Think Outside the Box

Originally uploaded by marissaxxx

(This is a follow-up to an earlier post: Where to set the bar for EFL classes at Japanese universities?

What is conceptual thinking? Is it important? Are Japanese university students weak in this area? Does it matter if they are? Is it suitable to teach concepts and conceptual thinking to freshmen university students? Even in English classes? Can it be taught? If so, how?

These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about, ever since a friend of mine complained that his Japanese students lack facility in manipulating concepts. (He does not subscribe to the belief that such ability has been declining; “they never had it to begin with!” he says.)

This is in the nature of an interim report, as I try and clarify my thoughts on this issue.

A few points first:

  1. Japanese students rarely ask “why?”, and are not accustomed to being asked this question, even in school. What does that say about their facility handling concepts.
    1. Why not ask “why?” Because to admit ignorance is highly embarrassing, even shameful, in Japanese culture. To ask why puts the interlocutor in a potentially embarrassing position. Thus, it is a type of question best avoided.
    2. There are even teachers in Japan (I’ve heard from their students) who do not like to be asked questions, and who make sure their students know this.
  2. Much has been written and said about a supposed decline in academic achievement among Japanese schoolchildren over the past decade or so at least (called 学力低下 “gakuryoku teika” in Japanese).
  3. The Wikipedia article on gakuryoku teika refers in its opening paragraph to the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for 15-year-olds worldwide once every three years since 2000. This report is referred to in a 2008, November 20th article in the English-language version of the Japanese Daily Yomiuri newspaper, about teaching elementary schoolchildren to think:

    The results of the 2003 PISA, which were released in December 2004, showed that Japan suffered a sharp decline in its ranking for reading literacy, dropping to 14th place from eighth in the previous assessment. Its ranking hovered near the same level, at 15th place, in the 2006 assessment. The PISA requires students to exercise comprehensive reading ability: They have to read and analyze some passages–texts, charts, graphs and so on–at the same time so that they can draw conclusions, decide what kind of actions they would take and express their own opinions. In other words, the participants have to think on their own based on their own knowledge and the available information.
    Alarmed by the PISA results, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry announced in 2005 a scheme to foster children’s reading literacy, under which it called for classes to be designed to meet targets in all grades and all subjects of compulsory education.

  4. In Japanese culture, the traditional method of learning is by imitation. (Many years ago, in the magazine Kansai Time Out, there was an article written by a young non-Japanese who was already a good drummer, and who, once in Japan, decided to learn Japanese drumming. His first lesson went like this. The teacher played “shave and a haircut” on a drum; the young man “replied” with “bom-bom”. The teacher shook his head, and again played “shave and a haircut”. This time the young man tapped out a sophisticated, syncopated riff. The teacher showed exasperation. Finally, it dawned on the young apprentice that he was expected to merely imitate the master. )
  5. Here is Ayn Rand on learning:

    There are two different methods of learning: by memorizing and by understanding. The first belongs primarily to the perceptual level of a human consciousness, the second to the conceptual.

    The first is achieved by means of repetition and concrete-bound association (a process in which one sensory concrete leads automatically to another, with no regard to content or meaning). … This form of learning is shared with man by the higher animals: all animal training consists of making the animal memorize a series of actions by repetition and association.

    The second method of learning—by a process of understanding—is possible only to man. To understand means to focus on the content of a given subject (as against the sensory—visual or auditory—form in which it is communicated), to isolate its essentials, to establish its relationship to the previously known, and to integrate it with the appropriate categories of other subjects. Integration is the essential part of understanding.

    The predominance of memorizing is proper only in the first few years of a child’s education, while he is observing and gathering perceptual material. From the time he reaches the conceptual level (i.e., from the time he learns to speak), his education requires a progressively larger scale of understanding and progressively smaller amounts of memorizing.  [“The Comprachicos,” Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 68.]

    Learning is a conceptual process; an educational method devised to ignore, by-pass and contradict the requirements of conceptual development, cannot arouse any interest in learning. The “adjusted” are bored because they are unable actively to absorb knowledge. The independent are bored because they seek knowledge, not games of “class projects” or group “discussions.” The first are unable to digest their lessons; the second are starved. [ Ditto, p. 78]

  6. The university I work for originally had just one department: Liberal Arts. This department changed its name to Human Science in 1999. Part of the reason seems to have been try to maintain popularity and to attempt to fend off the potential decline in student numbers caused by the falling birth-rate. This points to a declining “popularity” for the name or sound of “Liberal Arts College”. Deans of the Department told parents and guardians on a number of occasions that despite the change of name, the contents and general philosophy would remain unchanged, i.e. that of liberal arts. Could it be that this name-change masked a shift in values, away from those of liberal arts? Could it also be that this name-change drew a veil over the original concept of “liberal arts education”? (It is instructive in this context to read Ayn Rand’s thoughts on anti-concepts.)
  7. What is “liberal arts”? Here is the Wikipedia entry (my emphasis):

    The term ‘liberal arts’ is a college or curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing intellectual capacities, in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum. In classical antiquity, the term designated the education proper to a freeman (Latin: liber, “free”) as opposed to a slave.

  8. Here’s an editorial on the values of a liberal arts education by Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s president. The comments, both pro and con, are illuminating.

To be continued.

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