Thoughts on Teaching and Psychology

I’m very sympathetic to the ideas of Alfred Adler, a fringe psychologist contemporary to Freud. Now because I have a soapbox, you get to hear about Adler and how his work helps me understand teaching, especially my shortcomings in the classroom as well as the limitations of classroom education.

Adler, simply

Adler is not well known by his name, but some of his ideas have anonymously entered common understanding. He coined the term “lifestyle” for example. Some other things may be recognisable though less well known.

One of his key concepts was surrounding responsibility and respect for boundaries. A great deal of strife and distress in the world comes from people refusing to take responsibility for what they ought (their own feelings and actions) and claiming responsibility where they oughtn’t (other people’s feelings and actions). Individuals might tend towards one extreme or the other, but frequently they’re mixed because humans are inconsistent hypocrites. Arguments in intimate relationships are a great place to observe both, where blame (refusal to take responsibility) and unnecessary guilt (wrongly claiming responsibility) are the fundamental destructive behaviours. This is called “separation of tasks.”

You might question whether overextending your responsibility is really that bad, and I’d be inclined to agree somewhat. I’d say you can’t take too much responsibility for yourself, but you can take too much responsibility for others. Adler advises against feeling bad about how other people feel, especially how other people feel about things, third parties, and you. It can encourage others into denial of responsibility. Both sides are then distracted from finding their own solutions.

This philosophy supports an extreme respect for boundaries, and an attitude of consent and individual responsibility in all kinds of interaction. An implication which Adler explored is the idea that we have no right to be emotionally affected by the way others act with respect to their own success or goals. If we look on someone with pity or contempt or even praise, that implicitly judges them by our standards rather than their own. Adler admonishes us to, if we care for someone, encourage them to develop according to their own interests.

In child-rearing and education, he expects this counterintuitive approach to ultimately yield positive results, in that children who follow their own interests naturally explore the world and remain engaged. This is the idea behind autonomous education as practised by some home educators.

Here’s how it works in practice. When I walk into a kids’ class, I take several agendas with me. One is to teach the kids something useful. Another is to try and make sure they have a good time, because it keeps them focused, it makes my life easier, and I’m kindly disposed towards kids and like to see them smiling and laughing. Another agenda is to carry out the lesson in the format my employer and the kids’ parents expect, backed by my higher-order agendas to be a good employee and keep my job.

The latter agenda frequently conflicts with the agendas the children take into the classroom, which I don’t need to tell you can be literally anything. On an abstract level they want to have fun and avoid boredom, but this only sometimes correlates with the prescriptions of my lesson plan.

Now, experience and Adler tell me that if I force my agenda on them, they’ll end up frustrated and resentful. If I bow to their agendas, the class won’t happen and I would be rebelling against the parents’ agenda and the company’s agenda. Whereas if I respect their desires then I have some chance of encouraging them to respect mine.

An example of this working is giving the children leadership roles in games, or choice over what game we play. We have an exercise where one person calls out a flashcard, several of which are laid on the table, and the others compete to grab it first. In classes of more than two, I initially name a card, and then give the winner the prize of getting to call out the next card. Sometimes I join in if they know the answer and are being sluggish. This strategy has several merits. I remain in ultimate control of the game, but delegate authority in a meaningful way. The kids stay focused on the language we’re studying and feel that I’m recognising their desires to some degree. It keeps the game balanced, so the fastest student doesn’t get every card.

An example of failure to apply these principles is a class I did with one quite young student, who understandably just wanted to play and fortunately was a bit interested in his new textbook and all the colourful pages. Even the right page, for a while.

At one point I made the mistake of letting him grab some flashcards. I wanted to play a guessing game. He wanted to play a tag game/ask me for the cards game. So I asked for the cards, and he gave them to me one by one. Except for the last, he wanted to keep ahold of it. I found an opportunity to snatch it away and complete the set I needed, and grabbed it. Unfortunately, I got it. Although he didn’t make a major fuss, it immediately hit me that I had totally flouted Adler’s principles. I had subordinated his agenda to my own through physical prowess. I immediately gave it back, and he eventually returned it to me (not sure whether or not that was the right move, having reached that point).

The point of this story is to illustrate that I don’t think it’s right to view a child’s interests as less important than my own. It’s horribly arrogant. Sure, I’ve got bills to pay and a job to keep and children to educate, but why should a child care about my interests, interests he doesn’t understand? Especially if I’m unwilling to do the same? To be clear, I do recognise the differences between adults and children, and the need for clear consequences in establishing proper boundaries of behavior, but who would respect commands from a hypocrite?

In practice, the key to avoiding all sorts of problems in class is to keep control of all the materials, so that the students can only focus on what the teacher gives them to focus on. I’m somewhat sceptical of the usefulness of colourful classroom displays. For the same reason, I prefer teaching in a small classroom where the students have individual chairs, as there’s less opportunity to run around and fidget. The key is making the activity I want to do the most interesting available thing, and part of this is removing distractions. The other part is getting them invested in the activity.

Practical concerns aside, the kind of teaching I aspire to is one which respects the interests of my students as equal in merit and importance to my own, in the hope that they will return the favour. I think it’s probably impossible to run a classroom on entirely Adlerian principles, at least with only a teacher’s status. The Summerhill School, which offered only voluntary classes for all students probably came close. Ultimately it’s parents who have most of the opportunity to help their children develop healthy behaviours by showing them respect and by doing their part to enforce appropriate boundaries on responsibility. The point is, it’s not a matter of control or discipline, it’s a matter of leading by example. Every parent fears that their kid is observant enough to repeat swear words from a very young age; so why not hope that they’re smart enough to notice respect? When adults fail at this, I think it’s usually because they judge children according to how much they sympathise with typical adults’ goals, which is thoroughly self-centred. Children (and other people in general) ought to be viewed as individuals incomparable to each other, with equally valid interests.


Japan: State of Emergency

You may hear that there’s a state of emergency in Japan. Here’s what that means.

Today the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures including Tokyo, Osaka, and my home prefecture of Fukuoka. Most of the affected areas have large urban centres. Fukuoka is relatively remote and has some, but not many, confirmed coronavirus cases. It was added to the declaration on the request of the prefectural governor, who wanted more authority over the distribution of medical supplies during the crisis.

The state of emergency is not a European style lockdown. The Prime Minister did not even have the authority to declare it without the go-ahead of various advisors. His declaration gives prefectures the power to implement local control measures.

As far as I understand it, no new rules are being put in place for ordinary people. The state of emergency allows prefectures to ask people to refrain from going out as much as possible. They will also be able to commandeer business premises to aid treatment efforts, close public spaces like malls, and may impose other regulations on specific businesses.

My workplace seems unaffected, although my schedule has changed somewhat based on demand. I do not expect major disruption to ordinary life in Fukuoka. Basic services including restaurants will remain open. No mass closures are mandated, and I don’t think they’d be allowed.

The government expects people to avoid going out and companies to allow people to work from home where possible. Public spaces already appear more empty, so I think there will be a major impact just because the government asked nicely. It remains to be seen whether it will be sufficient, but I do expect it will slow the already gradual spread without impacting my routine heavily.


Travel, minimalism, dopamine.

I’ve been housebound for a few days due to illness (not coronavirus), and decided it was a perfect chance to try out an idea I’ve seen on the interwebs, the “dopamine detox.” I follow a few productivity gurus who favour it.

The idea is basically that a modern hedonistic lifestyle gives us way too much reward (chemically, dopamine) for way less effort than evolution has calibrated us for. Basically I agree. There’s so much sensory information now that for most people it’s pleasant but thoroughly boring to just sit on the porch and admire the view.

The proposed solution is to regularly set aside a day of dopamine deprivation, which by contrast will make hard-earned rewards feel more rewarding. I’ll get to how it went, but first: interior design.

I’m very pleased with the functionality of my tiny Japanese apartment. The bathroom doubles as a drying cupboard, and I can’t understate how useful that is. However, despite moving here with one suitcase, I quickly managed to make a mess. My foldaway table was stacked high with notebooks, plates, and spare change. So was my spare chair. The kitchen was always a trial. So I decided to try minimalism while I still could.

Time Ferris, guru of hands-off business and off the wall lifestyle experimentation, said that travel promotes asceticism. When you can only carry what you need, you learn to live with it. When you pack less than you need, you find out how necessary were the things you forgot. With this in mind, I’ve made some small changes.

My chairs are stored away, and my foldaway table folded to make a nice sideboard for family photos, my tea whisk, and a bit of miscellaneous apparel. The new coffee table is the only bit of furniture touching the floor. It seems obvious I guess, but I’m noticing that if I keep the floor clear of everything except, as you see, my slippers, there is nowhere for mess to appear. Everything must be put away properly because there’s nowhere for it to be put away improperly. (It has definitely helped to have way more storage space than I need, so I have a place for suitcases and bags, good boxes, etc.

The lack of chairs is taking some getting used to, but they weren’t that comfy in the first place. I’m getting used to sitting cross-legged, kneeling, and leaning against the wall and I’m pretty sure it’s good for my flexibility.

Remaining problem areas include my shelves, which need organising, my kitchen shelves the same, and the TV desk which is the resting place of some toiletries and random debris from my pockets waiting to be sorted into a bin or a shelf. For the oranges, I have no excuse.

My kitchen also needs some attention, mainly because the rubbish collection system is complicated and I have a backlog of glass bottles and tetra packs waiting to be put out.

So what’s the point? Reduce mess, increase functionality. I was amazed that a place could get so messy with such a small amount of stuff, but it can. So I’ve removed most of my surfaces and decreed the floor a non-orange-thing-free-zone.

I’m pretty happy with the results, but didn’t notice any real change in my behaviour until a few days ago when I tried a light dopamine detox. I haven’t tried one to date because I got into the trap of thinking that leisure and entertainment on my weekend were more important, but with a few days to spare, I figured why not?

This dopamine fast was not extreme by any means. Some people say you should go without food, electronics, or human contact for the day, and eliminate low-cost rewards from your regular life as well. I didn’t go so extreme. I set myself some rules. No pure entertainment TV or reading. Some political content allowed, but mostly nonfiction, educational, and motivational videos. Facebook was out but discord was OK due to the lack of regular new content on my usual servers. My goal was to see what would motivate me in the absence of light entertainment (basically cat videos), in a near-empty room. I’ve also been eating very simply and haven’t touched alcohol for a week.

I ended up doing a lot of cleaning, reading some nonfiction books which I haven’t done in a while, and a lot of research and initial work into some projects outside this blog. This is day three free from light entertainment and today alone I’ve written 2500 words for an eBook about moving to Japan (watch this space), including some research. I’m feeling majorly motivated to accomplish things. I’ve done this post in less than an hour. Obviously all achievable, but unusual for me to smash it all out in one go.

Why doesn’t this work usually?

I think when people find themselves unable to access their usual light entertainment, they don’t immediately look for better alternatives. They look for a way to get it back. I’m gently but definitely removing bad, unproductive options for dopamine and replacing them with productive options while exposing myself mainly to media that raises my expectations about the value of what I’m doing.

Long story short, I feel great, not burned out, and you should get rid of all your chairs. Seriously, maximise floorspace ruthlessly.



One of the best things about being a foreigner in an ethnically homogenous country is being ignored by certain people: the ones who give leaflets to strangers or ask for money for a good cause.

Living in London, I mastered the art of positioning myself in the crowd such that I almost never passed a fundraiser without someone else in between. I would increase my speed as I and a stranger passed the fundraiser in the same direction to maintain the blockage until eye contact was no longer possible.

In Japan though, pamphleteers and fundraisers mostly assume (rightly, and for more than one reason) that there’s no point in calling out to me. Once every couple of weeks, I pass by some besuited men passing out leaflets by a bus stop on my way to the train station. To a mix of reactions, they try to approach passers-by to hand out leaflets. They ignore me completely, as I try really hard not to grin. All I have to do is look foreign and they ignore me completely.

The exception to this formula for success is pamphleteers who intentionally speak English. A couple of times in Kyoto, I ended up with leaflets written in English (one of them for a new religion), because someone called out to me in English and I was so shocked by the novelty, thinking at first they must either know me or actually be a lost tourist from another Asian country looking for help or directions in English. (Maybe I should train myself to react in French?)

For the most part though, looking foreign is great for getting around without strangers pestering you in the city, and I wish I could do it at home too.