Friday, February 3, 2012

School is now in session

Every now and again, I notice the differences in Japanese schools and the schools in Barbados. Quite a few of these differences probably carry over to your education system as well, so I thought I'd share a few of them.

The System

Japan- kids mandatorily start school at 6. Elementary school runs until 12 (6 years). Middle school goes until 15(3 years). High school goes until 18 (3 years).

Barbados- we start school at 5. Primary school runs until 11(6 years), but can be shorter if you're smart. Secondary school runs until 16 or 18, depending on which school you go to.

The student's roles

Japan- Having been here for 3 1/2 years, I realise that we treat our kids like babies in the West. In Japan, the 6th years at elementary school are responsible for lots of things. The kids walk to school in little groups, led by 6th years. And the 6th years lead "souji" teams, as well. (More on souji in a moment.)

At middle school, the kids have even more responsibility. Like when we went on the school trip, each group of students called up the people at the place they were going to on their "free research day", something I feel the teachers would have done back home. Students take the attendance and come write it on the staff room board. (They do this in elementary school, as well.) Sports teams practise on their own, with the coach/teacher in charge passing through sometimes.

I wonder if I'll ever get used to students just walking into the staff room. The procedure is this: knock on the door, say who you're going to, and go. The students can also take keys for the locked rooms from the staff room. If you allowed Western teens access to locked rooms en masse, you'd probably elevate the teen pregnancy rate.

Barbados- The student body is less communal. Because our island is so centralised, we all get to school however we can. Some of us take the bus, some are driven. Very few live within walking distance of their secondary school.

Teens can not just walk into the staff room. I can count the times I went into the staff room at my secondary school. If you need something from a teacher, you go to the door, and someone will ask you who you're waiting for. If there were any sorts of trips, or anything involving the business community, that was organised by the teachers, with the exception of some older students. If anyone ever had any keys to anything, even for a minute, they were one of the "trusted few."


Japan- One thing I don't think I'll ever get used to is the changing timetable. In middle school the timetable is different every day, every week. Some days are 5 period days, some days are 6. And there's a 10 minute break between classes.

Also, Japanese students (in my town/prefecture) do fewer subjects. Nine, by my count. The same nine are studied from beginning to end of middle school. And, it seems impossible to be kept back a year until at least high school level.

Barbados- We have a weekly timetable that only changes in special circumstances. When one period ends the other begins. The luxury of breaks between classes is a university thing. Depending on the school, there are 7 or 8 periods per day. And students can study as many as 13 subjects. Also subjects change as you advance. Like you might have a class like "Guidance" in your first year. And Technical Drawing will appear as an option around the 3rd year.


Japan- Even though the students have greater roles, the teachers also have more responsibility. Like if a student shoplifts, even when not wearing uniform, the store will often call the school. Teachers are not purely academic leaders. At middle school, every teacher is responsible for a club activity or sport. They are also each members of different groups, like the social group that organises the staff outings.

A major difference from the West is that the fact that academics is out of session does not mean that school is out, and therefore teachers are NOT ON VACATION. Club activities run pretty much every day of the year, including Sundays for some clubs.

Teachers are kind of like a 3rd parent. Unlike the West, where a teacher may meet a student's parents at an academic parent-teacher consulation day, the teachers in Japan, especially in the countryside, know the parents by name. At my middle school, they know the parent's jobs, the home situation, other brothers and sisters, even if they're at other schools. At my tiny elementary school, the teachers know all the kids grandparents! Weirdly, I know most of them now, too.

One final element of teaching life is transfers. The Japanese system has this weird way of randomly transferring people. In the teaching system, you can expect to be transferred every 3 to 10 years. You'll be transferred within your prefecture. In my prefecture, that means it's possible to end up working 4 hours away from where you live. This means lots of uprooting or living away from family. Like I said, this one isn't limited to teachers only.


Wa is the Japanese concept of harmony. There are two things within the school system which, I think, exemplify this concept. Firstly, there's club. In middle school, every student is required to join a club. Clubs can be sports, or things like band. You can only really be a member of one club. They all meet at the same time, an hour or two (or 4) after school. In the West, you can be a Girl Guide (Scout), on the school paper, on the soccer team, etc. In fact, big name colleges look for it.

Then there's souji. Souji means cleaning. In Japan, the students are responsible for cleaning the school. I could see a collective law suit if we tried this at home.


This one last category is one that Barbados has in common with Japan, but I've included it because in most countries, uniforms are reserved private institutions.

So there you have it, some of the bigger differences between school here and school in the West. How did your school life differ from these?


Kate Scott said...

Not all US school systems are the same, and I went to a fairly abnormal school. While my school was public, it was in a very affluent community and thus acted a lot like an elite private prep school. Here’s my experience for comparison.

The System: Elementary School starts at 5 (kindergarten) and runs until 12 (7 years), junior high school runs until 14 (2 years), high school runs until 18 (4 years).

The student’s roles: Elementary and JH students have limited responsibility but HS students can have more. At my HS each department had its own office so there wasn’t just one staff room. I was a math department aid in both 9th and 10th grade and thus spent 1 period per day helping in the math department room (grading homework, making copies, etc). Students had many support rolls in the school helping in other offices too so at least one student had access to every room on campus, but no student had access to everything.

My HS also had a mentoring program where HS students would be assigned to assist in an Elementary school classroom 1 period per day, or in some cases work directly with an individual elementary school student that had special needs. I did this in 11th and 12th grade instead of working in the math office.

Studies: In elementary school and junior high all classes were required. Students were grouped by ability in some subjects so some classes were more advanced than others, but everyone studied the same subjects. The only exception to this was “electives” in junior high. My junior high had seven periods per day, five of which were required. One period had to be a music class but students could choose between choir and band. And one period was entirely the student’s choice (out of maybe half a dozen options).

In HS students had a LOT more choice. There were eight periods at my school but each class only met every other day so we had four 90 minute classes per day. Meeting the graduation requirements only filled three or four periods, leaving four or five additional electives. College acceptance requirements were more stringent and 99% of the students from my HS went to college so most students took academic type electives such as foreign language and advanced science. My HS offered 15 different advanced placement classes (worth college credit), and a number of forum style classes designed to teach leadership skills and critical thinking.

Teachers: Teachers supervised all clubs and other activities. Because I was involved in a number of clubs I knew several of my teachers well and was occasionally invited to their homes for special events. My parents only knew a few of my teachers and none of my teachers knew my grandparents. While teachers occasionally transferred schools and some more specialized teachers that taught elective classes worked at two schools (one of the reason behind the 4 classes per day schedule), most teachers stayed at the same school for their entire career.

Extracurricular: Your comment that most colleges look for multiple extracurricular activities was well known at my HS. Many students from my HS went to top tear colleges and universities and getting accepted into the best school possible was considered VERY important. Having the perfect resume with all the right activities was a status symbol. I was a member of a member of more than a dozen clubs and I held leadership roles in four clubs.

Uniforms: My school was public and thus did not have a uniform. We did have a dress code though.

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