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The education of Japan’s educators

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Japan holds something of a world title in high test scores. Japanese pat themselves on the back about it, with snarling glances begrudge South Korea for beating them, and seem to generally ignore the fact that Scandinavia is performing better than all of Asia. Japan prides itself, essentially, on never being wrong about its methods.

One of the hardest topics to breach with Japanese is that of events or policies or attitudes that didn’t exactly achieve the desired results. My high school students, who you might imagine to be less reserved than their adult counterparts, have also tended to avoid these subjects, a trend I’ve chalked up to being shy, to being Japanese, and to being scared of English and of using it in settings outside test rooms.

But then I started an eikaiwa (English conversation meeting) with the girls at my school who intend to apply to Akita International University (AIU) next year.

Some background: AIU is an all English, liberal arts university with lots of foreign exchange students set in the outskirts of a zero-English, has-never-heard-of-liberal-arts, next-to-no-foreigners town. My town. Getting accepted usually involves an intensive English interview, Japanese interview, and group discussion with fellow applicants about an Akita-related topic, and it is competitive. Experience preparing students for this has shown me that the group discussion is the most daunting, because it’s not something they ever do in class, ever practice, or ever learn how to disagree with each other and share ideas. Which, really, is the basis of most liberal arts education, and without it you have a lot of people sitting quietly in a room listening to one person ramble on.

Which is exactly what many classes here are like.

The goal of this eikaiwa, then, is get away from that style and to train these students not only to use their English for speaking purposes, and not test-taking purposes, but also to teach them how to hold group discussions. Understanding my students when they explain their ideas in English has never been a problem. Getting them to talk to each other, and not to me, however, has been a process that we are slowly, but surely, making progress on.

Additionally, I saw this as a chance to ask all the questions that had always been blown off and awkwardly avoided by Japanese adults. I saw myself in charge of the topics me and 3-6 interested students would talk about, and the leading of discussions. I expected it would take some probing on my part to get my students to avoid the generic, catch-all answers that are popular in Japanese discourse and to get them actually talking. And it did take some work. But by the fourth week, I had them disagreeing with each other, albeit sheepishly, and now, at about week twelve, they’ve finally started talking to each other, and not just answering me when I ask them direct questions.

Recently, I asked them about their thoughts on the government. To my delight, the first thing a student said in response was, “It’s bad, isn’t it.”

Yes, it is bad.

Tell me why it’s bad.

So they did. They had read things. They knew about the political structure of their country. For the next hour we talked about politics and the political systems, comparing and contrasting American and Japanese. They expressed openly confusion about why there have been so many PM’s in such a short amount of time and also openly criticized the education system in Japan, advocating that the current prime minister do something to fix it (Japanese can’t vote until they are 20, so, unfortunately, the world has three more years without the input for these unsatisfieds).

And this wasn’t the first time they have expressed their unhappiness with the way Japanese education is done.

Japanese high school students invest more time and effort in their school loads than a lot of college students I knew had, and the students in my eikaiwa have never advocated for less work. They aren’t trying to lighten their loads, at least not directly; they aren’t scared of hard work. What they want is more effective ways of teaching. They feel bored with the rote-memorization style of most classrooms. They crave more hands-on experience.

In a way, I feel this should be intuitive to policy-makers. Clearly, however, it isn’t, in the race for the world’s highest test scores, where the pragmatic, theoretically-supported ideas of the students themselves are ignored, because they are too young to matter to the government. If we actually were paying attention to Finland, education would look more like how it is envisioned by students anyway.

However, I’ve tried to listen to them. I wrote down what they said about making class more engaging. It was like my own personal forum on improving teaching, directly from its intended recipients whose opinions educators so often gloss over. I’ve tried hard not to make the same mistake.

But what I said earlier about the natural reservation of Japanese also applies to the students, because they are Japanese. What they tell me during special-English-with-Jessie time they would never say to their homeroom teachers, the people with a much more direct ability to change their classroom experiences for the better. Unwittingly, perhaps, the students perpetuate the system they are unsatisfied with, even as they as clearly are affected by and aware of its faults.

Obviously, no teaching system is perfect or will be loved by every student and every teacher, but there are steps in the right directions, just as there are stagnant, outdated policies no one really likes anymore. Interestingly, these students don’t want to be teachers – but they do want to be able to be better students, and they see the direct correlation of that goal not only to their own efforts, but to the style of teaching being imposed on them at least 8 hours a day.

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14 Comments
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I enjoyed this read.

What they want is more effective ways of teaching. They feel bored with the rote-memorization style of most classrooms. They crave more hands-on experience.

Many of the world's progressive educational systems are based on Constructivist ideas, and are student centred, inquiry based systems - the almost exact opposite of the Japanese system, which I have also taught in. The International Baccalaureate system is one, whereby the students don't even receive scores - they get levels, and when taught well is an extremely rigorous and challenging style of teaching and learning. Importantly, it is a globally minded program that actively forces students to think that way, as well as containing elements like community service components. I currently teach in that system, and I have to say, I am very impressed. I can imagine the bright girls of the school I used to teach in in Japan loving it. Quite easily.

Unwittingly, perhaps, the students perpetuate the system they are unsatisfied with, even as they as clearly are affected by and aware of its faults.

Well, I think they have to be pragmatic - rebellious ideas and behaviour by Japanese students will really get them no-where, and besides, isn't it up to the adults to make the grown up decisions? Why should the kids have to be the ones to orchestrate change? Certain people are paid a lot of money to oversee the education system in Japan.

But there is one other issue that strikes me about this discussion, namely, that the education system in Japan is a reflection of Japanese society as a whole and serves the society very well by pumping out the exact kind of human capital it likes the best - compliant, tow-the-line individuals. It's all very well for we non-Japanese to gnash our teeth and wring our hands about the state of the system, but at the end of the day, as far as I know, it isn't really under review. The girls will have to just learn their historical names and important dates, sit their tests, and be good Japanese people.

That's the way it is.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

The whole educational system is largely misunderstood my most people involved, including teachers and students.

It was not created as a teaching, learning, or educating system. But as a filtering system. And recently, as in indoctrination system.

The Prussians created it to "sort" the kids into job classifications. Then the Nazi's applied to teach state doctrine on a massive scale. For both of those purposes, it's an excellent system.

It also works as a sort of "farm team" for corporations. They get to simply skim the cream from the top, at NO cost to them.

To actually teach people, it's absolutely horrible.

Working within the system and trying to find better ways to 'teach" people is horribly ineffective and frustrating.

Any "learning" that happens in school merely incidental.

4 ( +8 / -4 )

@gaijinfo; Great post, hitting the nail on the head.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

4th year university students majoring in English can't actually speak English. Epic fail

11 ( +11 / -0 )

@Tamarama

Good post, but:

But there is one other issue that strikes me about this discussion, namely, that the education system in Japan is a reflection of Japanese society as a whole and serves the society very well by pumping out the exact kind of human capital it likes the best

Isn't this exactly what all societies do? The U.S. education system prepares students to function in U.S. society, the French education system prepares students to function in French society, and so on. It wouldn't make much sense for the Japanese education system to prepare all their students for U.S. society.

The girls will have to just learn their historical names and important dates, sit their tests, and be good Japanese people.

It seems a little unfair to criticize them for wanting to be good citizens of their country.

If the Japanese education system needs to change, it can and it will. So far though, not enough Japanese people with the power to make that change feel it needs to.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Isn't this exactly what all societies do?

i think an education that emphasizes creativity, outside the box thinking and problem solving better prepares people for life in most any society. I think my education in the US was that way, although maybe after working at public schools here it just feels that way by comparison.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Education in all first world countries is designed to restrict and ensure obedience to authority. It is also to take away independent thought and make children into what the elite want which is a worker who will do as they are told and be thankful for their lot in life. The way it is done is far more complex than what i have just written. It is part of the whole scheme of control and compliance made by the elite. One of the benefits of more women working is children at daycare, which makes the toddlers consumers and sets the child on the route of compliance and to be a part of the group. The elite want to destroy the family unit and education is their biggest tool. The idea is to have the child trust and need authority figures rather than family and close friends. It is all very subtle and many cannot see it. You will have teachers reading this and thinking i am nuts because they honestly think they are helping the children in the best way possible.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

****True sir. All over the world same same! But youth today delve in any thinking process, that is vital to one to develop else lige become just rut!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Education in all first world countries is designed to restrict and ensure obedience to authority. It is also to take away independent thought and make children into what the elite want which is a worker who will do as they are told and be thankful for their lot in life. The way it is done is far more complex than what i have just written. It is part of the whole scheme of control and compliance made by the elite. One of the benefits of more women working is children at daycare, which makes the toddlers consumers and sets the child on the route of compliance and to be a part of the group. The elite want to destroy the family unit and education is their biggest tool. The idea is to have the child trust and need authority figures rather than family and close friends. It is all very subtle and many cannot see it. You will have teachers reading this and thinking i am nuts because they honestly think they are helping the children in the best way possible.

So what else is new? In the past it was the church who used this method, the various governments, capitalist and socialist alike, now the mosque, and everywhere else. The general rule-of-thumb is that most people are stupid, they accept their lot without question, though not always without complant. The less-stupid are the educated sheep who make up many of the professionals in the workforce. Those who are not stupid (and there are painfully few of these) become the elites.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Yardley

Isn't this exactly what all societies do?

Yes, it is, but the Japanese education system often gets hammered by people on these boards for being the way it is - without realising exactly that. The idea that one place does it better than another is fairly culturally imperialistic, I always find.

It seems a little unfair to criticize them for wanting to be good citizens of their country.

That was in response to the idea that the kids be asked to carry the burden for changing the system in Japan. Japanese society being the way it is, I would see that being virtually impossible, and very unfair on them. It's not a criticism.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Education in all first world countries is designed to restrict and ensure obedience to authority.

No it isn't.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The media has reported Abe's admin intends to implement "reforms" to make education in Japan more International and to encourage the development of more critical, independent and analytical thinking skills among Japanese youth. But I'm not holding out much hope - for the past 20 years or more Japanese governments have been trying to implement communicative language teaching but almost nothing has changed except for the JET program and ALT's.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Yardley-

You almost have a good point or two, but overall a little naive to my way of thinking. "If the J education system needs to change it will." This is just simply not the case. Theoretically it can. But do you know how things are proposed and decided here? Teachers have very little power- the power to choose from among a very few gov-approved texts, which they must stick to because of "entrance exams". Leaving the creative teachers a few minutes each day or perhaps a whole class period here or there to teach something different. Principals, local Boards of Education and prefecture B O E also have very little influence. So Monbusho sets the pace. Monbusho is conservative and a very slow moving bureaucracy, change comes once in awhile in little fits and starts.

Tamarama and Gaijininfo, yes you make some good points, but there is more to the schools than just that. The way they are structured has more to it than just a lecturer speaking one-way to a uniformed group of converts. There are all the group activities, the cleaning of the classroom and a lot of other stuff that really is broader and deeper than just that.

Does it need to change? Yes. They need to encourage thinking, ideas and creativity much more. Will it? unlikely. Is it an inhuman indoctrination center? No, not entirely. It has some human aspects to it too.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The title was misleading. You can't teach the Japanese english teacher "ENGLISH" so don't be overenthusiastic on the performance of EIKAWA class.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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