Thursday, 18 February 2010

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


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