By Jim Shimabukuro
Stephen Downes’s column in The Huffington Post has become a routine stop for me. His topics and comments are always probing the edge of ideas, inviting us to look over there, and from there, back to where we were. His latest, “The Role of the Educator” (5 Dec. 2010), doesn’t disappoint. If the role of educator is changing, then what is it becoming? What are the possibilities? Downes comes up with a staggering list of 23 roles, yet it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a list that stretches to infinity.
And, as usual, he makes me think.
Yes, we definitely need to begin to explore all the developing roles of educators because the breadth and depth of our visions will determine the course of our schools and colleges. Perhaps the strongest influence on curricula and pedagogy is our conception of the teacher’s role, i.e., form follows function, and if we believe that the instructor’s function is to lead or guide a group of students, then much of the form of teaching and learning has been predetermined.
However, if we make an adjustment and switch our attention to the potential roles of students, we get a different picture. For example, what kinds of educative behaviors can we expect from a self-motivated, independent learner who’s at home in the virtual world? Will these behaviors differ from grade level to grade level? What about students who aren’t as motivated? Or who aren’t as comfortable online?
In all of these cases, though, we’re looking at individual students, which begs the question: Can we arrive at even more and better variations by developing student-centered models based on the behavior of students in formal group structures?
I’m thinking of athletics and how teams are run. Much of the leadership is provided by upperclassmen, and team captains are often selected by the players. Coaches do much of the teaching, but much is left to the players, albeit in less formal sessions.
I’m also thinking of martial arts training, and more specifically the culture of the traditional Japanese dojo. (A dojo is, literally, a place for learning the way.) For example, in karate training, much of the formal learning is built into the system through a student ranking structure based on levels of demonstrated proficiency. Every student is both a kohai and a sempai. A kohai is a “junior” or someone with lower ranking or less experience; a sempai is a “senior” or someone with higher ranking or more experience.
Sempais are expected to be responsible for kohais under them. The sempais are also kohais to students with higher ranks or more experience. Thus, these titles are relative: every student is both a student and a teacher in the continuum of ranks.
Ranks are usually identified by colored belts. At the bottom are white belts; at the top, black. Black belts, too, are ranked, thus extending the kohai-sempai structure into the advanced levels.
Belt ranks are earned via satisfactory performance in public examinations that require the demonstration of various skills. The skill sets are increasingly complex from rank to rank. Thus, ranking is based on ability that’s proven in front of all the students and instructors.
This system also ensures that an instructor is always present. For example, if the top instructor, the sensei, is absent, the highest ranking student present runs the class. If none of the black belts are there, then the highest ranked brown belt takes the lead. Even when only two white belts show up for class, training continues. The student who has trained the longest will lead the “class” of two.
Compare this to a typical class in most U.S. schools and colleges. When the teacher is not present, nothing happens or, worse, chaos reigns. In colleges, students are usually free to leave if the instructor fails to show up after so many minutes. This never happens in a dojo. In fact, when only one person is present, s/he will follow the same training ritual, assuming the role of both student and teacher.
The typical training session is led by the top instructor (sensei) or her/his assistant. However, the session is usually divided into parts, each devoted to specific skill sets. When this happens, the highest ranking person becomes the instructor for each small group. Students are sometimes paired off, with the sempai giving one-to-one pointers to the kohai.
Before and after classes and during breaks, kohais often seek out sempais for individualized lessons. This request is an honor for the sempai, and s/he seldom if ever refuses to give as much time as needed. In this way, those who are less proficient receive extra help.
The sensei also honors this system of learning by playing the role of kohai to instructors from other dojos who have been invited to provide training. And the sensei also routinely returns to the dojo of her seniors to sharpen her skills. When she does this, she becomes a student. Thus every martial artist is a lifelong student and teacher.
Can this model be adapted to or adopted by schools and colleges in the U.S.? Can this model be used effectively in completely online classes?
I’m not sure, but I think we have many more options — and opportunities for success — for education when we also focus on the formal roles that students can play in teaching as well as learning. Much has been written about the beneficial effects of peer instruction, and this dojo-based model has, over centuries, proven effective for the martial arts. Adjusted to academics, perhaps it could be just as effective, providing a sustainable and highly effective model for the 21st century.
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