did
not extend to more specific aspects of persuasion, as revealed by
Question 8 where subjects scored close to a neutral reading (mean 2.88)
when asked whether the evidence of their personal experience was as
good as that of a research study or statistics.
Interview In order to investigate these issues further 10 participants were randomly
selected for follow-up interviews. Responses revealed that students’
opinions were shaped from a wide variety of sources, including the
media, their teachers, and parents. When participants were asked
whether they felt it important to agree with the teacher’s opinion, seven
of the students replied with an absolute ‘no’, while three others qualified
their ‘nos’. One participant in the education faculty qualified his negative
response by saying, ‘Some students think it is a good idea to be for the
teacher’s idea before a test because students often say to each other
please take care whether the teacher is left or right [politically] ;
otherwise we could fail’. The two others who qualified their responses
implied that their approach depended on who the teacher was.
Participants conveyed less conviction, however, when asked whether they
would hesitate to criticize the ideas of a well-known expert. Responses
from nine of the ten participants could be roughly divided into three:
those who would not hesitate, those who would hesitate a little, and those
who would proceed more cautiously. One participant who stood out
claimed that he enjoyed the challenge of disagreeing with authority.
254 Paul Stapleton
Another interview question explored whether students seriously
questioned their own beliefs—an essential aspect of critical thinking.
Because such a question relies on the honesty as well as the reliability of
the interviewee’s response, these could only serve as subjective
indicators. While only one of the participants replied negatively to this
question, three of the positive responses were tentative. The other six
students claimed that they had seriously questioned their own beliefs.
There were some concerns, however, about the reliability of the
responses to this question, especially because the interviewer was the
teacher of the participants. Participants might well have answered
positively in order to appease the teacher, since their answers could
reflect well or poorly on them as students in the teacher’s class.
Conclusion While the results from the questionnaire only shed light on students’
attitudes, and not their actual written production, they still cast doubt on
the enduring stereotypes of passive, respectful, Asian students, and
dovetail with the findings of other recent research, including Littlewood
(2000). In Littlewood’s study, Asian learners replied to an attitude survey
performed in eight Asian and three European countries in which
students were questioned on their feelings towards the teacher as an
authority figure. As in the present study, Littlewood found that the
stereotype of the obedient and passive Asian student is only a surface
phenomenon, which does not reflect the real desires of the students.
It is suggested that the responses to the questionnaire and interviews
may reflect a change that is occurring in Japan, especially among young
people. More specifically, in this case ‘change’ refers to a shift away from
rhetorical patterns that are labeled ‘indirect’ (Kaplan 1966), inductive
(Hinds 1987), or circular (Kamimura and Oi 1998), towards a
multiplicity of rhetorical patterns. Kubota (1997: 470–1) suggests that the
volume of works that have been translated into Japanese from other
languages, particularly English, have served to instigate rhetorical
changes, especially towards a deductive pattern. Recent access to the
Internet may also be accelerating this process. In an analysis of essays
which students wrote as part of the writing course in which the present
study was conducted, it was noticed that many of the references used by
participants were from English-language web sites. In some cases, the
arguments used in the participants’ essays followed similar lines of
reasoning as those found in the web sites they had cited. This suggests a
similar type of influence to that proposed by Kubota (ibid.), where
rhetorical patterns from another language can produce new ways of
writing. Accordingly, it may be true that changes in the way research is
performed, and greater exposure to web sites, is serving to modify
Japanese rhetorical patterns towards the deductive rhetorical pattern
often found in the texts on web sites that have particular agendas which
are intended to persuade the reader.
Anecdotal evidence also points towards an increasingly horizontal and
individualistic bearing in the Japanese education system. In 1999, at the
university where the present study was conducted, for the first time
students received evaluation forms, on which they were requested to
assess the course they had just finished, on the final day of classes. While
Critical thinking in Japanese L2 writing 255
such opinion forms are common in Western universities, the
introduction of these measures in Japan may reflect a growing move
towards giving students the freedom to question and criticize their
education. Other changes in Japan include a move towards essay-style
questions on examinations, and the relaxation of the minimum age for
university entrance. The former reflects a move away from rote-learning
towards creative and critical writing, while the latter reveals an
acceptance that students progress at di¤erent rates. All three of the
recent changes mentioned here suggest a recognition of the learner as an
individual. At a di¤erent level, this freedom may represent a shift
towards a less vertical and collectivist education system. In other words,
the act of giving a course evaluation form to learners serves as notice to
them that they have a voice to be heard, a voice that until recently was not
encouraged to ‘speak’. These changes, of course, are not confined only to
course evaluations. Rather, they are giving notice to learners that they do
indeed have an individual voice, which can be used when expressing
their opinions in a variety of situations.
The results of the present study, in which participants appeared to
believe that they displayed elements of critical thought, and an individual
voice, may suggest that changes are taking place with regard to the social
constructs described above. Specifically, because of changes in society
which have recently been manifested in the education system, including
access to the Internet, there may now exist a greater sense among a
younger generation of Japanese learners that they are in a position to
voice their ideas clearly, and to criticize the ideas of others regardless of
their status. This suggests that teachers no longer need to hesitate to
introduce critical thinking and deductive rhetorical writing styles to
Japanese learners, or perhaps any other group of Asian learners who
have been characterized as collectivist, non-critical thinkers.
Revised version received May 2001
256 Paul Stapleton
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The author
Paul Stapleton Ed.D, has taught English in Hong
Kong, Macao, and Japan. He is currently Associate
Professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo,
Japan.
Email: paul@ilcs.hokudai.ac.jp
Critical thinking in Japanese L2 writing 257
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In the current volume, the selected studies have been grouped into three thematic sections, presenting readers with a set of distinct but related research on meaningful issues for a modern learning experience. The first three chapters present professional and teacher development perspectives and collectively shed light on how to develop, maintain, and improve pre and in-service teacher training and professional development. The second set of four chapters provide research findings that describe the results of direct applications of modern learning elements through course assignments and teaching approaches. The final five chapters focus on critical thinking and range in their focus from classroom-based studies to full-scale curriculum reform. The collection of chapters presented in this volume represents the eclectic nature of modern learning experiences and demonstrate its applicability across educational contexts and disciplines. It is my hope that the chapters will resonate with other educational researchers in search of novel ways of creating, facilitating, and investigating modern learning experiences.
Article
This article presents four more-or-less independent reasons why TESOL educators should be cautious about adopting critical thinking pedagogies in their classrooms: (a) Critical thinking may be more on the order of a non-overt social practice than a well-defined and teachable pedagogical set of behaviors; (b) critical thinking can be and has been criticized for its exclusive and reductive character; (c) teaching thinking to nonnative speakers may be fraught with cultural problems; and, (d) once having been taught, thinking skills do not appear to transfer effectively beyond their narrow contexts of instruction. A more recently developed model of cognitive instruction, cognitive apprenticeship, is then briefly discussed as a possible alternative to more traditional thinking skills pedagogies.This thing we call “critical thinking” or “analysis” has strong cultural components. It is more than just a set of writing and thinking techniques—it is a voice, a stance, a relationship with texts and family members, friends, teachers, the media, even the history of one's country. This is why “critical analysis” is so hard for faculty members to talk about; because it is learned intuitively it is easy to recognize, like a face or a personality, but it is not so easily defined and is not at all simple to explain to someone who has been brought up differently. (Fox, 1994, p. 125)
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According to contrastive rhetoric research, Japanese expository prose is characterized by a classical style (ki-sho-ten-ketsu), reader responsibility, and an inductive style with a sudden topic shift. It is claimed that English readers have difficulty comprehending texts written by Japanese writers because of such culturally unique conventions. This article challenges these hypotheses concerning the uniqueness of Japanese texts. It argues that previous studies tend to view language and culture as exotic and static rather than dynamic, and overgeneralize the cultural characteristics from a few specific examples. Also, these characterizations of Japanese written discourse can be challenged by multiple interpretations of ki-sho-ten-ketsu offered by composition specialists in Japan and the linguistic and educational influences from the West on the development of modern Japanese since the mid-19th century. This article suggests that researchers and writing teachers should be wary of stereotyping cultural conventions of writing.
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Recent research has pointed to the cultural values implicit in L1-oriented composition pedagogy—a form of pedagogy which is increasingly being encountered by university ESL writers. In this article we examine four principles and practices of L1-oriented composition which appear to tacitly incorporate a U.S. mainstream ideology of individualism: voice, peer review, critical thinking, and textual ownership. We discuss ways in which these principles and practices may not comport well with the cultural approaches taken by many ESL students, depending substantially on past studies to support our discussion. In concluding, we argue that the ideology of individualism described in this article also underlies recent critiques of cross-cultural writing research, and we end by restating the primary rationale of cross-cultural writing research—that sociocultural knowledge regarding our students contributes vitally to knowing who they really are.
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I was listening to the news during one of many times of tension in Israel. Most people spoke about “Hebron,” but some of the Israeli settlers said “Hevron.” It was like smelling a long forgotten odour. I was taken back to 1944 and to French lessons with Mr Hudson-Davies, a tall, rotund, bespectacled man whose passion for etymological connections often led him to stray outside the curriculum. I could see and hear him emphatically booming “P, B, V, and F are the same letter.”I realised that this was …
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This study examines the differences between argumentative strategies in English used by American and Japanese students. Two groups of English essays on capital punishment written by American and Japanese students were analyzed in terms of organization patterns, rhetorical appeals, diction, and cultural influences. It was found that the Japanese students used an organizational unit called ‘reservation’ more frequently and that this gave the impression of circularity to their essays. The American students employed more ‘rational’ appeals than the Japanese students, who by contrast used more affective appeals than the American counterparts. The types of diction preferred by the American students (such as ‘should,’ the + superlatives,’ and ‘I believe’) functioned as ‘emphatic devices’ while those preferred by the Japanese students (such as ‘I think’ and ‘maybe’) acted as ‘softening devices.’ Finally, the American students tended to exhibit cultural tokens such as references to ‘counseling,’‘Biblical references,’ and ‘the tax payer’s standpoint’; the Japanese students, on the other hand, tended to point out the suffering of the victim’s family and friends and concrete incidents, trying to evoke empathy in the reader’s mind.
Article
This study investigated factors that might influence Japanese university students’ expository writing in English. We examined 70 students of low- to high-intermediate English proficiency along a variety of dimensions, namely, second language (L2) proficiency, first language (L1) writing ability, writing strategies in L1 and L2, metaknowledge of L2 expository writing, past writing experiences, and instructional background. We considered these multiple factors as possible explanatory variables for L2 writing.Quantitative analysis revealed that (a) students’ L2 proficiency, L1 writing ability, and metaknowledge were all significant in explaining the L2 writing ability variance; (b) among these 3 independent variables, L2 proficiency explained the largest portion (52%) of the L2 writing ability variance, L1 writing ability the second largest (18%), and metaknowledge the smallest (11%); and (c) there were significant correlations among these independent variables. Qualitative analysis indicated that good writers were significantly different from weak writers in that good writers (a) paid more attention to overall organization while writing in L1 and L2; (b) wrote more fluently in L1 and L2; (c) exhibited greater confidence in L2 writing for academic purposes; and (d) had regularly written more than one English paragraph while in high school. There was no significant difference between good and weak writers for other writing strategies and experiences. On the basis of these results, we propose an explanatory model for EFL writing ability.