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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