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What I Learned About Self-Directed Learning In Tokyo

During my Gap Year with UnCollege, I spent 3 months in Tokyo, Japan teaching English, doing housekeeping, learning Japanese, touristing around and making connections with super cool people. While I was there, I learned a few valuable insights about self-directed learning, specifically self-directed learning in another culture as contrasted with the culture I’ve lived in my whole life.

Japan is a place where conformity is valued highly, especially in the school and work culture of fast-paced Tokyo. It is said in Japan that if everyone behaves in the same way, they keep the harmony of the country. That’s a heavy burden for anyone who is at all “different.”

I was working in an English conversation cafe teaching English in a more informal setting than most Japanese people were used to; using conversation instead of lessons to teach. The first thing I always heard from newcomers was that this was different than anything they had ever experienced. In school, they “learned” English by studying spelling and grammar lessons. Even though they studied English for the majority of their schooling (all of middle and high school), when they came out of school, they couldn’t speak a word. All those years, they never practiced actually speaking English. They could read and (kind of) understand English, but they had no idea what it sounded like or how it felt in their mouths as they said it. They didn’t know how to form the sounds of the alphabet or make words or sentences.

At the cafe I worked at, everything was based around speaking and listening. New, random vocabulary wasn’t dished out using worksheets that were due at a certain time on a certain day. Instead, when someone encountered a word they didn’t know, they asked a question, looked it up in an English-to-Japanese dictionary or googled it on their phone. After they understood the word and how it fit into the sentence, then we would continue our conversation. So, what if someone came in knowing no English whatsoever? I would get a third party to translate between us and talk really slowly and simply. A lot of people would just sit and listen, occasionally asking questions to someone in Japanese, until one day, they would venture into speaking a few sentences of broken English. I saw this happen many times, and it always seemed like a brilliant transformation of the student.

While I went through my 3 months there, learning, working and touristing, I made notes in my head about self-directed learners and what I learned about them that crossed all lines of culture. Though there was a lot that I learned, the following three points are, I think, the most important things I learned during my time there.

  1. Self-Directed Learners Are Different

While many people are equipped to become self-directed learners, not everyone who can will. That said, not everyone is equipped to do it. The people who have already crossed that line are different than the mainstream of people inside their culture. And they were probably already “weird” before they started educating themselves. Self-directed learners are different, we use our time differently than most, and are usually ambitious as fuck. I met students who wanted to learn up to 7 languages, were freelance translators, wanted to change the education system and even owned their own businesses. I also learned that it was often viewed as a bad thing in Japan to be different and that these people were taking a risk socially by learning to speak English and pursue the other things they were learning or doing.

Self-directed learners are viewed as different, no matter where they live, because they are learning outside the system. We’re usually always viewed as different to begin with, but the fact that we learn on our own definitely is another thing that sets us apart. Usually, self-directed learners are also very ambitious. And you have to be in order to teach yourself something and really follow through on that.

The best self-directed learners are proud of that which sets them apart. The students I had that did the best were the ones who would look to see if someone was listening and then say to me “I’m weird.” And smile. In Japan, this is a big thing to do because their culture is very centered around conformity and the idea of being “normal.” Some students would even go on short angry rants about how they hate this about Japan. But other students, usually the ones who didn’t try too hard and didn’t return often, whenever someone would point out that they might be weird or different, they would come back with “No I’m not. I’m normal!” And they would say it urgently, looking unsettled, an unspoken fear showing on their faces. The more they embraced their weirdness, the better they did. It was a really interesting correlation I found as I taught there over the course of 3 months.

  1. You can’t do it alone

This I found in my own experiences as I ventured around Tokyo. Without the help of other people, I would have not gotten much accomplished. I would’ve spent most of my time lost, probably would’ve gone broke and might not have been able to muster up the courage to face culture shock and the language barrier every day. Alone, I would’ve learned little to no Japanese. With help of friends and teachers in Japan, I learned enough to be able to survive any given day in Japan. With the help of friends, I found work and therefore money. I met friends of the friends I made while teaching and ended up making lasting friendships with people I still talk to.

One of my goals while I was in Japan was to keep a daily writing practice. Without Hisa, a friend I met at the cafe where I taught English, I wouldn’t have known where outside my house I could write and research on my computer (most coffee shops in Japan don’t have wifi), and I wouldn’t have had anyone to keep me accountable. After meeting him, we started hanging out at the library, writing together between the hours of my morning housekeeping job and my night English teaching job. He did all his writing freelance, so he made his hours fit with mine, which was awesome. He also made sure I wrote at least 1,000 words a day.

Just because you’re self-directed doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. If you want good results, you really shouldn’t. With other people to help motivate and keep you accountable, you achieve a lot more than you would alone, not to mention that they can introduce you to new connections.

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself

When I was in Japan, I kept falling short of my goals in respect to language learning and writing. The more I tried, the more I failed. And when I failed, I was super hard on myself for it. I would get mad at myself and ruin my own day because of it.

In contrast, when I was teaching English and my students beat up on themselves even a little bit, I would call them out and tell them to stop. I would tell them that they’re learning and it’s okay to not be perfect, and that they needed to be nicer to themselves. It took me a while to realise what I hypocrite I was being. It took me even longer to take my own advice and put it into practice.

Often, we expect too much from ourselves, and when we don’t meet our goals, we become angry at ourselves. We go over all the reasons we failed. We beat ourselves down and that doesn’t help anything. This is probably the most important thing I learned in Japan. That I need to be kind and understanding to myself instead of expecting to succeed every time and getting mad over failures of any kind. I thought, if my students did this, I would call them out. And there was no one to call me out most of the time, so I didn’t catch on to this bad trend until a lot later than I should’ve. There’s a balance between completing goals, being held accountable and just letting up on all the pressure we put on ourselves.

In the end, we won’t get as much done, learn as much or be as awesome if we spend a ton of time being down on ourselves. Instead, if we let up on ourselves and treat ourselves like people, we’ll bounce back from failure faster and learn more than we could otherwise. We’ll be better at communicating with others and managing our stress, which leads to a higher awesomeness level and overall a better life.

So there you have it: embrace your weird, get buddies to learn alongside and be nice to yourself. I learned a lot during my three months in Japan, but I would say that these three things are the most important things I learned. And I’m not a prime example of someone who is a master of any of these. I struggle with them all the time. But I’m working towards something better every day. And that’s what matters. It’s the journey, not the destination. And if you keep that in mind, the journey will be ever more meaningful for you and you’ll grow way more than you would’ve otherwise.

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