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What's Basic in Japan? Human Connection, Character, and Content*

We recently hosted a young Japanese schoolteacher who, after asking us many questions about American elementary schools, turned to the questions that were really on his mind: How many Americans carry guns to work? How many keep guns at home to protect their families? When he left, we shared a chuckle over his exaggerated view of American society -- until we considered how comparably distorted is the average American's view of Japan, at least with regard to elementary education. Those of us who have for many years studied what actually goes on in Japanese elementary schools find not the academic pressure cookers of media lore, but lively, friendly places devoted to the "3 C's": connection, character, and content. (More, later, about why we think U.S. media accounts of Japanese education so often miss the mark.)
 
Connection
 
Japanese elementary teachers tell us their first job is to help children develop a strong, positive emotional connection to school. As one teacher said:
 
Children don't come to school because they want to learn. Children come to school because they want to see their friends. So I put the most effort into getting friends for each child. Particularly when a child is slow, I try to get that child to enjoy friendships.
 
This teacher's emphasis on friendship is not just happenstance: Japan's national Course of Study for Elementary Schools includes many goals related to children's friendships, belonging, and social development (Monbushou, 1989). One national goal, for example, is for students to develop "a feeling of intimacy with the people at school, and enjoyment of classroom life." Survey research suggests that Japanese elementary teachers take seriously this focus on social development. When asked to rank the importance of eight goals of education, Japanese elementary teachers ranked students' "personal growth, fulfillment, and self-understanding" and "human relations skills" first and second, and "academic excellence" and "specific occupational skills" seventh and eighth (Ito, 1994). Japanese elementary schools are organized to promote friendships and belonging: there is no ability-grouping or tracking, students stay together for two years (usually with the same teacher), and about 30 days of the school year are devoted to activities designed to build human connections within the school community -- sports day, arts day, school trips, hiking, student-run festivals.
 
Japanese teachers build students' connection to school not just by supporting friendships and schoolwide events, but also by giving students a "say" in running the classroom and school. Through twice-daily class meetings, class committees, and a rotating system of leadership, even Japanese first graders take responsibility for shaping class goals and leading class discussions (Lewis, 1995).
 
In other words, Japanese elementary educators try to meet children's needs for friendship, and for a say in the school environment. They hope that, in turn, children will value school and be motivated to live by its values.
 
Character
 
What are those values? Friendship, cooperation, responsibility, doing one's best, and maintaining safety and health were prominent goals in 19 first-grade classrooms we studied (Lewis, 1995). Japan's national Course of Study for Elementary Schools, the slim volume that specifies the goals and content of elementary education, divides the content of moral education into four categories, as follows (we've included only a few examples from each category):
  • Things related primarily to oneself:
    "reflecting on one's life;"
    "having the courage to do what one believes is right;"
    "fully completing the activities and study that are one's responsibility;"
  • Things related primarily to others:
    "trusting others;"
    "being considerate and kind to others;"
    "deepening friendships while learning;"
  • Things related primarily to nature and the sublime:
    "feeling intimacy with the nature that's near oneself and being kindhearted in the treatment of plants and animals;"
    "having a heart that is moved by things beautiful and noble;"
  • Things primarily related to group life and society:
    "to uphold one's promises and society's rules, and to have a heart that values the public good;"
    "to actively participate in the groups in one's daily life...cooperating and taking initiative to be responsible." (Ministry of Education, 1989, pp. 105-107).
 
How do students learn these values? As noted above, Japanese teachers expect that, when school meets children's needs, children will naturally be motivated to take on the values of school. These values, the Course of Study specifies, should not just be taught in the 35 periods designated yearly for moral education but should be embodied in every activity of the schoolday.
 
In order to foster supportive relationships among students and between students and teachers, Japanese teachers generally avoid use of rewards or punishments, which, as one Japanese teacher said "erect walls of prejudice against students who are slower academically, or less able to sit still." Instead, students discuss "what kind of class we want to be," and self-evaluate progress (Lewis, 1995). Class goals -- such as "Let's become friends;" "Let's be a class that works well together;" and "Let's persist until the end" -- are clearly inspired by the Course of Study, but students discuss and help shape these goals, and thus are likely to feel a sense of ownership. Typically, the family-like cooperative groups within the class also choose goals. In the wiggly weeks following summer vacation, many groups in the classrooms we studied chose goals like "Let's keep to our time schedule" and "Let's be ready to begin each lesson" -- goals that clearly relate to the Course of Study's goal to "lead a regular daily life," but were chosen by students after reflecting on their own behavior.
 
Displays of children's personal goals, in their own handwriting, are a ubiquitous feature of Japanese elementary classrooms. Often, goals are accompanied by lively illustrations (for example, a first-grader popping out of bed the first time his mother calls him), or put together in a mural that symbolizes growth (for example, each child's goal is a leaf on a tree). Self-portraits with goals decorate many classrooms; for example, 33 fifth-graders displayed their self-portraits with personal goals on balloons coming out of their mouths: "I want to do all my homework;" "I will try to raise my hand every day;" "I will try to clean the classroom without goofing off." In most classrooms, students reflect on their goals -- for the school, class, small group, and self -- during regular times set aside for hansei (reflection) that may occur daily, weekly, or less often (Lewis, 1995). When a small group (or individual) judges it has achieved a goal, it typically chooses a new one.
 
The gentle, cumulative effects of goal-setting and reflection may take months, or years, before they create responsible, well-behaved students. So Japanese elementary schools strike many Westerners as remarkably noisy, chaotic places. But because children have helped shape goals and judge their own progress, they become very invested in responsible behavior. As a Japanese teacher who waited nearly 20 minutes while the student daily monitors struggled to quiet the class later told us: " I could have quieted the students with one word, but I don't want to create children who obey just because I am here."
 
Content
 
Building students' character and connection to school are basics in Japan. And so is the third "C," content. But Japanese content offers two surprises.
 
The first surprise is that, by U.S. and world standards, the Japanese curriculum is very frugal. TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) analyses document, for example, that Japanese eighth grade science textbooks cover just eight topics, compared to an average of more than 65 for U.S. eighth grade textbooks (Schmidt et al, 1997). Japanese textbooks are brief; sixth-grade science textbooks, for example, are 60 pages per semester, in a 7-inch by 10-inch format. The entire fifth grade science unit on levers, which normally takes 12 class periods, covers just 10 pages of a small textbook, with much of the textbook space devoted to lively photographs and cartoons of students conducting experiments with levers, and pictures of daily-life items such as bottle-openers and pliers. The text includes many questions (" How is it easiest to cut cardboard with scissors-- with the tip or base of the blades?") and "Let's do" statements ("Let's try lifting something with a pole that is too heavy to lift with our hands" and "Let's try changing the position of the weight and of our hands."). But they present a relatively small amount of information, focused on just a few key issues.
 
Japanese textbooks are disapproved if they are judged to provide content in excess of that required by the national Course of Study. For example, an elementary science textbook was disapproved because the electricity experiments used three batteries -- not two -- an approach judged unnecessarily complicated for elementary schoolers. This incident provides an interesting mirror. How often does talk about a national curriculum or standards in the U.S. focus on limiting coverage?
 
Americans are often surprised to hear how frugal the Japanese curriculum is. "If the Japanese curriculum covers less content, how come Japanese students know more?" we were recently challenged, by a researcher citing the TIMSS results. We think there are two explanations for this apparent paradox. First, Japanese students study topics in depth. Although they spend no more time overall than their American peers studying science (IEA, 1996), Japanese students spend more time on each of the small number of topics they study. For example, Japanese fifth-graders are expected to spend 10 science periods studying the function of weight, and there are only two pieces of knowledge that they are expected to take away: that the bigger and faster an object is, the more it will move another object it impacts; and that the round-trip time of a weight suspended from a string is affected only by the length of the string (not by the amount of weight). In addition, the unit has several objectives related to children's interest (e.g., that they will want to build toys using what they've learned about weight) and to their scientific thinking and observation (e.g., that they can graph their experiments and think quantitatively about the variables). In one classroom we studied, students spent a whole period observing real-world pendulums (swingsets), a period generating ideas about the variables that affect a pendulum's cycle time, several periods designing and conducting experiments to test these ideas, and a full period to discuss the findings of their experiments. Even after all these periods of hands-on work and discussion, many of the students were surprised to find that the amount of weight at the end of a pendulum didn't affect its cycle time. So the teacher provided a full period in which children could again experiment with the pendulums, this time with a focus on studying the findings that "are puzzling or that you have a hard time believing." As the teacher explained, "It's natural for children, as well as adults, to dismiss findings that go against their conceptions, so it's important to build in enough time for students to repeat experiments until they convince themselves."
 
Given ten periods to learn two things about weight and movement, it's not surprising that Japanese students are likely to learn these in ways that are unforgettable. Japanese teachers have time to use techniques likely to promote deep understanding -- such as having students write, draw and discuss their predictions, revisit their initial predictions in light of new observations, debate opposing viewpoints, and make predictions to new situations. Less is more.
 
How many American elementary teachers feel they have time spend a whole period observing swingsets? Yet, U.S. science researchers document that linking daily life experiences to science greatly promotes students' scientific development (Linn & Songer, 1991; Linn & Muilenberg, 1996). In effect, such links multiply students' science learning time by making it likely they'll reinforce and expand their scientific understanding when they use swings, go bowling, or watch Sumo wrestlers (to take three illustrations from Japanese textbooks).
 
Japanese teachers' professional development, which focuses on shared observation and discussion of actual classroom lessons (Lewis and Tsuchida, in press), enables teachers to compare approaches for teaching the shared curriculum. For example, we have seen teachers debate the advantages of swingsets vs. ropes as ways of introducing pendulums; stringed instruments vs. string telephones to study the connection of sound and vibration. Given a frugal, shared curriculum, teachers can devote time to honing effective approaches and examples, not wading through massive textbooks to figure out what's really important to teach (Lewis & Tsuchida, in press; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992; Stigler & Hiebert, 1997).
 
The second surprise in Japan's curriculum is the emphasis on art, music, physical education, and the whole child. Although we often hear that Japan has a "national curriculum," we rarely hear that one-third of the required elementary instructional hours are devoted to "nonacademic" subjects including art, music, physical education, homemaking, and special class activities (Lewis, 1995). Beyond these instructional hours, much time is devoted to twice-daily class meetings, to frequent whole-school meetings, and to school festivals and trips. As one scholar has written, "Japanese teachers believe in "whole-person" education...they feel that their most important job is to develop well-rounded "whole people," not just intellects." (Cummings, 1980, p. 13).
 
In other words, the Japanese regard art and music as basic, even as they are disappearing from many American schools. The arts teach many qualities of character -- teamwork, persistence, responsibility, cooperation -- that are central emphases of the Japanese elementary curriculum. The arts, physical education, and other "nonacademic" subjects may also enhance students' connection to school. When one of our sons attended Japanese elementary school, the student-led singing that began each day, the weekly school assemblies with brass band, and the chance to sculpt, draw self-portraits, and build a marble maze, were real draws to school. A varied curriculum gives many children -- not just the linguistically and mathematically able -- a chance to excel. As one Japanese teacher said about the family-like small groups in which students do many activities throughout the school day: "In their small groups, children learn that the member who excels at mathematics might need help on the parallel bars." Finally, what's "basic" in elementary education depends on what aspects of our culture we wish to pass on. As two California teachers recently said to us, "Isn't it important for students to have some songs that they all share?" and "Can we consider ourselves a culture if we don't pass on any art or music to our children?"
 
Final Thoughts
 
Our portrait of Japanese elementary schools -- the emphasis on close human connections, students' social and ethical development, and a depth curriculum -- differs sharply from what is written about Japanese education in the popular press. Yet our findings are consistent with the work of other researchers who have actually spent time in Japanese elementary schools (Benjamin, 1997; Cummings, 1980; Easley & Easley, 1983; Conduit & Conduit, 1996; Sato, 1991, to name but a few).
 
Why is there a discrepancy between research and media accounts? One reason may be that American commentators simply assume that Japanese elementary schools are similar to junior and senior high schools, which do tend to emphasize conformity and exam-focused study to a much greater degree than do elementary schools (Rohlen, 1983; Rohlen & LeTendre, 1996). But make no mistake about the roots of Japanese achievement: Japan's high performance on international tests emerges during the elementary years, and in samples with few children attending supplementary schooling (Lewis, 1995; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992; U.S. Department of Education, 1997).
 
Further, the U.S. media's persistent focus on the emotional costs of Japanese education may reveal our own belief that academic achievement has social and emotional costs. In schools where learning is a competitive endeavor, this may well be true, because succeeding academically means doing better than one's classmates -- hardly a prescription for friendships. But in Japanese elementary schools, learning is cooperative, and success is judged by whether one sets and meets rigorous personal goals and does one's best for the group.
 
Japan's three C's -- connection, character, content -- are interdependent. When school is a place of deep human connections, children are motivated to be the best people they can. When values of friendship, cooperation, and responsibility are taken seriously, school becomes a better place for learning and for friendship. When content is pared down so that children have plenty of time to see the meaning and importance in what they learn, students are likely to develop a stronger connection to school.
 
Catherine Lewis is director of formative research at the Developmental Studies Center, 2000 Embarcadero, Suite 305, Oakland CA. 94606-5300. This article is based on Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education, by Catherine C. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1995), by permission of Cambridge University Press.
 
Copyright held by Catherine Lewis
 
For further information contact:
Catherine Lewis
Mills College
Women's Leadership Institute
5000 MacArthur Blvd.
Oakland CA 94613
Email: c_lewis@post.harvard.edu
 
References
 
Benjamin, G.R. (1997). Japanese Lessons: A Year in a Japanese School through the Eyes of an American Anthropologist and Her Children. New York: . New York University Press.
 
Conduit, A. & Conduit, A. (1996). Educating Andy: The Experiences of a Foreign Family in the Japanese Elementary School System. Tokyo: Kodansha.
 
Cummings, W. (1992). Examining the educational production function: British, American, and Japanese models. Advances in Educational Productivity 2, 21-39.
 
Easley, J. & Easley, E. (1983) Kitamaeno School as an environment in which children study mathematics themselves. Journal of Science Education in Japan, 7: 39-48.
 
Hess, R. D. & Azuma, H. (1991) Cultural support for schooling: Contrasts between Japan and the United States. Educational Researcher, 20: 2-8, 12.
 
International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) (1996). Science Achievement in the Middle School Years: IEA's Third International Mathematics and Science Study, by Albert E. Beaton, Ina V.S. Mullis, Eugenio J. Gonzalez, Teresa A. Smith, and Dana L. Kelly. Boston College: Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy.
 
Ito, Y. (1994). Kyoshi bunka gakkobunka no nichibei hikaku (Teacher culture, school culture: A Japan-U.S. comparison) In Inagaki, T., & Kudomi, Y. (Eds.), Nihon no kyoshi bunka (The culture of teachers in Japan) (pp. 140-156). Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.
 
Lewis, C. (1995) Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education (New York: Cambridge University Press).
 
Lewis, C. & Tsuchida, I. (in press) Planned Educational Change in Japan: The Shift to Student-Centered Elementary Science. Journal of Educational Policy.
 
Monbushou [Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture] (1989). Shogakkou Gakushuu Shido Youryou [Course of study for elementary schools]. Tokyo.
 
Rohlen, T. (1983). Japan's High Schools. (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press).
 
Rohlen, T. & LeTendre, G. (1996). Teaching and learning in Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 
Sato, N. (1991). Ethnography of Japanese elementary schools: Quest for equality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University School of Education
 
Schmidt, W.H., McKnight, C.C., & Raizen, S.A. (1977). A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers).
 
Stevenson, H. W. & Stigler, J. (1992) The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education (New York: Summit).
 
Stigler, J. & Hiebert, J. (1997). Understanding and Improving Mathematics Instruction: An Overview of the TIMSS Video Study. Phi Delta Kappan, 79:1, 14-21.
 
U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics, Pursuing Excellence, NCES 97-198, by Lois Peak. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.
 
U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics, Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Fourth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context, NCES 97-255. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.
 
*This material is based in part on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. REC-9355857. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation. All names of teachers and schools are pseudonyms. This work was also supported by the Abe Fellowship Program of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies, with funds provided by the Japan Foundation's Center for Global Partnership and the Spencer Foundation Small Grants Program. In addition, we wish to acknowledge the extraordinary assistance of Fujio Hiramatsu and Shigefumi Nagano in arranging, conducting, and interpreting the observations and interviews in Japan.
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