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Topic: Further comment on Tad Watanabe's comments
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Further comment on Tad Watanabe's comments
Posted: Jan 27, 2000 11:15 PM
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From the AMTE listserve ... by Ralph Raimi -- a comment on Tad
Watanabe's comment.

> ... Then, he *asked the class*
> what they wanted to study. He let his students talk, with
> very little coming from the teacher. After a couple of
> minutes, the class (and the teacher) agreed on what they
> will do. Then, the teacher calmly pulled out a sheet of
> paper with the day's objective as decided by the class
> preprinted and put it on the board. I think this episode
> shows me that the teacher is very good at anticipating
> students' thinking *and* also very skillful in facilitating
> (orchestrating?) the discussion.

This description suddenly reminded me of something I observed many
years ago in my conversations with Shizuo Kakutani, a mathematician at
Yale, during the year 1955-1956 when I spent a post-doctoral year there.
Kakutani was a fine mathematician and always willing to spend time with
students and people like me, and he *knew* a lot. Yet when he opened
another thread of conversation with me he always, I came to observe, began
by *asking* me something: "Do you think that...?" "Perhaps the author
means...?" "What do you think would be different if ...?"

This was invariably a place where Kakutani wanted to *tell* me
something, not ask my opinion. A place where he knew the answer, as he
knew so many answers that I did not (then and now, too). I would offer an
opinion, perhaps, or a reason, and if I was right he would think and say
he believed so too, because ..., and I would realize that he had just
straightened me out on something. If my opinion was incorrect, he would
ask why, or raise an eyebrow and say, "But then ..." rather tentatively,
as if he were exploring the territory for the first time, along with me.
However it went, he ended by giving me the answer when I needed it, but,
as I came to understand, without coming right out and claiming he knew
something I did not. That would have been impolite by his standards, I

At any rate, this was my reading of the way he spoke with me,
though in some cases he really did come out and produce a theorem or
reference I needed without so elaborate a preparation. And of course he
did lecture in his courses. *Telling* truths to other people cannot
*always* be considered impolite. There were probably other dimensions to
his behavior in this regard than I have been able to see. I imagined at
the time that this indirect way of *telling* was something in the Japanese
culture. (Kakutani was very Japanese, and spent the war years -- my war --
in Tokyo, though he had visited America before the war, and came here to
live afterwards.)

If my cultural conjecture is correct, this explains the way the
teacher described by Watanabe obtained the opinion of the class that the
lesson they wanted to learn that day was, mirabile dictu, exactly the one
he had prepared. But as Kakutani was the only Japanese I have ever known
more than just in passing, it might be that I am assigning to Japanese
culture something that is actually characteristic of just that man. It
is, in any case, not a bad style for some purposes, though it takes up a
little time. However it plays out, a little intentional courtesy is a good
thing, even though its manifestation is sometimes artificial. But all art
is artificial, after all, and we don't knock art for failure to be
natural. "Without art, what is life?"


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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