Monday 13 February 2012

Nailing Screws

Or screwing nails, one of the two. How we nail the screw which screws the… Fuck it, you know the drill by now.

Know the drill. God I’m a funny bastard.

I’m lucky enough to have a degree of control over the curriculum of my classes (‘curriculum’ is probably overstating it, but humour me). Everybody’s happy as long as I make vague thematic nods to the textbook every once in a while, which is fair enough. The students have been told to spend money on it and it would be a bit of a slap in the face to their parents if I tossed it out completely.

In the final term, the students write and give their own speeches, presenting one side of an argument. It’s meant to be a debate, but I’ve never seen Japanese students actually debate, it’s only ever been a series of opposing position statements with no interaction between the two sides. So let’s just forget the ‘debate’ artifice and concentrate on doing one thing well, shall we?

In theory we build over the course of the year – group presentations, shorter individual pieces, giving reasons, opinions etc – so the final thing just involves putting it all together. One of the skills I want the students to acquire is being able to read from notes. Hopefully the final product will be too long for them to remember completely, so using notes to jog their memory should be essential.

This took me fucking ages to write. You're gonna get it
whenever it's even vaguely relevant

But every year there are a number of Japanese teachers who insist that the students remember every word. And not just the final speech, but also all the preceding, shorter ones. I mean, these actually are short enough to remember, so why wouldn’t you do so?

"Practice using notes you say? Nope, can’t see how that would be any use. They need more practice remembering."

Knowing what’s coming next is an essential part of speechmaking; it allows you to keep eye-contact with your audience and lets things flow.  Everyone from Cicero onwards has considered Memory to be one of the five canons of rhetoric, so it’s certainly a worthwhile skill. In this case though, insisting it’s done solely from memory – in its entirety – just leads to excruciating, confidence-shattering silences as the students examine the ceiling and try to remember what comes next, followed by a desperate flapping because they forgot to include an earlier gesture, which only serves to make them look like a cheap animatronic puppet operated by a drunk. 

The worst part is that the JTEs will then give these students the highest marks because they memorized everything. I can’t fault the students for doing what they’ve been told to do to the best of their abilities, and I can’t blame the teachers for doing what they know works for the tests. But this isn’t preparation for the tests. It has no bearing on anything except (except!) the students’ communicative abilities. And still they keep smacking that screw with the same fucking hammer (though that does sound like it might be quite a lot of fun, if I’m honest).

Still, it’s a painful and unnecessarily humiliating reminder of the structural (and occasionally personal) weaknesses in the system. Cramming is, you’ll recall (ha!), a one-shot deal. Just to torture the whole fish metaphor a little further, it’s the equivalent of giving the students a fish. Regardless of whether you give them one fish or two fish, or red fish or blue fish, teaching them to actually catch the fish themselves is surely a better option.

The fat one has a yellow hat

But then how do you evaluate skills? Knowledge is easy. Knowledge is binary, especially as it’s conceived of in The System (I think it’s earned the right to capitals now, don’t you?). Something is right or it’s not, you know it or you don’t. When teachers ask me about grammar or usage I have to go to great pains to point out that while option A is generally more natural, option B is often perfectly acceptable. I’ve then heard some teachers tell the students that A is right and B is wrong not ten minutes later. That these teachers are also usually keen ‘memorizers’ probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. As I've said before, ambiguity is not viewed as a good thing.

Skills are more difficult than knowledge. Skills occupy a continuum, which is harder to evaluate systematically. And while memory is an important skill, that’s only because it makes others more effective. There are some people capable of reciting pi to thousands of decimal places. I know it to 2. If I’m ever in a position where a greater degree of precision is necessary I’ll also have access to a calculator. What a waste of fucking time. Thanks to my iphone and google I've essentially been able to outsource my memory. Knowing how to find the answers is arguably a more important skill than just knowing them, because you'll never know them all.

And why would you want to? Knowledge is beautiful and I'd never discourage someone from wanting to know more for whatever purpose, but if you're going to insist other people remember stuff you'd better make damn sure it's stuff worth remembering. I’d love to finally have all 2000-odd basic use kanji down pat, but only because that would let me communicate with people around me more effectively. 

Memory is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Mnemosyne, we must remember, was the mother of the nine muses. You must know your subject before you can command it. But Mnemosyne bore nine children because she slept with Zeus on nine consecutive nights, so she’s also a filthy old slapper and you’d be a mug to put all your trust in her.

Nailed and Screwed


  1. Beautiful.

    The only times something is worth remembering in your 'wet-ware' or 'meat-ware' is when you need to access it immiediately and often, or remembering it aids other skills. I'd argue memorizing some Shakespeare, and the like, makes you a better speaker and writer, though that's intangible enough I'm not interested in arguing it.

    The Japanese haven't a shadow of a hope...

  2. That top pic (I read the whole post) that top pic took me about 10 seconds to get...I need a coffee...or that was just too cool!

    Japan is fucking doomed BTW!!

  3. Chris - Perry Bible Fellowship is fantastic. This one is my favourite (and one which took me ages to get as well) -

    I think in general I'm a touch more optimistic than you both about Japan's future. Some of the kids I teach are massively creative, thoughtful, and original, despite everything. It's very easy to idealise students back home while forgetting just how conformist they were/are, and how the education systems in most countries are riddles with problems.

    Change has to come some time, either internally or (not for the first time) externally. The old bastards in charge have got to die off eventually, and it's just a question of how much they screw up in the meantime.

    Of course, it's also wholly possible that I've got so much invested here that I'm just seeing what I want to see. I guess we'll find out...

  4. Good news:
    Word is that, in terms of the old bastard bureaucrats, they are on the verge of retiring en masse within the next 5 years or so.

    Not so good news:
    Unlike the old bastard bureaucrats who bail by 60, politicians will literally have to die off before relinquishing their grip.

    At least, that's what I heard from a more literate source.

  5. It's the bureaucrats who make the real decisions though. The politicians really are just there for show. In any other country getting through eleventy-four Prime Ministers in as many weeks would create real problems, but apparently it's a solution over here...