The Consistency Dilemma – Introducing IB in Japanese Schools

This idea presented at an IB-research conference last year in Japan has come up in conversation a few times over the past month. Shared below in case it is of interest.


The Consistency Dilemma: Creative professionalism and pedagogical alignment in an IB Program, Damian Rentoule, JARIBE Conference, Okayama University, 2018

Presentation Abstract

The International Baccalaureate offers curriculum frameworks within which schools and teachers experience a degree of creative freedom in the planning and delivery of the programs. This results in a consistency dilemma where an IB school is required to foster creative professionalism through collaborative practices, yet needs to ensure consistency of pedagogical approaches across the school to fulfil its curriculum promises. A collaborative environment requires a clearly defined balance between teacher autonomy and school direction. Using literacy development and mathematics learning in schools as the context and drawing on research related to pedagogical consistency across the Primary Years Program, Middle Years Program and Diploma Program, this presentation will explore issues related to successfully navigating this consistency dilemma. The examples in the first part of the presentation will focus on student experiences in an English-medium international school setting and the second part of the presentation will explore specific challenges related to the consistency dilemma emerging in Japanese Article 1 schools as the IB curriculum framework is implemented.

Summary of Presentation

The consistency dilemma involves the desire to maximise teacher autonomy in curriculum design confronting a need to ensure consistency of practice. Understanding this consistency dilemma within the context of a specific school is the key to supporting teachers transition to an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. In the context of the adoption of the IB programs by schools, including Japanese Article 1 schools, it is possible that a degree of cultural dissonance may be experienced by teachers due to a consistency dilemma faced by any school implementing a curriculum framework with a focus on process rather than content. The shift in responsibilities of teachers to include a higher degree of curriculum creation may be a source of at least part of this cultural dissonance. Furthermore, the complexity inherent in a curriculum framework focused on process rather than content may challenge existing understandings of curriculum implementation developed through teachers’ prior experience with content-based curriculum frameworks. Understanding the nature of the consistency dilemma in a process-based curriculum framework may help schools to support teachers exercise their creative professionalism with greater levels of confidence.

The IB offers curriculum frameworks within which schools and teachers experience a degree of creative freedom in the planning and delivery of the programs. These frameworks present a process of education (inquiry) rather than a set of prescribed content (knowledge, skills, understanding, attitudes), although certain essential content guidelines are provided. Both process and content will exist in any curriculum framework, however when viewed as a  continuum of ‘process focus’ to ‘content focus’, the IB is far to the ‘process’ side of that continuum. Curriculum frameworks can include different amounts of structure or control. On the ‘content’ side of the continuum, it is possible to describe and dictate content in minute detail to ensure consistency. This is complicated because there are many parts, all inter-related with one another. On the process side of this continuum, however, it is not possible to dictate the dynamic process of inquiry in minute detail as the parts interact with each other and impact the whole. In other words, a curriculum framework focused on a process is not complicated; it is complex. This difference is at the heart of the cultural dissonance that a teacher may experience moving from one side of the continuum to the other during a school’s adoption of an IB program. It is a movement from a complicated system to a complex one.

In order to manage this new complexity, the idea of creative professionalism has been used by the IB to construct a role for IB teachers where they have an active responsibility to create parts of the curriculum, both content and process. This is a potential source of cultural dissonance as schools and teachers are required to redefine their roles. For this reason, within the context of a curriculum framework focused on process and promoting creative professionalism, two important questions confront schools facing the consistency dilemma when adopting the IB programs in terms of supporting teachers in the transition:

  1. To what extent should the intentional design be individual and to what extent should it be collective?
  2. How do we manage the sense of discord, confusion, or conflict experienced by teachers confronted with a drastic change in their teaching role as co-creators of the curriculum?

The answers to these two questions are an essential starting point when schools shift between a content focused curriculum framework to a process focused one.


  • ‘Too tight/Too loose’ curriculum idea used in the presentation – Chapman, C. and Fullan, M. (2007), ‘Collaboration and partnership for equitable improvement: Towards a networked learning system?’, School Leadership and Management, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 207-211
  • Creative Professionalism – The term used extensively in the IB originating with David Hargreaves over 20 years ago. Creative professionalism The role of teachers in the knowledge society, 1998, Demos.
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Taking a step back

If we accept the idea that, as parents, we need to help our children develop problem-solving skills by allowing them to confront and solve their own problems by taking a step back, we then have to ask ourselves just how far back should we step.  From the parental perspective, we can use the example of physical danger to test our boundaries and later apply this learning to the idea of emotional danger. Interestingly, it does seem that our brains do not distinguish between physical and emotional dangers when we face them, so our bodies reactions are the same regardless. It makes sense that our reactions to a child’s potential danger would also be the same.

How far would you be willing to allow your child to be exposed to potential physical danger? This is an important point as the child’s world revolves around play and it is often dangerous. It is a constant cost/benefit analysis that we are involved in. For example, there have been many broken wrists, legs, arms and necks from tree-climbing accidents. Young children see trees as a challenge. They are curious to see what is ‘up there’. They imagine new worlds, perhaps their own kingdom within the leaves. They are drawn to it. Yet, do you allow your child to climb, and if so, how far and with what support? How valuable do you see the tree climbing experience as and at what point is this value outweighed by the physical danger?

There are no right or wrong answers to these difficult questions, although over the past couple of decades societal attitudes in many countries have drifted more towards fearing risk than valuing experience. It’s like a shifting scale with experience on one side and safety on the other, both being clearly important, but we must lean towards one or the other. Where do we rest? The changing nature of playground equipment is an example of this shift. In Australia, for example, you will not find swings in many primary schools now. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to find a primary school without a set. Not surprisingly, schools have experienced accidents on swings. They presented a risk. That degree of risk used to be acceptable, but now it is not. Now monkey bars are disappearing. It is like the slow extinction of a type of animal that is no longer suited to changing environmental conditions.

Yet risk is a big deal, particularly to a parent. I remember a few years ago sending my younger daughter who was 14 at the time by herself to Australia to stay with my older daughter who was 19, in her university dormitory. There was, of course, no end to the disasters that I could imagine befalling my younger daughter. I had to decide which way I needed to lean, towards experience or towards safety. Thinking back on my own experiences didn’t help. When I was 15, I travelled on a cargo ship in Papua New Guinea for a three-day journey to visit a friend in a town that was years later completely destroyed in a volcanic eruption. When I arrived, I wandered from the port and got myself quite lost as there were no Google Maps in 1984. A group of young men, all carrying machetes, which was not uncommon, followed me for a while and eventually approached trying to entice me into their car. I wasn’t too keen on the offer. The initial polite requests became more insistent and aggressive to the point that I thought they were just about to grab me. I start slowly backed away, but two circled behind blocking my exit. My anxiety levels obviously increased, surrounded by the machete holding strangers. I was just about to drop my bag and flee when a very old man who had been sitting by a tree slowly approached.  A walking stick supported his frail frame, smiling, friendly. They froze. He moved closer and spoke softly to the young men. I’ll never know who he was or what he said, but the young men moved away, cautious, perhaps even a little scared. My elderly saviour took me under his wing. He asked me where I wanted to go and motioned for me to follow. I stayed close and no one bothered me. It seemed that I had accidentally wandered into a place that I probably should have avoided. It could have ended much differently. In life, we sometimes stumble into tricky situations. 

The point of that story is that we can imagine all types of potential disasters happening to our children and the problem is that most of them are quite possible. Perhaps not probable, but possible. I think that the important part of the decision making process is to ensure that we consciously recognize which way we are leaning – towards the experience or towards safety. I want my children to be perfectly safe, yet I have always struggled with the sadness of opportunity lost trying to lean toward opportunity – despite my fears. You can be too safe. Unfortunately, life was not designed to be easy for us as parents and it is a constant struggle. 

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Problem Solving and Independence

(Part of a periodic series written for a local parenting magazine in Hiroshima titled Mamampere and published in Japanese. Here is the English version.)

One of the only ways we develop our problem-solving skills is, not surprisingly, by solving our own problems. In many ways, parents control the problem-solving environment of their children. We don’t want to solve all of our problems and modern society has been built on the idea of reliance. For example, the problems associated with food production are taken care of by someone else. Unless we are a farmer, we don’t use our time to plant crops. Someone else deals with that problem. So the question for us as adults in a modern, technologically advanced society is what type of problems do we choose to engage with and what type of problems do we choose for our children to engage with.

Problems are situations with potentially negative consequences that requires some type of action to avert. In this sense, action and consequence are closely linked. The scale of problems is also important and this is where analytical skills are needed. For instance, big problems always contain smaller problems. Understanding how the smaller ones relate to each other and to the bigger whole is part of the problem-solving skill set and the start of the process.

In this sense, we need to understand the nature of the problems as well as a commitment to who is going to take the action to avoid the imagined consequence. If we want to help our children take their place in the world, we need to support them, however at what part of this problem-solving process do we direct our support? I would suggest it is with the analytical stage that the parents should get involved, leaving the action stage to their child.

This can be difficult as we tend to want to jump straight into the action stage for them, without first considering the analytical part of the process. This can be problematic as without first examining the different aspects of the problem we can get a false sense of the simplicity of problems. Furthermore, by diving into action, we can get a false sense of our responsibilities in the problem-solving process. By ‘us’ I mean parent and child. We both come to think problems are simple and we also both come to think the parents are the ones who solve them. That is not the way to prepare a child for a life on their own.

So what is your child’s world like? What does the interplay of action and consequence look like from their perspective?

Parents are the filter through which our children see the world. We have a natural tendency to protect our children from harm. Our brains do not differentiate between physical and emotional dangers. Our body’s reactions are the same. There can be a tendency to protect our children too much and a range of commentators have described shifting trends in parenting over the past twenty years involving the increase in protective behaviours. We can see a shift in various areas of life.

One interesting example is the recent increase of parents on university campuses arguing about grades their adult children are receiving. This is related to the increasing trend of students moving back into their childhood homes after university, still dependent on their parents, not yet empowered enough to fend for themselves. This is new. Unfortunately, a long series of problem-solving based interventions by a parent in their child’s life leads to this point. It starts in the early years. Parents need to spend more time on the analytical part of the process, helping them explore the problem and provide some suggestions for action if needed and stand back. It takes some restraint, this last part, but it helps a child learn that they are able to take action, that they can be in control of their own lives. It is empowering and this is more important than the solving of any single problem.

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Critical thinking in translation

Critical thinking is an interesting word when it appears in translation. In English, the connotations are generally positive. It is commonly referred to as one of the key skills needed to prepare children for the 21st century, which seemed like such a long way away, but now happens to be nearly eighteen percent over. For this reason, we are no longer just preparing children for the 21st Century. We are living it. In this sense, it would probably be appropriate to be thinking about the 22nd Century, but getting ready for the hear and now; the 21st. It will be over before we know it.

As part of this preparation for a rapidly changing world, we send our children to school to learn, but learn what? They learn content that is divided roughly into academic disciplines, but as a parent, it is not so much what your child is learning that should interest you, as most of it can be Googled, rather you should be interested in what they can do with that content. How does it help them to come to understand their world?

Above the subject based content, there is a set of skills that are encountered in all subject areas. One of those is critical thinking. Critical thinking skills help to ensure that you are sensitive to the intentions behind the different information that bombards you? In its English form, the term does not have a negative connotation, yet in its Japanese form, the meaning of critical thinking does not translate so smoothly in the educational setting as the idea of looking at something ‘negatively’ comes through relatively strongly in the literal Japanese translation. It seems that this slight problem of translation between the English and Japanese usage of the term is causing mixed-feelings in the Japanese school system where moves are underway to bring a more critical perspective into approaches to teaching and learning. 

Critical thinking, at least as the educational concept, is not about finding something wrong, or inherently bad. We understand that the basis of communication is intention and interpretation. Developing critical thinking skills is about discerning oftentimes subtle intentions in messages that may not be readily apparent. The portrayal of body image in the media is an example of one of these messages. Communication in all its forms is intentional to a degree, but messages are interpreted in many different ways by the audience, so if our children are going to understand their world they need to be able to think critically. As a number of Japanese schools embrace the International Baccalaureate programs, teachers and school administrators may need to revise their understanding of critical thinking and shift their deeply embedded styles of teaching and learning.

Critical thinking skills allow children to discern intent and form more independent ideas. The process does, however, necessitate students challenging the content they are exposed to, questioning the texts they use and the words of their teachers. Of course, more didactic teaching methods and content-driven, memory-based approaches to teaching and learning will not foster critical thinking. The question that confronts us is how far will school systems be willing to bend and shift in order to develop these all-important critical thinking skills? Do we really want our children to be able to question the world? If so, our school systems have some work to do.

 

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A trend in parenting?

 

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The cumulative effect of a crowd beyond the tipping point. What will it hold?

A trend in parenting?

Some societal shifts in parenting have been documented that are impacting relationships in schools – protective instincts.

In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims documents some trends in parenting in the US and other countries. Working in schools, I feel that I have glimpsed some of these behaviors described, but you do need to be cautious as you get older and feel compelled to critique the ‘now’ from vague notions of a ‘then’ we can barely remember.  However, the book convincingly documents certain shifts such as the increasing parental presence on US university campuses where parents continue to try and solve problems for their child-adults well into tertiary years and beyond. This is a new, but not a uniquely US phenomenon.

This parental presence on US university grounds is presented as the end of a long series of what was termed, ‘over-protective parental problem-solving’ that is increasingly following children all through their school experiences. It is argued that an increasing fear of harm, a powerful instinct to protect by solving their problems for them, has been leading to a more adversarial response by parents when their children confront problems in areas such as schooling and organized sports, for example. The effect of the extremes of parental problem-solving in the world of the child is that the critical thought that is part of successful problem solving is banished. Alternate perspectives have no place where the welfare of the child is concerned.

An example could be a parent abusing a coach when their child does not get a full game, a more familiar story nowadays in Australian sporting life where parent behavior has shifted markedly. Interactions with referees are even more intense. Children’s sporting competitions now outline specific behavioral expectations for spectators (parents) to protect the referee and the child players and try and ensure supportive, positive behavior is modeled by the adults. Parents can be asked to leave the grounds and play does not resume until they comply. The introduction of these now strictly-enforced rules into children’s sports hints at the increasingly active role parents are playing in solving their child’s perceived problems.

It must be said that trends are not the way people are, just certain patterns that are recognizable if you are looking for them. The pattern that is discussed in this context is the blame inherent in a response to a child’s problem and the parents’ focus on fixing the problem, protecting their child. The teacher, the referee or a coach become the adversary from the start. In these cases, it is the parent that can be seen interacting with the world, not the child. In my experience, this is not the norm by any means, however, incidences of this type of overly active parental problem-solving (which is a very subjective label, of course) seem to be on the increase.

The child learns much through these experiences; mostly blame. In times of conflict, emotions run high and there is no room to consider a situation in terms of an idea (or ideal) such as ‘respect’ for example and frame a conversation around this idea, listening and considering the thoughts of others.  When we are striving to protect, we don’t search for solutions, we defeat adversaries. For this reason, we need to be careful of the behaviors that we model for our children for, in a culture of blame, problem-solving and responsibility may not have the opportunity to develop as part of a child’s life skills, absent from their repertoire as adults.  Yet, how widespread is the influence of these shifts in parenting strategies? How many individuals would need to shift in order to push a population past a certain tipping point?

As the protectiveness of a parent and the related urge to identify and solve problems for their children is a natural, wonderful instinct, we may just need to rethink the level of support we provide our children in relation to this natural drive.  We can support, but also allow them to interact with the world and solve their own problems, the smaller ones, and the bigger ones. Increase the presence of critical thought in the environments in which they grow up. Celebrate ideas. Listen and consider the ideas of other people. Be flexible. Be courageous enough to change your own opinion. Question others. Be prepared to be questioned yourself. Perhaps, parents, this is all we need to do. A shifting set of expectations that our children see could one day be passed onto expectations for those on the ballot who are responsible for representing us.

 

 

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Learning to learn; a 4-year-old’s experience

We can often underestimate the complexity of ideas young children can understand. I was teaching in Brunei Darussalam at a public secondary school and my daughters attended the International School of Brunei (ISB) which had the IB’s Primary Years Program (PYP). My younger daughter, four-years-old at the time, was in kindergarten. Time came for a student-led-conference and I attended like the dutiful father I was hoping to be. Knowing nothing of the IB or the PYP, or any other of the associated acronyms, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  

The teacher explained that the PYP curriculum is organized around a series of six units of inquiry during the year, where children develop skills, knowledge, understandings and attitudes through a process of structured inquiry. ‘That sounds good, but what does it look like?’ – My private thought at the time.  I was soon to find out.

My daughter, whom I had expected to just point out a few drawings, led me to the back of the room to what she introduced as the Wondering Wall. At the top of the Wondering Wall, which was a series of large pieces of paper stuck to the wall, a statement about identity was written in large letters, ‘Different types of families make up our community.’ She read this out, although of course, she could not yet read, and pointed to her name which was written with all the other children’s names along the left hand side of the wall. She then told me with a slight roll of her eyes what she had thought a family was at the beginning of the unit. It was written in the teacher’s neat script next to my daughter’s name. All along the line that moved across the wall from her name, in that neat script, were similar thoughts about questions that she had had at different stages of the unit.

My daughter explained to me, using this visual, what she thought at the start of the unit, some of the questions that she had wondered about, the classroom activities that they had done along the way and the things that she had learned from them. At the end of the line, the far right of the Wondering Wall, was her final thoughts on what constituted a family, again scribed by the teacher, but in my daughter’s words. A very different statement to her initial one, showing in her four-year-old language that she understood that there were many different potential structures.

I left the student-led-conference wondering about the significance of my four-year-old daughter coming to realize that the world may not be exactly as she imagines it – that we learn new things to change our perspective. Many adults struggle with this. It wasn’t so much what she had learnt, nor was it how she had learnt, the wondrous part of the experience was seeing that she was completely conscious of the learning process, that she could even explain how her understanding had changed and why. She was a better learner at the end of that unit – a more independent learner and a more critical thinker. This is a way to interact with the world. In short, she had become a slightly different person. The learning process influences the person we become, a cumulative process of tiny, yet incredibly important incremental steps. Who do you want your child to be? This is the central question.

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Searching for similarities across cultures with deeper questioning

If you are interested in the role of questions in the classroom and beyond, the presentation below (about a 10-minute read) may be of interest. This was from the Annual General Meeting of the Japan/America Society of Hiroshima in 2017. Keep asking good questions.

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Thank you to Yumi Kyogoku for the Japanese translation and to Fuyuko Takita for the reading.

Title: “Searching for Difference: Considering the value of cultural understanding”

I am greatly honoured to be here this evening to speak to you all on this 4th day of July. A special day for the United States where the country’s independence is celebrated, focusing on the end of British rule in 1776. Interestingly, just 12 years later, the British placed their flag in the soil of my home country, Australia, beginning yet another colonial journey. This time, however, fortunately for the British at least, it was a less perilous experience, although equally disastrous for the indigenous inhabitants of both nations.

In terms of identity, the links between these two events in very different parts of the world form a good context for this evening’s presentation, for when we consider the independence of a whole nation, we are forced to reflect on our own individual identities, our own cultures, because the culture is about belonging. The question of who we are independent of leads naturally to the question of who we are dependent on. To work successfully and to live peacefully, we need to deeply understand the people we depend on. This understanding has everything to do with culture.

I would like to open with two questions; ‘What has culture got to do with education?’ and ‘Why should we care?’

In this evening’s presentation, I will be exploring some ideas related to the way we come to understand culture and implications of this for education within Japan.

I am the principal at Hiroshima International School and I have been fortunate enough to work with many great educators in a number of wonderful schools within very different cultural contexts. One thing that I have come to realize over these years is that despite our obvious cultural differences, we are more similar than we realize. In order to understand this, students need to learn to search for deep meaning, for aspects of their own identity that may not be readily apparent; aspects that may not be obvious; qualities beyond their awareness. Students need to search beyond the facts of themselves, their surface level appearances. They need to search deeply for who they are as individuals and what they share with their fellow human beings. A need for such a search has far reaching implications for how we approach teaching and learning in our schools and is a step toward a more peaceful and sustainable planet.

I am fond of metaphor, perhaps overly so. As a secondary English teacher by profession, this is actually one of our chief occupational hazards, however, if you will bear with me, it is often useful to use a familiar idea to help us understand another, or to provoke a new way of looking at an idea that has become too familiar. I would argue that our education systems have become far too familiar to us and we are in dire need of a new perspective.

The metaphor this evening, is the iceberg, a favourite of anyone with an interest in culture. In 1976, in a book called Beyond Culture, Edward Hall proposed that culture could be understood as an iceberg, where only a small percentage of what made up the iceberg was actually visible above the surface of the water. For culture, below the surface would mean out of conscious awareness. For forty years, this metaphor has been used to help people better understand the unconscious values that drive the more visible expressions of culture.

On the surface (above the water line) we have examples of cultural expression such as language, literature, festivals, food, religion, dress, art and music to name just a few. These ones are readily visible. We see them, hear them, taste them straight away. To take the way we dress, for example, the men here are mostly wearing suits tonight. If we were in Hawaii, you would be in Aloha shirts. A suit would be the mark of an outsider. Next time, come here in an Aloha shirt and try it out. It would feel different, strange.

We can’t miss these cultural differences as I found out when I was 15 years old. My family had just moved from Australia to Papua New Guinea and I had my first chance to be a bit shocked by how different life can be in another culture. I spent a month on one of the remote northeastern islands staying with a friend in his grandmother’s village. It was very isolated, at least for me, with no phones, running water or electricity. There were no hospitals or shops or roads that weren’t dirt – just bamboo houses and lots of smiling faces. On one of my first nights there, the sun had gone down and I was getting hungry and was wondering about dinner. I soon found out.

Some of the children from the village made small fires on the beach and waited patiently by the water with slingshots, firing at large bats when they emerged from the forest to fly overhead. The downed bats were thrown straight on the coals to smoulder and later we sat around eating the oily meat from the bats with our fingers. This wasn’t the type of meal that I was used to growing up in Australia. The bat meat was also pungent, a very strong smell like nothing I had ever experienced and it stayed on the hands for days, no matter how many times you washed them. That meal was a bit of a shock, but I was ready for this surface level difference. It was part of the adventure I had been expecting. In many ways, the experience was much the same as my first taste of natto in Japan some 6 years later. The bat meat did, in fact, taste marginally better than my first bite in Japan of ‘ika no shiro kara’, which I had mistakenly thought was sweet pinkish jelly, so I guess all things are relative. Food is easy to notice, the good and the bad.

Below the surface of the iceberg of culture however, there are aspects of culture that we do not think about and for this reason, can catch us unaware. Some of these deeper aspects of culture include concepts of time, personal space, notions about logic and validity, concepts of justice, courtesy, notions of modesty and affection, attitudes to elders to name just a few. Although at 15 I hadn’t given the idea of culture much thought, at the time I sensed deeper differences than just food, ones I couldn’t see, that I could feel, ones that were hard to explain. I don’t think I would even have had the language to explain this sense of difference at that age. I had definitely not learnt the language needed, or the ways of thinking needed to express these ideas at school. I had to learn that later, as an adult, and this is what I want to express tonight. Our schools should teach a deep understanding of culture before young men and women are sent out into the world.

These deeper aspects of culture are fascinating but complex. For example, on the night of the bat feast in Papua New Guinea, I had a second surprise that I was definitely not expecting and it related to notions of personal space. I shared a room with my friend in his family’s bamboo house. It was on stilts above the water and you could see the small waves rolling up and down the beach through the floor of split bamboo. There were no doors or windows, just open spaces. You didn’t lock these houses. It was a very peaceful place and I was extremely tired after a day full of the unexpected, so I drifted off to what I thought would be the very welcome and familiar routine of sleep. Just a few hours later, however, I awoke to find someone climbing into my bed. This, as you can imagine, was quite a surprise.

You may note that I say ‘my’ when I described the bed and this is the origin of my surprise. This was an assumption that I had brought along with me from my world. It had no place here.  Growing up accustomed to exclusive sleeping space, ‘just me’, I am sure that you can imagine my surprise at my late night visitor. In this new culture, however, it was the most natural thing in the world. There were areas in each house where people slept and although the division between male and female was familiar to me, the idea that groups of people shared sleeping spaces was not. It was my friend’s cousin who slept by my side that night and it was perfectly natural for him to join us. Over the course of the month, sometimes he would sleep in my friend’s bed, sometimes mine. Sometimes others would come and frequency seemed to be determined by the closeness of personal ties. My understanding of personal space had just expanded and it was a much more subtle, unpredictable, and difficult to define aspect of the culture than the daily dining arrangements.

Just as I was getting used to sleeping in a communal space, I was also surprised by hand-holding, which again, was quite alien to me as in my mind it was usually associated with either young children and adults or with romantic couples. In my new world, my friend’s cousin would often hold my hand as we were walking along. I had noticed men holding hands and women holding hands, but never men and women. Walking along holding hands with a boy my age took some getting used to, but it was a familiar gesture and a sign of friendship and acceptance, which I appreciated after the initial discomfort.

I had further lessons in other understandings of personal space, some 6 years later when I arrived in Japan at the age of 21. I was horrified at the rush hour trains in Tokyo. I saw the impossible made possible. A white-gloved hand on my back, pushing me into a train that was already impossibly full. My body was supported by the crush of other bodies. My arms, pinned to my side, trapped. But still, there seemed to be room for more commuters. People ran for the door, turned and walked in wiggling their backs until space somehow miraculously opened. Then another person would come until the whistles started blowing, doors started closing, and opening, and closing. Finally we would leave an empty platform, squashed, silent, still, each person hoping their neighbour didn’t sneeze. In US education, there was a famous ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy. In Japan, I think JR must have had a ‘No Commuter Left Behind’ policy and it worked amazingly well, as long as you were willing to sacrifice, for a short while, all boundaries protecting your personal space. Some years later, after getting used to the Japanese understanding of personal space in a train, I was nearly the victim of violence when I tried to board a subway on a visit to London using my understandings of how it worked in Tokyo. I tried to nudge my way back into a carriage that, in my humble opinion, still had plenty of room. The large man and even larger woman who I was trying to encourage to move further into the train turned and gave me such an angry look that I stepped back away from the doors slowly, careful not to make eye contact, and was quite relieved when the doors closed. I certainly hope that those two never travel to Japan. 

These below-the-surface aspects of culture, such as notions of personal space are not as easy to explain as the food we eat or the clothes we wear. More than 20 years after my first rush-hour Tokyo train ride, I moved from Tokyo to Hawaii and I had some problems adjusting. People hug in Hawaii, often and vigorously. I was a school principal and while in Japan had not been used to hugging anyone at school, let alone parents. It was very difficult for me to manage this in Hawaii, particularly in those awkward moments when you think you should, but are not quite sure. How can you judge something like that? And what does the hug actually mean? It is not so much what people are doing, such as hugging by way of greeting, that is important, it is the meaning behind the actions that can start you on a road of questioning that will lead to a deeper understanding of culture, including your own.

Cultural differences such as notions of personal space expressed through fluid and communal sleeping spaces, and gestures of affection such as hand holding exist in the deeper parts of the cultural iceberg and are more difficult to explain than the concrete foods, flags and festivals found above the surface. Oftentimes, above the surface fact finding is the limit of a student’s school experience with cultural explorations because below the surface aspects of culture are not so easy to condense into a set of simple facts. Deeper understanding is required. You would never find an explanation of personal space in a school textbook because it is difficult to explain. Not because it is unimportant, but simply because it is difficult.

However, if we want to move toward a more peaceful world, one essential prerequisite is that we understand each other, not just what we see on the surface, but what really makes us, us. We also need to be prepared to follow the lines of inquiry that the deeper questions lead us into. A school’s curriculum has a heavy impact on the extent that students are afforded the opportunity to explore these deeper areas of culture.

But why is this important to you?

You may not work in education, but you all live in a society made up of the products of that education system; the children who are shaped by it and then move out into the world. They work for you. They are your children. Your grandchildren. They are the ones who will care for us all (hopefully) when we are too old to care for ourselves. I would say that we need to be very interested in the type of people our education systems shape.

Recently, Japanese education leaders in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) have certainly been bold enough to choose a challenging goal that has potential to heavily impact students’ experiences and understandings of deep culture in Japanese schools. I am speaking of the goal to introduce International Baccalaureate (IB) programs into hundreds of Article One schools over the coming years. It is certainly not an easy road, but I believe it will ultimately have a very significant impact on Japanese education in ways that we may not yet be able to imagine.

The International Baccalaureate, referred to as the IB, is a curriculum model that is used in approximately 4500 schools around the world. Hiroshima International School is, proudly, one of those schools, with three IB programs, the Primary Years Program (PYP), Middle Years Program (MYP) and Diploma Program (DP) for our 3 year olds all the way through to our 18 year olds. The IB programs are inquiry based and this is the key to helping students understand deep culture.

Inquiry requires students to ask good questions. Now this may seem obvious, but how seriously do we take questions in schools? Now, I don’t mean teacher questions or exam questions; I mean student questions. In your businesses and workplaces, do you know people who ask good questions; who know what to ask? They really stand out. You will notice these people. If they are able to ask good questions, where do you think they learnt the skill? It they were involved in a content based, textbook, exam focused curriculum, they probably did not learn it at school. In fact, good questions were most likely a problem for them at school.

So what is a ‘good’ question? Let’s look at one type, referred to as a factual question. Before I came to Japan, I wondered what Japanese people wore. I didn’t know. How could I have known? The only exposure I had to Japanese culture was the ever-popular ninja and samurai movies on TV. I also had a vague idea that people wore suits all the time and that they ate fish without cooking it, so basically, I had no idea. Other questions were: What do they eat? Do they surf? Can anyone speak English? Do people bath together? I was worried about that. These questions collect very basic content and this type of questioning is a necessary step in the process of inquiry, but it is a start. It is not the end.

When I first came to Japan, I actually didn’t even know enough to ask good questions, which is a key point. The more you know, the better questions you can ask. In an IB program, building a solid knowledge base is important as it can help you ask good questions. In a traditional content-based, textbook and exam-driven curriculum, the initial knowledge base is the destination. It’s easy to find as you just need to open the text book. You remember, you take the exam, you forget, you move on.

In an inquiry-based approach, the initial content allows you to ask deeper, conceptual questions. Concepts are the big ideas. They are complex and they are general. When you are looking at the culture iceberg, these are the ideas that you find below the surface. Concepts are abstract ideas that have meaning across time, and place. For example, a question about ‘modern Japanese greetings in formal settings’ is factual, specific to both time and place. You could answer this by saying that in Japan, adults generally bow by way of greeting. The answer is relatively easy to provide and accurate to a degree. You could Google it.

When exploring greetings, however, you could use the larger concept of ‘relationships’. A question to drive the inquiry, could be ‘How are greetings used to define relationships?’ Use the concept (the big idea of relationships) as the focus. The more specific idea of ‘modern Japanese greetings’ could be used as an example to explore this question so that further examples from other cultures and students’ own personal experiences can be incorporated into the learning process. In this way, we can reflect on our own cultures and others, coming to a deeper understanding of the origins and fluidity of our own identities.

A conceptual question does not provide an easy answer. In fact, by its very nature, the answer to a conceptual question will always be messy because of the complexity of the big ideas we need students to grapple with. Exploring the way that people in different cultures refuse a request is an interesting example? Factual questions will lead us to see the difference and if left at this level will reinforce stereotypes. When I first arrived in Japan, I used to think that when Japanese people said that something was ‘difficult’ with a long intake of breath, it meant that it was just difficult. This led to all sorts of problems. In order to understand what was happening, I had to be able to ask deeper questions regarding relationships and the intent of the Japanese soft refusal. Students need to be taught to pursue these lines of inquiry to understand more complex aspects of culture that get closer to our real shared humanity. All cultures build and preserve relationships through ways of speaking, it just looks a bit different from place to place.

The third type of question used in an inquiry-based curriculum is a debatable question. This one would require multiple perspectives, generate tension and tend to be deliberately provocative. For example, after students have compared how different types of greetings across cultures define relationships, they could address a debatable question like ‘Should public affection, like hugging, be allowed in schools if it offends people?’ This would allow an opportunity to really apply their knowledge to difficult, complex situations where complete agreement is not likely to be reached.

In the business world, how often are you confronted by problems that can be solved by looking up the answer in a textbook? In your family lives, how often is this the case? How often are solutions to problems in our lives simple? Moving forward into the middle of this 21st Century, what sort of questions does Japan need its future adults to be asking? In this sense, everyone here this evening has an interest in education.

By asking conceptual questions and debatable questions in school, learning becomes messy as it becomes a student-driven exploration. The advantage is that at a deeper conceptual level, we are able to see the similarity, as well as difference. We tend to discover the incredible connections that link us in our common humanity and difference becomes just a part of the magnificent cultural tapestry that has emerged across our beautiful, endangered planet.

In this sense, the type of questions we learn to ask in school will heavily influence the type of world we come to know as adults. A more peaceful and sustainable planet requires people who are able to ask good questions and are prepared to follow their inquiries into the depths of culture, to understand that across the globe we are all linked in our common humanity.

With strong, future-oriented leaders who value education at both the City and Prefectural levels here in Hiroshima, I am confident that we will all be able to promote an education where authentic inquiries into culture are valued so we can raise generations of students who will, throughout their lives, search for commonalities with people, both inside and outside of Japan, with whom they share the future of this lovely, fragile planet. Our future largely depends on the common ground people are able to find. In this sense, now, more than ever, our future depends on the types of questions we are willing to ask. My hope is that Hiroshima will emerge as a leader in this type of education, where we learn to look to what unites us rather than what divides us.

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