11 Dec 2016

Who should be responsible for student failure? A blog from Japan

In my old school, we gave our year 10s a study skills pack in the period leading up to their first GCSE exams. It included advice like ‘make a timetable’, ‘work somewhere quiet’, ‘test yourself regularly’; obvious, but necessary for our students. My brother taught in a tough school in Newcastle, and spoke of year 11 students proudly telling him that they’d studied for a full two hours for their GCSE Science.

In Japan, when children start school at age 6, students are asked to buy a blank notebook in year 5 for self-study. Every night they are expected to fill in two pages (sometimes three, depending on how strict the form tutor is) with notes or practice questions on any of their subjects. This isn’t their only homework either; other teachers might set them worksheets, or pages to complete from their workbook.

My half-Japanese cousins all went through the Japanese school system, and managed to get away with less work than most due to their ability to write a whole load of English song lyrics that their teachers couldn’t understand in their self-study books. Nevertheless, when they came over to visit us every summer they’d have to pay for extra luggage allowance just to accommodate all their school books.

Bundles of workbooks ready for the next academic year.

A major reason that students don’t get set so much homework in England is that teachers just wouldn’t have time to mark it all. But this isn’t an issue in Japan. Self-study work isn’t marked, just checked for completion each morning. Most of the content taught in Japanese schools that the other HW is based on is fact-based rather than skills-based, making it easy to mark. Much of the marking is so straightforward that at junior high level students do it themselves, either in class, or before they even hand it in using the mark scheme they are given.

Of course, this means that some of them just copy the answers straight into their workbooks without attempting the questions first. But they then have to study even harder when it comes to their termly school tests. If they fail, and they have to re-take, it is their own responsibility; it’s assumed that failure is due to a lack of effort, not a lack of intelligence or poor teaching.

This attitude has its advantages and disadvantages. Students in Japan do by and large take responsibility for their own success or failure because neither their parents nor their teachers have deprived them of that responsibility. This is in stark contrast to the attitude of a couple of students in my old form group in England, who believed that if they failed, it was their teacher’s fault, and therefore didn’t put in much effort. Why would they think any differently, when they know their teachers are held accountable by senior management for the exam success of their students, and when the result of their lack of effort is, therefore, extra help and attention from teachers?

On the other hand, giving students so much responsibility in Japan means letting them fail. And some of them do. They graduate anyway, but this isn’t a useful accolade in Japan because everyone graduates so long as they turn up to the ceremony, even if they haven’t been at school all year. If you believe that success is entirely a function of effort then you might think that letting students fail without giving them extra input is fair enough, but research and experience suggests that some children find learning easier than others. Personally I would therefore advocate having more support available for students who struggle than is available in the state system in Japan (though its absence can be partly explained by the existence of private ‘juku’, or tuition centres).

What I’ve learnt from the Japanese in this area is not something I think I could have learnt by being told, so I hope you’ll forgive the fact that all I can do is tell you here. I learnt what it actually means to have high expectations. I thought I had high expectations of the children in my classes. What I actually had was high hopes of them, and high expectations of myself and what I could do to help them achieve their target grades. I micro-managed those kids, I broke down everything they had to learn into tiny chunks and essentially made revision notes for them.

The Japanese actually expect their children to take responsibility for themselves and for their work, and they expect them to work hard from a young age. I’m sure teachers in England who are more experienced than me realise the benefits of this already, but in some English schools it is difficult to have that attitude when teachers are hauled over the coals for each failed mock exam. Teachers shouldn’t be the ones being asked ‘what are you going to do about it?’ students should. If this happened early enough in each child’s school career, we wouldn’t still be in a position where we are telling 15 year olds how to revise.

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