Individuality and Interdependence: a Comparison of the North American and Japanese Educational Systems The comparison between Japanese and North American educational systems is often used. The Japanese system, along with other Asian cultures, places importance on the group and the interdependence of its members (Cole & Cole, 2001, p. 541).
The North American model, in contrast, focuses on the ideals of individuality and independence (Cole & Cole, 2001, p. 541).
This contrast is due to a conflicting cultural / social structure and outlook of the world.
Japanese look at the development of self as doubled sided: the inner self and the social or public self (Hoffman, 2000, p. 307).
Within the Japanese education system, the teacher’s goal is to develop and cultivate both layers. Opposing this concept can be found in the North American style, which does not distinguish the two, but instead stresses the importance of the one true self (Hoffman, 2000, p. 307).
It is interesting to compare my personal experiences as an educator in both Japan and Canada. Both educational systems aims towards the same outcome: the development of the child toward their future role in adult society. However, the difference can be seen in the differences in the educator’s desire for the children’s development, and their role in adult society. The Japanese educational system emphasizes the importance of the group (Hoffman, 2000, 301).
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The national, cultural image reflects its stress on group interconnectedness (Hoffman, 2000, p. 301).
Within a classroom’s daily life, large group activities are encouraged. Japanese students spend less time seated and more time participating in whole or small group activities (Hoffman, 2000, p. 302).
On a regular basis, as a teacher in elementary schools in Japan, I prepared group or whole class interactive activities. As children learn, the attention is given to the children’ development in terms of a collective effort as a class (Hoffman, 2000, p. 302).
In Japan, the greatest task of the children’s education is considered to be their socialization into group life (Hoffman, 2000, p. 302).
In the middle childhood years, there is a large increase of formalization and rituals in schools. Every part if life is a routine. The school code of dress, attitude, and daily routine, all are oriented to encourage proper observance of form (Hoffman, 2000, p.
The role of the teacher is not authoritarian, but instead warm and friendly. Teachers look to the group or class to guide behaviors. Japanese teachers rely on the group, by emphasizing interdependence and the importance of each other’s relationship to one another (Cole & Cole, 2001, p. 541).
This follows the cultural theme of interconnectedness in contrast to independence.
This theme is the backbone to the Japanese educational and cultural system. In contrast, the North American education system stresses the ideals of individualism. The aim of the North American system is to socialize the children to become independent individuals, who have relationships with whom they choose (Cole & Cole, 2001, p. 541).
This ideal of individualism influences the way educators approach learning. Children are encouraged to strive and pursue individual potential and needs (Hoffman, 2000, p.
Children spend a lot of time pursuing individual activities alone during class time. The classroom is teacher centered in terms of its direction and authority. Whereas the Japanese teacher relies on the social structure and peers, North American teachers have authority to direct the class (Hoffman, 2000, p. 304).
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This adult control is an external standard placed on the child (Hoffman, 2000, p.
The Japanese teacher relies on the inner standards within the child and their fellow classmates to control the child (Hoffman, 2000, p. 307).
In situations, such as a child acting out in class, North American teachers assert authority where as Japanese teacher’s look to group pressure to conform and control the child. The child’s understanding of the social structure of society is important in the Japanese socialization process. While very conformist in practice, Japanese look at the social structure as having two layers: the social interactions self and the inner self.
(Hoffman, 2000, p. 307).
A Japanese child has one level of self, expressed in social interactions, which is primarily conformist, and another level in the inner self, where they can express their true thoughts and feelings (Hoffman, 2000, p. 307).
This is a part of the socialization seen in education.
The emphasis on group and conformity is evident, but Japanese use this interconnectedness to emphasize the freedom to learn and to express themselves (Hoffman, 2000, p. 304).
These two goals – conformity and freedom of expression, seem like conflicting ideas, but within the group framework, the Japanese children have the freedom to grow as an individual and express individual learning patterns. As this pattern of conformity meets the children’s need for belonging, the student can therefore have meaningful learning experiences. This group focus encourages students to find different ways to solve the same problem as they look at the problem together (Hoffman, 2000, p. 306).
‘Japanese preschools do not seek a renunciation of individuality or selfhood so much as they offer children the chance to develop dimensions of self difficult to cultivate at home” (To min (1992), as sited in Hoffman, 2000, p. 306).
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The Japanese educational system allows students to explore their inner self through encouragement from their warm non-authoritative teachers. While development of the inner self is encouraged, its place is the private domain. The ability to distinguish and make shifts between the social and private domain is considered the mark of a mature child and individual (Hoffman, 2000, p.
The North American educational system values the unified self (Hoffman, 2000, p. 307).
Its culture does not place value on two distinguished layers, but instead emphasizes the importance of communication. North American individualism places importance on the development of self as an individual independent of others. The two layers of Japanese self allows for Japanese children to think one way and act another, something a person in North American culture would consider fake or untrue to one’s self.
The North American system places value on revealing your true self and communicating your true feelings as an individual. Children can question things and express themselves freely. Within the educational system, children are encouraged to speak openly and freely, without retrain. This openness is reflective of the type of adult the education system hopes to develop within each child. These are the frameworks for each system. After reflecting on the three schools in Japan and the one here in Canada where I worked, it is interesting to note how these ideals actually took form within these schools.
In Japan, the teachers expressed concerns for the future of their system. In terms of class discipline, where teachers traditional rely on the social structure within the school to control the class, teachers are discovering this is not working as well as before. In this global world, Japanese students are more aware of the quest for individualism within the North American culture and desire more freedoms. Even though Japanese teachers stress that the system does allow for individual growth, students are demanding more freedoms and less conformity.
Many students rebel, although the extent is often very minor. In the schools where I worked some students would come to school with socks that do not conform to the schools uniforms color. A fear of a more extreme rebellion could be because there is an underlying proverb that permeates all Japanese schools and life in general: “The nail that stands the tallest gets knocked down first.” In many cases ostracizing from the group is the most common method of knocking down that tallest nail. Japanese teachers in their traditional roles have no disciple pattern to follow to combat any small discipline issue because they have never before had to rely on themselves to discipline. Japanese children have always been good children, but now they are learning to act out and break the norm. In contrast, the North American teacher has a code of discipline in place and has to use it all the time.
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It is assumed that the students will not behave well on a regular basis. As teachers strive to produce individualist and independent children, in the process have provided too much of an avenue to express this independence. Within the school comments like, ‘ I don’t have to work if I don’t want to,’ are commonly heard. Children have become too self aware and too self centered.
When it comes to the area of creativity, Japanese students have struggled as individuals, fearing that what they do will not be at least similar to everyone else. Everything within the school has a required process, without it the student lose his sense of freedom and creativity. Many times while teaching a task would not be completed well and with creativity unless I made it a group project with rote instructions. An example is a newspaper project I conducted with my grade seven classes. Each student was asked to write about whatever they wanted, but it had to be in the style of a newspaper.
Out of ninety possible students, two students finished the assignment. My fellow teacher suggested I make it a group assignment and assign themes. Interestingly enough, I quickly received a newspaper from every group. After reflecting on that experience, it is interesting to contrast how within the framework of their style, the children flourished and produced wonderfully creative articles, but without it, they faltered. This may be true for the adults as well.
The culture as a whole, reflects the need to be a member of a group. There are many cultural, sports and social adult groups. Within groups, Japanese adults are some of the most unique people, but without it, you wonder where their identity lies: what the group is or what they are as people. Both of these educational systems are reflective of the culture. The Japanese educational system aims to socialize the children to rely on groups and stresses the importance of relations within those groups.
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In contrast, the North American educational system aims to socialize the children to be independent and individualistic. Each system aims to socialize their children in a way they see as important for the culture they live in. Japanese culture is very dependent on the group concept, whereas the North American culture stresses the notion of independence. References: Cole, Michael, & Sheila R. Cole, (2001) The Development if Children. (4 th ed.
New York, New York: Worth Publishers. Hoffman D, (2000).
Individualism and Individuality in American and Japanese Early Education: A Review and Critique. American Journal of Education 108 (Aug.
, 2000): 300-317.