Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Kaneyama ski centre

The magnificent setting: two children and Mikagura-dake from the top of the lift

If Lake Numazawa is what makes Kaneyama-machi so special in the summer, then it is the ski centre that does the same for the winter. All the children get a free season pass, there are a number of races and events through the season for those with a competitive bent, and the views are wonderful. 

Looking down one of the main slopes

Except for race days and free pass days it never gets busy, and during the week you may have it all to yourself. That's great for me, as, call me picky, but I usually prefer to do without an audience when I am falling arse over tit, in this my first try at downhill. It's a bit like riding a bike downhill, only without brakes. Silly really, but everyone else is doing it, so it must be OK.

Children on the beginners lift

Expert skiers in search of a challenge might prefer a bigger centre, (there are no black slopes currently open) but there are several courses, including a beginners slope with it's own lift, a scenic route suitable for all levels that winds down through the woods (a lot of fun and with a dodgy corner that often decks me), and variations on two courses that are steep enough to provide sport and excitement for most, in a lovely wild setting. The restaurant does nice basic food at reasonable prices, and has a good view, and you can book skiing and snowboard lessons - one of the teachers speaks good English if you ask.

Two of the staff smiling on as they officiate at a school race day in sleety rain

You can't tell from my shadow that I am a rubbish skier. It's when I get off the lift that the trouble starts

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Rudolph Valenteeny

The front door slides open, and a small voice can be heard piping out a hello. It is H-chan, one of my son's seven year old class mates. And she has brought him a Valentines day chocolate. She made it herself. It is heart shaped and has sweets stuck  on it to turn it into a face. She has written a note, carefully sealed with a shiny sticker. There are hearts drawn on it.

And he is not in. He has missed his first proper Valentine. And she has gone to all that trouble, and come round from a different village, because she likes him. And he is not in. She doesn't get to give it to him personally, she has to leave it with his mum. He is off with his mate M-chan practising their traditional dance performance. She gave him a box of home made chocolates too, with one shaped like a cat. Very nice, but she is his mate, and a year older, so it doesn't count the same.

I want to make H-chan feel better, in recognition of her effort and to thank her for liking my son, for proving that he possibly won't need to spend his life alone and unloved. Well, not until he gets married anyway. But anything I attempt would only worry her, so she goes off, thinking to herself, "He wasn't in." 

The night before my son and I had watched a drama about a teenage girl who loves a boy, but she can't seem to make any good chocolates for him as Japanese girls are supposed to do. Her dad is a master choclatier, but he is too busy, working all hours. She buys some....and throws them away. In the end her dad helps her, they bond, the boy likes the chocolates, all her fears and angst were unfounded. My son was probably bemused by the whole thing, but it was better than an early night. Then the next day it was all played out again just for him. And he wasn't in. And he is still bemused.


Starving slowest

At this rag-end of the winter life is at its hardest and cheapest for the birds and animals of Oku Aizu. It is two months since there was much vegetation showing, the snow is a compacted meter and a half deep, flopping over everything in a badly cut carpet. We are at the furthest point in time from abundance in either direction.

It is not a question of finding enough to eat. It is a question of who starves the slowest. The big black ravens sit around waiting it out. If they sit on that pole for long enough, something is bound to come along and die. Some small spark will be extinguished and their slow furnace will burn darkly on for a day or two more. The semi-wild cats of the village leave their paw prints across blanketed paddys, off on their secret rounds, on mousing odysseys never to be told, staring balefully at you if you dare to notice them.

It is the snow that makes it clear which houses have been abandoned, at least for the winter. There are a lot, markers for an economy that has moved elsewhere. That in itself is an inevitable process, nearly as old as the ravens, but being human, it seems sad. We don't like to think our houses are temporary shelters, like glorified tents.

Satelite TV, but no people now
But there are compensations for the householder still in residence, cupboards stocked from the Co-ops weekly delivery, kerosene stove glowing nicely, tea brewing. It is the contrast that gives it meaning. Comfort is not too easily won, not that fuggy townish superabundance that makes for a peculiarly modern brand of discontented complacency. 

There is no doubt at any point that a hot drink is indeed a wonderful thing, that a dry, soft place to sleep is not something to take lightly, and that every day of health and the company of your family is worthy of note.

And for those brought up without much of it, snow is a transformational shock of surprise every morning. So much of it. So beautiful. And in six weeks or more it will be gone. We have entered the last phase of snow, when it is hard enough to walk on. Beneath it waits the quickening green.

A bridge on the Tadami railway


Flexible thinking

On education in Kaneyama-machi

The future's so bright, I've gotta wear shades...School ski day

Mr Star (Hoshi-san), our delightfully named local education department head, kindly invited me us to talk to one of their regular network meetings about our impressions of education in the area, and to describe English education in contrast to it. The mayor, councillors, headteachers, teachers, council officers and members of the public were in attendance, seated around a large, neat square of document filled tables. They had pens drawn and at the ready, and they weren't afraid to use them.

From the outset I made it clear - oh, all right then, M-san did, in Japanese - that it is not for outsiders to make pronouncements - it is always more useful to explore possibilities together based on questioning and open discussion. Cue an uncomfortable silence, fiddling with paperclips and the sound of the snow creaking below the windows. And this Japanese comfort with known structures (for example the lecture) and discomfort with challenging, free-flowing improvisational responding, became the central theme of the day. To their credit, in the end everyone engaged fully, and some very interesting themes emerged.

'Natural' education and academic study
Among these were the difference between academic, fact-based learning and 'natural education,' which combines traditional study with value added by all of the community's resources.  Kaneyam-machi (as well as having very committed teachers and passionate head-teachers, and wonderfully small class sizes), is particularly rich in natural education.  The contribution made by good relationships between people, the extraordinary physical environment, high levels of volunteering and group co-operation (which often involves children), and the relatively intact traditions of family life, are all strong. 

We can learn as much from each other as we do from our teachers: now get off my neck

However, the time in which these can be experienced by children is limited by the heavy hand of central government control. Text books are chosen centrally, membership of extra clubs is compulsory, and there is an increasing burden of homework and pressure to succeed academically as children get older, culminating in 'make or break' attempts to get into the right university. To this end, a great deal is sacrificed, usually with parents connivance, with city-based children attending cramming schools. A few succeed, and a few drop out all together. There are few second chances in Japanese education.  

One of the local dads present bemoaned this pressure, and thinks the extra work and extra clubs are too hard. What he wants for his own children is that any academic ambition comes from them. He believes openness is more important, but wondered if I worried about my son's future if he grows up here without extra tuition. I don't. Another was sad that his children don't go out and play, but mainly stay at home, even here. He works long hours and does housework, and he finds it hard to make the time to play with them. Hoshi-san had wondered why it was that although many children came to the many activities for families that the council arrange, few parents stay to join in themselves.

My thoughts were that these two connected problems: of pressure to work long hours both academically and in working life; and of lack of parental involvement with children, are related. They stem from what in my view is a mistakenly mechanistic idea about how to do something well, and about what effective education really means.

Many economies in the world succeed without the need for crushing work hours, as humans can only work efficiently for a limited time each day. Most renowned educational epochs - early Oxford and Cambridge, Islamic early science, and Chinese scholarship for example - were not founded on pressured learning by rote. And some of the most valuable education occurs outside schools altogether. A research study by Charles Desforges for the UK government collated reliable research findings to look for overall recommendations. Surprisingly, it found that involved parents, that actively engaged with their children, made more difference to children's education than whether they attended a good school or not. In particular, he concluded that 'At home talk,' that is, simply talking to  children, made the most difference of all.

High level education: some serious dad time

All three of the headteachers try and organise non-academic activities that connect children with a whole range of experiences beyond the classroom and 'add value to learning', from growing vegetables and rice, to visiting high-tech factories, to high level arts and science presentations, involving everyone from professionals to local elders in their vegetable plots. Who, for example could forget sharing the interior of a giant black plastic bag with fifty slightly worried children to demonstrate the properties of air, for example? Not me, for one.

Junior school science demonstration: a bag full of children...
What do children here need from their education?
This area, with it's geographical isolation, it's  ageing population and limited opportunities for traditional job structures, has special challenges. And as with anywhere, it has to cope with the speed with which the world of work is changing due to technology, and the way in which free market globalisation means that capital chases the cheapest labour ever more quickly. Add to that climate change, diminishing resources and  financial structures that are not fit for purpose, and it would take a very brave person to predict the future awaiting our children.

One of the councillors felt that if you know your past, you know your future. A local craftswoman thought it very important that children experience the pleasure of making things with their fingers. A beautiful elderly lady felt that each person's personal philosophy affects everyone, and that it is really important that children learn to connect to the community. Another councillor felt that fewer children are living in households with several generations where they can learn from their grandparents about all kinds of things - even how to use knives.

Making things with your fingers: its a bear necessity, right? One of my one hour workshops at the after school club

Flexibility, thinking skills and emotional intelligence
My own view was that all those things are of course very  important, particularly in terms of individual and group identity. However, the most protective and useful ability for children to grow up with is the ability to think flexibly, underpinned with emotional intelligence. The ability to respond creatively to change is the best insurance in an uncertain world. Fixed curricula with little chance to discuss, ask challenging questions, or freely explore each others minds, do not provide this.

Change is ineviatable, and attempting to predict it is risky. Training children to accept and follow rigid patterns based on an assumed future, rather than to innovate solutions for any situation, risks condemning them to struggle and redundancy.

You can be taught engineering in a classroom, or you can learn it for yourself on a riverbank - problem solving Kaneyama style

Of course the local schools have to deal with the centralised legal and financial structures placed upon them, and have some pressing practical issues to deal with too. The primary school in Kawaguchi will finally be renovated to be more earthquake proof this year.  The one in Yokota has no receptionist and teachers have to share any work that needs doing. Having to teach two year groups together makes time management very difficult. The middle school finds that it is difficult to put on interesting extra-curricula activities now that the school bus leaves earlier to cope with the recent merge with another school. The high school is keen to improve it's levels, but everything is more difficult with small numbers. The headteacher said that "Flexibility is a really important idea, but we as a school need to be able to demonstrate it too." Not easy in those conditions.

A elder who voluntarily runs a community venue said that he very much liked the ideas of philosophy, thinking skills and intelligence for children, and that it was important to think in  a long term way about these. He felt that what is needed is an 'interactive village,' and that two things are missing from the community - women and children.

I really appreciated learning from every ones' passion and thought for getting things right for children here, and it confirmed for me that this is the best possible place for my son's early education, both natural and academic. Chocho-san (the mayor) wound up the meeting... well he brought it to a close, he didn't actually annoy anyone....It turned out to be a far reaching gaze into the future, and a more radical one than I had risked.

"In fifty years time there is only one thing that I am sure about: I won't be here any more. I think that all the dams will have gone, and the Tadami river will be returned to its natural state. Electricity will all be generated by solar power. I think there won't be money any more, we will do things differently." He could well be right, but I wouldn't  bet on him missing it  - there are an awful lot of people well over a hundred in this village...

Viva flexibility! Now everyone get in two rows for the photo

Here are a few quotes on related themes:

Insanity is doing things the way they have always been done and expecting the results to be different.
Theodore Eischeid

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change.
Charles Darwin
If you want to know your past - look into your present conditions.
If you want to know your future - look into your present actions.

Buddhist Saying
The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.
Sir Winston Churchill 

If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience and ability.
Henry Ford