Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Japan works: part 2 - School (continued)

- Your bold and inquisitive nature won't be considered an asset in about 6 years little boy.

So what is life like at a school in Japan? What kind of classes do the students take? How much homework do they do? What do they eat? When do they go home? What do they learn? How do they behave? What sports do they play? What are the teachers' jobs like? Well, pour yourself a tall glass of listen-up, find a comfortable chair, clear your schedule, hold all calls, put the dog out, and prepare to sacrifice a non-refundable period of time to my subjective ramblings - we are going to answer all those questions before this post is completed (so help me God), and all three of you readers out there become a little bit more likely to kick some serious ass in the "Japanese Educational System" category of Trivial Pursuit: Insanely Obscure Edition.

1) What is life at school like in Japan?

Yes, let us start with a massively vague question. In a word: cold. Or hot. It depends on the season. Japanese schools (except a few newer buildings) do not feature central heating. In fact most of the houses in Japan don't have central heating or cooling. That's why we have Mr. Slim.
Now, there is an up and a down to this. Ecologically speaking, it is admittedly a shameful waste to heat 12 rooms when only one is in use. There is no arguing that localized heating and cooling is an ecological wet-dream. But when this is combined with a total lack of insulation, all those savings are lost as the temperature controlled air flees like a 13 year-old girl's self control at a Justin Bieber concert. All this is to say that the temperature inside school and outside school are about as different as 'Eggshell' and 'Navajo White'. Combine this with a mandatory uniform, which for girls includes a skirt in all seasons, and you have students whose focus is divided between remembering the subjunctive form and maintaining core temperature.

Luckily my school is modern and has central heating, although (and I have no idea why) only in the middle school classrooms. Sorry wee ones, but its another day in the meat locker for you. (I will grant that Japanese children do seem totally immune to cold. Even when allowed to choose their own clothing as they are in elementary school, many skip gaily through the sub-zero winter air with little more than a glorified banana-hammock and a smile.)

2) What kind of classes do they take?

Of course there is PE, math, science, and Japanese. There is also social studies (which goes through middle school and covers some combination of history, civics, sociology, and current events.), art, music, and (thankfully for my job prospects) English - mandatory from grade 5 on.

Classes are 45 minutes in elementary school and 50 in middle school. Class size is usually around 35 to 40 children, though at my school it's more like 15 to 20. Since the school is in a rural part of a large Osaka suburb, there are only that many in each grade including kids bussed in from the other side of the mountains that isolate where I work from the rest of the city.


- if these mountains didn't add 45 minutes to my commute I would be much more appreciative of them

As for the actual educational philosophy;

Japan has been going through constant educational reform as of late. While we wring our hands over the fact that our students think Cosine is the latest Snoop Dogg protege and think the periodic table has to do with menstruation and birth control, the Japanese similarly worry over the difficulty students have with critical thought and writing. Expressing and defending opinions gives many students a lot of trouble since there is no 'right' answer (admittedly American students excel at this - even if it amounts to 'OMG, Dat shit iz totly hott! lol! if you dont like it u r so dum.' - so take that button-down conformist society!). Tests are all fill in the blank and multiple choice - A social studies teacher told me there is no such thing as an essay question on a history test. The famous example is that students who entered Tokyo University (the Harvard of Japan) could tell you everything about the treaty of Ghent (when it was signed, who signed it, where they signed it, what the war was, what the weather on that day was, what they ate after signing it, how many windows were in the room where it was signed, what kind of ink was used, how many words it contained) except its context (why it was signed, what it's signing meant, and how it was connected to and influenced other events of the time). As previously mentioned, getting into High School (and College) is all about passing the entrance exam which is all fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice. There is no interview, letters of recommendation, personal statements, essays, look at extra-curricular activities. Just a straight-up number. Thus 'knowledge' is merely a collection of facts - the more facts, the better. But there is little consideration given to putting those facts into the context of a larger critical world view.

Now - this is not to say that American students are some collection of Oxford-bound whiz-kids who could lucidly pontificate on the subtle differences between the philosophies of Goethe and Nietzsche (and honestly I have no idea if there are any. Or even if those two had any relation other that Teutonicness) Clearly our students could gain a lot from lowering the bong, turning off the cell phone, and learning to express an idea in more than 140 characters.

I'm just saying that those high math scores come with a huge asterisk in the critical analysis department.

And for the record, those educational reforms will go nowhere until the metrics of student assessment and success change.

OK - so 2 of the 2234 topics I raised have been addressed and yet time marches on like some parade of indifference dear reader.

So there will have to be a part three (and let's be honest, probably a four and five)

I leave you with this picture to contrast with the summer vista above - and remember - skirts and no central heat or insulation...

It ended up taking me four hours to get home on this day...