School teachers throughout the country recently held brainstorming sessions as part of a voluntary effort to promote educational reform. Reports and discussions at those meetings, attended by members of the Japan Teachers Union (Nikkyoso) and the National Teachers Union (Zenkyo), reinforced the perception that the government’s attempt at reform, particularly a legislative package now before the Diet, is far removed from classroom realities.

As it stands, the official campaign for educational reform is long on rhetoric and short on substance. If it really means what it says, the government should funnel more money and staff into the school system to address children’s pressing needs. It is also essential to create smaller classes, so that teachers can pay closer attention to children’s worries and problems.

In a session on the “classroom breakdown” phenomenon, a fourth-grade teacher reported on an emotionally unstable boy who often “snaps” and turns violent. The student lives with his divorced mother, who earns her living as a dump-truck driver. As an only child, he is lonely at home. He eats breakfast alone because his mother leaves early for work. He has little time to spend with her at night because she also goes to bed early. Yet the boy comes to school every day, looking cheerful. Knowledge of his family situation has changed the teacher’s attitude toward him to one of admiration.

A first-grade teacher class reported how a violence-prone child craved loving attention. “This student,” he said, “often slipped out of the classroom because deep down he wanted me to come running after him. When I tried to touch him in a gesture of disapproval,” the teacher added, “he would hug me.” Another child, who repeatedly asks to be carried piggyback, is also hungry for affection, the teacher noted, because his mother works nights. When he was in kindergarten, he lived at a baby-care institution. Now he eats supper with his younger sister at a baby sitter’s house before going home.

Troubled children have specific problems and concerns. Teachers must understand why they feel and behave the way they do, and try to help alleviate or resolve their difficulties. Punishing such children by suspending them from school, as proposed by a government bill, is a makeshift measure that skirts the questions at stake: What should be done to help problem children? And how can teachers form one-on-one relationships with students?

Teachers must help parents as well, instead of blaming them for their children’s problems. A report on one truant student says she stopped going to school because she was afraid her mother might leave her while she was gone — a fear the mother herself had experienced as a child. “I received little attention from my mother,” the report quoted the girl as saying. “I was afraid she might leave me any time.” The reporting teacher called for sympathy toward parents, saying, “Children cannot become independent unless their parents find relief from their own traumas.”

The question that remains is how to support children, parents and teachers. Semantic changes to the Social Education Law, such as inserting the phrase “enhancing home education,” or distributing gimmicks like “home-education notebooks” are not effective ways to address the question.

The study meetings highlighted the importance of children accumulating firsthand experience. A report from a junior high school teacher describing how students organized a school event on their own initiative said: “The children did everything for themselves, acquiring an experience that far exceeded my expectations.” It also said: “A teacher fears that children might bungle things if they are allowed to do everything for themselves. Letting them make their own decisions is a serious challenge to teachers’ outlook on education.”

To these observations, according to a report, students responded positively, saying in effect how much they enjoy doing things on their own, not only for themselves but for others. At the same time, they acknowledged the difficulty of teamwork, of doing things collectively for a common purpose.

What is important is for children to think and act on their own. A bill aimed at promoting volunteer activity on-campus and in local communities would effectively impose such activity on all students. But independent-minded children can be developed only through independent thinking and trial-and-error experience, not through “forced voluntarism.”

Much of the reform package is a Band-Aid. It could worsen the problems, depending on how it is applied. With a national election coming up, passage of the package may help the governing parties build a track record of sorts, but it would do little to resolve the crisis in education.

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