This post was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

Most of you will recall that for a number of years U.S. education was compared unfavorably to that of the Japanese. The criterion was high achievement test scores, especially in science and math, and the conclusions were apparently clear. More rigor was needed, stricter academic discipline, more time on task, and more family emphasis on student achievement. “Let Japan be our guide!”

Then came the revelation a few years ago that this supposedly exemplary achievement driven, test focused educational system helped create the hikikimori. This was the name given to a generation of middle and upper middle class Japanese young adults who were anxious, alienated and withdrawn from society, often aimless, and frequently still living with their parents. This was documented in depth by Michael Zielenziger in his book, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation .”

These dysfunctional young adults emerged from a rigid educational system that focused far more on test results than on creative and critical thinking, human development, or meaningful engagement in the world. This system, idealized in the United States, is still considered a model by many of those shaping educational policy in this country today. The irony is inescapable.

Well something very interesting has apparently taken place during the present crisis in Japan. A recent Time magazine article, “ Rising to the Challenge ,” (Time, April 4, 2011) noted that a significant number of these young adults have emerged from their places of withdrawal to become actively involved in the rescue and repair efforts. In unprecedented numbers they are working as volunteers, using social networking skills, and playing a leadership role in helping Japan recover from the recent catastrophe.

As one young woman put it, “...when it comes down to it, we want to help, not just with money but with real work.” Another notes, “I know it’s a small thing, but I want to do all that I can. Japan may be dark right now, but if we all come together, it will be bright again.”

The article went on to say that these young Japanese, previously isolated from society and from politics, are increasingly become activist leaders and, perhaps the hope for a new Japan.

Educational policy makers in the U.S. will probably pay no attention to this, but they should. The myopic testing obsession here ignores side-effects. Our achievement score driven schools apparently have no awareness of the potential to create our own version of the hikikimori, even as the warning is continually sounded by psychologists and educators.

But there is another lesson in the recent reawakening of this Japanese generation. If you provide adolescents with meaningful challenges that engage them actively in the world, you wake them up. If you place an emphasis on hands-on activities that engage young people, you wake them up. If you provide transformational rituals that help young people mature, you wake them up and bring them into society as active members.

There are many teachers and some schools in the U.S. that have been aware of this for years. There are programs that place a high priority on project-based learning, including a community service component, and that challenge students to engage in the world outside. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. In most places, as in my home county of Marin, California, they are scattered oases in an educational desert: a few academies in one school, a special program in another, a one year active-learning program for a handful of kids. The overwhelming emphasis is on grade motivated, testing focused education that is far too close to the failed Japanese system.

Tellingly, the recent annual conference of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the most prominent practitioner focused educational organization in the U.S., confirmed my sense that these school programs are exceptions. There was very little on the extensive ASCD program related to social action, community service, connecting classrooms to the world outside, or project-based learning. The tail of testing and assessment continues to wag the dog of the educational establishment.

I find this depressing and unsettling. Do parents and students have to continue to search for educational oases? Will we raise young adults here who need a national crisis to wake them up? And what is needed to wake up our national and local educational policy makers?


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