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Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Comprehensive studies approach gaining foothold
Fostering independent study a common goal but not all teachers ready to break new ground
By ERIKO ARITA
Second of three parts Staff writer A dozen third-graders from Tokyo's Koto Ward recently queried local senior citizens and searched the Internet to solve the mystery surrounding the origin and purpose of canine statues found at the entrances of shrines.
Their teacher gave them basic guidance but the children decided what steps to take to find their answers.
"We've learned pairs of stone guardian dogs in front of shrines have their origins in India. A long time ago, such dogs were brought to Japan via China and Korea," a boy from the study group said during a classroom presentation on their research, holding up illustrations of the stone dogs drawn by the group.
Rie Hayami, their teacher at Kameido No. 2 Elementary School, said the children came up with the theme, "Why are guardian dogs placed in front of shrines?" after visiting Ishii Shrine in their community and listening to a member of a neighborhood association that takes care of it. They then started to look into the origin of the dogs on their own.
"The children have actively engaged in research, thinking on their own about how to find the answers to questions that arose as they looked into the subject," Hayami said.
"It is good that children can learn about their community by themselves. I hope such opportunities will be increased," said a mother who came to see her daughter in the presentation.
"I hope children will become more interested in the history of their community," said Toshio Miyasaka, vice chief of the neighborhood group that gave the kids the shrine tour.
The presentation was part of a comprehensive-studies class, a new course that will officially be incorporated into school curricula in the next academic year, which starts Monday. It is for pupils between third grade and junior high school.
It represents one of three drastic changes planned for school curricula, along with the 30 percent reduction in textbook content and the introduction of a five-day week.
The ministry said the comprehensive-studies course is designed to provide children with opportunities to learn and think on their own. The goal is to foster autonomy, creativity and ability to solve problems children encounter in everyday life.
The change came after many groups in Japan criticized the nation's conventional school curriculum -- which emphasized memorization geared toward entrance exams -- for failing to nurture abilities that are needed in normal life.
The ministry said that such fields as international studies, information technology, social welfare and the environment can provide themes for comprehensive-studies courses, but any other topic can be selected at the discretion of each school.
One of the most important tasks for teachers of the new course is picking a theme, which some experts say will practically decide the fate of the program.
At the Kameido school, where comprehensive-studies classes have been offered since 1999 on an experimental basis, teachers have tried a number of ways to look for appropriate topics, said Takahiro Tanaka, a teacher in charge of a sixth-grade class.
In the first year, teachers selected random topics, and in the second year they sent questionnaires to parents, asking what they wanted their children to study.
This year, Tanaka explained, the school set the following targets for the new course: fostering autonomy and planning and presentation skills. To achieve them, each grade decided topics.
Third-grade teachers opted for issues related to their community, and the children chose three topics by themselves, including the history of local shrines.
Commenting on the effects of the new class, Tanaka said he thinks the children are doing well.
"(Before the program was introduced), children did not have opportunities to make presentations in front of people in the community. If they get used to it, I think they will develop planning and presentation skills," he said.
While the new course presents many possibilities for schools, which have long been restricted by central government rules, many teachers are having difficulty in deciding what to do in the new class.
Many schools are trying to make the curriculum unique to their region, yet that poses a big challenge to teachers who must hold classes on topics they may know little about.
Toshihide Okamoto, of Arahata Elementary School in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, is one such teacher.
His school is located near the Sayama Hills, which stretch over Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture. Okamoto thought it would be a good idea to make use of the neighboring nature, including the copse forests and wetlands.
"But when we tried environmental education in our comprehensive-studies classes, we realized teachers alone could not lead them, " Okamoto said during a workshop on comprehensive studies and environmental education held at Sayama Hills Center for Communications with Nature, a prefectural educational facility.
Okamoto was able to conduct the classes on nature only with help offered by the local nongovernmental organization Totoro Fund and other people in the community, he said.
"We support the teachers," said Masahiro Kadouchi of Totoro Fund, adding that they can play a different role than the teacher in making the classes successful.
In class sessions fifth- and sixth-graders learned about creatures in the forests.
They also picked acorns, planted them and then transplanted the seedlings in the hills. They learned how to grow mushrooms on oak logs, make charcoal from wood and collect leaves to make leaf mold.
"I think it is great that such a tiny acorn can grow into a big tree decades later if we help it. I've realized even more that a tiny life is so precious," sixth-grader Matsuri Okamoto wrote after the class.
At the workshop on comprehensive studies and environmental education organized by Saitama Prefecture, 40 people participated, half of them school teachers who came looking for some hints for their comprehensive-studies classes.
Positive effect hoped for
According to a survey conducted by Kyodo News with 200 elementary and junior high school teachers who participated in a meeting of the Japan Teachers' Union, 74 percent of the respondents said they expect comprehensive studies to have a positive effect.
However, as concerns over the declining academic performance of children spread, critics doubt the new program, which will be introduced by reducing class hours of other major subjects, will have a significant effect.
In addition, the course is seen as an additional burden on teachers who already have hectic schedules.
A teacher at an elementary school in Kawasaki said that working with people in the community to make comprehensive-studies classes meaningful for children is an important but time-consuming aspect of the program.
"Teachers have to work on weekends to make the necessary arrangements," said the female teacher, who asked not to be named.
Yasuho Arita, a teacher at Suginami No. 3 Elementary School in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, said he believes it will be extremely hard for public schools to provide comprehensive studies of high quality.
"At public schools, there are all sorts of children and so many school events to organize," Arita said. "I expect a number of teachers will simply mimic (what other teachers have done.)"
Instead of looking for unique comprehensive-studies topics, Arita has proposed letting children realize the fun of studying mainstay subjects, including arithmetic and science, in a way that fosters their ability to think on their own. As an example, he referred to one of his own math classes, called "Omoshiro Sansu" (Enjoyable Arithmetic), in which children try to find various ways to prove that the corners of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees.
Arita said such classes stimulate kids so much that they discover math is fun.
Many teachers who are already in the dark have become more confused as different, and sometimes contradictory, definitions of comprehensive studies have been floated, even from those involved in educational policymaking.
Kenji Ueno, a professor at Kyoto University and president of a group promoting comprehensive studies, pointed out that former Education Minister Akito Arima has said the comprehensive-studies program should be applied to math and science.
"It seems that even the ministry is at a loss (regarding comprehensive-studies policies)," said Ueno, a mathematics specialist.
He added that many teachers are also skeptical about education ministry policies, because freedom of teaching at schools has long been restricted by a hierarchal system in which the ministry sits on top, followed by local education boards, Ueno claimed.
The new course of study is starting at schools nationwide soon, but confusion and difficulties remain to be solved, and the effect of comprehensive studies on children may not appear soon, experts say.