This blog posting is partially untitled for a reason, that reason being that when I went looking for a translation for the term above (shingakkou) I couldn’t find a good one. There is a Wikipedia entry in Japanese, but no counterparts in other languages. I would like to describe this type of school and complain and contrast a little. I visited one such school last week, an extremely high level shingakkou, the kind that many parents and many cram schools spend an awful amount of time and money trying to get kids into. I observed an English lesson. And let me state plainly that I was impressed. But I was impressed in the same way that a you might be impressed by a particularly gory and disturbing news image if you make the mistake of clicking on it while browsing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First let me try to explain what a shingakkou is. I’ll start by providing a translation for the definition for the one in Japanese on the Wikipedia page: They are a category of school that places high priority on matriculating graduates into higher level universities (or high schools, or junior highs). By higher, I mean academically more widely accepted as being higher in level than other similar types of schools. The focus is always on that next level of school and the narrow, insidious exams that function as gatekeepers. The students obsess over exams, and so do their teachers, and their juku cram school teachers, and their parents, and the the administrations of the schools. Everyone is obsessing over tests and how to best prepare these young people to succeed on these tests.
Many of the learners in the class I observed were not paying attention. Some were studying independently from other lists of grammar and vocabulary explanations. Some had crashed on their desks, no doubt tired from having been studying lists of grammar and vocabulary explanations until the wee hours of the morning. Most would raise their heads and point their attention occasionally during the lesson to be sure to get the complete list of vocabulary and grammar from that lesson that might appear on the next test, but not necessarily to listen to the teacher or align their motives with hers. You see, they have been trained for how to deal with language that appears on tests with constant streams of grammar and vocabulary explanations, either by university prep cram schools and/or past English classes whose strongest purpose was to get them ready to take and pass tests. They know what they need to “get” for those tests and they can do so very efficiently. That is not to say that they are good at English. Using English is not a priority for them; in fact it is a distraction that they are not particularly interested in (as the teachers at such schools explain). And neither they nor their parents seem at all interested in rebelling. They just do what they need to do to pass those tests. They are winning this game and they want to keep their eye on the ball. I was there to observe the teacher’s lesson, so we could offer some advice–some tweaks for improvement in delivery or choice of activity or whatever. But what I saw was shocking, and I am not referring to the teacher necessarily. The teacher is just one part of this system, and from talking to many such teachers, I know that they feel haggard and powerless.
I do not claim to have a ready answer to this dilemma, but I would like to point out that it is indeed a big problem–education is being substituted with (and sacrificed for) test preparation. The very kids who could be exchanging opinions with students in other countries, who could be fine-tuning presentation skills in English, mastering digital integration of technology and language, grappling with global issues and identities, and questioning and growing and enjoying the experience, are not. They’re doing worksheets and practice exam questions. Lots of them. And not much else. Even the content of the textbooks is not thought about or felt–there is no time for anything but those essential grammar and vocabulary explanations, and then it’s on to the next few paragraphs.
Please don’t make the mistake of thinking this writer is some misinformed idealist who simply doesn’t understand the system. I was in the classroom with 38 bright students, one teacher, one observing head teacher, and another teacher trainer and I am confident in saying that no one was enjoying the experience. Pedagogically, I can also tell you that the lesson could have been much much more effective. But the problem runs much deeper than a little pedagogical approach shift can address. In fact, I would call it more than a problem. I would call it a crisis, and a tragedy of waste.
Please give me a few more minutes of your time. Specifically, please give up 20 minutes to listen to Ken Robinson speaking at TED. Just click on the image below, or on this link. I’m not saying that Mr Robinson has the answer either. I think he is doing a good job of defining a problem with education in the US and UK and probably other places right now. But of course seeing a problem and doing something about it are different. I have listened to several of his speeches now (including this nice one that is also very worth some of your time) and I am always struck by how I agree with so much of what he has to say, and yet I never like the last few minutes of his talks. They are always disappointing. But let’s not quibble yet. Listen to the talk with an open mind and see if it doesn’t resonate.
There, doesn’t he make sense? Life and education are not linear. Providing opportunities to collaborate creatively and use imagination, opportunities to explore the relationship between feeling and language and meaning, this is what the schools should be doing for learners. Yes, I know the learners need language, they need to see examples, receive instruction, get feedback and correction. But they also need to learn to produce in English, to do so collaboratively and autonomously. And that needs to be built into the system. But fat chance of that. Junior highs want to get these kids into better high schools and high schools want to get them into better universities. And so do their parents. They don’t mind kicking English learning down the road for a few years if it means getting their kid in a high level school. They know the game, too. So that’s why the system doesn’t change–there is no pressure on it to change. Everyone is unhappy, but the stakes are too high. The high schools are now competing with cram schools to see who can do test prep better. That is seriously messed up.
On the weekend I went to see a youth production of Guys and Dolls (Jr). In one song, the straight-laced mission girl finds herself in love (and slightly drunk) and liberated and she sings a fun little jazzy song, If I Were a Bell. The lyrics of the song took on a very different meaning from in the musical when I heard it, however. Instead, I thought about education. As I watched these high school and jr high school kids having the time of their lives putting on a theater production, I thought about the passion, the fun, the purpose, and the camaraderie–all so very missing from the class I had observed 48 hours before. I thought of how brilliant and wonderful they were and how they themselves were responsible for that. And I wished also for those poor students at the shingakkou to be given more a taste of what it is to collaborate and present something that uses language to communicate and delight; to be liberated, not through spiked dolce y leche (the scene before explains…) or the love of Marlon Brando, but through production and communication and purpose. Instead of the slog I witnessed, I would love to have seen them lighting like lamps, waving like banners, or ringing like bells as the kids in the theater production so joyfully were doing.
Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is if I were a bell I’d be ringing!
From the moment we kissed tonight
That’s the way I’ve just gotta behave
Boy, if I were a lamp I’d light
And If I were a banner I’d wave!
Ask me how do I feel, little me with my quiet upbringing
Well sir, all I can say is if gate I’d be swinging!
And if I were a watch I’d start popping my springs!
Or if I were a bell I’d go ding dong, ding dong ding!
It’s a nice thought, but I wouldn’t bet on shingakkou learners being given the chance to do anything productive and meaningful in the near future. The system is so totally conspiring against it…