Frightening fairy tales, Setting the table, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam discuss whether we should we prioritise manners over grades in the first few years of primary school. What lessons can we learn from Japan? What role does a school have in terms of teaching discipline and societal behaviours? Plus, find out which two of our hosts have previously lived in Japan.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcasts.
Welcome to School of School podcast.
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So welcome back to another School of School podcast. I'm Robin Potter and I am here with our usual suspects, Adam Gifford. Hi Adam.
Robin, how are you?
I'm good thanks. And Andy Psarianos.
I had read an article about the Japanese and how there's this whole theory about why the Japanese students aren't required to take exams until after fourth grade and that it's because they value excellent manners. So their focus in the early years is on manners, not on testing. So I thought that would be an interesting topic to discuss and I'd love to hear your input. What do you think, Adam?
Well, I suppose, oh no, go ahead. You go. Andy started. You go.
Yeah, that's all right. You just cut me. You just cut me right out there. That's all right. All I was going to say was it really depends what they mean by manners. So if you're talking about, I don't know, putting the right fork in the right place on when you're setting the table. Yeah, I don't think that's what they're talking about. So I think what they're really talking about or how I would interpret it as sort of classroom behaviour and classroom routines and all that kind of stuff, and they're calling it manners because I suppose effectively they are manners but those things are super important. So Adam, I don't know if you want to jump in now.
Yeah, I just think like you just said there, Andy, I think you're talking about behaviours, aren't you? I imagine, and they're behaviours that support supportive, caring, well-organised community. That's what I've suspected. Now I've been fortunate, I've lived in Japan a couple of times and I would say that-
I didn't know that.
... yeah, yeah, yeah, so I'd say that the Japanese manners are impeccable is a general rule. And I can't say that about all countries. And I can't say that I've been to too many countries. In fact, I'm not sure if I have, where manners and etiquette is more universally observed than Japan and the idea of offending someone is... That's a really big deal you know? You don't want to be doing that. So I think, I don't know, I think that there's a lot in a learning environment that is determined by the behaviours and we can call them manners, that actually has a major impact on education. Listening, for example. Listening to understand as opposed to listening to hear, or what do we want in our classrooms? Do we value someone else's input or not? And I think that it's that sort of thing that perhaps, I don't know, I don't know if it's like one of those sort of translation issues with manners as a headline.
But those sorts of behaviours I actually think have a tangible impact on learning.
Well, sorry, just to clarify because you are both seem to be on the right track here, but it's that the underlying belief is that children's character must be developed and that they need to develop respect for others and that can be taught in the classroom. So you're... Right, it's not about setting the table. They actually cover that too at some point because I also taught in Japan many, many years ago, and we did use the English language but to discuss how to set a table but it's much more focused on respect. Respect for their teacher, respect for their other students and rather than just cramming for upcoming standardised testing.
And I guess cultural norms and traditions and all that sort of stuff all come into play that there is a set way to do certain things and all that kind of stuff. Does anybody know what age they start school at in Japan?
No, funny enough, I was looking at school ages today and I can actually tell you that Andy, just give me one sec. They start at six.
Right. Which is quite late by like, certainly by UK standards. So do they start quote unquote "nursery" or reception or kindergarten at six or is it grade one in you know?
The formal, like statutory schooling starts at six so I'm sure that there's-
... offers as there are in most countries for preschool, right?
I know Robin, is that right?
Yeah. I had... They have these special language schools so this may be a slightly different, but I had students as young as three.
In those classes so I would classify that as kind of a nursery or kindergarten age level.
Interesting. So formal education starts at six, but obviously there will be private offerings for young children. A lot of them will be, the younger kids will be, I guess, kind of more daycare and as they get a little bit older, they'll be dealing with stuff. So the idea, I guess, so this is an interesting topic, this entrance into official school and how that's dealt with in various different countries because in some places it's like there isn't even formally a reception or a kindergarten or anything, but you just literally show up the first day for grade one or year one, which is official learning and if we talk about what happens in those early years pre-grade one, normally a lot of it is about, I guess we would call it more something like socialising the children, I suppose.
Is that a term that they would use as opposed to teaching them manners? But the principal is largely kind of similar in the sense that you got to prepare them to learn before you can't just throw them in a teaching environment, learn teaching, learning environment and expect that it's going to work without some pre-conditioning, right? So they just seem to do it for longer and probably take it a lot more seriously. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
I think the only thing, and I can't speak as any expert on this, so anything I say is anecdotal and the risk of offending nations, nations all over the world.
The only reason you're here, Adam, is because you're the expert, right? So don't say that.
Well, sorry I'm just blown my cover. I think that the kind of, perhaps we want to establish a uniformity of behaviour in our schools and those sorts of things. And I think that from what I observed in Japan generally is that there was a sense in society that their societal norms were adhered to by more people. That's probably the best way that I can put it. And so I think that when we're coming into school, your... Maybe that starting place is more uniform in terms of those social constructs and those social norms because that's what we're observing a lot of the time. And because I think you're right, I think that we have these, well no preschools, reception, whatever the environment is before statutory schooling starts and of course one of the aims of the game is that socialisation and learning the norms in a place that you're not with your parents or carers or have the freedom to do whatever you want when you want and if you want to have a sleep, you can have... All those sorts of things that we know happen.
But I just wonder if more and more, not just the UK, but I'm sure it's happened around the world, there's a growing emphasis on academic success and progress and that kind of, I don't know, has the potential to distract perhaps from those other things that may be actually more time spent, or sorry, less time spent concentrating on certain academic areas in place of experiencing those social norms. I'm thinking of the teacher and adults head space as well in amongst that, I don't know. What do you think, Robin?
Yeah, no, I agree with your observations about the Japanese and their culture. And I keep, when Andy was talking, I kept thinking, well, okay, so let me think of school nowadays here. Now, again, I don't have little kids so I can't speak how they're being introduced into a classroom environment these days, but my guess is it's a little bit more casual than when I was growing up. I mean at least we were very Mr. or Mrs. addressing the teacher. I don't even know if that's the case anymore.
I'm not saying that that means you have good manners, but I just think times have changed a bit and I question if manners are at the forefront in, at least in, I'll say in a Canadian school because I don't see that same respect for our teachers from students overall and I mean of course as maybe I'm jaded a bit as I'm seeing high school students and how they're interacting with their teachers but even going back into the very beginning, I don't think it's a priority the way it had been before or the way it should be. And teachers, well I'm not a teacher, so...
You know, I'd have to get their perspective.
... it's a great observation. There's no question that it varies from school to school and there's no question that it used to be schooling and when we were young was probably more formal than it is now.
Some of my earliest memories of school are not about the classroom, but are about doing things like lining up in a hall, boys in one row, girls in the other row, and then marching off a military style to the gym for assembly. Those are some of my earliest memories of my schooling and that was obviously a new idea. The age of five or whatever it was. I don't know how much of that, I know that some of that still takes place, but I don't think it's as rigid. You would get in trouble for speaking in line and things like that in those days, right?
Well let's think about these schools that have got incredibly, that they would say incredibly strict policies. I'm thinking of high schools here in the UK.
They get a lot of press and you know, you can argue that the academic success and when you listen to the head teacher and teachers from schools where some observers would say it's over the top, is that I think what that shows is there's a real spectrum and I think that where, with small children, it gets interesting, is that parents will have different schools of thought on how to bring their children up, right?
And I don't know enough 'cause I've not worked with really small children in Japan, if it is, it's only for a heartbeat, you know? So I can't really talk about it accurately but what I would say is, I know in settings where children are very young, it's pre statutory school age, then parents may have the attitude of if they want to do this or if they want to do that, just let them. And I know they're too young to be told just sit on the carpet nicely and sit in a row or something like that, that might sort of grate and we might feel, actually no, they're too young for that sort of formality. Formal school happens later and I think there's a bit of a grey area perhaps, and what is it that we want? And I think that when I look at UK society, I don't think that there's a uniform, there's a uniform school of thought.
I'm not saying this is the case in Japan, but there's a uniform school of thought on what should, how should three year olds behave or four year olds behave, or five year olds should behave? I think we can all agree they should say please and thank you but I think the reality of the choices that children can make versus the choices adults can make, I actually think there's quite a wide range there-
... in different settings and within different parents of course as there's always been but I think it's that sort of thing that perhaps, I don't know, is there more uniformity in Japan in terms of this is a collective agreement that this is how we think four year olds should behave and more of us are going to buy into it. I don't know.
Well that's a really interesting point because Japan, so you've got countries that are very homogeneous in their makeup and then you've got countries that are very heterogeneous in their makeup, right? So in Japan there's a strong culture, it's well understood, people are indoctrinated into it from birth. There's a lot of tradition that carries forward and I don't know a lot about Japanese immigration policy and things like that, but I'm going to guess that for the large part, the Japanese people are follow similar traditions for the most part. While if you come to a place, let's say the UK where there's been tremendous amounts of immigration and been welcoming of all kinds of societies for many decades, or Canada as well, or other countries where it's much more mixed up and there's lots of different schools of thought being introduced and you get probably a wider variance in the thinking than you would about culture. The thinking about culture.
Yeah? And what's acceptable from a young person and what's expected from a young person. Bit of a wild card thing but Anne, my partner, did a lot of research on children's literature, historic children's literature and one of the things that fascinated me, I love hearing her talk about it, one of the things that really fascinated me about her work was that the idea of childhood, what a child is and what's expected from a child has changed so much in the last several hundred years. The notion that we have of childhood now really didn't exist before. Certainly by the age of 10 or so, you certainly weren't considered, you were just a small person. You were no longer, there was no special treatment for being a child. It was harsh and then you can see it in the literature. You can see it in the fairy... Just pick up Grimm's Fairy Tales and read the stories, I mean, they're not... If you look at the evolution of a story like Little Red Riding Hood, I mean in the first version, everybody gets eaten, everybody's dies, right? I mean it's a vicious story, you know?
Yeah, they are.
Yeah, and I have a book at home that someone gave me, Little Red Riding Hood where at the end, the wolf, the hunter, the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood have a little tea party at the end so it's like, wow, has this story ever changed? So the idea of childhood has changed.
So I guess maybe the focus has changed. We don't expect schools to necessarily be the ones to guide our-
Well, I don't know.
... Our children.
I don't what I would say to that though, Robin, is I think that parents will still make choices where they're able to because obviously some places you've got one school and that's where your children go and that's it but they still make choices, I think, about the makeup of it and it tends to be, in my experience, that the high schools that tend to get the headlines with some big calls on some things, whether it be uniform, hairstyle, etiquette, no talking in corridors for example, you cannot talk to anyone else or not talking while you're eating your lunch. Here in the UK and it might be the same elsewhere and it might even be the same in Japan, I don't know, but what you will find is that parents will go around looking for prospective schools and they'll make decisions based on that.
So some people, where there no talking in the corridors, for example, they'd think that is great. That is the type of discipline I think my children need and they will thrive because it's all about learning, right? There is no distraction to learning. That's what it's all about. For other parents, they'd look at that and go, I would never put my children there in a hundred years. I want my children to talk to one another and I want them to have lunch and talk about the day.
So I think that what we have is this, these, I mean it's always been the case that different schools, they've got a different feel, possibly a different ethos and those sorts of things but I think that with some schools making more headlines with different behaviour policies becoming more evident and talked about, I think that's the big thing and how it corresponds to success, what would it even mean, be it academic, socially, both, whatever. I think that maybe. Maybe we'll start to find that some of these things, the heading towards back the spectrum, back towards Grimm rather than the tea party at the other end, these might become more appealing and these choices, I think, will become more available and diverse.
So one thing to ponder on, I think when is it okay to take a certain course of action in a school about things like discipline and teaching traditional values and all that kind of stuff? Because there's certainly an argument, so you're describing a certain type of school that exists in inner cities of the UK, typically large secondary schools where discipline has been, there's been a huge focus, but it's not just because people are mean and want to run it like a jail.
Often it's because these schools have been tremendous failures and they've really not served society at all so I can think of a particular school that I dealt with where I think previous to turning into this sort of militaristic style secondary school, they were famous for a few things. One was the worst GCSE results in the country, the other one was the highest teenage pregnancy rate. Not really things to be proud of and now it's a good school, but it's run like that. So maybe in certain circumstances that's the right thing to do because if those-
... kids are getting zero structure at home because it's a challenging neighbourhood, very underprivileged and those kids, most of their parents are maybe unemployed, maybe they have abuse, drug abuse problems or something. Those kids are really coming home with just a couple of dust balls in their pocket and that's it and no guidance from the parents and it's a wonder they even make it, maybe they need a bit of that.
Yeah, but I think that's the point though, Andy, I think that because the only thing that might say great with me, the no talking in the corridors, that's just based on what I think is nice or right or those sorts of things but the one thing that I would say is that when you listen to some of the children who are in schools with a very, what I would consider, strict discipline policy that may have those types of examples there, they're evangelical about the school, they love it and a lot of people... Yeah, so I think this is the thing, I think that it is one of those in that far better for me to say what's right and wrong because at the end of the day, it's how it supports those children to learn and if they think that that's right, then so be it and I think that, I don't know, sometimes we only hear the headlines of some of these really big issues and the extreme discipline cases, and it makes us maybe as, oh, I can only speak about me, sort of shy away and think, oh no.
But when you listen to some of the children that are speaking, some of the results they're getting, some of the turnaround, like you're talking about in some of these schools, I think maybe we need to listen to these core ideas and I don't know, see what it looks like in Japan and see what are these things that allow children to learn in an environment that's effective.
And do they have these problems? Do they have these problems in Japan? Do they have large schools that have been catastrophic failures right? Does that even exist in Japan?
Yeah, that's a whole other, we'd have to delve into that more, do a little more research but obviously overall, they're being recognised for focusing on manners in the early years and they are having some success of without testing so it's certainly a topic that we can continue to look at. I guess that's for another episode. So thanks for joining.
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