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Active Learning in a Tight Frame: ICT and Active Learning in Japanese Elementary Education

Japan ranks among the bottom of developed countries on computer use in elementary classrooms, and the Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT) is currently promoting reforms that link “active learning” and ICT. As teachers attempt to prepare for these revisions to the national curriculum they face two major challenges. First, the form of professional development (Lesson Study) presents a “tight frame” that focuses ICT innovation on classroom instruction, and not one the many valuable uses it can have outside the classroom for learning support and communication. Second, by linking ICT and “active learning,” the Japanese government has created another “tight frame” that limits Japanese teacher experimentation and innovation with other broad learning traditions (project-based learning, engaged learning, discovery learning) that all offer significant promise in promoting “21st Century Skills” among young children.

How the new MEXT guidelines on "active learning" and ICT make it difficult for elementary school teachers to achieve effective teaching.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has pushed ambitious reforms in its 2020 goals, including sweeping changes regarding information and communications technology (ICT) and active learning. These proposed reforms have spawned a host of talks, seminars and demonstration lessons, as teachers and boards of education (BOE) hurriedly prepare for the approach of 2020. The coming Olympics, which will place Japan at center stage of world attention, have added significant energy to concerns about Japan's place in the world, and the role of education in shaping the future of Japanese society, but, will these proposed reforms have the desired effect?

Japan ranks among the bottom of developed countries in terms of ICT use in education according to the Teaching and Learning International Survey 2013 database. This poor performance is even more striking in light of the fact that MEXT began actively promoting computer education in 1986 with the creation of the Computer Education Center. MEXT's current proposed reforms for 2020 specifically link "active learning" and ICT. As teachers attempt to prepare for these revisions to the national curriculum they face several challenges. First, MEXT has failed to provide clear definitions for what it means by "active learning," and failed to provide clear benchmarks for measuring the use of ICT in active learning scenarios. Second, the dominant culture of teacher professional development in Japan presents a "tight frame" that focuses on classroom instruction (e.g. lesson study), and not one the many valuable uses it can have outside the classroom for learning support and communication. Third, by linking ICT and "active learning," the Japanese government has created another "tight frame" that limits Japanese teacher experimentation and innovation with other broad learning traditions (project-based learning, engaged learning, discovery learning) that all offer significant promise in promoting "21st Century Skills" among young children.

Critical Thinking vs. Active Learning (AL)

Active learning, in the general literature, does not refer to a specifically defined pedagogy, but was popularized in the literature on higher education as a way to describe more active, student-centered forms of learning. Popularized in the early 1990s (Bonwell & Eison, 1991), AL was rapidly promoted as an antidote to the stifling learning climate at universities dominated by lectures. The empirical evidence for the effectiveness of various AL strategies is mixed (Prince, 2004). Scholars like Eison envisioned a general shift from the college lecture format to the use of more interactive classroom strategies (Isbell, 1999). Within the Japanese context, research groups like the Center for Research and Development of Higher Education at the University of Tokyo have studied and promoted various AL strategies including the integration of ICT. Excellent examples can be found in (Nagata & Hayashi, 2016).

All this work, however, is concentrated at the college level. MEXT emphasis on AL is very confusing to elementary and middle school teachers, as much of the instruction at these levels already was highly interactive. Indeed, non-Japanese researchers have praised the general Japanese early childhood educational model as one that develops basic academic skills, encourages positive socio-emotional development and stimulated higher-order thinking skills (Lewis, 1995; Peak, 1991; Sato, 2004; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Researchers that I interviewed for my study think that MEXT is probably concerned with high school teaching. But this lack of clarity on the part of MEXT as to just what "active learning" is, creates significant problems for teachers.

For example, at a special panel session on the Role of Educational Technology in Promoting Active Learning held on December 9, in Tokyo, an official from MEXT presented over 100 pages of materials, none of which referenced academic literature on AL. This is concerning, as there are research studies available in Japanese (Mizokami, 2007), and several of these pieces specifically address the issue of integrating ICT and AL (Hayashi, 2010). More troubling, is the lack of any reference to developmentally appropriate strategies that promote children's active engagement in learning.

In U.S. early childhood education, there are several major programs that promote an "active" engagement with materials. For example, Montessori education emphasizes the concept of student "works." This view encourages different activities within the lesson that allow students to access different modalities of learning. Projects can also "break out" of the lesson frame and can include multiple subjects extended over a longer period of time. Various forms of project-based learning used in the U.S. all promote an active engagement with the material among students. An entire issue of American Educator (Volume 40, #3, Fall 2016) was recently devoted to project-based instruction; providing examples in several different subject areas. Some Japanese scholars have also studied how project-based learning modules can promote AL (Nakayama, 2013).

If MEXT truly wishes to promote AL in the elementary or lower secondary education, it must define what aspects of AL teachers should focus on, and provide rubrics for the integration of ICT. For example, a key element in successful AL is the ability for all students to participate. Such lessons must incorporate a multi-modal approach that is consistent with research on multiple abilities (Cohen & Lotan, 2014) or multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983). Research in these traditions shows that children learn in different ways, and encourages teachers to create multiple routes into the curriculum in order to increase learning gains. In addition, research on cooperative group-work shows that creating complex, multi-modal problems also encourages more complex problem-solving skills (Cohen, 1989).

Drawing on such lines of research would provide teachers with empirically documented interventions that support children's learning, particularly the development of higher-order thinking skills. These research lines provide the clarity of definitions, goals and measures of success that MEXT guidelines lack. This would then allow teachers or researchers to create rubrics for how ICT could be used, and what specifically, the goal of ICT use should be.

Lesson Study and the Bureaucratization of Teacher Knowledge

The Japanese scholars I interviewed all agree that Japanese lesson study has been a major achievement that has impacted learning around the world. One scholar noted, "Especially in math and science, Japanese teachers can really be proud of lesson study." Arani, Fukaya, & Lassegard (2010) document that early forms of teacher-led research were occurring as early as 1880 in Japan, influenced by the democratic rights movement of the time. These early forms coalesced into the more formal "lesson study" that has been disseminated as a instructional reform in the U.S. (Akita & Sakamoto, 2015; Doig & Groves, 2011; Fernandez & Yoshida, 2004; Lewis, Perry, Hurd, & O'Connell, 2006). This recognition by other nations has also served to legitimate lesson study in the eyes of the bureaucracy.

But, as lesson study has become "institutionalized" within Japanese schooling, it has become less flexible. It is now recognized that young teachers need to master a demonstration lesson as part of their teacher development. And, as this becomes an expected part or norm for teacher professional development, more and more teachers apparently see it as simply a stage to be passed, not as a powerful tool for developing reflective capacity. And, as MEXT has expanded its control over teacher learning and licensure, bureaucratically sponsored lesson-study interventions become removed from the dynamic of teacher-initiated professional development and innovation.

Lesson study, also, focuses attention on the lesson - not on broader learning gains or innovative uses of ICT outside of the classroom. Dr. Akira Sakai notes that teachers often approach ICT as if it were simple another set of instructional materials (kyozai) to be mastered. Since teachers seem themselves as "pros" with highly specialized technical knowledge about how to use instructional materials in the classroom, they routinely try to use ICT as part of a lesson, not as a tool for more effective transmission of knowledge, or as a tool to improve communication between teachers, students and parents.

A "Good Horse"

By linking "active learning" with ICT, the MEXT inadvertently seems to have further narrowed teachers' use of ICT. Although some advocacy groups such as JAPET advocate a broad-based approach to increasing schools' use of ICT, the MEXT has not articulated clear goals for how to expand schools general usage of ICT. Again, part of the issues is lack of clarity. In the proposed 2020 reform white paper, MEXT mentions shikouryoku (thinking ability) ten times. But, this is a vague term "thinking ability," and in and of itself, it has no clear link to ICT. Use of terms like hatsugenryoku (assertiveness) similarly convey a vague emphasis on communication, but fail to precisely articulate how ICT is to stimulate or encourage greater communicative skills in children.

Perhaps, having been frustrated in its attempts to make any significant progress on computer integration in schools during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, MEXT has grasped onto "active learning" as "good horse" or vehicle which can be used to promote a broad array of reforms. But, while this term provides maximum flexibility for policy purposes, it is confusing and perhaps even counter-productive in promoting ICT. While "active learning" may convey a desire to see more engaged and innovative classrooms, MEXT has failed to articulate just how ICT can be used, within a classroom environment, to stimulate student learning, higher-order thinking skills, or any of what might be envisioned by the term "21st Century Skills."

The frame of teacher action and innovation is again, framed in, by the explicit linking of ICT and AL in MEXT proposals. Japanese teachers have responded by applying lesson study techniques to ICT, but it is often quite difficult to link ICT and AL, particularly in the early grades. Simply put, ICT may actually hinder AL in early elementary grades. By failing to provide clear guidelines on what the goals of ICT and AL are, MEXT may have created a second frame that limits teacher innovation and creativity.

Using ICT to Promote Students Talking and Working Together

How could Japanese early childhood educators effectively use ICT? Teachers would first need to focus on two empirical points in educational science: that students need to be engaged in the material and that students talking and working together increases learning gains. These basic points are crucial. Classrooms can be interactive, noisy and chatty, yet children do not engage with the material. Similarly, teacher-centered lessons can attain high levels of student engagement - if the lecture or demonstration is sufficiently captivating. However, lessons with high-levels of student engagement on complex learning tasks can maximize the development of analytic skills and support students in complex problem solving. Teachers need to begin by assessing whether the specific technology (e.g. tablets, interactive whiteboards, object projectors, etc.) support these two points or not.

Unless a specific technology increases engagement, or allows students to somehow communicate or collaborate more effectively, ICT may be counter-indicated. Indeed, in several of the demonstration lessons I observed, ICT actually hindered student talking and working together within the classroom. For example, second-grade students studying shapes (triangles and squares) using tablets actually appeared distracted by the device. A simpler "technology" - cut out shapes of triangles and squares - viewed in another lesson appeared superior in terms of student engagement and also supported tactile modes of learning. Teachers need to carefully consider whether or not any given device is appropriate for the developmental level of students in general.

Teachers, however, should not be resistant to ICT incorporation. Especially among older students, ICT can greatly facilitate on-task engagement. In one observed lesson, students used tablets to create still-frame animations. This lesson was highly motivating for students, prompting high levels of engagement. It also increased student talking and working together as students discussed how to position various objects and drawings to convey a visual story. This task required students to consider issues of logical sequencing, the effect of color and shading, and how objects or drawings can be used to convey ideas or emotions. This lesson emphasized problem solving, reflection, imagination, innovation.

"Active learning" and ICT can be well-integrated inside and outside of the classroom. To do so requires creating clear definitions of what the goals of the innovation are, what specific cognitive skills are to be promoted, and how ICT can support learning within a broad framework of school activities.

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  • Arani, M. R. S., Fukaya, K., & Lassegard, J. (2010). "Lesson Study" as professional culture in Japanese schools: An historical perspective on elementary classroom practices. Japan Review of International Affairs, 22, 171-200.
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Gerald K. LeTendre is the Harry Lawrence Batschelet Professor of Educational Administration at the Pennsylvania State University. He has written several books on Japanese education, and has engaged in qualitative and quantitative studies of teacher-policy, teacher quality and international educational policy. During the Fall of 2016 he was a Fulbright Fellow at Sophia University’s Institute of Comparative Culture, studying teacher use of ICT.
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