COVID-19 Website Notice. In order to comply with emergency communications regulations, we are required to provide a link to the following website before proceeding:

Teach your children well, or else: what Japan can teach us

| March 17, 2014 | 1 Comment

By J. Brooks Spector

Recently millions of South African students returned to school – or took their first steps on their educational journey.

The media was filled – as always – with pictures of doeeyed children entering their first school classroom. While the matriculation pass rate has risen, there are now also voices criticising the country’s fixation on using that examination pass rate as the gold standard for measuring educational success.

Crucial dialogue absent

From South Africa’s officialdom, less pleasant realities have gotten short shrift. The disappearance of some 700 000 or so students from each class cohort each year by the time the matriculation examination would have rolled around for them; the absurdly low successful passage thresholds now set for these matric exams; the poor success in analytical competence in English; and the continuing failure to graduate most students from high schools with sufficient maths and science skill to cope with university-level study (or to enter directly into technologically oriented work, straight from high school) are still being minimised as urgent priorities in most official statements. Such shortcomings eventually would be addressed somehow, some way, at some unidentified time in the future. But not today.

In fact, without some sharp comments and dogged analysis from outside experts, crucial questions like these are being elided in government discussions, to the detriment of educational reform. And these approaches come as it becomes increasingly clear South Africa’s educational capabilities – as measured by a range of multinational, comparative skills assessments done at various grade levels – have been weighing in well behind virtually every nation with which South Africa is in competition economically around the world. And the country is similarly behind the achievement levels of most other African nations, and just barely ahead of Yemen – a nation in the midst of a civil war.

America also misses a moment

Of course, South Africa is not the only country with education issues. In late January of this year, New York Times writer Tom Friedman’s column bemoaned a depressing decline in American educational standards as well.1 Friedman, citing a recent speech by Arne Duncan, the US education secretary, urged President Obama to push for a new educational revolution in favour of competence and quality as the centrepiece of his State of the Union speech to be delivered on 28 January before a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives.

In discussing Duncan’s comments, Friedman wrote, “In fact, it was a feel-bad speech, asking one big question. Are we falling behind as a country in education not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel? Is this the key cause of income inequality and persistent poverty? No. But it is surely part of their solutions, and it is a subject that Obama has not used his bully pulpit to address in any sustained way. Nothing could spark a national discussion of this more than a State of the Union address. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, tells parents to speak up and get involved, in the right way, if they want their kids to get a better education.”

As Duncan himself had said, “In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding’. Even his poorest parents demanded a worldclass education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the US was too many parents demanding excellent schools.”

Duncan then added, “I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child? If your answer is no… then your work is cut out for you. Because right now, South Korea – and quite a few other countries – are offering students more, and demanding more, than many American districts and schools do. And the results are showing, in our kids’ learning and in their opportunities to succeed, and in staggeringly large achievement gaps in this country. Doing something about our underperformance will mean raising your voice – and encouraging parents who aren’t as engaged as you to speak up. Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home. Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders – and to ask more of their kids.”2

Preschool a serious business in Japan

This writer and his family lived for a decade in Japan. For many of those years, our children attended school there, including several years in an ordinary neighbourhood preschool – a kindergarten (yochien) – and then on to the nearest government primary school, once they were old enough.

At their yochien, a team of energetic young teachers, under the guidance of a very experienced master teacher, taught our children. And the emphasis here is on the word ‘taught’. This place was definitely not a parking lot for children too young for first grade in primary school. The teachers frequently stayed at their desks well into the evening, preparing lessons – for preschoolers – and developing newsletters about what the children were doing at their preschool, as well as detailed, instructional pamphlets for parents.

The lessons were often about building teamwork and developing attitudes to improve problem-solving skills. The newsletters were packed with advice about the proper mix of foods parents should pack in a child’s lunch box every day, and even how it should be arrayed to make sure it was appetising. There was still more advice about how to help children make the most of their preschool experiences and how parents should contribute to the goals of the teachers. Even the games in a preschool’s sports day had lessons built into them. As outsiders to Japanese culture, we found ourselves running to keep up with all the expectations the teachers had for our children – and of us as well.

Once our older daughter entered the first grade of primary school, her teacher conducted a home inspection in the second week of school. Yes, that’s right, the teacher came to the home of every pupil in his class to make sure the home was ready to support a student in primary school. Did the child have a quiet, well-lit place to study, equipped with a student-sized desk? Did the parents understand the schedule for homework and know how to help their child with it? Did the child have an appropriate place to sleep and was the house set up so that he or she would be able to sleep enough hours each night to be ready for school?

The teachers in the first two or three grades were in the most prestigious positions in the school system – in part because the Japanese have figured out that it is in those years when children are best guided to become effective students. These early grade teachers were paid a bonus for this duty and the best teachers were picked to go into those teaching slots.

Not for the faint-hearted

Teachers had serious work ahead of them as well. Mathematics education began early and moved fast. Even if students ultimately weren’t university material, it always seemed like everybody in the country was totally literate and numerate – something distinctly different from the experiences of foreign visitors to Japan just a hundred and fifty years earlier.3 And when we resided in Japan, the educational system generated students who could easily step into technological jobs and apprenticeship programmes across the economy.

Moreover, the writing system was fiendishly complicated – even for the Japanese. There were two syllabic alphabets, with one reserved for words of foreign origin before they had been thoroughly assimilated into Japanese. Then there was a third writing system that used around 2 000 or so ideographic and pictographic characters – mostly originally borrowed from the Chinese language a millennium or more earlier. All of these had to be learned successfully by graduation from high school. And for most students they were.

Of course, by the time a student entered high school it was clear that the competition for entry into university would be really cut-throat – although once in a university, students could bask in that achievement and relax. In order to get the best possible university entrance exam grades, many, perhaps most, students attended an afternoon cram school – the juku – in addition to regular school as well.

Japanese education system a model for East Asia

Although the Japanese economy has been under major stress following the collapse of its financial and property bubble in the late 1990s and has been struggling to get back its mojo as a growth dynamo, this rigorous educational machine and the skills it generated was one of the key drivers of the country’s economic success. In large part, this Japanese system, built once the country’s isolation had been broken after 1867, has been copied by the new successful economies of East Asia – Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea – to underpin their own economic success. And then, once China replaced its tight control of education by the communist party after the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, it, too, has increasingly followed a kind of variation of the Japanese model – but drawing on traditional Chinese ideas and Western ones as well.

Of course, the East Asian model is not without its own problematic aspects – and many Asian students seek university education elsewhere. Even if the American model has weakened its capabilities at the high school level for many, its universities continue to attract more foreign students than any other nation. Excellence still lives at the tertiary level. According to the Institute of International Education,4 nearly 820 000 foreign students were studying in American universities in the most recently completed academic year – and this number was a record for international students, thoroughly reversing a decline that had set in after the events of 9/11.5 And of that total, just shy of 50% of all international students in America now come from just three Asian nations: China, India and South Korea – with China accounting for an amazing 235 000 students by itself.6

We need to emulate Japanese rigour

And so, what of South Africa? For one thing, the country could look closely at emulating the rigour of Asian educational models at the primary and secondary levels with their emphasis on achievement and success – as a way to achieve an educational turnaround so as to help ignite both economic growth and increases in employment.

At a minimum, what might this involve? Just for starters: raising the minimum passing grades for the annual matriculation exams each year until a realistic level is reached; insistence on a thorough grounding in maths and science for as many students as possible; the requirement of a full competence in English; an insistence on achieving the maximum retention of students through the entire sequence of grades; a full-on effort to ensure that every student has a fully competent teacher in each grade and for all special subjects; and, of course, an insistence that all schools have water, electricity, internet connectivity, a fully functioning laboratory, a well-stocked library, and a full supply of textbooks. The country spends more, per capita, on education than any other country on the continent, and more as a percentage of its GDP than Canada or The Netherlands.7 It deserves a much better return on its investment than it is receiving now.

Then, as an add-on, we could begin a major expansion of its tertiary education sector. This would include encouraging the establishment of high-quality private colleges and universities, and rigorously managed, technologically oriented training institutions as pathways for learning workplace skills. Along the way, it could insist private industry take the lead in helping build such training opportunities.

Create commitment

Is such a programme achievable? Of course it is – with sufficient commitment and focus. Numerous East Asian nations have shown the way to do just this kind of commitment. Crucially, South Africa will need to adopt something like this – soon – if it wants to avoid being overtaken by war-torn Yemen in the measure of its national educational attainments.


1. Friedman, T. (2014) ‘Obama’s Homework Assignment.’ Available at: assignment.html?_r=0.

2. Ibid.

3. See, for example:

4. Staff writer (2013) ‘Open doors 2013: International students in the United States and study abroad by American students are at all-time high.’ Available at: Center/Press-Releases/2013/2013-11-11-Open-Doors-Data#.UuDr- RD8LnB.

5. On 11 September 2001 (often referred to as ‘9/11’), 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, DC, and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. (Source: international-students-attend-u-s-colleges.)

6. Chappell, B. (2013) ‘Record number of international students attend US colleges.’ Available at: 244601986/record-number-of-international-students-attend-u-s-colleges.

7. See, for example: of-gdp.

Category: Autumn 2014, Featured Articles

About the Author ()

News posts added for Independent Education by Global Latitude DMA

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. mahomed msane says:

    hai…its so shameful for south African by not seeing bigger scope in Japanese way doing good investment in an early age of our young generation. I strongly believe that we can have very positive impact in a global stage if we can start now looking @ Asians countries in how they develop themselves to better economy @ change is the must in this

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *