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Published in Print: September 25, 2002, as Classroom Chaos

Classroom Chaos

In a community preoccupied with education, _classroom chaos_ came as a shock.

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In a community preoccupied with education, ‘classroom chaos’ came as a shock.

Education defines Kunitachi City, a peaceful Tokyo suburb of 66,000 residents. Hundreds of cherry trees line the quiet main street leading into the city's designated educational zone and the campus of the renowned Hitotsubashi University. A plum garden beckons the faithful to the Yaho Tenmangu, where they pray at the shrine of the god of education.

In a community preoccupied with education, the reports of gakkyu hokai, or classroom chaos, came as a shock. Students were taking over classrooms, local newspapers began reporting a few years ago. They were leaving their desks without permission, using cellphones in class, challenging school policies, even intimidating teachers and principals. The disruptions, the reports said, were undermining public education.

Once the problem became public, however, officials took swift action to contain it, says Masahiro Ishii, the chairman of the Kunitachi City school board. Teams of teachers were deployed to unruly classrooms, and schools enlisted parents to monitor hallways or assist teachers with misbehaving students.

Schools throughout this archipelago are reporting similar incidents with greater frequency. According to a national survey last fall, one-third of the more than 6,600 teachers polled reported that their classrooms had become unruly and that students regularly disrupted lessons. Another survey found that many elementary school teachers have contemplated quitting, largely because of the stress arising from discipline problems.

Experts attribute the phenomenon to several factors, from student boredom and apathy to an increase in children's time alone, as more parents in this financially troubled nation work longer hours. Moreover, the country's culture of conformity, some say, has clashed with its desire for innovation and greater individualism.

American scholars who have spent their careers studying Japanese schools caution, though, that everything is relative. While educators and the public here say classroom "collapse" is near, the behavior might be taken in stride when compared with that of the most disruptive American students.

Vol. 22, Issue 4, Page 31

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