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Member’s Profile: Robert S. Murphy


In this month’s Member’s Profile, Robert S. Murphy talks about his research on the cognitive development of Japanese EFL students.

Member’s Profile

Robert S. Murphy

What a hectic couple of years. I recently finished my Master’s at the University of Birmingham (researching the cognitive development of Japanese EFL students), and concurrently received certificates from Cornell, Rutgers, Oxford and Harvard in the fields of Education and Neuroscience. WIDE World at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) has elected me as a candidate for an online “coach”. I am to begin a PhD candidacy at Utrecht University and will be co-presenting with Qin Higley from WIDE World at JALT2009.

My name is Robert Shoichi Murphy, and I have lived in Japan for over 23 years. I’m a New Yorker who grew up in Kobe in the 1980s. There I attended Canadian Academy international school, which had an experimental program where older bilingual kids were chosen to assist first-graders who didn’t have a strong command of English. We were asked to help improve their English and help them fit into the international school environment. Those precious hours mark the beginning of my journey into cognitive development research and are the reason that I am a doctoral candidate today.

For my Master’s dissertation, I conducted a pilot study with protocols developed at HGSE. Using Kurt Fischer’s skill theory and the SiR (Self in Relationship) interview, I tested nine female Japanese students ranging in age from 12 to 20. The SiR interview had been conducted in China, Korea, and Taiwan, but not Japan. Although it was only a pilot study, my findings show similar results to the other three Asian studies. The Japanese students tested showed a clear range of stage-like cognitive development in the “low support” and the “high-support” contexts.

What does this mean? The SiR interview is an ingenious interview protocol that tests for and allows the administrators to graph participants’ “normal” level of displayed cognitive capabilities vs. potential. A battery of questions is administered to participants, one-on-one. The first set, known as the low support context is a recorded interview regarding how the participant felt in the following psychosocial roles: with mother, with father, with siblings, with best friend, with acquaintance, in class, and “the real me”. The second stage, known as the high support context takes the same set of questions, but has the participant write responses on gummy labels, add emotional valences (plus/minus marks), and then place them on the SiR diagram in one of three zones: Important, Somewhat Important, and Not Important. After that, the participants are asked to create groups of responses by encircling labels that seemed to fit together, and to draw lines between labels and/or groups that could be positively or negatively connected. This activity is a fun eye-opener for the participants: They are often amazed with the connections that they come up with. They are then thoroughly interviewed with graded questions about the choices they made. The complexity of their answers is documented and analyzed.

Most participants produced responses with cognitive complexity exactly matching Fischer’s projections while in the high support context, yet produced responses of much lower complexity when the contextual support was gone. This has huge pedagogical implications. I plan to pursue this line of research in my doctoral work on Japanese students.

One interesting set of findings that I also wish to pursue on a larger scale is related to Japanese Neo-Confucian filial piety. In the small sample, I found that filial respect showed an inverse pattern to actual reported respect. That is to say, the two psychosocial roles that demand the most respect within the tested list of roles, “father” and “in class”, had an outstanding number of negative hits. Considering that the adage, “Respect should be earned, not demanded” is foreign in Japan, the results make sense, albeit a bit shocking when realized in graphic form. By conference time (JALT2009) I will have new data to ponder!

What are the pedagogical implications of these findings? I have designed a pedagogical method, called CREAME (Consciousness-Raising, Emotion Analysis, Manipulation and Expression), in an effort to combine Teaching for Understanding (TfU), student-centered learning, task-based learning, the contextual high support condition in skill theory, and other models. Qin Higley from WIDE World (a professional development program at Harvard focused on TfU) and I will be co-presenting my research, the TfU framework, and pedagogical implications at JALT2009. We shall also discuss how you can participate in the Harvard WIDE World program. Hope to see you there!

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