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Portrait 3: Japanese Toothpick (Tsumayōji)]

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Presentation Idea


Use the “Japanese Toothpick (Tsumayōji)” illustration to teach the power of expanding horizons of observation and seeing something can be completely different. These toothpicks can be purchased online at Amazon by searching for Japanese toothpicks. A container of 500 toothpicks is less than $5. Distribute a Western-style toothpick and a Japanese toothpick to each attendee. Have them analyze and consider the difference. Then teach them the unique design of the Japanese toothpick. Close by emphasizing the symbolic message and key improvement principle.

Metaphor Description


As cultural practices are imitated and repeated over time, they become ingrained and difficult to change. They also place significant limits on our horizons of observation—the boundaries of what tools, interactions, and behaviors we have been exposed to and imagine as possible within a given social context (Hutchins, 1993, p. 52). We imitate what we have seen and grow accustomed to what we know and have always known. Sometimes the best way to expand our horizon of observation with a particular practice is to place ourselves in a completely new context and observe another approach that jolts our thinking, causing us to view our own culture and practices from a fresh perspective.

Consider the cultural practice for using a toothpick as an illustration of this point. An individual who has little or no experience outside of Western culture will pay almost no attention to the design of a typical Western-style toothpick. It’s a practical tool people use to clean their teeth. Both ends of the toothpick are sharpened, so it can be used multiple times with either side. It’s cheap, simple, and disposable—nothing special about it. It’s likely that most people in Western culture have never considered the possibility of a toothpick designed another way.

Now consider the design and cultural practice for using a Japanese toothpick (tsumayōji). At a first glance one might notice a few obvious similarities. It’s sharp on one end and has a similar length and width, but it also has some distinct differences that can be quickly overlooked and underappreciated. When using the tsumayōji, a Japanese person always covers his or her mouth with one hand while using the other hand to maneuver the toothpick for cleaning. This is considered proper etiquette and prevents the individual from accidentally flicking any loose food particles on dining companions. It also stems from an ancient Buddhist belief that showing any bone in public (including teeth) is dirty and inappropriate.

Following the same careful attention to cleanliness, after using the toothpick, Japanese are careful not to place the used tip of the tsumayōji directly on a dirty table or plate. Instead, the tsumayōji itself is designed with a built-in mechanism that becomes a holder for the business end of the toothpick. There are two narrow ridges carved into the decorative end of the tsumayōji. The lowest ridge (see image in the presentation slides) can be folded and snapped off, so the toothpick is now separated into two parts. The small part with the remaining decorative ridge is set on the table, and the business end fits snugly in the ridge as a holder for the tsumayōji, much like a chopstick holder. This protects the toothpick from contamination with the table, so it can be used again later in the meal as needed. It also signals to others that the toothpick has already been used, so they don’t accidentally pick it up, assuming it’s clean.

The tsumayōji illustrates several values in Japanese culture such as attention to detail, cleanliness, proper etiquette, careful craftsmanship, and elegant presentation. A comparison with the Western-style toothpick also reveals several values of Western culture, such as practicality, functionality, simplicity, and the value of economy and efficiency over elegance or presentation.

Both toothpicks clean teeth, but coming from a Western perspective, being exposed to the tsumayōji offers a completely different view and expands the boundaries of possibilities for a how a toothpick might be designed and used. It also serves as a catalyst for reflection on the values and traditions that underlie one’s practice and routines, which otherwise would remain unnoticed and unexamined.

The same is true with teaching practices. Teaching is a cultural activity that has been imitated and learned over time from at least 16 years of observation that all educators experience growing up as students in classrooms. As a result, teachers are accustomed to certain methods or cultural scripts for teaching math or science, or any subject, and can’t easily see beyond that horizon to imagine other possibilities (Gallimore, 1996).

Exploring a variety of examples from other countries and school communities is one way to broaden horizons and gain exposure to alternative practices—both for teaching and for the process of improving teaching. Sometimes even observing and studying examples of teaching with colleagues in the same school or district, who have set aside traditional scripts to investigate and learn alternative approaches, can help catalyze deep and meaningful reflection and create the circumstances for change.


Presentation Notes

















Retrieved from the companion website for Teaching Better: Igniting and Sustaining Instructional Improvement by Bradley A. Ermeling and Genevieve Graff-Ermeling. Copyright © 2016 by Corwin. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, www.corwin.com


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