Tag Archives: Japan

Frustration!

I am about two thirds of the way through reading a writing assignment by my twelfth graders and I can feel the frustration boiling inside me. Sometimes they do well, but this time around it feels like we are back to square one. It’s like everything I taught them about grammar and essay structure (not to mention sentence structure and punctuation) just flew out the window.

And the worst thing is, they have their IB exams in two weeks. All I can think right now is, please don’t let them write so poorly on the exams!

A little background information. I teach Japanese students in Japan who have been in an immersion program, studying in an IB course and taking most of their classes in English, since they were in elementary school. We are in Japan, so they are not immersed when they leave the classroom, but they have studied English in an “immersion” academic setting for a long time. So why do they still refuse to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I just read an essay that was one long paragraph without any indention or breaks between ideas! An essay!

Take a deep breath. They have their good days and their bad days. Clearly this was an off day for them.

It is hard getting students to understand that writing is more than putting ideas on paper. Writing in English is like learning a whole other language. It is different from spoken English. They need to think about the rules and the conventions. Not indenting paragraphs is unacceptable, in my book.

But I need to put myself in their shoes. Their first language is Japanese, which is a totally different language with completely different conventions. Even the way they organize an essay is different, not to mention that they use a writing system which is a combination of traditional Chinese characters mixed with two Japanese phonetic alphabets.

However, I still think they should be able to do better. Even though I teach English through content, I make sure to give them language support by teaching them about grammar and sentence structure rules. I don’t spend days and days teaching grammar out of context, but I make sure that we cover the basics and I expect my students to know the basic language for talking about language, such as parts of speech, basic sentence types, clause structure, verb tense, and so on.

Some students get it, and they put effort into monitoring their grammar. The effort they put in is so worth it, because after a while their written language becomes much more fluent than their peers. It is a pleasure to read fluent language. But choppy, riddled-with-errors, sloppy language is like…… torture.

But this is my job. I am an English teacher, specifically an English teacher to ELLs. They all have their struggles. I so rarely get to read fluent English. I accept that. But I think they could do better. They just need to pay attention to the rules of the language and revise! How do I get them to pay attention and revise??

There will always be some students who are great thinkers but who just don’t understand that the way you say something, the way you put your thoughts into words is also important. How can I get my students to understand that they will be judged and criticized and disrespected just because their English doesn’t sound fluent? People can be harsh. If my students go out there into the English speaking world, they will be in for a surprise. I sometimes wonder how universities deal with international students whose written English lacks fluency? I have seen many Japanese and Chinese students go off to university in America or Canada or the UK…. and I always wonder, will they be in for a harsh wake up call when they turn in a paper that has so many language errors?

Maybe I am being too critical. I can’t expect them to write fluently. But I can expect them to use a subject before a verb…..right? They might not ever get third person singular verb agreement down perfectly…. but everyone can indent a paragraph, right?

Well….. back to it……..

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Why do we feel the need to generalize about education in Eastern cultures versus Western cultures?

I was checking my daily Facebook feed and I came across an interesting article that someone had shared. The article was titled “Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures.” The article is from 2012, so it is a couple years old and I’m not sure why my Facebook friend chose to share it, but it caught my eye because I teach in Japan and I often find myself comparing education here to education back home in the United States.

Pretty quickly into the article I had a negative reaction. The main premise of the article is that Eastern cultures view “struggle” as a valuable part of the learning process, and cultures such as China and Japan tend to encourage students to face a difficult situation and struggle through it. This might be true. However, I was irritated by the way they chose to present this argument: through a single anecdote about a psychologist who was observing a math class in Japan, and found it interesting that the teacher chose a boy who was struggling with the problem to do it on the board rather than a good student who knew how to do the problem. According to the article, the psychologist Stiegler “knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board.”

We have a lot of generalizations being made with that anecdote. My first thought as I was reading it was that this choice to have the struggling student come to the board was not based on culture – it was based on the unique teaching style of that particular math teacher. I am sure that many American teachers use strategies such as these to help both the struggling student and the class learn how to accomplish a problem. And I have seen teachers in Japan show preference for the students who already know the answer by asking them to give the answer or write it on the board.

Later in the article, the psychologist offers another generalization about Eastern education:

“Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.”

Again, this just seems like good teaching practice to me. Most teachers I know are familiar with the concept introduced by Lev Vygostsky called the Zone of Proximal Development, which says that there is a difference between what a learner can do by himself, and what he can do with assistance. Teachers who use this strategy design a task that is just out of the reach of the learner, but then provide scaffolding and other strategies to help the child learn how to achieve the learning goal. Eventually, they will be able to do the task on their own, without the teacher’s assistance. The “struggle” they go through to get to the point where they can do the task on their own is part of the learning process, and it is a very effective teaching strategy, in my opinion.

I guess the article meant to emphasize the fact the the Japanese teacher actively points out that it was the students’ hard work and perseverance that made them able to achieve the goal, rather than their natural intelligence, which Americans tend to place high value on (according to the article). But I’m not convinced that Americans don’t also place great emphasis on hard work and struggle – we believe in the idea of the American dream and we respect, even worship, personalities such as Steve Jobs who dropped out of college but built a supremely influential technology company. Entrepreneurship is a highly valued quality, and most people agree that it is a combination of perseverance and perspiration that brings success.

My point is that the article uses these types of generalizations to make a blanket statement about education in Eastern cultures and Western cultures. While there is probably some truth to this idea that Eastern cultures view struggle differently from Western cultures, I felt that the article was too comfortable making quick assumptions and using anecdotal evidence to try to convince me of this cultural difference between education in the East and West.

I have worked in both Japan and China as a teacher, and I just don’t understand how people can so easily lump the two together and talk about “Eastern” culture. They are very distinct cultures. China places great emphasis on teaching students the virtues of Confucianism; Japan promotes social behaviors which help to maintain group harmony, sometimes to the extent of sacrificing the individual’s needs. I know these also are huge generalizations, but in my experience they are aspects that are unique to China and Japan as individual cultures. We often lump these ideas together and say they are “Eastern.” Then we put ourselves in the category of “Western” and we make these ridiculous comparisons. But by doing so, we do a disservice to ourselves, making it seem like our cultural values are lacking in something, and to Asians, since we are basically stereotyping.

I have seen excellent teachers in Japan and China. I must acknowledge that students in both China and Japan are ahead of American students as a whole when it comes to math (but I don’t necessarily think we would want to put our students through what they put their students through to achieve these high standards in math). But I have seen terrible teachers in both countries, just like I have seen terrible (and excellent) teachers in America.

I think it would be better for both the “East” and the “West” if they stopped comparing themselves to each other by saying one is better at this, while the other is better at that. All this does is provide fodder for politicians to criticize a system and say that teachers in one country are not as effective. Instead we should strive to find the teaching strategies that are proven to work, and then make sure that teachers everywhere are using those strategies. I don’t think these stereotypes are the answer – solid research of what effective teachers do in their classrooms – all over the world – is what we need to look at. Find the great teacher and sit in her classroom – then tell the whole world about her success.

You can read the article and listen to the NPR story it was based on here:
“Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures” (Mind/Shift)
“Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning” (NPR)

Student Behavior in My Classroom – A Classroom with all Japanese Students (Part 1)

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I teach in an IB (International Baccalaureate) school in Japan. It isn’t an international school – it’s a Japanese secondary school with an IB program. All my students are Japanese, but many of them have lived in foreign countries for a year or two. While many of them have experience living abroad, their culture is definitely Japanese. One or two who lived in the US or the UK for a long time could be considered “third-culture kids,” but they are a rarity. Most of the kids are 100% Japanese, culture and nationality.

So what this means is I am an American woman teaching a classroom full of students from a culture that is different from mine. And I am immersed in their culture.

By the way, I am not an ALT (an ALT is an assistant language teacher – most foreigners who teach in Japan are ALTs, including my husband). I am completely in charge of my class. Being a foreign teacher in a Japanese school has its challenges, as you can imagine. One of them is discipline.

Don’t get me wrong. Discipline is not nearly as challenging here as it is in the states. 90% of my students are well-behaved, polite, and no problem whatsoever. But contrary to popular belief, Japanese teenagers are not that different from American students. They have the same bad habits. They do their homework at the last minute. They are sleepy in class. They love their phones, PCs, and video games. They daydream in class. Some of them are even bullies.

There are major differences too, but I don’t want to discuss those at the moment. What I want to discuss is the 10% of students I have that do require some discipline. I have had a variety of students who have done things in class that most American teachers would reprimand. When they do these things, it is my first instinct to discipline them in the same way I would back home. In fact, that’s what I did my first year. But now I have been here for two years (almost) and I am starting to realize that the Japanese teachers don’t discipline in the same way. And I don’t really feel comfortable coming in and just doing things the way I would back home.  It probably wouldn’t be very effective, anyway. I would just seem even more foreign to them.

Here are some of the discipline-worthy behaviors my students have exhibited in class:

  • Sleeping in class (this is very common in Japan and it seems to be more accepted here, although the administration adamantly says it is not to be accepted)
  • Chatting while I am teaching (I know this is normal student behavior, but it isn’t something I usually tolerate for very long.)
  • Speaking in Japanese about me because they know I can’t understand them
  • Bullying classmates in Japanese because they think they can get away with it
  • Making faces when I turn my back to the class (I have an infamous class of seventh graders at the moment – they do all sorts of things when the teachers turn to write on the board)

All of the above behaviors are pretty tame. I haven’t ever had to deal with real defiance at this school. Most of the students at my school come from stable, supportive households, so their parents would be very responsive if they found out their child had behavior problems. Plus, it’s a private school so the expectations are pretty high for behavior.

Expectations. That is one of the main differences I wanted to point out. In American schools, it is commonly accepted that the best way to start the school year is to introduce your rules and expectations.  The teacher states these very clearly and starts off the year with strict rules, at least until the class routine is clearly in place and all the students know what the teacher expects from them.

In Japan, or at least in my school in Japan, rules are not stated explicitly by the subject teacher at the beginning of the school year. The teacher does not walk in on his or her first day of math or English class and outline a list of rules. Moreover, rules are not posted in the classroom for the students to see. In fact, when one of my colleagues (another foreign teacher, from the UK) suggested that we post rules in the seventh grade classroom, the Japanese teachers had a hard time understanding why we would do that.

But even though the subject teachers don’t state the rules, somehow the students do know they are expected to behave in a certain way. Unfortunately, my inability to speak Japanese limits how much I can understand about how the school communicates expectations to the students.  But from what I can gather, and from what I have read about discipline in Japan, and of course from what my colleagues tell me, it seems that students figure out how they should behave based on these things:

  • influence from the group they are in
  • their homeroom teacher
  • their soccer coach (students on the soccer team are expected to adhere to a strict code of behavior)
  • the soccer coach (at our school, he seems to be in charge of speaking at the school assemblies about working hard, wearing the school uniform correctly, and not getting into trouble)

In this post, I will discuss the first point. I will get to the three following points in my next post.

How “discipline” comes in the form of influence from the group

The first point is the most important one. Everyone probably knows that Japanese society is a collectivist society. It is the stereotypical collectivist society. Social cohesion is the priority, and when an individual is treated unfairly, it isn’t usually their first instinct to stand up for themselves. Their first instinct is to fit into the group.

(Of course, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I have to add a disclaimer right now. I am an outsider looking in, and I don’t even speak the language. Please just take my words as my own perception of things and assume that they are probably all wrong.)

But it seems to me that it is really true – the group rules here. The reason I think this is because I have seen this with my own eyes. In the program I teach, the students are assigned to one class, and they stay with that class from seventh until twelfth grade. They do not mingle with other students, not really. They spend all of their school days with a group of about 20-30 other students. And when you teach one of those groups, you really see that as individuals, it can be really hard to get to know the students. They aren’t willing to reveal their distinct identity immediately. They don’t want to be seen as an individual. They want to hide within the class. But the class as a single entity has a very distinct personality.

Each of my classes is very different. But the weird thing is, the students within a class are very similar. They behave in similar ways. My twelfth graders are all laid-back, friendly, and really happy to spend classes discussing and debating big ideas. My eleventh graders are very introspective, and very intelligent. They are deep thinkers who (to my utter frustration) are less willing to share their ideas out-loud (although they are happy to share them with each other in small groups). My tenth graders are also extremely quiet and they are all a little nerdy. They are probably the most “Japanese” of the classes in that they are unwilling to do any activity until they see that others in the class are willing to do it. (There are a lot of awkward silences in that class). And my seventh graders – they are all insane. They are hyper, playful, and naughty. They are a class of 27 little monsters.

Ok, I am exaggerating of course. There are individual personalities in these classes. But it is amazing how much influence the group has on the individuals.  Much more than in America.

So, what this all means is that much of their behavior is based on the expectations of the group. The Japanese way is to let the group influence the individual rather than one individual standing at the front of the room and exerting power over the entire group (although this definitely does happen – I’ll get to this when I discuss the soccer coach I mentioned earlier). This is especially seen with small children. Parents do not reprimand or punish their children for “misbehaving”. They let them be wild and out of control, knowing that in a couple of years their kids will enter kindergarten and be intensely socialized into behaving appropriately. It is almost as if that “childhood,” before they enter the system, is sacred and they must be left to be free, because that freedom is very temporary. Then the child enters school and feels the intense pressure to conform to the group.

Mostly this works, but there are those few students who act out or misbehave. In my seventh grade class, this misbehavior is socially acceptable because that’s how the whole group wants to behave. In my twelfth grade class, it is less acceptable, but the students would not directly speak out and tell a classmate who is being too chatty to pipe down. They just ignore the student or wait for the student to figure out the group wants him/her to change his/her behavior. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. It seems that about 90% of the students have it figured out and they fall into line. And the ones who don’t fall into line exactly aren’t really that far off. If there is anyone who really doesn’t fit in, then the eventual consequences can be pretty extreme. In fact, bullying is a serious problem here, and it’s no wonder why, with the priority being to fit into the group.

I will continue writing about this topic of discipline in my next post. There really is so much to say.

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photo credits: specialoperations via photopinBeckywithasmile via photopin  cc