The Economist on Supplementary Education

The week, The Economist’s Kenneth Cukier published an article entitled “Japan’s cramming schools – Testing times: A controversial institution has some surprising merits”. I was thrilled, of course, that he quoted me in the article as a “rare expert on juku”.

Great to see the 塾 character in the accompanying cartoon as well.

As is almost always the case with press and media accounts, the article is relatively short and thus has to gloss over some of the complexities of the phenomenon of supplementary education in Japan and elsewhere. I’ve been struggling with this myself all along in that there are some relatively simple (and thus short) messages I like to offer as conclusions from my research on 塾, but even these are necessarily simplifications (see the categories on the right to explore some of my research on hypereducation in Japan). The Economist’s Japan correspondent also picked up on some of these message, for example by referring to the variety of different juku that exist. While this is not the kind of variety that proponents of the privatization or liberalization often expect (i.e. a flowering of pedagogies and pedagogical innovations), some of the “immobilist politics” in Japanese educational policy (Len Shoppa of the Univ of Virginia used this term in a book on Nakasone educational reforms) is being unsettled by innovations in the supplementary education industry.

The scene Kenn recalls from Seiran Gakuin in his article is one that I have witnessed in many of the almost 50 juku that I’ve visited in Japan. Seiran Gakuin happens to be one of my favourites and is led by  林 政夫 who is one of the great examples of charismatic educators in the juku world.

When Kenn refers to surveys in Japan that attribute juku attendance to shortcomings in education systems (an element of the article that has been picked up by some Twitter reactions to it already), I would offer a qualification – an important qualification, I think – that it is perceptions of shortcomings in Japanese education that seem to be driving parents and students to juku. Whether such shortcomings exist in an empirically demonstrable way is much less clear, and it is always interesting to note that it is not only perceived shortcomings in public education, but in private schools as well. Private school students in Japan also attend juku in large numbers after all.

The Economist on hagwon

Note that The Economist ran an article about supplementary education in Korea in its Christmas special. I have previously written about South Korea as the paragon of hypereducation.

Much of what this article writes about Korea is also true of Japan, of course.

Japan is also a “one-shot” society in that there are few alternative educational or career transition tracks other than graduate from high school, sit entrance examinations, repeat with intensive preparatory study if necessary, graduate from university, apply for jobs during recruitment season, live happily ever after.

While the school-to-work transition is not as smooth as it was in high-flying economic times (I’m currently reading Mary Brinton’s “Lost in Transition” on just this topic), there still are very few re-entry students or alternative routes to higher education in Japan.

The discussion about the costs of the university entrance exam focus in Korea are mirrored more or less in Japan, though the concern with equity via for-profit supplementary education (hagwon) has historically been much greater in South Korea. Unlike the article on Japan (which ends with a note about broken government systems), the article on Korea ends on a more hopeful note focusing on young Koreans as a generation that might bring about/force change. There is little of such a dynamic visible in Japan…

4 responses to “The Economist on Supplementary Education

  1. That was an interesting post. The Economist article I believe mentioned that some of these schools were believed to emphasize rote learning which I thought was more prevalent in China. However the article did also state that many (most?) of the supplementary schools actually taught ingenuity. Is that your understanding of Japanese juku schools?

    • Interesting question, Jon. I would certainly say that most juku that I visit advertise themselves as not emphasizing rote memorization. However, when I visit class rooms, I do see a pedagogy that has some elements of rote memorization to be prevalent.

      For subjects like social studies, rote memorization may describe this pedagogy best. It is is a pedagogy that is very much driven by multiple-choice tests (as they are also prevalent in North America) which encourage the kind of empiricist historiography that I wrote about in my book “Guilty Lessons? Postwar History Education in Japan and the Germanys“.

      Other subjects like Japanese (国語) or maths have much less of a rote memorization aspect. Sure, Kanji have to be learned by memorization to some extent, but most Kokugo instruction focuses on reading comprehension questions for short texts at the various grade levels.

      By contrast, there’s relatively little rote memorization in mathematics instruction either at the elementary (算数) or the middle school/high school (数学) level. Instead, learning is often very exploratory at the elementary level, and very practice-oriented at the middle school/high school level. In juku that means that students often do problems illustrating a particular point in greater numbers and with greater speed than they do in schools. This often is the main distinguishing factor between school textbooks and juku teaching materials, for example.

      Teaching ingenuity? Yes, I also see (and not only hear about) some of that. There are certainly juku that try to teaching learning skills and cognitive abilities to younger students especially. There are also some (relatively rare) examples of more exploratory learning in certain subjects in juku, though they tend to fade as students approach test-taking bottlenecks like entry into middle school/high school/university.

  2. Thomas Randall

    First I learn of these ‘Juku’ but I have been involved with education in one way or another in different countries (not Asia). With the article stating that ‘school and university test scores are in direct proportion to spending’ does this mean that effectively a two tier educational structure is being created? The can afford Juku and the ‘cannots’? I remember seeing ‘Academies’ in Northern Italy when I lived there, being offered out of school time. However these were largely based on picking up students, not doing well in school, but whose parents were wealthy enough to inject cash into grades boosts.

    • I have my doubts about direct proportionality of spending vs. entrance exam success; as in all areas of education, that is not always a direct relationship.

      For Japan, I don’t think that I would speak of supplementary education as creating a two-tiered system. At this point, I would say location (urban vs. rural) would be more likely to lead to a rigid tier, rather than economic wherewithal. The fear that inequalities in access to supplementary education will lead to inequalities in educational outcomes is a very real one though. This fear of class-based inequalities is what has driven the Korean government in its decades-long battle against supplementary education.

      When I ask juku operators, they typically estimate that about 20% of Japanese households cannot afford juku. For the other 80%, they would divide further into households that can afford any juku vs. others that can afford some supplementary education. Many of the smaller juku also mention that they quietly grant discounts or even free access to children of families who are facing difficult economic circumstances.

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