Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Measure of Excellence...or Relevance

It's that time of year again. Time for the entrance exam for the junior high section of ye olde academy. This, more than anything else, indicates that winter vacation is now just a memory. It also gives us a bit of a foretaste of what we'll be seeing in the 7th grade classrooms come April.

The routine is still very much the routine. Every year all kinds of meetings and planning sessions are held to decide on the format and content of the exams as well as how the whole thing is to be carried out. Every year it winds up being more or less the same. All that time, thought, research, and effort spent every year to follow the same routine. Welcome to Japan.

When the chime rings telling the proctors it's time to hand out the test papers, I notice that it is a minute slow (and I keep my watch set to school time). The test-day chimes are always a bit off the mark. I guess that's why they remove all the clocks from the classrooms on exam day. Same old, same old.

Things aren't exactly the same every time, though. It is an event, and not without event. We can also see very clearly how Japanese children have changed over the years.

The look and atmosphere is basically the same. The kids are nervous as heck, and most of them are playing it safe in terms of look and behavior, aiming to please. As always, almost every bag has an "exam-passing" good luck charm tied to it, most from nearby Kashima Shrine. Many kids are wearing new-looking clothes, if not freshly-cleaned school uniforms, and sporting new (conservative) haircuts. It's definitely the exam-day look.

There are differences, however. For one thing, the kids are big. The 6th graders of today average about the same size as 8th graders of a decade ago. It used to be said that the easiest way to tell Korean and Japanese children apart from each other was that the Koreans tended to be taller and stronger in build, probably since meat has been an important part of the Korean diet for a long time. Not anymore. Now Japanese kids are eating a much more westernized (i.e. lots of oil & beef) diet, and they're monstrous compared with their counterparts in the early '90s.

Another difference from their forebears seems to be in terms of manners and willingness to listen to others, particularly those in authority. During our exams, we have a strict rule that, if someone drops something on the floor, he is to call for a teacher to pick it up instead of getting it himself. This is to prevent Mr. Bean-style cheating. Even as recent as five years ago, the examinees were very obedient; the test proctors tended to be kept busy fetching erasers, mechanical pencils, applicant I.D. cards, test papers, lost wits, etc.. This time, during my first test proctor session, six students drop items on the floor, but only one of them asks for assistance. The others either just ignor their instructions and get whatever they've dropped themselves anyway (with me sadly not allowed to shred their test papers in their faces) or just ignore the lost item till the test is over.

That's pretty insolent, particularly when they're trying to convince us to admit them into our school. But such behavior isn't surprising these days.

This is actually a phenomenon we've seen a lot in our students, particularly during the last four years. Friendship circles, though very temporary and ever-changing, seem to be closer than ever, but kids belonging to a circle tend to be very insular within it. It's just like the cell phone and internet chat rooms that occupy so much of their time (and often include the same members, anyway); they are totally devoted to and wrapped up in what is going on within their own group, but the rest of the world only exists when they have a particular need for it. That can make things doubly hard for the teachers, since we are obviously by our very nature forbidden from being part of the circle (unless one is young, handsome, and single, but that can lead to other complications...). That means that, for the most part, we're simply not part of the kids' world. Sure, there has always been a gap between teachers and students. That gap, if not properly managed, can lead to feelings of distrust if not resentment. However, now the gap seems not so much insurmountable as impenetrable. It's one thing when a kid is resistant or rebellious. It's quite another when he's perfectly good-natured and even friendly but simply does not hear a single word he's told. How does one try to reach a student who lives on the wrong side of a one-way mirror?

There's quite a crowd this year. Amazing. We are constantly being reminded of the declining birthrate and subsequent, rapid drop in the number of children. We hear enough about it to be nauseated by it. However, this year the number of applicants is up, and the kids seem to be doing alright at these difficult exam problems. They have to; at least half of them will be turned away. It's pretty much a given that most if not all these kids attend cram school, since it's doubtful an ordinary elementary school education would allow them to be competitive. Unfortunately, modern cram schools actually seem to be contributing to the problem.

Last year I actually visited a modern chain cram school and observed some "lessons". I say "modern" because the old-style, teacher-centered form of cram school is rapidly going the way of the floppy disk. All the new ones use a very individual, "learn at your own pace" approach. Basically, each student picks his own drill book from the rack, does the problems on his own as he likes, and then has the teacher (or a computer) check them. The system looks ideal on paper; theoretically, each student should be working according to his individual ability and receiving education according to his individual need. (Hey, where have I heard that before?) In practice, however, as I have observed, the same problem exists that has plagued every attempt to establish a Marxist system in history (yep, thats it). If everyone gets the same reward whether he works or not, there's really no reason to work. What I saw in that juku was anarchy. Kids aged eleven and twelve were running around the room screaming and throwing things, pausing only occasionally to do a couple of problems in their drill books. Meanwhile, a couple of serious students sat and concentrated on their own drills totally oblivious to the world around them. And what was the teacher doing? She was sitting at her desk patiently waiting for the kids to bring their books for her to check. And naturally, when the noisy kids did come, they were very cavalier about it.

"Oy, sensei," yelled out one boy in strong imperative form, banging his book on the desk, "mark it!"

"Oh, you're doing pretty good today," said the teacher encouragingly as she scribbled in the book with her red pen. "Keep it up!"

The kid kept it up, alright. Immediately forgetting the teacher's existence, he snatched up his book and then started dancing around for a while before attacking one of his classmates.

That boy was studying in hopes of entering my school. For all I know, he might be one of the wide-eyed, quivering applicants now trying to remember difficult Chinese characters. The trouble is, we're seeing a lot of kids bringing that sort of attitude into our classrooms, i.e. fully expecting to be left alone and allowed to do what they want how they want when they want and listening to the teacher only when they feel there is a personal need for it. The end result is not just a tendency for classrooms to break down. A lot of stupid mistakes are made for no reason or, even worse, repeated time and time again simply because more and more kids are so incapable of processing information from outside their enclosed universes that the fact of their having made a mistake simply doesn't register. Even if it does, they've become too accustomed to following a cram school-inspired routine to change it even if they know there's a problem. Never mind thinking. We must repeat!

We must repeat! (We are DE-VO!)

Easy, moody guy, easy...we won't know till April, will we? Actually, our current junior high kids aren't as bad as the two disaster classes that are now in grades 10 and 11...

Speaking of DEVO, maybe I'll go pop on a CD after this exam business is over and unwind. "I've uncontrollable urge..."


  • Well it is certainly good to hear that a review process takes place. Since things don't change much from year to year, it must mean that things are being done in the best possible way. Hooray!

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:37 PM  

  • Few people are satisfied with the status quo, but the fact that it is the status quo is very much an argument in favor of it. New ideas are far too easily and quickly shot down.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:27 PM  

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