Confucius vs Roboteacher

Um, with apologies to Confucius!

To start: an oft-quoted Confucian parable, herein paraphrased and summarized:

Confucius meets three people on the road. He says:

One of these three people is my teacher.
[The End]

Whoa! I think there are more interpretations:

On the road I’ve traveled, two out of three people I meet have nothing much to say and I’m not so sure about the third.
I can (maybe) learn from one of them, but statistics and my mileage have varied.
Which person is the ‘one’ is anybody’s guess, so I guess I should talk with all three and give them all a chance. (and vice versa)
The one who is my teacher is often not the same one who is your teacher.
[your answer goes here]

This month (July, 2010), I went for an interview to try to get a few extra part-time summer teaching hours. A Taiwanese friend had recommended me, but I knew nothing about the school. Long story short, it was a higher level (junior high and up) cram school. At this school, students had daily tests, and were being rotely (is this a word?!) drilled in the pursuit of higher marks, looming admission tests, further tests, etc.

Rather unexpectedly, I warmed to the interviewer – he really was interesting to talk to (as far as small talk went) - and I threw caution to the wind. He also flattered me by saying that he had heard that I was a good teacher. It was not critical whether I got the job or not, so I let loose!

I told the interviewer that (due to experience, observation and comparison) I do not ‘teach to the test’ and I wish to teach English. I tried to explain that I feel that teaching English is an art, yet, it is based on mechanical fundamentals. I think this is a resolvable contradiction. I filibuster on: Teaching is like beauty or music - there are indeed rules, but like real beauty (which is in the mind’s eye of the beholder), real music (Beethoven’s or Miles Davis’s most famous few notes are all about the silent spaces between those notes) or real language (genuine communication), i.e. the teaching of English as a life skill far transcends the transmission of fundamentals and rules.

I further explain that I think good teaching is impossible to define in the general, but you know it when you see it. Learning, likewise. I’ve been in Taiwan for over 6 years, so this is not perception management. I look at my results. I look at my students’ test results. I’ve compared them. In classes where I had a small degree of freedom, i.e., when I could teach in my own style, most of my students excelled ….

[dead air]

Uh - oh. Then I hit my mind’s playback button and listened to myself talking - way too much “bull in a China shop”. (There’s a double entendre here, folks.)

I have no idea what the interviewer thought (reserve, face, obliqueness, agenda, professional detachment, …) Well, I made a final observation - I was at the wrong school, and indeed never heard back from it. Understood. Not copacetic. No chemistry. His East ain’t meeting my West – or something like that. That’s OK.

Time and place shift. Days pass. Life goes on. I happen to be looking at some (world-wide) job offerings on the Net. There’s a school in Japan - “English Academy for Children” - which states in their ‘teacher wanted’ ad:
“Teaching skill is not so important …”


A few more days pass. On July 13, 2010 a Taiwanese English newspaper, the Taipei Times, ran a full-page feature article, headlined: ‘Students, meet your new teacher, Mr Robot’. One part of this article states: “Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines […] would be effective in subjects like foreign language […]” This article was a feed from the New York Times News Service and surveyed American and Japanese research efforts.

Hmmmmm … I wonder who’s funding this research – Japanese franchise schools or the supreme franchisor, McDonalds?

So, let’s say Confucius reincarnates all the way to today. He meets three early 21st century Roboteachers on the information superhighway, or at a cram school, or doing privates, or wherever. He might say:

“Roboteachers - all you can teach is by or with rules - what you have been programmed to say. I meet one Roboteacher, I’ve met them all. But even a child can speak words he or she has put together by themselves without ever having heard them put together that way before. Every child is unique. This is one example of what people call creativity. I cannot define creativity, but I think you do not have it. ”

And then Confucius kept walking. He walked into a room. He thought it looked familiar. He watched a man pushing pieces of paper under the door. The pieces of paper had test marks written in Chinese. He left the room wondering who was on the other side of the door. He met John Searle. But that’s another story.