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Education for Gender Equality: Episodes from Preschools and Elementary Schools in Japan and the U.S.

Many years ago, John Dewey said that schools must be a microcosm of the society we want to live in a generation hence. If we want to create a gender-equal society, what kind of preschools and elementary schools should we have?

In the past 20 years, I have spent a great deal of time in Japanese and American elementary schools, and some time in preschools in each country. I have done this both as an educational researcher, studying teaching practices in the two countries, and as a mother of two children, now aged 10 and 15. Using some episodes from my experience as a researcher and mother, I would like to explore the idea of education for a gender-free society.


Before I begin, I must make two confessions. First, I am the mother of two boys. If I were the mother of two girls, perhaps I would be a rather different person. I am very conscious that having two boys has shaped my sympathies and perspectives. My sister, who has three daughters, and I often laugh over how much our children have pushed us toward different views of good education.


Second, I must confess that I am a great admirer of Japanese preschool and elementary education. In my experience, it is often hard to get Japanese to say anything good about their educational system. I recognize the difficulties of the exam system, university education, juku, etc. But I think Japanese preschool and elementary education has much strength, and can provide an inspiration and model for American educators. I hope in my comments today you will pick up some of these strengths of the Japanese system. I worry that if Japanese people don't appreciate these strengths, they will lose them.

The first episode I would like to describe comes from an American preschool serving children of well-educated parents in an affluent area. Like many U.S. preschools, this preschool had activity centers where children could engage in various activities: dress up in costumes, paint pictures, read books, play pretend store, use clay, etc. By far the favorite place for boys was the block center, where, throughout the day, many boys could be found building things and knocking them down. One girl in the school told her mother that she wanted to build with blocks, but that she didn't play at the block center because the boys were too noisy and active. Pretty soon, the mothers of the girls had gotten together and asked the school to set aside certain days when only the girls could play at the block center. In response, the school set aside one day when only girls were allowed to play at the block center. However, the mothers of the girl's felt this was an unfair decision; why shouldn't half of the week be set aside for the girls? The situation further heated up when an article in a national magazine suggested that block play was an important stimulus to cognitive development, citing as evidence the development of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.


If we want to foster gender equality, how should we handle the situation in block corner? The mothers of the girls defined gender equality as their children having the blocks reserved for them one-half of the time, during which they could play free of the noise and activity the boys typically created. Many mothers of boys, however, noticed that many of the activities provided by the preschool -- crafts, painting, pretend play, looking at books, games and puzzles, etc. -- were more appealing to the girls than to the boys. Indeed, on the four days a week when the blocks were open to both sexes, many boys swarmed the block area. On the one-day a week when they were available only to girls, typically just a few girls played there.

So, while the mothers of the girls saw this incident as one in which their children suffered discrimination, because they had exclusive access to the blocks only one-fifth of the time, one could also make the opposite case: that boys were discriminated against, because there was not always an option of free outdoor play, construction projects, use of tools, and other kinds of play boys tended to favor. Indeed, gun play (even with fingers) was prohibited at this school. Perhaps one could say that both boys and girls suffered discrimination at this school.


The fact that the girls in this U.S. preschool had many activities that interested them, but boys concentrated in just a few areas (like the blocks and the outdoor play structure) reminded me that Japanese preschools typically have many activities of interest to boys. Many Japanese preschools have activities such as hammering nails, using knifes and tape to construct things out of old boxes and plastic bottles, running around the outdoors, constructing large "buildings" out of cardboard boxes, using big PVC pipes and running water to make "construction projects," playing in mud and water, and even using saws. Although some American preschools have such activities occasionally, none except outdoor play is frequent. Many American preschools expect children to spend some or much of their day in focused, sit-down tasks. Cross-cultural research reveals that Japanese five-year-olds spend four times as much of their schooldays in free play than do U.S. five-year-olds. So we might say that American preschools do a less adequate job of providing for boys' preferred activities.


As citizens interested in a gender-equal society in the next generation, the block corner incident sparks many interesting questions about preschool education:
  • Do preschools provide activities that engage children of a wide range of temperaments and activity levels -- from vigorous physical activity to deep concentration?
  • In the case of the girls who don't feel comfortable playing at the block corner because the boys are too active and noisy, what is the school's responsibility? The American mothers claimed that the blocks might contribute to their daughters' cognitive development, and perhaps they saw cognitive development as the primary job of the school. On the other hand, if the school's job is to teach students how to live harmoniously with others, or to be self-assertive, these goals might be undermined by adults decreeing that the girls have their own time with the blocks.



The emphasis on activity and lively involvement also is striking in Japanese elementary schools, compared to American elementary schools. In one Japanese first-grade classroom I studied, children ran around the room playfully punching each other with sacks of gym clothes under a large banner of the class goal, "Let's play energetically,". Several children jumped out the classroom window, on to the playground, and then ran back into the school to continue the chase. Seeing these children jump out the window, I wondered how any teacher in her right mind could have this as a goal! Yet it is part of the Course of Study (Gakushu Shidou Youryou). To Americans, the Japanese Course of Study is remarkable for its focus on a broad range of goals -- both goals that might be considered stereotypically "female", such as kindness and consideration, and those that might be considered stereotypically "male, " such as strength and persistence. In contrast, American schools are quieter. Students in American elementary schools who talk out of turn or leave their seats may be given a "yellow card" by the teacher, or have their name listed on the board with a warning. As one Japanese teacher said who saw these practices in an American classroom, "Doesn't this create walls of prejudice in the classroom, against children who can't sit still?" Neither strength nor energy is typically seen as goals by American teachers. I find Japanese elementary schools are more balanced in terms of the range of personal qualities that are valued, both values traditionally associated with maleness and those traditionally associated with femaleness.


A second episode I would like to mention is a class meeting from a sixth grade class in Japan. In that class meeting, the teacher commented on the fact that girls were not raising their hands as much as boys during science. Students talked about why that might be true. For example, girls volunteered that boys sometimes blurted out answers before girls had a chance to speak up, or noisily waved their hands in a way that didn't create a climate for girls to speak up. The class eventually agreed to make it a class goal that "Everyone will try to volunteer their ideas in science."


I was very struck by two aspects of this incident. First, the gap between girls and boys in math and science is a widely talked about issue in the United States, and yet solutions are commonly in the hands of adults. For example, teachers are taught to pull sticks from a jar randomly so that they call on all boys and girls equally, or they are given research results about how boys are called on more often, and asked to analyze their own practice by videotape. Instead, this Japanese teacher actively involved students in recognizing and trying to solve the problem. I have seen similar approaches in other Japanese classes, where, for example, a class meeting focused whether girls were working hard at classroom cleanup, while boys goofed off. Similarly, in another class, third graders discussed the problem that some students spoke a lot whereas others spoke little, and they agreed that, whenever more than one student wanted to volunteer an idea, they would look at each other, and the one who spoke less would have the floor first. No doubt these were very good Japanese elementary teachers who helped students to recognize and discuss these problems, and take responsibility for solving them. But I think they are part of a larger tradition of student responsibility in Japanese elementary schools, where the toban or nicchoku system, daily class meetings, and kakari give students much more responsibility than they typically have in American elementary schools. I think that solutions that rest in the hands of students -- such as taking responsibility to speak up in science -- are more likely to have long-lasting effects than solutions -- such as calling on children randomly -- that rest in the hands of teachers.


However, a different way of looking at the episode of the class meeting is that the teacher should strongly show the importance of gender equality by solving the problem himself, calling on boys and girls equally. Why should it be the girls' responsibility to speak up when the boys quickly and noisily raise their hands? Isn't leaving the solution up to the students communicating that it's not an important moral issue? I don't personally agree with this, but I think it is the perspective many Americans would have. For example, last year a first-grade boy in an American elementary school was suspended from school for one week for chasing and kissing another 6-year-old. School district policy required mandatory suspension for sexual harassment. Many educators argued that, for girls to feel safe in school, adults must punish any "unwanted sexual advances" in order to strongly communicate their moral wrongness. Rather than leaving the solution of raising hands in science to the students, should the teacher have made a strong rule, to show the importance of the issue? Or are the girls more likely to learn assertiveness by taking responsibility to raise their hands?


My third anecdote is about gender stereotyping in Japanese schools. Many Americans are shocked to enter Japanese preschools and elementary schools and see the number of gender-related differences: the color of backpacks and hats, the roll call separated by gender with boys first, etc. Even more troubling are comments such as the following I have heard from Japanese educators:
"This is a science experiment that even girls will enjoy;" or "The reason for the increased alienation from science (rika banare) is that there are more female elementary teachers now; or "the experiments in textbooks must not be too complicated for female teachers."



Although these comments shocked me, I also found them refreshing in a sense. In the United States, educators might think such thoughts, but they probably wouldn't say them, out of "political correctness." However, recent research suggests that such stereotypes are not harmless; they can have real effects on performance. In recent years, Claude Steele of Stanford University has led an exciting program of research on what he calls "stereotype vulnerability." This research shows that stereotypes can create anxiety that undermines the performance of stereotyped groups. For example, women performed lower on a test of advanced university math only when told that women tended to perform more poorly on the test than men, not when told that women and men tended to perform equally on the test. So simply being told that the test distinguished between men and women caused a gap in the performance of men and women--probably, their research suggests, because of the anxiety created in women who were placed at risk of confirming a stereotype. Also, for these stereotypes to have a negative effect, it is necessary for people to have their status made salient -- for example, to be reminded of the fact that they are female, or of their race, in the case of racial stereotypes. Thinking about this research on "stereotype vulnerability," I have become worried about the ways that Japanese preschools and elementary schools may make children very aware of their gender, and also communicate stereotypes about gender -- for example, that girls are not good at science, or boys are rough.


I hope that we can now use the remaining time to share our thoughts about schooling for gender equality. What do you think about the preschool block corner? About the strategies for helping girls volunteer their ideas in science? About the ways that gender may be
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