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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (XVI) - Changing schools, Changing Learning -

Japanese
The Educational Curriculum Council, that has been involved in revising the course of study in correspondence with the full implementation of a five-day school week by 2002, last June issued a preliminary report to the Education Minister in which it proposed as its major revision the reduction of a broad range of educational content and the introduction of "Hours of Integrated Learning." Its characteristics are as follows: a) reduction of total class time by 70 hours (equivalent to two Saturdays a month), b) reduction of a broad range of content in the majority of subjects, c) the implementation of "Hours of Integrated Learning" as a requirement in primary, junior, and senior high schools, and d) expanding the range of hours of elective subjects in junior and senior high schools.

According to the Council, the aims of this session's revisions are four: 1) cultivating character and social responsibility and an awareness of one's identity as a Japanese person, 2) cultivating the ability to think and learn by oneself, 3) establishing flexible educational activities, inculcating a good foundation in the basics, and expanding individualized education, and 4) promoting creative practices in each school, and establishing schools that have unique characteristics.

However, as to the question of whether or not these "goals" can be realized, it is a matter which I think is extremely doubtful. The problems are particularly serious with regard to inculcating the basics, and the formation of basic scholastic ability. First, it is highly doubtful that after total class time is reduced, electives are added, and the vague "Hours of Integrated Learning" are implemented, there can really be "flexible educational activities" and students will really learn the basics. In particular, in subjects where it is important to have repeated practice, and learning is cumulative over time, it is highly likely that there will be a decline and widening disparities in scholastic ability. Second, if we only make inadequate attempts to form the basics of scholastic ability, this will have a negative effect on "cultivating the ability to think and learn by oneself." The reason for this is that basic scholastic ability is important as a foundation for establishing a sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy, and also, the ability to think and study for oneself is something that cannot be separated from basic knowledge the more advanced learning becomes. Third, no matter how much we emphasize lifelong learning, we cannot change the reality of a "society that places importance on an educational background and credentials" in the broad. As such, there will be increased pressure to go to cram schools to improve the ability to take tests, differences in scholastic ability and attitudes towards study will grow, and this will have a negative effect on study in school.

In this way, I must say that this preliminary report has many problems. It is also true, however, that there will be major changes in the schools because of it, and the success or failure of these changes rests on the shoulders of the individual schools and teachers.

One, if "Hours of Integrated Learning" are implemented for an average of three hours per week in primary and junior high schools, together with Moral Education and Special Activities hours, every day an average of one hour will be devoted to the kind of lessons which value experiential learning and problem-solving learning. Depending on the locality and the characteristics of particular school, "Hours of Integrated Learning" are supposed to include curricula and activities involving courses such as international understanding, communications, environment, welfare and health; however, whether or not the time for these lessons will become substantial and fruitful is all left up to the competence and efforts of teachers and schools. Whether it should be left up to each teacher, or there should be a standard theme in each school and school year; in what proportions should there be study involving research, experiential learning, and problem solving; and how to make use of local human and material resources are matters that will make even more demands on the collaborative efforts and cooperation of teachers, schools, and districts.

Two, elective courses will be increased in junior high schools to 30 hours in the first year, 85 in the second, and 165 in the third, and each subject can be allocated a maximum of 70 hours, but how these hours will be actually used will determine the character of each school and is likely to form the basis for differences and distinctions among individual students within the school. At present, foreign languages are required electives, but for example, if there are schools where elective English classes are increased by two hours per week across the board, there will also be some schools where many other elective courses will be created to respond to students' interests, concerns, and desires.

Third, such changes as increasing the number of options like elective courses and experiential learning, diversifying class makeup, promoting the employment of staff other than full-time teachers will necessitate rethinking the roles and responsibilities of teachers and the like and their form of collaboration and will force the school to become more of as being flexible and innovative. But important questions emerge: how will we respond to these changes, particularly, how will a limited number of teachers and staff adequately attend to the needs of all children? This is because, the more the curriculum is diversified, the more educational attention will be unevenly distributed.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" August, 1998 issue published by Benesse Corporation]
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