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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (V) -Individualized Learning vs. Collective Teaching: The Classroom As a Collective Learning Unit-

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The discussion and reports of the National Council on Educational Reform in the 1980s, has introduced the concept of "individuality" in educational reform, which has subsequently become popular terminology in the field of education. In order to bring about "education that values the individual", reforms have been promoted that favor individualization and diversity. For example, the 15th Central Council for Education (CCE), in its final report submitted in July 1996, advocated a curriculum fostering individuality, which included the introduction of team teaching, the expansion of group and individual learning, the increase of electives both at the junior high and at the senior high school level, and the expansion of the credit system at the senior high school level. The subsequent 16th CCE, having confirmed the previous CCE's basic position, discussed the issue of articulation between junior high and senior high schools, and in its Final June report submitted in 1997, proposed such measures as the introduction of combined junior and senior high schools, grade-skipping in order to allow students to enter university at age 17, and the reform of the exam system.

Needless to say, it is generally true that "to value the individual" is a fundamental premise of education. In addition, increased flexibility of the system and active utilization of group and individualized learning as a part of classroom teaching are desirable. However, two aspects of the recent movements in reform are cause for misgiving. One is that the expansion of system flexibility and elective courses is becoming institutionalized with a tendency toward individualization and multi-tracking. The other is that, as a premise of these reforms, a rough and simplistic comparison emerged, arguing that utilizing educational pedagogy that applies individualized or group learning extensively as well as utilizes multimedia technology is progressive and superior while collective teaching is an outdated, uniform and standardized pedagogy that emphasizes knowledge accumulation. In such a context, the significance of the group denomination as seen in the present homeroom-based class is underrated and denied. As a result the fundamental framework of teaching and learning will be undoubtedly changed.

These days, it seems opinion diverge on the subject of how much the (homeroom-based) class as a collective teaching/learning unit (hereafter, referred to as, "class") should be maintained, and no doubt it is something that must change with the times. However, up to this point, Japanese schools have placed far more emphasis on the class compared to those in Europe and America. It should, however, be noted that an important fundamental part of the excellence of Japanese schools lies in this fact.

The class is a fundamental group denominator of school life and activities, and is the home ground on which almost all activities take place. A class is not simply a grouping for students, but is a foundation for living and learning together, and growing up in harmony with others over the course of a year. It is something that teachers and students create together, a community where they grow together.

It is related to both the way of teaching and with the competence of teachers. In Japan "drama" is often used as a metaphor for classroom lessons, and, in turn, these lessons are assessed on the basis of how good they are as a drama. This metaphor is used as a framework for organizing a teaching program and is emphasized in demonstration lessons for improving teaching practices, as well as in teacher training conferences. Moreover, even in cases where both group or individualized learning and enquiry-based or problem-solving learning is used, teachers exercise their ingenuity within the class framework. In this sense, class is not simply a denominator of activity, but a foundation for the co-operation, coexistence and growing up in harmony with others in schools, a mechanism for improving lessons, and a basic element in the formation of teacher competence.

In contrast, as individualization progresses to the degree that is seen in European and American schools, this function of class will diminish. Consequently, both the design for improving lessons and the type of competence required for the teaching profession will also change. To carry logic to extremes, in the case of individualized learning, the things that will be essential to teachers will not so much be the competence of giving good lessons and forming a good classroom, but that of capturing the interest and abilities of children, using appropriate teaching materials, and providing appropriate guidance and support.

Of course, even in British and American schools class has not completely faded. There are many schools and teachers that recognize the importance of the class as a foundation for socializing positive coexistence and group harmony. However, these countries tend to foster individualism more than in Japan, as is self-evident in individualized learning, ability grouping and curriculum tracking.

It is not my intention to say that the Japanese way is unconditionally superior. However, I have strong doubts about the crawling trend towards diminishing the meaning and function of class that I mentioned above. Should not the search for educational methods that recognize the significance of the class as a foundation for co-operation and growing up in harmony with others, while valuing individuality be a major issue in Japanese education today? For this reason also, it could be said that provisions such as decreasing the class size is of critical importance.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" August, 1997 issue published by Benesse Corporation]

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