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The 5th ECEC Research Conference Panel Discussion: What is Required Now in the Field of ECEC in Japan?

Japanese Chinese
Moderator: Yoichi Sakakihara (Director, Child Research Net, Vice President, Ochanomizu University)
Panelists: Mikiko Tabu (Professor, Seitoku University Graduate School)
Minjee Kim (Associate Professor, Seitoku University Junior College)
Mari Matsuura (Associate Professor, Kyoto Kacho University)
Keiko Mizuno (Former Professor, Japan Women's College of Physical Education)
Takako Kawabe (Professor, University of the Sacred Heart)
Commentator: Nobuko Kamigaichi (Professor, Jumonji University)
Miwako Hoshi (Professor Emerita, Nagoya University of Arts)
Mariko Ichimi (Senior Researcher, National Institute for Educational Policy Research of Japan)

A panel discussion was held following the lectures in the first session and a workshop in the second session. The panel discussion was moderated by Yoichi Sakakihara, Director, CRN, with eight panelists composed of five presenters in the first session and three researchers who joined the second session as observers. They analyzed the current issues of Japan's early childhood education and care (ECEC) from their standpoints and provided opinions on what is required now in the field of ECEC to solve such issues.

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An arena for discussion necessary for ECEC teachers, parents, and researchers

Sakakihara: In this panel discussion, we will debate the future of ECEC in Japan. This theme can be discussed in various ways depending on the focus. Opposing concepts will inspire us to look at the theme in more depth, such as focusing on play vs. focusing on early education, or cognitive skills vs. non-cognitive skills, as suggested by the lecturers in the first session and in the workshop in the second session. Or we can discuss the theme from a philosophical perspective, such as what comprises the happiness of children or what is a heightened civic awareness in children.

Whatever we focus on, however, it is hard to obtain an immediate answer. For this reason, I would like to ask the panelists to provide their opinions on how to take the first step towards the "education reform."

Now, Prof. Kamigaichi, Prof. Hoshi, and Ms. Ichimi, please tell us what you think.

Kamigaichi: The development of children depends largely on how and what they experience and with whom. Therefore, I believe that it is necessary for ECEC teachers, parents and researchers to have frank discussions on ECEC methodologies, rather than the content. From the standpoint of ECEC teachers, they can discuss with their colleagues, parents and researchers their objectives, philosophy of childcare, and ways of treating children. Likewise, their colleagues, parents and researchers may have their own objectives, too. Communicating and understanding such objectives with each other will lead to the commitment of the entire facilities, families and academia, rather than the effort of a single ECEC teacher or a facility.

Hoshi: I also agree that it is very important for the future of ECEC in Japan to have joint discussions among ECEC teachers, parents and researchers, all from different standpoints when supporting children. If possible, I would like to see government officials involved in ECEC policies participate in these discussions as well. Closed discussions among the respective groups of ECEC teachers, parents, researchers and government officials will only bring about limited outcomes. An open discussion among all of those who are constantly concerned about children regardless of their different standpoints will surely bring about better ideas that will be developed.

Ichimi: In the workshop in the second session, many groups pointed out that every ECEC initiative in countries and regions aims to realize the wellbeing of children in the hope that they will be happy. As efforts to improve the wellbeing of children are universal, it is nothing new that many countries around the world have implemented educational philosophies and guidelines. However, there are often disparities between these philosophies/guidelines and the actual conditions of ECEC. Many cases that are often referenced might have focused on best practices only. Of course, it is useful to adopt best practices, but it is also important to tackle the overlooked disparities more seriously.

I believe that an arena for discussion is needed in order to provide opportunities to share and discuss both advantageous and problematic points among different facilities, seeking real solutions for problems while enhancing good points. This will substantially enhance the efforts of each facility.

How to improve the systems and environments of ECEC

Sakakihara: Now, may I ask Prof. Tabu, Prof. Kim, Prof. Matsuura, and Prof. Mizuno, to give us your opinions.

Tabu: Looking at a recent development in ECEC in England, I would like to recommend introducing a national quality assurance system in Japan. Issues visible to ECEC teachers and parents are likely to be addressed quickly, and systems and philosophies promoted by the government are likely to be realized. In contrast, issues that are hard to notice are often overlooked. For example, safety assurance at ECEC facilities, those run by non-registered providers, in particular, is one issue that is not addressed in Japan.

In England, anyone (excluding close relatives and nannies) who is paid to take care of children for two hours or longer per day, is required by law to register with the national regulatory body called Ofsted in advance. This competent authority will run criminal background screening on applicants who are to provide ECEC or to be employed for ECEC. The government imposes strict safeguarding and welfare requirements and Ofsted conducts inspections of all ECEC providers, as the consequences are disastrous if anything should happen.

Although there is room for discussion about the appropriateness of applying the English screening system to Japanese ECEC, I believe it is necessary for us to implement a system that considers more seriously the safety of children at childcare facilities.

Kim: I have two suggestions for teachers working at kindergartens and day-care centers.

One suggestion is to try "adventurous childcare," instead of only focusing on "protective childcare." For example, in Japan, it is not common for children to play outside when it is raining. As I explained in my lecture in the first session, it is a common practice in South Korea, and often the case in Sweden, as Prof. Mizuno commented in her lecture. Many participants commented at the workshop in the second session that they were interested in trying it at their facilities. Of course, it is important to ensure the safety of children. At the same time, however, to boost the awareness of children, I would like to suggest trying some activities with adventurous elements while paying careful attention to the security and health of children.

Another suggestion is to reconsider what an ECEC teacher is. Japan has a wonderful tradition of ECEC: ECEC teachers consider it important to carefully observe children and constantly assist children's development. Therefore, I would like to ask these ECEC teachers to re-think why they do so. By re-thinking where this traditional educational practice is coming from, that is, always staying by children, they will have a clearer view of the theory of ECEC as well as their concept of children. This will eventually enhance the quality of ECEC in Japan.

Matsuura: I strongly agree and would like to emphasize the importance of discussions on children among ECEC teachers, parents and researchers. It is important to exchange and share opinions on what we can and want to do for the happiness of children, instead of a one-sided relationship, just telling them our own requests and expectations.

It is also necessary to reconsider how to keep up with the development of children. I'm sure there are many ECEC teachers attending this conference, who carefully observe and document the development of children on a daily basis. It is quite effective to record daily notes on the development process of children, which cannot be simply measured by numbers. However, I believe that it is also important to record the "achievements" of children in the five domains, for example, health, human relationships, the environment, language, and expression in some form, considering the next social step they have to take forward when leaving ECEC facilities and entering elementary school.

Mizuno: Under the current system of ECEC in Japan, there are some children beyond the reach of supervision by ECEC teachers due to systematic issues. For example, one day I visited a kindergarten and observed a music class where one teacher was instructing 35 children to play the melodica *. Although some children did not know how to play the melodica, the teacher did not realize that and continued teaching. Children who did not know how to play the melodica just softly touched the surface of the keyboard, being afraid of playing the wrong notes. This music class must have been nothing but torture for these children. The teacher should have listened carefully to what the children had to say. It is quite unlikely that 35 children want to do the same thing at the same time, and the teacher should have considered the personality of each child. In reality, however, it is impossible for one teacher to listen to what all 35 of them have to say individually.

Therefore, it is important to find ways with ECEC teachers to solve such systematic issues and establish an environment in which teachers can focus on the personality of each child and foster their self-esteem.

* A musical keyboard played by blowing air through a mouthpiece.

The good points of ECEC in Japan that can be disseminated abroad

Sakakihara: Finally, before ending the panel discussion, I would like to ask Prof. Kawabe to share with us her opinions.

Kawabe: As I explained in my lecture in the first session, ECEC practices in Japan have been traditionally conducted focusing on group play. Children can learn self-assertion and human relationship skills through group play.

I will show you one example. One day, a teacher read a picture book to children. The book titled "Korokorokoro (rolling rolling rolling)" written by Sadamasa Motonaga describes the story of small colorful balls rolling down and about hills and bumpy roads. The teacher had made a slope with cardboard boxes in the kindergarten in advance. A little boy named "S", who was shy and feeling left out in the kindergarten, loved the picture book very much. He put colorful round-shape stickers on the cardboard slope, like the small balls in the picture book. His peers gathered around him, watching him and started sticking more stickers on the slope with him. Then the teacher suggested that the children cut out circles from colored paper and paste them on the cardboard slope, or on the end of a stick to move it about, or even to crumple the paper up into a small ball, so that they could attract the children's interests. The little boy named "S" got a chance to make friends with his peers during the play, and now cheerfully attends kindergarten every day.

In this mode of play, the teacher suggested what the children should do while carefully observing their reactions. In other words, the play was formed jointly by children and the teacher. This is quite typical of ECEC in Japan in providing various experiences that should be ensured in early childhood. The little boy named "S" surely experienced the joy of playing with his peers and developing the play himself. He must have felt a sense of being cared for as well as a sense of caring for others as well through this group play with his peers and teacher. That is why he made more friends with his peers and adapted to the ECEC facility. This example shows how children can obtain many skills through play. We should be proud of such a good, rich tradition of ECEC in Japan.

Meanwhile, ECEC in Japan has its issues too, as pointed out by the professors at the symposium. To solve these issues, ECEC teachers, parents and researchers should discuss such topics as what an ECEC facility should be like, or how to improve the system. There is a broad range of themes to be discussed, but we have one goal: to ensure that children can learn comprehensively through play.

Children can develop their own play individually and enrich the play experience with peers. We should further develop and enhance the tradition of ECEC in Japan that focuses on human relationships and offers comprehensive learning through play.

Conclusion

In the panel discussion, many good aspects of ECEC in Japan were pointed out. These include the Japanese tradition where a teacher closely observes the activities of children and assists their development, as well as a certain mode of play that comprehensively develops children's cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

Meanwhile, several issues in the current system of ECEC in Japan were also pointed out and possible solutions were suggested. In particular, many panelists strongly emphasized the importance of joint discussions among ECEC teachers, parents and researchers regarding the objectives and philosophies of ECEC. If all of us in different positions, in hopes of ensuring the happiness of children, can understand each other better, we may overcome the current issues we face and come up with a new vision for the future of ECEC in Japan, as well as enhancing the best practices nurtured and refined over the years.

In this symposium, a workshop for all participants was held in the second session, where all attendees exchanged their views from different standpoints. As noted in the panel discussion, we hope this symposium will inspire all participants to think about the future of ECEC in Japan.

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