Tea and Teaching

July 30, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This is a picture of a young American in Japan being instructed in the proper way to drink the thick, green ceremonial tea.

At the time, he was newly on the faculty of a high school in a small town in the Japan alps. The other people in the photo were also teachers in the school. Teachers teaching tea to a teacher.

The picture was taken at Korakuen in Okayama, one of the stops on the shokuin ryoko (職員旅行)or faculty trip. It’s an annual event at many schools in Japan, and I was reminded of it by Elizabeth Green’s article about math teaching in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (here), excerpted from her new book,  Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone.  The link from the shokuin ryoko to what’s happening in math class is culture, a difference in how Japanese and Americans think about individuals and groups.

Green’s article focuses on a Japanese math teacher, Akihiko Takahashi, who was inspired by new ideas for teaching elementary-school math, ideas which had been developed in the US.  But while the new methods had flourished in Japan, back in the US, teachers were not learning them, at least not well enough to make good use of them.

The difference seems to be that in Japan, teachers teach teachers to teach.

When Akihiko Takahashi arrived in America, he was surprised to find how rarely teachers discussed their teaching methods. . . . American teachers had almost no opportunities to watch one another teach.

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. . . .  Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers. Without jugyokenyku, Takahashi never would have learned to teach at all. Neither, certainly, would the rest of Japan’s teachers.

It seems like an obvious idea, but if “lesson study” has worked so well in Japan, why has US education has not been able or willing to incorporate it?  The answer, I think, is that if your think of groups as primary and individuals as secondary, jugyokenkyu comes easily. But if you think that individuals come first, jugyokenkyu might be a problem.

The Japanese traditionally have stronger expectations of group loyalty. A group is not just a coalition formed for a specific purpose; it is something more permanent and encompassing.  Compared with Americans, Japanese think of themselves and others more as parts of a group, less as individuals.  They feel an obligation to work as a group for the success of that group.  In schools, the more experienced teachers will work to improve the performance of the less effective teachers, who in turn are obligated to improve themselves.  Both are acting for the interests of the group.  A good group nurtures its individual members to become better teachers.

In the US, we would find that kind of group orientation much too confining and encroaching on our individuality. But more than that, we tend to think about teaching (and most other work) as an individual matter.  Some people do it well, others are less effective.  Rather than a good group making for better teachers, having lots of good individual teachers makes for better group results. 

Even in our differences, we share that focus on individuals. Right now in the US, debates and lawsuits pit charter schools against public schools.  The sides are especially contentious about the role of teachers’ unions.  Defenders say that unions protect teachers so they can be assured of autonomy and remain relatively free from arbitrary and exploitative demands from administrators. Charter supporters say that schools will be more effective if we get rid of unions. That way, the schools can fire the bad teachers and give merit pay increases to the good ones. 

Both these approaches see the teaching staff as a collection of individuals, some more talented than others.  Neither conceives of the school as a real group – as people who mutually regulate and affect one another’s behavior. 

American workers would probably find that kind of real group relationship to be an abridgement of individuality.  We want to be able to choose who we get involved with.   Or to put it another way, how many American schools have a shokuin ryoko? In America, people are free to separate their work relationships from the rest of their lives.  But in Japan, the people you work with also the people you go drinking with after work.  And comes shokuin ryoko time, they are also the people you go on vacation with.*

Not all teachers go – most, in fact, do not – but enough do volunteer to make up a critical mass.  In the trip illustrated above, out of a faculty of about fifty, perhaps a dozen signed up.  But the actual number is less important than the recognized principle: the shokuin ryoko is part of the institution, and teachers feel a collective obligation to make it a success, just as they feel a collective obligation to make their colleagues’ teaching more effective.

* Private-sector firms may have a similar trip for employees – the shain ryoko.

No comments: