Learning to fall down

Japanese children ride unicycles without helmets or kneepads.  Photo: Ko Sasaki/New York Times

Japanese elementary schools supply “unicycles, bamboo stilts, hula hoops and other equipment that promotes balance and core strength,” reports the New York Times. Kids play, fall and get back up without protective gear or adult supervision.

During a recent morning recess at Kyuden Elementary School in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo, children raced to a rack of more than 80 unicycles with brightly colored wheels and began riding around the sand and gravel playground.

Some children were just learning, clinging to monkey bars or the shoulders of friends. Others sped fluidly across the playground for more than 20 yards at a time. Pairs of girls twirled around, arm in arm and perfectly balanced. Several girls rode unicycles close to four and a half feet tall.

Children learn on their own or to teach one another to ride unicycles, says the vice principal.

Riding unicycles is part of a culture that urges elementary school-age children to do things on their own, including taking the subway or walking around city neighborhoods.

“I see kids being challenged and encouraged to do things that I have never seen kids encouraged to do in the U.S.,” said Matthew Thibeault, an American who teaches at a middle school affiliated with Toyama University on the west coast of Japan, “and a lot of equipment that would be considered risky.”

Via Ann Althouse who quotes Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid— about being an American kid the 1950s:

In such a world, injuries and other physical setbacks were actually welcomed. If you got a splinter you could pass an afternoon, and attract a small devoted audience, seeing how far you could insert a needle under your skin—how close you could get to actual surgery. If you got sunburned you looked forward to the moment when you could peel off a sheet of translucent epidermis that was essentially the size of your body. Scabs in Kid World were cultivated the way older people cultivate orchids. I had knee scabs that I kept for up to four years, that were an inch and three-quarters thick and into which you could press thumbtacks without rousing my attention.

In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, a 1930 book set in England’s Lake District, children ranging in age from seven to (maybe) 11 or 12 want to sail to an island and camp out for several weeks. Their father, a Naval or Merchant Marine officer, telegraphs his permission: “Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown.”

Japan’s independent kids aren’t really alone

A young girl rides on the Tokyo subway. Photo: Tokyoform

While anxious American parents ferry their children to and from school, Japanese children as young as 6 or 7 walk or take mass transit on their own, writes Selena Hoy in The Atlantic.

“Group reliance” makes it safe, writes cultural anthropologist Dwayne Dixon in his dissertation. Japanese children are taught that “any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others.”

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties.

. . . Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership . . .

In a Japanese city, a child is never really alone.

Of course, Japan’s very low crime rate creates a perception of safety that reassures parents, writes Hoy.

“A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family,” writes Hoy. Here’s an episode with English subtitles.


SAM_6712.JPGI’m back from Japan, though just a bit confused about what time or day it is. We did indeed see spectacular cherry blossoms — our timing was perfect — as well as gardens, temples, mountains and lots of Japanese people. We bathed at hot springs. We learned to cook okonomyaki, a Japanese crepe with cabbage, bean sprouts, pork and other things. We boated through the Oboke Gorge.

Thanks to my guest bloggers for keeping the blog lively. I see the college admissions post has 58 comments.

I’ll be posting later today, as I recover from jet lag.

U.S. kids do more homework, learn less

 U.S. teens spend more time on homework, but learn less than students in other developed countries, according to the Programme of International Scholastic Asessment (PISA).

American 15-year-olds do about six hours of homework per week. In most countries, students who spend more time doing homework also score higher on the math exam, reports Libby Nelson on Vox. But, in the U.S., “doing more homework correlated with slightly lower scores.”

I wonder if math homework is different in the U.S. than math homework in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, where math scores are high and doing more homework seems to pay off.

Are U.S. students more likely to exaggerate how much they actually study?

And why is the homework payoff so much lower in high-scoring Shanghai?

Village of the dolls

Only 35 people still live in Nagaro, a village in the mountains of southern Japan, reports AP. They’re outnumbered three-to-one by life-size dolls created by Tsukimi Ayano.

Scarecrow students filled the closed elementary school in Nagaro, Japan (Photo: Elaine Kurtenbach

Scarecrow students filled the closed elementary school in Nagaro, Japan (Photo: Elaine Kurtenbach)

At 65, Ayano is one of the younger residents of Nagoro. After decades away, she returned from Osaka to care for her elderly father.

Japan is aging rapidly. Young people are deferring marriage and children.

The village elementary school closed two years ago. Ayano has filled the school with “scarecrow” students and teachers.

Other dolls are “crowded into corners of her farmhouse home, perched on fences and trees, huddled side-by-side at a produce stall, the bus stop, anywhere a living person might stop to take a rest,” writes Elaine Kurtenbach.

“That old lady used to come and chat and drink tea,” says Ayano. “That old man used to love to drink sake and tell stories.”

Why edutourists go astray

A math class in Shanghai

Edutourists often go astray, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times declared the “Shanghai secret” is teacher training and a work day that allows for professional development and peer interaction.

After touring schools in Japan, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green endorsed lesson study and “pedagogical reforms from the 1980s and 1990s” to boost math learning.

High-scoring Finland is a prime edutourist destination, writes Loveless. “The Education Ministry of Finland hosted at least 100 delegations from 40 to 45 countries per year from 2005 to 2011.”

Singling out a top achieving country—or state or district or school or teacher or some other “subject”—and then generalizing from what this top performer does is known as selecting on the dependent variable.  The dependent variable, in this case, is achievement.  To look for patterns of behavior that may explain achievement, a careful analyst examines subjects across the distribution—middling and poor performers as well as those at the top.  That way, if a particular activity—let’s call one “Teaching Strategy X”—is found a lot at the top, not as much in the middle, and rarely or not at all at the bottom, the analyst can say that Teaching Strategy X is positively correlated with performance.  That doesn’t mean it causes high achievement—even high school statistics students are taught “correlation is not causation”—only that the two variables go up and down together.

Edutourists routinely go to top-scoring countries, but rarely check whether their favored strategy is used in middle- and low-scoring nations, writes Loveless.

In addition, edutourists visit a selected sample of the best schools, he writes.  Confirmation bias makes it likely they’ll see what they expect to see.

Artificial intelligence outscores 12th graders

A Japanese student celebrates her admission to an elite university.

A Japanese student celebrates her admission to the elite Tokyo University.

An artificial-intelligence program outscored the average Japanese high school senior on the English section of the college-entrance exam, reports the Wall Street Journal.

To-Robo earned a 95 (out of 200)on the multiple-choice English test, compared to 93.1 for the average test-taker. That’s nearly double the software’s score last year.

Japan’s collegebound students take two days of very high-stakes exams  in geography, history, civics, Japanese, foreign languages, math and science to qualify for public and private universities.

Developers are grooming To-Robo to qualify for the prestigious Tokyo University. (And then? Take classes?)

On the English portion, the AI program was able to choose the answer that best fits this conversation:

A: I hear your father is in the hospital.
B: Yes, and he has to have an operation next week.
A: ????. Let me know if I can do anything.
B: Thanks a lot.

To-Robo correctly picked “That’s too bad” to fill in the blank, rejecting “Exactly, yes,” “No problem” and “That’s a relief.”

The technology may be used for translations some day, developers said.

Efficiency Index: U.S. overpays teachers

U.S. schools overpay teachers, according to the international “Efficiency Index” released by GEMS Education Solutions.

The report was created with the support of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which created the PISA exam. leader

The U.S. ranked 19 out of 30 OECD countries, because teachers earn higher salaries than necessary to attract competent teachers and classes are smaller than necessary. (I don’t know how they calculate this.)

Yet the U.S. rates as “more efficient than effective,” along with countries such as Hungary, France, Britain and Sweden.

Finland, Japan and Korea do the best in efficiency and quality (as measured by PISA scores). Finland and Korea achieve excellent results with relatively large class sizes – the 3rd and 5th largest of the OECD countries – and pay teachers moderate wages, the report noted.

Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and others were effective, but not very efficient.

Brazil, Chile, Greece, Indonesia and Turkey were both inefficient and ineffective.

Japanese learn math in cram schools

Japanese teachers teach math for understanding, while U.S. teachers drill students on procedures, writes Elizabeth Green in “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” in the New York Times Magazine.

Increasingly dissatisfied with their schools, Japanese parents are turning to “shadow education” known as juku in Japanese or “cram school” in English, responds Watanabe Manabu on the Juko blog.

Forty percent of elementary students and more than 70 percent of junior high students use jukus, reports the Japan Times in Cram schools cash in on failure of public schools.

Don’t blame teachers for math failure

Americans stink at math because U.S. teachers aren’t trained to teach for understanding, argues Elizabeth Green in the New York Times.  Teaching “mind-numbing” routines bores students and sets them up for failure, she writes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese math classes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese classes.

By contrast, Japanese teachers embraced the “vibrant” 1980s math reforms that failed here. Their students “uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves,” enjoy math and excel on international tests.

Wrong, responds Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

Most Japanese parents send their children to private, after-school jukus, cram schools that focus “on basic skills, drill and practice, and memorization,” writes Loveless.

. . . perhaps because of jukus, Japanese teachers can take their students’ fluency with mathematical procedures for granted and focus lessons on problem solving and conceptual understanding.  American teachers, on the other hand, must teach procedural fluency or it is not taught at all.

On international surveys, U.S. students are more likely than Japanese kids to say they enjoy math class, Loveless points out.

Japan’s math achievement has declined since 1995, he writes. They do well, but not as well as in the pre-reform era, when it was all “rote learning,” according to Green.

The U.S. education establishment went all out for math reform in the 1990s, Loveless writes. Ed school professors backed it. “The National Science Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars training teachers.” The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rewrote its math framework and redesigned its test.

Math reform in the U.S. is typically the offspring of government power wedded to education school romanticism. . . math reform movements have repeatedly failed not because of stubborn teachers who cling to tired, old practices but because the reforms have been—there are no other words for it—just bad ideas.

Green also is wrong to imply that Common Core standards require her preferred method of teaching, Loveless writes. “These standards establish what students need to learn, but do not dictate how teachers should teach,” proclaims the Common Core web site.

Barry Garelick shows how to teach the new standards using traditional math instruction. He’s got examples from a book published in 1955: