The education of Japan’s educators
by Jessica Fast

OPINIONS JUL. 27, 2013 –

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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