Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Japanese Education System and the Infamous Kenshukai

A friend of mine, who has diligently taught English in Japan for three years, emailed me a confession detailing her immense frustration with the Japanese education system. 

As someone who has taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for over half a decade in Japan, I greatly sympathized with her frustrations. The following is my reply to her initial letter. 


The demonstration classes you are referring to, if I understand your meaning, fall into the category of happyokai (発表会) which is an extension of kenshukai (研修会) of the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Science (文部省), also called MEXT.

As far as I can tell, the only difference between the happyokai demonstration class and the kenshukai is that the kenshukai demo is usually presented before the Prefectural Board of Education, whereas the hayppokai is usually presented before the PTA or the local city/town boards of education.

I only point this difference out, because like you, the demonstration classes bother me to no end. I used to make little distinction between the happyokai (HPK) or the kenshukai (KNS). Although both are pretty much useless, when it comes to learning new teaching methodologies or as a means to improve pedagogy, I still feel I can benefit, although perhaps indirectly, from a good HPK demonstration.

The way I see it, the HPK has the pretense of showing how much the students have learned, but as we both know, in actuality this amounts to little more than sheer wishful thinking. A rehearsed class is a recitation of memorized facts, not a demonstration of accrued knowledge. But why the emphasis, I ask myself, on memorized facts?

Testing. The fact of the matter is, Japan judges its success on whether or not its students can pass tests. Not on whether or not they have a general grasp of the information, but whether or not they know what information will be the focus of their testing. So the aim, it seems to me, becomes restrictively narrow to cover only the information they know will be on the tests. And of course the Ministry of Education knows what will be on the tests, since they are the ones who design and issue the tests. Literally all of Japan's education curriculum is predetermined by the government and the educators have no say in the matter. Anything which strays from the parameters of the mandate is not meeting the testing standards of the Ministry of Education, which usually spells trouble for the school. Therefore the school boards are keen to make sure all their schools within their districts are following the official guidelines. God forbid somebody teaching something different--something novel--something original even. If it doesn't fit within the narrow parameters which have been set, then it simply isn't allowed.

I find this hinders the education system in Japan in more ways than I care to count.

Another aspect of the education system which bothers me is, as you mentioned, the rehearsed classes. It seems to me, over the six years I have spent teaching in Japan, the HPK is of utmost importance for teachers who wish to keep their contracts and stay at the same school. They have to *impress the PTA, since one complaint could technically get them fired (i.e., transferred to a new school). But maybe worse than irrelevant classes are ineffective teachers (I should specify I am thinking mainly about English teachers in the context of the Japanese classroom).

Unfortunately, as we both know, no teacher, no matter how insufficient or poorly educated, will likely maintain their position indefinitely; as per custom here. No matter how horrendous, how unskilled they are, their ineptitude is usually overlooked and they are passed on to other schools only to become somebody else's problem. Personally, I have always felt the embarrassment of being out of one's depth and being completely ineffectual as an educator would cause some of these "educators" to re-evaluate their carrier choices, but apparently not. I don't know, but it just seems common sense that one who is not properly educated may only be pretending to be an educator, since we know that all good educators first require a good education themselves. Yet if good teachers are as hard to come by as they are in the U.S., I could imagine Japan having more than their fair share of lackluster teachers. The problem is, as you probably have observed, is the lackluster teachers almost always seem to be English teachers. All the other teachers are usually pretty decent. Why should this be?

Because English learning in Japan isn't about learning a language--like I eluded to above--it's about passing tests! The teachers, unfortunately, come out of the same broken system. But their poor English skills aren't the only thing interfering with their English education. In my estimation, their strict adherence to the MEXT mandates is another challenge. No teacher is willing to be a radical and start a rebellion of English learning. Indeed, with the issuing of Eigo Noto, the horrible textbooks meant for elementary fifth and sixth graders, the freedom of English education has been restricted even further. While teaching in Hiroshima I was using the wonderful English materials by the MPI (i.e., the Matsuka Phonics Institute). Regrettably, that all went away when Eigo Noto was pushed on us--and the English education has suffered horribly for it. Other places had not English education for elementary level learners, so Eigo Noto in many places is viewed in a positive light--but I wish to dispel this myth. Eigo Noto is horrendous and would be better suited as kindling to keep the fire going during the frigid Japanese winter.

Now we have teachers with almost no English education required to teach English from a textbook which looks like a team of illiterate monkeys typed it up. All this has become a total nightmare! The Japanese teachers are wondering how the hell they can teach something they don't know anything about, and all the native ESL instructors, such as myself, are wondering how the hell we are supposed to teach from something so horribly devised that it is actually working against our goal of improving student English ability!

Over the years, whenever I have tried to introduce new material to a class, even having given notice weeks (sometimes months) in advance, on the day I am usually told we do not have time for my lesson plan. Indeed, the teachers are under the stress of having to get through the mandated material. Usually I am reminded that they have their semester tests, their mid year tests, their finals, or their high school entrance exams to prepare for. With trying to meet so many testing requirements, which focus on mainly on grammar and vocabulary skills and never on language ability, it is no wonder they can't seem learn any English!

Additionally, the teachers have the additional burden of trying to keep their jobs--and this requires them to show off how amazing their classes are and how much the students have learned and how proficient they are appear!

Yet this sort of pin points the frustration we have, as Western educators. We place emphasis on actual results, that is, real proficiency and real ability. Not the mere appearance of it. We practice things like teaching methodologies and study ways to improve pedagogy. We want the students to learn, but what’s more we wish them to comprehend!

This involves teaching students to think independently. That is, individual problem solving comes with it the prerequisite of thinking on ones toes. Language, being something spontaneous and organic all at the same time, often requires one to make split decisions. Since individual problem solving isn't cultivated in Japan, language becomes doubly hard for Japanese. Their tendency is to group together to solve problems, as two minds are always better than one. But this works for solving word problems in a test book or for planning for meeting or in forming think tanks to solve social issues. It is not suited for acquiring language or having to deal with the spontaneous obstacles of everyday life.

If they can't think for themselves when it comes to trying to understand something, then gaining any sort of comprehension seems all but hopeless.

Comprehension of a subject is NOT a part of the Japanese education system. It simply isn't designed with comprehension in mind. Especially when the system is all top down. It simply isn’t designed with the students’ needs in mind, rather, it is designed with the need to pass tests. 

I (strongly) feel that this is the wrong way to go about educating our children.

After decades of slipping test scores, however, The Ministry of Education eventually noticed that while their school systems appeared to be doing great, and while their students were oh so excellent at reciting memorized knowledge, that when actually called upon to show proficiency rather than mere performance they found disaster lurking.

Over the last several years statistics have shown that Japan is being out performed by nearly all the other Asian countries with regard to English learning. A huge embarrassment, for sure. But instead of correcting it with new programs and new teaching methodologies, they issue more and more kenshukais, as if this would be enough to make them fluent in English.

My guess is that kenshukai was initially started as a way to keep track of the Japan's overall progress with regard to standardized testing, probably as a means to better gauge which Japanese schools were classified as academic or not and then rank them accordingly. But it seems that it has now become a way to rank itself among other nations as well. Not only this, but because of the slipping test scored and the poor English ability, Japan keeps issuing English based kenshukais. I have personally been to over a dozen in less than five years. 

But the issue is being looked at the wrong way around. Instead of asking what methods they can adopt to improve overall education, they are focusing on the areas needed to improve test scores. If Japanese students score bad on vocabulary nation wide, then the government starts issuing new textbooks with better written vocabulary, more vocabulary, and so on and so forth. Yet this only bogs down the already heavy saturation of grammar and vocabulary they already are required to learn. It simply ignores the real problems. Imagine trying to stop the Titanic from sinking by patching each individual compartment without ever addressing the large gaping tear in the main haul?! 

That seems to be exactly what The Ministry of Education is doing with regard to English learning as a second language. Instead of fixing the large obvious problems, they are patching irrelevant, unimportant, problems--meanwhile English education in the country continues to sink to new lows.

Perhaps this is the Japanese Ministry of Educations greatest mistake--micro managing English education. It has led to useless hours upon hours of pretend demo classes, all rehearsed performances which completely fail to gauge proficiency. 

Two things. If you don't know the students actual ability before the class you can't gauge their improvement. So what's the point? Second, if the class is a scripted performance, then you really can't know for sure whether or not they have comprehensively learned the material. They may simply all be good at memorizing the script on the day. So the question becomes, what are we adjudicating them on exactly?

In the numerous kenshukai post meetings, I inevitably always get asked to add to the discussion and comment on the class *performance. They want to hear it from a native speaker how wonderful they all did! Although I can pour compliments onto my students, and boost their confidence, I have nothing good to say about these post kenshukai meetings. But what can one even say? The class either appeared to go well or it didn't. The students either appeared to know what they were doing or they didn't. But in the end, nobody at all (apart from maybe the homeroom teacher) can tell how much the students actually improved (or didn't improve). So, again, what's the point? 

One who is new to the Japanese education system might remark, in their naivete, that the kenshukai could be used as a way to share teaching methodologies. You and I, however, know better than this. No teaching methodologies can even get off the ground without the Ministry of Education's approval, and only then only if the plan goes all the way up the bureaucratic chain, and only after it meets all the mandates. It's impossible to share teaching methods, because they simply aren't allowed. Even if they are brought up in casual discussion, teachers simply lack the authority to implement them. 

Sadly, every semester they are disappointed in the lack of proficiency gained and the total lack of English comprehension. Thus another kenshukai is scheduled, and the vicious cycle of futility repeats itself.

Honestly, the only thing I have found kenshukais to be good for is for catching up with other ALTs and flirting with cute, young JTEs.  Actually, correct that last remark. It may have come off as overly sexist. In truth, they don't have to be young JTEs, just cute. ;) 

All this is just to say, I share your frustrations.


Tristan Vick, Professional ESL Educator 

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