May 16, 2005

"We can do this the hard way or the easy way..."

A request from a presenter at the JALT PAN-SIG conference I attended this last weekend reminded me of a colleague at my university, someone who has influenced my partner-in-autonomy and me to a greater extent than any other teacher on campus.

One encounter was one he led a faculty discussion on teaching methods, problems facing teachers at my university. I noticed his great good humour and and self confidence: he was completely at ease, and with great good humour was gently chiding his colleagues to "stop teaching!" I have been thinking about what that means ever since. It seems each time I ponder it, I come up with a different answer.

A second encounter was when he invited us to watch one of his classes. My partner and I went separately, as our schedules permitted. I was the only visitor to the class I attended. My partner and I went because we had heard him talk briefly about an approach he was using, which he called the "raku-raku course" and the "benkyo course". These mean respectively the "easy" course and the "study" course. This class was an optional class on education. About 100 students had signed up. Seeing this large number, and knowing the quality of the students had been dropping (this was a few years ago now; although the quality has not improved since, it seems to have stabilized somewhat recently, plus teachers have got somewhat used to it by now), he decided on a radical approach - he told all the students in the first class that he would divide the class into two groups, the "easy" course and the "study" course, and students would select which "course" they wanted to take. The "easy" course was for those who were not particularly interested in the subject and who just wanted the grades; these students had to write 3 reports by certain dates, reports based on the set text, but they were forbidden from attending the classes - I don't want you in this class! he told them. Go away! Don't attend!. Assuming they handed in satisfactory reports on time, they would get a pass mark: 60%. Nothing more.

The other course was for those who were genuinely interested in learning something and/or who needed higher grades. They were to attend every class, and, in groups, would prepare presentations on various chapters of the book each week. These students could get anything from 61%-100%, depending on their attendance, participation and work.

This approach, and the thinking behind it, greatly appealed to us. Last year, my partner (he asked me to refer to him as "Pinky") had a chance to try this approach out.

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