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Envisioning the future of education in Japan from the PISA 2012 results

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Positive outcome of educational reforms

The results of the OECD's PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey conducted in 2012 were recently published. The PISA 2012 survey assessed the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science as well as in digital reading and digital mathematics using computer-based assessment. In 2012, 65 countries and economies took part in the survey. Rather than evaluating knowledge level, the main focus of PISA 2012 was to measure how well 15-year-old students can apply their knowledge to real-world situations, which is considered as an important skill in future society.

Among OECD countries, Japan is ranked second in mathematics performance, first in both reading and science performance, and second in both digital reading and digital mathematics performance. The results indicate that the Japanese government successfully reversed the trend of declining academic standards seen in PISA 2003 by actively implementing a range of educational reforms.

The recent educational reform commenced with "Appeal 2002" proposed by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in 2002. Prior to that, there were concerns over the declining trend in Japanese children's academic standards, which was caused by the then government's education policy focusing on creating self-motivated students with confidence rather than developing their knowledge. This tendency became more noticeable from around 2002, and was referred to as a "Relaxed Education Policy," which reduced the class hours and content devoted to the curriculum laid out in the teaching guidelines. This matter has become a controversial issue as the cause of worsening academic standards among Japanese children.

In response to these circumstances, MEXT published the "Appeal 2002 for the Improvement of Comprehensive Learning Ability: Encouragement of Learning." Since then, the government has been promoting curriculum reform placing emphasis on the development of language skills, and other initiatives such as implementing a national survey on children's academic performance. As a result, the academic standards of Japanese children gradually improved. I believe that this success is a very rare worldwide, and has only been achieved by thoroughly establishing Japan's educational system nationwide and by having schoolteachers with high levels of expertise in teaching.

The need for self-motivated learning

However, the PISA 2012 results also revealed some issues. In the assessments, Japanese children achieved high academic scores, but generally showed lower levels of engagement and motivation in learning, and less awareness of how to apply their learning to everyday life. Many questions received no response and the children showed a tendency to give up easily when facing difficult problems. Nevertheless, even though this situation seems to be slightly improving, the scores of Japanese children were still much lower than the world average in the PISA 2012 survey.

Considering the above factors, we should identify solutions in the future to eliminate concerns about whether Japanese children have sufficient motivation for independent learning as well as being actively involved in their community; this is a "must" in order to create a global, lifelong learning society. In other words, teaching approaches should direct children to transfer their knowledge, acquired in school, to real-world situations, while at the same time encouraging high academic achievements.

To achieve these goals, it is necessary to develop a school curriculum that can link "learning" to "participation in society." The current Japanese education system provides effective teaching guidelines, textbooks, and skilled teachers who can stimulate students' interest and excitement. However, this style of teaching is delivered in such a way that learning tends to occur only within the small world of the classroom.

To avoid this pitfall, teachers are now required to provide more questions and activities that encourage students to utilise their knowledge and seek practical solutions by referencing real-world situations. For example, real economic data can be used in mathematical charts and graphs along with diagrams based on the design of existing buildings, and other activities using real-life data that encourage students to adapt their knowledge to find solutions to real life problems.

In addition, I believe, the use of ICT, including the internet, can be used effectively for such an approach. For example, mapping data can be adapted to a variety of subjects, such as distance solving questions and English language questions; whereas the online weather forecast service can be used in teaching meteorological aspects. In such a way, teachers can create a sense of reality in learning. Students' academic performance will develop more effectively by using both textbooks to build knowledge and real-life data to build practical skills. It is also important to build a cooperative relationship with the local community, which can offer an abundant source of real-life tasks and activities for both teachers and students.

At this stage, it is necessary to encourage students to move towards thinking independently and deeply. Teachers often adopt the use of small-group discussions for this purpose; however, this method frequently only encourages active students; such an approach may not be beneficial for every student. Therefore, it is important to explore and develop avenues of learning that will assist every student to develop the ability to think independently.

Development of the learning environment

The PISA 2012 survey examined the use of computers along with the computer-based assessments. In Japan, many children use computers for playing games and listening to music, but not for study. The survey indicates that Japan is lagging behind other countries in establishing the use of computers in education. This will be another issue for Japan's education system to address, as problem-solving skills using computers are essential in a highly-networked information society.

The PISA 2012 survey also examined students' homework activities and reported the positive relationship between homework activities and assessment scores, which is common to all participant countries. This indicates that homework activities are very important in developing children's academic performance.

Nevertheless, in Japan, there is one concern that more students in the 2012 survey answered "Never do homework" compared to those in the 2009 survey. Currently Japan has a relatively small gap between high achievers and low achievers. However, if the above trend continues, this may widen the gap in the future.

Overall, the PISA 2012 survey confirms the high level of Japan's education system, but it does not reveal the entire picture. We should calmly accept the negative issues identified and try to find solutions and implement measures to address the problems. At the same time, continuing research is required in order to maintain the current level of the education system and to employ knowledge and skills to the benefit of society. I believe that it is time for Japan, as the world's frontrunner in education, to create a new education model matching the needs of future society.

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Kenichi Arai

Chairperson, Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD) Board of Directors. Concurrently served as Executive Officer, Director of the Educational Research and Development Division, Benesse, and Director of Educational Research and Development Center (current BERD) in 2004. Established the NPO Center for Research on Educational Testing (CRET) in January 2007 and served as Chairperson, working to build a network with overseas institutions such as OECD. Currently a committee member of the Working Group for Cooperation and Connection of School Stages under the Central Council for Education, Subdivision on Elementary and Secondary Education, and Deputy Director of the Expert Study Group on Internet Literacy Indicators of Youth supported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
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