Every once in a while a student lets you know that he or she doesn’t like what is going on in the classroom. Those are important moments because they force you to reflect on what you are doing and question your methods. If your methods actually reflect a considered educational philosophy, explaining yourself comes easily. If they do not, and you’re called on the discrepancy, it’s an opportunity for a course correction. Nobody likes criticism, but without it even the best of teachers can wander pretty far from the best of intentions.
The following is an articulation of an educational philosophy prompted by a note from a student complaining that I was not doing my job because I was expecting students to do too much work in designing their own course of study. My job, in his view, was to give exercises, correct mistakes, and give grades on the number of mistakes. He was at the extreme end of an approach to education which we describe as a radical Confucist “filling the lamps” in contrast to a Deweyan “lighting the lamps” approach to teaching and learning, a conception of teaching as the transmission of knowledge from teacher to learner, as opposed to a negotiation of knowledge between learners, even if one may have more to give than the other.
I wrote this letter to him to make sure he understood I could not live up to his expectations as a teacher – and why. He was a near-native speaker of English, but he never, in our one-to-one sessions raised a word of criticism. Instead, he took notes, inevitably thanked me for my instruction, and went home to write me his complaints. He had worked out in his own mind that he might disagree with a teacher, but only in writing. I benefitted from this apparent paradox, and I think he did, too. Because we were more equal in writing, and because he have little or no feedback in teacher/student conferences orally, I gave him a longer response all at once than I normally would.
The response to one of those complaints was meant to provide him with a rash of ideas about teaching and learning which he could ponder at his leisure. It would obviously not work with many students, possibly not even with the average student. It worked with him, and opened up a series of discussions on education and cultural attitudes to learning.
Shuji today, is a teacher. You will understand the pride I feel in knowing he calls himself a follower of John Dewey
June 22, 1999
I read your journal on the bus on the way home tonight. Thank you for all the information you put into it. These are great moments for me as a teacher, when I get to read something students say from the heart. I decided I wanted to respond to you right away, to show my appreciation for your sincerity.
You bring up several different issues: the issue of cultural inferiority complexes, the story of the scholar and his spokesman and its relevance to your group work in class, the issue of a Japanese search for meaning, and your evaluation of the last two semesters.
Let me start by telling you some things about how I prepared for this class with you, and what thought went into the planning. It may help to explain why I gave you the particular assignments I did, and why I proceeded in this fashion, and not some other. In the end, if it speaks to your questions, I will be happy. If you still feel the points you criticized about the course are valid, I will take that into consideration when I make future plans for classes. I can never see things totally from students’ perspectives, no matter how hard I try, and I am dependent on students to tell me what they are. Please believe me when I tell you I appreciate your comments. I only wish I got more feedback like this.
Teaching at SFC is challenging, partly because the expectations are higher than at most universities. I like that about SFC. There is also a diversity of approaches and a freedom for teachers to design their own courses. I like that very much also. In recent years, I have worked almost exclusively with high level (by Japanese standards) English speakers. That means I have been free to spend less time than many teachers do on linguistic form, and more time on other educational issues besides language. I have been teaching things in English, in other words, instead of teaching English.
What I have tried to teach are what is known as critical thinking skills. In the thirty years since I first started teaching in Japan, I have found that the style of teaching and learning in Japan, while it leads to well-disciplined learning, and the absorption of a great deal of information, does not do much to train people to think for themselves, or to find the flaws in received ideas. Also, it focuses almost exclusively on the reception of information from outside, and very little (in some cases, not at all) on the expression and defence of one’s own ideas.
Critical thinking and self-expression are skills. They cannot be learned by reading about them or by listening to somebody talk about them. They can only be learned by actually practicing them. And since we don’t have years to develop a smooth and carefully programmed method of picking up these skills (the way a child learns to write in small pieces of skill-making behaviors), but only a semester or two, there is no shortcut but to throw you into the water and hope you figure out quickly how to swim.
You may remember our discussion at the end of the semester last semester when I told you I found Japanese to be very poor at making an argument. I think that comes from the strong emphasis that is placed on avoiding conflict in Japan. Others (not just Westerners, but Koreans and Chinese, Africans, and others, too) have less difficulty in picking up the idea of engaging with someone over a dispute, and working together to find a way to solve it. In my experience, Japanese often prefer to leave touchy issues alone, and hope they will go away, and celebrate the victory of harmony over conflict.
I think this tendency (it is only a tendency; obviously it does not apply evenly across the culture – some Japanese are quite good at engaging in disputes) runs through the culture. It is a cultural trait. And that means it goes so deep that you often are not even aware of it. To be asked to engage in a debate, then, is to be asked to do something that your instinct tells you it is better to avoid. To spend a great length of time on such activity is like swimming upstream; it is very tiring, even exhausting.
But since I think there are things that Japanese have to contribute to the world, especially to people who don’t understand them very well, I think it should be part of Japanese education to learn to see and to make an argument, defend it and to go on defending it until all sides have had a full hearing. Some issues, if avoided, will go away by themselves. Avoiding trouble and seeking harmony in these cases makes sense. But other issues don’t go away. And when you have found one of these dilemmas, to give up before you start may lead to the illusion of harmony; but sooner or later the issue comes back and must be dealt with. Learning to tell the difference is one of the arts of life. And once you have found the issue that must be faced, learning to take a position and defend it is essential to its resolution.
What we have been doing (or trying to do) in this class, is to locate complex issues and learn ways to engage with them. Last semester I allowed you to choose the issue yourself with which to engage, and in most people’s cases, the semester was productive. You may remember how hard some people struggled just to find a topic to engage on. Once you get used to argument and debate, you see issues which have two or more sides right away. But if you are not used to argument, you only see trouble and possible paths of avoidance. Much of the semester last semester I spent talking with students about how a problem could be set up, and how many different ways there might be to think and argue about it. Once that was done, I then asked you to imagine you were on the two sides yourself, first on one, then on the other, and to dig down as deep as you could to find reasons for defending your position. Some did this well; others not so well.
In the evaluation at the end of last semester, the strongest and clearest criticism I heard expressed was that we spent so much time on writing (the term paper) that there was no time left over for developing your skill at speaking. So this semester, I decided to keep up the work on how to seek out, set up, carry out and defend an argument, but to do it in an oral (debate) format instead of a written (term paper) one.
Many people expressed dissatisfaction that we spent the whole semester on a single issue, an issue that most people knew little about to begin with, were not all that interested in, and had so much complexity that finding the key to understanding the complexities felt sometimes like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most debate classes start with rather simple issues, and people learn some basic rules, follow them, reach a simple conclusion, and then move on to the next issue, satisfied that they have engaged in a debate and learned something. But in my experience, students learn very little from such experiences because they tend to be superficial.
One of the awful things that go on in language classes is that students play at communicating. They role-play, they practice, they perform. What they do with language, in other words, is not what real people do with language in real life. To learn a language is to learn to engage with people. If you are only pretending to communicate with people, it’s not real. It’s like a child who flaps his wings and pretends he’s flying. When people stand up in front of a group in presentation classes, what is wrong (terribly wrong, in my estimation) is that they are play-acting. The focus is on the question, “Look at me, how am I doing?” and not where it should be, which is “Am I having an effect on you?”
As I explained to you, debates have a real and important purpose in life. They are a formal exercise (like a ballet or a play or a concert) in which the audience knows what form is coming next, but not what content. That is up to the participants actually engaged. There are issues which are so troublesome that people think they had better avoid them, because if they don’t, it will lead to a fight. That’s what the rules are for, to make sure people don’t fight, but instead, through disciplined behavior, bring out every possible point that can be made on all sides of the issue. In a fight, a verbal argument, it is the person who shouts loudest who wins.
In a disciplined debate, it is the person who makes the most thorough case and who at the same time points out the limitations in the argument being made by the other side. It is a time, in other words, when both sides get to say everything they have to say, and the other side agrees to listen to every point they make carefully. Because they know they are being judged on how well they address their opponents’ points, they are forced to listen. And that’s one of the great hidden values of a debate. While the other side may be building a powerful case against you, they are at least listening to what you have to say, and in the long run, if what you say is significant, it will sink in, and perhaps change their thinking. If not today, maybe tomorrow.
A real debate cannot be thrown together in a couple days. You have to dig deep for information; you have to really know your subject. So well, in fact, that you already know what your opponent is going to say. This is a second benefit of debating: it makes experts out of the participants.
The reason I asked you to spend so much time in building a debate is that I wanted you to understand what is involved. You cannot debate something trivial. People know it is trivial, that there is nothing to be gained from the exercise. English language classes that debate whether the food in the cafeteria should be changed (of course it should – where’s the debate?) or that the bus should come up to Honkan mae all day and not just in the morning, or that life is better in the city than in the country or that children should have more time to play, or any of a hundred other topics I have heard debated in English language classes ultimately, I believe, work counterproductively. They teach people that we are just playing at life, and not taking it seriously.
The best way to learn to debate, in my experience, is to find something you really care about, prepare to debate it, do the very best job you can, and lose! It comes as a slap in the face to lose, and suddenly you become aware of how important it is to know what you are doing. Most people who go through this experience learn from it, and the second time around are far less likely to make the same mistakes. Debating several issues that don’t require you to put your heart and soul into the task never brings you to the point of knowing what a real debate feels and sounds like.
Real debates are not about trivial topics; they are about topics on which there is genuine disagreement. And that means nobody has the answer! All your training, if you think back on it, has been in schools where the teacher was in complete charge, designed the task for you to do, told you what to do and how to do it, and told you once you had finished whether you did it right or not. But the real debates in life don’t have somebody doing this for you. You have to do it all, from finding the issue that matters, to finding people who are working to prevent you from doing what you want to do about it, to engaging them in debate and learning who they are and how they think and developing strategies for how to defeat them. That is not the only thing we do with language, but it is a major thing which you now have sufficient English to learn how to do. And is worth doing.
Students this morning were furious with me. Did you notice? When the UN group and the Japan group were done with their debates, it was obvious that the issue they were debating was not at all clear. They were furious with me because I had told them to go ahead with the topic. They had left it up to me to decide whether what they were doing was worth while. And today I turned on them and joined the members of the audience who complained that the topic was not sufficiently developed. They thought I was a traitor.
But what I was doing, although some people will say it’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do, was demonstrating that they couldn’t rely on their teacher to make the final decisions. Instead, they had to know what they were doing and take responsibility for it.
I am not happy that they are angry at me, but something quite positive came out of that. Both teams, pro and con, learned a whole lot more about the issue they were debating, learned how complex it was, and learned what the real debatable issue was and what was not debatable, in a way they never would have learned if I had controlled their procedure. There is no way to learn responsibility except to assume responsibility. As long as somebody else is assuming it for you, you are dependent, you do not think things out, and you do not understand the significance of what you’ve done.
You assume I am an expert on the Kosovo issue. You are mistaken. I am learning just like the rest of you. I still to this day have not decided whether I support NATO’s efforts in Yugoslavia. I am genuinely interested in the debates and actually hoping you will help me finally come down on one side or the other. I picked this issue so that I could not possibly take charge. If I had found an issue I had strong convictions on, I’m afraid I would convey too much judgment and push you into reading my mind for the “right answers.” I am used to students doing that, and I worked hard to find an issue in which they couldn’t. You are all on your own in this series of debates. I have none of your answers.
Now let me address the question of how much work you have done in your group and how little credit you seem to be getting for it. Here, too, I would suggest to you that you are too dependent on your teacher, this time for approval. In the end, the Japanese school system has been successful. It has turned you into a disciplined and obedient person, one whom the bosses of society can count on to do as he is told. You expect those in charge over you to tell you what to do, and how to do it. And when you’ve done it, you want to have their recognition and approval. You want credit from them.
I don’t know who in each group does most of the work. Very seldom do all the group members work equally hard. But those who do learn something from it do so on their own initiative, and those who don’t at least learn that when nothing is ventured nothing is gained. And ultimately, it is you who decides the value of your education, and not me.
I believe you when you say you worked harder than other members of your group. I sympathize with you when you complain that that work is not recognized. We all like recognition, and we even need it sometimes to keep going. But ultimately, although I know it would hurt if I misevaluated you so badly that I gave you a B while I gave an A to somebody who did less work, your dependency on me and other teachers is something I hope you learn sooner, rather than later, to break.
If you value my opinions, and want to know what they are, I will always be happy to share them with you. If you want honest criticism, I will be happy to give you that, too. I try to be useful as much as I can, but in a class of thirty, I miss a lot. I realize that. It used to bother me a lot, but in recent years, I’ve stopped worrying about it and try, instead, not to get in people’s way when I see they are learning something. I will give an A to people I think worked much harder than average, a B to the average good student, a C to those who did the minimum. And I will look at everything they did, not at one single thing. And I will try hard to get it right. But I will fail. I will misjudge people at times, no matter how hard I try not to. And that’s because I can’t for the life of me ever be completely sure when you’re learning and when you’re not!
You see, if I gave you a nice clear task the grading would be easy and fair. Let me give you an example. Suppose I assigned the class 500 crossword puzzles to do, and I sat everybody in a room alone so they couldn’t get answers from their friends, and when everybody was done, I found that 10% did at least 480 puzzles, 30% did between 420 and 479, 30% between 360 and 419, and the rest did only 359 or less. I could then give an A, a B, a C, and a D to each of those groups respectively. And I could argue that I was fair and just. A lot of classes have activities not much different from that and methods of evaluation like the one I described. But what is the learning that took place!? Precious little, I think. In an environment where everybody is learning at a different pace, and where some people work little and learn a lot, others work a lot and learn little, still others learn but don’t show it, others appear to be learning, but will later turn out to have misunderstood something, an evaluation of the learners really doesn’t make a lot of sense.
And that’s why I don’t worry a whole lot about whether I get it 100% right. I keep my eyes open. I read everything you write and I remember who does what, but in the end, I can only discuss with you what your ideas are, I cannot tell you whether you did something good or not. In most cases, neither will you. At least not for a while. In time, when you look back on what you did, then you will know whether it was worth while. When students evaluate my work, what matters to me is how much time has passed. It’s always nice to hear nice words (and I thank you for yours), but they will mean a lot more to me if you come back and say them to me again in ten years.
I find your class terribly frustrating. Sometimes you act as a group like spoiled kids. Individually, you are great. But as a group, you’re kids. You are not responsible about getting to class on time, don’t ever start on time, don’t listen when others are talking, don’t work all that hard unless you have a test or a deadline to meet. It’s sometimes painful to think that your parents are spending so much money and that this is supposed to be a university where you are moving into the adult world.
And yet, just when I sometimes feel like giving up on you, marvelous things can happen. Great moments, when I see the lights go on in your heads, when you tell me (usually in your journals) that something has made you think, that you have worked out solutions to problems, that you understand a complex issue a little better, that you have found some direction, or that you have begun to see something a little more clearly, that I learn once again that learning never takes place smoothly. It always comes at unexpected moments. It starts and stops unexpectedly. And what works for one doesn’t work for another.
To work in education is to work in chaos. To work with freshmen and sophomores is to work at the point where people begin to take responsibility for their own education, and that means they finally understand how irregular and chaotic their learning has always been and will always be. You have pointed out some of the confusion and discord that you have seen the last two semesters. I hope I have pointed out that an awful lot of learning has taken place, nonetheless, in, with, under, and around that confusion.
Thanks again for writing your thoughts on the class. And don’t take these seven pages of comments as the answer to what you have said. Only as ideas written in response. The invitation is open for you to repeat what you’ve said, or to say more, if you like. Anytime. Even after the semester is over.
July 11, 1999