Japanese Lessons: A Year in a Japanese School Through the Eyes of an American Anthropologist and Her Children

Gail R. Benjamin, Author
Gail R. Benjamin, Author New York University Press $70 (262p) ISBN 978-0-8147-1291-7
Reviewed on: 12/30/1996
Release date: 01/01/1997
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-8147-1334-1
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Sam is in fifth grade and Ellen is in first at Okubo East Elementary School in Japan. Their mother, Gail Benjamin, writes: ""the picture I expected of docile, quiet Japanese students plodding through reams of repetitive problems, becoming computational wizards with no notion of the meaning of the problems they were dealing with, turned out to be a fiction dispelled by seeing what goes on in Japanese classrooms and by looking at the teaching materials Japanese children are exposed to."" Benjamin distills a year's worth of detailed observations into a skillful dissection of the Japanese elementary educational system. Benjamin is an advocate of this system. Classrooms are organized into small groups of students with varying abilities; learning seems to be intrinsically satisfying rather than a chore with extrinsic rewards; and a non-authoritarian teaching style allows teachers to believe that children want to be good and wish to do well. Benjamin suggests that Americans could successfully adopt some of these structural features. But she also voices ambivalence about a system so different from what we know and have experienced: ""The practice of continual self-evaluation in public, for academic goals and goals of character development, is either a brilliant tactic for motivating individuals in many areas of life and at many levels of accomplishment, or a nasty, Machiavellian plot to impose the values of the authorities on tender minds."" Whether or not the reader is convinced of the ultimate value of the Japanese school system, the book's engaging style and accessibility will appeal to a wide readership. (Feb.)
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