The reputation of Japanese education has taken a bit of a tumble. It was regarded in the 1980s as being a model to follow. This was because the Japanese economy was doing so astonishingly well that people around the world thought the Japanese must be doing an awful lot of things right. In education, especially, the Japanese genuinely had things to be proud of. They could claim one of the highest literacy rates in the world – the highest, I think, among the bigger advanced economies. Also the tests that were applied showed that the Japanese were able to apply their considerable knowledge. It was not just all learned by rote.
These observations are from a talk by Roger Goodman, Professor of Modern Japanese Studies, at a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation event earlier this week. He said that Japanese families had a huge commitment to education. Large numbers went to private schools and universities as well the government ones. I believe that in some cases, students went and still go to private institutions in addition to the state ones during the same day.
Then the Japanese economy went into long term hibernation. And now, in contrast, a number of Japanese educationalists think they can learn from Britain. The top Japanese universities are ranked below the top British ones. The Japanese are interested in the power of parental choice to increase competition. They are even trying de-regulation (albeit in a typically Japanese regulated sort of way). They are trying to free up education and make it more responsive.
The remarkable thing is, according to Professor Goodman, that the concepts that underly Japanese and British education remain the same. They were the same in the 1980s when the Japanese were admired as they are now, when the Japanese admire aspects of British education.
In Japan, the concepts and ideals are: cultural homegeneity, harmony, the interests of the group (not the individual), duty, centralised meritocracy (based on the idea of hard work) and dependency (of each person on the group or teachers).
In Britain, the concepts have been, and remain: cultural heterogeneity, conflict (or did he say ‘competition’), the individual (not the group), rights (not duty), decentralised/ability (that is a belief in natural ability, rather than hard work) and independence (independence of a group, teachers or anybody, really).
In Japan, all the (government?) schools are designed in an identical way. (This sounds amazing.) It is considered important that no one should be at a school superior to others. For the same reason, teachers are rotated. This is intended to cause harmony and build a team mentality.
In Japan, groups are in competition with each other, not individuals. Children have duty. The word ‘individual’ has a bad connotation. It is considered natural to be dependant on others. Goodman quoted a professor who had told him something like, “In Britain, you are an adult when you can do things for yourself. In Japan, you are an adult when you realise you can’t do anything by yourself.” A very neat description of different cultures.
Education systems come from a historical, cultural context. He said that this idea was well expressed by William Cummings in a book published in 2003.
According to him, the British idea of education comes from the period 1820-1904. It derives from the ideal of the educated gentleman and it came originally from the public (that is ‘private and independent’ in the language used outside Britain) schools. (I would say that this concept was significantly changed during the latest Labour administration when many ministers repeatedly implied that the purpose of education was to improve economic output. This changed a lot of the exams and syllabuses. That, for example, is partly why it is no longer necessary for a student to read a single work of French literature to get an A level in French.) He said the ‘learning theory’ of British education was ‘hereditary brilliance’.
The Japanese idea of education originated in 1868-1890 and derived from the concept of making people competent to contribute to the group. The representative school was the primary school. Apparently the biggest emphasis in Japan remains on the first six years of education. The ‘learning theory’ behind Japanese education is simply effort (or hard work).
Professor Goodman said he had taught at every level in Japan including at a bad university (as well as a good one, I think he said). He gave some remarkable insights into how things work there. He said the role of education comes right into the home. A Japanese school will even tell parents about the brushing of their childrens’ teeth. The teachers must visit the home of a child at least once a year. When he had children at a Japanese school, the teachers visited far more often than once a year. They would regularly turn up after 7pm to explain what what would be happening the next day at school. Goodman’s children would hide in the tatami mat cupboard!
Teachers had high status in Japan.The word ‘sensei’ means more than a teacher (I think it means something more like ‘master’ with the sense of being a wise person who guides). If a child gets into trouble with the police, the police will go first to the child’s teacher first, not to the parents. A teacher of 23 or 24 would be giving instructions to parents who were older than himself.
All this is pretty strange and even abhorrent to those brought up in the British culture (indeed the other speaker, who had never been to Japan and was unknowingly immersed in the British culture and not exactly eager to take on board the fact that people in a different culture no less intelligent than himself have a completely different way of thinking about what life is all about).
Goodman said that the Japanese view is that a child can do anything if he or she works hard enough. This is a very important aspect of Japanese education that affects the whole thing. No school report will say a child has done well, “considering his ability”. In Britain, teachers and parents talk about the potential of a child. In Oxford University, the word ‘potential’would be used but a Japanese visitor would find it strange since it would be obvious to him that everybody who got to Oxford had considerable ability. Expectations of everyone are higher.
His children, after being in Japanese schools, found it hard to get used to British ones. They had got used to working in groups. His son, an outgoing boy, when he had finished work that was set, would turn to help other children nearby who had not yet finished. This was not appreciated in Britain. He was even accused of cheating.
Cummings, apparently, thinks that despite all the talk, not much has changed in the approach to education in different countries over the past 20 or 30 years.
Overall, it seemed to me that the Japanese still have a lot to teach us. He told us that every child is expected to – and does – learn to read music. All children of course learn to read well in contrast to Britain.
I am a governor of a state primary school which is excellent by British standards and in lots of ways. However there is no systematic teaching of music and no full time French-speaking teacher of French. There is, however, a full computer suite – because recent governments have provided funding and made this sort of thing virtually compulsory. Apparently the physical condition of school buildings is poor in Japan. The emphasis is on the teaching itself. Of course Japanese schools have the advantage of having generally polite, hardworking children come through the doors.
It may also be the case that the Japanese have something to learn from the British and the ideas of choice and competition in schooling. But I feel that until British schools are all successful in teaching children literacy and numeracy, there is far more for us to learn from the Japanese – especially in seeing the value of hard work, getting the parents onside and visiting them and in expecting every single child to learn basic skills.
Britain has a rate of functional illiteracy of 20pc according to a report by the previous Labour administration.