Summer vacation is coming up, and since it happens in the middle of the school year in Japan, students can expect to have some homework to do during the break. One Japanese teacher, though, set off a debate on Twitter recently by asking whether there was any point to one of the most common assignments: writing a book report.
In a series of since deleted tweets, the Twitter user, who claimed to be a Japanese language teacher in Japan (i.e. a teacher of Japanese for native speakers, equivalent to an English teacher in the U.S.), asked “Aren’t book reports unnecessary?” It’s an unexpected stance for someone whose job includes teaching literature, but the teacher went on to explain the logic behind it.
“Book reports make reading books depressing. It’s not like you normally write down a report every time you finish reading a book in your private life, is it?” “Reading books isn’t something you should be forced to do,” the teacher asserted. “You read books because you want to learn something. You read books because you like reading. You just read what you’re interested in. That’s what adults do, isn’t it? Reading is a form of entertainment, right?”
It’s definitely true that just about any task becomes less enjoyable when you have to do it, and a number of Twitter commenters voiced their agreement with the teacher’s position that book reports are a poor choice of assignment for teachers to give. “It really isn’t the sort of thing you should make students do,” said one. “It’ll just become a reason for them to hate books.”
However, on the other side of the debate were those who said that book reports serve an important purpose in the educational process. As a bit of linguistic background, in Japanese book reports are called dokusho kanosobun, which literally translates to “book reading impression essay.” Some commenters see book reports as a necessary opportunity for students to express their own thoughts and feelings. “Writing book reports gives you practice in developing your own opinions, and that’s a skill that’ll definitely be useful in your adult life,” said one member of the pro-book report camp.
With curriculums in Japanese schools often criticized as rigid and overly focused on rote memorization (in comparison to education in many other countries), one could argue that book reports are especially worthwhile in Japan. “Reading something, then going back and thinking about it again in various different ways gives you new ways to enjoy the material” said one commenter. And while Japanese society may pride itself on the supposed virtues of tacit, unspoken understanding, there’s still a limit to how well anyone can be expected without speaking for themselves. “Book reports are an important way to develop the ability to thoroughly understand your thoughts, and then convey them clearly to others” said another supporter.
While the teacher has a valid concern that heavy-handedly forcing students to write book reports will make them less likely to enjoy reading and seek out new material on their own, switching over to “Just read whatever you want, and leave it at that” could result in children who don’t have a pre-existing interest in books simply not reading anything at all, and also struggling to express themselves in writing. Ultimately, there’s probably a happy medium to be found somewhere, perhaps by giving students wider options in choosing what books they’ll read, or greater freedom in how they want to structure their reports (the teacher also mentioned that he doesn’t like it when educators dictate precisely how the reports are to be formatted and written).
All of that sounds like a tricky balancing act, but for those teachers who’re talented and dedicated enough to pull it off, they’ll be doing a great thing for their students.
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