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Sharing our feelings and experiences about Teaching and Learning

In the last half year or so there have been a number of articles in the Japanese media about changes in schools being decided by the Department of Health, Sports and Education (Mombukagakusho). Their board of "experts" seem convinced that the so-called relaxed educational reforms introduced 6 years ago, are causing damage to Japanese children and society. Some conservative educators, such as Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor of law at Takasaki City University of Economics in Gunma Prefecture and a former president of the conservative Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, directly blame the "yutori" or relaxed approach for problems among today's youth. The Japan Times of January 25, 2007 reported him as saying, "Public schools since the mid-1970s did away with the strict, coercive approach to teaching and allowed a more relaxed system to ease the workload and pressure on children. As a result, they failed to teach social morals." He wants the "strict coercive approach" to come back, and he's not alone.

I don't agree that the education system has changed enough over the past 35 years to blame the problems of today's society on it. I lived in Japan from 1980-2005 and in my opinion, the meaningful changes in most Japanese classrooms have been minimal. Much of Japanese education in middle and high school is far from "relaxed" and it remains unconnected to anything other than the competitive testing system. In my experience, even a lot of university education has failed to change noticeably and still attempts to feed "basic" knowledge to students, rather than working (and playing!) to instill love of learning and discovery in their students.

Unfortunately, the members of the Prime Minister's Education Panel, like the members of most decision-making panels on government agencies in Japan, are composed of elderly men, and they have particular views about the role of schools in society being to "train" lawful citizens. This can be done, perhaps they imagine, by having students learn to memorize a lot of facts, be skillful at taking tests, and by someone telling them strongly and directly to be patriotic and respect others (without being shown much respect themselves, it seems to me.) For young people to learn to combine different kinds of knowledge and relate them to life, to think for themselves and to challenge and question others, may be seen as having some value, but those skills will come along at an unspecified later date, after all the basics are mastered.

But some of us, including children, parents and researchers, are concerned about the loss of integrated studies time (sogoteki na gakushu jikan) and the focus on the testing of "basic skills"? We have had different experiences both as students ourselves, and as teachers and learners. What can we do about our concern? How can we share our feelings with others, particularly those who are responsible for making decisions about education in our schools?

A recent article in the May 21, 2008 edition of the New York Daily News (http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/education/2008/05/21/2008-05-21_bronx_8thgraders_boycott_practice_exam_b-1.html) tells us about the reaction of one group of students to being tested too much: "More than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx - virtually the entire eighth grade - refused to take last Wednesday's three-hour practice exam for next month's statewide social studies test. Instead, the students handed in blank exams. Then they submitted signed petitions with a list of grievances to school Principal Maria Lopez and the Department of Education... According to the petition, they are sick and tired of the 'constant, excessive and stressful testing' that causes them to 'lose valuable instructional time with our teachers.'"

Well, there's one form of action which can be taken to make a point. If such a boycott occurred in a Tokyo middle school, it would cause quite a stir in the Japanese media, wouldn't it! But a boycott of an exam, even if just a practice exam, isn't likely to happen in Japan, at least not until the concern about meaningful learning and frustration level of parents and students reaches a much higher level.

In the meantime, what can we do? There are ways to increase the chances of our children being able to grow up as independent and innovative thinkers who will be able to find answers to problems which haven't even occurred yet. Some possibilities are our talking to our children, our children talking with other children, our talking with other parents and teachers, our writing our ideas in places that are read by parents and teachers, and our going to parent-teacher meetings and raising these issues with local boards of education. Another idea would involve communicating with people on a national level.

There is clearly a large segment of Japanese society which recognizes that the talent to innovate and to think independently is important for the future of Japanese economy and social life. Recently there has been a lot of interest in Japan about education in Finland, and some books on this topic have been translated or written in Japanese about the schools there. Possibly this interest is because there has been some publicity about the results of an international test in which students were asked to apply school learning to real-life situations. For a very thorough discussion of a test given every 3 years to more than 400,000 15 year old students in 57 countries, covering Math, Reading and Science education, see the 56 page OECD report at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/15/13/39725224.pdf (note: the file is 4.5 MB)

Japanese ranking has been falling in Math and Science during the past 6 years. Students from Finland placed number 1 in the Science results in the world in 2006. Japanese students were 6th whereas they had been 2nd in 2000 and 2003. In the math test, Japanese students had been first in the world in 2000, but 6th in 2003 and out of the top group in 2006. Finland?fs students were 2nd in 2003 and 2006. Suddenly there has been a fascination with Finnish education in some circles in Japan.

An article from the May 2, 2008 edition of The Japan Times (http://search.japantimes.co.jp/print/fl20080506a2.html) tells us many interesting facts about the situation in Finland. I want to quote 2 sections:
What's so special about Finland? Japanese parliament member Marutei Tsurunen, a naturalized Japanese citizen who was born in Finland, told reporters at a recent lecture in Tokyo that in Finland teachers help children learn on their own, rather than giving or teaching them answers. Finnish kids get virtually no homework, even on weekends, and their summer break is 2 months long, he said. Coupled with such a relaxed style of learning is a sense passed down from parents to children over generations that the Finnish must learn on their own and communicate well with others to survive,...
Seiji Fukuta, a professor of comparative culture studies at Tsuru University in Yamanashi Prefecture who has written numerous books on Finnish education, pointed out several factors that make the Scandinavian country's education stand out. First, the purpose of education there is to nurture character and instill a sense of independence among individuals, whereas in Japan, many students study to achieve high scores in exams and thus entrance into high-ranking high schools and universities. Second, Finnish teachers, all of whom must have a masters' degree in education, enjoy relative freedom on what and how to teach. Third, Finland gives no tests to students until the age of 16, which means they are driven not by competition but their own desire to learn.
Again, the question comes up: how can we spread this kind of thinking among Japanese people, including educators and politicians? As I wrote above, one way is by talking locally - in your family to your children, in your neighborhood to your friends and the teachers of your children and to the local board of education members. We can also go more nationally and send letters to people who make decisions or who write about education. Sending letters to newspapers or writing email to politicians or members of the education minister's panel is also possible in this age of internet communication. If you find an interesting article or book with educational ideas you can support, why not send a copy to such people?

Let me know if something interesting happens as a result of any sharing of ideas you do.


P.S. Amazingly enough at roughly the same time as this article was posted in Japan (June 20), I found that an article with a very similar theme appeared on "Edutopia", the print and on-line magazine of the George Lucas Foundation. (See their homepage at http://www.edutopia.org) The Executive Director of this foundation is Milton Chen, who is also on the Advisory Board of Child Research Network. The article, by Anthony Cody appears at http://www.edutopia.org/teachers-advocates political-activism-opinion and gives some very specific suggestions about how we can share our ideas about teaching and learning. Check it out!
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