“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” — Sydney J. Harris

WARNING: Suuuuper ramble-y. And long. Sorry. 

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I guess it was this week that my brain finally spit out the idea in words and thoughts that made sense. Well enough sense that maybe other people will understand it too? Let’s find out? ^^


I went to dinner after work on Thursday with one of my coworkers. She’s another new teacher at the school, and she has pretty good English skills (she studied at UC Berkeley for a little while) . Between the two of us, we can Japanglish pretty well.

Anywho, we were at dinner, talking about various things, work, and school, some of the classes that we both teach and their crazy students. Somehow we ended up talking about universities in Japan and America, and the differences between the schools here, and there, at almost all educational levels.

What I’ve been noticing at school, and that she agreed with at least a little bit, is that they students aren’t encouraged to use…what I’ve always thought of as “critical thinking”. Woah, hold on. I don’t mean that they don’t think, or even that they can’t. They do. Some of the kids are ridiculously smart. I mean that poster in all the classrooms, from 6th through 12th grade. You know, the one with the “levels of thinking”, the top most triangle being “critical thinking”. You don’t see that here. 

For the most part, after the kids get into middle school they’re done for the next two years. Yes, they take classes, and yes, they have tests. But there isn’t the fear of being “held back” at least not as much as in America. I know some schools will make students who have missed a certain number of days or more repeat the year, but I think that mean something more like months, than what was it…5 days for a failed class in America. (University, yeah, depending on the teacher.) So of course failing tests might mean, extra classes after school or during breaks. But not graduating? Unlikely.

The bigger problem students in Japan would face by not learning in class is failing to pass the tests that middle schools, high schools, and universities require. So there we were at dinner, talking about entrance tests, and I was asked, how do you get into university if there is no test? (Her middle son is currently a senior in high school and is studying for his entrance exam.) I’m not sure about middle or high school (I mean I was 10 and 13 respectively, my parents did that paperwork) but for college, I sent in a essay explaining why I was so awesome that they needed me and a transcript of my grades throughout high school. That was it.

And I think that is where you start to see this “critical thinking” divide. But now I think a better term for it is “flexible thinking”?

Starting in middle school, we could take different classes depending on our ability levels or interests (and yes I was given more opportunities than most, I was in a gifted program  that pulled me out of normal classes a couple times a week, that despite some parents misgivings about, was probably the best thing a middle school student could get. Being bored in class is not conducive to learning, and being able to explore different subjects from math to independent research projects, to model U.N. was something that engaged and drew out a desire for learning in me that no hour and a half of decimal multiplication could recreate. Yes, if you don’t work to stay with the rest of the class despite having less time in those subjects, it can be a problem. But I eventually wrapped my head around that whole decimal thing, and besides, calculators.) Back to the point, being able to take different classes allowed my classmates and I to stay interested and challenged at school. In high school, we were given even more freedom to do this; preparing us for the multitude of options available at the college level. Although it doesn’t always work out how you want it to (yes….I still am a little sore that I couldn’t take auto-shop, and was instead put into the normal tenth grade  classes by my adviser) it did allow me to come to Japan to study in high school and still graduate with more credits and class requirements filled than some of my classmates. I took four English classes my senior year, partly because, English fascinates me, or linguistics does, I suppose, but also because I could. Taking the “expected” fourth year AP English along with the Creative Writing and Satire options at school allowed me to “flex” brain muscles in a way that Japanese kids just aren’t given.

The best case scenario for a Japanese student is attending a school that has different tracks. A English (language) track or Sciences (unfortunately all grouped together as one) , or even a Sports track, like the high school I studied at had. This meant that my class had about 5 more English classes a week than their Science and Sports counterparts. But they all had to take the same level class. Once a week, they were divided into two groups to study English; two.  That meant the advanced students and the less advanced students. Once a week. Leaving them with 8 or 9 other English classes that dragged for those advanced students and could leave the others behind. To me that just sounds like a lot of kids immediately tuning out.

Back to my coworker. Her theory is that for the third year of high school, continuing, hopefully, into the first two years of university, Japanese students study A LOT, and have less free time because of it. They take a lot of generalized classes in the first two years of college, before getting into their specialized “major-oriented” classes.  Because they have to pass the entrance exam to get into university (and not based on a transcript of past performances, although I do believe there is a way you can be recommended to a school based on grades and skip the whole test thing) their studying is short term only. The type of studying you do to pass the final exam or that class you didn’t go to, throw up everything you crammed into your brain out onto the test paper, and then immediately delete after the class is over. That studying. So according to her, the last year of high school and the first couple years of college are the peak point, and then it starts to go downhill from there. And I think there is some basis for that. A lot of kids go to juku (cram school or school after school where you learn what you didn’t learn in regular school?) the year before they have to take entrance exams, or every year, depending on the student and their situation. But we don’t have that in the US. Do we? I’ve never heard of one. It sort of defeats the purpose of school, in my mind. After getting through the first two years of college and being able to take the “major” classes, students suddenly find themselves with all this free time. Apparently, they can get away with only going to campus one or two days a week.

Which of course every university student learns how to manipulate the scheduling system to not have classes on Fridays, but only one day a week? I think that would have automatically knocked you down to part-time at OSU. Maybe, Or just the fact that all classes were MW/TR(r = Thursday, I know…)/MWF meant that you couldn’t help but go to school at least two, usually four, days a week. I had a roommate that fudged her schedule into being three days a week, but she had almost a full-time job that she went to, so that makes some sense to me. But I was still pretty jealous. Then; now I realize I would have been absolutely bored out of my mind four days a week.

(I mean come on – I tricked my adviser into letting me take seven classes my last semester at OSU. Yes I went everyday and the only reason I woke up before ten was to go to work. It may have been a little much, but I passed all the classes, and still had a semblance of a social life.)

What I saw in that conversation we had was something that I think really gets into the differences between the two cultures. The emphasis in American culture of the individual over the whole, drives us to sort of “push” kids out of “the nest” at an early age. Learning to get yourself to class, (the right class) and then scheduled for the subsequent class in the series forces a semi-independence on American students. You’re alone in the school as a combination of these particular classes, in this order, and at these times, with this resulting GPA. That is your educational signature. No one else has one exactly like it, although you may find yourself with several others in the same classes. But invariably, we are taught not to think of ourselves as this group of X number of students all in these classes; instead I am Me, and You (plural) are an outside existence, You do not affect Me, we are separate.

(Did I mention that the Japanese students do not change classes? Except for specialized classrooms (laboratories, etc) the students stay in one place, and the teachers come and go. For all my teacher relatives, imagine all of your stuff, all the things you have/had in your classroom, and now picture fitting all that stuff into a desk. That’s what the office looks like.)

Japanese students are given little choice over what classes to take. They take what the rest of their homeroom takes, with the few exceptions being given to special needs students. They eat lunch together in their classroom, they sometimes even stay in the same homeroom groups for all three years, depending on the school. And that’s the group over the individual. It’s often pointed out to me, either by teachers or random people who I guess thought I didn’t notice, that Japan has a group oriented society. Which is true; you can see it at work even in the language. Group harmony is key, and saving face and indirect speech are big here. As well as simply marking someone as either in your group or out of your group. They spend all their time working for “the group”, whatever that group might be. Clubs (sports teams, band, etc.) are year-round. You only get to join one, maybe two if you’re lucky. They self identify with whatever group they belong to: either year 2 class 1, or the art club. That is the group they are in, and as soon as classes are over, it switches to the next group. The students have to introduce themselves, every time they come into the teacher’s office. (Imagine the guy that announced guests at parties back in the day). “I am year 3 class 4’s XX XX. Can I talk to Mr.XX.” After school that becomes “I am the art club’s XX XX. Is Mrs. XX here?”

Even teachers have this self identity. Teachers in Japan are grouped by year, so at my schools the most they see is two different “years” of students, and the kids in the remaining year have little to no idea who they are. They sit in the office by year. They have meetings for that year, and essentially are all kid of responsible for those kids. They are the first year teachers, and if someone needs to talk about any of the first year kids, any one of those teachers will do, regardless if they are the homeroom teacher or not. And they have meetings about this every day! Schools have meetings every morning so the teachers all know what’s going on with the other grades, but then also to talk inside each grade and make sure everyone knows if something is going  on or not, and I’m not even sure what else they talk about.

But according to my coworker and this conversation we had, apparently these daily meetings are pretty regular to the workplace. (She used to work at a company before becoming a teacher.) That would (and often does) drive me crazy. A lot of times I can’t find a teacher to ask them about a class because they have more meetings after school. Hours every day are spent in meetings. I’ve never taught in an American school, but I don’t think teachers have hours of every day spent in Math or History meetings. Maybe once a week there’s a department meeting. But then again, each teacher sees such a wide variety of students, from all different grades, and possibly for several different class levels.

Back to the students. Because they have little choice in what to do or which classes to take (once they join a club, they’re in it until they graduate…it’s like a gang) by the time they get to college and after taking the generalized classes, they find themselves with all this free time. My coworker said that there is the impression that I think a lot of Freshmen and Sophomores in American colleges have – they party all the time. Or at least, they aren’t studying. Which is where she gets this idea of peaking at the first year of university. It’s not true of everyone. Pre-med students or some of the science kids have less free time, same as America. But I got this sense that she disapproves of it, That having classes only one day a week, and then getting a part-time job and going on all these trips and vacations, is somehow…not right. I don’t know the word I want here, shameful seems close, but isn’t right either. They aren’t contributing to the group as a whole maybe? I’m not sure what it is.

Here’s where I bring some “flexible thinking” back into the situation. And I may have an example that hurts my case, but be patient with me. Like I said this thought is half-formed and more of a curiosity than anything else.

Students basically sit quietly in class (or sleep) and take notes, never questioning the teachers, never really having a discussion at all. And in my experience, the classes that you argue and make points and discuss in are the best. They were always the most interesting and I remember information and topics from them more than any other class taught in the teacher lecture pattern. 

While this pattern works from Math and Sciences – a fact I think we can draw from the high math and science test scores that Japan maintains – it really hurts the other subjects. Language, especially English in this case, can be studied like a science, that’s what linguistics is, but you have to realize that it is a living thing, changing daily. 

Every time I have had students write answers to questions, not open ended, because they can’t really handle that yet, they always, always go for the low-hanging fruit, the obvious answer, or they don’t put anything down at all. Because you have to be able to get a little messy with language.That’s where the “flexible thinking” comes in. I know this word works this way, but it also has this association. But they can’t ever get ‘off-track’. I have many ideas for activities to do in class, but there is never any time, because the teachers have to stick to a schedule. They need to finish this chapter by this month, so that they can start that next month, etc. 

Not getting a chance to put the information that they learn into their own thoughts and ideas, and pretty much regurgitating what they learn from the teacher is what is really hurting the “flexible thinking”. Being able to internalize ideas and then using them in your own words and for possibly a different context than they were originally learned is they key to really understanding information. Isn’t it? 

I just don’t see Japanese kids getting this option. Not until college at least. 

And I know that a lot of American kids also might not get the chance to do this, or really get involved in which classes they take, but I don’t think there are any schools that wouldn’t give them a chance to do so if they decided they really wanted to. 

I think this is already way too long. And ramble-y. But maybe it makes sense to you. Hopefully it does. It’s mostly just a vague idea I had at dinner. 


4 thoughts on ““The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” — Sydney J. Harris

  1. I hope I wasn’t sounding like I was suggesting how to change things. I’m certainly not a ‘real’ teacher, and as far as teaching kids goes – I’m not sure I have the patience for it.
    At least not the older kids who just stare blankly back at me.
    But I agree that for math and the science-y stuff and other things rote learning is the only way to start things off. But as far as languages go, there’s only so much rote learning is going to get you. Making mistakes is a big part of language and everyone does it all the time.
    I just wish they had more flexibility in the system here, so that these kids would be interested in the class, and not just sleeping through it.


  2. Very interesting, Sammy. I agree with Harold that there has to be both. But I hope that even in pre school there’s a little opportunity for flexible thinking and that the amount increases as the student gets older. We used to laugh about the gurus who were ALL about critical thinking. A student needs to learn some things to think about before he can think about them. Whether you want to be a teacher or not, I wish you could spend some time with a good American teacher so you make some comparisons. Then you could write the ultimate comparison of the two systems.


  3. Sammy. I think you questions ablut the underlying philosophy of education are very interesting, although not new by any strech of the imagination. This debate has been going on for aslong as there has been education. I think there is room and aneed for both paths. 1; the rote learning path and 2; the critical thinking path. The rote learning path has its place and is needed to form the basic foundation of knowledge and abilitys that studentswill need in order apply critical thinking and internalize knowledge to their situations and abilities. An example all students must know the basics of mathmatics addition subtraction multiplication and division inorder to go on to higher levels of math. All students must have a basic understanding of our language how to structure a sentance to express basic ideas. Be able to rea , write and comprehend our language at least at a basiclevel to beable to be participate in socioal and business situations. Without these things you get people that are no better than slaves to those who have these skills.

    The critical thinking skills are what allows us to build on the foundation the rote learning phase has given us. the learning experience for critical thinking stems form Socratic method asking question after question requiring the student to look at his answer to the first uestion with a well what if this or that and understand with very few exceptions there is not just one answer to any question. Where this critical thinking process should begin often depends on how well the individual student has grasped the basics.

    So there is room for the group or collective learning in the early phases of education and I think as a general rule that it should last until the end of the elementry years 6th grade. Critical thinking should be introduced in the junior high years and probably through 9th grade providing more and more choices in classes in this period. the last three years of high school should emphisis expanding of opportunities to explore or specialize in areas of interest this hase should also be where stuents become individually accountability for meeting the specific learning objectives for each class, (grades).

    So much for my thoughts on this subject. Each system has its place.


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