Category Archives: Canada

Exam Success Qualifies Teachers and Consultants

In today’s Globe & Mail, Tralee Pearce wrote an article that reports on efforts by Toronto parents to seek advice on school admission. This is a nice contrast to a Manhattan-focused article on Kumon in the NYT some weeks ago.

The first thing I noticed that even the most anxious Toronto parents are positively serene in their attitude compared to Manhattan parents. No big surprise there.

What’s more interesting in a general way and as a lens on Japanese supplementary education, is that the article discusses the status of past entrance exam takers in imparting wisdom on the entrance exam. This personal experience is something that is valued very highly in the juku world as well.

While not all juku-cho are graduates of the most prestigious universities (remember that this is a clear and nearly universally-agreed upon category in Japan), many of them are.

In part, this educational background is rooted in the fact that one of the trajectories that has led individuals to become supplementary education entrepreneurs is their role as tutors (家庭教師) during their university years. For some individuals, success in this role and requests from parents to also tutor younger siblings, for example, then led to the foundation of a juku.

In hiring tutors Japanese parents clearly seem to prefer students at prestigious universities, though I’m not sure whether there is any data to corroborate this suspicion. While it seems relatively unimportant to parents whether a tutor or juku instructor has any pedagogical qualifications (formal in the form of a teaching license, or informal in the sense of a talent), subject-specific knowledge, or rapport with students. Instead past experience and success in entrance exams seems to trump many of these other possible considerations.

There are a number of aspects of this preference that I find odd. On the one hand, it suggests a strong belief in the uniformity of learning styles. A students’ individual strengths and abilities are not considered when any past exam taker is seen as an expert independent of whether this student was largely self-motivated or needed a highly regimented study regime, for example.This belief in the uniformity of learners is closely linked to a strong belief in the efficacy of effort in educational success. Adages such as “four hours success – five hours failure” (referring to the hours of sleep during exam preparation, I’ll have to dig up the Japanese original for this some time) are indicative of this belief in effort rather than aptitude.

Contrast this belief in homogeneous learners with the equally strong perception of differences between entrance examinations. This has long puzzled me when looking at the large number of how-to manuals that describe entrance examinations for particular schools (whether at the lower or upper secondary, or the higher education level). For secondary education at least, most of the entrance examinations are based on the school curriculum. While there have been some departures from that in the 2002-2011 yutori years (some private schools basing exams on pre-yutori curricula, one of the rare departures from the official curriculum in juku coverage as well), the subject matter of entrance exams is generally the subject matter of school textbooks and lessons which in turn is the subject matter of all educational aids used in juku (教材).

Given the curriculum as a basis, why is there specific advice for how to take the exam for school A vs. school B? The advice often focuses on a preference for a specific type of question (this is particularly true for university entrance exams where volumes of past exams are analyzed and available for practice tests), yet it would seem to me that at a certain level a student who is well-versed in the school curriculum (with some strategic extensions) ought to be well-prepared for entrance examinations at a large number of institutions. Yet, the strong belief in some kind of insider knowledge from having successful taken an exam persists.

The one area where I do see advice from past test-takers (though successful or not wouldn’t matter) as useful is on the format of the exam. This also holds for interviews and other non-exam-based forms of admission, of course. From my own experiences with the TOEFL, SAT, and GRE (granted, many years ago), I would agree that a degree of familiarity with the format of a test can be very useful in reducing anxiety and also improving results.

My Sense of the Future of Canadian Education vis-a-vis Supplementary Education in 2008

In 2008, I wrote an article for Education Canada, published by the Canadian Education Association, that a) reported on the current state of (research on) supplementary education in Japan, and b) speculated a bit about what an understanding of juku implies for the trajectory of Canadian education. In this discussion of the Canadian context, I relied on a quick-and-dirty survey of supplementary education institutions in the Lower Mainland that I did together with intern Sabrina Lohner in the summer of 2007.

In this survey, we found 74 tutoring centres and other supplementary education institutions in the Vancouver area.

Roughly half of these supplementary education businesses promoted themselves in more languages than just English and many of them seemed to be branding themselves specifically in a way to appeal to Asian-Canadians.

The full article is freely available on the Education Canada website or as a PDF.

Vancouver Juku Flyer Vancouver I

I have not been making good use of any of the multimedia capabilities of a blog, so I thought I’d start scanning in some of the flyers for supplementary education from around the world that I’m collecting. If you have similar flyers, I would be delighted to add them to this series with some brief comments.

For now, I will blur out brand names/contact details, though I’m not entirely sure whether I will be able to keep that up in the long run. Note that I’m not including flyers for any of the juku where I’ve conducted research, in part to safeguard their anonymity.

Vancouver Supplementary Education Flyer

A Vancouver Tutoring Service Flyer

So, what do I notice when I look st this flyer?

[Apologies for the black-and-white, will have to fiddle with the copy machine settings to make this colour for the future].

For the front side of the flyer (on the left), the quote by a satisfied parent is very common on this kind of advertising. Here it speaks to one of the two main claims by tutoring companies: better grades and better attitude. The quote acts at once as advertising the service’s main claims, but also providing evidence of their success, though obviously not in any replicable way.

Unusually for Vancouver, none of the students pictured are Asian-looking. This is contrary to what I found together with an intern some years ago when we surveyed Vancouver tutoring services.

Vancouver Juku Flyer

Reverse Side of a Vancouver Tutoring Service Flyer

I should note, BTW, that this flyer showed up on our doorstep in Kitsilano.

For the back side of the flyer, the paragraph here hits on all the main points that almost all supplementary education emphasizes: “unique methodology”, “custom-tailored”, “unique needs”. Presumably that is one of the main selling points, i.e. the ability (in contrast to conventional schools) to be able to tailor tutoring to a student’s learning goals. Whether this tailoring involves anything other than a different pace of progress is unclear, of course.

As is the case for many tutoring services in North America, the one advertised here is offering at-home tutoring, i.e. the equivalent of 家庭教師in Japan.

Something that his quite rare in juku promotional materials in Japan, but much more common for supplementary education in North America, is the claim of some kind of accreditation, in this case through membership in the “National Tutor Association“.

While this association does offer certification, all that’s advertised on the flyer is membership, and that is open to anyone, so it is essentially a useless piece of information that is most likely meant to hint at some kind of professional status.

Note that this particular tutoring service is a “home-based” franchise.

Canadian Overseas Schools

Here’s a diversion that’s somewhat related to my focus on shadow education: Canadian overseas schools.

Lia Cosco, post-graduate research fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, visited a number of Canadian schools in Asia and reports on her observations in the Foundation’s “Canada-Asia Agenda”, edited by UBC colleague, Brian Job.

Canadian Overseas Schools: A Unique Approach to the Export of Canadian Education


The demand for Canadian education is rising, most visibly in Asia. An important and growing, yet relatively unexplored, dimension of Canada’s overseas education engagement is its offshore and international schools. Canada’s provincial accreditation of overseas schools is one of the most innovative international initiatives in education. However, a lack of sufficient oversight and support for the accreditation and operation of Canadian overseas schools puts Canada’s international education standards at risk.

If Confucianism Drives East Asian Supplementary Education, Why Doesn’t Anyone Read Confucius?

Early on in my research on juku, I frequently asked interlocutors (primarily, 塾長) why there are no juku in Canada (exaggeration/simplification, of course), but juku are prevalent in Japan? There is a small stock of answers I typically get to this question:

  1. examinations and competition for entry into next levels of education
  2. CONFUCIANISM (i.e. East Asia is heavily influenced by Confucianism which makes people pay for supplementary education
  3. Confucianism (i.e. the Confucian (more historical than moral/philosophical) tradition of exam-based entrance to positions of authority/prestige coupled with the veneration for knowledge)

Understanding these answers and trying to see empirically what these answers suggest, as well as coming up with answers of my own to that question, are central to my project on juku and will be topics that I will continue to write about.

Here, I simply want to point out that despite claims of the importance of Confucianism to education systems in Japan (and across East Asia) I have never seen or heard a discussion of Confucianism in a juku setting. I have not observed any reading a Confucian text, nor summarizing Confucian precepts, nor discussing the impact of Confucianism. This general absence is true across different school/juku subjects, especially Japanese and social studies, incl. history.

Elsewhere, I have begun writing about the history of juku, and I would note in this context that there are few institutional continuities between premodern and even early modern forms of juku and what we have come to know as juku since the 1970s.

This absence may or may not be the same in other East Asian countries (esp. S Korea and Taiwan where the impact and contemporary relevance of Confucianism seems higher).

Now, at some level we may classify European education systems as Judaeo-Christian and note that that doesn’t imply that the Bible is ever read in class, but there certainly are discussions of Judaeo-Christian morality and discussions of the impact of Christianity.

So, while the Japanese and other East Asian education systems are clearly influenced by Confucianist notions of examinations and learning-as-knowledge-of-classics, this impact is at a fairly abstract level, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a direct link between Confucianism and the prevalence of juku in contemporary Japan in my mind.