Socialisation in elementary schools
This obviously took me by surprise, as I hadn’t yet visited a primary school myself. It certainly doesn’t fit in with the stereotype of Japanese students being obedient and studious, nor did it fit in with my experiences in Junior High Schools and High Schools, where the students had indeed been obedient and studious. But allowing what we in the West would see as ‘bad behaviour’ is actually quite a deliberate policy in the early years of primary schools.
Rather than seeing the first few years of school as a time for the teachers to establish the importance of following teacher instructions and focusing on school work through reward and punishment, the Japanese see it as a time for the children to come to realise these things for themselves. They believe that children naturally desire to be part of the group, so if most of the group is focused on work, those that aren’t will eventually get bored of whatever else they are doing and want to join in.
Moral education lessons
“develop a Japanese citizen who will never lose the consistent spirit of respect for his fellow man; who will realize this spirit at home, at school and in other actual life situations in the society of which he is a member; who strives for the creation of a culture rich in individuality and for the development of a democratic nation and society; and who is able
to make a voluntary contribution to the peaceful international society.”
It is largely up to the individual teacher to decide how they deliver these lessons. Most lessons I saw in Japanese Junior High schools followed a fairly traditional pedagogical style of teacher-delivered content, but the moral education lessons were quite different. Students would read a story or hear a scenario, discuss the actions taken by the protagonists in their groups, and come up with their own opinions/decisions on what they would do and why, which they then shared with the class.
Although the style is up to the teacher, the content isn’t, and a list of the goals of moral education are provided by the Ministry of Education. These goals come under four broad areas, but the contents are much broader that what we in the West would typically consider to come under the term ‘moral education’, and include goals around individuals’ attitudes to work and learning (‘always maintain a studious attitude’) and to personal grooming (‘to keep oneself neat’). A list of the goals of moral education in Japan can be found here.
Goal driven activities
Even smaller events and regular school days have goals associated with them, which are discussed and decided upon by the students themselves. A significant amount of time is dedicated to this in form periods, and students make banners and slogans to remind them of the goals agreed upon as a group. Not only that, there is a culture of checking at the end of an activity whether they met the goals they set out to achieve as a group or class. For example, all students spend 20 minutes a day cleaning the school together (so that they learn to respect their environment). At the end of this session, teams of students will come together and the team leader will read back the goals: “Did we work together well?” “Yes!” “Did we use our time well?” “Yes!”
Is it worth it?
I think this is an oversight, for two reasons. The first is instrumental; that by deliberately developing student traits of studiousness and resilience, and visibly valuing effort and perseverance, you can increase those more measurable things like grades. Of course there are better and worse ways of doing this, and research should inform the introduction of any such programmes. But unless you believe that studiousness and resilience are 100% genetic, you will agree that there is potential for them to be influenced by a child’s environment, which is at least partly within our control as educators.