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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (I) - In Confusion over Educational Goals -

As we approach the 21st century, the educational reform movement has hit a sense of urgency. Having recognized that systemic stresses in primary and secondary school education are becoming more pronounced, schools are implementing a five-day school week, and experiments to introduce combined middle- and high-schools are under way. Also, the argument that reform of the educational system will eliminate bullying and truancy is receiving wider acceptance.
There are those who put their hope in these trends, but certainly there are also many people who feel a sense of apprehension. I am one of the latter. Some fundamental things are being forgotten or ignored. In this series, I intend to discuss in detail what these fundamental things are, and what is important in plans for educational reform. To start off, first of all, let us consider the goals of education.

There are four different viewpoints on the goals of education, and they are related to the question of where we should put our focus. Should it be on the individual or the whole? On the present or the future?
1) The first viewpoint is that the goal should be education that is responsive to a variety of economic, technical, and/or social needs. For example, since the proliferation of the use of computers and the Internet has brought great changes to the way we live and work, education that is in step with this change is necessary; and we need to reform the system in order to do things like provide computer literacy education in elementary and secondary schools, or increase the number of universities and colleges that offer departments or courses that deal with information science and media studies.

2) Viewpoint 2 calls for educational reform that makes the supreme goal of education respect for children's individuality and freedom. This has become the main school of thought in the present state of the field, as the so-called progressive approach to education; but whatever the facts are, in any case, the recent reformist-minded slogans, of "the importance of individuality principle" and education that "fosters the individual" stress the importance of this goal.

3) Viewpoint 3 puts the focus on the goal of giving support to the raising of national standards of educational aptitude and quality. In this case, educational aptitude and quality include will and motivation for excellence, reliability and problem-solving proficiency. All of these are in contrast to the ideas in Viewpoints 1 and 2 above, which have their basis in individualism. In contrast, Viewpoint 3, while it does not deny the individual per se, its focus is on maintaining and/or improving standards as a whole, rather than specifically stressing individual or group advancement, freedom, etc.

4) Viewpoint 4 focuses on children living and growing up in health and safety. Like Viewpoint 3, Viewpoint 4 is concerned not with the individual or the group, but improving the entire environment that children live and study in. Also, in contrast to the importance Viewpoints 1 and 3 place on education as a means to developing a way of life or socio-economic status in the future, Viewpoints 2 and 4 stresses the quality of children's lives in the here and now.

Educational aims essentially include all four of these viewpoints, but there is no doubt that there are differences and changes of emphasis connected with school grade level and the process of development of elementary and secondary education. For example, Viewpoint 1 has been held by people involved with vocational and higher education. Viewpoints 3 and 4 have been stressed in the process of the growth and proliferation of elementary and secondary education. For children, there is no place that does more to guarantee a safe and healthy life as much as the schools do. This is why schools came to grow and proliferate in the first place.

On the other hand, as an expression of a basic educational concept, the goal reflected in Viewpoint 2 is something that should be stressed in the place of educational practice, rather than as something that can be achieved by the system. To be more exact, we have expanded the system to provide greater and more equal opportunities for children to be educated and enhance their own potential, that is to say, to expand and equalize educational opportunities. However, in our day, now that education is so widespread, the implications of this system goal must change. In this way, there have been experiments on the feasibility of allowing students to skip grades and combined middle- and high-school that are part of "education that emphasizes the individual," we must not allow the system to become elitist. Although the expression "systemic stress" has been working like a magic charm to instigate reform, we must consider system-based guarantees of the goal of Viewpoint 2 to be problematical in the extreme.
[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" April, 1997 issue published by Benesse Corporation]
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