Students are socialized smoothly into Japanese culture by han groups, which are small companies of children that learn and play together. They contribute to the children s educational growth by letting the students develop the group-oriented skills they will need in their daily adult lives. Han groups are important parts of the Japanese elementary school experience in many ways. Academically, it is the han group that is rewarded for achievement or a correct answer, not the individual student. The reward itself is usually no more than a round of applause from fellow students, but that is a strong validation for the members of that han.
When groups give a wrong answer, the teacher doesn t disdain or overlook them, but rather uses them as teaching opportunities. The focus is on reasoning, so even groups that offer wrong answers can contribute to the ongoing discussion of the class, and no individual gets singled out for poor performance. Often the group itself discovers a mistake, and they then get public credit for doing so (Benjamin 63). This illustrates how the group structure contributes to academic learning. Japanese teachers also said that some of the shy children may be more inclined to suggest answers to their small group of peers rather than to the whole class.
Students also have more time to voice their opinions when they are only talking to a group of four or five others than they would if they had to wait for the whole class to get a word in. They are placed in their hans by their teachers, who have several methods of doing so. Once accustomed to their classes, teachers might assign students with leadership qualities to be the han leader. Others might let the students without leadership qualities lead their han in order to level the playing field. Sometimes the students themselves are responsible for arranging their own hans.
From a student s perspective, I think han groups are very enjoyable. The students are not forced into groups by authority figures, instead, they are praised for cooperating with the group activities. If an individual lags behind or questions the significance of group activities, the teacher doesn t scold but politely explains as many times as necessary that it is important to be involved. Often times the other students will chime in to persuade the student who hasn t joined in because they don t want to have to stay after school.
Children also enjoy the time that they get to spend as “leader” of their han group. Benjamin says that this is because it increases their individual interaction with the teacher by a small amount, because they get a chance to tell other children what to do, and because they become the center of attention for several important rituals during the day (Benjamin 59). The idea of amae is used to help students understand the importance of belonging to the group. It teaches that, in a group, the individual can still be independent and happy.
Amae is defined as the feeling of being lovingly dependent on someone else and the behaviors that such a feeling produces (Benjamin 79). Amae is taught as a social skill. It is helpful in the student s relationships with his/her han, and also between student and teacher. It helps the seemingly uncontrollable student realize the importance of receiving and giving care and attention. In han groups, the pleasure of participating in meaningful relationships with peers and the avoidance of being singled out and embarrassed seems to be plenty of incentive for these students.
Amae teaches the children that social skills and human relationships are essential to their well-being and happiness (Benjamin 79), therefore making the constraints of group life that much easier to endure. In my opinion, han groups are a very successful tool in elementary education. At that age, I think I would have enjoyed being able to discuss certain difficult lessons with classmates instead of holding my hand up only to risk asking a “stupid” question. In fact, as I remember it, the avoidance of embarrassment was the driving force behind most of my retracted and therefore unanswered questions in elementary school.