Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this summer, and trying not to spend so much time at the computer. I used to spend lots of time reading, but now I waste lots of time surfing the net, which makes me a little bit sad.

Anyway, I’m currently reading Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori, a Japanese woman who lived for a long time in the Midwest, which is the reverse of me – a Midwesterner living in Japan. This book was published ten years ago, and many things in Japan have changed since then. For example, I know of many adult women who don’t want to marry, and I know of middle-aged women who have gone back to college. But a lot of things ring true even now, and I find myself wanting to call up my friends and read passages out loud. In lieu of that, I’ll post a bit. Here’s what Ms. Mori wrote about school:

“No matter what the subject, our teachers never gave us very clear advice about how to do better. When I couldn’t understand long division or fractions and decimals in math, I felt bad at first. On the timed tests we had every day, I could finish only half the problems before the teacher’s stopwatch beeped, telling us to put down our pencils. The results were put up on the wall, and my name was always near the bottom. I was told to ‘try harder,’ but none of my teachers spent extra time with me to go over what I was doing wrong. Since I wasn’t given a real chance to improve, I decided after a while that I didn’t really care how I did.”

Reading this has made me feel better about my son’s recent math scores. He’s not doomed (as my husband thinks) after all!  Kyoko Mori is now teaching at Harvard.

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5 thoughts on “Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori

  1. There’s a lot behind this.

    First is the focus on computation. Computation is obviously fundamental to math, but at the same time isn’t actually very important — you can always get a calculator to do a computation for you in the real world, and being able to do 100 problems in the fastest time isn’t really a test of math skill.

    There are, however, reasons to do this sort of timed test. My oldest son simply wouldn’t focus without being timed — if we timed him, it would take him a couple of minutes, if not, a few HOURS. It gets really tiring doing hyaku masu kei san for three hours when you know it could be done in five or ten minutes. And the practice doing it is valuable, because eventually most just memorize all the simple calculations anyway.

    Your real issue here is with the perceptions of your husband, possibly the teachers, and quite probably your son.

  2. I can see that, but I think that instead of testing all the time, maybe the teachers should spend more time doing problems on the board, or having the kids do problems on the board. Something interactive! Giving tests isn’t the same as teaching. Maybe have the timed tests once a week or every other week. Also, I think that some kids get nervous when they’re being timed and don’t do well, and others (like my son’s best friend) don’t care about the time and don’t manage to finish.

  3. I agree, some kids get very nervous. My first son doesn’t, my second son does. I’ve stopped timing him. Instead I draw little monsters at the end of each row that he’s defeated once he completes the row successfully.

    Actually, I don’t think “managing to finish” is really the right goal anyway. Just kind of a proxy for other goals, and it’s just the exercise itself that has some value. I think if they did it for five minutes a day but didn’t put a lot of stress on how well people did, it might be better. Maybe don’t score them according to the average of the class at all, but according to their own average.

    I’m ambivalent about the board work. I could imagine a lot of kids being quite stressed about that also. It might actually be a positive thing for Japanese education though, given that they occasionally realize that they could be a little more outspoken (I once read an article for mothers of Japanese children going to public school in America; it was quite impressed with show-and-tell.)

    I’m quite interested in your struggles with the Japanese educational system. I probably have a more positive outlook on it than you (I deal with my kids in US schools, which believe me can be just as obstinate as Japanese schools). I would guess that they might disregard a lot of your opinions simply because you’re a foreigner. This is rather unfortunate, but I’m wondering if you couldn’t use some of your foreignness as a positive regarding the things Japanese acknowledge themselves they don’t do well? They might be much more willing to defer to you on areas like public speaking or debate, perhaps?

  4. Yes, I liked it so much that I bought/mooched all of her other books. I wasn’t sure if I would, because I read a lukewarm review awhile back, but I did.

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