Japanese Classrooms: From Chaos to Complete Control (Mary DeVries)

This account by an American teacher in a Japanese rural elementary school reflects what one teacher experienced. Generalizing to all Japanese schools, rural and urban, large and small, elementary and secondary is a step too far. Other teachers might write different accounts. This is hers. Mary DeVries wrote this piece in Medium on November 17, 2020.

Children raise their hands to share views as they take part in a digital program at a Coby Preschool in Yoshikawa, suburban Tokyo in 2018 with their teacher and preschool principal Akihito Minabe (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

The first thing I noticed when I started working at a Japanese elementary school was how well behaved and focused the students were. The second thing I noticed was how loud, absolutely wild, and seemingly out of control they were at times. I believe these two states are connected.

I was an English teacher in rural Japan for two years. I say English teacher since that was my title but I actually functioned as more of a glorified pronunciation model. I came into each class once a week for their English lesson. The classroom teacher would run the lesson and I would follow their directions. This set up allowed me a lot of opportunities for observation.

In keeping with my preconceived expectations of what a Japanese school would be like, I was immediately struck by how polite and well mannered the students were. As I entered each classroom all eyes were focused on me and the classroom teacher. Students sat quietly and listened to directions.

As I walked down the neat rows of desk stopping at each one for the obligatory, “Hello, my name is Ms. DeVries. What’s your name?” the selected student would answer, if necessary with prompting from the teacher to encourage the exact formulary to use. Meanwhile, despite the mundaneness of this exercise the rest of the class sat quietly waiting for their turn. How different from my experiences in most American classrooms.

Then we moved into the main content of the day’s lesson, colors. After a quick review of English color names, it was time for a game. I would say “Please touch something red.” The students would quickly scramble around the room to find something red to touch. I would repeat with a different color and they would be off again.

I was surprised by the atmosphere in the classroom during this game. The subdued students of moments before were transformed into a wild mob, laughing, yelling, and jostling each other as they reached for interesting objects to touch. Some students called out to friends who were struggling to find something with suggestions and encouragement. One student grabbed a chair, pulled it over to the wall, kicked off his shoes before climbing on the chair to reach up precariously on tiptoe to touch a red item up high.

The noise level was very high. The seeming chaos was such that in most American classrooms the teacher would have been drawing an immediate halt to the game and sitting all the students down for a lecture along the lines of, “If you can’t control yourself we won’t be able to play the game anymore and we will all just have to sit at our desks quietly.”

In this Japanese classroom, however, the teacher stood in the corner and beamed proudly at her students as they raced riotously to find the different colors I called out. It was the end of the game that impressed me the most. The teacher clapped her hands, told the students to take a seat, and within seconds all the children were in their seats facing forward waiting for the next set of instructions.

I saw this pattern repeated regularly the entire two years I taught English in Japan. During select activities, teachers allowed much more physical movement, shouting, and frenzied excitement than would be tolerated in the American classroom setting, but when the activity ended they would be able to immediately reign in the class and transition to seatwork.

Another distinction I noticed was the flexible use of classroom space and furniture. Every Japanese classroom I taught in was equipped with standard student desks and chairs arranged in orderly rows when I first entered the classroom. However, throughout the course of a one hour English lesson, those desks and chairs were likely to be rearranged several times. The desks might get pushed to the edges of the room to make space for a circle of chairs in the middle. Or desks were turned around to face each other and make pairs or quads for student interaction. Or all furniture was moved away to make a large open space available for floorwork or other options.

The students would do all the arranging and rearranging of furniture with great speed and a minimum of fuss. This speed allowed for numerous changes even within one class period without excessive loss of instructional time.

My experiences in Japan encompassed two elementary schools in a rural setting. It would be dangerous to extrapolate too far from this limited exposure to make blanket statements about Japanese schools in general. However, I wanted to make use of what I had seen to improve my own teaching techniques as I returned to the US.

How much of what I witnessed was due to cultural differences and how much could be adapted to an American classroom? This is of course a hard question to answer. Certainly, some of the successful classroom management I witnessed was built on cultural expectations of conformity, respect for authority, and the valuing of community over individuality. However, I found that there were lessons to be learned that could be put in place in an American setting.

First, building in regular periods when students could be loud and rowdy releases steam that lets students stay focused on quieter more disciplined work at other times. This is not news to anyone however most teachers tightly constrain students at all times for fear of losing control of the class.

After returning from Japan I began experimenting with my classes to discover that fine line between chaos and control. How far could I let my classes loose to be loud and wild and express themselves during an active lesson without losing control or the ability to reign them in quickly when it is time to transition. This is a skill that takes time and patience to develop but my experiences in Japan showed me what was possible and the benefits I stood to gain in terms of effective classroom management and more time on task.

I also looked at the value of frequent room readjustments. Rearranging the classroom furniture has several benefits. The physical activity wakes up sleepy brains, burns off fidgety energy, and helps students be more ready to focus. It is exciting and signals that something new and interesting is coming. It allows for a wide variety of groupings to meet various educational needs. Having a dynamic rather than static classroom arrangement keeps everyone on their toes and viewing things in a different light.

The trick is doing this rearranging without losing too much valuable educational time. My solution is to put a little time into training students at the beginning of the year. Make a game of it timing the students as they race to rearrange the room to various preset specifications. With practice ahead of time and regular usage throughout the year, furniture rearranging can become the norm with the slight amount of time it takes well paid off by the benefits.

Just as every teacher can benefit from observing their colleagues and copying best practices in their own classroom, we all stand to gain from looking at how education happens in other cultures. What assumptions are we making that may be unwarranted? What can we try to improve our own classrooms? There is so much to learn.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Japanese Classrooms: From Chaos to Complete Control (Mary DeVries)

  1. David Patterson

    Mary, thank you for your article. I enjoyed it and agree that there is much to learn by exploring how other teachers and schools are successful in engaging students in learning – it is a big world. Frankly, it appears that poor student behavior is epidemic in some/many USA schools and communities (at least in my experience), and teachers are often at wits end. Yet, we have numerous examples here in California were this is not the case. Is it that we don’t have the will to have the community conversations and come to an agreement in our respective communities and schools (district leadership, school staff, parents and students) and then live up to them. Japan has stronger community values that are reflected in your experience. That the USA is different doesn’t mean we cannot find our own way.

  2. I worked in a local pubic school 24 miles from the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, in East Malaysia as a member of the Peace Corps from 1967-68. One of the greatest differences that I remember is that on this dormitory campus there was an auditorium with a stage. There were around 300 students at the school.
    The students would be seated in rows and would all STAND up as the teachers and administrators would walk in single file and then take their place upon the stage. NOBODY was on the floor supervising the students. The students would sit down as soon as the teachers were seated. There was NEVER any discipline problems.

    Can you ever imagine having a successful assembly in the states whereby ALL the teachers and administrators were seated on the stage?

  3. I think the photo is of a school in Indonesia, not in Japan. The children and uniforms are Indonesian.

    • larrycuban

      You might be correct. I checked it out and found a connection with Indonesia. Took it off the post. Thank your for letting me know.

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