Cooperative Education: Lessons from Japan

By Baris-Sanders, Marcia | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Cooperative Education: Lessons from Japan


Baris-Sanders, Marcia, Phi Delta Kappan


In using group activities for learning, cooperative student effort for school events, and peer pressure for classroom discipline, Japanese teachers involve and empower their students, Ms. Baris-Sanders notes.

One of the first things people want to know when they find out I have taught in Japan is whether Japanese students are more disciplined than American students. I usually laugh at memories of students throwing paper or even sandals across the room and say, "No, but their parents sure want them to be."

One morning, as I bicycled to the middle school where I worked two days a week, I heard Tatsuo, one of my first-year students, screaming that he loved me as I rode by. Before teaching in Japan, I had a vision of rows of students in identical uniforms bowing to me. That actually happened at the beginning of each class I taught, but what happened after the bows was usually unpredictable.

I had heard the stories of intense academic competition for a few select spots in the best universities; of students who attend a juku - an after-school cram school - to prepare for college entrance exams; and of ronin, students who actually take a year off after finishing public school to review and prepare for these exams. I expected no less than perfection. When I finally got to school in the fall semester (the second semester of a three-semester year), I found that classes would not begin for a week because the Cultural Festival, which the students had been planning for months, was already scheduled.

Class as Community

In Japan each secondary grade level is divided into classes that stay together as a unit for the entire school year. The students stay together for all lessons in their room, while the teachers move from class to class. As I entered the high school that first day, I saw a banner for each class, which had the classroom number and the theme the class had chosen for the Cultural Festival, hanging above the faculty offices. When I was not preparing lessons that week, I went to the classrooms and saw students designing and constructing their classroom projects. Rarely did I see a teacher, and some of the classes would not let me or anyone else into their rooms until the final unveiling of the projects at the end of the week.

The projects at the cultural fair ranged from a beautiful display of various styles of kites from different regions of Japan, to a haunted house complete with darkened windows and ghosts, to an urban skyline made entirely of assorted colors of beverage cans pasted together against one entire wall of the classroom. After the projects were presented, I was treated to a traditional tea ceremony and a beautiful concert of koto (Japanese harp) music. The teachers finally got involved in the last event of the day, which was a rock concert they gave for the students in the school's 90-year-old courtyard.

My first few days at the high school were not exactly what I had imagined. Instead of seeing rows of obsequious students repeating English sentences after their Japanese teachers, I was amazed by how much freedom the students were given to work together to produce projects of their own design. The experience reminded me that American students often remember and profess to have gotten the most worthwhile experiences from such extracurricular activities as band, drama, sports, or work on school publications.

During my tenure in Japan, I taught classes in which students were noisier than I ever expected and teachers did less in response to their behavior than American teachers would have done. Because students were expected to be doing their work, talking and helping were not discouraged. The fleets of assistant principals meting out punishments in American high schools don't exist in Japan, and there doesn't seem to be a need for them, though Japanese teachers have classes of between 40 and 50 students. The relationship between teacher and parent is stronger because teachers are required to visit parents at their homes at least once a year. …

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