Education and how it’s done (1)

University: a stressful, busy time for many. A leisurely, carefree or maybe lonely time for some. And a time of learning, that goes without saying. Probably harder than school. Right?

In this post I aim to make a few generalisations about the doing of education in Australia and Japan. Background: I work in the Japanese school system, but I’ve never been a student or teacher in a Japanese university. On the other hand, I’ve completed courses at 3 different Australian university campuses, but school was quite a while ago, so it may have changed, plus my memories are quite vague. And with this kind of asymmetrical balance, on we go.

The point

Education in Japan is largely test-driven. There is often a strong focus on how to pass tests to get to the next stage, into the high school, university etc. you want. Once you get there, wherever it is, you learn the most successful way to behave in that environment: if it’s a company, you get trained for a few years. If it’s a school, you get inducted and mentored (or bullied).

Tests in Japan are often multiple choice with one correct answer. There is usually one way of doing things; opinion, arguing and questioning things doesn’t come into it much until you get to independent research or looking for ways to make a factory system more efficient and profitable. Whether opinion is important in native-language Japanese studies, or in university tutorials, I don’t know. Due to the one-correct-answer mentality and also the value of harmony and agreement in Japan, I have a suspicion that if tutorials are supposed to have discussions, they don’t feature much argument, unlike in Australia.

In Australia, I don’t know how explicit the focus is on this throughout the education system, but there is definitely some focus on critical thinking: questioning, asking why and how and whether you should trust that information. As well as test performance, students are assessed on assignments done at home (e.g. essays) and on class participation, which means asking questions and contributing to discussion (depending on the class) as well as doing the required work. In humanities subjects like English, history and media studies, students are expected and required to present and argue for a particular point of view, and be able to present evidence in a way that supports the opinion they are putting forward, whether it be arguing that a historical dictator actually had a good point or that Gatsby was a sailor (sorry, that’s about all I remember of Year 12 Literature, apart from not understanding Heart of Darkness until the class discussion where I finally started to see what was going on).

So, along with whether you should ask questions and assert yourself or not, I think the main difference between education styles in Australia and Japan is:

Active vs passive learning


A university class in Japan in 2015

In Japan, it’s mostly one-way, teacher-to-student: teachers talk and write on the board, and students listen and copy stuff down (or don’t). Students do drills, to practice and presumably gain some understanding through repetition of what they’ve been told.

Who asks questions? Teachers, to see if students got the right answer or not. What do students do when they don’t understand? Either go home or to cram school to study until they get it and/or ask a tutor, or give up on it. If they’re not interested in understanding, maybe they sleep, or engage in some personal grooming like cutting their hair or pulling the little hairs out of their fingers with a pair of tweezers that they have in class for some reason (that was a high school in Iwate, in case you’re wondering). Or of course, maybe they chat with their friends nearby, doodle in their book or write notes to someone. Sometimes I think this relaxed attitude about getting the knowledge they need comes from knowing that the teacher will tell them what’s going to be on the test so they can memorise it the night before. I’ve seen this in schools and a friend of mine has told me about it happening in a class of hers in a well-respected university. Teaching to the test is not uncommon in Japan, which maybe makes sense if the aim of the system is for students to pass tests.

(That being said, usually even if students fail their tests, they don’t repeat a year – they’re not held back except by the distance between them and their peers or where the curriculum says they should be.)

This one-way classroom style could be construed as requiring extremely active learning on the part of the student, and for the aces leading the class, who the others turn to for help, that’s exactly what happens. But for less motivated students, it’s pretty passive – copying from the board, doing questions, correcting them, not knowing why they’re getting them wrong – or in some cases, just copying the answers directly from the answer book into their notebook. It’s possible and common to get away with very little thinking and a lot of going through the motions.

Why don’t students ask questions? It’s not the culture, and here is what I think is why: It shows a lack of comprehension, thereby exposing weakness/inferiority. It draws attention to the asker, which is embarrassing. And it holds up the rest of the class, which can be seen as selfish/inconsiderate behaviour.

In Australia, it’s more two-way: teachers also talk, but students are encouraged to ask relevant questions and offer opinions. There is a requirement for students to learn to offer opinions in front of others. This obviously is truer for some subjects than others – maths and science subjects don’t require opinions and class discussions, nor take-home assignments or essays, generally speaking – at least not at school level. But relevant questions are encouraged in every subject, and students are basically supposed to learn to be able to think for themselves and transfer those skills to whatever situation might need them in the future.

Is it common for students to sleep in class? No, in Australia it’s not OK and it’s uncommon, especially at school. You might get away with it at uni if you’re up the back in a big lecture theatre, but in a tutorial, you wouldn’t see it, and if you fell asleep you might be asked to leave. It’s seen as rude towards the teacher because it suggests you find them uninteresting and/or you’re not paying attention to the class.


Intensity: when and where?

As seems true for so many things in Japan, school is intense in the amount of your life you are expected to give to it – hours in the week as well as over years – and time is equated with value and effort, especially once you factor in club activities on the weekend and cram school. University, on the other hand, is seen as kind of a relief. It’s your chance to let loose and do what you want for a few years – while probably also working part-time. Going to classes sometimes. Freedom. (This may be more or less true for some fields of study, e.g. law, medicine, etc.) The downside of this may be if you want to get a graduate job overseas – Japanese students often don’t make strong candidates because there is a view that they didn’t really learn anything at university, don’t know how to think for themselves and can’t do anything unless someone tells them to.

That being said, obviously Japan is way up there in many scientific and technological industries, and the education system has them doing maths in junior high school that I don’t think I ever did in high school. One frustrated English learner told me that in Japan, all subjects are taught the same way as maths is. Maybe this is because it works so well in that subject? Their literacy and numeracy is strong, according to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (PDF), in which Japan came out overall in 7th place, preceded by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Macau-China. Australia was 19th: ahead of the UK, but behind Canada and Vietnam, among others.

In Australia, school education is probably externally viewed as quite slack because compared to most of Asia, there’s not much homework, you don’t have to stay until 6 with club activities, most students aren’t that drastically underslept, and nobody goes to cram school. University in Australia, however, is probably similarly intense to other Western countries in that it requires significant effort and hard work. As I seem to remember writing once before, I think effort in Australian culture is appreciated more in how hard you try than in how many hours you do something for, or how many repetitions you do. It would be a lie to claim that all Australian students are concentrating all the time, or that mainstream education works perfectly for everyone, but mental effort is valued and sought after.

Right. So. To generalise this page of generalisations a little bit further, in a possibly painful nutshell, educational style:

Japan: 1-way, drills

Australia: 2-way, questions

And with that, we’ll adjourn for now. There is a lot more to be said about school in particular, and plenty about English language education in Japan, in which I work. So as they say, please look forward to that. See you in July!


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