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Monday, Oct. 8, 2007

Save cramming for college

On Aug. 30, the elementary-school group of the Central Education Council published a draft report to the education minister that included these points:

Hours for integrated classes — in which schools are free to decide what to teach — should be cut from three hours to two hours a week.

Hours for the basic subjects of Japanese, social studies, math, science and physical education should be increased.

English-language classes of one hour a week should be introduced for fifth and sixth graders.

The next day, the middle-school group of the council came up with these recommendations in a separate draft report:

1. Reduce hours for integrated classes.

2. Cut hours for electives.

3. Increase hours for the five key subjects — English, math, Japanese, science and social studies — and health and physical education.

4. Given the characteristics of the six subjects, distribute an increment of 200 credit hours in a school year to individual grades, depending on scholastic levels.

Integrated classes were introduced under the slogan of "from rote learning to more relaxed education." The classes, incorporating regional characteristics and student interests, were to focus on specific themes and combine a wide range of subjects. Designed to nurture children's ability to set up their own assignments and solve them on their own, the classes were launched at elementary and middle schools in the 2002 school year and at high schools in the 2003 school year.

Subsequently, a number of education experts led by Kazuo Nishimura, professor at Kyoto University, voiced strong criticism of "relaxed education," blaming it for a decline in schoolchildren's scholastic standards. The latest proposals by the advisory board to step up efforts to improve scholastic standards signal a victory for professor Nishimura and other critics.

I am among the few supporters of "relaxed education." To start with, all reform plans of the education ministry mimic U.S. policy, and "relaxed education" is no exception. It apparently was based on the reassessment of "rote learning" and was modeled after U.S. elementary and secondary education.

In my opinion, there are two reasons for the failure of integrated classes in Japan:

(1) Integrated classes in the United States have a long history and tradition. Today's teachers experienced integrated classes as schoolchildren. In a typical integrated class, students might pitch tents in the wilderness for several days to commune with nature, or join an extended tour of a museum. They might conduct group research or debate information, the global environment or welfare.

In fact, integrated classes are so well established in American schools that teachers often need only conduct those integrated classes they thought were useful during their own student days.

In Japan, many teachers have no idea what to teach in integrated classes. The recent proposal to re-examine integrated classes with a view toward abolishing them is shocking, coming only several years after a trial-and-error process had started. Educational reform in Japan lacks consistency.

(2) Since studies at Japanese elementary, middle and high schools are intended solely to prepare students for college entrance examinations, many students naturally find no interest in integrated classes. The introduction of a five-day school week in Japan did not have the intended effect of making education more relaxed; it only prompted attendance at cram schools on Saturdays.

Boasts by private high schools that a large number of their graduates have been admitted to prestigious universities are attracting attention. There is an increasing tendency for college entrance examinations to test the amount of knowledge applicants have accumulated.

I believe that the de facto demise of integrated classes is unfortunate. At least 10 years should have been dedicated to making integrated classes more useful through trial and error.

I don't think "relaxed education" is responsible for the decline in student scholastic standards. Increasing class hours for key subjects just so students can cram in more knowledge does not make them more intelligent. Knowledge gained in studies for entrance examinations is likely to fade in a year or so.

Elementary and secondary education should be aimed at nurturing intellectual interest, the power to think scientifically (logically) and historically, sensitivity to the arts, the ability to explain one's views in a convincing way while accurately understanding the views of others, as well as debate and communication skills.

In other words, curricula should be based on relaxed education, instead of on cramming. The four years at universities should be spent on specialized basic education instead of, essentially, on job training. The universities are where cramming should be encouraged — and at a greater level than at high schools today.

University departments should be abolished and students should be allowed to select their majors and minors according to their intellectual interest and the types of jobs they aspire to, as in the U.S.

American students study very hard. University libraries, often open till midnight daily, are full of students armed with PCs. They must tackle a large amount of daily homework. Competition is hard for graduate-school enrollment, and intensified by the many foreign applicants. Neither undergraduate nor graduate schools give entrance examinations.

To enroll in an undergraduate school, students need only take a scholastic aptitude test; to enroll in a graduate school, they have to take graduate record examinations, or qualification exams for professional graduate schools. Racial, sexual and national diversities are an important factor in the selection of students. Graduate students study much harder than their Japanese counterparts. They have to deal with a large number of class hours, more homework and tests.

When Japanese students enroll in a university (usually at age 18), they choose a department that will lead to their future job. Students who did nothing but cram for entrance examinations tend to have little intellectual interest, and show little enthusiasm for study as undergraduates. The same is true of graduate-school students.

In short, too much cramming is done through high school. Then, some university graduates go on to graduate schools for education that proves redundant.

I believe that students should receive relaxed education before advancing to college, with more cramming at the university undergraduate level and specialized education at graduate schools.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.

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