Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Today will be my son's first day of Kindergarten. All around me are moms with five-year olds preparing their kids to go, many having attended preschool, many without. Some have tears gathering in their hearts at losing their little babies, others (like me) are grinning and excited about the new world that's about to open up.

Education is central to our society. It provides us with meaningful transition events of all kinds. Going to kindergarten for the first time, or graduating from high school, or going off to college and adult independence, and everything in between.

It also informs the way in which we expect to communicate. We get trained in this society to sit in groups and listen to another (usually single) person talk. This is not new; this is OLD. I'm imagining Plato sitting down with his pupils in the agora. And before him was Socrates, and before him...?

The content of what we learn has changed a lot. Or maybe not so much in its fundamentals - still trying to prepare young people to enter society in a meaningful way. Just that the society itself is not the same everywhere, all the time. US education values (or tries to value) critical thinking, exploration and innovation. Japanese education does an amazing job of providing literacy (in a very tough literacy system!), and high levels of performance on many tasks. Do they innovate? Sure - they've been growing and changing for thousands of years, even when they had no contact with the outside world. But the model of educational communication is slightly different.

American teachers value creativity, but they do have to value actually grasping the fundamentals of the topic, also. Too much free thinking and you can start dropping basic parameters of physics or mathematics. I'm only kind of kidding.

Japanese teachers come from a slightly different model, in which the expert (say, an artist or musician) didn't have to take students at all, but those who wanted to learn from him (her?) would have to sneak around, pick up what they could from listening or watching around corners until they could prove their dedication, whereupon they might be taken on as students. It's called "stealing the art." Thereafter the ideal is to duplicate exactly, with all skill and artistry, what the teacher does - and then to innovate. The innovation is still there, but subject to a few more stringent prerequisites.

The master/apprentice model is very common in fantasy and science fiction (and Star Wars, whichever side that falls on!). There are also schools of magic (Hogwarts being quite a standout!). It's important to consider how your characters come about the things they know, and if you think about how they consider their knowledge philosophically, that can really deepen your characters. Someone with super-ninja skills isn't going to get them by falling off a log. And I always wondered how the heck Jason Bourne learned all the stuff he knew before he turned into a doddering old man - but maybe it was the, um, intensity of the education he received!

I'll write more about this later, but for now it's time to go and get my kids started on a very big day.

I'm smiling.

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