The Three R’s, Japanese Style

March 10, 2009   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — If sound travels 331 meters per second in zero degrees Celsius, and the speed increases 0.6 meters as the temperature increases by one degree, what is the distance between a person and lightning if the person hears the bolt 5 seconds after he sees the lightening in 5 degrees Celsius?

I’m furious because my son, at age 9, cannot solve this problem no matter how many times we have gone over similar questions together. The science test is tomorrow, and if he doesn’t score well, he probably won’t get an A on his report card.

So what if Yataro doesn’t get an A in fourth-grade science? It’s hard for me to reflect on this reasonable question as I drown in my efforts to keep him afloat during the week’s tests: science, reading comprehension and ancient poetry. Next week: identifying Japan’s 47 prefectures and city governments, a demonstration of weighing items on a balance scale and a 1.5 kilometer run.

Yataro’s private elementary school sits at the traditional end of the spectrum in the country’s debate over the best approach to education: the orthodox path of memorization fostered by fierce competition versus the big picture method that promotes creative and independent thinking.

Regurgitating facts has long been a prized skill in Japanese schools because of the country’s rigorous university entrance exams. But such one-dimensional learning has been criticized as “tsumekomi,” or cramming. Since the 1980s, the country cut back school hours and pared curricula under the slogan “yutori,” or leeway.

In the last decade, however, the academic ranking of primary and secondary school students declined in various international surveys, and yutori is increasingly being blamed for the slide. The pendulum is swinging back to increased classroom subjects and hours.

Yataro’s school keeps the hurdles high. He failed an English dialogue memorization test because he didn’t display the accompanying hand gestures. He is an avid reader but remains stumped by problems like, “Divide the passage into four scenes based on time, place, character and the feelings of the main character, and write the number of the first line of each scene.”

There are rewards for the winners – some teachers give stickers and trinkets to high test scorers – and nothing, except perhaps humiliation, for the rest. Following the 1.5 kilometer run, the children were seated according to rank, while the last child staggered in accompanied by a teacher on a bicycle.

Yataro’s awareness of his standing has chipped away at his self esteem. “This year I will come in 25th or better in the marathon,” he recently wrote in my birthday card. It wasn’t a dreamy third place, or even 10th, but a well thought out self-assessment. On a self-rating check list of 26 school tasks he filled in last year, he didn’t give himself a “well done” in any entry, including one he aced, which was, “I went to school every day in good health.”

Parents join the battles, too, egging their children on to beat others and garnering satisfaction from their successes. When report cards were handed out last year, one girl said her mother instructed her to find out as much as possible about the other kids’ grades while revealing as little as possible about her own.

I found myself overcome with joy when Yataro scored the second highest in his class on a science test once, not just because our grueling study sessions had paid off, but because the mother of the boy who came in first was a scientist. I felt like a winner of a mom, conceding only to a scientist who had an unfair advantage.

It’s hard to foster a love of learning in such an environment. When Yataro comes home from school, he asks, “what do I have to do today?” as I tear into his satchel to retrieve the latest test or homework sheets before we hurry over to the dining room table stacked with drill books.

We recently had one of the most competitive school events of the year: the annual dodge ball tournament in which the four classes in the grade compete against each other.

“Hit her!” shouted a mother near me as the children hurled the ball against each other. My son’s class made a stunning comeback from last place last year to win the coveted plaque. Homework that day was a composition on the match; minimum two and half pages and likely to be distributed among the parents. But for a short time, Yataro was able to bask in glory.

“For the first time in four years,” he wrote, “I came in first.”