Monday, April 27, 2009

Layer 150 Educational Thought and Ideology, and Some Really Good Music.

Sunday 26th April

I was listening to and laughing at one of Bill Hicks' wonderful rants the other day - the one about Christianity and the Gideons. “Who are the fucking Gideons? Has anyone ever met one? No! Has anyone ever seen one? No! I’m going to capture me a Gideon . . . The next time I’m in a hotel I’m going to phone the front desk and tell them there’s no Bible in the room. And then I’ll lie in wait for a Gideon to bring one up . . .”

If there’s anywhere in the world you’d think you might be safe from evangelical Christians it’s Japan. So imagine my surprise this morning as I was mooching about and thinking of packing, when there was a ring on the bell. I thought it must be my American neighbours, who are teachers at the university. So I quickly put on more clothes and opened the door.

Standing there were two small Japanese women, holding little bags, who looked up at me in surprise. I said hello. The smallest one started speaking in Japanese - “Yadder, yadder, yadder, Christians.”

Fuck! They’re everywhere. Sunday morning and I’m taking it easy, playing some rocking good music, and here’s people wanting to turn me into a Christian!

“No, no. Sumimasen. Thank you. I’m a Buddhist! Arigato. Bye!”

On reflection I was a little . . . dismissive. I should have invited them in to discuss enlightenment and satori, the non-existence of God, and meditation.


Shortly after posting Layer 149 I read the following in Nunn’s book about education:

“A school fails to fulfil its purpose unless it is a place where the young are taught to accept and to maintain the best-tested traditions of thought and action handed down from the old time before them. Again it fails unless it serves as a ‘jumping-off place’ for a generation eager for new adventures in life.”

What concerns me is that in our society we’re very insular, and therefore, at best, we only discuss in our schools our own society’s ‘traditions of thought and action’. We need to think on a global scale, and open up to young people the best of what’s been thought and written about the life’s purposes and meanings throughout the world, throughout history.

It’s a sad fact that, for the most part, young people in the West know nothing, and therefore care nothing, about the best of the Eastern traditions and philosophies. It’s almost a crime to ignore those traditions and not to have them on our educational agendas.

We definitely need more books on Eastern thought and philosophy that will stimulate young people to think about life’s deeper meanings and purposes, and we definitely need more schools to open up these fields of learning.


At Yoko’s house in Ashiya the other night we decided to have some drinks in a local jazz or blues bar, and she looked up on the Internet where there might be some suitable places. There were pages of them! In Japan a typical bar consists of a smallish room with just a bar and a few tables. It’s not unusual to find several of these places all clustered together in a single building within a modern shopping precinct or street.

The one we chose was called The Bar, and a very pleasant place it turned out to be. Comfortable, well lit, and playing some excellent jazz. There were some tracks of sax and piano playing together that were really superb. The young barman was immaculate in white jacket and black bowtie, and did a five star performance whenever he needed to mix drinks with a cocktail shaker. Compliments of the house you get a bowl of mixed nuts and some little tasty thing like small pieces of toasted cheese on bread with your first order of drinks.

It was a perfect quiet place for an extended chat about educational philosophy! I commented that there seemed to be relatively few people there, considering it was such a pleasant place for a Saturday evening out with friends. Yoko suggested that business has fallen away dramatically since the economy has taken a dive. People are staying at home a lot more.


On Friday evening in Osaka we walked around for a while in the mad melee that seems to happen at the end of every working week in that hard-working city. Hundreds of people thronging the alleys and streets around Umeda, the main station and business area. Eventually we found the bar that Yoko’s been to with colleagues in the past, and managed to get a table for two.

More good music and a lively atmosphere. At the back of the drinks menu there was a page letting you know what ‘free’ music was on offer over the house hi-fi. You just call over a waiter and tell him or her what you’d like to listen to. Very civilised.

Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Miles Davis, Rolling Stones, Tracy Chapman, BB King, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys, Tom Waits, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Santana, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Smith, Led Zeppelin, etc.

They even had Gil Scott Melon and Devid Dowie. You name it - they gottit.


Yoko was listening to some music at my flat the other day and started tapping her feet to a certain track, and eventually asked me who the band was, so that she could make a note of it.

The track was “The Supernatural”, a Peter Green original, and the version was the one he did with The Splinter Group. Make a note of it. Make a note of every version of this brilliant piece of music.


Back at Yoko’s, in Ashiya, after The Bar, and prior to returning to my flat, she pulled out a couple of books written in English for me to look at. The first was ‘Pedagogy in Progress’ - the letters to Guinea-Bissau written by Paolo Freire during his time working with the government of that country as an educational advisor and project leader, attempting to build an education system in the post-colonial era that was fit for purpose. It’s published by the Writers and Readers Cooperative and dedicated to Amilcar Cabral, “who learned from his people”.

The second book was by Professor Roy Lowe of London University - “The Death of Progressive Education”, which I’ll find a copy of when I get home.

And then she handed me a book that is the real motherlode! A book that I should have discovered at the beginning of my visits to Japan. Educational Thought and Ideology in Modern Japan. Subtitled ‘State Authority and Intellectual Freedom.’ It’s by Professor Teruhisa Horio, translated by Steven Platzer, and published by the University of Tokyo Press.


Layer 150 is, I suppose, another milestone of sorts, and another jumping-off point, possibly. It seems appropriate, then, to quote extensively from the Horio book, in the hope that readers will find these passages useful in thinking about what’s happened to the British education system during the past 40 years, ever since Callaghan started ‘the great debate’, or the counter-revolution against progressivism and real education.

This should also be read against the background of another recent report that puts British children 24th out of 28 countries in terms of their individual happiness and wellbeing.

In future Layers I’ll get back to the New Learning Revolution and quote extensively from that in order to re-focus on ways in which more enlightened societies are promoting progressive ideas about learning and teaching, and ways in which young people and teachers in those countries are assuming more control over the ways in which they learn, communicate and pursue creative and imaginative learning.


So - Horio-sensai says:

“Due to the fact that most of the existing knowledge about Japan and its educational system directly reflects the views officially put forward by the Japanese government, such knowledge has been altogether too one-sided or prejudiced.

Even though Japanese schools may very well appear to be outstanding when seen from the outside, from within, it is clear, I believe, that the vitality of both students and teachers is being smothered by a thoroughly oppressive set of conditions. This is testified to by the sharply rising number of incidents of bullying and the dramatically increasing number of children refusing to go to school at all.

And as the level of pressure within the school system is constantly turned up, our children are being systematically denied the opportunity to develop their individuality. Thus it is no wonder that most of our youth find it impossible to sustain warm feelings about their schools even when they do manage to make good friends there, or when they study with teachers whose stimulation encourages them to want to learn.

Likewise, under the existing textbook screening system, the State’s arbitrary control over the creation and dissemination of knowledge is continually tightening, and more and more uniformity is being imposed on textbook contents and forms of description [i.e. curricula].

Teachers as well are being brought under an ever more pernicious system of management; in addition to their being exposed to new and more extreme forms of pressure, they are losing the freedom both to teach and to undertake educationally related research.

We are seeing the emergence of a vicious circle. Thus, from my perspective, our educational system, far from presenting itself as an object deserving emulation, stands in need of the most drastic types of reform.

The modern Japanese educational system was from its formation tightly circumscribed within the framework laid down by a generation of statesmen who viewed it as an effective tool to be used to realise their own political and economic agendas. This historical tradition has been carried down to the present day; in fact, the state’s manipulation of our schools is even stronger today than it was in the prewar era.

As a consequence of this, those who control education in Japan have paid scant attention to the idea that education should be organised from the perspective of human development, and they have shown little respect for the notion that the pursuit of education should be connected to the pursuit of mankind’s intellectual and spiritual freedom.

However, even within the framework of this history there has been an undercurrent of [progressive] educational thought aimed at the concrete realisation of these humanly liberating ideas. These currents were finally allowed to rise to the surface after the war, when Japanese education was drastically reformed.

Looking at developments over . . . the postwar period, we can clearly observe a struggle between those who sought to establish the foundations for a new tradition of educational practice and those who have attempted to preserve the framework within which education was considered in the past, namely as an instrument of State policy.
While tracing the course of that history, this book attempts to criticise the ways education has been controlled and transformed into an instrument of State policy, and seeks to clarify the nature of the principles which are required to break the stranglehold of this way of thinking.

In other words, its overriding objective is to think about Japanese education in a way which will help transform it into something designed to genuinely liberate and nurture the capacities of Japanese citizens as free human beings. In this regard, while it is a book about education in Japan, at the same time its fundamental values are those of mankind in general.

It attempts to bring an international consciousness to bear upon the problems plaguing education in Japan so as to enable those scholars and general readers outside Japan who are interested in understanding our system of schooling to see the nature and depth of the problems we are currently facing.”


Anyone interested in looking at the nature and depth of the problems that Britain’s schools are facing?

And incidentally, Horio’s book was first published in 1988 - the year the national curriculum was introduced in Britain, and the starting point for a command-and-control system and an inspection system that has become more draconian with each passing year.


Yoko reckons Horio is now living in retirement from his professorship in Tokyo, and reckons she can put me in touch with him. Apparently he speaks very good English.


Yesterday’s session at the university was positively my last. Returning to the group I did the lecture with last Saturday, on the aims of education, and on the new learning revolution and the 3DI framework, I showed them two slideshows of children at my old school learning within the school and also learning offsite. I wanted them to see some very positive images of children from 3 to 11 engaging in a wide variety of stimulating, creative and enjoyable learning experiences.

Again I stressed the two forms of ‘integrated curriculum’ - integration by ‘subject’, and integration by intelligences. Overall it’s ‘integration by learning experience’.

Again I stressed the fact that if children voluntarily extend their school day to engage with self-directed learning and to be creative with and without wireless laptops before the age of eleven, which many of ours certainly did - why should they be happy if they’re denied those opportunities after that age?

It’s natural for children and young people to want to pursue learning that’s either chosen by them or negotiated with the teacher, and is therefore personally meaningful for them. Children want more freedom, autonomy, personalised learning, creativity and independence. How else are they to learn how to be free, autonomous, independent and creative lifelong learners?

It’s equally natural for them to feel resentful and rebellious when denied such opportunities and forced to spend their days enduring didactic and dull drilling and cramming.

At this point hundreds of teachers would perhaps stand up and protest that their lessons are not like that. To which I say - good! I’m pleased to hear it. I’m just talking about those that are. And there are plenty of them.

Many more teachers would then leap up, perhaps, and say “But the world’s not like that! These kids need to pass exams with high grades in order to ‘get on’ in life and move out of their miserable estates and impoverished lifestyles.”

To which I reply in two ways. Firstly, who’s to say that cramming and didacticism are the most effective ways towards high achievement? The evidence is nowhere plain to see. The evidence in fact shows that children do best when they participate actively in a broad, balanced and creative curriculum that is personalised according to their various needs and abilities. They do best when they enjoy school and what it offers in terms of lively teachers and an interesting curriculum, in which key learning targets are clearly defined and which they are motivated to achieve.

Secondly, I say to those reactionary teachers, and I mean this in the nicest possible way - just fuck off, you idiots! We’re talking here about moving away from “how the world is” towards “how the world is sure to be in the 21st century” - a world that’s already changing, a world in which even profit-conscious employers are enlightened enough to recognise that the most valuable employees are the ones with high levels of motivation towards being life-long learners, the ones who have all of their intelligences well-developed, the ones who know how to be creative, and imaginative, and problem-solvers.

They also want to employ those who have high levels of competence in teamworking, communicating and researching. They need people who know how to work independently, and who enjoy taking on new skills in line with changes in technology and in line with new forms of knowledge and understanding.

This isn’t rocket-science, for goodness sake.

I guess the best way to judge whether your session has been effective is when students come up to you afterwards and tell you that if they had children they would like them to go to a school like that.

Sadly, what’s on offer in so many places are just miserable results factories, whose existence and methods are down to the prevailing retrogressive educational thinking and ideology.

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