My son, a student in elementary school, participated in a “marathon” not long ago. It is called a marathon, but it isn’t the Olympic 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers. I was only a couple of kilometers. I went and watched this year as I have in years past, and came to the same conclusions that I have in the past about the event. These events expose three of the biggest flaws in Japanese education. First, the event turns everyone in the class into direct competitors. Second, it is not a developmental event in preparation or execution. Third, instead of a policy of “leave no child behind,” it’s, ” always leave the same children behind.” It is physical, but it is not education.
Practice for this event begins about a month before, and consists of using the PE period to run laps around the playground. No record is kept of the students’ individual performance for the day, much less from year to year. Each student knows that on race day, they will run and only the boy and girl from each class who crosses the finish line first will receive any recognition at all. Everyone else will be losers and receive only a piece of paper with what number they came in for their class. This reflects the “hensachi”, or class rank, mentality that pervades Japanese education as an institution.
Solution: Make a program where everyone can succeed based on his or her efforts, not based entirely on luck or proclivity. Encourage the children to bring watches with stop watches, and show them how to measure their times. Have them run around the playground for time or distance, and record their times. After a month of practice, review their times with them. Show them that their times have improved with a little light exercise. The merits of this kind of program are that it gets kids outside for some fun and exercise; everyone can succeed and learn that effort brings results, and that the children feel good about themselves at the end. Competition is still there, but everyone has a chance to compete right from the very beginning.
These marathons could be/should be a time when children learn how they develop over time. They could be science classes where children learn about how muscles move, why their breathing speeds up how blood works, why nutrition is important, and how they are growing. Unfortunately there is no connection made between their development and their physical activity.
Solution: Integrate the sport event into their regular learning so that the children can appreciate how their bodies work, how important nutrition is to growing bodies, and how to remain healthy for their whole lives.
At the end of the day, the names of the winners are read out to the audience. Everyone goes home with a place. The place is the place that they came in with relation to the other members of their class. It is always the same. Their report cards come back with their place in the class. They are advised on their junior high school, and later their high school and college choices based on their place in the class. The “good” kids, the “fast” kids, the “smart” kids are always first or around there. The “weak”, “dumb,” “slow” (a word that has even been adopted into Japanese to express children who have a low aptitude in a subject, “slow learners”), kids always are. There is one child in my son’s class who gets very good grades but does not do well in sports. As a parent, I know the boy because I have met or seen him at school functions, and because my son is one of his friends. Before the race began, everyone knew that he would come in last, probably passed by some of the younger children. What an unfortunate situation that could be remedied by looking at the child’s progress over the training period for the race, over the school year, since he entered the first grade. It is possible that this child has improved more than any other student in the school. But we will never know. He will never know, because it isn’t about development. It’s about sorting out the weak, the dumb, the slow.
Solution: Make records available. That means that records must be taken and made public. The records should include best times for the races for the school and for individual school years. They should also include records of time for the day, term, school year, and for every year since the child entered the school. When it comes to the awards ceremony at the end, the winners should receive awards. The winners should also include the students who have improved the most over a period of time and the winners of that particular day’s race.
The Japanese school system is good at some things. They are not good at conducting this kind of event or using for the development of children. Marathons can be fun. 34,600 people finished the NY Marathon last Fall. That is because the event isn’t just about the race. It is about individuals having fun, keeping themselves fit, and participating in sport. I want my child to have this kind of experience.