Tea and Teaching

July 30, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This is a picture of a young American in Japan being instructed in the proper way to drink the thick, green ceremonial tea.

At the time, he was newly on the faculty of a high school in a small town in the Japan alps. The other people in the photo were also teachers in the school. Teachers teaching tea to a teacher.

The picture was taken at Korakuen in Okayama, one of the stops on the shokuin ryoko (職員旅行)or faculty trip. It’s an annual event at many schools in Japan, and I was reminded of it by Elizabeth Green’s article about math teaching in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (here), excerpted from her new book,  Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone.  The link from the shokuin ryoko to what’s happening in math class is culture, a difference in how Japanese and Americans think about individuals and groups.

Green’s article focuses on a Japanese math teacher, Akihiko Takahashi, who was inspired by new ideas for teaching elementary-school math, ideas which had been developed in the US.  But while the new methods had flourished in Japan, back in the US, teachers were not learning them, at least not well enough to make good use of them.

The difference seems to be that in Japan, teachers teach teachers to teach.

When Akihiko Takahashi arrived in America, he was surprised to find how rarely teachers discussed their teaching methods. . . . American teachers had almost no opportunities to watch one another teach.

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. . . .  Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers. Without jugyokenyku, Takahashi never would have learned to teach at all. Neither, certainly, would the rest of Japan’s teachers.

It seems like an obvious idea, but if “lesson study” has worked so well in Japan, why has US education has not been able or willing to incorporate it?  The answer, I think, is that if your think of groups as primary and individuals as secondary, jugyokenkyu comes easily. But if you think that individuals come first, jugyokenkyu might be a problem.

The Japanese traditionally have stronger expectations of group loyalty. A group is not just a coalition formed for a specific purpose; it is something more permanent and encompassing.  Compared with Americans, Japanese think of themselves and others more as parts of a group, less as individuals.  They feel an obligation to work as a group for the success of that group.  In schools, the more experienced teachers will work to improve the performance of the less effective teachers, who in turn are obligated to improve themselves.  Both are acting for the interests of the group.  A good group nurtures its individual members to become better teachers.

In the US, we would find that kind of group orientation much too confining and encroaching on our individuality. But more than that, we tend to think about teaching (and most other work) as an individual matter.  Some people do it well, others are less effective.  Rather than a good group making for better teachers, having lots of good individual teachers makes for better group results. 

Even in our differences, we share that focus on individuals. Right now in the US, debates and lawsuits pit charter schools against public schools.  The sides are especially contentious about the role of teachers’ unions.  Defenders say that unions protect teachers so they can be assured of autonomy and remain relatively free from arbitrary and exploitative demands from administrators. Charter supporters say that schools will be more effective if we get rid of unions. That way, the schools can fire the bad teachers and give merit pay increases to the good ones. 

Both these approaches see the teaching staff as a collection of individuals, some more talented than others.  Neither conceives of the school as a real group – as people who mutually regulate and affect one another’s behavior. 

American workers would probably find that kind of real group relationship to be an abridgement of individuality.  We want to be able to choose who we get involved with.   Or to put it another way, how many American schools have a shokuin ryoko? In America, people are free to separate their work relationships from the rest of their lives.  But in Japan, the people you work with also the people you go drinking with after work.  And comes shokuin ryoko time, they are also the people you go on vacation with.*

Not all teachers go – most, in fact, do not – but enough do volunteer to make up a critical mass.  In the trip illustrated above, out of a faculty of about fifty, perhaps a dozen signed up.  But the actual number is less important than the recognized principle: the shokuin ryoko is part of the institution, and teachers feel a collective obligation to make it a success, just as they feel a collective obligation to make their colleagues’ teaching more effective.

* Private-sector firms may have a similar trip for employees – the shain ryoko.

Ms Rogers’ Neighborhood

July 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
Why are all these parents being arrested? That was the question raised by Ross Douthat’s recent column. It’s also the title of an article in The Week that Douthat links to in a follow-up blog post.* The author, Michael Brendan Dougherty, sees two causes.

1.  A decline of neighborliness (Dougherty borrows this from Timothy Carney, The Washington Examiner (here Timothy Carney, a columnist for The Washington Examiner ). Neighborly adults look after an unsupervised kid who might be in need. Un-neighborly adults call 911. The State is less flexible in what it can do.  Dougherty identifies the institutional and historical reasons that these agencies are quick to It use formal procedures and sanctions,

The state's guardianship functions were developed to handle only the most extreme cases of neglect or abuse. The incentives of those within these departments incline them to suspicion and dramatic intervention. “We only get called in an emergency, so this must be one.”

2.  The encroachment of the State into areas that once belonged to Family, Neighbors, Church,  or Community.

The two are linked in a vicious cycle. Because people are less neighborly, they call the State. But this gives greater scope to State agencies, consequently narrowing the radius of neighborhood control, which in turn makes people less able to intervene as neighbors.

There are some problems with this account.

First, does this handful of newspaper stories indicate a real problem. The “good parents arrested” theme certainly seems to resonate with middle-class people, though it is almost certainly less well-off parents who are more vulnerable to being arrested or having their kids taken from them by the state.  Even so, we have no idea how many of these cases there are. Besides, the newspaper stories report on the most egregious cases. If we actually tried to sort all state interventions into those we like and those we don’t, we would quickly find oursevles in murkier waters.

Second, Douthat is writing about policy (so are the others, at least implicitly). Policies are not perfect; they improve some things for some people, and make some things worse for other people. That’s why policy is political – it’s about who gets what. If a policy improves the lives of many children and parents but has costs for a few others, we’d say that on the whole it’s a good policy, and we’d try to tinker with it to reduce the bad parts. Yes, one is too many, but in most cases (wrongful executions and the death penalty may be the clearest exception), that’s not a strong argument for scrapping the entire policy.

You have only to spend a few days in a child welfare agency to see how many cases there are where state intervention, with all its flaws, is better than the alternatives.

Third, are we really less neighborly? Americans started wringing their hands about the decline of community as early as 1650. Since then, these alarms have been sounded periodically Right and Left.  In recent versions of this jeremiad (say in the last half century) the Right has blamed the government: by arrogating to itself traditional community and family functions, it weakened community. The Left blames the culture of capitalism: its emphasis on competition destroys cooperation.

Unfortunately for the community-collapse theorists (but fortunately for community), systematic evidence for this decline is hard to come by. For decades now, Claude Fischer has done actual research on the topic and has found little to support the image of a land once rich in community now become a nation of isolated and unneighborly individuals.  (See Chapter 4 of his excellent 2010 book Made in America.)

Dougherty’s personal recollection, with its echoes of Jane Jacobs, might be instructive.

Often during this time, and especially in my own neighborhood, I was being silently and unobtrusively guarded by a community of people, many of whom knew my name, and knew something of my mother's situation. When I scratched someone's car with my broken bike handle, I would be returned to my home, and the note explaining it would be addressed to my mother by name. Some of the nosy Italian ladies watched the streets, looking for gossip. But they could help a child who skinned his knee, or bring him inside for a few caramels and a soda if it was raining and the kid had left his key at home.

Where are those Italian ladies today? Probably at work.

The percentage of women who work outside the home has increased greatly – from about 40% in 1970 to about two-thirds today.  The rates for women with children are not much different from the overall rates.  Even women who spoke Italian at home are much more likely to be at work rather than keeping an eye on the neighborhood.  (For “Italian,” I used “speaking Italian at home” rather than “claiming Italian as their primary ancestry. ” If I had used the latter, the rates would have been very close to the rates for all US women.)

There are many reasons that more women have sought jobs in the paid labor force (one summary is here).  I doubt that a decline in “neighborliness” or “community” is among them.** But one possible consequence is the decline in the number of neighbors who are around in the daytime.  That’s not the only cause of changes in the who, where, and how of childcare in the US, but it’s an important part of this changing landscape*** of childhood.


* In his blog, Douthat is responding to criticisms from “many liberals.”  But for some reason, of all the critiques in all the blogs in all the world, he wanders into mine.

** No doubt, some on the far right would argue that feminism poisoned the minds of American women and made them less neighborly and more selfish and ambitious, with the consequence that they abandoned their “natural” function of staying home and watching over the kids in the neighborhood.

*** That changing landscape is literal as well as figurative. Seven years ago in a post (here)about concern for children’s safety, I reprinted a map showing the shrinking, over three generations in the same Sheffield family, of the range that children would wander.  

Naming Variables

July 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Variable labels – not the sort of problem that should excite much debate. Still, it’s important to identify your variables as what they really are. If I’m comparing, say, New Yorkers with Clevelanders, should I call my independent variable “Sophistication” (Gothamites, as we all know, are more sophisticated)? Or should it be “City” (or “City of residence”)? “Sophistication” would be sexier, “City” would  more accurate.

Dan Ariely does experiments about cheating.  In a recent experiment, he compared East Germans and West Germans and found that East Germans cheated more. 

we found evidence that East Germans who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to capitalism.

Yes, East Germany was a socialist state. But it was also dominated by another nation (the USSR, which appropriated much of East Germany’s wealth) and had a totalitarian government that ruled by fear and mistrust.  For Ariely to write up his results and call his independent variable “Socialism/Captialism,” he must either ignore all those other aspects of East Germany or else assume that they are inherent in socialism.

The title of the paper is worth noting: “The (True) Legacy of Two Really Existing Economic Systems.”  You can find it here.)

The paper has been well received among mainstream conservatives (e.g., The Economist), who, rather than looking carefully at the variables, are glad to conflate socialism with totalitarian evils.

Mark Kleiman at the Reality Based Community makes an analogy with Chile under socialist Allende and capitalist Pinochet.

Imagine that the results had come out the other way: say, showing that Chileans became less honest while Pinochet was having his minions gouge out their opponents’ eyeballs and Milton Friedman was gushing about the “miracle of Chile”? How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think the Economist, Marginal Revolution, and AEI would have had to say about its methods?

Nannies and States

July 20, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat is puzzled. He seems to sense that a liberal policy might actually help, but his high conservative principles and morality keep him from taking that step. It’s a political version of Freudian repression – the conservative superego forcing tempting ideas to remain out of awareness.

In today’s column, Douthat recounts several anecdotes of criminal charges brought against parents whose children were unsupervised for short periods of time.  The best-known of these criminals of late is Debra Harrell, the mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter go to a nearby playground while she (Debra) worked at her job at McDonald’s. The details of the case (here  among other places)  make it clear that this was not a bad mom – not cruel, not negligent. The playground was the best child care she could afford.

One solution should be obvious – affordable child care.  But the US is rather stingy when it comes to kids. Other countries are way ahead of us on public spending for children.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Conservatives will argue that child care should be private not public and that local charities and churches do a better job than do state-run programs. Maybe so. The trouble is that those private programs are not accessible to everyone. If Debra Harrell had been in France or Denmark, the problem would never have arisen.

The other conservative US policy that put Debra Harrell in the arms of the law is “welfare reform.”  As Douthat explains, in the US, thanks to changes in the welfare system much lauded by conservatives, the US now has “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.”

That’s the part that perplexes Douthat. He thinks that it’s a good thing for the government to force poor women to work, but it’s a bad thing for those women not to have the time to be good mothers. The two obvious solutions – affordable day care or support for women who stay home to take care of kids – conflict with the cherished conservative ideas: government bad, work good.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

As he says, it’s a distinctive challenge, but only if you cling so tightly to conservative principles that you reject solutions – solutions that seem to be working quite well in other countries – just because they involve the government or allow poor parents not to work.

Conservatives love to decry “the nanny state.”  That means things like government efforts to improve kids’ health and nutrition. (Right wingers make fun of the first lady for trying to get kids to eat sensibly and get some exercise.)

A nanny is a person who is paid to look after someone else’s kids. Well-off people hire them privately (though they still prefer to call them au pairs). But for the childcare problems of low-income parents, what we need is more of a nanny state, or more accurately, state-paid nannies.