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Raku - a metaphor for teaching, learning, and living

As I've written in this column before, I've been living in Australia for the past two years, and have recently entered a course to study Fine Arts, focusing on ceramics. My recent articles have discussed various aspects of my life and studies in Australia. This month, I'd like to write a bit about an experience I've had recently in firing some pottery by a method called "Raku". It seems to be a human characteristic to compare one experience with another to see similarities and differences - metaphorizing - and it's certainly something I like to do. Although nothing is a completely perfect metaphor for another thing, comparing one thing with another often helps us see both things more clearly.

"Raku", as it is used in English, is a method of firing ceramics that has been adopted from a traditional Japanese method. What in English has quite a general stylistic reference point, in Japan, Raku refers to a method which can only be practiced by a single family, and has been for the past 15 generations over the past 5 centuries. As with many things thought to be "uniquely Japanese", it has it's roots in China, and, in fact, the father of the original Raku family was from China. (for information in both Japanese and English on Raku ware visit the homepage of the Raku Museum in Kyoto or, better yet, visit the museum itself!!!!)

When something from one culture, or indeed one person, is touched by another, it changes, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes greatly. It always bothers me when something is described as "uniquely Japanese" or "uniquely Australian" or uniquely anything. I believe, though we're all unique, we're all part of other things that should be recognized, if not specifically because it's impossible to trace all our influences, at least in principle. I personally think it's important and valuable to mix cultures, races and ideas, though there are others who value something which I think is an illusion - purity.

Raku is now practiced by potters around the world. It changes everytime someone tries it. For a lovely description filled with examples and philosophy of how Cornelia Nagel, a German potter, is doing it, have a virtual visit to and a look at an article written in The Japan Times in November, 2006 about her at

Hmm, I haven't gotten to my metaphorizing yet, have I! Okay. For me, what is wonderful about Raku is that the end results are very mysterious and surprising. I remember one of the things my students always hated was something they called "one pattern", where they knew what was going to happen before it happened. No surprises, nothing unexpected. They hated that! Yet that is pretty much what happens when learners walked into most classroom environments. The mystery of life is purposefully removed in something called "curriculum" or "syllabus". Too bad!

Raku is so much different. Though there is a lot of learning involved - with the clay, with the glazes, with the firing - the combinations of everything, including the very mixture of air with everything else, is completely impossible to control perfectly. And giving up the control of it is a large part of what makes it so wonder-full!

Like each child, each piece of pottery is a unique individual (unique in the sense of special, not pure!). Even within the same classroom or same Raku kiln, nothing comes out the same. The place in the classroom or kiln, what happened to each child or piece before the learning/firing - what has gone into the make-up of each child/piece - will create a completely different outcome.

A teacher can no more treat each learner as the same as others as a potter can treat each ceramic ware as the same as others.

Have a look at these 4 pieces of tile that I created, that were fired together and you'll have some idea about mystery and surprise and the loveliness of Raku, of children and of learning!

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