Despite educational success, Japan plans to change system; Some leery of radical reforms to country’s rigid school curricula

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
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TOKYO – From American shores, it’s hard to imagine that anything is wrong with Japanese schools.

Japan has finished ahead of the United States through decades of test-score comparisons. And educational success has played a role in building the world’s second-largest economy.

But Japanese leaders think their system is deeply flawed, and they’re out to fix it in a way that might seem unthinkable in the contemporary United States: teaching children less.

A series of national reforms to take effect in April will radically change Japanese education. Saturday classes, long a symbol of Japan’s extraordinary commitment to schooling, will be eliminated. Class time for traditional subjects such as math, science, and Japanese will be cut.

Why? Although it’s true that Japanese students perform well on tests, some educators believe the test scores have hidden a problem: Students lack creativity, and they don’t enjoy learning. They know many facts, but too many don’t know how to apply them.

“If you ask Japanese children what they know, they finish at the top of the world,” said Satoshi Ashidate, the national government’s director of curriculum planning. “But if you ask Japanese children if they actually like learning, they’re at the bottom. That’s what we are trying to fix.”

Some parents and educators are uncomfortable with the pace of reform and some specific changes, including an experimental new class that will have no textbook, no structure and – so far – no explanation for confused teachers trying to make sense of it all.

“People feel lost,” said Hiromitsu Muta, a professor and educational researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “We’ve had the same system for 100 years, and now people are being told to do something new and very different.”

By the numbers, it’s hard to tell there’s a crisis in Japanese education. The 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, which compared performance in 38 countries, ranked Japan in the top five in both subject areas. The United States was 19th in math and 18th in science.

But for decades, a minority of critics have said the uniformity in Japanese schools ignores the needs of individual students in the interest of delivering huge amounts of information. And Japanese leaders have long envied the creativity, independent thinking, and innovation exhibited by American students.

Economic doldrums

Those long-held views reached critical mass in recent years, spurred in part by continuing economic doldrums that have many Japanese searching for answers.

Although Japanese officials are quick to say the reforms are primarily being instituted for educational reasons, they acknowledge an economic motivation. Some Japanese think a more creative next generation will be a key to snapping the nation out of its decade-long recession.

“For many years, we Japanese could count on the United States or Europe to do research and make innovations,” Mr. Ashidate said. “But if we are going to be successful, we need to be making those innovations ourselves.”

The centerpiece of the changes is a new class called “general studies,” which is unlike anything Japanese education has ever seen. For decades, what students are taught and when they learn it has been determined by the national government. Third-graders, for example, all do the same math problems and learn the same science lessons at the same time, whether they’re in Tokyo or Kyoto.

What is taught in general studies classes will be left up entirely to individual schools and teachers. The only guideline is that classes encourage creativity and student initiative and integrate knowledge from other classes through projects or real-world activity.

In areas where the concept is already being tested, some schools are tracking pollution in a local river or researching the history of old buildings, projects that would have been rare before.

At Tokyo’s Azabu Elementary, one of the test schools, students have been involved in service projects, such as cleaning city streets and researching a neighborhood.

“If you stop at memorizing, you don’t have active knowledge,” said Takahashi Takemasa, a fifth-grade teacher at Azabu. “You have to show them the connection between what they learn and aspects of real life.”

The new class, coupled with the decision to eliminate Saturday classes, means other areas in the curriculum will be cut. Earlier this year, the government released a list of skills that will be delayed or eliminated in the new system. Among them:

* Math lessons on greater-than and less-than signs will be moved from second grade to third.

* Adding and subtracting two-digit numbers will move from the first to the second grade, as will learning how to read a clock.

* In science class, hibernation and human bone structure will all be booted from elementary school to junior high.

* The time allotted for learning to read and write a specific set of Japanese characters will be increased from one to two years.

“We want students to learn how to learn,” said Toru Hase, principal of Azabu Elementary, in the busy Roppongi neighborhood. “Yes, they will know less than before. But they will know the information more securely.”

As one might expect, making the switch isn’t easy for teachers used to instructing by rote formula handed down from above. Japan has historically focused on uniformity in education; students who learn quickly and slowly are taught the same materials at the same pace, all across the country. Because individualized instruction is not a priority, elementary school classes often have up to 40 students.

Teachers are especially vexed by the unfamiliar format of the general studies class. “If you say math or science or social studies, people know what you’re talking about,” Dr. Muta said. “But if you say general studies, people say, ‘What is that?’ No one can say what it is students will have learned at the end of class.

“Somebody had the idea to publish a book with ideas for teachers on how to teach general studies. It sold a million copies.”

Mr. Ashidate, the government curriculum director, said changing teachers’ nature is part of the goal.

“We are trying to develop children who can think for themselves,” he said. “If we are to be successful, we have to develop teachers who can think for themselves also.”

Thinking skills

At Azabu, the new approach has gone beyond the pilot general-studies course. Other lessons also are being changed to emphasize thinking skills rather than memorization.

In one of Mr. Takemasa’s classes recently, students surveyed their classmates on a variety of questions, from their thoughts on school lunch to their favorite TV shows. Then they presented findings to the class, using charts and graphs.

“We found that nobody disliked noodles,” one boy said while pointing to a poster filled with bar charts. “Five people disliked shellfish. Most people disliked liver.”

“We want to do things that go beyond what our classes used to,” Mr. Takemasa said. “They didn’t just have to memorize facts. They had to come up with an idea, research it, compile their data, and figure out the best way to present it to the class.”

Some parents have expressed worry that the reforms will cost their children knowledge they need to get into the most competitive high schools and universities. Most of the Japan’s private schools are not adopting the same changes and the admissions tests for top schools won’t get easier just because public schools teach less.

“I expect a decline in the quality of education,” said Kodo Matsuura, father of two students at Azabu Elementary. “When a child is young, he should try very hard to memorize information. It’s part of the training of the brain. Parents are very anxious.”

Some say they will teach their children the missing lessons at home. Others plan to increase the time their children spend in juku, or “cram schools,” after-hours classes where students memorize information to pass entrance exams. Some schools are even planning to go against the concept of general studies by filling
that class’s hours with extra math or science instruction. Although that goes against the reformers’ intent, Mr. Ashidate said schools will have the leeway to do as they please with the class time.

If many parents and schools follow that lead, it would thwart a major goal of the reforms – to reduce test stress and the emphasis on memorization.

“I think cram school might be the only way to fix it,” said Yoshiki Hosotani, mother of a third-grader at Azabu. “When I was a schoolgirl, I was told that studying very hard was a good thing. Now, they’re being told to learn less. I don’t think it’s a good message.”