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Responsibility for the Future The Inertia of "Common Sense": Do We Really Lack Flexibility?


When some incident involves a child of middle school age or older, we often hear that exam stress is the cause. In the educational reforms presently being implemented, the objective is giving children more "yutori" or flexibility. Both the five-day school week, which will be completely in place by the 2002 school year, and the drastic reduction in class hours have as their greatest justification the idea of "giving children more flexibility."

Students are tormented by fierce competition over exams, and have lost their flexibility. By cutting back in content and eliminating class hours, it would seem that we are giving children more flexible lives. But one also hears the opposite: the pragmatic theory that if the exam system is not changed, students will go to cram schools to make up for the class hours that have been cut, and their stress will not diminish.

These two opinions might seem diametrically opposed but they have a common premise. That is the idea that students' lives are strongly influenced by competition over exams. Criticism that the exam competition distorts education has long dominated the field of Japanese education. The media have never done anything to change this viewpoint. It is established "common sense."

However, compared to children in other countries and Japanese children in the past, the justification of this "common sense" begins to seem doubtful. According to a 1995 study, the "Third International Math and Science Educational Survey," that examined second-year middle-school students in 46 countries, the number of hours Japanese children studied outside of school per day including cram schools and the like was 2.3 hours. This was less than the average of the 46 countries, 3 hours. Japan ranked 25th, placing it in the category of countries whose children did not study very much.

On the other hand, in terms of leisure hours, Japanese children had 8.1 per day, a little shorter than the average of 8.6 hours, but it ranked 22 out of 46, so this was in no way a low figure. Furthermore, on the topic of hours spent viewing television, Japanese middle-school students watched 2.6 hours, more than the overall average of 2.3, 10th out of 46. Can we really say that Japanese middle-school students are tormented by exam competition and have lost their own time?

There are also studies that show that study time has decreased even compared to what it was in the past. For example, a survey has been done of third-year middle-school students in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture, every five years since 1965. According to this survey, the number of students who "hardly study at all" including at cram schools and so forth--was below 2% in the years before 1975. However, in 1990 and 1995 it exceeded 10%. Even the number of students who only study "occasionally" more than doubled from 22% in 1975 to 48% in 1995. On the other hand, the number of students who studied two hours dropped from 29% in 1975 to 17% in 1995. In contrast to media reports and Ministry of Education debates on educational reform that claim that exam competition is intensifying and children have no flexibility and no time for themselves, the middle-school students of today hardly study, remarkably so in comparison to those of the past.

Once created, stereotypes circulate as "common sense" and are slow to change. It is difficult to oppose viewpoints that everybody supports. The media, too, reiterate what the educational reports say. Perhaps this is the reason why the "common sense" about exam competition puts down deeper and deeper roots.

Also, there are many impressionistic folk theories in educational debates. Proponents of these theories tend to criticize modern education not by scrutinizing changes of the times, or studying present conditions based on comparisons with other countries, but by referring to their own personal experiences in their childhood. To what extent are arguments drawn from such impressionistic folk theories turning their eyes away from the real situation? The site of educational reform debates in particular is the Ministry of Education committees and the like. (See for details [in Japanese])

Educational theories that lack accurate analysis of the situation do more than just delay a solution to the problem. They cause unexpected problems to emerge, like the rapid decline in academic achievement among Japanese children. What is happening to the "here and now" in education? In order to grasp this properly, we must definitively get our coordinates fixed and make historical comparisons. How much is "now" different from the past? How much is "here" different from elsewhere? Compared to history. When we ask the question "Is this really true?" we have the chance to put an end to the inertia of "common sense."

This article is a translation of
Kariya Takehiko, 1999, Responsibility for the Future, The Inertia of "Common Sense": Do We Really Lack Flexibility? (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol.243 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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