'Please Teach Us Today' Local Educator Finds Japanese Schools Vastly Different, from Morning Greetings to Evening Study Sessions

Article excerpt

Lee Marek watched the hour-by-hour march of the arrival of 2000 around the globe with the eye of an educator as much as a reveler.

Like most, the Naperville man contemplated the meaning of a new year. But he also reflected on the media coverage and the public's interest in celebrations around the world and what it means to his school and his students.

"We are truly becoming one world. The Internet is going to connect us all and TV is doing the same thing," Marek said. "But the only way to really know about another culture is to go and experience it for yourself. It puts culture in a meaningful perspective."

Marek recently immersed himself in the culture and educational system of Japan. He spent three weeks there, meeting with government officials, observing classes and talking with teachers. He was there as part of the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teachers Program.

He returned to Naperville North High School, where he teaches chemistry, with a deeper understanding of the differences between Japanese and American education, and lessons teachers in both systems can learn from each other.

Marek recalls entering a Japanese classroom with a local teacher. The uniformed students - roughly 40 in a class - rose in unison and bowed to greet their instructor.

"Please teach us today," they said.

To an American student, the scene sounds like an ancient ritual or a forecast for a cold, metallic future. It's certainly not their image of modern-day high school.

But the scene is both a demonstration of discipline and respect not likely to be found in a U.S. classroom and a representation of the importance of education in Japan.

For Marek, who has been decorated with numerous teaching awards, it begins to illustrate how different Japanese schools are from ours.

"We look to them and they look to us for different reasons," he said. "I think we're going to be merging toward the middle."

From what Marek saw on his three-week tour, little is as important to Japanese families as their children's education.

Students there face pressure early in their schooling, Marek said. A test in middle school determines whether they'll get into a top high school, which then factors into whether students will be accepted to a college where corporations recruit.

Parents emphasize education to their children, who rarely have jobs while they're in school so they can focus on studying, Marek said.

Some of that emphasis on learning would go a long way in American homes, he said.

"If parents perceive school as an important place, a place of learning, they'll put value on education as the Japanese do," the teacher said. "If their primary goal is school, they'll sit down and work with the kids on their homework. The kids are going to realize that it's important."

With their parents' encouragement, Japanese students seem to work harder than their American peers, Marek said. While American families tend to attribute their children's success and failure at different subjects to aptitude, Japanese families blame average and low grades on a poor work ethic. …