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So, where to, now?
I tried direct instruction. It “worked” in that,
* students meekly did what they were told
* it gave students a feeling that they were in a “proper” class, taught by a teacher “in charge”
* it was easy to sort the sheep from the goats.
It didn’t work, in that,
* students were still not producing anything approaching higher order thinking (that’s a lot of -ings in one sentence!)
* they did as they were told, but there were few if no signs that they were joining the dots, making discoveries
* students were no more enthusiastic than in previous semesters
* there was little or no time for talking to students one-to-one, something that I found increased motivation and discouraged dropping out
* students made little or no use of the great array of resources that were available to them
* students remained in the “group” mode, i.e. restrained/suppressed individuality in favour of the group
* I still didn’t feel like I was making the best use of my skills, knowledge and experience.
This wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, at least not with these students.
My original problem was to identify and understand the various forces at work on my students and myself in the classroom: what determined our behaviour? Not the minutae, but the general attitudes and tendencies? And then, what to do about them?
I learned about educating the disenfranchised, how language and education are used by ruling elites to perpetuate the status quo. That seems to be the case, however, it did not find this explanation sufficient, nor did it provide me with enough tools to come up with practical “chalk-face” solutions (altho An Unquiet Pedagogy was very interesting and helpful).
I also investigated cultural and linguistic imperialism and critical pedagogies. Again, interesting, and made me aware of some important issues, but I felt there was more going on, and did not wish to take the time required to work out an entire critical pedagogical approach, which in terms of cultural imperialism was just as problematic (if not more so) than teaching autonomous language learning.
A further difficulty was that many of the above approaches required extensive dialogu and negotiations with students, all of which would have to be done in Japanese, which would require a great deal of work on my part. I do not have that kind of time for something which I was not sure would yield the kinds of results I was looking for.
Gatto wrote, “You teach who you are”, and in searching for ways to “beat the system”, he had gone back into his own childnood and found there gems that gave him valuable clues as to what to do.
Perhaps influenced by that, I stopped seeing my own private, personal life as distinct and separate from my work: a cross-fertilization began to take place. What was going on in my life, my career, my family, was perhaps similar to what was going on in my work.
One of the things going on at work was an increase in surveillance cameras. Another was a private initiative which I had started (a bookcase of second-hand English books) had been taken away without my permission, and I was told it was unacceptable to have unattended “rubbish” (that’s what my boss called it) in the hallways.
In a talk to the parents, a school administrator spoke of the rise in the number of students with low energy, little enthusiasm, lack of self-expression. Did he not pause to consider how actions, policies and organization by the institutions that these children have grown up in, might be contributing factors in this equation? What was even more ironic was that he himself was in poor health, probably a result of stress (he said) from his work. If his work does that to him, what does it do to the students? Apparently, this was not a question that anyone raised.
Generally, there has been a trend towards a less democratic work environment. Autonomy, anyone?
More recently, I’ve been reading and thinking about individualism and collectivism. I had thought of these as two cultural variables, two different ways of dealing with how humans can get along to create what they need to survive and thrive: different but equal. However, I no longer take such a benignly cultural-relative view, not since reading Hayek and watching The Fountainhead.
Their anti-collectivist philosophy seems to match Gatto’s: Gatto and Hayek warn that centrally planned, compulsory systems lead inevitably to a severe curtailment of personal freedom and that will lead to a nation of slaves, of uncritical, obedient automata (Hayek’s famous booklet is called The Road to Serfdom). Gatto adds that not only is liberty curtailed under compulsory education, but also the minds of children (and of everyone in the system) are dumbed down.
How is all this relevant to me in my classrooms? I am employed by an institution, and it behooves me to remember that that institution, like others, is intended to maintain the status quo and the elites who run the country and its systems. I should know that status quo and the systems, understand what they look like and how they operate, because I am, witting or unwitting, a tool of those systems.
Not only am I looking for a suitable, relevant approach, I will also need to be aware of what I my own values are, what I really want to do as a teacher, and then I will need to stop doing things which are harmful or contrary to what I really believe, things which I might have taken for granted or never thought about, like taking attendance, for instance.
“Rubbish! What could be the harm in taking attendance?”
Well, what is its purpose? To make sure students are where they are supposed to be. It’s part of the tracking mechanism of schools. It has become so ingrained in this society that a large majority of people equate attending a class with education, with learning (or perhaps, even more cynically, they equate “education” not with learning but with simply spending time in a classroom! It would not be easy to argue against such a position, given the reality in many schools); such that many will expect a passing grade simply on the basis that they have a good attendance record. Is this the kind of philosophy you are happy to promote? Because that is what you are doing when you take attendance.
Many (most?) schools in Japan will balk at allowing students to test out of a class, i.e. award them the credits on the basis of a proficiency test without requiring them to attend all the sessions of that class (a case where this would be merited might be, for instance, a returnee who is required to take Basic English but who can already speak English with a high degree of fluency). Chinese students at my university, for instance, have, since 2 years ago, been forbidden to register for Chinese language classes. There is a fundamental reluctance to allow someone to obtain credits or to graduate merely on the basis of merit, unless “merit” includes spending a minimum amount of time with your bum on the classroom seat. (I have written elsewhere about teachers being conned into playing the role of the cop in the classroom; at least at university level, I don’t think this is appropriate, unless the role of the university teacher is to make sure students are in class, in their seats, for the required number of hours.)
Students are given not only a minimum amount of credits they must take in a year, but also a maximum. At my university, the minimum is 48 credits per year, the maximum is 52! That tells you all you need to know: it ensures that no student can graduate in less than 4 years.
I started this entry with a question: Where to, now? I don’t have a definite answer yet, although I think I see the glimmer of a light ahead (the photo at the top of this entry expresses my feelings well). One thing I am investigating is the power of imagination. (As an example, click on the photo at the top of this entry to see a larger version; what do you feel, think, remember, as you look at this photo? Draw a sketch, write something, anything, that expresses what you feel. You just created something entirely new, and you did it autonomously; in fact, you could not have done it otherwise.)
Anyway, if I decide to write about it, it will be on a new blog. It looks like it will be fun, whatever I do. And this blog entry has gone on quite long enough.
Good night, and good luck.