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The Distance Between Educational Reform and Education in the Classroom


Benesse Educational Research Center has announced the results of a very interesting survey that was conducted beginning last year and continuing until this year. Called "Findings of a Survey on Teaching Fundamentals," it investigated the actual teaching situation of primary and middle school teachers and their way of thinking about it.

What interested me most were the findings on the degree to which the practices of educational reform currently in progress are being implemented. In both primary and middle schools, teaching methodology linked to education involving the so-called "zest of life" has already become widespread. In answer to questions about what kind of teaching practices were being held, 85.6% of respondents (in primary schools) and 64.5% (in middle schools) answered "individualized learning." 79.8% (primary schools) and 62.1% (middle schools) answered "investigative study where children (i.e., pupils) find their own topics and themes," and 86.2% (primary schools) and 43.3% (middle school) answered "study in school using experiential methods."

Only primary school teachers were asked: "what sort of teaching methodology do you strive for?" To this question, 64.3% answered, "classes which incorporate learning through experience," and 45% answered "classes which include student's own research. In contrast, 14% answered "classes which follow the textbook" and no more than 0.8% strive for "teacher-centered classes in a lecture format." Indeed, in the primary schools, low value was placed on a "disseminating information" model; classroom methodology following the aims of the reforms has already become widespread.

On the other hand, there were some high percentages that gave me concern. This was also only in the primary school survey but, in reference to the question, "Compared to several years ago, how have today's children changed?", 84.3% answered, the number of "self-centered children" is increasing, and 73.0% answered that the number of children who "are unable to engage in sustained thinking" is decreasing. Moreover, 61.8% answered that "the gap in academic achievement among individual children" is widening, and 35.0% answered "children's collective academic standards" are dropping (By contrast, 9.6% answered that students' educational standards are rising).

It is not clear whether there is a causal relationship between the new methods used in classes and the changes in children. One might take the view that, because the number of children who are self-centered and unable to engage in sustained thinking is increasing, it is essential to value individuality, and emphasize the importance of education involving experiential or individualized learning that increases willingness to learn. Or, on the contrary, one might also take the view that because the importance of individuality and willingness to learn is overestimated, the number of students who are self-centered and who cannot engage in sustained thinking is increasing and the gap in learning ability is becoming greater. Which of these is correct? We cannot know this just by this survey.

However, from these results, we can find a clue for thinking about problems in the relationship between actual practice in the classroom and theories of educational reform. Indeed, in the classroom, practice has followed the lines of the reformist message. In that sense, it seems that the intentions of reform have actually reached the classroom. However, it is difficult to judge whether this brings about results that are in accordance with the aims of educational reform. Instead, tendencies like a decline in the number of students who can engage in sustained thinking can rather be seen as running counter to the aims of the reforms (the ability to learn and think for oneself).

On the other hand, problems do emerge to which theories of educational reform pay an insufficient amount of attention, such as teachers' awareness of the gap between students in academic achievement and the drop in collective academic standards. However, the voices of concern from the classroom do not seem to have reached the table where the reforms were debated among decision-makers.

There are frequent debates on the necessity of education which responds to the change in children. In contrast there is not enough evidence on the reverse relationship, namely, to support contrasting theories with how education in line with reformist intentions has changed children. This is probably because above all the strong position that reforms are necessary has grown distant from analysis of the actual situation and from the voices of teachers.

The changes in children include both those that reformists aim for, and those that they don't. If we take the standpoint of promoting reform, we welcome the former. In comparison, unintended changes become difficult to face. This is all the more true if our standpoint rejects recognition of mistakes in our strategies. Therefore, it is all the more crucial to have proof that offers us a view of unintended consequences. This is because it will enable us to address the views of ordinary teachers that reflect their experience.

How will the "time for integrated studies" that is about to begin be received in the classroom? It is worth waiting for an investigation of this that includes the effect it will have on children.

This article is a translation of
Kariya, Takehiko. 1999. The Distance Between Educational Reform and Education in the Classroom (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol. 247 (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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