Karen James joined an action-packed tour of Japan, gaining insights into the culture and intensive education system
Each year the Japan Foundation offers secondary-school social studies teachers the opportunity to travel to Japan. This year I was among nine chosen from more than 70 British applicants. The school and I have benefited enormously as a result.
Like many schools, our geography department includes Japan in its key stage 3 programme of study. I have always been fascinated by the country, but the wealth and variety of experiences gained from travelling to Japan now enlivens topics I have taught for the past few years. Details missed by textbooks and videos have been enriched by first-hand experience of crowded cities, small farm fields and efficient transport systems. Now that the subject can be illustrated by anecdote, pupils, many of whom have never been abroad, have endless curiosity for the country. The feeling of "being foreign" can be instilled with a few Japanese words, the date written Japanese style and the feel of all those bits and pieces that made the suitcases so heavy on the way back. Empty drinks cans and slides of McDonalds with Japanese signs are familiar, yet strange enough to encourage classes to want to know more. They take pride in being able to bow and say "Good day" in Japanese. It was simple to learn but has given them enormous confidence and a positive start to lessons.
For me, however, one of the greatest pleasures of the trip was not just meeting the Japanese but also the other participants who came from Germany, Russia and the CIS, and South and Central America. We formed group three of four sponsored by the Japan Foundation this year. In total, 268 educators from 70 countries took part in the tour. Discussions invariably included comparison with homelands and I learned a great deal about the experiences of teachers elsewhere.
The two-week tour, funded by the Japanese Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, included lectures on the Japanese education system, sight-seeing and visits to schools and industry in one of the prefectures. In Ibaraki Prefecture we visited schools at every level from elementary to upper secondary as well as a teacher-training centre. We also visited a variety of industries ranging from a small local pottery to the huge Hitachi factory and were honoured to make an overnight stay with a family. All our homestay families were thoughtful and generous. We enjoyed excellent hotels and hospitality in every venue but this was no holiday. The heavy schedule, gruelling flights, travelling between cities and frequent transit between hotels takes its toll and, while the tour is very worthwhile and well planned, it is exhausting.
Studying the Japanese education system provoked great debate. While in Britain the national curriculum has left many concerned about pupils being limited in their freedom to choose subjects and learning styles, in Japan, with a literacy rate of practically 100 per cent over a span of compulsory education two years shorter, the main concern is the pressure pupils suffer. The curriculum is highly standardised, with the content in each grade for each subject outlined in the "course of study" issued by the Ministry of Education.
It is issues related to the management of pupils which seem far from resolved. It was difficult to ask about sanctions used in schools: we were told that pupils manage their own behaviour and apply positive peer pressure, and indeed the classes observed were very well behaved. Harsh discipline may well lead to pupil unrest, yet it is hard to see how the educational reforms hope to combat the increase in bullying and pupil discontent. Fostering greater self-reliance and individuality may only serve to emphasise differences and disparity, leading to greater problems. Lessons on individuality, taught - as we observed in one school - to neat rows of uniformed students, may actually undermine their society.
The incredible efficiency with which Japan is run seems to rely on a group ethic fostered in school and utilised in company loyalty. I could not help wondering whether the country will remain such a great economic power when the present school population is in management. They have been spared the struggle of building up the country from its poor post-war state and are far more influenced by western culture than previous generations.
The pupils we met either in schools or less formally were all polite and helpful, however. All the schools made us very welcome and we were able to exchange information and ideas along with the gifts presented in accordance with Japanese customs.
* Further information is available from the Japan Information and Cultural Centre. Tel: 0171 465 6573 for useful teaching materials.
Details of the teachers' study tour from the Japan Foundation. Tel: 0171 499 4726
I am also hoping to make slide packs available to teachers at minimal cost and anyone interested should contact me at Deansfield High School, tel: 01902 352362
Karen James is head of humanities at Deansfield High School, Wolverhampton