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Thinking about Yutori Education: Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. - 1

>One day, in 2002 when I was teaching a junior high school student who was diligent and sensitive, she casually said to me that "our generation is stupid, because our education curriculum is easy." I was shocked and worried about her self-image, saying that "They may say that your curriculum is easier, but it is not because you have less ability to learn more. The decision was made by adults, without assessing your innate potential."

Now she is a twelfth grade student (the third grade in high school) and is preparing hard for a college entrance examination. When I temporarily returned to Japan and had a reunion with the student and her family this spring, I happened to remember the past conversation, although she must have totally forgotten what she had said to me. Anyway, it made me curious about other countries' educational systems and policies, as I have lived outside Japan for four years. Although I am a nurse and education is not my major field, I would like to share some information and thoughts shared by my friends. I look forward to learning your thoughts.

I. Japan: overview

Reflecting on the previous governmental policy in education that had placed emphasis on memorization rather than creative learning, a new curriculum called "Yutori (latitude)" education started in elementary and secondary education in 2002. It aims for children to "acquire rudiments and basics firmly as well as the cultivation of a 'the zest for living,' which means the ability to learn and think independently by and for oneself" (MEXT website). The curriculum promoted moral and health education as well as academic education for children. As a result, about 20% of school hours and 30% of class content were reduced in the new curriculum.

Recent studies reported some concerns. While Japanese children maintain the best level of literacy compared to other most countries in the world, their overall achievements might be declining gradually (PISA, 2003, 2006). Moreover, the proportions of Japanese children who do not like to read books or study science are higher than those of children in other countries (TIMSS, 2003). The lower enthusiasm for learning of Japanese children may imply less competitive abilities of Japanese society in international settings in the near future.

However, the causal relationship between the revised curriculum and the declining academic ability among children is in fact not clear. There are many possible confounding variables, for example:

- There is less competition for college admission among students due to the decreasing number of children (birth rate) in Japanese society
- Reports of difficult learning environments in school due to disordered class management (Gakkyuu houkai) have been increasing
- Attractive entertainments have increased, such as TV, video games and internet at home that divert children from study

Nonetheless, Yutori education is currently regarded as being not very successful, and it seems that the Japanese government is changing the national curriculum back to the previous curriculum which was in place in 2006 in elementary and secondary education. For example, an increase of 10% in school hours and an increase in advanced teaching, as appropriate, are recommended.

According to Bandura's social cognitive theory, people do not even try unless they believe that they can achieve a desired outcome, and self-efficacy is a very foundation of human motivation.

In Japan, 97.6% of children have upper secondary education, and 51.2% of children proceed to college education in Japan (MEXT, 2006, 2007). The number of institutions for higher education has been still increasing (MEXT, 2006). On the other hand, what has been the effect on self-efficacy of some children in the Yutori generation? Can they have hope and confidence to keep actualizing themselves in academic fields? What can adults do for the Yutori generation, other than labeling them?

I shared this information with my friends in the U.S. Two of them, a Taiwanese and an American, explained to me about what has happened to their countries' educational systems in the past years. In short, over the decades both countries, as well as Japan, have been adjusting the balance between education for creativity and education for standardized examinations. Interestingly, the two friends' perceptions seemed to be different from each other: more positive in Taiwan and somewhat confused in the U.S. I would like to discuss the two countries' circumstances in the following series of essays.
(To be continued)

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) [Japanese] [English]

Donatteruno? Yutori-Kyouiku [Japanese]

Education Rebuilding Council [Japanese]

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)
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