JAPANESE EDUCATION TODAY: TIME TO MOVE ON | Discuss Japan-Japan Foreign Policy Forum
Discuss Japan > Back Number > No.2 > JAPANESE EDUCATION TODAY: TIME TO MOVE ON
Culture, No.2  Aug. 8, 2010


The start of the new academic year this April brought the introduction of a new set of textbooks in Japanese elementary schools. Stories in the media about the new textbooks, which are considerably thicker than before, took them as symbolic of a shift away from yutori kyōiku, or “education that gives children room to grow.” A headline in the daily Asahi Shimbun on March 31 proclaimed: “25% More Pages in Elementary School Texts: Farewell to Room-to-Grow Education.” The Yomiuri Shimbun had shorter headline delivering the same message on the same day.

The new textbooks have more pages, and furthermore their contents seem to be more difficult. They restore many items that were designated as advanced-study topics in the previous round of textbook screening or that had been omitted entirely as part of the “room to grow” revisions, such as the formula for calculating the area of a trapezoid. In addition, the switch away from yutori kyōiku has set off a drive to increase the number of class hours. Many elementary schools have shifted from three terms per year to two terms, not because of any quality-related consideration but merely to squeeze a few extra hours of class time into the school year. Shorter summer and winter vacations have become the norm. In Tokyo, schools are being allowed to schedule Saturday classes twice a month starting this school year, and 73% of the elementary and junior high schools in the capital are already giving classes on Saturday.

Why is there such a rush away from room-to-grow education? Have the results of the yutori policy been comprehensively and scientifically examined? Will the teachers on the front lines be able to keep up with this change? In what follows I will attempt to answer these questions, and I will also consider the current state of the path from school to the workplace, because the traditional Japanese system of hiring new employees en masse from each year’s crop of graduating students is a prime mover behind the change of course from the yutori approach back to the earlier tsumekomi approach, that is, a focus on cramming facts into children’s heads.

The True Causes of the Concern About Academic Ability

Why are we now seeing this rejection of “room to grow” and a grandiose revival of fact-cramming education? Let us consider the historical social background.

One factor underlying the move away from yutori in education is clearly the widespread concern about declining academic ability. This has been an issue since around 1999, when we started to see a string of reports with data providing evidence of such a decline among Japanese children. Some researchers, on the basis of their own studies indicating falling academic standards, demanded answers for the apparent failure of the educational system to deliver proper results for the massive ¥2 trillion in annual spending by the national government. Consequently, educational authorities have undertaken a single-minded drive to improve test results over the short term, avoiding the fundamental question of how to define “academic ability.”

Why has the shift back to tsumekomi been so sharp? One reason is the set of highly visible changes that took place in the schools. In 2002 the content of the curriculum for compulsory education (elementary and junior high school) was reduced by 30%, and class hours were cut 20%; the school week was set at five days, with the complete elimination of Saturday classes. At the same time, new textbooks were introduced, less thick and more colorful than before. These changes were obvious to all parents and served to highlight the “room to grow” approach; in doing so, they fanned concerns about academic standards.

Such worries were aggravated by the decline of Japan’s standing in international comparisons of academic performance, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Japan ranked number one in the PISA results for mathematical literacy in 2000, but three years later it had fallen to sixth place. Surveys by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement also showed Japan dropping from the top level in math and science in the years following 2000.

At that point teachers in the classrooms did not sense as much of a decline in student performance as people were talking about. But the worries became so widespread among the general public that it was impossible to resist them. In 2004, Education Minister Nakayama Nariaki officially recognized that academic performance was declining in Japan, and the following year the Education Ministry (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, or MEXT) announced plans for the reintroduction of universal nationwide testing of academic ability after a 43-year hiatus–a primitive strategy to raise the level of students’ ability through competition.

There were a number of shortcomings inherent in this approach. One was the lack of intelligent discussion concerning the decline in Japan’s PISA rankings. This had occurred partly because the number of participating countries and regions had increased. So it was altogether irresponsible to draw the simplistic conclusion that a lower ranking meant a lower level of ability.

Nationwide Testing Actually Lowers Academic Performance

Alongside the move away from the “room to grow” approach, the reintroduction of nationwide testing is one of the pillars of the authorities’ strategy for enhancing Japanese schoolchildren’s academic performance. The aim is to raise the overall level of academic ability by promoting competition. But this strategy seems highly dubious. In fact, the chances are that it will cause an inexorable decline in students’ ability.

By way of explanation, the figures that go up as a result of competitive testing are only the ones that measure academic performance of the old-fashioned “cognitive” sort, involving competition to learn a larger volume of facts and to acquire techniques and speed for answering questions on paper. In other words, what students acquire through competitive testing is nothing more than the ability to memorize facts and field tests with their rote learning–an enhanced ability to deal with exam questions on the spot and to produce a higher percentage of correct answers.

Sad to say, many people seem to have the misguided notion that this sort of improvement in test skills and scores represents an increase in academic ability. Even if we go so far as to concede that what the improved figures measure is a form of academic ability, it is merely a developing-country type of ability–“East Asian academic ability”–that was required back in the 1960s. This is all that has been improved. It is a form of ability that is already 30 or 40 years past its shelf life for a mature society like today’s Japan. It has virtually nothing to contribute to contemporary industry or to the creation of a more vigorous economy in the future.

After suffering through the “lost decade” that started in the early 1990s, we now find ourselves still reeling from the trauma of the global financial crisis set off by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the “once-in-a-century” downturn that ensued. This has made parents desperate to keep their children from ending up on the losing end in society, and so they have been pushing their children into a masochistic form of academic competition out of “parental love”–not realizing that the ability this promotes is out of date and meaningless. It is certainly a terrible imposition on the children involved.

A Damaging Change Introduced Quietly

What has led to this slide into a path of “teaching to the test”–an approach that offers only symptomatic treatment, promotes rote learning, and is an anachronism in a highly mature society? It seems to me that the prime factor is the failure to conduct a comprehensive, scientific assessment of the results of room-to-grow education.

It is true that there has been a decline in figures measuring basic academic ability, such as knowledge of kanji, English spelling ability, basic computation skills, and knowledge of facts about history and geography. In order to find the right way to correct this decline, however, we must clarify what has caused it, and we must also take a scientific look at what sort of academic ability is required in today’s international society and how to foster it.

From this perspective, the biggest cause of the decline in academic ability was not yutori kyōiku. It is the major shift that the authorities made from the traditional view of academic ability centering on test scores and skill acquisition to a view based on “interest, eagerness, and attitude.” This change of course first became apparent in a directive issued by the Education Ministry in 1992.

Up to then, a child who got a score of 80 points was considered to have higher academic ability than one who got a score of 60 points. But the new policy turned this conventional understanding on its head, quite to the surprise of classroom teachers. Instead of assessing pupils by their test scores and skills, they were told to assess them by the “interest, eagerness, and attitude” the pupils showed toward the subject being taught. But how were these intangibles to be measured? How could fairness be assured? Classroom teachers wracked their brains over these questions–and over how to explain their decisions to their pupils’ parents.

The solution they came up with involved thorough checking and scoring of pupils’ performance as indicated by visible signs of their mental state, such as the number of times they raised their hands, the materials they presented, and their facial expressions in the classroom. The sums of the scores determined in this way were used as “objective” assessments of pupils’ interest, eagerness, and attitude. Teachers had no choice but to rely on this comical methodology.

As a result, pupils who raised their hands infrequently and showed bad attitudes in class naturally got poorer grades. No matter how good their paper test results were, in many cases they ended up with lower marks than other pupils with low test scores. This sort of reversal in report-card results came as a shock to parents and to teachers at juku, the after-hours cram schools to which many parents send their children in hopes of improving their grades and getting them into good high schools and universities. So, from the mid-1990s on, teachers at juku drummed into their students’ heads the idea that they should always raise their hands–even if they did not know the answer to the teacher’s question. If called on, they could say, “I’m still thinking.” Under the new standards, that was enough to win a favorable assessment for a “positive, eager attitude.”

Though these phenomena may have received some piecemeal attention in the media, the fundamental shift in the view of academic performance did not attract wide coverage. This is highly unfortunate. No mention was made of the new approach in the official Courses of Study; instead, it popped up without warning in the “teaching guides” that the Education Ministry provides for classroom teachers. As a result, the news of this change was not at all widely transmitted. Whatever can the Education Ministry of those days have had in mind implementing a major change of such importance only through its teaching guides? In this way, without a broad awareness among the general public of the new approach to assessing pupils’ performance, the debate about academic ability proceeded amid confusion about the true cause of its decline, with many mistaking room-to-grow education as the culprit.

Another problem with the new view of academic performance was that it brought the emergence of an emphasis on individual differences and assertions that even being bad at school studies was a form of “individuality.” Previously, teachers would try to help out pupils who were falling behind, striving to get them to master the material even if it meant keeping them after school. But after the shift, school principals started scolding teachers who did this, telling them they must not stifle the pupils’ individuality.

On top of that, teachers were told that they were not to “teach” content to children. Instead they were mechanically placed in the position of “supporters” and subjected to a blanket injunction against “leading” or “drilling.” And it was forbidden to direct pupils to study at home; teachers thus found it difficult to assign homework.

In this way, teachers in the classrooms were required to make a major shift in both their assessment of pupils’ performance and in their methods of instruction. Given this shift, it is only natural for children to fail to master the basics. Also, it is not surprising that the emphasis on “attitude” causes many children to become overly concerned with their teachers’ assessments of them and as a result to display no individuality and assert no positions. Meanwhile, students who were openly rebellious against their teachers–as one expects from those going through puberty–disappeared from junior high schools.

The major policy change in education and shift in the view of performance and the approach to instruction thus lie behind the current decline in measured academic ability. The decline cannot be attributed solely to the superficial matters that are now the target of attention, such as the decrease in the amount of content taught and in the number of classroom hours, and it is certainly not simply the result of yutori kyōiku.

The Likelihood of Failure

Will classroom teachers be able to follow the new line of moving away from room-to-grow education? My answer is no, and it is unreasonable to expect that they will. The chances of failure are extremely high.

Why do I say this? As I noted above, the new line is nothing more than an attempt to cram a greater volume of information into children’s heads. Even if this produces higher scores in terms of the old-fashioned cognitive sort of academic ability, it will not give children the sort of academic ability required by today’s international society–the literacy they need to lead their own lives and participate in society as citizens of the world.

Furthermore, it is foolhardy to increase course content when teachers are already so pressed for time. It seems to me that the failure to directly address the question of what sort of academic ability is required in the current age results from the absence of a clear vision of the path to follow at the national level.

The twenty-first century demands the power of discernment, of which the core elements include the ability to produce ideas, to think critically, to be logical, to express oneself, and to communicate globally. This is not something that children can acquire through simple training and drills. The crucial basic prerequisite is that human rights be respected and participation in society be treated as normal in children’s everyday lives. In other words, we must create a human environment in which children can develop a sense of self-affirmation both at school and at home. We will have a hard time building up the contemporary academic ability required by international society unless we organize learning from a comprehensive perspective, adopting a cross-subject approach under a curriculum that allows students ample time.

We should come up with a clear definition of “academic ability for today” based on an international perspective as developed by democracy, and with our eyes open to the rest of the world, we should promptly come up with a theoretical framework for an approach that will allow children to acquire this sort of ability.

The Collapse of the Traditional Path from School to the Workplace

When you get right down to it, the purpose of acquiring academic ability in Japan is to be able to get into a good college. Parents will spend any amount of money, send their children to cram schools, and even hire personal tutors for them in order to get them into preferred junior high schools and high schools. They are not being motivated by the desire to foster their children’s “zest for living” (to quote an Education Ministry slogan) or by their liking for particular schools’ declared educational objectives. Mostly they are just trying to get their children into colleges with high hensachi–a form of standard score commonly used in Japan to rank both schools and students. This is because they believe that graduating from a higher-hensachi college means a better chance of getting a job at a first-rate company–or because students at such high-score colleges have a higher chance of qualifying as lawyers, certified public accountants, national civil servants, or other professionals required to pass stiff competitive exams.

So people in Japan today rate high schools, both public and private, according to their success at getting students into prestigious, high-score colleges, which are seen as the route to getting good jobs after graduation. And the same thinking is applied to elementary and junior high schools. But the underlying structure of employment based on academic background is now beginning to break down in the face of changes in contemporary society, where the forces of globalization are at work.

One feature that shows the collapse of this structure is the extraordinary nationwide growth in the number of college students deferring graduation so they can continue looking for employment. Many students are graduating without finding jobs, and since job hunting is seen as being even harder after graduation, many college seniors who are unable to line up jobs are deciding to stay in school for another year. It is estimated that there are as many as 79,000 such “repeaters” nationwide (Yomiuri Shimbun, July 6, 2010). And some 31,000 students graduated from college this spring without having found jobs (according to a survey by the Education Ministry), for a total of 110,000. Since the number of graduates this year was 568,000, at least one student in five or six was unable to get a job. And if we include those who gave up and did not even look for employment, the share is probably closer to one in four.

A second feature to note in this connection is that the “name” universities have high shares of job-hunting repeaters. Schools where the percentage is above 20% (among those originally scheduled to graduate this spring) include the University of Tokyo, Chūō University, Sophia University, Osaka University, Ritsumeikan University, and Kyūshū University. Meanwhile, schools are going out of their way to support these repeaters with moves like inviting vocational schools to operate on their campuses (as in the case of Yamaguchi University), introducing deferred graduation systems (University of Kitakyūshū), and offering reduced tuition charges (Aoyama Gakuin University).

This year 80% of the new employees that Panasonic hired were reportedly non-Japanese. Starting in 2013, Uniqlo and Rakuten (a major online retailer) are scheduled to switch to English as the language of communication at all internal meetings. And as globalization sweeps ahead, even some students from elite schools like the University of Tokyo are apparently finding it hard to match the academic level of students from China and other East Asian countries.

A third feature of note is the set of changes taking place among elite professionals like lawyers and CPAs. It is well known that medical students are turning their backs on obstetrics and gynecology and on pediatrics, but reportedly it is also not uncommon for them to decide that they would rather become veterinarians than have to face the “monster patients” among humans. Such trends can only have grave consequences for the future of Japanese medicine. In the legal profession, meanwhile, last spring as many as 500 newly qualified lawyers failed to find jobs, and according to a survey by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, 43% of legal apprentices had not yet found employment with law firms as of the end of June this year. They are lucky if they can find posts offering salaries of a modest ¥200,000 a month. And the picture for CPAs is not rosy either: Some 900 of this year’s crop reportedly have not found jobs, along with 400 who qualified last year; in other words, 1,300 new accountants are having to make ends meet by taking part-time jobs while looking for regular work in their profession.

A Society of Lifelong Learning

What sort of impact are these changes likely to have on Japanese education? The biggest concern is that they are bound to cause a rapid decline in enthusiasm and motivation to study hard and get into good high schools so as to gain admission to “name” colleges. The problem is compounded by the fact that boards of education, high schools, and many experts in the field are oblivious to the changes.

Even though the collapse of the existing school system has already begun, we see pronouncements like this (from the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education): “In 2013 we will review the high schools prioritized for improved college admission performance. We need to see at least 15 students [from each such school] admitted to medical faculties or to the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, Hitotsubashi University, or Tokyo Institute of Technology.” This shows an amazing degree of obtuseness and inability to see the actual state of affairs–namely, the crisis of collapsing incentives to learn.

What should we do? For one thing, we should undertake a shift in the meaning we assign to universities: Instead of seeing learning as a means of getting into college, we should encourage learning for the sake of living one’s life fully and being of use in society–in other words, learning as culture and as a lifelong pursuit. This will require a change from the current approach to letting students graduate from school after completing the requisite number of years (six grades of elementary school, three of junior high school, and three of high school) regardless of their academic ability. Instead we need an approach that focuses on pupils’ mastery of the material, seeing to it that they acquire the minimum academic knowledge and skills through instruction matching their individual abilities and levels–and not refraining from making them repeat grades if required even during the years of compulsory education (the nine grades through junior high school).

Second, we should introduce a high school graduation qualification system, which would assure that anybody with a high school diploma had sufficient academic ability to attend college. The national government should take proper responsibility for the solid fostering of academic ability of each pupil and focus on developing the power of discernment–centering, as noted above, on such elements as the ability to produce ideas, to think critically, to be logical, to express oneself, and to communicate globally–to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. This should make it possible to construct a richer society of lifelong learning. What is called for is not a return to the previous era’s East Asian, cognitive approach to academic ability relying mainly on memorization, but a shift to a style of learning aimed at the building of a world in which people can coexist in peace as globalization and information technology progress; we should also restructure our universities to meet this need.

We must quickly end the “national seclusion” of Japanese education, rebuild the path from school to the workplace, and boldly shift, as the Europeans have, to a society of lifelong learning. Otherwise, Japan’s future is truly in jeopardy.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo Web.