Through the Eyes of a Child
The documentary Preschools in 3 Cultures Revisited, by Joseph Tobin, Yeh Hsueh, and Mayumi Karasawa, is a look into a typical day in various preschool classrooms around the world. Preschools are said to be the point when children are not only educated on the basics of school life, but also introduced to the social and cultural norms of their country/region. The points made in this documentary can help its audience see the importance of learning about different behaviors and practices across cultures, to better understand our similarities and differences as peoples, and to bridge perceived gaps between cultures.
This documentary begins with the preface that actually describes the intended style it is using. The narrator states how the purpose of this film is to revisit the topic covered in the original documentary by travelling back to the 3 schools visited a whole generation earlier, and comparing the teaching styles across cultures to those of the cinematic present day (2004). It consists of footage of a day in the life of average preschool classrooms in China, Japan, and the United States, which the narrator describes are actually used as interview tools. It is interesting that he mentions this point, because the viewers do not actually see the interviews he references, as they are used more so in the book that acts as an aid to this documentary. Instead the video footage is primarily used, with an occasional voice over that references how teachers of different cultures responded to a certain situation.
Common questions that highlighted cultural differences were focused on how the children resolved conflict among one another. Conflict resolution seemed to be the largest point of contention between the different teachers. The first school shown from Japan takes a relatively hands off approach. To the American and Chinese teachers, that appeared to show a lack of care or concern, but the Japanese teacher explained that was not the case. The Japanese teacher mentioned that she was carefully observing the small fight that broke out over a teddy bear, and would call out if she saw anything getting out of hand, but overall wanted them to learn how to resolve the matter on their own. The principal of the school even went as far as to say that they would be concerned if the children didn't get into fights. There was a level of discrepancy between the first and second japanese school seen in the documentary, as the second teacher stepped in fairly early in a fight. The reasoning, however, was that she noticed one of the children began lying, which was what had actually led her to be involved, not so much the fight itself.
In the United States, the response to fights is very different. When the teacher notices children starting to fight, meaning at the point of getting physical, they intervene immediately and explain why that behavior is inappropriate. One teacher uses the phrase “mistaken behavior” instead of “misbehavior” in an effort to make sure the child is given a chance to learn behavior through explanation and example, without being expected to know what is right and wrong automatically. The Japanese teachers argued that this does not allow the children to learn how to communicate among themselves, but the American teacher believes it actually allows them to do so with the right tools.
The Chinese children are also far more closely monitored in their daily lives, in terms of preventing fights and otherwise. The activities throughout the day are, for the most part, more orchestrated because of the heavy importance of community in Chinese culture. However, during this monitoring, the second Chinese preschool observed exhibits a child telling a story he made up and getting rather harsh feedback from his peers. This was criticized by American teachers, who would have guided the discussion to positive feedback first, or maybe given the feedback herself. The Chinese teacher explained that she allowed the children to speak freely because a child accepts peer feedback more easily than that of an adult, and therefore provides them with an opportunity to practice interpersonal communication skills.
The differences in practice between these three cultures are apparent in the preschool environment. While those examples highlight differences, viewers are struck by how similar all 3 cultures’ schools are to one another. The school days as a whole may have differences, but they all touch on the same main checkpoints throughout the day: group activities (usually involving song or dance), food being served at different times during the day, nap time, learning based activities or games, and open play where they are encouraged to have fun and use their imaginations. Another similarity is that the teachers all clearly want for their children to learn how to communicate using their words, learn how to have social interactions with their peers, decide ultimately on their own how to resolve conflict, and to emphasize the importance of creative liberty.
The similarities that the documentarian is able to bring through in seemingly different environments can be taken as an example of how well we could all relate to one another if we took the time to learn about one another. This is particularly important in terms of global migration. So many peoples struggle with being accepted when it comes to migrating, whether it be need based, a refugee situation, or even just the pursuit of a better life, because we as people are so prone to seeing differences first. As the viewer can see in the various examples through the average preschool day, the surface level of all these cultures appear to clash on many levels. However, as this paper highlights, all of these situations that appear to conflict with the other cultures, actually all have the exact same purpose. Every one of these cultures wants their children to learn to communicate amongst themselves and work out problems using their words. This concept can be applied to so much more than just children’s conflicts, so long as people are willing to see them, and if more people were able to look deeper, the issue of migration may be made so much more comfortable.
Even though the methods that the three cultures go about achieving their goals varies, those are the goals all the same. It shows that points that appear to make us extremely different (such as not intervening in fights), may not actually be so extreme after all (as it is for the relatable goal of teaching children how to resolve conflict). It is important for people to see how these countries, with cultures that are so vastly different, can all have the same goal at heart, and how we as people are not quite as different as we may appear.
You can view Preschools in 3 Cultures Revisted in the Kanopy streaming service here.