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Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

September 13, 2009


Zen Flesh Zen Bones is one of my 'within arm's reach' books. It sits behind me on a shelf. One of the parables in this book, Right And Wrong tells of the time Zen master Bankei held a retreat that was attended by students from all over Japan. One day, one of them was caught stealing but Bankei ignored the case. It happened again and this time the other students demanded that the thief be expelled. Bankei called a meeting and addressed them all saying that they could all leave but his duty was to teach the one student who didn't even know right from wrong. Upon hearing this, the thief wept openly. All desire to steal had vanished.

I was reminded of this story this week while following a discussion on the ETJ Owners list about flexible fees for English lessons. The proposal, which was earmarked as crazy is described in detail here but the basic idea would be to lower the fee for well behaved, attentive children and raise the fee for disruptive ones.

My immediate thought is that to work at all it would be better to start with a high fee and reduce it rather than have the price going up and down. This is in line with a recent study by researchers at Harvard University and the Stockholm School of Economics which concludes that rewards are much better for building co-operation than punishments. A one way scale would be easier both to administer and to promote, and could incorporate other factors such as discounts for years spent at the school or the number and size of the parents' cars. Actually, this last one is what I wanted to use for the fees of Wise Hat English. In the end, however, we settled on a discount to the entrance fee, though students whose family have no car at all do get a monthly reduction of 800 yen.

I've written about my reticence towards rewards before. One can question whether this idea strictly includes a reward in that it primarily affects parents rather than the pupils themselves. Of course, if the parents passed any savings on to their children then it would become something similar to a salary. But then, if adults get paid for working, why not children? The answer as Alfie Kohn elaborates in Punished By Rewards :The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes is that it subverts, diverts and ultimately destroys passion (my word rather than Kohn's).

The central aim of charging the parents of disinterested and disruptive children more is to make the parents question what they are doing, or rather what they are making their children do. But is that really a decision that should be left to the parents alone? Shouldn't teachers have an ethical duty to refuse to teach a child if the child doesn't want the teaching. If only it were that easy! By and large, most children I've encountered are ambivalent about learning English. Children rarely give clear and consistent signals about learning. I think this is because of the current nature of schooling which gives children so little real choice. Children become used to having their time structured by adults. This is inherent in the adult child relationship because of the usual imbalance of power and dependence of the child. This is one reason why teachers working in Sudbury Valley schools are cautioned against making suggestions and taking the lead. This is even more the case when children become bored. If necessity is the mother of invention could boredom be the father of passion, or perhaps, at least, an uncle? By learning to deal with boredom children gain opportunities to discover and nurture real interests.

I guess the notion of flexible fees based upon passion is a pipe-dream. Another, similar idea I have toyed with is variable lesson time. The idea would be to end a lesson early if the children had little interest that day and prolong it if they were really focused. This could probably only work if regular fixed lessons were abandoned and a kind of library resource school was set up. The teacher would then become less of a teacher and more of a facilitator. But again this sounds like something for children with a lot of passion rather than a lot of ambivalence.

I began this entry with a reference to a book of Zen teachings. In Zen students are often given koans, intractable problems that are designed to help the student become enlightened. I've also wondered about this method. Send the less than ambivalent child away with a puzzle and only allow them back if they solve it by themselves. Should students need to demonstrate interest in order to attend class? How can we discover what and where a child's genuine interest is? Must we abide with ambivalence or can we nurture passion?

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Hi Chris

You put that so much better than I did -thanks!

Like your idea of starting high and reducing as students get into classes.

The eco-discount also sounds great but not sure if it would be practical for us.

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