2014年6月4日水曜日

"Open" and "Closed" Classrooms

I said in my previous entry that I consider Brian Bresnihan's classroom environment to be "open" and explained that in one sense, it is "open" because students are free to disagree, to be "impolite". It is open in another sense as well that will be easy to understand if I compare his classroom environment to other "closed" environments.

A typical lecture-hall classroom.

Students studying English. They are creating a story on the fly.


A student concentrating intently on what another student is saying.

After 20 or 30 minutes creating the story together, the students write the story down, adding their own ending.

I wonder what she's writing?

The lecture hall above is probably familiar to many students in college across the US. While I have no pictures of a high school classroom, from what I've seen depicted in countless school-life anime and have confirmed with college students in Hyogo University, in middle and high school, students just sit in front of the teacher, stare, and listen to him/her talk. There is little student-teacher or student-student interaction in-class. Class participation for most students consists of showing up and staying awake. This might sound familiar to many American students because many classrooms in the US are the same.

Now look at the picture of the students sitting a circle, creating a story in English together. Where are they looking?

This week, I had a very enlightening experience. In a seminar-style class, I gave a presentation in Japanese about a book the class had read. At the end of my presentation, I did something I expected nobody else in the class would do: I asked questions. They weren't just simple yes/no questions; they were open-ended questions. As I suspected, my classmates didn't rush to be the first to answer. My attempt to create a more Evergreen-style seminar environment quickly failed. The teacher predictably asked some students directly to try answering the questions I asked.

Then something interesting happened.

The students, responding to my question, looked at the teacher and sheepishly answered the question. The teacher told several students to look at me since they were answering my questions. Some found it very difficult to do, and most of the time only looked down or stared into the distance, occasionally making eye-contact with me (or more often, with the teacher).

While I've met some 20-something year-old students in the US that had difficulty expressing themselves in large groups, I've never been in a classroom where the students felt so unusual discussing a topic with each other. American students, in my experience, are generally ready to give their opinions on just about anything, even if they know little about the topic. The way the students acted was how I would expect young kids to act, not adults having an adult conversation.

My presentation plus two questions took up the rest of class, so my presentation partner didn't have a chance to do her part. While my presentation was probably three times longer than other presentations in the past, the fact that so little class time was provided for the activity says to me that the teacher was unprepared for any class discussion. As Rohlen said in Japan's High Schools, students and teachers alike are not very experienced with class discussion. While the ゼミ (seminars) at Hyogo University were described to me as "Evergreen style seminars", they don't even remotely resemble any seminar I have been part of at Evergreen.
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