After more than 20 years of teaching experience in the Netherlands, mostly at International Business at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, I am on a staff mobility pilot teaching and doing research for a semester at Yamagata University in Japan. Bringing my family along.

Cycling on the sidewalk

Every morning I cycle 3 kilometers to get to my new workplace – Yamagata University in Japan. This is already quite an endeavor as Yamagata University is uphill. This city is surrounded by mountains, and the first time cycling on a Japanese mamachari (mummy bike)  without gears is not great to say the least, especially the small frame for my Dutch long legs. So I very quickly buy a foldable bike with gears and more European frame measurements for my legs to not surpass the handlebar anymore. 

But even though my ‘means of transport’ is better, I still have to navigate the path to University – namely the Sidewalk, something that is forbidden in The Netherlands as it is also occupied by pedestrians. On top of that, it is not the case that everyone cycles or walks nicely on the left – as the cars do here. When someone approaches me on the bike, usually a high school student in uniform,  I steer left but the Japanese cyclist might do the same. There is no signaling – so far I have only seen one person sticking out an arm to signal the future direction, that person being me.  So in the country of rules, regulations and really being aware of the other person, cycling is quite an adventure, and every time I am approached by a cyclist or a pedestrian I have to observe the situation to know which side to take – so what I do now is slowing down and looking them in the eye to assess the situation best.

The Japanese university classroom

The same goes for teaching the course Critical Thinking with Film – in English – here at Yamagata University (YU). A course that I have researched, developed and taught at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with my  team for years, but which I now need to rethink completely. I cannot go on automatic pilot, the system one thinking of Kahneman and Tversky, but have to use slower system 2 and observe first before deciding on how to build up the course. Before creating my syllabus and lesson plans I am visiting classes from colleagues of YU to find out more about my ‘audience’ – the Japanese university students in the classroom.

The nice thing is that the Japanese students show up – they have mandatory attendance, and are used to being all in class at least 5 minutes before the class starts. They sit up straight – the bag is on the chair and mobile phones are only out when needed for a specific class activity. They are quiet and listen to the lecturer. They don’t speak before their turn, and they are used to group work. They (almost all) wear masks even though this is not the rule anymore since the start of the Japanese academic year (first of April). And they are not used to conversational English, to express their opinion or explain their answer. They do know their English grammar and can read. They understand repetition and memorization.

And here I am – going to teach the Japanese students about what critical thinking is – using documentaries and film to bring topics to the table but also to reflect critically on – mostly through interaction and dialogue models. And not only do I want to teach – I also want to learn more about what critical thinking means in the Japanese context.

In a conversation class that I observe I join some groups and ask them what they think critical thinking is, and they stare at me with glassy eyes. I know that for most people this is a difficult question, but I get the impression that for these students this was the first time they heard the words ‘critical thinking.’

Setting up a critical thinking course in Japan

I am getting more and more nervous about teaching my first class – having no idea how many students first of all had signed up for my class, and next to that no idea of their level of English and understanding of critical thinking. How do I design a class and a course when I do not know my audience? How can I impart my knowledge and teach skills & attitudes and make them think critically when we both come from very different contexts. How can I not be ‘colonial’ in teaching critical thinking here but still also have the freedom to teach? “You have to train them like dogs,” says one YU teacher who teaching an excellent course in English on discussion techniques – but who also has been teaching in Japan for 40 years, so kind of knows how the dogs behave.

Paco Iyer’s book A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: observations and provocations starts with: “I’ve been living in Japan for more that thirty-two years, and, to my delight, I know far less than when I arrived. A land of streamlined surfaces gives you very much of what you expect – and so much you didn’t expect, under the surface, that you don’t know what to do with it.”

But I do need to teach that class, so would like to know something.

And then I get an voice message from my mentor back home telling me just to be honest and upfront with the students: that actually teaching this course is discovering what critical thinking is – what my own frame is – what the students’ frame is – and what we can learn from each other about critical thinking. That actually the discomfort and the not knowing is a starting point of critical thinking to explore those frames.  And acknowledge that it is testing the different ways of teachings, that also the things that do not work are great for learning. That I cannot know their frame until we look at it together.  

Signals for Navigating the Japanese Classroom

So that is what I do with my first class, being me and the 5 students that come – explaining the frame of the course and using these Signals & Tools for Navigating my Classroom:

  1. Like cycling on the sidewalk –I am going slowly, so I can approach and communicate with my students to find mutual understanding. No automatic pilot system 1 here, but slow thinking system 2.
  2. First find out the students’ frame of reference. For this I start asking them questions to discover more about critical thinking – have them write it down so that they have the time to think about it before I share more.
  3. But like needing a European foldable bike to cycle well– I can use some of my European/Dutch/Western means of teaching. One thing that is quite new to students here in hearing the question: ‘Why?’ Asking them to explain to me their answers. I need to hear their explanation for me to understand their context – and they need to practice explaining their answers to help make them think about them.
  4. Apart from the English language we share the Language of Film – even though none of them knows who Julia Roberts is when I show them clips from Mona Lisa Smile (can also be a reality check of my advancing years), we do watch and understand similar documentaries, film and series, even if it is set in different languages and cultures. So the first homework assignment I give my students is to find clips that show what they understand critical thinking to be – preferably from their own Japanese contexts.
  5. And last but not least, make eye contact with students for an open heart. Thoughtful addition from my research group colleague – simple but very strong signal.

More to follow, to try out and to reflect on. Cycling and teaching takes you places – with the use of some signaling. So far no collisions.

Pictures taken at Yamagata Educational Resources Museum

Researcher for Change Management, investigating film, education & critical thinking. Implementing it as lecturer for International Business, all at THUAS.

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