What Japan can learn from the US

posted Jul 8, 2013, 4:18 AM by George Liu

Japan has a lot to learn from the world. An old nation itself, it was once strong because of its focused homogeneity. But as opinions begin to vary, it is beginning to resemble America, especially in the way politics gets in the way of progress.
The problem with America today is not a lack of variety. It is, in fact, this heterogeneity that is causing problems. We see it most easily in the right vs. left debates that cripple congressional thinking and partisanship that makes government ineffective.

But it is also this heterogeneity that is causing economic troubles, including depressed wages. Think about it this way: if you have just one employer and one potential employee in a labor market, it is very possible that both parties will find an acceptable medium. If there are two potential employees with similar preferences competing for the same job, there may be some sacrifice, but since preferences are the same, employer and employee will likely be satisfied--at the cost of the other employee, of course. But now think about this: there are hundreds of thousands of underemployed Americans competing with millions of desperate Indians, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexicans, and so on, all for the 200,000 or so "new jobs" that were created last year. Each one of these is willing to accept less for that job, just so they HAVE a job, which depresses wages to a point where simply having a job may not be sustainable.

And it's not limited to economics and political problems, either. This is affecting morals and society itself. Why has the media become so slanderous, irresponsible, and untruthful? Because for every person that decries bad reporting, another person revels in it. For every person that shuns sexual impropriety on TV, another person rejoices in its freedom.

It's not necessarily bad or good--there are a lot of points for and against heterogeneity, which include both a broader perspective (thinking outside the box) and internal conflicts (less capable decision-making).

But it does become a problem when it affects governance and strategy. If we look at the example of corporations, the best-run corporations have a tight organization where the Board of Directors is supported by and works with the C-level staff for a smooth, efficient company. It is not profitable for board members to argue with upper management, something that is hampering Dell from privatizing itself, and something that interfered with the potentially lucrative alliance/merger of Microsoft and Yahoo.

It is, understandably, a fine line to walk, since too much homogeneity also results in problems, such as inappropriately close relationships between governing bodies and the governed (corruption and poor decision-making).

Recently, corporations have begun to focus on the holistic systems approach, which studies the effects of a single variable on the entire system. Not a specific benefit (a bridge to connect an Alaskan island to the Alaskan mainland), but a general benefit (renewable energy subsidies for cleaner air, better health, and lower insurance costs). This approach looks at the greatest benefit for all people, not just a specific body, and it has a long-term perspective as well. Singapore, for example, became an Asian Tiger due to the long-term, holistic thinking of its president, Lee Kuan Yeuw, who focused a country, invested in the future, and made Singapore famous, unlike some of Singapore's less-successful, internally conflicted neighbors.

It is this kind of thinking that must be done in both the upper echelons of political society and the common family house. We all have a right to look out for ourselves, because if we do not, no one else will. However, we should also consider that improving our communities and improving our societies has a long-term, positive impact on both us and our neighbors. Economically, we can probably say that the net good is better than the good of a single unit, because of the positive network effects on a system.

Simply put, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." If we and our governments consistently put our own varied interests before the common interests of all, we will fail economically, morally, and socially.

And there is quite a bit of evidence--two working parents in 2013 making less than a single parent in 1970, China's growing importance and the US's diminishing world role, the inexcusable abuse of police and government power, the extremely close relationships between politicians and lobbyists, the growing disconnect between politicians and common people, the growing income gap--that suggests that our course is perhaps not the best one.

The beauty of systems is that systems are always striving for equilibrium. The influencing factors, though, can either force systems to greater or lower equilibriums. Meaning, of course, that things will happen, for better or worse.

Japanese Foreign Language Education – Part 2 – The ALT system

posted Mar 31, 2012, 6:30 PM by George Liu

The Japanese Foreign Language system is based around three acronyms: ALT, HRT, and JET, which stand for Assistant Language Teacher, Homeroom Teacher, and Japanese English Teacher.

The Assistant Language Teacher is a non-Japanese speaker of English.  Typically, these are young adventurers from the major English speaking countries, although older, long-term ALTs also exist.  Due to the lack of experience or skills, ALTs often do not know how to teach, and they may have problems adjusting to Japanese culture.  However, ALTs are a low-cost native English resource for culturally isolated Japanese schools.

The Homeroom Teacher is the typical Japanese teacher.  In junior high schools, these teachers do not often teach English, leaving this to teachers with an English license.  However, in elementary schools, the HRT is required to teach English, regardless of actual ability.  All Japanese have at least six years of mandatory English education, but most HRTs are not confident in their English ability.  Fluency, pronunciation, intonation, spelling, and grammar are often significant problems. 

The Japanese English Teacher is a Japanese teacher who has obtained an English certification.  This certification proves that their English is above average.  These teachers have adequate pronunciation, intonation, spelling, fluency, and grammar for teaching English.  These teachers are mainly based in junior high schools, where English is a major focus, but may also exist in elementary schools.  Confidence with English can still be a problem, although English ability should be fine.


Assumptions and Realities of the System

The intent of the system is to have ALTs perform as assistance to JETs and HRTs.  It should be noted that since ALTs have no formal certifications, they are not actually teachers.  Instead, their desired role is more cultural assistant or cultural resource than teacher.  Experienced ALTs, who do not have strong ties to Japan, often do not stay in Japan for lengthy periods, requiring replacements, who are often unskilled.

JETs (in junior high) or HRTs (in elementary school) would lead the class in English, team-teaching with the ALT.  Team-teaching is a keyword in the education system, with the concept spreading to science and math as well as English.

But two major roadblocks exist: HRTs lack enough confidence or motivation to lead English classes, and both HRTs and JETs can be very busy.  This results in classes where ALTs lead the English lessonALTs who have no formal training or experience in teaching.  This is the reality of English lessons in Japanese elementary schools. 

Exposure to English is a great part of learning English, so any English class is better than no English class.  However, the quality of classes can be better; quality of classes can largely depend on the ability of the ALT.  Due to the limited hours allocated to English in Japanese education and the widely varying quality of Japanese English education, Japan has one of the lowest English ability averages in Asia.

Remedial Measures

To counter the evident failures in the system, the Japanese Ministry of Education is focusing on greater training of elementary school teachers.  Teachers are being pushed to act as class leaders instead of bystanders in English.  However, this also results in a few problems. 

Training of teachers mainly assumes that teachers can speak English.  Training focuses on reasons for teaching English and strategies for teaching English.  This training is rarely hands on and mostly consists of lectures.  This training is unhelpful because it does not address English ability, and it does not adequately address adaptable teaching methodology; these are the core problems of the system as it is.  Teachers still cannot speak English and do not know how to teach English.

By having teachers act as class leaders, students are better controlled and likely more motivated.  However, many teachers interpret this as “do everything” and minimize ALT use; it is hard for many teachers to find a good balance for team-teaching.  And by having HRTs do everything, students are learning English using Japanese—gaining Japanese pronunciation, learning about Japanese culture, and speaking Japanese in English class.

At many times, it feels that the system is regressing more than regressing.  In part three of this series, we will discuss possible improvements for this system.

The Age of Ignorance

posted Mar 27, 2012, 6:57 AM by George Liu

The Daily Kos posted an interesting article on how Americans are becoming dumber and more easily swayed by propaganda. I agree with this sentiment, for two reasons:
  1. I am an American, and I do not like how the average American does not know how to spell common words correctly, does not question what they see in the media, and cannot get a message across because of how poorly the ideas have been communicated, both in writing and in person.
  2. I am currently in Japan, and Japanese curriculum is being "dumbed down" in certain areas. You can immediately see an effect on the children.
There are many people who can feel point 1 is true, and most of these people are very intelligent. However, I would like to point out that many intelligent people also fall victim to the exact same problems that confound the less intelligent.  One example is how these intelligent people were also caught up in the initial waves of Nigerian 419 scams, which lead to the current wave of phishing and internet fraud. A second example is how people were caught up in the post 9/11 Iraqi invasion, where the underlying reasoning was largely based on mistruths and deception of the American public (I myself was caught up in this furor and fear-mongering). A third example is how the American public refuses to compromise and allows itself to be manipulated by both profiteering media empires and power-hungry politicians.

It is my belief that Americans are drowning in a sea of short-sighted decision making and overabundance of choice.

Point 2 is less evident to the common American but carries an important message. Japanese education (English education) has been taught with quite varied and different methods. Ministry officials hope to balance the inequality of education using standardized methods. However, these standardized methods also range between the assumptions of A) students are unable to learn English and B) students can understand English.

Assumption B is not so common, but does occur due to the high percentage of children that attend juku, or supplementary education. Assumption A is a common view. Students are not expected to practice proper pronunciation, use correct grammar, or remember English vocabulary. English classes are conducted at least half in Japanese, as teachers have English speaking skills barely higher than the children. When foreign English teachers try to push children, Japanese teachers question whether the students can succeed and resist advancements.

Example: One of the English teachers in the city (who has a very strong personality) devised a method of teaching phonics to children, which has been successful and enjoyable. Use these same materials, she has taught phonetic sounds, the roman alphabet, and rudimentary spelling to sixth-grade children. Thus, these children will advance to junior high knowing how to spell.

Japanese teachers in other schools have resisted these efforts and have not used the materials, which this teacher provided to every school. Students at those schools will advance to junior high not knowing how to spell, pronounce words, or recognize the alphabet--which is the standard. It is a very low standard, and yet two short months later, students will be tested on spelling (using Assumption B). It is very frustrating for students and can help explain the enormous dislike of English students have graduating from junior high.

The point of these examples is that we should not assume that children are stupid. Children are capable of great things and great feats of learning, but we must push them to learn, not cater to the lowest level. Those who cannot understand should receive extra support, but standards cannot be relaxed for a 100% success rate. That is both statistically meaningless and unfair to students, who will suffer later in life due to lack of intelligence.

China pushes its students very hard--too hard, in my opinion--and it is becoming the greatest competitor to American superiority that we have ever seen. America must wake up and learn to challenge itself again, should we hope to maintain that superiority.

Japanese Foreign Language Teaching – Part 1 – Overview

posted Mar 26, 2012, 10:21 PM by George Liu   [ updated Mar 31, 2012, 6:33 PM ]

Part 1 of this commentary will briefly introduce the basic elementary school English curriculum.

English in Japan can be a difficult topic, especially among educators. The government pushes teachers to improve the English ability of students, in an effort to catch up with rapidly improving English levels of neighboring Asian countries. These countries include China and South Korea, two countries whose people are relatively more fluent in English than Japan, and two of Japan’s largest economic competitors.

Many people, including students, feel that English is not an important subject. There are relatively few chances to use English in a conversational capacity. Those who do speak English are largely involved in international business, a vital part of the Japanese economy. This is reflected in the culture: many adults do not understand or like English; their children acquire these attitudes as well, resulting in a society that is resistant to but depends somewhat on English. Teachers, as well, are not confident in their English ability, and children often associate English with nervousness and hesitation, further creating barriers to English learning.

Regardless, the Ministry of Education continuously attempts to evolve the Japanese English Curriculum. My role as a teacher has largely been at elementary schools, so I will focus on that here. The schedule for Japanese elementary education is this:

  • 1st and 2nd year – 6 hours of English per year, or once a month
  • 3rd and 4th year – 20 hours of English per year, or twice a month
  • 5th and 6th year – 35 hours of English, or four times a month

It is worth noting that each specified hour is one period, consisting of 45 minutes. Only 5th and 6th year English is mandatory across the nation, but many schools implement some amount of English in earlier grades. Also, hours of English vary across schools depending on resources and schedules. To compare, Korean schools have more frequent English classes and at a younger age, starting at 3rd grade and about once or twice a week.

The goals of these categories, as it has been explained to me, are very different.

  • 1st and 2nd year – Use simple English in fun conversational activities
    • Example activities and targets are: Greetings, Feelings, Weather, Shopping, Fruit, Animals
  • 3rd and 4th year – Use simple English as part of research into other cultures and countries
    • Example research targets are: Foreign and Local Foods, Products, Cultural Places and Icons
  • 5th and 6th year – Prepare for Junior High using the English Note textbooks
    • Lesson targets include, but are not limited to: Greetings in English and Other Languages, Feelings, Numbers, the Alphabet, Likes, Clothing, Cultural Food, Subjects, Time, Countries, Directions, Future Jobs, Original Stories

It is only in 5th and 6th grade where students seriously study English, but in all grades, there are no tests and no homework to force students to study. There is no focus on reading, only on conversational English. Pronunciation and grammar are not stressed and are often not included. Curriculum is non-standard across prefectures and towns, except for 5th and 6th grades, which use the national English Note textbook. This was introduced last year, but due to the extreme cost of supplying textbooks and materials, the text will not be distributed in the next school year. Instead, teachers can depend on internet worksheets to provide a similar experience.

The current curriculum is probably a way to ease students into English, to overcome cultural and lingual barriers to English study. In Junior High schools, English is highly demotivational and can be extremely difficult, especially due to the grammatical differences in the two languages. English draws much of its vocabulary from popular culture, whereas Japanese is more restricted.

There are severe drawbacks to such an approach to language, which will be detailed in a coming post.

Note: this post references this report on Korean education.

The Dreams of a Generation

posted Mar 26, 2012, 10:19 PM by George Liu

My sixth year classes are starting a unit in the textbook about future jobs. The target language is:

What do you want to be?”

I want to be a ______.

There are quite a few jobs, from astronaut to singer to engineer to racing driver – although we Americans would say race car driver.

It’s a simple enough question to ask, and sometimes there are great responses. Some children want to be nursery school teachers. A boy who is always interested in English said he wanted to be a game programmer. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s a decent dream.

But there are those among them who simply have no ambitions at all. Some of them want to be salarymen, a Japanese grouping that includes salesmen and basic engineers – generally people that work in an office. The gender opposite of this would be the office lady, although the jobs they perform are different and gender biased.

It is sad to see that this generation of children has so few dreams. When they start school at six years old, many of them want to be bakers or flower shop girls or singers. Now, they seem lost. Only a few of them want to get into math and science, a troubling fact for this nation.

Maybe it’s the lack of role models. The grim reality is that most of them will turn out to be these boring salarymen and office ladies. Many of the girls will not end up working, instead living lives as housewives. Their fathers and mothers live these basic lives and the children can clearly see their destiny. Few of them want to reach new heights, instead perpetuating the lives of the previous generation.

It’s not a terrible thing, by any means, but it is disappointing.

The primary goal of teachers should be to create in students the ability to think and reason for themselves. But we must also nurture their fragile dreams and help them attain them. Maybe this means we need to praise them more, so that those who are outstanding understand their abilities, and criticize them less. Maybe this means flowers that children color green and orange need to be just as good as flowers that are red. I think it also means that we should inspire our children to reach for the stars and encourage them to do so.

Although, since children often write what they will not say, it could just be that they are too shy to admit their dreams.

It doesn’t change what we teachers must do, however.

Every child has potential within them, and we must get them to realize this potential. Always follow those dreams.

Context in Language Teaching

posted Mar 26, 2012, 10:18 PM by George Liu

The other day, a little girl asked me, with the help of a teacher, if I’d ever been to Shanghai. I was rather surprised at this question, and I said no. “You have!” she insisted, but I quite clearly remember never having gone to Shanghai. The teacher explained that her parents owned a ramen shop called Shanghai, and the pieces of the puzzle came together. “Oh, I’ve been there twice!” I said, finally understanding.

Context is the difference between Shanghai (China) and Shanghai (the ramen shop). It is an essential part of language and provides us with the true meanings of words. English, with its multitude of phonetically similar words – homophones and homonyms, can be rather difficult to understand for non-native speakers. Even for native speakers, it can be difficult to distinguish simple homophones such as “they’re,” “there,” and “their” without context.

Imagine walking into a home furnishings store and asking for two hot dogs. If you’re in IKEA, maybe it’ll work. But usually, you’ll be lucky not to be thought insane. You can ask for two hot dogs and get them, however, in the appropriate contextual situation.

In the learning and teaching of languages, it’s easy to forget how important context can be. Students need to associate situations and emotions with words, not just meanings. For teachers, it can be difficult to set up the appropriate environments and cultural settings for the target language, but the effort needs to be made. In my own experience, I’ve seen many teachers – including myself – fail to create the proper context with the results of students unable to use the target language effectively. Students can learn, but reproduction is difficult without understanding of contextual clues.

As an elementary school teacher, usually the context is fairly simple. The goal of Japanese elementary education is to create vocabulary and provide for basic communication, resulting in questions such as: “Do you like apples?” For more targeted English, such as that for shopping, simple explanations and props can be used. And the language – “One apple, please” – is basic enough to be easily understood. The good teacher will, however, challenge children to use such target language outside of the basic environment and adapt it to its other uses — “Paper and pencil, please.”

For adults, however, the target language is much more difficult – it’s the difference between asking for food and ordering food. And so one of the recommended approaches to teaching English is to create a role-play. Set up an environment, study a focused use of the target language, and ask students to recreate the situation. Indeed, it works. The more adventurous students will find a way to use the target language elsewhere, but even the shy students will have learned something.

The point of the lesson is this: without context, words have no meaning. Words are just sounds until we associate emotions, situations, and ideas with them.

Regardless if you’re a teacher, student, or office worker, remember to always provide enough context.

Japanese Consumerism

posted Mar 26, 2012, 10:17 PM by George Liu

“Diamonds are Forever” – Diamonds are the perfect example of execution, control, and marketing. The diamond cartel rakes in enormous profits from stones that aren’t as rare or expensive as they seem to be. Decades ago, diamonds weren’t used to propose marriage. Clever marketing changed all that and a traditional engagement now requires a diamond ring, whether in the US or in China. We’ve come a long way from medieval cow dowries.

America’s debt-addicted populace loves to spend money, eagerly snapping up commercials and advertisements. Japanese dislike debt but love shopping even more than Americans, and the marketing levels in Japan reflect this. Advertisements are plastered everywhere, on trains, in buses, on houses, and even in schools. All this marketing and inescapable advertising has changed holidays and created profit opportunities everywhere.

Much as American marketers transformed Halloween from a spiritual Celtic evening into a rowdy night of candy and costumes, Japanese marketers have created the love events of Valentine’s Day and White Day. Chocolatiers have double opportunities for chocolate selling, with women giving to men in February and men giving to women in March. Obligations also force people into giving ぎりチョコ to coworkers and friends. Consumerist holidays such as Christmas have invaded the fairly non-religious Japan, demanding cakes and presents and Christmas chicken. Golden Week and Silver Week give consumers plenty of travel bargains, with travel agencies roaming streets and malls to attract consumers to their stores.

It may be the herd-like mentality of Japan’s conformist society, or it may be due to the love of strange and new in the trend-following Japanese, but new holidays and shopping events are usually fairly successful. Perhaps it’s the extreme love of shopping, with almost every major train station in Tokyo host to at least one large shopping complex and many other spending opportunities nearby.

But the distrust of the scandal-ridden government pension program and a more conservative mindset has led Japanese to be more financially stable than Americans, with more savings and less debt. The fear of failure and lack of institutions enabling and servicing debt may have some part in this as well. Credit cards usually withdraw once or twice from an account, instead of the gradual payment system of American credit cards.

But the Japanese love their vacations and toys, living a freer adult life than Americans – a delayed childhood due to endless studying, And because of this, Japan and its major cities are shoppers’ paradises, catering to every interest and income bracket.

Just watch that credit limit.

Averages in the Classroom

posted Mar 26, 2012, 10:16 PM by George Liu

I’ve discussed before how students need to fail in order to succeed. But we must also ensure that students cannot fail so badly that they give up hope. This is an interesting problem.

Teachers and teaching resources are limited in the school environment. To simplify things, teachers can either be assigned to average classes, advanced classes, or remedial classes. The more teachers for a given student body, the faster they will learn – due to increases in discipline, attention, and ability. Average students suffer when teachers are pulled out of average classes and assigned to advanced or remedial classes. Advanced students suffer when teachers for advanced classes are unavailable. And remedial students, the ones who most need teachers, cannot hope to catch up without enough resources. But also, by pulling teachers into the remedial group, all other groups suffer. Statistics makes nice bell curves that cleverly illustrate this problem.

It’s the never ending problem of education. We always need more. But at some point, we have to ask how schools should optimally balance the limited resource of teachers. Is it worth it to have advanced classes and remedial classes? From a cynical viewpoint, remedial classes are the least likely to contribute to society yet devour the most resources. But from a compassionate viewpoint, the remedial students truly need the help.

Most schools, then, must cater to the average, assign a few teachers to the remedial students, and hope the advanced students do their best. This is the case in most elementary schools. But especially in Japan, students are unable to skip grades and intelligent students do suffer.

This creates a problem as well. Intelligent students are the most likely to get bored and cause trouble, assuming no intentionally bad students. By catering somewhat to these students, it helps the rest of the class. Discipline is improved and these students can become helpers. But it does take time to help these students, and those that just aren’t as quick suffer.

In Japan, many of these advanced students are shy and conformist, which is either fortunate or unfortunate. These students don’t cause trouble but don’t advertise their ability by helping. Other students tend to be class clowns or leaders in bad behavior, demanding the attention of the teacher.

It’s enormously difficult to efficiently and effectively cater to every student, with the end result of smaller classes doing better than larger classes. This is proven in studies – class size is a big indicator of future success and intelligence.

There is always the question of how to measure intelligence, one that is most often answered by standardized tests. The IQ test is one such example, which tests knowledge, adaptability, and creative thinking for a numerical score. This is somewhat unfortunate since education – and knowledge – are not standardized. Japan attempts a nationally standardized education, which has its own benefits and drawbacks. Another measure of intelligence is the Emotional Quotient, which factors in the emotional ability of students. This is, of course, much more subjective and requires more work.

So for the common teacher, the best way of measuring intelligence is by students who actively volunteer and standardized testing. These are of course subject to the Law of the Front Row – students in the front rows will be noticed more, will pay more attention, and will ask and be asked more questions, eventually doing better than those in the forgotten back. Japanese elementary schools solve this problem by regular rotations of student positions. But students have all different kinds of intelligence – some students have more family strife or have learned better study habits. Some students are genetically superior while some students study harder. We teachers would love to adapt to every student, using every method we know to motivate and push students to their intellectual limits. We want to engage even the most unmotivated students. And we share the good feelings of students who successfully overcome intellectual challenges.

But again, we are limited resources. And all too often, that means we can only follow one rule: the Law of Averages.

The Importance of Creativity

posted Mar 26, 2012, 10:15 PM by George Liu

Businesspeople always say they value out-of-the-box thinking. It’s a great tool to have in any industry, be it advertising or engineering. To take existing factors and come up with new solutions is a vital ability in life. But it’s difficult to teach the creative thought process.

A good deal of creativity naturally develops from independent thought. Children have to learn that life doesn’t always have a “right” answer to every problem, but without this “right answer,” many children are confused and things become more difficult than they should be. In one class, the worksheet was to match objects with destinations. For example, if a person wanted to buy a toy, they would draw a line from the toy to the toy store. The target English was “Go to the toy store.” Some of the objects were a fire, some kids, and a tiger. Simple answers were answered confidently – Fire naturally matched with the fire station. Multiple choice answers were answered less confidently – kids could go to school or to the park. But what about the tiger? Some children had great answers – call the police, or go to the park (technically, the Japanese word for zoo is “animal park”). Some of the children thought it was a difficult question and were hesitant in their answers. Technically, there wasn’t a correct answer for tiger. I wanted to see how they would answer the question, using their creative minds. The result of the worksheet gave me two conclusions: first, confidence in an answer is based on personal “rightness” and societal correctness – an incorrect answer leads to embarrassment – and second, questions without “correct” answers are difficult to answer.

For the first conclusion, that is a byproduct of every society, but it is especially difficult in a society based on conformity, such as Japan. This is why personal opinions and criticisms are difficult to come by at times – often Japanese people will say the opposite of what they think just for appearances. This unwillingness to speak up also silences creative thinking, whether it’s right or not.

The second conclusion is related to creativity, which is often expressed through writing. Even for those reasonably fluent in English, many Japanese have difficulty in writing and speaking. One reason is for the expression of emotions and thoughts, but another is their own creativity. It’s very easy to write a story like this:

Spot was a dog. Spot lived for ten years. Then Spot died.

But to write an interesting story – disregarding the simple grammar – takes details, and that’s where true creativity comes into play.

Spot was a huge black dog. Spot lived on a farm for ten years. Then Spot died in a terrible fight with a wolf.

Maybe creativity can be learned by imitation or repetition. Someone who does a single task every day might eventually figure out a new way to do the task. Someone who sees someone else do the task either learns a better method or can critique the other person’s method. Many writers imitate the styles of authors they like, using it as a framework for their own ideas. In this case, creativity is emulated and improved upon.

A good deal of creativity is due to spontaneous thinking as well. My friend’s husband always takes her to new places every weekend, never doing the same thing twice. This love for new things is great for their marriage but truly shows his creative side. Many people simply flop down in front of the couch and watch TV, but it takes a good deal of thought to plan a new trip every weekend.

He is also a fluent speaker of English. English, having absorbed thousands of words and grammar patterns from other languages, is a malleable language. The shape and sound of words changes meaning drastically, whereas the more rigid structure of Japanese lacks elements such as sarcasm. English speakers are taught to read between the lines. Japanese speakers only see the lines. As such, part of an individual’s creativity could be said to come from freedom of the language itself, as meanings change with many factors.

But the biggest factors in creativity are education and imagination.

Children that are always given the answers lack the ability to solve problems. Children who are never encouraged to learn for themselves cannot develop independence and will thus lack creativity. In schools that prepare students for tests, classes that encourage creativity, such as art, shop, or music, are dropped for core classes such as science and math. Both science and math also need a great deal of creativity, but in these subjects, it’s too easy to teach students a single method to find an answer, or even just the answer itself. With tests, as well, most questions only have one correct answer. There are no freedoms in tests, such as those in essays, where the expression is as important as the answer itself.

Japan has a good education system relative to the rest of the world, but it follows the rule of strict testing and meeting goals as opposed to building independent thinkers. Much of Japanese education is based on memorization of answers, not inferring or problem solving. As a result, many Japanese children do not know how to apply their knowledge to real problems and grow dependent on answer books and other people.

A good example is English education. In Japan, English is based on memorizing words instead of true communication or reading. Language is largely based on emotional connections, and memorization cannot teach these emotions. Even if dictionaries are incredibly useful, the true meanings of words come from repeated emotional encounters – dialogs and videos and stories.

Japan’s – actually any country’s –  education system is based on their society, however, and any changes to the system must be from changes in society. Until goals are reduced in importance, creativity in schools will suffer.

Creativity at home is incredibly important, regardless of schools or society. Children of today are taught to be consumers instead of creators. Instead of playing outside, children watch endless hours of TV. Modern children’s toys often don’t encourage thought, either, with video games being often coming down to who can click the fastest. It’s good to know that children still enjoy Lego toys and have imaginary tea parties, but more often than not, kids are watching TV instead of modeling with clay.

As a result of this consumerism, creativity drops. With children not learning independence at school and without learning to use their imaginations at home, it’s difficult for children to develop their creativity. A whole generation of children grows up into conformist robots that lead disinteresting lives.

And that’s a problem for every society.

The Importance of Failure

posted Mar 26, 2012, 10:14 PM by George Liu

Today, I gave a short presentation on the life of children in the United States. There were, of course, big surprises here and there, but one of the biggest was that children can be held back in American schools or pushed ahead. There’s no system in Japan for that, with students being forced into the same April-March categories year after year. It’s likely a result of the conformist nature of Japanese society, where even children with (mild) physical and mental disabilities join the same classes as average students.

As parents and teachers, we hate to see our kids fail, but I believe that failure is important. Failure is a better teacher than success – success is a reinforcement that tells us that we are doing well. Failure is an idea forcing us to realize our faults. Failure is a hard teacher, though. Every time we fail, there is a good chance we will never recover from that failure. But it’s that risk that develops true intellectual ability.

Children who play with fire and get burned instantly learn not to play with fire. Children who are always scolded away before getting burnt never learn that fire is dangerous. In the first case, children develop independent thinking and common sense. In the second case, children never get the chance to link the ideas of fire and danger, and their learning is simple the repetition of another’s ideas.

The Chinese have a saying: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In language classes, there are very nice teachers that always help out children who forget or don’t know the target. I admit that I am often one of those teachers. But we are only giving these children those metaphorical fish. The best teachers of language are the teachers that force their students to struggle. Children will quickly learn that there is no safety net and they must depend on themselves. They will develop self confidence and mental ability, if they can keep their motivation.

That’s the biggest problem with a risk-based system. Students can lose their motivation and give up. In the States, this does happen a lot, but ultimately the humiliation of being held back and the force of parents can at least keep children on track, if demotivated. The solution, then, is remedial classes and extra support, to build confidence and ability.

Failure doesn’t mean we don’t have support systems. In fact, the risk of failure drives us to develop these safety nets. Modern jumbo jets have at least double redundancy on most systems, a result of horrific accidents in the past. Schools, too, have these support structures, often found in counseling, remedial classes, summer school, caring teachers, and good friends. Admittedly, it takes some independence to seek help, but there is an abundance of help available. And for those who need help but don’t seek it, they will find at least one support after a failure.

However regrettable, kids will and must fail. They must get hurt and learn to pick themselves back up. Without the risks of failure, especially in learning, children become too dependent and lack critical thinking, something that will hurt them in their futures. The element of risk also means parents and teachers must ensure students have every opportunity to recover from these failures as well as succeed.

But no matter how much it hurts to see a student cry, no matter how much we want to help, if we always coddle students, they will never grow up to be successful adults. And as educators, that should always be our ultimate goal.

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