Living in Japan

The Zen Art of Class Management

  My personal teaching philosophy is to put a strong focus on the development of a student’s self-awareness during the learning process. The reason this is useful to a student, might be best summed up


My personal teaching philosophy is to put a strong focus on the development of a student’s self-awareness during the learning process.

The reason this is useful to a student, might be best summed up by the following Confucius quote:

“Give someone a bowl of rice and they will eat for a day, teach them to grow their own rice and they will eat for a lifetime.”

Other pearls of wisdom for developing a student’s self-motivated learning practice, might include the following:

“What we think, we become.” (Buddha)

As Charlie mentioned in his article, Classroom Management Tips from a Veteran, cultural values play a role in shaping ESL learning outcomes in Japan.

What is the effect of the Japanese custom of deference regarding the expression of one’s achievements. The phrase: “sono koto wa arimasen,” (that’s not the case) forms a polite refusal to accept a compliment. To what extent may such sentiment take root in the student’s mind as a more literal truth? And what effect may it have on their learning curve?

Japanese ESL students often have a tendency to place excessive focus on the obstacles in their ESL learning process, as opposed to their innate potential to overcome them.

For example, when a Japanese ESL student consciously or unconsciously labels learning material as “difficult,” they seem to be engaging in a form of unhelpful cultural programming. Could this be hindering their their ability to absorb and integrate such material?  

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” (John Heywood)

This classic quote, can illustrate the nature of intrinsic (inner) and extrinsic (outer) forces in affecting a learner’s motivation. Having worked with some apathetic ESL learners over the years, I have added my own little caveat:  

“True, you cannot force a horse to drink, but you can try to feed it sugar cubes dipped in salt.”  

Ok, so let me explain..

True, you can’t push a student to learn if they truly lack the motivation. However, you can attempt to creatively stimulate (“sugar cube”) the learning process. This in turn may evoke (“salt”) their thirst, to discover a meaningful reason to pursue study goals.

One way around student apathy, might be understood through the following quote…

“Laughter makes the mind like an empty cup.” (Buddha)

The cup can be seen as symbolic of a student’s mind, filled with it’s preconceptions, self-limiting beliefs or emotional blockages. It has become, “the cup which runneth over.” Has become so crammed with worldly disenchantment, that it cannot hold anything new.

Through joy and humour, this cup can be emptied in order to create more openness and presence within the learning experience. This applies to students of any age. It can allow space and energy for new ideas to be absorbed. For some inspiration on how to up the fun factor in classes This post by ALT INSIDER James may provide you with some great mojo.

“The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute. The one who does not, is a fool for life.”  (Confucius)

This highlights the importance of getting students to actively engage with their learning material. A student’s ability to question, supports a deeper integration of learning material, and is an indispensable tool for assessing comprehension level. Does a student really know something? How can you, or they, know that they really know?

“In the midst of Chaos there is always opportunity.”  (Sun Tsu)

Striving for constant perfection in language acquisition can create unnecessary obstacles to learning progress. Mistakes are essential to the learning curve. Self-reflection based upon mistakes yields valuable insight into a student’s learning process, and how study practices can be adjusted to better suit their needs and goals.

“There is no such thing as failure – just lessons to be learned along the way.”  (Sadhguru)

What separates successful ESL learners from the rest, is that they have had the courage to make many mistakes, to keep making them, and see them not as “failures,” but as “stepping stones.” 

ESL students can often feel burdened by their “perceived” lack of progress. They may be placing focus on what they can’t achieve, or making unhelpful comparisons to more advanced learners. It’s useful to help shift struggling students away from this kind of scarcity mentality into one of abundance and gratitude for what they have already achieved. Operating from an overwhelming sense of lack, one will inevitably get more of the same. However, centering into the presence of grateful recognition for what one has, can provide a foundation upon which further progress may be built. The following, commonly attributed to William L. Watkins, provides an excellent metaphor for the above process.

“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Educational pursuits, are unfortunately too often framed by a very singular level of focus on test scores. While these are important in terms of life and occupational goals, obsessive attention to them can overshadow a more genuine sense of fulfilment from the process of learning itself. Again Confucius hands us another sublime pearl on this notion:

“Roads were made for journeys not destinations.”

Even for a dedicated ESL learner, fluency requires hundreds of hours of class time spread out over months or years. That’s one hell of a journey! The little voices in a student’s head, that have them obsessing only about upcoming test scores, is like hearing those annoying kids screaming from the back seat of a family car trip: “are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet.” If one gives all their attention to such voices, they will miss out on the personal unfolding of the journey’s scenery. With it, some prime opportunities at deeper level engagement and retention may also be lost. I’ll also qualify this statement, with one of my own attempts at Zen wisdom:

“Why bother to sweep the leaves. Let the wind do its work.”  

Sadly, it’s all too common (and heartbreaking) to hear of Japanese ESL learners, who have dedicated considerable time and energy to achieving a very decent level of English proficiency, to then abandon their studies completely.

This is often true of younger Japanese students who have finished preparing for the ESL requirements of their university entrance exams, as well as some older occupational learners. Some Japanese ESL students can be so filled with negative associations about their learning process, that the minute extrinsic motivations are removed, there’s nothing keeping the learning boat afloat. Like the proverbial horse, they were dragged kicking and screaming to the waterhole by social or economic pressures, but in the end, sadly refused to drink.

In closing, I’ll mention what has become my most often repeated mantra in guiding a student’s ESL learning Journey. It has been uttered by every fitness guru under the sun, but it relates perfectly to the process of  language acquisition. After all, the brain’s retention process is just like that of muscle memory.

“Use it or lose it!!!”

For even more great teaching wisdom check out this list of choice proverbs compiled by Edu-career Quotes to Entertain or Use in the Classroom, but before you do, we would love to hear about some of your very own pearls of Zen mojo down in the comments section below. Written by Lee Neale.

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