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Turning Japanese

By Nina Hurwitz — May 01, 1990 6 min read
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Like a lot of other American teachers, I was intrigued by what I had heard about Japanese schools, especially the stories of teachers there who could manage classes of 45 high school students and still produce the best test-takers in the world. So when I got the chance last summer to pay a five-week visit to Japan, I was eager to go. I observed world history classes in public and private high schools and talked with scores of teachers, students, parents, administrators, and business executives. Japanese high schools are impressive, and their reputation is richly deserved. But I don’t think they should be the model for our schools.

On the surface, the Japanese system is every teacher’s fantasy. Teachers lecture from bell to bell without interruption. They convey an astounding volume of facts at an astonishing rate. Students--often in uniform and sandals-- are orderly and disciplined. I saw none of the behavioral problems or countless other distractions that drain the energy of American teachers and command the attention of an army of administrative personnel, though Japanese students appear to be lively, cheerful, normal adolescents, not unlike my own students.

The educational system is very centralized. The national Ministry of Education sets the curriculum, approves textbooks, and prepares the crucial examinations students take before and after high school. But the key to the success is a broad national consensus among the major interest groups-- the ministry, Japan’s teachers’ union, parents, students, and business leaders--on what should be taught and how to teach it. This consensus has been achieved through discussion, debate, and compromise.

But there is a dark side to Japan’s success story. The examinations students must take to enter the prestigious public universities drive the system. Scores on these intensely difficult tests are the sole measure of the ability of students and teachers and the quality of textbooks and schools; they put intense, almost unbelievable, pressure on everyone.

All of the groups involved are well aware of the problems caused by what they themselves call “examination hell.’' But they spend so much effort trying to justify the system that there almost seems to be a national compact to defend it. Although teachers complain that the tests limit their ability to experiment with new methods or topics, they also say the tests motivate their students. Members of Japan’s power elite grumble privately that the system produces too much pressure and fails to reward creativity, but they continue to grant the best jobs in business and government to the graduates of the top universities. Parents don’t like the disruption of family life created by the late hours and weekends their children must spend in special “cram’’ schools, but they are willing to pay the price so their children can get good jobs. Japanese students, unlike their more independent American counterparts, are powerless in the face of such a solid front.

The system does work--for Japan. Its high schools are a vital part of its economic preeminence, turning out literate, productive, and cooperative employees who are the envy of every industrial country. But the Japanese system would not work in America. And even if it could be made to work here the way it does there, I think our students would suffer.

The authoritarian nature of the Japanese classroom gives young adults the impression that it is acceptable to receive information from a single source without question. I want my students to speak out, challenge, and think critically and creatively.

The Japanese system tracks students, segregating them by ability into separate high schools. I cherish my students’ diversity. The process of learning is enriched when it is shared by students from different backgrounds, with varying abilities and viewpoints. As a history teacher, I want to be certain that my students understand and appreciate cultures distant in time and space. Japanese education shows little concern for cultural diversity.

Because the government-mandated curriculum and the university entrance tests place a premium on world history up to World War I, Japanese teachers have no incentive or time to discuss the controversial events of Japan’s more recent past. By contrast, the state tests I have to give may complicate my life and that of my students, but they do not interfere with my ability to discuss important current issues and analyze them in a historical perspective.

Finally, I would not want to be bound (more than I already am) by government regulations that impair my freedom to respond creatively to my students’ changing and widely divergent needs. The more I talked to Japanese teachers, the more I realized how much they envied my classroom autonomy. They were impressed with the wide variety of textbooks, research, and audiovisual materials I am free to use. And they were curious to learn how I use class discussion and group activities to enhance student understanding.

Although we should not try to emulate the Japanese model, American teachers can learn from it. The Japanese have reached a consensus on the goals and methods of education. We need to find a way to forge a similar accord. American educators are frozen in a never-ending debate on every issue from tracking to textbooks. Our inability to agree on curricula and standards leads teachers to improvise, which leaves students confused about what each teacher expects. Our lack of agreement on what is important in education makes teachers vulnerable to constant intrusions on classroom time. Students think it’s O.K. to take off for extracurricular activities, visits to colleges, and family vacations; they even sleep late with parental sanction. We are also made vulnerable to those who want to implement mindless regulations and standardized tests to hold us “accountable.’'

American teachers must reach a consensus on what we want our students to learn and how we measure what they know. We can do so without making Japan’s system our model. My own history department, for example, used time given to us by our administration to develop programs and shape strategies that we could all support. We resolved serious differences through extended discussions and many meetings. This approach could be used for the more difficult task of getting an entire faculty to agree on educational priorities. A unified faculty with strong administrative support can make these priorities clear to parents and students, helping preserve the sanctity of classroom time. (Worthy extracurricular programs and student activities deserve special schedules or an extended school day.) The resulting improvement in standards and achievement, and in public support, would also protect teachers from overregulation and meaningless tests.

We should not allow our independence and respect for diversity to prevent us from agreeing. We need honest dialogue on the educational issues that divide us. Our ability to foster student creativity is already one of the strengths of our education system and the envy of Japanese educators. Forging a consensus on goals and methods would help us do even more to boost the creative potential of every student.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Turning Japanese


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