October 17, 2006

Constructivism - creating vs reproducing

There's been an interesting conversation about constructivism over at Doug's place.

Recently while re-reading some Paulo Freire, one of the concepts hit home with me: the idea that dominant cultural groups impose a pedagogy of "reproduction" rather than "creation": students are encouraged or forced to merely reproduce knowledge rather than create new knowledge, which helps maintain the status quo.

This has inspired me to re-evaluate my own teaching, and to try and find more ways to emphasize the creation of new knowledge. I feel this is particularly important in the culture where I live and work, because Japan has a long, hard tradition (especially in the arts) of reproduction. A friend recently sent me this NYTimes article (you'll need to register, but it's free) about ex-patriate Japanese in New York; the article gives a good sense of the oppressiveness of this culture:

As a Japanese version of slackers, such young people
are often derided at home as selfish for drifting
through part-time jobs or trying to develop talents in
the arts — photography, music, painting, dance —
rather than contributing to society by joining a
corporation or marrying and having babies. The
pressure can be intense....

Peter Pachter, who runs the American Language Communication Center in the Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue near Penn Station, has watched the ranks of his Japanese students increase 14 percent, to about 500 in the last two years.

“There’s a feeling that they kind of blossom here; they finally get a chance to express themselves,” he said....

“It was so hard in Japan to have the confidence to
say, ‘I can be what I want to be, I can do what I want
to do,’ ” Kaori, now in her 30’s, said in a
mellifluous voice. “New York is very free. I thought,
‘If I want to do this, I can do it. In Japan you have
to follow the rails.”...

Slowly, Ms. Mimura was gaining confidence about living
in New York, discovering an inner strength. She signed
up to go to a national dance contest in Boston, where
she made it to the semifinals. Her new friend, Smiles,
wished her “Ganbatte!” a combination of “Good luck”
and “Knock ’em dead” in Japanese.

But she didn’t win. She blamed too much technique and
not enough feeling for her loss. She needed to let the
freedom of New York and the let-it-all-hang-out
attitude of Americans into her heart while dancing,
she said. “Japanese dancers copy, not create,” she
said, “and I’m more like typical Japanese dancer.” She
resolved to be more American.

It reminded me of an FT article about the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara:

As a teenager Nara, like most young Japanese, came under intense pressure to conform, to stop inhabiting his "girlish" imaginary world of drawings and talking to animals. "I took up judo and got into rugby. I wanted to show that I was a man now and into sports. I stopped drawing as much and started hanging out with other guys. When I look back on that time, it's somehow difficult to remember who I was. I didn't really have my own identity at all."...

Pressure to conform is strong in Japan, where the transition between the uninhibited world of children and the custom-bound existence of adulthood is particularly abrupt. Until about the age of seven, Japanese children lead a generally carefree existence, allowed by indulgent mothers to play games and explore the world. Once they start primary school and begin the arduous process of learning the 2,000-character alphabet, the serious business of becoming a member of Japan's group-oriented society begins.

In Germany, Nara was finally free from this group pressure and was able to ask himself who he really was. "I finally realised that my real self was the self that used to play by himself as a kid."

What got me commenting on Doug's post was the quote from Brad:
I don’t know the extent to which constructivism can work for math education as an isolated strategy.

I understand only a little about schema theory, and even less about constructivism, but my instinct tells me constructivism is not a teaching method or approach, and even less an isolated strategy.

What I gained the most from re-connecting with some of Paulo Freire's ideas, was an inspiration to take a fresh look at my own behaviour and thought-processes, instead of being focussed almost exclusively on my those of my students. So now that my awareness has been raised, I have to ask myself, is it possible to live and work in this country for over 25 years and not be influenced by this oppressive, "reproductive" culture? Was I that way inclined before I came (hence the attraction)? "Creating new knowledge" now seems to me important for my own sanity and survival, even if I cannot influence the students who pass through my classrooms.

I'm not even sure I know what "creating new knowledge" means in practical, classroom-activity terms, but I've been experimenting with class surveys: I pick a theme and dictate a few questions to students, then let them add a few questions of their own, then off they go, interviewing as many of their classmates as time allows. We're using linguistic elements from the textbook chapter we've just finished, but we are (I feel) creating new knowledge because we're using the learned language to discover things we didn't know about ourselves as a class.

The kids seem happy to go along with this, although they evince very little interest in each other's lives, and certainly don't see each other as potential teachers. They seem to have learned that studying is a solo activity, where collaboration or cooperation is too akin to "cheating" to have much validity. I'm still working on the next, vital, step, which is how to return the shared knowledge gained back to the class as a whole (classes are not long enough for each student to interview everyone).

In one class, students worked in groups of 3-4 and created their own surveys. I then had them create graphs of the results on Excel, and present the graphs and results to the class. However, many students complained they had not been given enough time to "prepare". And few paid much attention to the presenting group - a depressingly common phenomenon in Japanese classrooms, I've found. It's as if presenting is one of those "school" things, something that must be done to satisfy the teacher, but that has no intrinsic value in itself; probably because (in their experience at least) it never did.


Renata said...

Hi there Marc, enjoyed reading your post. I've been here twenty years, but I really don't see how you can call this culture any less creative than any other. All the art from the impressionists were copying Japan, makers of bone china got their inspiration from Imari pottery, Haiku inspired poets to make cinquains and diamantes and discover shape on the page...let's face it, there is as much freedom where you are as you take.
I was listening to a young lady artist (singer, forget the name, on the telly) who said she had this idea of freedom in the US and came in for a rude shock when they told her to make grades or go home, that she had to study AND dance, not just dance, and that she had underestimated the severity of US culture (it's a puritan society, after all).
I think the newspaper is feeding on a national myth of free America...sometimes you go half way across the globe to catch up with yourself, but it's not so much about where you land as what you bring with you...and not having family around when you're abroad helps sometimes...the US is full of restrictions and patterns you have to fit into without realizing as much as any country.
Not sure I'm really addressing the issues here,,,maybe I'm way off, ,,
at any rate, gotta cook for now...
Have fun teaching with all your budding students, and hi there and hugs from Yokohama

Anonymous said...

What liberative work you do in your place. heinz Peter Gerhardt, Germany hpgerhardtde@yahoo.de