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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are thicker textbooks the answer?

Ministry tries increasing page counts to halt academic slide

Staff writer

Faced with a drastic deterioration in academic performance, the education ministry is set to abandon a decade-old policy of relaxed programs and dramatically increase page counts of elementary school textbooks starting next year.

But experts are split over the new policy, with some arguing that simply increasing the number of textbook pages won't solve the problems confronting schools and students.

"I do have serious doubts . . . about merely increasing" the page count of textbooks, says Koji Kato, a professor emeritus of education at Sophia University.

To improve academic performance, Kato believes teachers should select subjects that interest students and allow them to make their own judgments, rather than cramming knowledge into them.

Under the new policy, the overall number of pages in textbooks will increase by 42.8 percent from what they were for the fiscal 2000 screening. Science and arithmetic textbooks will be increased by 67 percent.

Before the 1990s, experts had long criticized Japan's rote-learning methods, which pitted millions of children against each other to pass college entrance exams and caused many to drop out in an education-obsessed society.

In 2002, the ministry started relaxing the curriculum, reducing lesson hours and textbook pages, which some blame for the drastic deterioration in academic performance in the past decade.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japanese children, who ranked top among OECD and other countries in applied mathematics in 2000, slipped to 10th in 2006.

They fell from second to sixth in science and from eighth to 15th in reading comprehension, according to PISA.

The education ministry said the PISA survey examined how well students can utilize their knowledge and skills in everyday life.

"(Japanese children) have trouble with reading comprehension and responding to essay questions," the ministry noted. "While possessing basic knowledge and skills, (Japanese children) have a problem applying them in their actual lives."

Current textbook content is easy for students to understand and memorize, which means they don't need to study at home, says Takeo Samaki, a science education professor at Hosei University.

"Compared with the current cram-free education, we will be seeing a tremendous improvement in content to be studied" by students with the new, thicker textbooks, he said.

Kazuo Nishimura, an economics professor at Kyoto University and an expert on the nation's education system, expects the new curriculum to halt the slide in Japanese academic performances.

Up to now, Nishimura notes, textbooks were getting thinner and more simplistic.

"(Textbooks) won't get any worse," he says. "They will be a little better."

But thick textbooks aren't a silver bullet for the number of apparent shortcomings in elementary school education.

Nishimura points out that schools now attach far greater importance to their students' overall studying attitude, rather than actual scores on paper tests.

Under the current system, Nishimura says, 75 percent of grades for elementary school students are given based on teachers' assessment of their "eagerness," "interest" and "attitude" for learning. Only the remaining 25 percent is based on actual test scores.

"As long as this remains the case, children will be discouraged from studying to improve their paper test performances," he says.

Samaki of Hosei University also points out that teachers have been inundated with paperwork, making it difficult for them to offer after-class supplementary sessions.

He suggests that if local and central governments rectify this situation, academic performance could improve.

Keiji Sakai, a ministry official in the school curriculum division, doesn't expect to see thicker textbooks having a positive effect right away.

But "we are definitely expecting . . . there will be some sort of effects in these survey results and (students') international competitiveness in the long term," he said.

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