After working as a teacher in charge of regular classes in an elementary school for six years, I was transferred to a special needs school. There I would encounter a sight that I would never forget. At the time, I was in charge of a class in the second year of junior high school, and a child in my class was crying while working on the multiplication table worksheet.
Some people might see something beautiful in such a situation and make comments like "How impressive that he/she hasn't given up and is studying patiently!" However, at the sight of this child, I became rather puzzled and confused about the meaning of studying.
Until then I had assumed that the role of a teacher was to teach a fixed curriculum in a way that could be easily understood and to improve students' academic ability. I had believed that raising academic ability and increasing the possibility of entering a good university would lead to the student's happiness.
However, the child who was crying in front of me was a second-year junior high school student whose study material was meant for second graders in elementary school. Of course, the student's ability was improving little by little with each passing day that the effort continued. Nevertheless, studying at such a pace, it was unlikely that the student would be able to compete equally with students in regular classes when it comes to university entrance exams. On the other hand, neither could I confidently say, "Knowing the multiplication table will help you in life."
So why does this child have to learn the multiplication table in such agony? They are forced to study the regular school curriculum which hardly appears to be something that they can catch up to, with little possibility of being useful in the future. It is thought to be highly possible that this child, like other children in the class, will graduate from a special needs high school and become employed at a social welfare workshop. In that case, there will be almost no chance or timing to use a multiplication table at the workplace and using it in daily life would require further training.
What is this child suffering for? What is the purpose of school? What is life for? In adolescence, the young person will forsake having fun and endure hardship for reasons that are difficult to understand, be put to work as an adult and then live just to enjoy fun on days off from work. That was the dark image that came to mind. My view of education began to shake, rattle, and fall apart.
After that, I devoured a variety of books, met people, and studied in graduate school. As I studied, a new view of life began to gradually take form from within. Yes, "people are born to be happy." It doesn't matter if you have a disability or not. All human beings are born to become happy. If so, the reason for studying at school is also "to become happy." You don't need to cry over studying something that you don't really know if it will make you happy. There are no particular skills or knowledge that a person needs to acquire as the bare minimum. That is my current understanding.
"To expand the wellbeing of children" is the highest goal of the Hillock Bilingual Kinder School that I established in April 2022 and where currently I serve as principal. The curriculum is selected and organized according to whether a particular subject or material will expand the happiness of the children, and every day, we ask them if their ability to become happy has improved. The children learn as they play, and they express delight at having increased their ability to become happier than the day before. And so, I am sure that they will be even happier in the future.
The happiness of each individual is most probably different from one another. More money does not necessarily mean greater happiness. Nor is it the case that a higher social status leads to greater happiness either. There are many people who do not feel happy even though they are highly capable or have many SNS followers. The shape and form of happiness differs for each person.
Nevertheless, there appear to be some common aspects. From the viewpoint of happiness, most of life is seen as involving doing what we love, being immersed in an environment you love, and spending time with people you love. In doing so, there are certain knowledge and abilities that are required, and there might be other skills worth developing further. The important aspect here is to realize what you like and recognize the necessary effort and skills, select them and then become focused and engaged.
Today most Japanese children study to achieve the goal of entering a university with even a single point of higher ranking (based on admissions scores), and most parents believe that this brings happiness to their children. But is that really the case? At Hillock Bilingual Kinder School, we clearly state that we do not provide support for preparing university entrance exams. Hillock is a "school that teaches how to acquire the ability to become happy," and we believe that being happy involves many factors more important than admissions scores. In fact, there are many adults who are not happy in life even though they have graduated from good universities, and a number of young people continue to take their own lives amid the harsh competition of university entrance exams. Furthermore, if one's educational background is a true measure of happiness, does it mean that a child born with intellectual disabilities has no chance of becoming happy at the start-line of life?? That can't be true.
It seems necessary to once again consider the trend in which the concept of "basic academic skills" is simply understood as synonymous with "learning Japanese and mathematics in elementary school." If literacy and numeracy skills are considered as basic academic skills indispensable for becoming happy, people with dyslexia cannot experience happiness. However, there are many adults in the world with dyslexia who are living very happily. There are also possible alternative methods of expression, especially with the support of technology today. For the sake of argument, if it is a matter of basic academic ability in a true sense, the skills will definitely become necessary as the child does something he or she likes. If not, we can conclude that it was not a basic academic skill.
At Hillock Bilingual Kinder School, we do not force students to read, write, or do arithmetic exercises against their will until they feel, "I want you to teach me!" or "I want to be able to do it!" On the other hand, during their time at school, they are constantly presented with communication and situations that encourage their feelings of "I want to learn how to read!" or "I want to learn how to write!" For example, teachers may deliberately use Chinese characters or when searching the internet together, there will be one student who expresses a wish to be able to read them, and spotting a friend taking notes, the student may also want to learn how to write them, too. Even in reading, there is no need to follow a certain order by starting with hiragana and then katakana. It is best to start with the desired material to be read. Children are learning literacy and numeracy skills in a broad sense including English and typing skills because they want to. As they learn, I come to realize how their ability to achieve happiness is expanding. I consciously put emphasis on learning that takes off from the children's desire to do such activities, rather than for the sake of comparison and evaluation.
When a child with special needs tries to use a tablet during class, there are still voices saying, "That's sneaky and not fair." Could it be that students were responding to a situation in which they are required to study the basic academic skills they were not particularly interested in and were forced to endure? Furthermore, among the causes of various types of bullying, it seems that bullying also arises from rebellion or resistance against learning that does not suit the individual student.
At Hillock Bilingual Kinder School, the children themselves select what they want to study and how. If a problem arises, voices speak out. Everyone considers what method of learning is best and pleasant for all, and it is prepared together. There is no single right answer nor a certain standard. If you would like to ask for consideration, just speak up and say so. No one will stop you. When children are in an environment where they can make decisions, they show surprising gentleness.
Moving away from education that stresses conformity in the form of high evaluation of equivalent or similar content, we need to trust children more and allow them free choice. If so, this may also be surprisingly easy and effective in eliminating bullying, discrimination, prejudice and many other problems in education.