St Barnabas Church of England Primary School, Oxford Photo: Wikimedia

Today’s “food for thought” reading comes from a publication by the Cambridge University, “Children, their world, their education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. ” The Review was the first  comprehensive investigation of English primary education in 40 years and while the review was based on UK primary school education, it contained many findings and insights that are relevant for Japanese education as well. The review stated its goals were to clear away the cobwebs created by the scaremongering and myth-making surrounding UK schools … “Primary education suffers more than its fair share of  scaremongering and hyperbole, not to mention deliberate myth-making. Standards are rising / standards are plummeting …”.

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Much the same might be said of the Japanese education system … the frequent MEXT (Ministry of Education,Culture,Sports,Science & Technology in Japan) policy tinkering with the public school system has to do with public perceptions of how Japanese schools fare in international ranking tests, rather with actual insightful examinations and observations of what is actually happening within the Japanese school system or possible flawed structure of and failing or outdated pedagogies undertaken within the Japanese educational system.

A similar indepth review needs to be done of the Japanese public school education system. Japanese children are said to be  the unhappiest and most stressed of children in the world despite being in the safest or one of the safest and healthiest of child-raising environments. It is possible that  the underlying reasons for their unhappiness is due to their state of and sense of lacking empowerment and control over their education and their futures.  The UK and Japan share the same debate over the over-emphasis of standardized testing and exams.  The most recent policy initiatives of the Japanese MEXT have resulted in the beefing up of textbooks reported in the press to include so many percent more pages, in an attempt to shore up failing educational standards and sliding academic skills of Japanese children. This approach suggests that children are but blank slates to be filled, or stuffed with more and more learning that is defined as units of information and pages of data in a textbook. .. the more the better. Hence, we suggest here that there is an urgent need to pay attention to the insights provided and approaches suggested in the Cambridge Review – that in part highlighted the problem of the lack of empowerment of children in today’s school systems.

Relevant extracted passages from the Cambridge Primary Review follow on below:

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Age of empowerment

Listen to children, not what the media say about them

Children today are portrayed as vulnerable innocents – and as celebrity-obsessed couch potatoes. Their teachers are reported as struggling with hazards they cannot contain, standards they cannot uphold and pupils they cannot control.
For most children – and teachers – neither perception is accurate. A minority of young people do endure blighted lives but the cause is not the celebrity culture so much as poverty and prejudice (see page 14). For the rest, the sense of a ‘crisis’  of modern childhood has been overstated.
In terms of health, living standards, public services, educational opportunity, and access to information and entertainment the majority have never had it so good. Despite the media’s erroneous insistence that schools neglect the 3Rs, children in England are perfectly capable of counting their blessings. They were the most upbeat contributors to the Review, their optimism in marked contrast to the pessimism expressed by parents – a perennial tendency of the older generation. Among their assets are their primary schools, shown to be largely happy places that unfailingly seek to celebrate the positive.
Of course, valid concerns remain – about family breakdown, obesity, poor mental health, and lack of space to play. But with so much bleak reporting of childhood, it is important to stress the positive. A recent gain is the growing respect for children as agents, valuable people and citizens in their own right. Children who feel empowered are more likely to be better and happier learners. In recognition of this, the power relations in many schools are beginning to shift, but the picture is still mixed and children are far from uniformly regarded as young citizens with important and insightful things to say about their education. The Review says that the ‘children’s voice’ movement is not a fad, but a trend that needs to become the way of school life (see box).

Key points
• Respect children’s experience, voices and rights. Engage them actively and directly in decisions that affect their learning.
• Build on new research on children’s development, learning, needs and capabilities.
• Ensure that teacher education is fully informed by these perspectives

Many contributors to the Review drew on the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, expressing concern that schools could do more to foster children’s competence, sense of responsibility and self-respect. The UN convention should shape all policies relating to young people, says the Review. The government has correctly put children at the centre of its policies though the temptation to try to control the nature of childhood must be resisted. Childhood is a valuable time in its own right. It is a time to be relished, where the priority must be to strike the right balance between the child’s current needs and building the foundations for future education and employment.
At home, as at school, young people do not want to be over-protected, preferring some independence and choice in relation to their family life. Home is valued as a private place, one where school does not encroach. Yet children spend longer in school and school-related settings than they did 10 years ago, and when they get home they face what is called homework, but is in fact  more school work. Many adults worry about the effect of this creeping ‘scholarisation’ on children’s well-being. Some say simply that children have other worthwhile things to do. The desire to keep family and academic life separate leads many children to regard parental involvement in school with unease. Some are wary of a double dose of control; others worry that their parents will not meet with teachers’ approval.
However, while children do not want school to have an open door into home, most are keen that bridges between the two are maintained. And it is vital, says the Review, that the traffic along these bridges flows both ways. Children take valuable understanding and skill into school as well as away from it. Many help out at home and are proud of what they can do in terms of looking after themselves and others. Home is where they first play with toys and friends, and where they first learn about relationships, moral codes and how to be healthy. Schools will benefit greatly from building on the fact that even their youngest children are not blank slates.

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Cognitive developments
Forget the idea that children’s development advances in fixed stages. Forget right-brain versus left-brain functions. Forget all those learning ‘styles’. Our understanding of children’s cognitive development and learning has grown hugely in recent years and schools can build on this research.
Consider these key findings. First, babies and young children learn, think and reason in all the same ways as adults – what they lack is the experience to make sense of what they find. Second, their learning depends on the development of multi-sensory networks of neurons distributed across the whole brain. In other words, watching an ice cube melt may stimulate neurons in networks concerned with seeing, deducing, remembering and moving. Third, children learn from every experience, their brains distributing the information across these networks, with stronger ‘representations’ of what the experiences have in common. Fourth, the biological, social, emotional and intellectual aspects of learning are inextricably interwoven. Fifth, even the most basic learning relies on effective linguistic and social interaction with parents, teachers and other children. And finally, children, like most humans, tend to interpret the world in line with their own explanations as to why things happen.

Teachers who want to exploit these developments enhance children’s learning with collaboration, challenge and purposeful talk. The ways in which teachers talk to children, ideally amplifying and elaborating their comments, can enhance learning, memory, understanding and motivation. Providing a diversity of experiences strengthens children’s multi-sensory neural networks and also helps them modify their  understanding of the world and become better at reflecting on their observations.
Creative activities, the decline of which concerned many witnesses to the Review, raise the quality and capacity of children’s thinking, perseverance and problem-solving abilities, as well as fuelling their imaginations. Children are very competent and capable learners – given the right linguistic and social environment. We are now better informed than ever as to what that environment should contain.

Other insights from the review that pinpoint what empowers children in education:

“Creativity and imaginative activity must inform teaching and learning across the curriculum.”- p. 24

“Literacy empowers children, excites their imaginations and widens their worlds. Oracy must have its proper place in the language curriculum. Spoken language is central to learning, culture and life, and is much more prominent in the curricula of many other countries.
It no longer makes sense to pay attention to text but ignore txt. While ICT reaches across the whole curriculum, it needs a particular place in the language component. It is important to beware of the perils of unsavoury content and long hours spent staring at screens, but the more fundamental task is to help children develop the capacity to approach electronic media (including television and film) with the same degree of discrimination and critical awareness as for reading and writing.
Therefore it demands as much rigour as the written and spoken word. The Review disagrees with the Rose report’s decision to establish ICT as a separate core ‘skill for learning and life,’ especially in the light of some neuroscientists’ concerns about the possible adverse effects of overexposure to screen technologies.

Placing it in the language component enables schools to balance and explore relationships between new and established forms of communication, and to maintain the developmental and educational primacy of talk.
Every school should have a policy for language across the curriculum.
If language unlocks thought, then thought is enhanced and challenged when language in all its aspects is pursued with purpose and rigour in every educational context. Language should have a key place in all eight
domains and children should learn about the uses of language in different disciplines.”  — pp 24-25

“…concern for children’s emotional health and wider well-being needs to pervade the entire curriculum.

On the role and importance of the humanities for a child’s self-identity and understanding of his/her place in the world :

“This includes how history shapes culture, events, consciousness and identity and its contribution to our understanding of present and future. It includes the geographical study of  location, other people, other places and human interdependence, locally, nationally and globally. Like the arts, the humanities need proper public and political recognition of their importance to children’s understanding of who they are, of change and continuity, cause and consequence, of why society is arranged as it is, and of the interaction of mankind and the physical environment. This domain may include anthropology and other human sciences. It is central to the aims of respect and reciprocity, interdependence and sustainability,  local, national and global citizenship, and culture and community.

This includes the exploration and understanding of science and the workings of the physical world, together with human action on the physical world and its consequences. Although science is currently a core
subject, Review evidence shows that it has been increasingly squeezed out  by testing and the national strategies  …”

There are other valuable comments made that are really pertinent for the conventional Japanese classroom and top-down teaching method, I particularly like the ones about the need for dialogue with the child, to connect the child with the community that I like about the Cambridge Review Report:

“No classroom layout can, of itself, raise the quality of interaction and research shows that in many classrooms traditional exchanges have survived the many organisational changes. Pupils compete for the attention  of teachers who ask ‘closed’ questions. Answers are brief,  usually only proving a child can recall what they have  just been told and feedback is minimal. Cognitive challenge is low and talk remains a vehicle for the transmission of facts rather than the simulation of  thought. Yet talk – at home, in school, among peers – is education at its most elemental and potent. It is the aspect of teaching which has arguably the greatest influence on learning. Hence the Review has nominated classroom interaction as the aspect of pedagogy which most repays investment by teachers and those who support them.

An increasing number of local authorities and schools are exploring the true potential of talk. Certainly teaching which is ‘dialogic’ – where classrooms are full of debate and discussion that is collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative, critical and purposeful – can only be seen as the antithesis of any ‘state theory of learning’ and indeed as its antidote. In promoting its value the Review builds on a vast body of research.
As the old assumptions about where authority should lie in a school are being challenged and knowledge has been democratised by the internet, there is a recognition that transmission teaching, top-down school organisation and government micro-management of the classroom are simply no longer appropriate.”

The Review is also helpful in identifying (what is one of Japanese schooling’s great strengths):

Good teachers:
what they have in common
• Secure knowledge of what is to be taught and learned.
• Command of a broad repertoire of teaching strategies and skills.
• Understanding of the evidence in which the repertoire is grounded.
• Broad principles of effective learning and teaching derived from the above.
• Judgement to weigh up needs and situations, apply the principles and deploy the repertoire appropriately.
• A framework of educational aims and values to steer and sustain the whole.

Children, as revealed by the Review’s 87 regional consultations, are interested in pedagogy. They said that good teachers are those who:
• ‘Really know their stuff’ (what researchers refer to as pedagogical content knowledge).
• ‘Explain things in advance so you know what a lesson is about’ (advance cognitive organisation).
• ‘Make sure it’s not in too big steps’ (graduated instruction).
• ‘Give us records of what we learn’ (formative feedback)

Also, the Review while noting that teacher “Excellence includes much artistry, flexibility and originality”, it made key recommendations related to teacher training by the Review including:

• Refocus initial training on childhood, pedagogy,
curriculum knowledge and wider questions of value and
purpose.

• Train for critical engagement, not mere compliance

• Balance clear frameworks for inexperienced and less able
teachers with freedom for the experienced and respect for
the idiosyncrasy of the truly talented.

Read the entire Cambridge Primary Review Report here.

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The other very valuable reading on educational success, to which we were clued into by members of our online community (discussion forum) —  has  come from Paul Tough who authored the book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” (reviewed by NY Times)

The transcript of his views in a radio program broadcast “This American Life” provides a summary view of his novel approach to education by focusing on the non-cognitive developmental aspects that are important in generating success in educating children, read the transcript of the broadcast here or listen to the radio program podcast here.