知•徳•体 A day in the life of a Japanese elementary school student

知•徳•体 Chi toku tai. A solid academy ability, richness in humanity, and a healthy body. 

The Japanese Ministry of Education's EDU-port Japan Project recently published this video in English, to give people outside of Japan a glimpse into the unique priorities and characteristics of Japanese education by describing the schedule and activities of an elementary school child during the average day.

Semper Legarus: Why going slow is key to going fast

My wife and I just met with my son's teachers for his evaluation. There's a lot of positive energy right now, because he's made incredible progress in a lot of areas. This was the first evaluation that did a deep dive into his technical skills: How is he doing in English, math, and other more granular skill sets related to his cognitive function, not just his ability to play well and follow directions. Before I continue, I should note that the school he goes to is exceptional. They are the embodiment of Maria Montessori, and yet with a keen awareness of modern life academic baseline requirements in both the US and in Japan. I haven't found another school like it after two exhaustive years searching.

During the review session, my son's teacher dove deep into a list of developmental and cognitive functions at his approximate age, supported by what felt like countless tests and the results of administering those tests to my son in recent days.  For example, when presented with a stack of a dozen legos and asked to order them by size, did he order them by height or by depth or other?

Another test was counting from one to twenty in English, as well as in Japanese.  Curiously, in English he would skip seventeen and barrel on to concluding at twenty.  I was curious why, so I asked. The answer? Don't worry, it's not uncommon for children to do this at this age. We just need to keep practicing.

In general, we were really pleased with the outcome.  Our son shows signs of creativity in select areas where he does things differently than the rest of the student population (I think this is a good thing), and his general level of competency is up to par with the rest of the student population.  Nothing to worry about, and he's creative and interesting to boot.

But what about that counting issue? I thought about it for the rest of that day. After a few hours, it hit me: My father dealt with the same problem with his students, and he had the solution, if they wanted it.

You see, my father was a classical guitarist.  He played professionally - concerts, weddings, other gigs - for a living. And he taught classical guitar at a college as well. One time, back when I was in junior college, I decided to take his course. In hindsight, I should have known what I was in for, but I was still rather shocked by the attitudes of the student population.

My father didn't need to point out to me the few students in the classroom that had never picked up a guitar in their lives until now, and yet they arrived to class with the expectation of playing like Eddie Van Halen. And yet, all they are working on Malaguena. And they were screwing it up. They were trying so hard to shred, they were actually sucking at it.

That was my son that night, at the end of dinner, when I smoothly transitioned the discussion into him reciting one through twenty. He wanted to be done with dinner, so he rattled off one through twenty as fast as he possibly could, practically slurring the numbers together. Guess which number he skipped? When I asked him to start over, mentioning that he missed a number, he exploded, "I don't known why are you doing that. I want to be done!"  I just calmly asked him to start over again.

He grunted, then started rattling off one through twenty as if through a machine gun.  I could barely make out the words as they seemed to come out in a stream.... "onetwohreefouriveixheveneightinetenelen....." Guess which one he skipped?  Good old lucky number 17.

"Again," I said. He scowled. I didn't care. "Do it again. You're still skipping number 17." He scowled even harder. And did it again. Skipping number 17. At this point he wasn't in tears. He was now raging against the parent machine. He was so mad that I had to keep my composure because it was both interesting and his reaction was, while mad and emotional, actually a little funny.

It was at that point that I channeled a little big of my father, Gregory Coleman, The Classical Guitarist. "I want you to count slowly, together with me."  At first he protested.  Then he protested again, and made a big stink.  I was unphased. "We are not leaving the table until we get through this."

He was mad. But he complied, and in the most defiant manner possible started to count, on tempo, one number every two seconds:


























"I DID IT!!"

He did it. The number was there in his head all along. He was just going too fast.  

When I was a child my father taught me the Latin words "semper legarus", always slowly.  He pointed out that there was a connection between the brain and his fingers, and that it often took a lot of practice to get these two in sync. I must have been four or five or six at the time he demonstrated this to me by playing a scale on his Ramirez guitar. Playing it to a slow tempo gave him time to get the fingerings just right. Then he could turn up the speed little by little, until suddenly his playing the same scale looked like a magical dance of his fingers on the frets of the guitar.

About a week later, I talked with my son's teacher.  She told me how he had excitedly he had shared with her "going slowly", and showed her how he was able to count without error.  I'm pretty sure he doesn't yet realize it, that all he was doing was reducing a self-inflicted error rate, and feeling much more confident and better for it.

This is how parents should do it

My oldest son discovered his first loose tooth yesterday. He was ecstatic. It's another sign of another rite of passage. I hadn't seen him this excited since last year when we came back from three months in Japan and he flipped out because he could see the tops of the kitchen counters without a chair.

So my wife and I necessarily had to have the discussion re the tooth fairy. Like everything, this is a great opportunity for him to explore his world. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson nails it:

What to do when you're completely and totally wrong about your child

My son's kindergarten reading log.

I spent an entire day confused, emotional and frustrated about a single problem with something my son did that turned out to not even be a real issue. What came out of it however was a very valuable lesson I'll never forget, not only because the real issues are still ahead, but because I love my son and I deeply respect and value his teachers.

My older son, now six, brings home a weekly reading assignment from school. It's a basic reading exercise that takes him about 2-3 minutes to read through, each time pushing his reading skills just a little bit farther. We typically practice it 3-4 times, so that each time his enunciation and intonation gets just a little bit better and more natural.

This past Friday, we got up a little early and my son read to me right after breakfast. The day was going great, we were ahead of schedule, and he still had a half hour of "free time" ahead of him before we normally leave for school.  After he finished reading, he handed me his Reading Log, a half-sheet form provided by his teacher. On the form I fill out the date, the title of what he read, my initials and any comments for the teacher. I was about to complete a row for the day's reading when I noticed something funny (see the above picture - my initials and teachers' initials blurred for privacy):

  • The last row was dated February 43
  • The title and comments were completely random squiggles
  • And my initials were there.  And the teacher's.


My brain was semi-stuck in a loop trying to figure this all out. So I just asked my son in a regular voice, "Did you write this?" To which he replied, with just the slightest bit of hesitation as if he were wondering if he were somehow in trouble, "Yes, papa."

That's when memories came flooding back. Things I shouldn't have done, at places and times I shouldn't have done them. I remember how things felt. Frustrated, burned, whatever.  The point is, as a child I didn't have parents giving me the kind of careful attention I devote to my son daily. And I made decisions sometimes out of frustration because of that. So why would my son carefully forge my initials on a homework sign-off sheet?  I mean, seriously- the forgery of my initials was excellent.  I honestly wondered how I could have signed off on that.  But I didn't.  It wasn't me.

What did I do wrong that led him to this? I thought.

Then I made the first mistake: I got mad. I responded to my son's response and honesty with a mini lecture on dishonesty and forgery of someone's signature. I even mentioned people going to jail over fraud. He looked terrified. His eyes started to tear up. Maybe it was just proximity to me, but now mama was mad too, disappointed that he would do something like this. His good morning suddenly went completely sideways.

On the way to school he apologized to me no less than five times. He definitely knew that this was a bad thing.

At school his main teacher was not yet there, but in being consistent with the critical process of parent-teacher communication I swear by, I decided to approach his other teacher off, out of earshot by my son, to share what had happened that morning. This was when I received surprise #2. The teacher already knew about it.

Apparently, some of the other kids were doing the same thing. Now I was even more confused and frustrated. I tried my best to remain calm and objective, and explained to her what I had explained to my son: In our house, forgery is not okay, and I wanted to make sure we were on the same page about this.

My son at this point was already having fun with the other students and well into what was going to be a great day for him.  "Bye papa!" he shouted, smiling as if nothing had happened. I felt relieved in a way that his mood was good. His teacher acknowledged me and said she would talk with my son's main teacher that day as well.  

Earlier that morning, before we left for school, I sent a brief email to his teacher about the issue with the above picture. While he was still in school, she called me to talk about what had happened.  As usual, she listened patiently and carefully.  I explained everything, including how I felt right then: Confused, unsure, and heavy with guilt if I was in any way wrong in condemning my son's actions earlier in the day.

What she explained next stopped me in my tracks.  I forgot everything I had done all day, and just listened.  She shared with me that, at my son's age, there's a certain level of innocence associated with most behaviors.  Sure, there's always the possibility of something bad, she explained. For example, if he didn't do his reading, and faked the reading log, then it's clearly deception.

That evening, instead of heading straight home, we decided to go out together for a quick dinner at one of our favorite places.  While we were waiting for food, I told me son that he wasn't in trouble, and that I had a couple questions.  I brought out the picture above on my iPhone and asked him what each column was, starting with the date. Starting with the date, and for every column I pointed at, he said, "I don't know papa, I just know you have to do it."

He was trying to help me.  The teacher had pointed out how well he did his reading that day, with pride over his improvement. He had clearly practiced. And in the midst of busyness or whatever, I neglected to review his homework and complete the reading log. So he did what he thought he needed to do: He put the same illegible scribbles down on the reading log that I had done each time.

He just wanted to help me.

When I realized this, I apologized to him.  And I was clear to let him know that I was apologizing because I had jumped to a conclusion that morning about his reading log, assuming that he had done something wrong. I told him that I understood that he didn't, and why.

I also remembered what else the teacher had told me, earlier that day on our call: She pointed out that my reaction to him that morning wasn't bad, and it wasn't wrong. She pointed out that because of my reaction, which contrasted highly from my normal demeanor, he now knows how seriously I take something like forgery - or for that matter anything bad -  even if he doesn't yet understand the context yet. He knows how I feel.  She pointed out how that can never be a bad thing, as long as it's rooted in honesty. His moral compass is developing and anchoring on it's North point, and my behavior is the magnet he's tuning to.

Still, something about this really bugs me. I remember learning about a concept in social psychology called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which claims that people have a tendency to judge other peoples behaviors by placing undue emphasis on character or intention rather than examining all the external factors. Ignoring things like information, knowledge, and facts. Recently I thought, as I'm more than halfway through the average life expectancy, I'm beyond this.  I know better.  I'm better than that. I'm more mature.

And yet I did it, immediately jumping to conclusions about my son because of my experience (Things I shouldn't have done, at places and times I shouldn't have done them), my passion as a parent (I want him to grow up to be a good and honest person) and my limited knowledge (about the prevailing innocence of a six year old, and how to validate that).

In my continuing education as a dad, I learned a valuable lesson. No matter what, always listen. The teachers know more than you. It's their practice and profession. And above all else, it's always OK to make a mistake, but it's always better to make a mistake being kind. I think in the long run, that's what my son will remember and carry with him.

About a child's happiness, and realizing their full potential

I was recently invited to speak with a group of parents about dealing with undesirable behaviors that inevitably manifest in preschool and kindergarten age children.  I had just recently experienced what most people just assume is normal, something most people believe you just have to brace yourself for and contend with.

I discovered, partially by accident, partially through preparation, and most certainly through good luck, that one specific parenting change can increase a child's happiness and confidence, and significantly improve family life. To me, the results are unmistakeable.  It can give parents a new, profound calm and confidence. And I also believe it's a critical first component of preparing your child take on and accomplish anything in life.

My skill and career in tech has always been about reducing complex systems into approachable, useable tools that anyone can use to go from practical, to masterful, in anything. The presentation here is my attempt to simplify and share what I've learned over several months that, I believe, is critical for every parent to know as early as possible.  

If you know another parent, or anyone who you think this could benefit, please use the share buttons below. And please let me know what you think in the comments.