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Special Report II
Last Updated: 12/04/2007
Education is a bridge which connects human ability to abstract concepts
Kenji Tajima

The case of children who are able to write excellently but are not able to read their own writing.

First of all, look at the handwriting of my former student in Mongolia.

What surprised me was that this writer was not able to read his own handwriting!! What happen to him? And why can’t he read his own writing? Asking myself these questions, I found that they led to a bigger question: what role does “education” play in our life? It is a difficult question. In order to find out the answer, paradoxically, it is a useful to imagine the circumstances faced by children “without education.” The Oxford dictionary defines education as “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.” Therefore, we can say that someone “without education” has never learned and been taught in a systematic way.

Before entering UPEACE, I was engaged in the educational world as a teacher. I have three teacher licenses, and am able to teach in elementary schools, deaf schools, and specials school for mental retardation and I have teaching experiences at all three in Japan. Moreover, I participated in volunteer activities as a special school teacher in three other states: Mongolia, Zambia, and Taiwan. Now, I will explain a case in Mongolia of a child “without education.”

A general outline of education system in Mongolia

From 2003 to 2005, I lived in Ulan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia. According to UNICEF, the enrollment rate of primary school-age children from 2000 to 2004 was 78% for boys and 80% for girls.[1] According to an educational law, children enter primary school at seven or eight years old. A term of primary education is four years, secondary education also four years, high school three years and four years university. The whole system is integrated from primary school to high school. In Ulan Bator, more than 60 integrated schools exist. In recent years, because of the social and economic inequality between the city and the country side, an increasing number of migrants have led to shortages of school facilities in Ulan Bator. Although these shortages present a serious challenge, it could be easily overcome by dividing class schedules into three teaching periods: morning session, afternoon session and evening session, a technique which many other school systems have effectively used under similar circumstances.[2]

No.63 special school

During my two years in Mongolia, I worked in a special school named No.63 special school. It is located in a slum area of a suburb of Ulan Bator. This special school is for the children living with poverty and mild mental retardation. I took charge of a first grade class with a local teacher for one year, in 2004. There were around 13 children attending my class, ranging from 8 to 19 years old, all studying in the same classroom. There are two reasons why the ages of the Children are so different. First, the educational law does not have compelling force; therefore, parents do not need to take the responsibility for the school attendance of their children. Second, there are a very few special classes for children with mild mental retardation in local provinces. Before entering the regular elementary school, children are required to attend preparatory class for three months in order to be checked with their learning ability. If some learning problem is found, the school has the ability to refuse his/her entrance. Therefore, even students who grew up in local provinces and had a little lerning difficulty had no chance to study in a school. For these reasons, some of my students could not enter school at their proper entrance age.

Children are able to write but not to read

The first time I saw the abnormal literacy levels among my students, I guessed they had dyslexia. This is because they could speak almost same as the other local students; however, their reading abilities were lower than the average. After teaching them for a month, however, I found that they were not dyslexic at all, and had possibility to read.

According to guidebook of mathematics for mentally retarded children, there are three aspects of a given number: object, name, and figure.[3] In the case of number “2” for example, the “object” means the item with two (two circles are “00”), the “name” means the sound of “two” and the letters which spell “two,” and the “figure” refers to the symbol “2”. To understand the full meaning of the number, we should comprehend all of three concepts and combine them, as shown below.

I adopted this theory into language class, where the three concepts correspond with “meaning”, “letter”, and “sound”. I found that my students already knew two of the aspects, meaning and sound, and combination of the two. However, they had difficulty in combining the concept of “letter” with the other two. Therefore, they can write but not read.

After finding out the problem of their reading, the other teacher and I focused on teaching the combination among the three. We used the teaching strategies developed originally for deaf education. This strategy starts with teaching nouns, especially the names of common items. Nouns correspond easily with the three concepts because all people use same noun for the same item: for example “pen”, if I show you a pen and ask the name, all of you answer the name of “pen”. On the contrary, adjectives are much more complicated to teach because the usage of it depends on speaker’s feeling: for example “delicious”, even though people eat the same food, some people say “delicious” the other not. For this reason, we started to teach the names of body parts. After that, we began to teach the students verbs and adjectives, and finally, grammar. After one year, they managed to read short sentences, much to the surprise and delight of their families and friends.

This experience had a profound impact on my thinking about education. I realize now that education is a bridge to connect our ability with abstract concepts, which people have accumulated historically. Building on the systematic lessons of our predecessors, we have gained remarkable insight into the atom, the solar system, and much of the world between. Education plays an essential roll, allowing us how access the wonder of human wisdom. However, there are not only positive wisdoms but also negative wisdoms, including the arts of killing and war. Our nuclear research, for example, has brought humanity both the promise of medical advances in cancer treatments and the horror of the nuclear bomb. Education must be respected for the extraordinarily powerful tool it is, and we, as educators, must be careful not to misuse it.

[1]UNICEF. 2006. Children White Paper (trans. mine.). Retrieved 7th in October from

[2]Tajima, K. (2005). Rokujyuusan gakkou ni okeru mongorugo sidoujissenn: mongoru ni okeru syougaiji kyouiku jijyou (Advice in teaching the Mongolian Language at no.63 special school: education for children with learning difficulties). Hattatsu no Okure to Kyoiku (Developmental Delay and Education), 577, 46-52.

[3] Fujiwara, K. (1997). Hattatuni okuregaaru kodomono sannsuu/suugaku (Mathematics for children with developmental retardation. Trans. mine.) . Tokyo: Gakusyuu kenkyuusya.

Kenji Tajima is a masters degree candidate in the International Peace Studies Dual Campus Programme at the University for Peace. He has four years teaching experience in four countries and is a dedicated peace educator.