I had the extraordinary, once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to Japan, thanks to the JEEP program supported by JCCC. My takeaways from this valuable experience has enriched me and opened my mind to new ideas. My impression of Japan? To sum it up….Wow! Japan thrives as an advanced nation with an orderly, peace-loving society, respectful and courteous in the way they communicate, gracious and polite in how they cooperate. The Japanese people are a communal, united, and very proud people. They always consider what is in the best interest of the group first, not the individual. Historically, Japan was united under an imperial, powerful nation, and never colonized by any foreign occupier; a rarity in any nation’s history. Today, Japan leads the world, not only as a technologically advanced and wealthy nation, but also as an ultra conscientious nation that cares and conserves its precious natural resources.
Many countries have their own unique woes. For example, the U.S. reels from a slew of social and economical problems… poverty, homelessness, unemployment, illiteracy, and gun violence, to name a few. Japan has managed to smooth over many of the social issues that seem to plague other nations. Japan has a literacy rate of 99%, an efficient transportation system, and a cohesive society. There’s unity in Japan; a sense of oneness. These cultural values are reinforced throughout the schools, workplace, family unit, an religion. Because of their strong work ethic, Japan produces a solid work force. Japan may not have invented many of today’s latest technologies, but they have taken the technology and refined, if not perfected it.
I appreciate JCCC’s interest in my impression of the Japanese educational system. First of all, before looking at the different aspects of the Japanese system, I can safely say that the national curriculum set by the government is succeeding in meeting the needs of its society. Is there room for improvement… of course. In all the nine school buildings the delegation visited across Japan, the dedication of the teachers, administrators and staff were clear. Teachers are devoted to their profession. They work tirelessly above and beyond their contractual hours to plan their lessons, collaborate with each other, and provide feedback on student work. Teachers communicate with parents and value their partnership in their students’ education.
In Japan, schools work to reinforce common themes and rituals in Japanese society and culture, like when students work together to keep their environment clean and organized. For example, each student owns a wash cloth to use for cleaning up. During lunchtime, students are responsible for carrying the prepared lunch back to their classrooms, and distributing it. They take what they can eat and not a grain of rice is wasted. Cleanup is orderly and efficient, reusing utensils and recycling perishables, like milk cartons. It was such a delight to watch this daily routine performed over and over, in all the schools we visited. How I would love to carry over such practices into my classroom and school!
In Japan, students take a national achievement test, as well as other tests that are required to be admitted to their high school and college of choice. As a result, students, parents and teachers work hard to prepare and guide students through this process. Because entrance to these schools is test driven, it places a lot of stress on the students to perform well to successfully pass the examinations. Parents often supplement their child’s education with additional test preparation classes, known as cram school, to give their child the added advantage to pass these admission tests. Teachers also work to prepare students to pass these tests by teaching the national standards, and collaborating with both parents and students through the school selection process.
America is also test-driven society, but the structure varies. Schools gather data to assess student progress through standardized tests. Some of these tests are called low-stakes, meaning they will not negatively impact student promotion, like the current ISAT (Illinois State Achievement Test). Administrators and teachers analyze how students performed as a school and what areas need more emphasis to meet and exceed state standards. Other high-stakes tests, like high school admission tests for magnet schools or advanced placement programs, are determined by the score of an entrance exam. Likewise, the ACT and SAT tests, both college entrance exams, determine what college students will be admitted to. Almost all students prepare for these admission tests by taking practice assessments, private tutoring, and after school classes.
It was interesting to learn that the Japanese schools we visited did not have gifted programs for students. Students are all educated using the same curriculum. Teachers do differentiate instruction, often focusing as needed on students who are struggling to catch up. All schools had a special education department that met the learning needs of these students. I was especially impressed with the small teacher to student ratio, often as low as two students to one teacher. These students are mainstreamed or pulled out of classes depending on their instructional needs or deficits. Teaching life skills seems to be a strong theme for students with special needs. They often enjoy therapeutic and practical lessons like gardening, swimming and meditation.
The schools in Japan work smoothly and efficiently for several reasons. Discipline problems are minimal and don’t interfere with instruction. Teachers appear to have a good grasp on their classroom management, and students clearly respect and hold their teachers in high regard. This fact makes whole class instruction a lot more efficient. Students listen carefully, follow directions, transition quickly and come to school well-prepared and ready to learn. Classrooms are teacher-led, meaning teachers guide students throughout the lesson and work with students to ensure they are progressing. For example, I observed countless lessons where teachers introduced the lesson, modeled the concept, asked questions, gave students time to practice individually, and checked for understanding. An excellent and effective teaching method and one that is also found in American schools today.
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. teaching has shifted its focus to a more student-centered type of instruction. Classrooms are becoming less teacher-directed in order to engage students more in the learning process. Teachers differentiate instruction by adjusting their teaching strategies and the complexity level of the content, to meet the learning style and ability of their students. Students work in small groups, and are encouraged to discuss, argue, debate and even disagree, in an effort to build the understanding needed to make conclusions, judgements, and synthesize information. Teachers also serve as guides or facilitators in this process. American educators believe that student-centered instruction, differentiation and varied groupings improve student academic performance. By using strategies to encourage students to question, wonder, research or investigate topics, students will think more critically and creatively as learners.
Classrooms in Japan also promote student critical thinking by questioning and challenging students in a teacher-directed instructional style. In Japan, where class sizes are between 30-40 students, whole class instruction frankly is working well. Students are the proof because they are meeting the national standards through a rigorous testing system. Would students perform even better in a more student-centered learning environment? Possibly. I wonder if the need to attend cram school would still be necessary. Could differentiated instruction satisfy the need to successfully meet the needs of struggling students, as well as push even the brightest and most gifted of students to excel? It would be interesting to see the impact it would have on student achievement.
In many ways, JEEP made me realize we have a lot to learn from other cultures, and especially that of Japan. That a public education can deliver consistent and effective instruction across its regions, prefectures, cities and small towns is very impressive. The values of these schools were consistently similar, holding strongly related beliefs. In the U.S. schools in the cities, suburbs and countryside can vary greatly. It is easy to spot the inequity across the American educational system, whether its funding, school resources, or parent and community involvement.
I am very fortunate to work in a district that places great value on teaching the whole child. Because of my district’s philosophy, WIRED, which stands for having a world focus, integrating, reflecting and engaging as a learner, and discovering all the possibilities, our schools share a common vision. My school district is different from Japanese schools in that we house multi-cultural and multi-lingual students. We celebrate and value student diversity and those great qualities that make each student unique, using those individual traits to enrich our students’ understanding of the world we live in. My knowledge from my JEEP experience will enrich my school by promoting an understanding for Japanese culture and values. I plan to share out, not just through this report, but with my colleagues in in a professional development at the beginning of the school year to share all that I learned and gained from JEEP.