Willful Ignorance or Mindful Intelligence?

Paul Raymond Doyon, Associate Professor, Utsunomiya University


In order for students to develop critical thinking skills, they first and foremost seriously need to learn how to THINK, period. A few years ago I tried a little experiment with approximately 400 students at one of Japan’s top ten universities. I told the students a true story about a comment a former prime minister of New Zealand made about Australia. I had the story translated into Japanese to make sure there were no misunderstandings and explained cultural differences related to the humor of these two countries.

The story goes like this: New Zealand and Australia have an agreement where the citizens of both countries can go and live in each other’s countries and receive all benefits that the citizens of each respective country would receive. The problem was that more New Zealanders would go to Australia than the other way around and many ended up living on welfare. When a reporter asked the then prime minister of NZ what he thought about this problem he replied that every time a New Zealander goes to Australia the average IQ of both countries goes up. Now, out of approximately 400 students only one student could figure out why. Furthermore, this was one of the so-called “stupid” students at this university—because he did not have to take the entrance examination for admission. He said naturally this was because New Zealanders are smarter than Australians but that any New Zealander who would want to go to Australia must be less intelligent than your average New Zealander. In order to understand this joke, one must be able to make logical inferences—and we might assume that despite all the abilities to memorize and regurgitate these students were lacking this basic skill.

When I first came to Japan I had a student to whom I was trying to teach the difference between It is and They are. When I asked him what color my eyes were, he replied, “It is blue.” And despite his inability to grasp the grammar that I was trying to teach him, I was perplexed by his answer because my eyes are actually brown. I even had him look into my eyes and asked him in Japanese what color they were. He replied again that they were blue. Obviously, he had developed a misconception that foreigners all had blue eyes and this was overriding his ability to actually perceive reality. The map is not the territory—and his cognitive map seemed to be a creative, yet gross misrepresentation, of reality.

Recently, the idea of noticing has become quite popular in ELT literature. It is just as important that students are able to notice—and then correct—their mistakes as it is for teachers to notice problems (e.g., Takayuki sleeping at the back of the class, etc.) in the classroom and to then do something about them. Many of us have experienced second-language learners who continuously fail to notice their mistakes and teachers who over the years keep on ignoring sleeping Takayuki. In both cases problems are ignored—either willfully or not—and hence remained unsolved. Thus, we might very well be able to say that ignoring (無視すること)is the opposite of noticing (気付くこと). Furthermore, when we notice that the word ignore is the root of the word ignorance(無知), we might also be able to posit that mindful intelligence is rooted in noticing.

If we were to place the notion of noticing on the Experiential Learning Cycle, which is described and developed by David A. Kolb (1984),it would certainly be placed in the vicinity of the Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation nodes (in the Divergent Quadrant) of the cycle which also includes Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation as modalities of learning (See Figure 1). Hence, Kolb places perception (contrasted with conception) and what he calls apprehension (contrasted with comprehension) at the experiential node of the experiential learning cycle.

Students who spend too much time and brain power via rote memorization and regurgitation of disconnected facts and figures may not be developing their abilities to connect the dots and put the pieces of the puzzle together so to speak.

Furthermore, an overemphasis on concepts may be blinding the students to the original percepts needed to cultivate an intelligence gained via experience.


Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 

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