Saturday, November 13, 2010

Education in Japan

Education in Japan is a huge topic, so I’ll just chat about what I’ve noticed.  For the most part, the system is based off the U.S. school system with elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, and college.  They offer school lunches at most younger schools, club activities after school, and give grades and tests just like at home.  However, there are some things that I think are interesting and worth sharing.

One of the biggest differences is probably the fact that all junior high school students (around the age of 15), take one huge, important exam to determine what level high school they can enter.  Personally, I don’t like the idea that one test determines a student’s high school, which often determines what university they get into, which generally determines what sort of career and income they can expect in life.  I know that academically I did much better in high school than junior high – but if I had been put into a lower level high school based on a junior high school test, would I have done as well?

I notice the different levels of high schools because I travel to a total of seven high schools this year.  One is considered the smart school and it’s the top high school in the area while another  two I go to are just “under” the top school.  Another one that I go to is probably a  middle-of-the-road school.  I also visit one that is very low on the totem pole, and another where students who can’t make it anywhere else go…the lowest level of all the Kitami high schools. 

At the top high school, expectations are high, students are challenged, and almost all go on to a good university.  Meanwhile, it seems that teachers and students at the lower schools have correspondingly lower expectations.  At the top schools there are almost no behavioral problems and student disruptions are rare.  On the other hand, it can be difficult to teach a class at a lower school due to student disruptions, apathy, pressure by other students not to participate in class, and no incentives for students to study English. 

The issue I have right now is trying to understand whether this is a good idea or a bad one.  If a student really wants to learn and goes to a good high school, he or she is surrounded by other students who want to learn, study, and go to college.  For those who care less about education, they generally go to a lower level school where students go to a technical school after high school, if they continue their education at all.  The standards are lower and the homework less.  But, at the lower schools, the atmosphere is more challenging, so what if a student who wants to go to college had a bad test day and must attend a low level school?  Or what if a student changes his or her mind and wants to go to a university?  They are stuck at a school with more troublemakers and students who make it difficult for others to learn. I'm not sure how those cases are handled.

It’s a night and day difference between the schools.  At the top school, first year English students take a quiz every day so they must study English every night.  Their English is better after a half year at this school than the English of graduating seniors at a low to mid level school.  Meanwhile, my lowest school has a very rough atmosphere.  Last time I was there, a boyfriend and girlfriend got into an argument that resulted in desks being overturned between classes and significant loud crying and yelling.  Teachers just watched it unfold, but what could the teacher have done?  

There are a few other things unique to Japan, and I think some of them are good ideas.  Firstly, since Japan is a bow-based society, students must stand at attention and bow to the teacher at the beginning and end of each class.  Also, teachers travel to the student’s classrooms, unless it’s something like gym or science.  My base school, however, has changed it so that for the classes I help teach regularly, the students come to me.  This idea is definitely unusual, but I think my school allows it to happen to facilitate the cultural exchange. 

The English language lab and my classroom!
A student view of where I teach
Command Center (my desk area)

After school, students have a short homeroom period where the students are responsible for cleaning their own classroom and the school.  I do like this idea a lot because it encourages students to respect the school building…perhaps this should be adopted in the States?  Of course, I can say that pretty easily now since it wouldn’t affect me.
A sunny day view of the nearest train station to me

Currently, I still walk or take public transport to and from school everyday, and I do it with all the other students.  In Japan, no one can drive until they’re 18, and it’s expensive to own a car.  That was a huge difference coming from my high school—where the parking lot has over 1,000 spaces—to Japan where the parking lot is just big enough for all the teachers’ cars.  Students either get dropped off, take a bus or train, bike, or walk to school no matter what the weather may be. 

The girls take off on their marathon!

The biggest difference may have happened just last month.  In late September, all students had to participate in the school marathon on one Saturday.  It was 40km for the boys, and 30km for the girls, and everyone was told to “do their best.”  Of the 600 students who participated (maybe 8-10 got a medical note to get out of it), all of them finished in the allocated time this year!  Can you imagine U.S. students doing it?  Or can you imagine how parents would react when they were told that their child must run a marathon?  A marathon seems a bit extreme to me, but perhaps it would be a good idea to start school 10km runs or something to encourage school spirit, athleticism, and good health!

That’s all for now, but I will try not to wait so long before updating the blog again!


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