Vacation Homework: Tokyo-Style

Here’s an interesting piece in the International Herald Tribune describing the amount of work an 8-year-old child from a Tokyo school had to take on his family vacation to Hawaii. (I know many of you have children who are currently on winter break or are about to be on winter break. Please send me your stories of vacation homework.)

Homework For the Beach
by Kumiko Makihara

As I plan our spring vacation, I’m dreading how much homework my 8-year-old son will have.

During our winter holiday in Hawaii, too many beach days were cut short by our laboring to get through the inventory of five pages of math, four pages of writing practice, three pages of reading comprehension drills, two geography quiz sheets, two independent reports, an English alphabet sheet, a book log, a diary and a Japanese card game.

Japanese elementary schools don’t believe children should hang loose during extended vacations. “Unless you are vigilant, you could end up spending time passively,” warned my son’s school’s newsletter.

Teachers assign large amounts of homework to make sure students don’t lose their academic momentum. Entrance exams for the next level of schooling loom ahead, after all. Studying during the holidays prevents delinquency, too, by keeping children busy and off the streets.

The holidays are also viewed as a time to tackle that project you couldn’t get to during the school year. “Do you want to organize your drill sheets and test papers,” suggested the newsletter.

For non-self-starting children, such questions might as well be directed to the parents who are expected to save the day.

“Please make sure the work includes some ideas or thoughts from your child,” my son’s science teacher told parents last summer when explaining an assignment to invent a useful appliance. No engineer myself, I turned to my cousin, an architect. He already knew the drill, having once built a miniature Swiss pasture on a music box for a pre-school homework project.

About 25 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 14 have their mothers nearby when they do homework, according to a 2006 Japanese government survey. Every August, museums, parks and major stores offer homework fairs to help children with their summer homework projects.

Such heavy-handed instruction from all corners doesn’t give children much opportunity to think independently or play with ideas, and it may be one of the reasons Japanese students lack initiative and motivation.

Among 57 countries surveyed in 2006 by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Japanese students demonstrated an understanding of scientific facts and theories but showed the least amount of confidence in their abilities to apply that information.

If left alone to tackle his homework, I was sure my son Yataro would not make a dent in the load. So apart from a furlough for Christmas day, I doled out daily quotas for him and enlisted all the help I could find.

Yataro spent one afternoon in a research center where the president supervised the writing of 20 sentences of Chinese characters. I scouted out the location of an exotic Sausage Tree that bears giant sausage-shaped fruits for an independent report. My scientist ex-boyfriend took us to a museum where we painstakingly copied an illustration of a rabbit that also looks like a bird for a paper on optical illusions. And late at night, the melodious voice of my old college classmate reverberated down the hotel corridor as she chanted some of the 100 poems that Yataro needed to memorize to master the 13th century card game.

One day, a fed-up Yataro fled our Waikiki hotel room to seek refuge with a friend from school who was staying at the hotel next door. No matter. The friend’s mother, my comrade-in-arms, sat the boys down to write their diaries. “I am dashing over to my friend’s heaven,” wrote Yataro in a breathless description of his adventure. “I rode in the corner of the elevator so it would be hard to see me because in America you are not allowed to go outside alone.”

During all of this I couldn’t help notice what other kids in Hawaii had for homework over the holidays. It was far less; one book to read or a few drill sheets. Yataro’s friend Darian, also a third grader, had one coloring sheet to fill and a reading log. Watching the two boys building Lego and racing cars, I had no inclination to believe that Yataro was accumulating any skills that would have him outpace Darian in the future. And which boy was enjoying the holidays more?

We left Hawaii yearning for more time at the beach, but our homework on target. I’d survived another holiday. But spring break is just around the corner.

4 thoughts on “Vacation Homework: Tokyo-Style

  1. From the article: He already knew the drill, having once built a miniature Swiss pasture on a music box for a pre-school homework project.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    This is my favorite passage. In pre-school yet! Yes, we all know that sending home work a child cannot possibly complete by himself so that the entire task falls on dad, really instills those lofty goals of responsibility and initiative.

    And I thought Japan didn’t believe in elementary homework. My daughter’s Japanese teacher tells the kids about the famed “cram week” before exams and the typical five hours sleep Japanese high schoolers get. But we all thought elementary was sacrosanct.

    The Tribune’s depiction of life in the Japanese kiddie fast lane was so pathetic, it was actually humorous. I’ve heard many justifications schools make to assign homework, but delinquency isn’t usually one of them! I’d counter that by retorting that since my child does not intend to be disorderly in public, I’ll pass on the holiday homework, thank you very much.

    LBJ

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  2. I was educated in Malaysia and that sounds familiar! Every holiday (aside for end-of-the-year) you’d have homework. And every teacher seemed to assume that they were the only people giving you homework for the holidays, so they would each give you enough to fill a month. Multiply that by about 6 and you get stress. What usually happens is that everyone leaves it till the last minute, cramming till the middle of the night.

    Like Japan, Malaysian students have issues with innovation and synthesis of information. If it’s not spoonfed, it’s not worth learning.

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  3. My sister-in-law visited Japan 2 years ago on a Fulbright teaching scholarship, and told me about the large amounts of homewrok students were getting, including this “cramming” time in the evening after a full school day. She also told me that a whole culture of angry and dissident students has evolved from this demanding and unreasonable practice, called “the refusers”. Apparrently the group is growing in numbers.

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  4. While I have issues with the amount of homework my 1st and 3rd grader receive, the school is good about leaving vacations blissfully homework free.

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