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Some thoughts on Educational Reform

Recently an old friend, Owen Smith, dropped by the town where I'm living in Australia. He was with his sister and her husband and we had a wonderful walk in a nearby rainforest. Owen and I had taught together at Doshisha International in Kyoto, so we had many stories and memories to exchange about our students and our classes. Now he's teaching Japanese to primary school children in Australia, having returned to live in Australia after 16 years in Japan.

We had a long talk over lunch. I'd like to share some of the stories which came up and give my own reaction to them. We traded some memories of being young kids in school and were surprised at the similarities of them in spite of being raised in very different cultures and schools. Basically they weren't happy memories. We all felt that we were forced to eat and then spit out information which we hadn't connected with or even understood; all in order to get approval of the teacher or get a good test score. We all had experience with being bullied by teachers or students. We all had trouble having any creative aspects of our personalities recognized or given space to grow. It's strange that, in spite of (or perhaps it was because of) the fact that neither of us had pleasant experiences in school, both Owen and I became teachers.

I think one reason why this happened is that we want to create environments and experiences for our students that are different from those which caused us so much pain and disconnection from our selves as we were growing up. By trying to connect what we're teaching with our students' lives and by seeing our students as individuals with different ways of thinking and experiencing, hopefully their learning will not be just to please others or get a good test score, but will be a part of a life-long growth of their creative spirits.

Owen said to me that in his Japanese classes with young Aussie kids, he is more concerned with finding something they love about Japanese culture than forcing vocabulary or grammar down their throats. He wants them to emerge from Japanese classes with a desire to know more. He knows that this kind of learning isn't easy to test -- each child would have to be followed for a lifetime to see what kind of development and movement s/he has in their relationship with Japanese art, people, literature, technology, food and so on. He knows that it's possible only to teach words and grammar and then give a test and get a score that will allow people to "measure" one kind of learning, but he also knows that that number has very little long-term meaning for a child's life and learning.

So what does he do? He plays with his students, he listens to them, he notices their different learning styles and what they have interest in. Rather than focus on an intellectual skill, he focuses on meaningful activities believing that intellectual skills can be developed from them; for example, the students have joined with other students around the world making 1000 origami cranes for peace.

But are they learning anything basic? I believe that while doing origami, they are also learning mathematical thinking, but most standard tests won't measure this. They're also learning concentration and motor skills and learning to notice patterns, a skill which relate to math, science, language, art and perhaps everything! But I wonder if any testing would pick this up.

school_2007_03_01.jpg
Australian student tying her wishes on the bamboo
at Tanabata Celebration in Japanese language class

Owen's students learn about Japanese food and sport through eating and playing, two of the most basic human activities. They learn about the tanabata festival and sing and play the janken (rock-scissors-paper) game, surprised to discover that this popular game they play so often is also popular amongst kids in Japan.

Owen and I also talked about our teaching at Doshisha International Jr/Sr High School in Kyoto Prefecture. He had an elective course in which he taught improvisation to ten or so students who chose his class from a wide range of subjects and learning styles. In the class students were able to express themselves in ways that weren't possible in more traditional classes. Being able to make choices in what they studied and how they learned gave these students some control over their own intellectual and emotional lives that isn't present when a whole curriculum is designed by someone other than themselves. How can young people become creative, independent adult learners if they aren't given the power and chance to make choices during their early school experiences?

Now there is a movement in Japanese education circles to get rid of or greatly limit such integrated learning hours (sogoteki na gakushu jikan). The criticism of such times is that it's too relaxed and not relevant to learning the basics. It will be very sad indeed to lose this time. But everything depends on definitions, doesn't it! For me, there's nothing more relevant or basic than connecting learning to life and become progressively more curious, independent and self-reliant. As far as being too "relaxed" -- what could be more relaxed, in a negative sense, than a group of students sleeping or chatting during a boring lecture, as can be seen in many high schools and universities. In my experience, during an integrated study time, students are challenged, motivated and engaged, having "hard fun" and certainly learning!

Of course, good teaching on the "basics" can also motivate students and connect to their lives. It seems to me, what the Central Educational Council should focus on is not the quantity but quality of learning that takes place in classrooms.

Teachers should be sent back to take part in and teach in good kindergarten classes where they might learn the basics about teaching the basics!

What do you think?

For other reading supporting this type of integrated learning see an earlier article in The Japan Times, July 22, 2004 "http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20040722d1.html" and a recent editorial in The Japan Times, September 8, 2007 "http://search.japantimes.co.jp/rss/ed20070908a1.html" which raises questions about the proposal of the Central Educational Council to increase class hours focusing on the "basics" and lessening time for electives and integrated study.
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