Give Education Policy a Chance
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Counselor, Foreign Press Center/Japan)
Students' declining ranking worldwide no reason to scrap 'pressure-free' drive.
As much as higher education is at a critical junction, elementary education in Japan appears to be in a mess prodding the nation to give it a serious reconsideration. Above anything else, an alleged decline of academic ability of Japanese children is alarming the nation, prompting it to search for ways to counter the trend. But like many other social phenomena plaguing society, it is difficult to grasp the cause in the first place, let alone come up with remedies.
The notion of declining learning capability of youths is adding to the general sense of decline as a nation which has gripped Japanese in the past decade. Although nothing seems to be known for sure about the cause of this, one immediate target of criticism about the elementary education is the guideline of curriculum the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology laid out only three years ago emphasizing the importance of freeing children and students from excesses in cramming and rote learning. This so-called "pressure-free" education is broadly blamed for the children's declining capacity in basic knowledge, such as in math, reading and science.
Recently, the warnings were the scores of Japanese children in international tests. One is the results of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released last December. It tested 15-year-olds of 41 countries and regions on their knowledge and skills in mathematics, science and reading and tallied the scores in international rankings in 2003. Japanese students, who came first in mathematics in 2000, tumbled to sixth place in 2003, while they held second place in science. More shocking was that their position in reading fell sharply from eighth in 2000 to 14th in 2003.
In another survey, by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), Japanese grade 2 students fell in science from fourth position in 1999 to sixth in 2003, while students in grade 4 fell from second in 1995 to third in 2003.
Under the pressure-free education policy, the number of class hours have been cut, supposedly to give children more free hours to think on their own and develop interests in subjects that cut across traditional subjects. The purpose is to achieve independence of mind and stronger thinking power.
Annual class hours (one class hour runs 45 minutes at elementary school and 50 minutes at middle school) at Japanese schools have been decreasing since the 1960s - from 1,085 in 1968 to 1,015 in 1977 and to 945 in 1998 for grade 6 (age 12) of elementary school. For grade 3 (age 15) at middle school, they fell from 1,155 in 1969 to 1,050 in 1977 and to 980 in 1998. Mathematics in middle school is now assigned 105 class hours a year, compared with 140 in the 1960s.
Moreover, at the expense of traditional subjects, "comprehensive study" has been introduced, accounting for 105 hours out of the annual total 945 class hours at elementary schools and 980 hours at middle schools. "Comprehensive study" is the crown of the pressure-free education and is aimed at encouraging children to develop the capability to think on their own and understand and foster interests in such issues as the environment and international communications that cut across the boundaries of traditional subjects.
"Comprehensive learning," however, has been received with widespread skepticism and criticism since its introduction. Though high in ideals, it has been criticized as being without substance and a waste of time, because of teachers' lack of initiative, imagination or the expertise on which its success depends. There are no sufficient guidelines offered from the school authority as to its goals and how to conduct the class effectively.
If it is true that the comprehensive study has been a waste of time and the pressure-free education has failed to produce the intended result, it is far from clear whether it has been the true reason for the decline in academic ability. It may even be possible that if the pressure-free education had been pursued properly, the decline could have been prevented, or the true reason may be entirely different.
Before it was put into practice three years ago with great fanfare, pressure-free education had been in the making for many years - since the 1970s, in reaction to cramming and rote education which was being pushed to extremes in the midst of the hellishly competitive school entrance examinations. Thus, when the Ministry of Education started the new curriculum guidelines, it was hailed as an almost revolutionary change in Japanese educational policy.
It is understandable, therefore, that Education Ministry officials have been reluctant to admit that the new curriculum guidelines for pressure-free education are the major cause of the decline in academic ability, and their refusal to accept responsibility for this angered the public even more. But both the education minister and the prime minister declared that pressure-free education must have a lot to do with the decline and called for change. A blue-ribbon committee is now set to look into the issue and come up with a proposal for a new policy.
It is unusual for the basic policy for curriculum guidelines to be changed after only three years, even before it has been tested sufficiently. Such quick alterations, it is feared, confuse teachers and parents. It is not certain whether simply reverting to old practice will be an answer.
What is interesting about this fuss is how Japanese are sensitive to their position in international ranking of any sort. Certainly, they are worried about possible decline of their kids' academic ability, they seem to be more concerned that Japan's standing in the international hierarchy has dropped by a few notches. But that kind of question you are not allowed to ask publicly. If you do, you will be accused of being unpatriotic. This mind-set is deep-rooted. Japan must be a country to be counted on; it must be a "first-rate" nation of the world. This was how Japan has lived since joining the Western-dominated world a century and half ago.
Another strongly entrenched tradition in Japan that should be called into question is the system to manage education, whether pressure-free or not, from the commanding heights of the central government. Central government bureaucrats will never give up their power to control national education policy. Whether this might be harmful for public education never occurs to them.
(Originally appeared in the March 14, 2005 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)