The Tale That Wags
by Thomas C. Anderson
Tim Murphey. Perceptia Press, 2011. 112 pages
Tim Murphey’s choice of title for his book is not meant as a pun, but rather as a metaphor-the “tale” (tail) refers to the Japanese university entrance examination system which wags or affects secondary education in what Tim refers to as a “domino effect”. Another term for this process is the ‘washback effect’ which elt-wiki defines as “the effect that a test has on the way students are taught (e.g. the teachers mirror the test because teachers want the students to pass)”.
There are several story threads which are connected to that of the main character, Frank Southerland, who is a full time teacher at a university and is asked to be in charge of the preparation and carrying out of the entrance examination there. His inner struggle is portrayed as he struggles with the idea of having to keep the status quo (giving tests that may have many flaws) while trying to bring about change. Frank takes a stand on this issue and the result of this is the main story.
A second story thread concerns three high school seniors, two girls and one boy who are in the process of preparing for the entrance exam at Frank’s university. They study together after school and also attend a “cram school” (juku) that in many ways is better than the high school they attend.
The reader encounters a veteran high school teacher who has a lot of sympathy for neophyte teachers who are in the process of being molded and ground into “good” teachers dedicating all of their energy to preparation for the entrance exams. She is also upset about how inflexible the English curriculum is and how students suffer as free thought and communication in English are not encouraged.
The tale has it’s lighter moments with what happens at an “English Ski Camp” organized by Frank in which the studying trio participate. There’s fun on the slopes that include skiing, juggling, playing the harmonica and doing 360s. There’s also after skiing fellowship in English. Of course no tale (or tail) would be complete without romance and Frank becomes involved briefly with a Japanese colleague who has studied abroad.
So as not to give away the entire plot, I’ll stop here. Tim’s story is an easy read that conveys well the issues-tests created by staff who are not literate in professional assessment procedures, secondary students who develop a dislike for the English language because of the exam preparation curriculum, health issues among young people because of the stress involved in preparing for a test that determines one’s future, and the disillusionment among teachers who see little if any change in the status quo. Secondary and tertiary teachers should read this book to become aware of the issues involved in the wagging tale of the entrance examination system in Japan.
The Washback Effect