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To Let Learn: Remembering Dr. Ted Aoki

September 9, 2012

Terry Carson,

Department of Secondary Education,

University of Alberta

It is an honour to be asked to speak to you today about Ted Aoki. Like many of you, Ted was my teacher and mentor. And whether or not you were formally in one of his classes, worked along side him as a colleague, or witnessed one of his conference presentations, you knew him as a teacher. To be in his presence was to be in the presence of teaching.

As Doug and the Aoki family said in the epigram preceding their eloquent newspaper obituary announcement, quoting Henry Brooks Adams “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops”. I don’t think any of us can tell the extent of Ted Aoki’s influence, nor could he. But each of us knows how he has affected us personally in our ways of thinking, in how we relate to others, and how we have come to view the world. This is true education – in the sense of “leading out”. As Ted was fond of saying “education is not a journey, to be educated means to travel with a different view”. What one learned from Ted was to travel along one’s own path with a different view.

Many of us will still recall our first meeting with Ted. I first met him in 1973 when I enrolled in a Master’s program in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. I enrolled there on the advice of Bob Anderson, who Ted’s first PhD. graduate, and was then teaching at Memorial University in Newfoundland. I was a high school social studies teacher in Newfoundland at the time. Arriving at the U of A I was given an office in Room 201, a converted classroom housing about a dozen other graduate students. I had a desk in the middle of the room with the other Master’s students. Each of the four corners of the room was occupied by one of Ted’s doctoral students: Doug Ledgerwood, Andy Hughes, Don Wilson and Walt Werner. 

When I say I “met Ted in 1973” I did not see much of him that year. He was not my M.Ed. advisor. Even though I had come to Edmonton, because of his reputation – he had too many students to take me on. But I was in his Curriculum Evaluation class. Ted built the class around an evaluation of an audacious new values-oriented Alberta social studies curriculum. Along with Professor Lawrence Downey, he had secured a provincial government contract to evaluate this controversial new curriculum. And, typical of Ted, he had turned this project into a teaching opportunity. As a class we read challenging articles on then novel ideas of qualitative assessment, he encouraged class members to contribute ideas and bring in papers that we found interesting. I recall one entire session spent with the class simply trying to organize and catalogue the pile of papers on curriculum evaluation that we had been collecting.

Looking back, what was remarkable about this class was how engaged that we all became with the question of what it meant to evaluate a curriculum -- and at the same time we were practically helping to design the evaluation of this particular curriculum. Equally remarkable, was how Ted stepped back, de-centring himself from the process, and allowing attention to be turned to the question of evaluation itself. It was here also that the pedagogical geography of Room 201 became apparent -- although I certainly did not recognize it at the time. The Master’s students were learning from the doctoral students. Puzzling over the unfamiliar language of the academic papers we endlessly consulted our seniors – the PhD. students in the corner desks. Not only were they generous with their time, we also witnessed their learning as they wrestled with similar questions.

The doctoral students were in much closer and regular contact with Ted. Through them we witnessed Ted’s advice on course selection, choosing research topics, preparing for candidacy, etc. We were also privy to their frustrations. Studying with Ted was not always easy. I recall one of the doctoral students coming back to his desk frustrated that Ted wasn’t more encouraging of his desire to focus his dissertation on teaching. Ted asked him to “suspend his question for the moment”. (As I was to learn later, from June – this was the Japanese way of saying “no”). As the student recounted, he to Ted, “I’ve already suspended eight different questions”. Ted looked surprised and said, “really? Why don’t you write a paper about why you have suspended those earlier questions?”

It was often a puzzle to his students why Ted seemed more preoccupied with curriculum studies rather than he was with question of teaching, although he was intensely interested in question the relationship between curriculum and pedagogy. To be sure, one of his students, Max van Manen, has played a major role introducing and advancing the European tradition of pedagogical theorizing in North America. Certainly, Ted acknowledged the importance of Max’s work and the influence it had on his own thinking. Ted readily acknowledged his indebtedness to the ideas of students and colleagues in this way, because for him pedagogy was not a matter of the teacher leading, but of the teacher knowing what it is that should be followed. 

Ted Aoki came from a family of teachers. Both of his parents were graduates of teachers college in Japan, who had been invited to Canada, in 1910, by the Japanese community in Cumberland on Vancouver Island. Ted was born in Cumberland in 1919, the eldest of five children. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Commerce degree at UBC. But despite being born in Canada, and a member of  the Canadian army reserve in his university years, both Ted’s family, and June’s family as well, were forcibly relocated to the southern Alberta prairie in 1942. Like all Japanese Canadians on the west coast they were forced to move inland. And with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, for the next three years Ted worked picking sugar beets and cutting timber. Toward the end of the war he applied to teach, hearing of a severe shortage of teachers at the time, he put in an application. As Ted wrote later, his application was turned down. “In spite of the teacher shortage, it seemed that there was still one too many Japanese teachers.”  After war, Ted was admitted to the Calgary Normal School, although as a Japanese Canadian he was not permitted to live within the city limits of Calgary.

Eventually, beginning in 1945, Ted went on to teach elementary school and high school for a number of years in various locations in southern Alberta. He became known as a great teacher. In fact, it was his reputation as a great teacher that first brought Ted Aoki to the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. This happened in 1964. At the time Ted was assistant principal at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute. Needing a methods instructor in secondary social studies, and hearing of Ted Aoki’s reputation, Lawrence Downey, then Chair of Secondary Education, invited him to join the Department. Ted accepted the offer, and moved to Edmonton with his wife June and their three children Douglas, Michelle, and Edward. 

His own teaching has been something of a mystery both to Ted and his students. At a seminar convened on the occasion of his retirement from the Department of Secondary Education in 1985 he was asked about how he so skillfully used the technique of silence in his teaching. One of the former students commented: “You seemed to know exactly when to keep quiet -- you really forced us to think by letting the important questions just sit out there.” “How did you do that?” Ted greeted the remark with a smile, and after a little more silence he replied, “I guess that was because I didn’t know the answer.”

Of course, Ted’s use of silence was not a technique, any more than was there a clear answer called for by the thought-provoking questions posed in his classes. He would concur with Heidegger’s observation that “to become a teacher is something else entirely from becoming a learned professor”. As Heidegger notes, “Teaching is more difficult than learning, because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.” It is a “letting learn” that kept Ted’s teaching fresh and vibrant over a career that lasted long past his formal retirement from the U of A, as he went on, post-retirement, to teach courses at UBC, UVic, Calgary, Lethbridge, McGill and LSU well into this 80s. And it is this posture of “letting learn” that has provided the source of inspiration for his students to pursue so many interesting and varied questions, enabling Ted to become, in the words of Bill Pinar, “a legendary figure in North American curriculum studies”.

Ted’s reticence to speak about his teaching in no way signals a reluctance to think autobiographically. Rather his reticence stems from the fact that teaching is who he is, he doesn’t like to talk about what he does.  For Ted, everyday activities became pedagogical occasions. Like going with him to a traditional Japanese restaurant – he points out how small curtain stretched across the door of the restaurant forces you to bow upon entering. Ted remarks “this is meant to bring you closer to the earth, the humus” – “it is intended to remind you to be humble, and to be thankful”. He says nothing more than this, but you remember the lesson. 

Autobiographical reflections, on the other hand, have been a constant source of theorizing for Ted. As Cynthia Chambers has pointed out, referring to Ted’s characterization of what he regarded as his own “doubled schooling” – growing up Japanese and attending English-language public school in a small British Columbia town, becoming in the process “a mixed-up hybrid kid”. Cynthia indicates that Ted prefers to dwell on the hyphen, in the space between being Japanese and Canadian. Indeed, his exploration of the space between has been one of the most enduring and central features of his scholarship -- what Ted likes to call the “conjunctive space”. Dwelling in the conjunctive space has provided him with an uncanny ability to articulate the life-worlds of teaching and to connect with teachers. Ted has simply and yet profoundly understood that to be a teacher is to live in uncomfortable space of tension between the curriculum-as-plan, and the curriculum-as-lived in actual schools and classrooms.

Although Ted, himself, rarely spoke of his teaching, probably no one has analyzed Ted’s teaching more perceptively than Bill Pinar in his introduction to “Curriculum in a New Key: The Collected Works of Ted T. Aoki”. Bill’s essay introducing this volume of some thirty or so of Ted’s papers, explains how Aoki was able to turn his various presentations -- be they to audiences of teachers, school administrators, or curriculum scholars -- into pedagogical events. The “Curriculum in a New Key” collection, put together by Bill and his co-editor Rita Irwin, has become an invaluable resource and will be an enduring record of Ted’s scholarship.

In closing, I think we should now hear from Ted himself talking to teachers. The words are taken from a presentation he made in 1991 to an international conference of social studies educators, held here in Vancouver. The conference theme was the Pacific Rim. The title of Ted’s talk was “Bridges that Rim the Pacific”, which has been reprinted in the Pinar/ Irwin collection. In this invited keynote address, Ted cautioned his audience that “social studies educators will do well to remember that any true bridge is more than a physical bridge. It is a clearing—a site—into which earth, sky, mortals and divinities are admitted. Indeed, it is a dwelling place for humans who, in their longing to be together, belong together”.

As we hear again these words of Ted Aoki, we are reminded that “a teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops”

Thank you, Ted.