Educating hearts and minds: Reflections on Japanese preschool and elementary education.
Catherine C. Lewis. CUP 1995
Reviewed by Françoise Herrmann
This book sums up 14 years of naturalistic research in what is termed a convenience sample of Japanese pre- and elementary schools. Although Lewis dismisses the ethnographic nature of her work on the grounds that she opted for breadth, in contrast to, depth of sample, this book certainly succeeds in making both "the familiar strange, and the strange familiar" (Spindler and Spindler, 1982). It is a careful, insightful and enjoyable analysis of the early years of education assumed to be crucial for an explanation of the Japanese success, and to be used as a mirror for American educational reflection. The vivid and most pleasing descriptions of Japanese classrooms that accompany each chapter are interwoven with much demythifying cross-cultural commentary and a coherent explanation of this system. Lewis infuses her book with research based argumentation, professional, and personal experience -as a high school student in Japan and the parent of two young children who attended Japanese pre- and elementary schools. This book primarily addresses professional educators, but parents and novices may be delighted and illuminated by the uplifting and gentle ways with children, that are described.
There are nine chapters in this book. The first chapter provides infrastructural background (class size, government role) of the Japanese pre- and elementary school system. Chapter two focuses on the preschool and its most important feature: spontaneous free play as context for the development of social and intellectual competencies. Chapter three focuses on the elementary school and its most important characteristic: the way in which the child's affective and social needs are met as a context for academic development. The Japanese elementary school creates a context of learning and teaching for the "Whole Child", that is, the child with a mind and a desiring heart (for friendship, for belonging, for success, for positive experience, for autonomy, for competence). Heart values clustering into four categories: friendliness, persistence, energy and self management appear as written, and much discussed, goals that permeate the essence of all activity. Chapter four focuses on the function and structure of small groups as a pivotal and primary organizational unit of classroom life. Chapter five explores the roots of discipline atributed to five practices: The TOBAN system (all students assume leadership positions as monitors on a rotating basis); the low authority profile of teachers; HANSEI (reflection and discussion of one's own, one's group and one's class behavior); and the absence of rewards and punishment (the emphasis on understanding and explanation). Chapter six focuses on how misbehavior is handled (in a system without rewards and punishment, and where the teacher has a low profile of authority). Again five practices are described: the management of misbehavior is delegated to children, who, unlike the children of Golding's The Lord of the Flies situation, uphold the values of friendship, kindness and community that permeate the curriculum; teachers rely on understanding, in contrast to compliance, as an intervention method; teachers mirror positively the child's misbehaviors making it difficult for the child to develop a "bad" child identity; misbehavior is attributed to weak relational bonds with the school community so that interventions are geared towards strengthening the bonds between teachers and between students; and finally, an appeal to feelings (of both subjects and objects) is made in interventions. Chapter seven explores the relationship between social and academic development, the inseparable dynamic of these two components viewed as learning and caring. Chapter eight asks the question: What is a successful school? and lends a critical eye on the Japanese system while highlighting the similarity of American and Japanese responses to ensuring that schools meet the needs of children. And finally, chapter nine is an invitation for the readers' own HANSEI (reflection), questions that everyone with an interest for early education can ask themselves about a particular school.
I have two questions of my own: one arising from omission, and another argumentative. First, absent from this insightful and caring book are physically challenged children. Where are the children who cannot see, cannot hear, cannot walk? Are they in different schools? Or are they so well integrated, socially and intellectually, that the challenges of their physical conditions no longer warrant any special description? Second, deeply embedded in the understanding of the Japanese educational system that is presented, there is a problematic complementarity in the relationship between heart and mind: "Everyone can try harder. Everyone can be friendly. And because they include goals such as "Be energetic" and "Play vigorously outside", they extend recognition even [Italics. mine] to children whose strong suit may not be sit-down academic work" (p. 72). To me, this is concession: "All hearts can be educated, but perhaps not all minds" and such distributed complementarity appears to contradict the ethical essence of equality in a heart and mind approach to education.
Spindler, G. and L. Spindler (1982). Roger Harker and Schoenhausen: From the familiar to the strange and back again. In G. Spindler (Ed.) Doing the ethnography of schooling: Educational anthropology in action. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.