Getting schooled in Japan A group of about 200 U.S. teachers recently traveled to the Far East for several weeks to study Japan's culture and its education system. They learned that each nation has methods and philosophies that may aid the other.

November 22, 1998|By Bonnie J. Schupp

HOW OLD ARE YOU?" one of my seventh-graders asked recently.

From long experience, I knew this question came from curiosity rather than rudeness.

"Almost 54," I answered, hesitating not from reluctance but from a need to calculate the numbers. Keeping track of age means more, after all, to a 12-year-old than an almost-54.

I explained to my middle school student that age is nothing to be ashamed of.

In fact, in some countries, old age is celebrated. In Japan, Sept. 15 is the national holiday of Keiro No Hi (Respect for the Aged Day). It is a day to thank older people for their contributions to society and celebrate their longevity.

Last month, I was one of 200 educators from across the United States who visited Japan for three weeks as Fulbright Memorial Fund scholars to learn about its culture and educational system. I had the opportunity to observe firsthand other differences - some expected, but some surprises.

Americans tend to have the idea that Japanese students are all very diligent and perfectly behaved. We visited schools at all levels, from elementary through university, and at a junior high I observed some of the behaviors I see daily at my middle school in Anne Arundel County.

I saw pupils who forgot textbooks or who, off in their own worlds, had their books turned to the wrong pages. There was an occasional sleeper. Some pupils talked with one another while the lesson was going on. And I caught, out of the corner of my eye, one impish young man playfully throwing something at a classmate.

It was a relief to find out that kids are kids, even in Japan.

However, I never saw any sign of student disrespect toward a teacher - or toward another student.

At the beginning of class, students stand, bow and greet the teacher. At the end of class, students stand, bow and thank the teacher for instructing them.

Like the honors accorded the elderly, respect seems to be ingrained in Japanese society.

I must admit that after three weeks of witnessing such respect, I found it difficult to return to students who inform me that I have an attitude problem because I ask them not to interrupt, or who say "Why?" when I ask them to return to their assigned seats.

There was another fundamental difference - the Japanese view of responsibility.

Teachers generally ignored students who were not on task. The prevalent Japanese attitude is that it is the student's responsibility to listen and do the work, and the teacher's to instruct those who are receptive to learning. Attendance is mandatory in Japan only through ninth grade.

In the American system, teachers seem to have all the responsibility. We are told that every student who fails is also our failure.

Student responsibility

This Japanese idea of student responsibility goes beyond academics. Students there are responsible for cleaning their schools daily. There is a noticeable absence of graffiti, trash and writing on desks.

The display of student responsibility is interesting to observe. American teachers, by contrast, feel as if they are nagging their students all the time.

In some Japanese schools, students take weekly turns being leaders. They have the responsibility of helping the teacher with homeroom duties such as taking attendance, running homeroom goal-setting sessions, and leading the class in greeting the teachers who come to their room. (In Japan, it is the students who remain in one room and the teachers who move from class to class.)

Students also take the responsibility for cleaning up at lunch and running their own after-school program. There appears to be little teacher direction of these activities.

The Fulbright teachers were divided into groups of 20 and sent to prefectures (the equivalent of states) across Japan. One group reported observing elementary students taking care of their class after the teacher went home sick - completing the work assigned to them without adult supervision.

Japan has a national education system, the Monbusho, while in our country the local school systems set policy and curriculum. Both have interesting aspects. Because of our country's diverse population, local districts seem to know best how to educate their students. Japan is much less diversified.

There is a national exam for which Japanese students prepare to get on the right track for acceptance into a high school that will lead them toward a good university, and then a lifetime job with a good company. This exam determines the quality of their future. It is given only one day each year. If a student is sick, he must take the exam or wait a year.

'Cram school'

Because of the test's significance, many students prepare by attending "cram school" after the regular school day. Parents sometimes put their children, as young as kindergarten age, into cram school.

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