This past week we ran a bit late and I didn't have enough time to martial my thoughts and get them all down on paper, so I left class with a full mind and an almost painfully strong need to sit down with paper and pen and WRITE.
This week's theme was academic ability - in particular its relation to an individual's personal traits and cultural differences. We looked at a number of studies that tested 5 year-olds and linked their results to their academic test scores in grades 5 and 6. The first was of a matching test, where the little kids were asked to pick the matching image out of 6 similar choices.
(don't worry if you can't find a pair - I spent a good 5 minutes searching
before I realized this is just the ANSWER, the question - with the one you are
supposed to find the match for, was not included in our class handout)
In the second test, kids reached into a box and (without looking) touched a wooden shape and then had to pick out the shape they had felt from four diagrams on a piece of paper.
The study showed that in Japan there is a strong correlation between how a student did on the matching test, and how they did academically later in elementary school. In the United States, however, while there was no correlation for the matching test, there was an even STRONGER correlation between how a child did on the shape-feeling test and how they scored academically years later. In short, in Japanese schools it is the students with patience and attention to detail who excel, while in the US it is free-thinkers with good imaginations.
No surprise there, I suppose. Isn't that the stereotype, after all? Hammering down the nail that sticks up, versus the sacredness of the individual. I'm not one to agree with something just because that is what "everybody says," however, in fact I'm just contrary enough to want to believe the exact opposite! So, I began to think...
I started with my Brownies. After all, I first became a Brownie leader 10 years ago (we are NOT going to discuss the fact that that means my very first Brownies graduated from high school last year and have just finished their first year of university, making them the same age as the "kids" in my education class!! But I digress...) In the intervening decade I've worked with 5 different troops in Canada, the US and Japan. Culturally, the North American and Japanese Brownies are divided by uniform. While in Canada and the US girls are required to wear no more than their scarf and enrollment pin, and can choose from more uniform options such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, blouses, skirts, shorts, sweat pants, full headscarves... In Japan, on the other hand, girls are required to wear uniform hats, blouses, skirts belts and socks. For formal occasions black shoes (of your own choosing) are also required. This is a cultural difference (I can't imagine trying to tell the parents of my girls in Canada that their daughter must wear totally black shoes with her uniform, they'd think I was mad or controlling or both!) but is also at least partially due to a desire in North America to make Guiding/Scouting accessible to a wider (specifically lower income) audience. So the first image that came to mind was the uniformity of my Japanese Brownies versus the individuality of my North American Brownies.
Sarah's contrariness: 0
I started thinking more superficially about the troops I've worked with and the girls in the troops. I was rather surprised to realize something that has never hit me before. My Brownies are all in the 8-10 age range but unconsciously I had been thinking my Japanese Brownies were older. While this could be partially due to the fact that in both Canada and the US I also worked with the pre-Brownie age group as well, the more I thought about it the more I realized that my American and Canadian Brownies seemed younger, more kid-like, my Japanese Brownies much quieter and more reserved.
Sarah's contrariness: 0
I decided at this point to think of other examples, so I turned to my
prison sentence time as an English teacher. My favourite memory is of the Halloween craft project I did with all my students under the age of 16. I cut out pumpkin-shaped templates in orange construction paper and gave each student a pair of scissors and black paper. They were not allowed to write or draw pictures, but could decorate their Jack-o-lantern in any way they desired. Most of them looked at me dumbly as I slowly and simply explained (miming when needed) what I wanted them to do. I had made a basic example myself and was half expecting to have dozens of similar Jack-o-lanterns. While it took them a few moments to get warmed up, however, my students COMPLETELY AMAZED me with their creativity and individuality. No two Jack-o-lanterns were ANYTHING alike, and not one single one looked like mine or any other "traditional" Jack-o-lantern either!
Just a few of the unique creations my kids came up with.
Sarah's contrariness: 1
The craft had originally grown out of a desire to make decorations for the school when my manager couldn't find any decorations she liked at the store. The kids LOVED having their handiwork up for all to see, and many of the cram school teachers and students asked if they too could make a Jack-o-lantern. I had been a bit worried that the parents would complain of a valuable lesson hour having been largely "wasted" on a craft project. I was not, however, prepared for the reaction I got. The parents were overwhelmingly positive in their reaction. They LOVED the artwork and enjoyed trying to guess which face belonged to which child. I also had a number of parents individually thank me directly or through my director for having done such a project with their child. They felt it was an important creative opportunity, one their child didn't have outside of the English classroom.
Sarah's contrariness: 1
With this type of score, I was forced to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. I thought too about kids programs I helped out with at the museum, and about the experiences of my friend who is Japanese but worked in the US as a museum educator. Gradually I began to see a picture that largely agreed with the studies. Culturally, Japan is a country that encourages similarity and order. Children, when encouraged, are just as imaginative and energetic and individual, but they are much less likely to be encouraged to do so, especially not in a classroom setting.