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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (XVII) - Education that Nurtures Ikiru Chikara, the Ability to Grow and Adapt -

Over the course of the last sixteen articles, I have been investigating "Japanese education at the crossroads." In this, my last article, I would like to take a look at a recent important slogan of reform, ikiru chikara, the ability to grow and adapt.

What is ikiru chikara? As its major elements, the report of the Central Council of Education the disposition and ability to adapt oneself to social changes, to find new tasks, lists the following: "to learn by oneself, to make self-motivated judgments and actions, and to solve problems by oneself in a better way," "a well-rounded character who is capable of self-control, cooperation with others, and who has a sense of empathy and sympathy with others," and "the health and strength to live life energetically."

There is probably no one who feels that the ability to study, to make decisions for oneself, a well-rounded character and social sensitivity, and health and physical strength are unimportant. However, nowadays, why is ikiru chikara being once again talked about, and why has it become a slogan of educational reform? Is it not true that from the very beginning, formal education has had its goal the cultivation of ikiru chikara? Is it not true that the ability to read and write, the knowledge and skills that are necessary in an industrialized society, and so forth have comprised ikiru chikara? all become included within the structure of ikiru chikara? How are they different from the elements mentioned in the above report: ability to study, to make judgments and to act, independence and cooperativeness, thoughtfulness and sensitivity? Personally, I see no difference. And, I do not think that the ability to read and write, and knowledge and skills have become unimportant. What, then, is the problem?

Recent reforms, ostensibly in order to cultivate ikiru chikara, have been promoting policies like the full implementation of a five-day school week, a reduction in the number of school hours in a year, a decrease in educational content by 30 percent, the introduction of "Hours of Integrated Learning," and the expansion of elective courses. In doing so, it is said that this will create "flexibility," it will become possible to adjust education to children's individual needs, the desire to study will increase, and "the ability to learn and think by oneself," and ikiru chikara will be thus cultivated.

Is this really true? To me it seems that inevitably the lowering of educational standards and disruption of rhythms of learning will be exacerbated, children will be more spoiled, and this will lead to the decline in ikiru chikara. This is because, while in every era, ikiru chikara has been the function of ability and perseverance, experience of making efforts and suffering and hope and optimism, these recent reforms do not seem to enhance any of these elements except "optimism." The important thing is not how to make children more cheerful, but rather how to give them chances for richer experiences, and how to offer them opportunities to "suffer richly, struggle richly, and face setbacks richly."

Another thing to be cautious about in recent reform trends is their perspective of learning and knowledge. A traditional view of learning and knowledge has considered that school-based knowledge is abstract, universal, and systematic, and should be acquired and accumulated through study. However, recently, what is given priority is learning and knowledge that emphasizes participation and actual experience. It is said that learning is the process of participating in a community of knowledge, and knowledge is something acquired through communal practice.

This new approach to knowledge and learning regards lecture-style classes and textbook-centered systematic learning to be of little value, and favors experiential learning, problem solving, and project-based learning, and this is also what is behind "Hours of Integrated Learning." Also, encounters with and participation in various kinds of intellectually productive activities from a very early age are emphasized, and as a result it also affirms education that rewards the talented.

However, there are some very important problems here. First, it is argued that traditional classes and ways of learning disregard students' wishes and interests and force them to adopt a passive stance toward learning while participatory and practical learning values students' wishes and interests, encourages active, self-motivated learning, and emphasizes the promotion of a deeper grasp of problems and issues. However, as is obvious in the case of subjects like physical education and music, that focus on practice, school events, and volunteer activities, there is no guarantee that this emphasis is correct.

Second, the extent to which knowledge that is cumulative and that which is acquired through practical experience are essentially different, and to what extent they overlap is disregarded, and only knowledge gained through practical experience is considered to be real and authentic knowledge. The recent theories of educational reform, in order to take up the problem of the "harmfulness of competition over exams," have tended to minimize the former as meaningless knowledge (test taking ability,) but in my opinion, both have much in common. What is important is not emphasizing one extreme too much, but providing both adequately, and in a suitable proportion.

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