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Five Simple Changes to Improve Japan’s School System

For all these flaws, I can honestly say, I still love being a teacher and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

By 7 min read 3

As my regular readers will know, in addition to my writing duties here on Gaijinpot, and indeed elsewhere on the web, my “day job” is that of a public school English teacher. I work across four different schools, taking in a junior high school, two elementary schools and a special needs school. When you factor in the additional time I served in both Chiba Prefecture and Okayama Prefecture prior to finding my way to my current home of Osaka, then I have been doing this job in Japan for about six and a half years.

I’ve worked in some great schools, I’ve worked in some awful schools. I’ve taught alongside some great, inspirational teachers, I’ve also encountered others who, frankly speaking, shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a classroom!

It’s fair to say, and I think most other “veterans” of the public school teaching game here in Japan would agree, that being a public school English teacher here really is a mixed bag. That being said, just because a system isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to use this platform I have been given here today to present a selection of some ideas I’ve had down the years as to how English education, and indeed public school in general in Japan may be improved. I am not professing to have all the answers, nor do I think you are all likely to agree with everything I am about to say. However, an inquiring mind is fundamental to getting the most that you can out of any educational system, and hopefully today I can give you something to think about.

So, today, for your consideration, I present my five simple suggestions to improve public education in Japan.

Scale back the club activities:

When I come into my school in the morning and when I leave at night, the same sight greets me. The baseball club out on the practice pitch smashing balls around and pitching continuously. I asked the teacher who leads the club, just how much these kids actually train, and he was very open about it “They come in at about 7am and put in a good hour of practice, then after school they’ll usually practice until about 6 or 6.30pm, depending on the time of year.

Then the realization hit me. At only 12 or 13 years old, these kids are already pulling close to 12 hour working days. No wonder my 3rd graders always seem so surly in class! Physical activity is a good thing for kids but, I do believe this is overkill, and it’s impacting their ability to focus in other classes. Perhaps it would be better to have either a morning or afternoon practice, and let these students not only get some much needed rest, but also give them time to just be kids.

Group students according to academic ability

This is a controversial one, with, I believe, very compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. If you ask any ALT in Japan, one of their biggest complaints about their day to day classes will be the huge difference in ability between the weakest and the strongest student in some classes. Trying to pitch a lesson to the middle ground in these situations, in a way that makes everyone feel included in class, is at times nigh on impossible.

To remedy this, I think perhaps Japan could follow the example of the Scottish education system. In Scotland, from the beginning of high school (equivalent in age to junior high 1st grade in Japan) students are grouped according to academic ability and potential, rather than the seemingly random way students are grouped in Japan.

This makes lesson planning much easier from a teacher’s perspective and it also ensures that even the weakest students can take something from a class whilst the stronger students are less inclined to feel bored and demotivated. Of course, there is the very valid point that, from a psychological perspective, being categorized at such a young age can be emotionally damaging to a young person’s self-esteem and that such levelling can have a harmful impact on a student’s potential if they are mistakenly put into a class that is too high or too low for them. Regular review and a certain degree of flexibility within classes is what’s required here.

Failure builds character

I remember a valuable lesson I learned when I was a teenager. It was when I was 13 years old and about to enter my first Tae Kwon Do tournament. Having no idea what to expect, I was apprehensive, I was nervous, and I was resoundingly beaten in my first match. It was a humiliating experience. But then my instructor said something that has always stuck with me ever since. “Sometimes we learn more from a defeat, than we do from a victory.”

This was so true in this case. In the coming months and years I looked back on that tournament, ironed out my weaknesses and within a couple of years, not only was I competing in national level tournaments, I was winning them.

Unfortunately, too many students in Japan are deprived of the lessons learned from failure. In short, no matter how badly a student performs, they will always graduate from Junior high school. Again, looking at the Scottish example, and I believe it may be the same in the US, if a student fails to meet a minimum academic criteria, they will be required to go back and repeat the previous year’s study.

From my observations, I have seen a lack of motivation as a major cause of both academic underachievement and poor discipline in many of the schools I have taught at in Japan. I don’t know about you, but when I was in school, the fear of failure was one of several driving factor in pushing me to be attentive in class, to always get my homework done on time, and to study hard when an exam was coming up. Japanese junior high school students essentially cannot fail and so lack this extrinsic motivation.

One could also make a case for arguing that perhaps Japan’s horrifically high suicide rate, particularly among the younger demographics could, at least partially, stem from the fact that today’s students simply aren’t conditioned to deal with failure and rejection.

The rights of good students should take precedent over those of disruptive students.

Ok, I’ve stood on this particular soapbox before, so apologies if I sound like I’m repeating myself, but the Ministry of Education’s current interpretation of the Japanese Constitutional convention that “Every child has an equal right to an education” means that teachers cannot individually discipline students is as unworkable as it is idiotic.

Teachers need to be given the tools necessary to create safe, secure and productive classrooms. This means students who don’t follow the rules, and don’t respect themselves or their classmates must be shown the consequence of their actions. Simple punitive measures, commonplace in other countries, such as detention, temporary banning from participation in club activities, temporary exclusion from school and additional homework assignments would, I believe, have an immediate and lasting impact.

Supporters of the current, fundamentally broken system would argue “Oh, but we can’t single these badly-behaved students out, their rights must be respected.” To that I would argue: “Well what about the rights of the well-behaved students to an education free from disruption?”

As I said before, what was initially a good idea has passed through a few too many lines of bureaucracy, and has mutated to the point where it is no longer fit for purpose, and needs urgent reform.

Give teachers a break

Compared to most other countries, full-time teachers in Japan work long hours. A 60-70 hour week is not unusual, nor is working 7 days a week. I look around and I see a lot of very tired, over-worked, stressed colleagues. This cannot be good for the students. In the past I have been in schools where teachers have had their health severely affected by this approach and I have no doubt it is a contributory factor in Japan’s ongoing issues with mental health.

For all these flaws, I can honestly say, I still love being a teacher and I wouldn’t change it for anything, well almost anything! That sparkle you see in a student’s eye when it finally clicks and you know they can understand what you are trying to teach is the reason why so many of us are proud to be teachers. And that is something I hope will never change.

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  • maulinator says:

    First off, the title is a bit of wishful thinking. These changes are not simple by any means. Most require approval at the administrative level if not the entire ministry of education must approve of some of these changes. So “simple” is simply the wrong adjective. Some of the changes proposed by the author are core changes that would change the entire character of the current syetem. Whether right or wrong, some of these changes are fundamental changes that need to be addressed at the national level.
    Reducing club time- this one can generally be instituted at the school level. However, the author choosing baseball is not a good example. There are schools in Japan that are “meimon” baseball schools known for producing the stars of Japanese ball. These high schools are always ranked high nationally and send players to the Japanese majors consistently. Since in Japan baseball recruits out of high school, preparation must begin at grade school and middle school. If you are not an outstanding player by then, you are not going to the school or play for the team that will win the Koshien, which is the showcase for many prospects. Tkae a look at a kid like Yuuki Saito who garnered natioanl attention a few years ago. While this life is not for everyone, each grade school and middle school kid dreams of this and willingly comes to practice to play and get better. If the school is a magnet school fo baseball or has a chance at winnign tournaments, you can forget about reducing time on the field. I played football (not soccer) in middle and high school, and did nerdy crap like chess club too. 12 hour days was and is not outrageous for kids, especially in the competitive world today. You want your kid to go to Harvard or Yale or Todai- you go to cram schools to prepare for the test, or go to music lessons and karate lessons or dance lessons and some sports activitiy at a minimum. Even then most likely you won’t get in. So while I pity the kids with 12 hour days, it is not something that will likely change. While not all parents care about their children excelling, most do and will push their kids to do more if time and money allow. Club activity in most cases except for competitive sport or academics, is going to be about stress removal not adding to stress.
    I am all for grouping kids academically. However this is a change that must come from an admisitrateive level or the national level and is not an easy simple change. New curriculums must be provided, teachers must be trained to handle the gifted students, and funding must be provided for the additional teachers and classes. I was fortunate enough that there was a gifted and talented program at the grade school level where I went to school, and the middle school and high school I attended had AP classes. I was also allowed to take classes that were above my grade level as I had excelled in mathematics, physics, biology, history and English above my grade level. I was also allowed to take college classes in lieu of the high school classes. But all this caused massive turmoil at the administrative level as students after me realixed that this was possible (I was the first) and started tailoring their curriculum to their needs. I was NOT well liked by the administration for starting this type of behavior in the students. But when this occurs, it is controlled chaos. The administrateors have to be flexible and monitor each child to make sure that the classes that need to be taken are taken and national curriculums are thrown out the window. This adds to the burden of the teachers and administrators. The philosophical issues also come into play. There was the notion in the US of “leave no child behind”. This led to appeasing the lowest common demoninator, and the overall reduction in education level of the US up to the hihgh school level. THis is what is happening in Japan clearly, but to change this will cost gobs of money GOBS.
    I am all for failing students. More students should fail and continue failing. The world can always use more ditch diggers. NOt everyone has to succeed. Otherwise who will do all the crap work? However failing students in Japan goes against the right of the srtudents to an education (an interpretation of the existing laws but the prevailing one, and the policy would need to be altered at the national level). NO school wants to fail students as retention rates and success rates are all part of the teacher evaluation. Failing students are blamed on the teacher, not necessarily the idiot student, which is an unfortunate injustice. Anyone who cannot understnad the curriculum up to the high school level with ease should be left behinf and it is not the fault of the teacher. The material is and was easy. Either the kid has a learning disability or is jsut stupid. The stupid kids go dig ditches in the future.
    Clearly I agree that good students should prevail over the idiots or the disrupters. Expulsion should be used more as a tactic. But once again in Japan, you have the issue of the right to education which is interpreted in a very peculiar way. Also this goes against the group think of Japan. The policy would have to be changed a the national level so this is not a simple change. IT is a policy and philosophy change that has deep roots in culture and prevailing policy. Also this would cost a boatload more money as mentioned prior to this point.
    Teachers should be given a break. I work 60 -70 hours a week but I get paid well so I don’t mind. I don’t see teachers at the same restaurants I go to or live in the area I livem so I assume for the most part they get paid squat. They are never going to get paid a lot so give them a break and give them a better work life balance sounds reasonable. However, in Japan you dont have to deal with some of the problems that US teachers face, like getting shot or drug dealers roaming the halls. Crazy kids shooting up the school. So Japanese techers have it slightly easier than the US counterparts.

  • Kristoffer H Bolton says:

    Students are already being grouped by ability, unofficially.

    An unfortunate side-effect from yutori.

  • Brodie Taylor says:

    Something serious needs to change to fix bullying in schools. The suicide rate in Japan is so high yet most teachers stand by and do nothing while students are tormented by their classmates. It’s really weird that so many students in Japan are closer to their teachers than their own parents, yet teachers fail to intervene on their behalf when they witness bullying. As a parental figure their role should always be to protect their students from harm. Disruptive students should also be punished. I know Japan prides itself on the collective group over the individual and this explains their lack of individual discipline, but if one student chooses to disrupt an entire class for their own individualistic reasons then in my eyes they’ve ruined the ‘wa’ (harmony) of the group and have hence forfeited their right to be treated as part of the group until they rectify their behaviour. It’s hard to see the logic when people who do little things to to ruin the ‘wa’, eg: talking on a cell phone on a train, are frowned upon and even fined yet one pupil who wrecks the learning experience for their 39 classmates are given free reign by the school.

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