It is very confusing when contradictory articles about education appear in the media. Confusion has sprung from the publication of the book, “The Learning Gap: Why Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education” by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler.
The first news article reports that the authors of this book discovered that Chinese and Japanese children in elementary school have less drill, more time for play, and more opportunity to solve problems than American school children. These authors conclude from their observations that the Asian teachers are better able to put into practice the ideas of Joh Dewey than their American counter-parts. Asian children are taught by handling concrete objects first and then moving on to abstract ideas. Since the children are not divided into high and low groups, the teacher uses her skill to present the lesson in a variety of ways to reach all the students. The children, threfore, learn how to work as a member of the group, support each other and give each other constructive criticism.
The authors do mention Japanese cram schools but say these exist to prepare high school students for college entrance tests and that only five percent of elementary school children in Sendai attend them. Those who do go take courses in English, art or music. Their research further reports that Asian children feel less stress than American children.
A second article appearing a few days later reports on these cram schools called jukus. This article states that many Japanese children do not get enough sleep because they spend so much time studying to pass tests. An eleven year old arises at 6:30, goes to school, then spends an additional three hours at cram school and then studies until midnight. The purpose of all of this activity is not to become an intellectual scholar but to get a good job with a good company.
If both of these reports are correct, then it must be very confusing to Japanese children. In one context, the regular elementary school, the children are taught to be helpful to each other so they can all learn. In the context of the cram school, however, the student is more successful if his schoolmates does not do as well as he on a competitive exam.
Japan is a very competitive society. As a result, these cram schools enroll children as young as two and threee years old. Sound familiar? Maybe we do not have so much to learn from the Japanese after all. Or could it be, as in our country, that these reports are about two different groups of children … the rich and the poor. The children who do not get into the elite, private schools are not taught to be as competitive as the two year old whose parents can afford to send him to the cram school so that he can pass the entrance exam for the prestigious private schools.
According to the second article, 18.6% of the elementary school children attend the cram schools. In order to do this they must give up their childhools. There are just not enough hours in the day to be a child, to sleep, and to learn how to fill-in-the-blanks correctly. Thomas Rohlen from Stanford University feels these cram schools tighten the screws on the children to grow up fast but may be producing a “duller and less robust society.
I am confused by what Japan wants to produce. In one case they say they do not value individualism, at the same time, they involve their children in fierce competition with each other which would go against any feeling for group chesiveness. Instead of looking to Japan for solutions to our educational problems, I think we should resurrect the ideas of our own John Dewey and go on from there.