Public Education: same infrastructure, different environments

Last week, I started teaching at a shogakko in Ashiya, the Beverly Hills of Osaka. It was a breath of fresh air, and once again my motivation has been jumpstarted after 6 months of losing momentum.
A few weekends ago I went to scope out the neighborhood, and spent a whole Saturday skating around town. Benzs, BMWs, Peugeots, Porsches, and other luxury cars make up the majority of the traffic in this area, and it seems like most of the residents here have never seen a skateboarder riding on their streets. The houses are nice and large, there are plenty of well-groomed trees and pathways (makes for good riding), and everything looks either new or well taken care of. In any case, you can tell that the people who live here have some serious wealth.
I took a ride down to the beach, and was surrounded by things that I really wanted to do but couldn’t. A group of kayakers kept pace with me along the shore as I skated towards some sailboats in the distance who were having a regatta. As I passed over a bridge, I paused to watch five separate groups of wakeboarders, who were taking turns riding and jumping down a wide open canal.
Ah, it was so frustrating to see all of these people doing all of these things that I have wanted for so long to do and not being able to join them! I know that I’m lucky to have been able to do even do these sports in the past. But because of my desire to do these things will almost certainly be unfulfilled, I think I’ll stay away from the beach at Ashiya from now on. Now I can better relate to those who have not, it has made me more thankful for all that I have.
The kids that I’m teaching in Ashiya are being raised in an environment so different from my that of my high school. To generalize, most of them have the support that they need from their parents and teachers, come from affluent families, and are adequately challenged by their classes. After teaching only the 4th grader classes for just one day, it is abundantly clear that these elementary school students are better at speaking English, and in many cases reading and writing, than my current high school students. When they grow up, these kids are destined to attend high-level high schools, and are much more likely to set their goals higher and to succeed.
It is sad to think that if my high school students had the same support and education as my elementary school students, they would be so much better off than they are now. Most of them are going straight into work instead of trade school or college, after they graduate in December (this is strange because most students in Japan graduate in April- another sign that I?m at an unusually low-level school). The function of my high school has been to keep them off the streets until they graduate, and to help place them into jobs when they finish school.
I truly like my high school students outside of class. I can see that that most of them are bound to live lives full of challenges that they are ignorant of and ill-equipped to handle. At the elementary school, I can and will make a small difference with my students for the limited time I have with them. At the high school, I will continue to do what I can, but the best thing I can do for them is to reach out to the few students who want to learn, and to talk with the others and share in their good times.
I have had a few small victories in my high school classes. Although they are a lot less disciplined and respectful than what I was used to, the kids generally find my lessons to be interesting, even if I think otherwise. They still read manga, text on their phones, constantly talk to each other, and sleep, but sometimes I can get almost everyone to pay attention to an activity or game. I am convinced that I could make a difference if I had my own class, but teaching at this school as a full-timer would likely burn me out like most of the other students who teach here.
The problem kid’s stack of manga reminds me of forts that I used to make out of sofa cushions.
I am also proud to say that the one ?problem? kid that I was warned “could become violent” and advised to let sleep in class actually pays attention, asks for my help on our assignments, and participates in my lessons. None of the other teachers can believe it, but he’s actually one of my better students. It just goes to show you that there is a way to get through to almost anyone, even the ones that are given up on by everyone else. What he really needs is to be challenged more in class, because he is clearly a smart kid, but that is not the way of the Japanese educational system. Clearly, the system has failed in his case.
I am thankful that I have been able to teach at schools ranging from one side of the spectrum to the other (regarding funding, quality of teachers, resources, etc…). It has given me a perspective on the educational system in Japan that few others have been able to experience. It is easy to see how a teacher who taught in only one or a few other learning environments (for example someone who has only taught in rural, high level, a technical, a remedial, special education, nursery, or the different ranges of trade schools, colleges, etc.) might gain a skewed perspective of the system and make sweeping, case-specific generalizations about the Japanese educational system.
So what are some things that can be done to fix the system in Japan? First of all, people who work for the Ministry of Education should be required to visit a wide spectrum of schools and participate in lessons on a regular and frequent basis, to witness the effects that their decisions and policies have on the students, teachers, and staff first-hand. There are too many decisions being made without listening to or considering the input from the trenches. Problems could be much more quickly, efficiently, and effectively spotted and mitigated if the administrators were grounded a little more in reality rather than basing their decisions solely on second-hand information and administrative theory and speculation.
Next, the goal of students ranging from kindergarten to junior high should mainly be to master conversation with a little bit of reading, writing, and grammar to supplement the curriculum. If learning is made into an interesting subject, then students will start doing better at it. Expecting junior high school students to focus on grammar and non-spoken English is unrealistic (not to mention boring) and has its roots in the Ministry of Education’s old way of thinking. One might think that the head honchos would question why they can?t speak English even though many of them had studied it over several years, and try to make changes to the system as not to repeat the same mistake with the subsequent generations of students at stake, but it just doesn?t seem like they do.
I am also of the opinion that the entrance tests for high schools are not appropriate for junior high school students. The tests put too much stress, even more stress that high school students in the U.S. are subjected to from taking the SATs, on these young children. On the other side, I have heard that the entrance exams for the universities and colleges that high school students take are relatively easy (in general).
Entrance into higher education is more heavily weighted by the high school that one attends than how one performs on the aptitude tests, or on one?s grades, in comparison to western schools. Why is this? Shouldn?t the tests given to older students have a little more riding on the stake of one?s future than the ones given to 14 and 15 year olds? All I know is that I would have never had a chance to go to a U.C. school if the fate of my educational future had been determined by my performance in junior high school.
Putting too much pressure on any living thing will stunt its growth, and I do think that the high school entrance exams have a net detrimental effect on Japanese students (I think that this would be a fascinating topic to do some serious research on). It is so sad to see how much the kids stress out right before the tests. They should be able to enjoy their childhood when they?re still so young instead of carrying an adult-sized burden.
The last big thing I would change in the system is to introduce an emphasis on learning individual, critical, and creative thinking. The perceived need for this change probably stems from the values that I was raised with in America, but it seems that the majority of my students can not or do not want to think for themselves. They prefer to make decisions and think about things as a collective, but wouldn?t it be better if the students could both function well on their own, and as part of a team(I do believe that students in the U.S. would benefit from learning how to work and play together a little bit more and be a little less self-centered in their ways of thinking and acting, but that?s another issue)?
Should this change come into effect, it would greatly cut down on the amount of time that people in this country spend on meetings and consulting with others before actually getting things done. Do meetings really need to be had to decide on when to have other meetings? Again, perhaps this is an ethnocentric goal, but I think it would be a good thing for everyone to be able to express their own opinions at times other than a drinking party.

9 thoughts on “Public Education: same infrastructure, different environments”

  1. I agree with you on the need for promoting creative thinking in the education system. Some of my adult students, even the high level ones, often have a very difficult time with answering questions that don’t require them to merely regergetate (sorry…that’s probably spelled wrong) the answer.
    Regular “what if…” questions seem to really confound them. When reading newspaper clippings about certain issues, they are not able to tell me why they think certain things may be the way they are or how they could have come to be this way.
    This HAS to be a result from the type of education they’ve had! Most of my adult students are affluent, educated and relatively successful people and yet they cannot imagine what they’d do with a million yen.

  2. The best point you make is how the administrators from the ministry of education should be required to visit various schools of all levels. The biggest issue is that the ministry of education seems to have completely lost touch with the state of public school education these days.

  3. Dude, you’re at the school I was at last year, right? The kids are great there; I had a good time. Say hey to the 5th/6th grade teachers for me.

  4. Great observations and insights, Adam. Thanks for giving your all to even the “problem” kid, who was most likely a bright, disillusioned soul who gave up on a system that gave up on him a long time ago.

  5. An interesting post. I teach at elementary schools and so it is far more fun than teaching a uninterested class complex (and rarely used) grammar. Although you must get a good feeling when they take it in.
    I teach all over the south part of Osaka city so I see the spectrum of problem areas with problem students and leafy residential areas with generally better kids.
    A solution? Grow more trees! 🙂

  6. Great observations and answers to your problems around school. It’s kinda funny because in my Japanese class, my teacher was talking to us about how strict japanese schools are. I would never expect these kids to be reading mangas and texting in class, I would probably expect them to be studying the stuff I’m doing in high school right now. I’m also glad the “problem” kid turned out alright.

  7. Now that you’ve seen a relatively good cross-section of the Japanese educational system, how about the system back home? We have a much stronger need to elevate our literacy levels. Ours could not begin to approach Japan’s levels.

  8. That’s a good point. I’m sure that those working in the educational field anywhere in the world are frustruated by the shortcomings of their respective systems. It just sucks to be able to see the problems and to know how to solve them, but not have the means to be able to do so on a higher level. Surely I alone do not feel this sentiment.
    I really admire the people back at home who are trying to make these changes, as teaching and administrating are often very challenging jobs and in many cases there is little gratitude for the great service that they are doing for their communities and society. It’s amazing how much of their lives that educators invest in their work, and by extension their students.

  9. Hey. Dude. 3 thoughts. First…I’m amazed at the pen to paper abilities(yes, I feel old). You the man. (Your UCSB Proof Reader).
    Thought on Higher Ups and Losing Touch: This is a common feature with any enclosed infastructure. I get it at my work. I see it in our government. This will only change with higher intelligence. I’m not talking about 1 person either. I’m talking “The Time Machine” intelligence kine!
    Thought on the Language Lesson: You know, at my job, I used to have to listen to a lot of Spanish tranlations. I didn’t realize how much Spanish I knew, and “regergitated” from my HS days. Most of it was from my 3rd year teacher who taught us 50 words a week. He got them to stick with themes: como el auto, el aero, el camino, el bargo. Then once a month he would throw in a fun theme: como la tanga, las cenos, la ropa interior o el burdel!…which made it interesting. Next thing I know, I’m speaking fluent Spanish 10 years later, with an 8 year gap of no Spanish in between. Go figure Hapa Haulie no talk Japan kine. Brudda talk like Spanish kine. Okay, I Pau. =

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