Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Returning with lessons from Japan

Published in the Current

Pond Cove School Principal Tom Eismeier is poised to bring more Japanese influence into his school, following a recent educational trip to Japan.

“The schools were fascinating,” Eismeier said. The three-week trip began with a series of seminars on Japanese culture and life and set the stage for the rest of his experience. The speakers conveyed a strong sense of national pride and the Japanese temperament, which favors indirect criticism over direct confrontation.

“If you’re paying attention, you get all these hints,” Eismeier said.

He wants to return to Japan at some point, and also set up a partnership between Pond Cove School and an elementary school there, hoping to deepen the connections and lessons he found on this journey.

The trip started in Tokyo, where he found a startling division between the bustle of one of the world’s busiest cities and the placid quiet of a Buddhist monastery. All that separated the two was a small ceremonial curb.

“The Japanese seem to be very good at setting up mental boundaries,” Eismeier said.

The group of 200 American educators, organized and funded by the Fulbright Memorial Foundation, split into groups of 20, who headed off to 10 prefectures around the country.

Eismeier’s group went to the area farthest north on Japan’s largest island, the prefecture that has a sister-state relationship with Maine: Aomori.

He found that unlike the U.S., “the national curriculum and the national standards are actually accepted,” Eismeier said. “The schools are the same, the structure is the same and the curriculum is the same, no matter where you are.”

On the other hand, Eismeier said, the local control that is the hallmark of American education is missing in Japan. “There is not a lot of local influence,” Eismeier said.

The influence is national, as is the learning. Teachers share information within schools and the district, and give feedback to the national government on its quality. The process is “mediated at every level,” Eismeier said, to ensure the feedback is valid and that change does not happen too rapidly.

One major change that has occurred through this process is new this year. To reduce pressure on students, a six-day school week has been shortened. Now every other week, students have only five days of school. It allows families to have more time together as well, Eismeier said.

The curriculum has been shortened as a result, he said, making teachers feel pressure to teach faster. That’s a problem in a country and an educational system where, to teachers, “how you teach is more important than what you teach,” according to Eismeier.

The central government sends out information on what the students will do and the teachers figure out how to deliver that information appropriately.

“It strikes outsiders as very rigid, and it’s really not,” Eismeier said.

The mental boundaries, however, are as strong in Aomori as in Tokyo. Teachers leave their classes alone from time to time, without any discipline problems at all.

At a welcome ceremony at one school, Eismeier looked around and realized, “Every teacher in the building is there. What are the kids doing?”

Even at recess, the students are allowed to run wild, so long as they are quiet and orderly in the classroom.

Kindergarteners were especially exciting to watch at recess.

“They had dirt and sand and water and they were making a huge mess,” Eismeier said. Afterwards, they washed themselves off before coming inside, he said, carefully hosing off their feet and hands.

Other school issues are also very different in Japan. A teacher of a junior high science class Eismeier observed was studiously ignoring students who were talking elsewhere in the room, a contrast with the American teacher’s
typical exhortations for everyone in the room to pay attention.

Also, the degree of visual learning was impressive. “The blackboards were amazing,” Eismeier said. Without being able to read Japanese, but after seeing the board, he knew how to do the lab.

There is a strong emphasis on figuring things out, Eismeier said, and on group and teamwork. That’s especially noteworthy when there is no tracking or ability grouping in the schools: Everyone performs together.

There is also very little of what Americans call “special education.” While the Japanese are worried about autism and learning disabilities, and seek to learn more from their American counterparts, the primary emphasis for Japanese special education is physical disability, Eismeier said.

He did see what Americans call the “inclusion model,” where a student with special needs was in the classroom with instructional support.

He also asked about the lesson study technique Pond Cove teachers have been using, based on a Japanese program in which teachers prepare a lesson together and then observe it being taught, and later rework the lesson to improve it further.

In Japan, Eismeier found, that happens on a variety of levels, involving teachers from the school, the district and even nationwide, with as many as 500 people observing a single lesson being taught.

Eismeier said elementary schools have some similar problems in the two countries, including competition from private kindergartens that stress academics, in place of public kindergartens focusing on socialization and community.

He did say, though, there was no four-square to be found in Japan. Nonetheless, he termed the trip a success, and said, “I want to go back.”