In Japan, when children start school at age 6, students are asked to buy a blank notebook in year 5 for self-study. Every night they are expected to fill in two pages (sometimes three, depending on how strict the form tutor is) with notes or practice questions on any of their subjects. This isn’t their only homework either; other teachers might set them worksheets, or pages to complete from their workbook.
My half-Japanese cousins all went through the Japanese school system, and managed to get away with less work than most due to their ability to write a whole load of English song lyrics that their teachers couldn’t understand in their self-study books. Nevertheless, when they came over to visit us every summer they’d have to pay for extra luggage allowance just to accommodate all their school books.
Of course, this means that some of them just copy the answers straight into their workbooks without attempting the questions first. But they then have to study even harder when it comes to their termly school tests. If they fail, and they have to re-take, it is their own responsibility; it’s assumed that failure is due to a lack of effort, not a lack of intelligence or poor teaching.
This attitude has its advantages and disadvantages. Students in Japan do by and large take responsibility for their own success or failure because neither their parents nor their teachers have deprived them of that responsibility. This is in stark contrast to the attitude of a couple of students in my old form group in England, who believed that if they failed, it was their teacher’s fault, and therefore didn’t put in much effort. Why would they think any differently, when they know their teachers are held accountable by senior management for the exam success of their students, and when the result of their lack of effort is, therefore, extra help and attention from teachers?
What I’ve learnt from the Japanese in this area is not something I think I could have learnt by being told, so I hope you’ll forgive the fact that all I can do is tell you here. I learnt what it actually means to have high expectations. I thought I had high expectations of the children in my classes. What I actually had was high hopes of them, and high expectations of myself and what I could do to help them achieve their target grades. I micro-managed those kids, I broke down everything they had to learn into tiny chunks and essentially made revision notes for them.
The Japanese actually expect their children to take responsibility for themselves and for their work, and they expect them to work hard from a young age. I’m sure teachers in England who are more experienced than me realise the benefits of this already, but in some English schools it is difficult to have that attitude when teachers are hauled over the coals for each failed mock exam. Teachers shouldn’t be the ones being asked ‘what are you going to do about it?’ students should. If this happened early enough in each child’s school career, we wouldn’t still be in a position where we are telling 15 year olds how to revise.