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Education is a Relationship, Not a Test Score

14th January 2017

“At the heart of education is a teacher and a learner, and we have over time obfuscated that relationship with every type of accretion and distraction. We have syllabuses, we have testing regimes, testing companies, political ideologies, political purposes, subject loyalties, union issues, building codes… It’s why we can spend all day talking about education and never mention teaching and learning.”

This is one of the biggest issues of our time, and as a teacher for the past four years it is one that is very close to my heart. I have seen the effects of standardised education in Asia (specifically Japan) and I am confused as to why the west feels the need to compete on test results with these nations. While Japan (and Korea, China and others) have outstanding test results, how does that correlate to their real world results in work and life.

This graph shows Japan’s test scores leagues above the US and the UK, and even Sweden and Norway, countries known for their outstanding education results.

Reading and Mathematics scores are not, and should not be, the goal.

From my experience in education in Japan, I see countless children crushed by a system that values them firstly by how well they can perform a few distinct tasks. Good math scores are impressive, but aside from counting my change and using fractions when measuring cups of flour, I can’t think that my ability to do quadratic equations has helped me all that much in my life. For some jobs they are essential, yes, but for the vast majority of people this task is unhelpful for their personal educational goals.

The terrible cost of this kind of education in Japan is a classroom full of quiet, obedient children. They won’t ask questions they want to know the answers to. In fact, many of them have already given up on education by the time they leave middle school, and the education system has given up on them. In every kind of school and at all levels of education here I have been told not to bother with the lowest level children, to leave them to their own devices and not to worry if they gain anything from the class.

“Focus on the smart kids and don’t worry about the ones that can’t concentrate.”

Thank God I have confidence as a teacher and don’t listen to them.

I know that the children who are naughty and misbehave are exactly the kids I have the biggest responsibility to help, and actually the biggest opportunity to help as well. They need help, and giving up on them is child abuse as far as I’m concerned. I love teaching the smart kids too, but they don’t need me as much. They are already fantastic, why do they need more help than the kids who struggle?

This ingrained cultural habit of leaving behind children who need help is setting up the country for a huge financial collapse. Already the working population is shrinking due to ageing and the lack of assimilation of women into the workforce (Japan ranked 111th in the World Economic Forum for gender equality, behind countries such as Ethiopia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka). Education is the best and most sustainable way to keep the country afloat.

Don’t worry about the test scores, focus on the whole person

As an avid believer in the Montessori method, I know that children have immense powers of learning and do not need to be forced or pushed to learn. I mean it just makes sense, watch kids in a Montessori school, they are just alive and excited by what they can learn. If you put them in a mental cage and force them to learn abstract things that don’t matter to them (right now), you don’t have a right to be surprised when they don’t perform well and suffer from depression and anxiety.

By helping to put children in an environment where they can direct their own learning, they flourish. When we stop aiming for a number on a leaderboard and focus on the whole child, we give them a chance to understand themselves and what they can do, and therefore give them the best chance to succeed in life.



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