Friday, 10 February 2012

Pedagogical Epistemology

Or epistemological pedagogy, one of the two. How we teach how we know what we know. Or maybe how we know what we know to teach and how to do it. And know it. No. How we know what we want the students to know and how to teach them how to know it, and how we know they know it.

Bollocks. Let’s start again shall we?

Remembering Stuff

I’ve already talked about the some of the strengths and many weaknesses of the Japanese education system. And yes, I know others are equally far from perfect, but I’m not talking about them yet. Look, just read the disclaimer, will you?

Two of the most glaring weaknesses of the system are the almost total reliance on rote memorization, and teaching to the test. The second is very far from a uniquely Japanese problem, but is especially bad here. I suspect that in any massive, centralized system it would be an issue. Multiple-choice questions were apparently invented by the US military, not because they were necessarily the best measure of knowledge or aptitude, but because they are comparatively easy to process.

Just choose C next time

The same is true here; test styles are seemingly chosen based on how easy they are to process in large numbers, and the content and teaching style are fitted to that. The cart is so far in front that the horse would need a flux capacitor to catch it up. This less than satisfactory situation has huge implications for just about everything, and I’ll address more of those at another time, perhaps. For now the key point is that these tests are what the kids need to pass to get into a ‘good’ university.

Getting into a good Japanese uni at eighteen is far, far more important than in the UK, and I suspect many other western countries. The reputation of the university you went to disproportionately affects your life chances, even if in reality it proves nothing more than how good you were at remembering things when you were a teenager.

I suspect that if I were Japanese, I would be royally fucked. I’m not (particularly) stupid, but memorizing stuff without context - cramming - has always been a problem. Like a lot of people I’ve used Heisig’s books for remembering the kanji, and they’re pretty effective, up to a point. Certainly better than just dully repeating the kanji again and again in a notebook.

But without any wider context to set them in I find it really difficult to maintain interest. When I used to teach in a junior high school one of the (few) things I liked was that all the kids had their names on badges, and so gave me that wider context for study. Well, not at the time because obviously I was teaching, but being able to get back to the textbooks of an evening, see a kanji and think, ‘Ah, like the one in Miyamoto-kun’s name’. Instant context, without effort.

That’s the other thing about memorization for its own sake. It’s always felt a bit inelegant, a bit like brute force. Something you do only if you aren’t smart enough to bullshit your way through an essay. However, Japanese students don’t really write essays until the final year of high school, and this lack of practice (among other reasons) means that the majority of those essays are… rudimentary.

Yes, that’s probably the nicest adjective I could choose there.

Of course, it’s all about what’s expected and immediately necessary. It’s all very well for me to criticize these students’ critical thinking and essay writing abilities (no, really it is. It’s part of what I get paid to do), but haven’t I just confessed that in their shoes I’d be screwed as well? If the system is focused on knowledge and not skills, my main skill is writing academically convincing essays, and there are no essays to write, then I’m pretty well shafted. Flopping about at the foot of the tree desperately trying to get some purchase on the bark with my fins and praying someone will take pity and chuck me back in the River Lethe.

Warping space-time? Watch me warp this metaphor.
Watch and learn, buddy

Not suffocating perhaps, but not doing swimmingly either. I did A-level physics, but unusually not A-level maths. I could just about keep up with the nitty-gritty, but was always more interested in the concepts and ideas than the more prosaic march of X’s and Y’s down the page. The examiners’ interests were the other way around, unfortunately for me. I managed to pass largely because I gambled on the last exam and spent the entire evening before it memorizing the Hertzprung-Russell diagram. Thank fuck my teacher was good at question spotting, is all I can say.

That’s a bit depressing, isn’t it? I probably wouldn’t be here writing this (one of those ‘for want of a nail’ deals) if my physics teacher had been worse at guessing what questions would be on a test. Not if he had been a worse teacher, or less motivating, or less knowledgeable, but worse at guessing.

But he got it right, and I managed to keep all that stuff in my head long enough to make a difference. Ask me now and I wouldn’t be able to recall anything significant. The main sequence is shaped like a lazy S, I remember that much, but I couldn’t even tell you what to label the axes.

Oh yeah baby, I've still got it

It was strictly a one-shot deal. Cram it in, use it, forget it. And that’s a useful skill to have, a nice tool to have in your box. But it really shouldn’t be the only tool you have. If you’ve only got a hammer and you want to drive in a screw you’re, well, not screwed.

That's probably a good point to take a break. I'll pick this up on Monday. Join me next time for more exciting not screwing. Don't go flicking.


  1. Nail on head, multiple times over.

    I did not know J-students do no essays until the last year of HS, but about writing and formal speech styles, and the scarcity of formal logic in Japanese society it explains... a lot. One cause only, but indicative.

    Rote memorization was always stupid, for the most part, because we invented books to store human knowledge, which works far better than the 'wet-ware' of the human brain. Now with so much knowledge online available to the critical searcher, so much the better. But no. Why should we teach critical thinking, analysis and logical thought to children? How would that serve the status quo?

  2. The memorization style has always annoyed me and has been exposed pretty well in an Eiken 1 v.s. TOEIC 900+ or the tests themselves.
    Poor kids gotta remember words that are not and have not been used regularly since my mother was a kid.

  3. Thanks for the comments both. This was getting a bit long, so the other half is going up on Monday. I don't want to get too ahead of myself so I'll give you better responses then. In the meantime though, Yes, and Yes.

  4. Once students get through their heads what you were trying to teach, it's usually many years later and waaaay too late.

    Looking forward to Monday.

  5. This is my second time in Japan. I've bumped into a few of former students from the first time around. A couple of them are/were studying English at Uni. I don't know if they were just being polite, but they both said it was because they enjoyed my classes. I have no memory of them doing so at the time.

    You never really know what you're getting across, or how much of it is going in. You really can't control it, just make sure you're always on and hope that they do get it before it's too late. Usually it is too late, as you say, but the times it's not are what you hold on to.