[Snuggling Up to Our Differences] Episode 7: Avoid Burying the Fun of Learning in Competition - Projects

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[Snuggling Up to Our Differences] Episode 7: Avoid Burying the Fun of Learning in Competition

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HILLOCK Primary School in Setagaya, Tokyo is an elementary school with a total of 28 students from the first to fourth grade. The school has adopted a no-grade system in which students are not grouped according to their school year and the students themselves are not certain about the school year of others. They call one another by their first names instead of using an honorific. Because they all share the same space for studying, learn together, and are not separated by school year, they are not clearly aware of what grade their classmates are in. More specifically, this practice has been adopted so that the school year of the students will not be emphasized. Or more accurately, the information is deliberately left vague so that it will not be well known.

If we categorize students through grades (school year), the student and other children and adults who know him or her will start making comparisons. "That student does better than the others" or "This student is falling behind the others" and so on. In any case, after a child is born, we adults are constantly checking and comparing growth and development and alternating between the positive and negative. For example, "The child's body weight is lower than normal" or "vocabulary development is rather poor," and so on.

This does not mean that the methods and results are poor or negative in all respects. They are necessary ways and standards used to measure and know the mental and physical health and development of children. However, once these standards are indicated, parents and adults who are engaged in childhood education come to assume further aims: "To the extent possible, we want to aim for "the average or the middle ground," or "the faster, the better" or "the higher the abilities, the more outstanding," so these aims also have burdensome demerits as well.

Children are surprisingly able to sensitively pick up such values held by adults. For example, they will feel "My family is so happy about it for me!" or "They're not satisfied with it ..." Receiving external or psychological pressure through praise and reprimand, they will respond to the pressure and somehow try to adjust language and behavior to meet the expectations. Up to the present, I have seen many such diligent children.

Competition also has many fun aspects. It is an exhilarating feeling to focus all your energy on competing with the other person, an adventurous feeling knowing the possibility that you might lose, an uplifting feeling because friends are watching and cheering for you, and then a superior feeling when you win. Especially in the fields of sports and the arts, it is also possible to greatly move the hearts of viewers, giving them dreams, hope, courage, and deep emotion.

Adults tend to focus on the success story of the winner, but we should not overlook the negative aspects of competition. The sad regret of having lost, fear of learning the limits of our strength, loss of self-confidence and feeling that we have no value, and shame that comes close to self-hatred. This may turn into something like a springboard for what comes next, as long as "it was my choice." In that sense, when it comes to studying at school, from the child's viewpoint, it is usually a time when "I am suddenly made to take part in competition." What is more disturbing is that it does not even include room for doubt.

There is also the view among some adults that "it is only natural that children don't like studying. It is through education that they foster a disposition not to shy away from it." I see children in their everyday environment and can state that is not the case. Children do not dislike learning.

In the same way, there are also some who will say "No, no. There are children who like to study, too." Nevertheless, I still have doubts and would like to pose some questions. Does the child really like to learn? The child may like the self that performs better than others, the self that is praised by others, or the self that wants to place him/herself above others.

I don't think that is the basic fun of "learning." The fun is when you come across a new way of thinking that you had never thought of or known about before, and surprised by this, you start to ponder and reflect. As this view connects with your knowledge and experience so far and unravels any bias or preconceptions, new paths will be hypothesized and open up. Looking at the world through such spectacles and viewpoints will provide a totally different view from what was possible before you began studying .... Isn't that really the basic and true pleasure of learning?

As educators, we do not necessarily wish to teach that competition is fun. We are not trying to teach students that knowledge is a tool used to assert dominance or that a person's value is determined by being superior to others. Nor are we trying to select children who are superior to others, coax them in that direction so that they can become prominent in society. Nevertheless, the result is that children throughout Japan are being taught something like this.

From the time I started working at public schools, I had always felt uncomfortable about this. I wanted to avoid the atmosphere that calls for "competitive participation by all students" when studying. With this view in mind, I became independent and ended up establishing a school. There is no problem if the competition involves a challenge and effort from yourself. The feeling of accomplishment and also the inferiority that is experienced will be a valuable learning experience. The problem with school studies is that all students are expected to participate in class, even if they do not want to. Furthermore, as adults, we are also participating in and aiding this mechanism.

"You don't need to compare yourself with others." There are many adults around who say this. However, when children are told this, they will still compare. The entire educational environment that surrounds children is one that facilitates comparison. The children are divided into groups by age, provided with material of the same quality and quantity to learn according to the same schedule, and given scores according to the same evaluation axis. When placed in an environment like this where "comparisons are inevitable," it feels very convenient when you hear adults saying, "You do not have to make comparisons."

For that reason, at Hillock, students are not strictly divided into classes or separated by school year (grade). Since students range from first graders to fourth graders, there are naturally differences in physical size and considerable differences in knowledge and experience. However, when there are such overwhelming differences in diverse fields, children will no longer attempt to compare. They express "There's no point in making comparisons" in their daily lives. That student is really good at calculating. That one is good at drawing, and that student is known as a Pokemon master, .... They each have their "strong" areas, and are neither better or worse than that.

Of course, there are no report cards, nor tests. Learning content and methods as well as speed and the amount are varied. An effort is made so that the fun of learning is not buried by the fun of competition. In this incomparable environment, the children at Hillock joyfully continue to experience the fun of learning and growing every day.

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Shogo Minote

Mr. Minote is the Principal of HILLOCK Primary School and the director of HILLOCK Setagaya School. He has 14 years of experience in teaching at public primary schools. While teaching school children, he also studied at the School of Graduate Studies, Open University of Japan, and earned his master’s degree in the Sciences of Human Development and Education. He previously worked for Maebara Elementary School, a school nationally well-known for its programming education, as head teacher in charge of research and ICT. In April 2022, he opened an alternative school called “HILLOCK Primary School.” His publications include “Children Will Learn on Their Own” (Gakuyo Shobo), “How to Use ICT to Realize the Best Education for Every Child” (Gakuyo Shobo), “Creating Classroom Using ICT in Special Schools for Children with Intellectual Disabilities” (co-authored; The Earth Kyoikushinsha Co., Ltd.), and “Understanding Before & After! Research Update” (Meijitosho Shuppan Corporation).
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