Friday, August 31, 2018

Beginning of the Academic Year and the Shokunin Spirit

The beginning of fall is a time when I like to reflect on what my goals are as a teacher. It's time to look at work what worked, what needs improvement, and see if new ideas from the profession can be implemented. The way I taught 10 or 15 years ago is very different than what I do today, because of this continuous effort to move forward.

One of my colleagues who teaches college math was once asked, "Why fix what isn't broken?" in the context of why work on improving classes we have been teaching for many years. Course evaluations are solid, and the instructor is well regarded. The question was meant in the sense of you're doing a good job, so why bother with putting in more effort.

The notion that captures an effective response to this question is the shokunin spirit or the viewpoint of an artisan or craftsman with a deeper sense of social obligation. (Shokunin spirit was highlighted in the movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) In this view, it's not about getting there or making it to some achievement level, but to continually improve, strive for innovation, and give a 100% effort for yourself and the welfare of society. It's like the notion of practice makes perfect combined with running through the finish line. Why not work your hardest? Why let up, before the race is over? Why would you want to be the person who just coasts in?

There is a satisfaction of having tried your best and having found ways to innovate and improve, even if it's small steps that others won't notice.  The notion of hard work is sometimes viewed with a negative connotation in the U.S., where hard work is associated with slog, suffering, dreadful repetition. But that's where the point of view of the artisan comes in to lift things up. Artisans are passionate about their work, and hone, refine, and innovate as part of the process of doing what they do, because their process and work is intrinsically interesting and rewarding to them.

Teaching can be practiced with this same spirit. Yes, we could get away with passing out dittos from the 80s and hitting the play button. Or repeating our lines from the lectures notes we wrote a few years after we got out of grad school. An alternative is to look honestly at issues, read articles from Math Ed research, and collaborate with other professionals. We can learn about the documented issues and go to work on trying to make progress on some of them. Conceptual understanding, problem solving, math anxiety, DFW rates, equity and inclusion are not solved problems in college math, the last time I checked. There's a ton of work to be done. We got some fixin' to do!

"Why fix what isn't broken?" is not the question we should be asking. We should be asking, "What are we going to work on next?" As I head into my 19th year of college math teaching, my personal goal is to stay fresh, look for opportunities to make improvements to increase student success, and enjoy the daily process of becoming a better teacher.

Best wishes for a successful academic year, and I hope you also find a way to capture and find your own shokunin spirit!