Everyone is an Expert: My Love of Trivia

By Jordan Rocke

Hey!It’s been a bit quiet on the blog for a while, so I decided to do the thing I do whenever there’s a gap and write an article myself. I’ve edited this blog for so long that I get very anxious writing anything as I have to be my own editor, and lord knows I need a better editor than me to be readable.

Anyway, today I thought I’d talk about trivia, and why I adore it. Trivia is such a weird thing to describe, just a random series of facts about, by design, unrelated or barely related topics. I was obsessed with history as a kid (and still am now). This worked out for me, because my primary school teachers would use trivia quizzes as filler activities during pre-holiday periods (which is basically what I do with trivia games now too). I still remember knowing the inventor of penicillin in year 6, and being in the handful of kids who got prizes for their scores.

In high school, my year 8 HSIE (what NSW calls history and geography) teacher would start every Friday morning class with a trivia quiz, because we were a terrible nerd class. There was an odd number of kids in the class, so everyone else paired up but I would compete on my own. Almost every week I would score tied top marks with one or two other groups, but my teacher would give me the top spot because I was a one-kid team. Was it fair? Maybe. Did it annoy the other kids? Yes, and that was the best part.

Anyway, this isn’t all just nostalgia. When I started on JET, I found out very quickly that my job was neither my most feared scenario (being expected to teach a bunch of bored Japanese kids extremely complex grammar I barely knew) nor my ideal scenario (teaching a bunch of nearly fluent kids about Australian “culture” and exposing them to Aussie media). Instead, I can best describe my job as a Game Show Host. I’ve always tried to channel Disney villain as my inspiration for teaching, and that converts extremely well to review games.

I tried early on to work some trivia into my games. Whether it be a category in a game of Jeopardy, or a standalone game for the end of term like my teachers used when I was a kid, I tried to find ways to teach kids a bit about the world beyond the textbooks. The issues with this were immediately apparent. First of all, my kids definitely didn’t have the language ability to understand a lot of the questions I was trying to ask. Even if I was certain they knew the answers, if they heard too many English words they didn’t recognise, they would disengage before getting to the end. Even if one or two kids did have the English level to understand and answer, the issue was that I pride myself on accessible games. I mix in random luck alongside knowledge review, just to make sure even kids who don’t 100% know the content can be the ones to pull their team through to victory. My best games involve cards, dice, paper planes, or anything else that has a degree of luck, and having one or two kids dominate the game simply isn’t fun.

The second problem is that my kids just didn’t know the answers. Unless it’s about their personal interests or something they learn in school, they didn’t really share general knowledge with me in a way that allowed me to make accessible trivia. Even more importantly, they didn’t find that kind of information very interesting.

One of the simplest truths of humanity is that people love to be experts in a field. It’s just fun to know something, and to share that passion. We tend to get better at things we’re praised for, and things we’re interested in. Take, for example, handwriting. In school, the broad trend is that girls have much better handwriting than boys. It may be true that boys develop slower than girls in hand-eye co-ordination, but the issue is that this skill discrepancy stays pretty wide all through education, even when other discrepancies that are attributed to gendered skill development rates even out. The main conclusion educators have reached is that girls receive more praise that boys for their handwriting, and as such, have a motivation to improve it through education. Whether this is due to girls having more control over their handwriting at a younger age than boys, and getting praise then, or due to gendered norms in society that sees nice handwriting as a “feminine” attribute, and as such not praising boys for having nice writing is unclear. This is all likely apocryphal stuff I picked up in my teaching degree, but all I can say for sure if I had goddawful writing in primary school (and still do), and never really invested in it that much.

You know what I did get praise for? Being able to name the capital of Iceland 20 minutes before we started stacking the desks up for the room to be cleaned over the summer holidays.

I know that all seems off topic, but the main takeaway is this: my kids lacked confidence in their English, as well as interest. They had to listen to a sentence that contained nothing to get their teeth into. I wanted to make an activity that allowed my kids to feel like experts, using English simply as a means of talking about something they already know. If I ask about the usual trivia topics, my kids are going to feel on the back foot on two fronts.

Obviously, I’d tried to incorporate my kids interest into trivia before. The two issues I came up with are firstly that I am not, in fact, a Japanese teenager with an in-depth knowledge of what is of interest to teenagers. TV shows, idols, music, anime, sports, video games are all options, but what is actually popular and relevant is pretty hard to keep track of. Secondly was that none of these topics are actually evenly shared between the students. Even if I thought I found a set of topics and questions that the kids were both interested in and knowledgeable about, I would take the same questions to another class or another school and just be met with confused silence. Interests would be ideal, but it was just so hard to make an even spread. Instead, I thought of a topic that every student would have an equal chance to know about: Ehime itself.

At first, assembling Ehime trivia was a bit slow. Even within the prefecture, where I assumed all my kids had a strong knowledge base, I had to trial and error to find a line. For example, what landmarks in Matsuyama were common knowledge for Matsuyama kids? The castle? Fine. Botchan Stadium? Fine. What school Natsume Soseki taught at? Fine. But Bansuiso? Nope. Never heard of it. Most of my teachers had, but not the kids. How about how much information could I ask them to provide? I learned quickly that asking “What Japanese phrase is Pom Juice named for?” was a dead end, but “What Ehime drink has a name taken from the phrase “Nippon Ichi”?” was a winner. The educator Jerome Bruner is credited with coining the idea that no knowledge is more complicated than any other, it’s all in what language you use. That’s a bit of an oversimplification mostly used by his critics, but for trivia it’s kind of true! How much information do you provide, how much information do you request, and how do you actually word the question? All of these can radically change the difficulty of basically the same question. Still, the issue remained actually getting information for my trivia questions, beyond Ehime tourist sites.

My teachers were my best resource, with ALTs a close second. The joy of SHS teachers is that they’ve been everywhere. My first supervisor transferred from Hakata island before working with me. My second grew up in Tanbara. Another teacher worked at a special needs school in Toon. Yet another worked in Uwa. Bit by bit, I picked up info from them, and when I felt I had gaps in my questions, I’d try and reach out to the ALTs in those places, and see what kind of knowledge I could pick up. Then covid happened.

I tell this story too often, but covid couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Ehime BoE, the CO which manages the Ehime public senior high school ALTs. We were already losing a huge proportion of our BoE’s ALTs for a range of reasons. The stresses of covid, both within the Japan and internationally, pushed many other ALTs to leave earlier than intended, for very understandable reasons. The BoE decided, for a period of time, to attempt to cover every SHS in Ehime with the handful of ALTs that remained.

As of today, in April 2022, I have worked in 13 different schools across Ehime, covering a total of 5 different cities (Saijo, Imabari, Matsuyama, Tobe and Toon). After even more JETs left, the BoE gave up the ghost and let most of the schools sit ALT-less, but everyone who was a SHS JET in Ehime in October/November 2020 had a wild time. As much as covid robbed everyone of a lot of the experiences that are important on JET, getting to see so many schools was actually a wonderful time for me. I learned a ton about the Japanese education system, and as an extra bonus, picked up a little more about Ehime to add to my trivia stockpile.

Finally, when JETs started to trickle back in, I managed to pick up even more info as I tried to get to meet everyone. Travelling around let me access so many little pieces of information about each town and city that I wouldn’t have otherwise known, and everyone learned a different kind of information about their placement shaped by their interests and their community, which I then picked up and added to my game myself.

As of right now, my game covers 4 to 5 pages. In a pinch, I can easily pull together an hour long quiz, most of which I have just memorized by this point. Although kids who have the strongest English do have an advantage in understanding what I’m asking, it’s not always them who has the answer. There’s no feeling on earth like having a kid who knows they’re the smartest in the class stand up for their turn and get completely thrown by being asked what Mikyan’s birthday is. It’s often the sleepy kid at the back who’s only half paying attention that may remember (the answer is November 11 aka 11/11 because Mikyan is a dog who goes wan wan wan wan/one one one one). You never know who picks up what random tidbits, and when the right information will click into place for each student.

A lot of the exercises and activities I make for my job are for the kids. I try to make them creative and interesting, but at the end of the day they have more fun than me. Once in a while, I dabble in a game that is more fun for me than them, if I think I can get away with it. At the end of the day, I genuinely think Ehime Quiz, my trivia game about Ehime, is the only activity I have that my kids and I enjoy about the same amount.

As a final note, last month I had the privilege of writing the trivia questions for the toughest crowd yet: other JETs. It was a tough balance finding questions that were hard enough to be engaging, but also covered enough topics to allow everyone to have a moment of feeling smart. My trivia will always have a bias towards history, politics and geography, but luckily Ada and Sage, the AJET event coordinators, were a great sounding board to ensure there was at least a decent coverage of topics. It was a wonderful night of my laughing my arse off at people getting questions I thought were easy wrong and questions I thought were quite hard right, but was overall a lovely opportunity to share something I am weirdly genuinely passionate about: random questions about anything.

Jordan Rocke is a 4th year JET in Hojo, which is by pure technicality part of Matsuyama, and he is originally from Canberra. He enjoys reading and writing at work, and in his spare time he edits this blog and man, writing these bios is duller than it seems. My hobby is falling asleep when I get home I guess. Cheers for reading this far!

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