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Tuesday, March 26, 2002
New school curriculum draws mixed reactions
'Relaxed education' system seen as contributing factor in dumbing down Japan's students
By ERIKO ARITA
First of three parts Staff writer "I can't reduce the fraction anymore," said a fifth grader, working on the fraction 27/30.
"You can still reduce it. Look at it carefully," said Yoshikazu Yajima, a teacher at Hadano Municipal Nishi Elementary School in Hadano, Kanagawa Prefecture. "What is the number next to two?"
"Yeah, three by nine is 27!" the boy exclaimed, reducing the fraction 27/30 to 9/10. Later, in the "my pace time" review session, Yajima recaps ways to calculate fractions.
The review lessons, introduced by the school last April, are used by teachers of each grade after completing a unit of arithmetic.
In the sessions, children are able to select a course of study based on the complexity of the tasks involved and the speed at which they can complete the activities.
The number of study courses is greater than the number of classes in the grade, allowing teachers to give more thorough instructions to fewer students.
"Some children want to understand arithmetic but cannot in a regular class," because 40 children with varied ability are taught at the same pace, Yajima said.
The review lessons increase children's grasp of mathematical concepts, Yajima said, but it means more work for teachers.
My pace time is an example of teachers using a variety of methods to improve students' performance at a time when concerns are growing over falling academic standards.
The latest debate on academic performance in Japan began when renowned university professors complained that the academic skills of university students, particularly in math, had fallen considerably in the past few years. Since then, parents, business leaders and scholars have voiced concerns over falling academic standards of younger students as well.
These concerns precede the introduction next week of a new curriculum for elementary and junior high schools.
With the beginning of the new academic year, students' academic workload will be decreased by around 30 percent. This change was made in response to criticism of the cramming methods of the present education system.
Critics say the reduction will cause a further decline in children's academic abilities.
However, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry said the available data do not prove this allegation.
According to research into the academic performance of students in 31 countries, 15-year-old students in Japan scored the highest in math and second-highest in science, but were eighth in reading ability.
The research, released in December by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, also revealed that Japanese students spend the least amount of time doing homework and studying on their own, and were the least likely to read for pleasure. It also showed that a significant percentage of Japanese students do not complete the essay sections in examinations.
Although sufficient data are not available to determine a decrease in academic performance, discussions have revealed diverse opinions on the issue, which encompasses education policy, the school environment, transformation of society and children's ability to acquire knowledge.
The decline in academic ability is obvious, according to Toshio Sawada, a professor of mathematics education at Tokyo University of Science.
In 2000, Sawada conducted a survey in which about 1,300 sixth-graders in 11 prefectures took an arithmetic test that used the same 20 questions as those in examinations carried out in 1982 and 1994 by the then Education Ministry.
In 2000, according to Sawada, 57.5 percent of students' answers were correct, down from 64.5 percent in 1994 and 68.9 percent in 1982.
"The fall was greater than I had expected," he said.
Sawada blames the deteriorating academic performance on the ministry's "yutori kyoiku" (relaxed education) policy, which has made the curriculum much less intensive.
Since the late 1970s, the ministry has been gradually reducing class hours and courses of study for elementary and secondary education. The ministry hopes the more relaxed curriculum will make children more enthusiastic about studying, develop individual talent and increase their ability to learn and think on their own.
However, Sawada believes children must learn the necessary skills through drills and said the ministry is not aware of this.
"The ministry says that children understand, for example, the concept of fractions (through the relaxed education system), but it is necessary for them to practice the calculations repeatedly, using workbooks," he said.
According to Sawada, the decline in academic performance in the United States before the 1980s was the result of an education policy similar to the relaxed education system being used now in Japan. The decline was halted in the U.S. when President George Bush introduced an educational reform package, Sawada said.
Veteran schoolteacher Yasuho Arita attributed the decline in academic standards to changes in the curriculum combined with the changing character of children.
Arita, a teacher at Suginami No. 3 Elementary School in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, said children's attitudes toward learning have changed over the years.
"Today's children cannot continue calculations with patience," he said. "Rather than trying various ways to find an answer, they want the fastest and easiest 'manual' to reach it."
The teacher blames the way children are growing up. Children live in a society where they no longer need patience or to apply a steady effort to their work, Arita said, adding that kids do not understand the value of spending time doing something.
Academic standards are not slipping, said Keiko Higuchi, an elementary school teacher in Fukuoka Prefecture and a member of the Japan Teachers' Union (Nikkyoso), rather the number of children who are less eager to learn is increasing.
"When I took charge of a first-grade class three years ago for the first time in 20 years, I was surprised to hear some children say, 'I can't understand anyway,' or 'I'm stupid,' " Higuchi said, adding that many children do not listen to teachers' instructions. "It is just like they hear background music."
The phenomenon can be attributed to television, which, she said, is always on in homes.
A number of experts have voiced concern over the deterioration in children's reading comprehension, writing ability and arithmetic skills.
Seiko Matsuki, a teacher at the elementary school affiliated with Ochanomizu University in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, said she has found pupils' reading comprehension and vocabulary have declined.
Matsuki said kids now tend to read things less thoroughly.
In a bid to enhance reading comprehension, Matsuki conducts a Japanese class she calls "Novelist Fair."
In the class, children are divided into groups and select their favorite authors from a list provided by Matsuki. They then study the authors' work and history before making a presentation in class.
All students later read a book by one of the featured authors and make a newspaper-style page featuring the book, illustrations and a chronology of the author's life.
"In order to make newspapers, children have to listen to each other's presentations, take notes and recompose," Matsuki said.
The kids are all right
While teachers have varied opinions about the alleged decline in children's academic abilities, one teaching expert points out that it is necessary to judge these abilities using a broader point of view.
Akio Nagao, a professor at Osaka Kyoiku University, said, "Academic performance shown in the results of surveys is just a part of children's academic ability."
Nagao, who in December worked with other researchers and teachers to compile a report on the controversial issue, said the ability to think cannot be reflected in such examinations. He mentioned computer literacy, which has grown considerably over the past decade, should be also included in discussions.
As well as a new curriculum, students in April will also start a five-day school week. Class hours for major subjects are to be reduced considerably and "comprehensive studies," which will aim to build autonomy, will be introduced.
Expecting a further decline in academic standards under the new curriculum, Arita is asking pupils to donate old textbooks so that teachers can give them to the younger students, whose new textbooks will contain less work.
Other teachers, however, welcome the new curriculum. Yajima of Hadano elementary school said many teachers believe that some children cannot follow classes under the current curriculum.
"Thanks to the new, relaxed curriculum, I think I can spend more time (in teaching and reviewing) so that children can understand well," Yajima said, adding that in this sense the relaxed curriculum may prevent a decline in overall standards.
Parents also to blame
Parents share teachers' concerns over declining academic abilities, particularly as children advance toward high school and university entrance examinations.
"It seems school education in general is favoring an easy direction," said a mother whose 7-year-old son attends an elementary school in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture.
Children at the school are not assigned much homework, she said, prompting mothers to send their kids to cram schools or make them take correspondence courses.
However, a teacher who works at an elementary school in Toyama Prefecture pointed out that the environment at home significantly influences a child's performance, adding that pupils often do not work on homework assignments because they spend their time at home playing computer games.
"I wonder why parents buy and give game machines to children if they care about their school performance," she said.
Some teachers say the increasing number of parents who don't subscribe to newspapers or read books is partly to blame for the drop in children's reading comprehension.
Facing mounting criticism over the relaxed system, the ministry released a paper in January titled "Recommendations on Learning," in which schools are advised to offer supplementary lessons outside of regular classes and assign homework.
In January and February, the ministry also conducted a nationwide examination to test elementary and junior high school students' academic ability. The results of the survey will be made public in the fall and may prompt the ministry to reconsider or maintain its policy.