International Opinion

Learning Japanese

By Gerald K. Letendre — January 01, 2001 5 min read
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Over the past 10 years, I have conducted extensive fieldwork in four U.S. and Japanese middle schools of roughly the same size, with about 800 to 900 students each.

Although the complexities of racial, ethnic, and linguistic differences were most prominent in the United States, in both countries teachers found themselves working with students whose social backgrounds and expectations for the life course were often different from their own.

Both Japanese schools—Aratamachi and Furukawa—are three-story, ferroconcrete buildings located in Kotani, a city of about 75,000 inhabitants. Most of the teachers live outside the schools’ immediate neighborhoods and most commute in their automobiles. In an attempt to promote contact between teachers and neighborhoods, each teacher is also assigned an area (a few cho, or “blocks”) for which he or she is responsible. The extent of these responsibilities is not onerous; teachers are merely required to be familiar with their area’s shops, dangerous intersections, and the like.

School reputations and characters are slow to change in Japan and do not have the same range of diversity as in the United States. While teachers talk of “unsettled” and “calm” schools, rates of disruptive student behavior occupy a fairly narrow band in Japan. There were few other substantive differences between the two schools I observed. Aratamachi is somewhat smaller than Furukawa. Teachers say that Aratamachi has a family feel. Even during the test period, when students are forbidden to enter the teacher’s room (as exams are lying on the desks), a few boys and girls will sneak in to deliver things to their homeroom teacher before being shooed out. At Furukawa, the atmosphere is stricter and slightly less personal.

On any given day in Kotani, one sees clumps of middle school students walking or riding their bicycles to school. The somber color of the uniforms stands in sharp contrast to the chatter and general high spirits that characterize these groups. Arriving at the school, students park their bikes and crowd into the student entrance to remove their shoes and put on slippers. Most teachers have already checked in and are busy in the faculty room by the time students begin to arrive. In wintertime, there are always a few students and a teacher or two standing around the kerosene stove, chatting and keeping warm.

The teachers at Aratamachi and Furukawa know each other well. Rotation of staff at regular intervals means that most senior teachers have worked with their present colleagues at other schools in the past. During my visits, the principal at Aratamachi was a relatively hands-off administrator who left most of the decisions to his senior teachers. The principal at Furukawa was more engaged and tended to consult with a smaller group of senior teachers. The fact that all three grade chairs at Furukawa, as well as the head of curriculum, were experienced women teachers made the staffing patterns exceptional in that region of Japan.

In both the United States and Japan, many of the teachers I came across were not happy with the way adolescents were being educated in general. They all agreed that better methods could be found to stimulate the mental and social growth of their students. In the United States, however, teachers believe that puberty destabilizes young adolescents; at the same time, they expect kids to control their behavior. Puberty is not considered a source of major disruption in Kotani. Teachers there believe that, given proper routines, young adolescents can behave appropriately and organize themselves quite effectively in groups. Below is a scene from an Aratamachi classroom that was atypical in that it contained a large amount of the kind of student activities (talking, moving about, playing with materials) that teachers in the United States found disruptive. I attended classes day after day in Kotani, and in my notes I remarked that most teachers made only sporadic requests for quiet. Although some Kotani teachers used as many verbal admonitions as their American counterparts, on balance teachers would admonish students once or twice during the entire period.

Vignette: Kotani (Condensed from field notes)

At 9:36, Mr. Hori enters the lab at Aratamachi, and the students, who had been talking noisily, stand and bow. The day’s lesson is precipitating solids in a solution, and Mr. Hori will teach it three times today. Mr. Hori diagrams the steps students are to take on the board. Twice he tells the students, “Don’t talk.” Each time the students quiet down for a moment and then resume talking.

At 9:48, he tells the students to get the equipment: Bunsen burners, salt, other chemicals, and water. The students are already in groups (han) and apparently know where all the materials are; Mr. Hori gives them no instructions as to where they can find the burners and test tubes. The students work quickly to collect the materials and get the experiments set up, yet continue to talk. The snippets of conversation that reach my ears do not appear to have any relation to the lesson or the task at hand. Mr. Hori stands up front, distributing material as the students continue to chatter away while working on the experiment.

Mr. Hori circulates among the groups. He advises some groups on how to get the salt to dissolve faster, adjusts the burners for others. Some groups proceed at a much faster pace than others do. There is a great deal of noise and talking, but now most of the student talk appears to be focused on the task. Mr. Hori continues to ignore virtually all student talk except direct questions to him.

As the experiments progress, more and more students engage in off-task behavior. One boy squirts a girl with water, and she cries, “Teacher!” but, to my surprise, Mr. Hori has left the room [to get more materials]. Students in several groups are boiling the material away over the Bunsen flames. One group boils off the mixture too fast, sending bits of hot precipitate flying onto the desk. Another boy has no hot mitts on and attempts to use his handkerchief to remove the solution, inadvertently setting the handkerchief on fire. In neither case does Mr. Hori, who has returned to the classroom, reprimand the individuals or groups.

Mr. Hori gives a 10-minute warning before the class is over, but some groups are already packing up. He does not seem angry with the class; indeed he appears amused and exchanges fake karate chops with a group of boys who have been particularly rambunctious. The bell rings as cleanup is still in progress. Mr. Hori calls for quiet, which the students generally follow. After the teacher explains the homework, the students bow, put their chairs away, and leave for their next class.

I briefly talk with Mr. Hori as he hurries back to the teachers’ room to prepare for his next class. While he felt this class was perhaps disorganized, he also thought the students had understood the basic principle of precipitates.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Learning Japanese

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