My Writing About Zen

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The best summary of what I’ve written about Zen is at Zen: Life Made Simple at the hyperlink. You can also find the Zen for an Uncluttered Life feature at Technorati. For this and other commentary, you can visit the Learn Out Live Blog also.

The idea behind all this is to promote Education for Better Living, the idea that the more we know, and the less tangled what we know happens to be, the better off our lives will be, both in terms of bounty and enjoyment.

Having said this, I am in no way a formal teacher (or even student) of Zen; good luck finding a Zen center in rural Nova Scotia. My years of living in a small-time place have helped concentrate my mind on issues of simplification and mental clarity, and I like sharing that with the world, but this is the pursuit of the Zen idea, not Zen the religion. Then again, I firmly maintain that Zen was never something that belonged to monks alone. If it had, it would never have been part of the background of Japanese society.


Japanese tutoring: Taking stock

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(This post uses a little bit of Japanese text. If your browser can’t handle it, my apologies. Most will, but I’m not using images as a work-around this time – it’s of interest to actual learners or Japanese literate people, not everyone and anyone.)

Hi, it’s been a while. Instead of blogging, I’ve been using what “free” time I had to pound out Japanese lessons for my online tutoring for . Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

After a few weeks of putting together more material, and testing my kanji teaching in the field, there are a few things I can report on.

#1: Yes, Grammar Mattered

Some grammar is indispensable for learning Japanese that is useful in the classroom and in real life. What I taught was the abridged version: pronouns, sentence structure, proper particle usage (a poltergeist that haunts many students well beyond the beginner level), a thorough and representative sample of verb conjugation, and enough other vocabulary to keep things fresh and provide a lot of opportunities for katakana and hiragana reinforcement.

Yet an anecdote my regular student told me today, in the context of previewing the next class (which will focus on asking, and being asked, questions such as ‘What is your name?’ etc.), that he had been taught the following formulation in the cafeteria of a residence he was living in by Japanese language school students sharing the same residence:


I was using kanji for the pronoun “watashi” at the start only but “namae” for name would be 名前 in kanji. Anyway, this reads akin to, “I name is” or “Me name is.” The correct version is below:


My name is ___”

I’m above pointing fingers, but I feel a non-casual sense of relief that I started teaching this guy before he’d been “taught” too much stuff that would have had to be unlearned later.

2. Kanji Are Concepts, Not Letters of the Alphabet

Lately, I’ve been using a term I call “kanji logic.” For example, “four” plus “corners” equals “square” in Japanese: 四角. This isn’t something created with an “alphabet.” It’s something that comes from blending two concepts together to form a further concept. This is how the language gains its richness and depth.

3. Kanji Are Indeed Best Learned Visually

By the end of today’s review lesson, my student was seeing that the “dai” in “daigaku” (college, the ‘big school’) is the same kanji for ‘ookii’ (‘big’). That’s right. That’s exactly how it is. Showing different looks to reinforce the same kanji worked. These are the neural pathways that will lead to long-term success.

4. Like Leading An Army, Ask What Can Reasonably Be Delivered

I didn’t expect my student to remember everything and get everything right for this review lesson. That would not have been sane or productive. What I expected was a) for him to seriously think his way through and give his best effort, which he most certainly did; b) to make tangible progress towards remembering things he’d seen a few times before, which he most certainly did; c) to learn, inch by inch, the thought process behind the language, which he was doing just fine.

Conclusion: Results Not Perfect, But Still Excellent

After I finished my “basic Japanese” unit, which overall did a fine, fine job, I was at a loss for a short bit of time. I tried to introduce vocabulary that would be useful for the EJU (a test for entry into Japanese-language universities, which is this student’s long-term goal), but my student found the content to be above his level. Now, why did he think of this in terms of “his level”? That’s because he was studying vocabulary “at his level” on and so forth. Well, fine. I decided to stop trying to re-invent the wheel and started teaching things from lists directly (but with 3 to 4 times the depth), conjugated verbs like “hanashi” (to speak) and “motsu” (to hold) rather than just the kanji themselves, spread to more of the “Kyouiku kanji” (the grade school kanji taught in accordance with Japanese Ministry of Education guidelines), and I kept things focused.

I also worked on introducing adverbs and adjectives more and how to deal with them… but in the context of using kanji to make things not stay just a wall of kana. (My student wanted a change of pace from that, and that was fine with me.) I’m going to slow down the kanji a little to focus on color nouns/ adjectives and “questions” for the next lesson, and similarly for the near future, reinforcing more of what’s been learned rather than get too hasty.

I mean, it’s only been a month, and I’ve already taught this guy stuff that puts him on, in many cases, an equal or better position than people who’ve been learning in a regular classroom for a whole year. That’s progress.

Oh, one last thing…

5. Information Overload Is Indeed Best Avoided.

That’s really the key to this whole process. I’m doing my festina lente bit, breaking things into distinct pieces, not overwhelming the student, asking the questions that can be fairly responded to and make the student think without crushing him, and creating a lot of visible progress that the student feels in his bones and brain cells. Thus, by explaining things slowly, and slowly repeating a lesson or two or three later, the material slowly becomes learned. Once learned, rather than simply memorized, it becomes retained much, much better.

The main question now is spreading these successes outward and doing it for more people. I mean, I had to develop A+ lesson materials through individual effort alone, nailing down explanations for things which are, I think it is fair to say, poorly explained in much of Japanese language education.

The successful stuff is 10 lessons comprising “Basic Japanese,” four Kanji-oriented lessons, and one Kanji review lesson (which was a big hit too). It’s a start. I didn’t begin this process to be second best… and I feel like I have not compromised. My theories are being validated and my teaching is working. Now I’d like to rinse and repeat for a lot more people.

Look at it this way, though. If you can’t teach a complete beginner from scratch in an effective and efficient way, how do you expect to teach everyone else, former pro translator or not? It’s not just what you know – it’s what you can explain in plain English (and Japanese).

The Evil Of Testing Is A Straw Man

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If there is one theme I find myself seeing over and over again, it is that standardized tests are evil.

Time and time again, I am reading claims that testing is ruining education and preventing teachers from doing their jobs. By forcing teachers to “teach for the test” rather than teach the skills ostensibly being tested, education is compromised in the hunt for government funding and to prevent a school from being tagged as a “failed” institution.

This is a straw man.

The true debate is not about testing. Rather, the real point of contention is whether to focus on fundamental reading and writing skills (and their equivalents in subjects other than language) or whether to focus on social education and instilling creativity and artistic values instead.

In addition, I continually see arguments raised that children must be educated to engage in critical thinking: they must learn how to question and challenge what would otherwise be taken for granted. This, however, is a political argument.

To those who want to reform the schools with school vouchers as proposed by the likes of Milton Friedman and Bill Gates, schools used to be a vehicle for teaching fundamental literacy skills and instilling children with society’s values. This is an assumption heavily resisted by liberal politics: to those on the other side of the political spectrum, “society’s values” are anachronisms that need to be questioned, criticized, challenged, and overcome with social and political action. These goals are oil and water; they cannot be mixed. One must be predominant over the other.

Standardized testing has simply become a front in this larger political war. Therefore, it has nothing to do with literacy skills; it has to do with values.

Frankly, I don’t care about that. This is a war between parental choice and governmental choice. Neither is my priority.

My priority is empowering the student to make his or her own choices in life.

Once politics become involved, the issue ceases to be the ability of the student to find an answer; the issue becomes the student’s likelihood of finding the “right” answer. This cheats students of what should be their birthright as members of a civilized society: the tools required to find their own answer.

These tools are the written word, the spoken word, and mathematics.

Without mastery of these three fundamental areas, all further learning is compromised. Students become vulnerable to being led astray by “experts” and “gurus” because they are forced by their own ignorance of logic and fact to trust those who dazzle with statistics and deceive with half-truths. Deep ignorance would protect such individuals from being so easily led astray, because the truly uneducated often grasp that this is so and gird themselves against those parading charm and waving around numbers; but those who believe themselves educated, yet who are not, are all the more vulnerable to those who would flatter their belief that they are knowledgeable and provide the illusion of certain truth. This is the thinking of those for whom the ends justify the means.

Enough about freedom of parents. Enough about freedom of government officials to enforce their own societal vision. Students were not born to be chained by ignorance. Teach them reading and writing, and set them free.

Language is the tool that liberates the human mind to process information that was not gained as a result of direct experience. It is the only means for learning besides our own accidental successes or our own mistakes. It must be taught, and taught well.

Teaching the fundamentals of language properly and thoroughly is an act of both trust and faith: trust, that knowledge will empower students to make enlightened decisions; and faith that most will do so wisely and productively. However, the responsibility of choice rests with the individual who makes it. Focusing on teaching “how to think” carries the implicit promise of guiding the individual to “what to think,” presenting life in a certain light making a particular outcome seem obvious and inevitable. Yet teaching fundamental language skills allows students to grow into knowledgeable adults who can make those decisions for themselves.

We may not agree with those decisions; that is outside the purview of the teacher. The teacher’s obligation  is to ensure, so far as is possible, that students are able to think for themselves.

There are those who believe that such an intensive focus on the fundamentals is foolish and ridiculous, compromising the loftier values of education in favor of the base and vulgar aspects of the English language, such as grammar and syntax, and ignores what the content means in a deeper, more artistic or even spiritual sense; that such education lacks a soul. I have a simple reply to you:

Without fundamentally sound English, a student can never understand the meaning contained in a single paragraph. He will obtain only a vague impression of what is being said, but can never understand with certainty what is being said, nor appreciate whether the content is logical or illogical; sense or nonsense.

Standardized testing is an effort to ensure that teachers teach students fundamentals of English, mathematics, science, and so forth. Standardized testing is a blunt instrument that has many shortcomings; chiefly, the tendency of teachers to “teach for the test.” A current scandal in Georgia involving school cheating demonstrates another pitfall: cheating can potentially gain money for a school. Nonetheless, my eyes see it as a straw man.

I would have more sympathy for this argument if I was convinced that the opponents of standardized testing are being obstructed from teaching the fundamentals of language to their students because of the stringent requirements of the tests. Rather, I see many teachers who are not interested in teaching the fundamentals at all, but who want to further competing sets of societal agendas and therefore consider a rigorous dedication to fundamentals to be a distraction from “real” education, rather than education itself.

I am engaged in the business of repairing the damage caused by such attitudes. I take people who are not given adequate fundamental education and teach them to read and write better English – and for that matter, better Japanese – to give them the power to educate themselves and gain knowledge about the world around them. Without that power, they would be limited to flailing and beating their heads against a wall, which describes the state of affairs for far too many people in our supposedly civilized society than my conscience is comfortable with.

Without proper language skills, the “sage on the stage” or “guide on the side” argument is meaningless drivel, for the student will neither comprehend the sage, nor be able to follow the advice of the guide. The fight over standardized testing is thus nothing but a distraction from the bitter truth.

My Japanese Teaching Method

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Cool stuff and vocabulary & trivia on both ends of the spectrum, alternating between the two, but regularly crossing and re-crossing the fundamentals, including grammar, thus placing the grammar in context.

Does it make sense to you, presented in this way?

Full Version: “Sun Tzu for the Modern Strategist”

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I’ve priced it at $5.00 U.S.

Myebook - Sun Tzu for the Modern Strategist - click here to open my ebook

Learn Out Live

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Learn Out Live is a recent effort by tutors who were flailing about on a failing education site to create a central online headquarters for streamlined, efficient provision of one on one tutoring services to students via Skype. Classes are 10 Euros for 45 minutes. I will be taking over the English department and will be founding an upcoming Japanese department from scratch.

A promo video for the English department is below.

One Must Learn Before One Can Teach

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Okay, looks like I just lost a 1400-word post because.. something messed up. I’m not impressed, so I’ll make this really brief.

All that interferes with teaching must be stripped away.

A teacher must learn about students from every interaction to better serve their needs.

One-way communication with a smiling face is just as useless as one-way communication without one.

Hearing without listening is not a substitute for genuinely listening.

To teach with a relaxed feel but wind up teaching more than anyone expects is to master presentation. This is to teach calmly, but in haste; “festina lente”.

“The way” is to prepare the mind, and then to empty the mind of prejudice and preconception to re-open the self to real and present circumstance.

The “sage on the stage” is, for all teaching save university lecture halls, a straw man of no applicability. The problem is not teaching too much; the problem is teaching too little. This can only be solved through direct action.

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