Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Cram Schools

When I was at school there was a certain common type of student who left their preparation for exams until the night before. On the eve of the exam they would stay up late ‘cramming’. In other words, forcing information into their memories as quickly as possible and hoping that enough of it would stay accessible in their short term memory until the exam. For many this was a successful tactic to scrap through exams with a minimal of effort.

It surprised me when I first came to Japan to hear about a type of after-school learning place that was called a juku. The commonly believed translation for juku is 'cram school'. Why would the well-organized Japanese encourage their kids to ‘cram’ instead of ‘learn’?

I recently started working part time at a cram school and discovered that the name is a complete mis-translation. There is no quick learning going on and rather than cramming information into the minds of their young Japanese charges the main concern for the juku teacher is just to force the kids to follow the book and not fall asleep.

The focus of the cram school is on doing extra study to facilitate passing school examinations. The students have specially designed textbooks to follow their school syllabus. The idea is that the child will go to juku for years, gradually building up the skills and knowledge they need to get ahead in the early rat race that exists in Japan. They must pass the exams to get into the best high school and then pass the exams to get into the best university. Then strangely enough when their thought processes are ready to dispassionately consider deeper ideas at university, they are encouraged to shut down for 3 or 4 years. The examination of ideas is anti-social and can do nothing for group harmony. Instead they pick up the struggle again after graduating university as they endeavour to get a position at a good company. Such is the trajectory along which millions of parents in Japan scrimp and save to propel their progeny. Money buys success and the children suffer because of the unfulfilled ambitions of their parents.

For an early age all free time is rationed. Structured, citizen-building activities are preferred. Kids go to school and then after the academic school day is finished they must stay on at school to attend a club activity. This is usually compulsory. Compulsory fun. On top of this many have ballet, piano, karate, kendo or other private lessons to attend once a week.  And on top of all of this, many kids will be forced to attend a juku.

The kids have such a busy schedule and are made to feel pressure from such an early age that it is no wonder that they are perpetually exhausted and when they sleep they dream about sleeping; and when they do have a bit of free time that is exactly what they do – sleep.

The juku where I work is near a famous private high school and university. It is an enclave for the upper middle class. Most parents pay to send their kids through private education because like America, Japan has been made to believe that inequality is the basis of a flourishing democracy. I believe to some extent all jukus are not cram schools but places of torture where information is dripped into the mental pot not forced in bulk. The juku where I work is an extreme example of this.

The classroom is opposite a train station on the second floor of a pink tiled monstrosity of a building. The room is open plan with ripped partitions. The floor is bare concrete with rubber skid marks and litter on the floor. None of the white boards have been cleaned in months and there are no marker pens available for the boards. The desks are small and over 10 years old. They have shelves under the writing top which are filled with scrunched up test papers and litter. At the end of the room is a partitioned off area where broken desks, dust and litter vie for space. And there's no photocopying machine. In short it is a depressing place fit for a Dickensian education and inferior to classrooms in rural China I used in the late 1990s.

The manager is useless and mad. She has three quarter closed eyes that weep puss. She comes late (as do the students and the other teachers), is never organized and has never considered that cleaning might be part of her remit. The president of this fine cram school is Mr. What's-the-matter-with-your-dong. The other teachers are slackers. My Japanese colleagues not only turn up late but also leave the students for ten minutes at a time while they skive off by going to the toilet. While the teacher is away the kids play with their cell phones. Why the upper middle class would think that such a shoddy place and such slack staff would be beneficial to the future prospects of their kids is well beyond my comprehension.

For my part, I try my best – such is my lower middle class indoctrination – but I'm fighting a losing battle because my students are just not equipped to learn effectively. My senior high student studying to pass an aiken test religiously forgets to bring a dictionary. He is smart but apparently cannot read the time – he is always late. It never ceases to amaze me as we plod painfully through the book that he manages to get about 40% of the answers correct. This is a grammar, writing and reading comprehension test. The last two elements of the test especially demand a certain engagement with ideas. My student is very unremarkable in his ability to be unaffected by ideas and keep them at a good arm's length away from his own limited preoccupations (manga, sleep, food, girls and not disappointing his parents); and yet dare to do battle with history, geography, science and politics in order to tick the correct box. Japan is a place where it is preferable to be bright and dull at the same time.

Another student of mine, 10 years old, is nearly always 90% asleep by the time he comes within my orbit. He can speak lots of English and could attain a certain degree of fluency if he wasn't plagued by the Japanese educational system. I find it weird that a kid who can use past, present and future tenses correctly can't read a word containing the magic E. The boy insists on practicing his A to Z phonics just because it is easy and his eyelids are fluttering with the failing struggle to stay awake. I really want to teach the kid something, push on his knowledge of English, but in the end, I reluctantly agree to his stupidly simple lesson plan because it seems to be that or sleep. The only learning that takes place is when he negotiates a compromise for the day's study schedule. I have no doubt that by the time he is 25 he won't be able to speak one sentence of English without making a mistake. Such is the supreme irony of the cram school. Not only is the education not crammed in, but in the long run young minds are damaged by such monotonous and ineffective teaching methods. They are taught not to care about education but to fear failure. They are made to live in a bubble that separates symbols from significance, knowledge from conviction and ideas from context. A bubble that will remain intact as they painfully progress up a societal ladder that is designed to increase dependency on material consumption. In short, a cram school is part of the lobotomizing process to make a perfect citizen. A fate devoutly to be wished for.

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