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Learning about education from 5th-graders in Japan

TEN-YEAR-OLD Riei Fuse, gripping her pencil, works quickly down the 20-question worksheet, multiplying and dividing fractions and reducing the answers. Mr. Sakai has given her fifth-grade class here at the Bancho Primary School five minutes to finish. No one questions his authority: Except for the noise from younger children on the playground below the third-floor windows, there isn't a sound in this classroom of 45 students.

Riei finishes ahead of her deskmate, a boy in a plaid shirt and denim shorts with the words ``Tom Sawyer'' on the back pocket. When Sakai calls for answers - singling out his students by last name from a sea of raised hands - she is relieved to see that she has missed only one question.

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Riei may not know it, but she is probably getting one of the finest public elementary educations in the world.

That, at least, is the view of an increasing number of educators from other nations who, concerned about educational reform, are looking to see whether Japan might have some answers.

What they are finding is a nation that ranks at the very top of international math tests - and which, as Harvard researcher Merry White notes in her new book ``The Japanese Educational Challenge,'' has an illiteracy rate of only 0.7 percent (compared to 20 percent in the United States).

That doesn't mean that all is well with Japanese education. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has made education reform, along with reforms in government and taxation, one of the three goals of his administration.

And recent Monitor interviews with leading educators in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima reveal deep undercurrents of concern - especially about the poor state of Japanese higher education, the intense pressure put on students competing for university admission, and the activities of the private cram schools, or juku, that prepare students for this so-called examination hell.

But on one point these educators agree: that of all the links in Japan's education chain, primary school is the strongest.

All that, of course, may not be noticeable to Riei. True, her 45-minute arithmetic class is an exercise in concentration: Short attention spans, it seems, are not tolerated here. But like fifth-graders everywhere, Riei is poised between the world of friends and the challenges of learning - a pretty girl dressed in an apricot-colored sweatshirt, gray wool skirt, green socks, and (when indoors) regulation red-and-white slippers.

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Shy with visitors, speaking through an interpreter, she says she likes arts and crafts but has difficulty with science - which has centered on astronomy.

On the back of her sweatshirt, embroidered in a fine hand below a picture of a girl with a dog, are several sentences in English. ``Walking with my dog in every morning. Then I go to school with my friends. It's my happy days.'' In fact, she confesses, she doesn't have a dog. But she does walk to school each morning.

And that's clearly an advantage - especially when at the end of her walk is the 115-year-old Bancho Primary School. Located in Tokyo's exclusive Bancho and Kojimachi area, it has a sterling reputation. Despite Japan's success at equalizing the quality of education across the nation, parents still move to this part of the city in part because of this school - or, if they live elsewhere, deluge the school with applications for their children.

Once here, they discover who the best teachers are. One of them, clearly, is Kunimitsu Sakai.

One might not think so just from looking at Mr. Sakai's classroom. Like most Japanese schoolrooms, it has little physical appeal.

The cracked plaster walls were once painted military gray. The institutional-green doors are scratched and battered, and the naked fluorescent tubes overhead shine down on the worn wooden tops of the desks. Even the sunlight flooding the floor makes its way through venetian blinds that could well belong to an aging army barrack.

All that, however, is part of a Japanese educational ethos which holds that students should not be distracted by their surroundings and should be taught to endure discomfort. Here at Bancho, says principal Yasuji Kusano, that ethos is sometimes hard to maintain: He worries that his 700 students are ``spoiled'' and that they ``can't take too much suffering.''

To the visitor, however, it hardly seems as though Sakai is bent on making his students suffer. A veteran of 18 years in the system, he moves easily through the government-established curriculum that calls for him to teach his fifth-graders arithmetic, Japanese language, Japanese geography, science, physical education, and home economics - including sewing and cooking. ``I'm a good cook,'' he says with a laugh. Music and art, also part of the curriculum, are taught by others. Like his fellow teachers at this particular school, Sakai dresses well. Today he's wearing a three-piece gray suit, white shirt, and tie - although in place of slippers (which even visitors must don), he wears running shoes. On his bulletin boards are a few announcements decorated with his students' designs. On the ledge near the large television set at the front is a vase containing fresh tulips. At the rear near the sink bubbles a aquarium of green water-plants.

Nor are his students suffering under a fear-inspiring regimen - insofar as such things can be judged by visitors whose very presence has probably shifted the ground-rules for the classroom, causing curious sidelong stares from the students. Sakai teaches with gentleness and good humor, occasionally eliciting laughter and never needing to raise his voice. Calling for answers, he is greeted by a chorus of voices chanting out the numbers as he writes them on the board with a typically Japanese ``Ohhh!'' of appreciation.

To be sure, his students are polite and obedient - bowing to the visitors, standing to answer his questions, writing carefully in their notebooks. But they are clearly not cowed: When one boy, without feeling the need to ask permission, comes to the back of the room to use the electric pencil sharpener near the visitors' seats, he draws no rebuke for starting a run among his peers who suddenly discover a need for sharper pencils. Nor is absolute silence a rule: Much of the time there is a low murmur of voices as deskmates chatter with each other even while copying from the blackboard.

An exceptional classroom? Perhaps. But a visitor can easily see why the recent report the US Department of Education, ``Japanese Education Today,'' speaks so highly of this island nation's elementary schools.

``While Japanese classes are larger than American ones, Japanese classrooms are more orderly,'' the report's authors write. ``Students are more attentive and better behaved, and transitions between activities are more rapid and orderly.

``The net result is significant: Japanese students spend about one-third more time during a typical class period engaged in learning than American students do during a typical class period.''

They also, however, spend time studying outside the classroom. Riei says she spends an hour a night. Sakai says she is probably under-reporting, not wanting to be thought a bookworm by fellow-students who crowd around during her brief interview.

And that, in the view of educators here, hints at the dark side of the Japanese system. Even now, at age 10, Riei attends a juku after school, where, says Sakai, she reviews her in-school work in preparation for the day, seven years away, when she will take her university entrance exams.

For now, however, Riei's schooling seems orderly and effective. Sitting in the sunlight of Sakai's Class 5-1, her pencil-box before her and her friends around her, she divides five-ninths by six and then by five - accurately, quickly, and unaware that the eyes of the world are watching to see just how she does it.

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