Competition and Bullying

Nine years ago while I was doing a diploma in middle school education. I was sent to two different schools as a student teacher. At the second school I was put with a class that had a serious bullying problem. The problem bothered me so much that to this day I still think about it. This class had six girls and twelve boys. The girls were an incredibly tight-nit group. The boys on the other hand had several groups but by in large got along with each other well enough except for one of them. Every day there would be at least one instance in which one of the boys would say something and then this boy would shout something along the lines of why are you always attacking me. I asked the teacher about this but she declared that that was just how it was. That they had been a class together for years. The situation was like that when she got the class. This puzzled me even more. I felt strongly that I should help this kid but I didn’t know how. For one thing, I didn’t understand what exactly was causing this problem.

After years of reflection I realised that I had all the pieces to solve the puzzle. The problem didn’t lie with the way the boy and the others were interacting. It lay with how all the boys interacted with each other. The boys spoke to him the same way they spoke to the others. This I already knew and at the time was trying to point it out to the boy. He took it as me siding with the others and suggesting it was his own fault. This hadn’t been my intention. The question I didn’t ask at the time was why the boys talked to each other that way in the first place and why it was triggering this boy in such a way.

While I was there I taught the class about Japanese sports days. They are quite different to Australian sports days. While there are individual events the majority of the activities are based around co-operation. How effective the group can work together as a team determines if they can win or not. I taught two events to that class. One was called the caterpillar race. The idea behind this race is that contestants feet are tied together. Like the image below. I divided the class into a girls group and two boys groups. The girls won the race easily. The two boys groups couldn’t get more than a metre before breaking the rope.

Image result for caterpillar race

The next activity was the typhoon game. In this game three people hold a bamboo pole and run together in a straight line. When they get to a witches hat they have to go around in clockwise. They then have to run to the next witches hat and run counter clockwise. After that they return to the rest of the group where the run the bamboo pole under the others legs and then over their heads. Again the girls easily won this race. The boys were barely able to do it. They had the same problem that they had when they did the caterpillar race. They couldn’t work together. In both instances the fastest runner dictated the pace preventing the group from being able to keep up causing them to fail.

This activity highlights exactly what was wrong with that class and why that one kid was so isolated and hated. That class was highly competitive. Every boy considered himself to be the best. The downside to such an atmosphere is that they all wanted to prove that they were the best. This led to a culture of criticism and ego. The boys would say to each other “I’m better than you, you can’t do …” the typical response was much the same thing. “No, I’m better because you can’t do …” So when the one boy who wasn’t competitive said “Why are you always criticizing me?” he wasn’t wrong. The interesting thing about the situation is that the boys didn’t understand that they were criticizing him. They thought, “but I say the same thing to everyone else.” The teacher was also highly competitive and so she couldn’t see what the problem was either. She inevitably sided with the boys because they were exhibited behaviour she valued.

My conclusion is that this boy experienced years of bullying because of a system failure. The system prized competition over everything else to the point that those that weren’t competitive suffered. There was no actual bully in this situation. It was far worse. The entire society was against him unintentionally.

What would I have done differently? It’s hard to know. I don’t have a clear answer but I do know the fundamental problem was a society so competitive it couldn’t understand how working together could give you a competitive advantage.  If I had a year with them I would have constantly used group activities like the ones mentioned but also pushed group activities that rely on the group using their collective skills to succeed.


The Society Machine

Ten years ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. An autobiography that has nothing to do with Zen Buddhism or Motorcycle maintenance. The story is a reflection by the author on his own mental breakdown when he was much younger. The story contains many philosophical discussions of great interest to me when I was much younger. One of the stories has always stayed with me. Image result for zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

That story was about a great machine. A machine the size of an entire country. That machine does everything for the people in that country. They live in it. They get food, drink, clothes, entertainment from it. The machine gives them work to do, educates them on how to live and so on. This country sized machine is very old. Older than anyone remembers. It’s so large and complicated that no one understands how it works. One day the machine stops making clothing. The people look at the part of the machine that makes clothing and try to understand why it isn’t working. Half of them notice that seventy percent of the machine looks different to the other thirty percent. They conclude that in order to make the machine work again they need to make that thirty percent look like the other seventy percent. Meanwhile the other half of the people argue that since the machine isn’t working than the seventy percent must be wrong and the thirty percent is right. Both groups start trying to fix the machine.

I’ve retold this story to a number of people. They’ve always replied to me that people would know how to fix the machine. They would recognised damaged parts from non-damaged parts. On a surface level this is true. You can tell the damaged parts of a car from the non-damaged parts of a car when you’ve had a crash. What about internally though? Can you be so certain you could fix your car if it stopped working? Would you be able to identify what isn’t working?

You may wonder, why did this story have such an impact on me. So far it is the best analogy I have ever heard for society. Society is like this machine. A giant system that we are all part of; that clothes us; feeds us, and gives us education and employment. It is a giant system that we don’t truly understand and for many people don’t question. As a system though it is much harder to fix or to discover if there is something wrong. In the above analogy they noticed something was wrong because there were no longer any clothes. What if it was something far less obvious. Something like the food changed quality, or the children being educated in the machine didn’t know anything? That is when the analogy comes closer to society.  We may notice the problems but our way of fixing them is not so different to the people fixing the machine. It is often just a surface repair that doesn’t seek to understand the true cause of the problems.

That said, one of the problems with the analogy is that society is actually always changing. Society is not a ten thousand year old machine, even if that is often how we see talk about it. If it was then my generation would look no different to the previous one and the one before that and so on. There would be no change. You would be able to place me in any era and I would fit in. We know that isn’t true so why do we delude ourselves with the idea “We’ve always done it this way.” Every generation improves on what the previous generation did. Every generation looks at their experience and says ‘I didn’t like that part, but I liked that part, let’s make a society in which that part I didn’t like isn’t there.’ This occurs in a reflective way but it also occurs in a reflexive way. It is part of being human and part of the systems that connect us and our collective experience as social creatures.

The curious thing is how each generation seems to take the changes the next generation make so personally. They insult and degrade the next generation because it doesn’t match the society they were trying to make. They don’t want the next generation to make changes. They want to make the next generation just like theirs. If you seek to create no change in the way society functions then I think you will create that world where no one understands how the societal machine works and when a problem occurs will fix it in ways that cause more harm.

I’m glad I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance even if that is the only part I remember of it.

Mental Models and High School English

A mental model is the way we think about the world. They are beliefs, values, thoughts and feelings that we have about the world that have come from our society, our culture, our family and our friends. They are things that we don’t question because they have become part of who we are. This isn’t a bad thing. It is part of being human, however it is important to understand our mental models so that we can choose which models are the best for us. For example, I am Australian so I am very flexible about time. I am currently living in Japan which has a very rigid perspective on time. Since I am living in Japan I have found it essential to change my mental model knowing that if I don’t I will upset the people around me.

An amazing part of travelling is that you get a chance to question those mental models. When we visit another country we see a country with a different set of mental models. Some are similar to ours but there will always be differences. When we come into contact with another culture we can reflect on our own and learn more about ourselves and how we think about the world.

Not all of us can travel though, but we can still learn a language. A language is a form of mental model. It holds the way a group of people see and think about the world. In learning a language we can learn about different ways of seeing the world. In doing so we can understand our own life and upbringing. In this we can come to better understand our culture. We can appreciate the cultural ways of thinking that bring us a happier life and we can shed the ways of thinking that haven’t.

One of the interesting things about learning English is that it holds a wider range of perspectives than usual languages since it is truly a global language. Every nation with English as its national language has its own unique culture that changes the way English is used. Australians, people from the US, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Singaporeans to name a few all have their own mental models. You don’t just learn about one culture or one way of thinking. When you add that to the number of countries that learn English as a second language then you really gain a sense of just how many cultures are contributing to the mental modes available in English.

This brings me to the second part of this article’s title, high school English. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to observe the way English is taught in high schools in Japan. One of the things I noticed is that English language despite being a different way of seeing the world is being taught as a way of reinforcing Japanese perspectives. To repeat that, the subject English in Japan is used to teach Japanese moral education. I would not be surprised to find that that our countries treat language education the same way.  This means that a major benefit to learning a language, the chance to reflect on our own society and our own ways of thinking, has been removed.

To conclude, when you teach a language you should include the way that native users of that language think and why they speak the way they do. In doing so we can work towards creating a better way of living in which we combine the mental models of the world’s cultures.


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A baby is a blank slate

The thing that I have noticed most since having a child is that humans really are blank slates.  We have no instinct whatsoever.  This is so that we can adapt to any society that humanity makes.  We could be living in the worst imaginable society and we would adapt to it and even justify its existence to others.  That also means we could be living in the best possible society.  Society is what we make it.  It’s ridiculous that so much of our society is based on what has come before us.    That we do things because that is the way it’s always been done.  This is the worst excuse to do anything because it means we are doing it without thought or reason.  People even talk about human instinct as if it exists.  If we have an instinct it is to adapt to whatever society we are in.  That’s all.  Humans aren’t greedy we are born in a society that prizes greed so we become greedy.  Whatever we teach our children, whatever our society teaches the next generation is what society becomes.  With that in mind we can build a better society.