School & District Management Opinion

Thoughts on Japan & Julia Richman

By Deborah Meier — January 19, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I survived, thanks to my two sons and granddaughter. And we had a great time. People in Japan were extraordinarily kind and gracious to us. The sights were amazing—from ancient to futuristic standing side by side. At our hotel room in Tokyo we looked out of our room onto Mount Fuji. At sunset it was like a fairy tale. We ate and ate and ate—wonderful food.

We stopped at the City Museum in Nagoya to see my family’s WWll mural by Diego Rivera from the controversial Rockefeller Center fiasco. It’s Diego’s redoing of the central and most controversial panel—with Lenin, Marx, and Engels leading the way, alongside of lots of warring communists. Stalin, with bloody eyes, looks down at a smiling Bukharin (whom he subsequently murdered), and across from a stalwart-looking Trotsky (who met the same fate); there are two women (Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin), and more. We went to museums, pagodas, temples, shrines, markets, and ... three speaking engagements and one school visit.

Our trip coincided with school holidays so we just squeezed in a visit to the national vs. local public secondary school connected to Tokyo University. I visited one school that was in session, on the first day back from vacation, and watched one marvelous “lesson study” by an experienced teacher of English at a conference. But I will have to visit again to see with my own eyes what is going on in classrooms in Japan.

I spent two days at a biannual conference arranged by Professor Manabu Sato in Ito City where I spoke (in English, and translated) to 400 principals, teachers, and university faculty about schooling and democracy. I spoke also at Tokyo University and at Kyoto—the latter with my son, Nick.

My son reminded them that it wasn’t so long ago when teachers and politicians in America were told that Japanese schools were the future. Why can’t we do as they do? Before that it was Russian schools. And since then it’s been Singapore and now Finland. We were told Japanese children were obedient and hard-working, although listening to them talk it was clear that they were having virtually all the same problems we were and are moving in the same direction we are.

There’s a lot of educational turmoil as two “factions” battle for the future: those wanting a more rigid, centralized, exam-driven, top-down approach, and those who believe the Japanese have to move in a progressive direction if they are to become innovators as well as followers, economically and politically.

The one school I visited was hard to judge since it was both a special school, and it was the first day back from vacation! The most impressive thing was how quickly kids moved desks around to match their various pedagogical styles. Class sizes are large—as high as 40 in one of the two classes we visited. There is a very weak teachers’ union, and it is getting weaker.

And, does this sound familiar: “Osaka education board opposes governor’s intervention in school, Sept 15, 2011" from Japan Press Weekly. “ ‘The proposed ordinance is outrageous,’ says one university professor and board member.” Another board member condemned the governor’s plan to dismiss teaches who refuse to follow the same order three times, or receive a low evaluation twice.

A good many U.S. books on education are translated into Japanese, but not many Japanese books make it into English. I’m hoping someone will undertake changing this. I’d love to read my host’s, Manabu Sato’s, books, for example. His followers here in Japan view him as their Dewey, Sizer, Perrone, and Weber. In short, much as I do toward those people’s roles in my life as a teacher.

Before closing—and going back to sleep for a few more hours—I want to make a few short comments on a wide range of things. Thanks, Paul Hoss, for taking me to task re. my Russia/U.S. comparison. I think we both have a point. (See Comments.) Patience and impatience are both dangerous—and can be excuses for many things. Patient impatience, or impatient patience? It’s something of that sort we need. Just as continuity is critical to human learning, so it is for society’s learning. When we try to cut off the past, we do ourselves damage and are at the mercy of “change agents.” Exercising judgment lies at the heart of democracy, and judgment comes from years and years of reflecting on our own history and the history of others.

I’ve a small bone to pick with you, Diane, re. the frequent use of the phrase “ready to learn” by age 5 or kindergarten, etc. Humans are born “ready to learn” and do a remarkable job of doing so before they reach school age. That’s one reason the Finns delay formal schooling until age 7. They do so regardless of class, race, or language of origin. They can’t stop themselves from learning even if, at times, they may learn some things that are not useful in school. They learn very complex matters that are amazingly nuanced and sophisticated—about language itself, other people, space, etc. We “teach” colors in many schools even though I’ve never heard of children who don’t know the names of colors by 6 or 7 whether they are taught them or not (unless they are color blind). We rarely observe closely enough to realize how much they have learned before they start school compared with what they learn in school. This is not entirely the fault of schooling, but it’s important to keep it in mind. We are designed as efficient learners.

Another note: Yes, there have been and will continue to be “turnarounds” that work. But if we see the turnaround as a method of getting “rid” of people—teachers or kids—we’ll misuse its potential.

Visiting New York City’s Julia Richman school complex is a case in point. It serves the same demographic population via five schools (one K-8 and four 9-12s), plus a program for autistic youngsters and an infant program. There is no dissension between these various organizations, although they deliberately collaborate to make life and learning better for one and all. They share some space, but also have their own very discreet turf. It’s a joyous place to visit. And the outcomes, as studied by Columbia University over many years and attested to by a body of experts appointed by the former state schools superintendent, are excellent. (Almost all use an alternate form of assessment developed by a consortium of more than 30 New York state schools.) This building is truly an example of what “democracy looks like” on a K-12 level.


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