We had a great time on our visit to Japan last summer, but we had one incredibly frustrating experience, on our first day in Yokohama. We couldn’t bring three full weeks’ worth of clothing with us, so we brought a bit more than one week’s worth, and planned to get things cleaned there. The hotel laundry rates were outlandish, so we loaded up a suitcase with dirty laundry, and when we got to Yokohama, we asked directions to a local laundromat (Japanese word: “ko-in ran-da-ri,” or “coin laundry”). The nice lady at the hotel desk gave us a tourist map, with a route indicated on it.
This created a problem, because when given a map and directions, I treated them as I would in a Western country– saying “OK, we go to this major street, go up three cross streets, and turn right, and it should be there.” That failed to turn up anything resembling a coin laundry, and led to a great deal of stomping around in the heat.
In retrospect, I needed to interpret the map in the Japanese manner in which it was intended, namely “Here is a map that will get you into the general vicinity of the thing you’re looking for. Then ask somebody how to get the rest of the way there.” Which is eventually what we did– we asked a security guard, who directed us to a traffic cop, who said “I’m not from here, but the guy on the next block is,” and the guy on the next block knew where the coin laundry was, in a tiny little shop on a narrow street in a residential neighborhood next to a great big temple. The street in question wasn’t even shown on the map.
It occurred to me this morning, that in some senses, what I’m trying to do with lab pedagogy is rather like giving directions in Japan. Or, rather, from a student perspective, it feels like getting directions in Japan.
For the lab this morning, I deliberately did not give the class detailed directions, but just outlined the basic idea, and asked them to invent their own procedure. The lab I’m doing this afternoon is even more extreme– it’s a junior/ senior level lab class, so I give them some general information about how to make the measurement, and ask them to read some papers about related but not identical experiments.
What I’m doing is giving them enough information to get into the general vicinity of what I want them to measure, and asking them to find the rest of the route from other sources– either working it out themselves, or looking things up on the Internet or in the textbook.
I think this is ultimately more valuable for the students, in that it’s a closer match for what they will end up doing in real life– scientific research is not a three-hour lab, with an experimental outcome known in advance. In science, or in engineering (where some of these students are headed), you’re givena problem to solve, and possibly a general outline of how to start on it, but after that, you’re on your own. The information you need to complete the solution may be out there on the Internet, or in a journal, or in somebody else’s brain, but you ened to figure out how to find it.
I think it’s more realistic and useful, but I suspect that many of my students find it frustrating, in much the same way that I found that afternoon in Yokohama frustrating. When you expect to be told exactly where to go and what to do, getting directions that amount to “Go here, and then ask around” is an intensely frustrating experience.
Of course, it is more educational, even if you’re just trying to find a coin laundry– after all, in the course of that afternoon, we also located a cash machine and a cheap convenience store, which came in handy later.
The problem is really one of expectations– when I got handed a map, I expected something very different than what the person giving me the map intended. On the educational side of the analogy, we have students who have learned to expect a particular thing from lab classes and lab handouts, and that’s not what I’m trying to do. I need to do a better job of explaining my intent, in the same way that the nice people at the Royal Park Hotel needed to make it clear to the ignorant Westerners that the map was not meant to be taken as giving extremely precise directions all the way there.