Teaching Japanese Students
On Compliments & Corrections, and Being a Strict Ballet Teacher in Japan2021-08-25
by ヘレン・プライス Helen Price
photo: Helen Price coaching a student
Teachers the world over want to help students reach their full potential so they give them corrections, advice and criticism. In the west it is common for teachers to acknowledge something a student has achieved before challenging them with a correction. “Beautifully stretched feet, Sarah, now try to coordinate the lift of your arms with your jump.”
Does this approach work equally well in Japan? There was a time when I would have emphatically answered “Yes! All children respond to compliments and criticism in the same way!” …but I am not so sure any more.
I had only been in Japan a couple of years when a friend invited me to observe a ballet class taught by a guest teacher from France. The students worked hard, attentively doing their very best to follow the teacher’s instructions. After the final reverence and the guest teacher had left the studio, the Japanese teacher delivered an angry lecture to the class, berating them for their poor performance. I was shocked, not the least by the fact that everyone seemed to be accepting the lecture as a normal thing.
At my own school (in Yokohama, Japan) I tried to inspire students to motivate themselves and understand why they needed to work hard. In those early years, on more than one occasion, I was asked by a students’ mother to be more strict with the class. It was explained to me that students grew up to be grateful to strict teachers for pushing them to work hard and achieve more.
To my mind I was being strict because I pushed the children to think for themselves and question what they were doing. I expected them to motivate themselves. I believed that what those mothers saw as a strict teacher was simply one that made students work hard through fear. It was a struggle for me as a young teacher. While I couldn’t transform myself into a strict Japanese ballet teacher I did come to see the value in giving my students insight into another culture by studying with a foreign teacher. My style didn’t work for all students but enough were happy with my foreign ways to see my school thrive for 30 years.
A few years ago I was once again reminded of this difference in East/West teaching styles when a Japanese student who had trained with a strict Japanese ballet teacher and then went on to spend several years studying in Canada told me that one of the things she had trouble adjusting to in Canada was teachers complimenting her when she did something well. She found it disconcerting and, frankly, just didn’t believe the teacher.
Around the same time I read a book by Richard Nisbett, “The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why” (published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 2003). In one chapter Mr Nisbett talks about a study of the effects of critical and complimentary feedback on Canadian students and Japanese students:
“The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus “creativity” test and then gave the students “feedback” indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how long the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they had succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed. The Japanese weren’t being masochistic. They simply saw an opportunity for self-improvement and took it.”
So, the Canadians were inspired to work hard when they were complimented and the Japanese when they were criticized.
Back to the teacher whose angry lecture shocked me: If I had been in her position I would have told my students how proud I was of them for working so hard…but I am Canadian and would have expected the compliment to encourage them to continue the good work…if the students were also Canadian.
I don’t think western teachers should treat visiting Japanese students any differently than other students in the class. Most will adjust to the western style of teaching and learn to appreciate a mix of compliments and corrections. Being aware of this cultural difference, though, is helpful.
photo: Cindy Fisher, guest teacher at the Yokohama Ballet Intensive
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