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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

February 2006

Topic: What was the best idea you had in the last year?

Curtis Kelly

I often ruminate on is the purpose of education. In particular, what role should a Japanese college education play? To know what to teach, I must answer that question.

“Education should help people live better lives. The answer is incredibly simple, but it has important ramifications.”

The answer I have come up with is simple. The basic purpose of education is to give people better lives. It does not matter whether you see education as a way to shape society, solve personal problems, or to help you get a job, it is all the same. Education should help people live better lives. The answer is incredibly simple, but it has important ramifications. It means that I must focus more on my learners' needs and individual growth than on general English proficiency.

The concept also shows that there are huge holes in the education. There are a lot of things that would improve people’s lives that we do not teach at all. This is not surprising since our educational model has not changed much in a hundred years. We still view the three Rs as being the most important learning areas and others (sports, arts, etc.) as subsidiary. So what are some of those holes, and how can we fill them? Most of the holes have to do with values, spirituality (as in finding the meaning of life rather than religion), etc., but a huge one, and maybe the most important, is learning about how to get along with others. The Brooking Research Institute thinks so, too. In Workforce 2020, they state that human relations and communication skills are one of the two greatest training needs of today’s youth.

Human relations; a rather broad area, but within it is one particular topic that is crucial to success in life, but is almost never even mentioned in the classroom. For some reason, we teach almost nothing about love, intimacy and romance.

Finding the right partner and relating to that person is one of our biggest challenges, and it has a huge effect on the quality of our life. It is especially pertinent for college students, who go through all kinds of misadventures and romantic turmoil. It is amazing that despite the incredible need for such knowledge, and despite a huge body of scientific information on it, that most colleges do not offer a single course on love and relating. Instead, our learners have to figure out what love is all about from women’s magazines and Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, the information these sources give is often appalling. John Gottman (the “Love Doctor”) and other psychologists point out that Hollywood movies tend to teach the exact opposite of what leads to a good marriage. The typical formula: 1) Guy and Girl fall in love, 2) Guy and Girl are forced apart, 3) Guy and Girl realize they can’t live without each other and rush back into each other’s arms, and 4) Guy and Girl get married as soon as possible ­ is precisely the wrong way to get married. Marriages done in this way have the highest correlation to divorce.

So what can I do to fill this huge hole in education? Fortunately, as English teachers we can teach any subject matter we want to, as long as it is delivered in English. So, at the beginning of this year, I changed my English for Life course topic from being “Desktop Publishing” to “The Psychology of Love.” I admit, I was nervous about the change, wondering what other professors would think or whether I could prepare the syllabus ­ after all, my degree is in Education ­ but it turned out to be an amazing success. It was definitely my best idea of the year.

The class turned out to be the most popular English elective at our university. More importantly, after two lectures on the psychology of love and one class in which they wrote love letters (mostly to friends or family), something happened I had never seen happen in class before. The whole mood changed. The lectures centered on love as an attitude, not a feeling, based on giving rather than getting, and this idea primed them to taking a loving attitude towards each other in class. In fact, I can pin down the exact moment the atmosphere changed. Every student in the class had elected not to let anyone else see his or her love letter, but then, one student, Yasuyuki, decided to share his. He read his touching letter written to the first girl he had fallen in love when he was a high school student and in sharing it, he created this amazing mood of trust and intimacy. After Yasuyuki, every other student but one decided to share his or her letter too.

After that day, it did not matter what I did in class. The class was theirs. In fact, it did not matter if I even showed up. They had important things to explore and discuss. Without any prompting from me, they made a blog site to continue their discussions, had dinner meetings almost every week, and spent hours in my office after class talking about more intimate problems. My role became just providing a few concepts from psychology to guide their discussions and giving them an occasional activity, such as “Finish this sentence: ‘Love is _____ .’”

Interestingly, less than half of the discussion (done both in English and Japanese) was on romantic love. Most of it was on how to deal with friends, family members, and others. They seemed to be committed to sorting out a wide variety of relationship problems, and some led to tears. I remember one student asking me if she was capable of ever loving since she had not been loved as a child. On telling her that her deciding to take part in this class was already the answer, she burst into tears. I also remember the odd feeling that everyone was a little sad when the end of class came, something that almost never happens in a regular English class.

Teaching this class was an amazing experience. Maybe I was the greatest learner. We often talk about the importance of using language topics related to student interests ­ fashion, movies, and sports ­ but I learned that there is something superficial in the way we handle “interest.” It is not the topic that counts. It is the underlying need to grow, of which interest in that topic is merely a symptom. If we can make these underlying areas of need ­ love, confidence, and autonomy ­ the targets of our teaching, instead of the side effects of those needs ­ exploring love through movies, gaining confidence through sports, or expressing autonomy through fashions ­ we are doing something far more worthy than just teaching language.

Love. It is a word that used to make me a bit uncomfortable (a curse laid on most English-speaking males), but not anymore. It is something to study and learn from. It is a life philosophy and the center of good pedagogy. And bringing it into the classroom was my best idea of the year, maybe the best of all my years.

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Marc Helgesen

I was in the audience at Think Tank LIVE last October, sitting next to Rob Waring, my co-chair of JALT2005. It was Rob who asked the question, “What is the best idea you’ve had in the past year.” As soon as he said it, everyone in the room realized it was a brilliant question. It gave all the Think Tankers a chance to share the most exciting thing they are working/playing with. These could be works in progress, not fully developed ideas.

“Education should help people live better lives. The answer is incredibly simple, but it has important ramifications.”

Now, a few weeks later, we are supposed to write up our own best ideas. A minor problem with the one I want to share: we already did. The most exciting thing I’ve been doing over the past year is applying the ideas from “positive psychology” to the classroom. We wrote about that in the June Think Tank. But, as I said, I’m very excited about this. So having another chance to write about it is wonderful.

“Positive psychology” is a fairly new development in that discipline. Time magazine calls it “The science of happiness.” I prefer that term because it is easier for students to understand. For years, psychologists have studied mental illness. Makes sense. That’s where the big problems are. Recently however, researchers have started looking at mental health. They are asking what behaviors mentally healthy, happy people engage in. The main “guru” is probably Martin Seligman, whose book Authentic Happiness has done so much to inform the discussion. (Seligman’s web site is here. You can find the book at or in bookstores).

Please understand that “positive psychology” is not just happy talk or the “power of positive thinking.” It really is looking at specific behaviors that are useful.

In the June Think Tank, I shared a few ideas that I’m using in my own classes to try to make these ideas connect with ELT. I’ll share a couple more here.

In the June column, I listed eight behaviors that happy people engage in. Great, we know what they are. How do we get this information to our students? In class, we regularly do positive psychology activities. I recently wrote a pairwork (download PDF file here) which gives students some of the basic ideas. This works as it is but also gives them a way to understand how some of the other things we do fit into a larger process.

One thing we clearly know, both from positive psychology and from education theory, is that self-fulfilling prophesies are powerful. They work for good or bad. A few years ago, I learned a simple technique from Tim Murphey. He has his students form circles of 8 or 10 (or however many is convenient.). They walk in a circle, hand on the neck of the person in front of them. It is sort of a peer massage task. Last January, I went to a lecture on motivation by my editor, Mike Rost. He pointed out that our beliefs govern our motivations. He went on to identify four “self talk” patterns of motivated, successful language learners. They are:

* “English makes me feel good.”
* “I’m addicted to English.”
* “English is my language.”
* “I believe I will learn English.”

So I combined the two ideas. Now I regularly have my students massage each other’s necks, leaning forward saying positive statements into their classmates’ ears.

We often do this before quizzes. It relaxes students before the quiz (and there is clear evidence that relaxed students learn more and do better). By the way, the students do say the phrases in the first person (“I am…”, not “You are…”). They act as their partner’s innervoice while talking positively to themselves at the same time.)

I think one benefit of positive psychology is that it helps you make good use of opportunities. A couple months ago, there was a list of “feel goods” that made its way around email lists. Tim Murphey and I played with it and turned it into a classroom activity. You just give it to the students, ask them to read the list and rate how great each one is, from 1 (L) to 10 (J) ­ I explain 10 to my students as “heaven”). Then they talk to their friends and come up with some of their own “feel goods.”

Here’s the list. If you want it as a xeroxable handout, click here. Enjoy. If it helps your students, that makes me very happy.

It feels so good! Read about things that make you feel good.

Go slowly: Think about these one at a time BEFORE going on to the next one...

IT DOES MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD (especially the last one).
Rate them: 1 to 10 (Best!)
Then compare with a partner. Talk about them.
  1. Being in love.
  2. Laughing. Laughing so hard your face hurts.
  3. A sunny day during rainy season.
  4. Taking a drive on a pretty road.
  5. Hearing your favorite song.
  6. Lying in bed listening to the rain outside.
  7. A cold drink on a very hot day (or hot soup on a cold day.)
  8. A hot face towel (oshibori) on a summer day.
  9. Chocolate ice cream ... (or vanilla …or banana…or mango…)
  10. A dog or cat showing that they love you.
  11. Laughing for no good reason.
  12. A good conversation.
  13. Finding ¥10,000 in the pocket of an old jacket.
  14. A rainbow.
  15. A long, hot bath.
  16. Having someone tell you that you're wonderful.
  17. Hearing someone say something nice about you.
  18. Waking up early. Then remembering you have a few more hours to sleep.
  19. Making new friends or spending time with old ones.
  20. Having someone play with your hair.
  21. Sweet dreams.
  22. Making eye contact with a cute stranger.
  23. Holding hands with someone you care about.
  24. Running into an old friend. You understand that some things (good or bad) never change.
  25. Watching someone's face when you give them a really special present.
  26. Getting out of bed in the morning. Then being thankful for another beautiful day.
  27. A smile.
  28. Knowing that somebody loves you.
  29. Knowing you did the right thing (no matter what other people think.)

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Chuck Sandy

When I hear Curtis Kelly say that the purpose of education is to improve people’s lives, I want to stand up and cheer. It’s been a long time since someone in our field has been brave enough to put such a warmly humanistic declaration into words. After years of focus on standards and benchmarks, corpus studies, best practices, and standardized testing, our professional pendulum is finally beginning to swing back towards the human.

“Over the course of year, while working on several projects together in this manner, I became not just a teacher but also a collaborator, a coworker, and a comrade.”

I’ve been learning a lot from Curtis this past year as we’ve begun working closely together on a materials development project, and in this context I’ve found that my very best ideas have sprung from something he’s said or written to me. Not long ago, Curtis sent me an email with this thought:

“There was once a time when word processors did the following: If you wanted to put something into italics, you first had to choose “italic mode” and then type the words. You could never type something and italicize it later. Unfortunately, this is not the way human beings work. We are object-oriented and not the other way around. You don’t pick up a knife to cut something and then look for an apple. You pick up an apple and then decide what you’re going to do with it. Human beings tend to focus on the object first and then think about what to do with it. We work better when we start with particulars and work outwards. It is then that we have a need, a need we can feel, and that’s when we go looking for tools to fulfill that need.”

This got me thinking, and led to my most effective idea of the year: not only providing full models for my students working in project-based classrooms, but also becoming with them a full participant in whatever work they were involved in. If I assigned my students a story-telling project, I first did it myself and demonstrated it for them. If I assigned a research paper in one of my seminars, I did one myself first and then made copies of it for everyone to see. Not only did I pass out the work or demonstrate it, I also talked openly about what was difficult for me and asked students to evaluate my efforts ­ pointing out things they thought I could have done differently or better, making suggestions for ways to improve upon what I had done.

It was at this point in each of my classes that I then explained that the students would be doing the same work on their own and that is was their job to do it not as I had done it, but better than I had done it ­ in their own way. As you can imagine, this was routinely met with a loud chorus of “that’s impossible” or “how are we supposed to do that?” And that’s when I began to break it down for them, showing them step-by-step what would be involved and how it would all work. Modeling the work myself was the apple Curtis wrote about, the particular we could all work outwards from. Breaking it down into steps clearly showed them what tools would be required for the job -- creating a need for when we began working at building up their language toolboxes so they would have everything necessary for the job at hand.

Then, as students began doing their projects, I sat down in their midst and did another one myself, taking into account their suggestions and trying to incorporate the ideas they had shared with me. While I was working, students would come over to see what I was doing. While they were with me, they’d not only ask questions about how to acquire some language tool they needed for their own work, but would make suggestions for how I could move forward with my own. Over the course of year, while working on several projects together in this manner, I became not just a teacher but also a collaborator, a coworker, and a comrade. They began to see me as a person rather than as some director, and I began to see them in new ways as well. Taking myself away from the center of the classroom allowed us to be together in new ways, talk about things that really mattered, and become fully with each other as we worked from the particular outwards on our various individual projects. Knowing exactly where we were all headed gave them the need they could feel that motivated them to acquire the variously required tools. Having the direction to produce a piece of work that was better than the original model I had first showed them, gave students a creative challenge they all set out to achieve.

At some point I thought I had achieved something remarkable with just this process alone and was quite happy that this idea, sparked by Curtis, had turned out so well. It was then, though, that something even more remarkable began to happen. Students became happy ­ happy with their work, and therefore happier with themselves. As they presented their first projects to the class, I saw them begin to glow with a rightful pride in what they had accomplished. With each success, confidence grew. With this new confidence, based on earlier success, work got even better and happiness flourished. As happiness flourished, absences vanished, tardiness decreased, and work continued to get even better. I began to see an almost mathematical formula at work: a first success led to the next success; that next success increased the likelihood of further success; a further success led to not only more success, but also to an overall happiness and sense of self-worth among students that was beautiful to see.

People began to come early for class and stay late. They helped and encouraged each other. Even I did not want to miss even a moment of one of these classes because something wonderful was happening. I think it began when I got fully involved and started not only modeling, but also working along with my students. I think it got better as we began to see each other more wholly in this light. I know it got even better yet as one success led to another. I’d like to tell you that some student came up to me at the end of the year and told me that being in one of my classes had made her life better, but that didn’t happen. What did happen, though, is that in some marvelous way all of this made my life better and so I was able to pass that on through my students in each of my classes. I fell in love with teaching again, and having done so, am now better prepared to swing the pendulum even a bit further towards the human in the coming year.

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Chris Hunt

"1.It is the right of all child citizens of a democratic state to be able to practice democracy in school on a daily basis

2. This democracy must include age-appropriate sharing of authority over the learning environment and over the control of social relationships within the learning environment

3. It is the right of all child citizens of a democratic state to be offered a minimum curriculum only.”

Leonard Turton (teacher at Summerhill)

Somewhere in King Lear there’s a discussion about the worst. For better or for worse the argument goes as follows ­ so long as we can say this is the worst, then it is not the worst. But how does the argument stand up the other way around? Let’s try it out. As long as we can say this is the best, it is not the best! What is best can be bested. Something better this way bends. I guess whether you find this a cause for celebration or a cause for concern depends upon your point of view. Or perhaps it is both? Or perhaps it is neither?

“I think when we focus on the idea of best we run the risk of not seeing what is.”

Why is it that human beings get so wrapped up in what is best? Is it a facet of what has been termed the ‘human condition’ or just a function of social conditioning? Is it the pursuit of excellence or merely the expression of ego? Is the source a love of life or a fear of it? Does it spring from an abundance of self esteem or from a lack of it? Don’t expect much of an answer from me ­ at the moment I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Perhaps I need a drink; but first an aside.

Where do ideas come from? When I sat down to write this piece I began with just one idea in mind, a feeble joke. It went like this. Ah yes, my best idea of the year ­ I’m still waiting for it. But now thoughts are swirling around me and through me like so many phantoms. Which ones can I give shape and substance to? Which ones will allow me to? Suddenly I’m reminded of an old Monty Python skit where John Cleese (I think) dressed as a middle aged woman recites his theory about dinosaurs, “Dinosaurs are thin at one end, fat in the middle and thin at the other. This is my theory and mine alone.” Yet how many of us have had an idea that we can honestly lay claim to alone? Can ideas really be born in isolation? And if this is not the case, what price copyright?

Back to my drink. Okay, who’s been drinking from my glass? Just look at it! I could say that it is half empty. I could say that it is half full. I could say it’s just a glass. After all, it’s just imagination.

I think when we focus on the idea of best we run the risk of not seeing what is. This year I’ve been working at a kindergarten where the teachers are expected to teach and the children are expected to learn. Within this framework my best idea has been to create an incentive system. High on the wall of each classroom is a room-length space panorama. There is a rocket and it travels between the planets. When the rocket reaches a planet the children are rewarded with a surprise (so far this has been watching Wallace and Gromit videos). By succeeding in tasks the children earn rocket point counters. There are also flowers stuck to the whiteboard with magnets. Every day begins with six flowers (English lasts all day, once a week). A flower is removed every time a teacher uses Japanese to scold. At the end of each day the number of rocket points is multiplied by the number of flowers to determine the number of centimetres the rocket moves across the wall. The furthest travelled so far in a day is 57cm. The shortest distance 2cm. It’s a clever system.

The planets look beautiful against the black of space. The children are happy when the rocket moves a long way and when it reaches a planet. The planets are merely laminated paper cut-outs and space simply bin-liners cut at the seams and stuck together. It’s just illusion and it’s garbage. The rocket points, the flowers, even the position of the planets remain almost exclusively under the control of the teachers, that is, myself and my assistant. It is a control system. Forward little donkeys, chase those carrots, forward little donkeys, mind those sticks. Be good and you’ll grow up to be mules. I feel what this system teaches is to accept that authority exists and that it should be obeyed. Obey the teacher and succeed. The idea fits the kindergarten perfectly.

Lately I haven’t been sleeping so well. I’m wondering about whether to renew my contract. I guess what’s on my mind is whether I can come up with an idea that I will be comfortable with and that fits within the framework of the kindergarten. Parents have expectations. The children should learn. However, childhood is too precious to be thrown away in obedience. I want to work out something that is democratic and balanced. I want to create a kind of partnership between the children and the teacher where there is individual choice and mutual respect. Oi! Phantoms! How long is this process going to take?

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