November 15, 2005

Questions

A few weeks ago, I posted about rhetoric and its effects on understanding. I'm fascinated by this - that belief can actually be so strong that it can prevent a person from seeing what is actually happening in front of them.

A related phenomenon is how the mind refuses to process information that doesn't seem to fit. "It does not compute" as the robot in Lost in Space used to say.

What do you make of this? That academic levels have been declining in Japan is beyond dispute, although it is only relatively recently that it has been permitted to speak openly of the most obvious cause, namely the Japanese Ministry of Education's yutori kyouiku plan. What are your reactions to this?
"Typical bureaucratic ballsup"?
"Incompetence"?
"Insufficient funding"?
"Too many underqualified/undertrained teachers"?
"Nanny state: let private enterprise handle it"?
"Government gift to the cram school industry"?

The idea that this might be quite simply deliberate boggles the mind so much it refuses to compute. That this might be a very logical extension of the existing system, a way of dealing with overproduction? Ludicrous! Who on earth would want to hold back children's education? That simply doesn't make any sense! It benefits no-one! So it can't be true!

Today I went to class to find just one student. While waiting for others to arrive, we just chatted. I asked him about school. He said he was bored, all the classes are boring. So why don't you leave, I asked him? He said he just needed the credits, just wants to graduate. He's a smart kid in many ways. Why is this kid, in university bored? Why has he given up? This is a well-respected private university, one of the few in the area (in the country?) where applications are going up.

At a different school, a student whose English is well above the average, applied for a "Level 3" English class, and was told she had to start with Level 1, because that's the rule. You can't skip levels. Some teachers on the full-time staff there were ready to make an exception in her case, bend the rules (she's a 3rd-year transfer student, so she only has 2 years left, not enough time to take Levels 1, 2 and 3). The student herself, however, after privately expressing strong frustration and disappointment and disbelief, decided to accept her fate: she asked the teachers not to intervene on her behalf, not to push for her to be allowed to take the class.

Which is sadder, that such as system is in place, or that she acquiesced to it?

At yet another school, I discovered 2 students in a class of over 30 whose English ability levels were more than 3 times higher than those of their classmates. Feeling that it was a waste of their time to do what everyone else was doing, I offered them an alternative study plan. They gave it a try for one week, working together as a pair. The following week, one of them was absent, and her partner opted not to use the materials I had prepared, but to do what everyone else was doing. The week after that, she returned, but they both decided to just sit with the rest of the class and do what the rest was doing.

Of course, there may be lots of reasons for that: they didn't like my alternative study plan, didn't like the materials, they felt embarrassed about sitting together and doing something completely different from the others. Still, I felt disappointed, like they'd given up; like they'd yielded to group pressure to conform, not to stand out, and accepted to be bored out of their minds. Because I can see that they are not in fact working very hard. But then, neither is the rest of the class.

What is in fact going on in my (and so many similar) classrooms? Is any meaningful learning taking place? Or do we assume it must be because the alternative is too painful or too ludicrous to contemplate seriously?

4 comments:

Daniel said...

The ideas in this post have implications for all formal education, at every level, and must cause any educator to reevaluate his or her role.

Clearly, Japan's Education Ministry (MEXT) is bungling. Always has been. They decide in some committee in the bowels of the ministry building that yutori kyouiku and five-day weeks will be more effective than what they have, when in actuality, the paradigm that they are operating in is disfunctional from the start.

John Holt does a great job of exposing the fact that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes in books like "Teach Your Own." Though that book is about the American experience, many of the arguments hold true for Japan, too.

Now what does that make us? Ideally it makes us responsible for doing our best to help the learners who come to us, because they are here, if nothing else, for accredidation for work that they have done with us. I work at a university, too, so my job is to create an environment where interested learners can excell and the uninterested can fail. I think we also have a responsiblity to society as English teachers, so that when a student receives a diploma we can certify that he or she has at least a certain minimum of language ability.

I've been in your situation before, too, with a student who could perform way above the rest of the class. I felt sorry for her, because she was very unhappy about the situation, but she also made the class unpleasant to be in. Students complained about her attitude, so I suggested that she come to office hours, and design her own studies. She did, and I gave her credit for her work.

The system is whacked, but as individuals, as both parents and teachers, we can have a positive impact on the people within our sphere of influence.

Marco Polo said...

Dan,
Thanks for your thoughtful response. You wrote, your job is to create an environment where interested learners can excell and the uninterested can fail. I wonder if failing the uninterested is really our job? And can interested learners really excel? There is so much going in class (the atmosphere, the interpersonal dynamics, the game of grades and credits) that I am coming to the conclusion that very little worthwhile can happen in class. Real learning takes place much more easily OUTSIDE the classroom. I have to ask myself why the uninterested are in my school, in my class? Even tho I may have had nothing to do with them being there, I want to know, because knowing that should inform my teaching. Gatto's analysis suggests that MEXT is not bungling at all, but rather running perfectly. Why are such important matters decided "in the bowels of the ministry"? Why not by the schools themselves? Pondering that question might reveal something of the true nature of the education that takes place. As if anyone couldn't see what the results of yutori kyoiku would be. Gatto refers to centralized schooling's resonse to educational "overproduction". Something worth thinking about.

Daniel said...

Hmmmm..."if failing the uninterested is really our job?" Good question, but that would be our jobs as society's "gate keepers." To be brutally honest, I don't think you can answer for university professors' social standing in any other way. They produce far less then industry in terms of tangible products, yet they are rewarded very well for the work that they do. Actually, the entrance exam system used to take care of failure part of it, and as the creators and administrators of those exams, professors were in a very powerful position. Now with the population of college aged people dropping rapidly, the influence has declined.

As for MEXT "running perfectly," Gatto's argument sounds like a conspiracy theory. I am totally ignorant of Gatto's arguments, but to imagine that the huge bureaucracy that is MEXT could create and implement devious schemes leaves me feeling sceptical.

I agree with you when you say, "Real learning takes place much more easily OUTSIDE the classroom. I have to ask myself why the uninterested are in my school, in my class?" I would like to know, too, but since they are in our class, I think we owe it to them and to ourselves to not to dispair and focus on the people who are there for specific reasons.

Marco Polo said...

Daniel, once again thanks for dropping by and contributing to the conversation. You are familiar with John Holt's idea, so Gatto is a natural step. Do check him out. And believe me, if the problem was only with MEXT, things might not be so bad.