The education think tanks were busy in 2013. As the Year of the Snake slithered to a close, the education ministry made headlines by announcing bolstered English education plans — again — in an attempt to better prepare Japanese students for an increasingly connected world.
Having now entered the Year of the Horse, the most interesting news on the education track involves a relationship decades in the making — and one that’s more about philosophy than language.
At the starting line is the International Baccalaureate (IB), a nonprofit educational foundation established in 1968. The IB was formed with the aim of merging the best in national curriculums around the world to create an international standard. In 1979, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) officially recognized IB diploma holders as eligible candidates for university admissions in Japan, although this was applicable mostly to overseas students.
Over the years, Japan has expanded its relationship with the IB, as the organization has grown into an international curriculum that includes four consecutive programs for students aged 3-19 offered in English, French or Spanish in 3,699 schools across 147 countries. MEXT announced its intention last year to bring the IB into the wider school system by offering a dual-language (Japanese and English) IB diploma, with the ambitious goal of having it in 200 schools in Japan by 2018.
Until the MEXT decision, the IB curriculum was known in Japan primarily as a way to get a diploma in English, but that was never its main purpose. The IB curriculum, with its emphasis on inquiry-based learning and critical thinking skills across disciplines, is a chance for Japanese education to expand beyond rote learning and exam-centered memorization. In other words: It’s not just what you know — it’s how you know it.
Ikuko Newell-Tsuboya is one of the many people working behind the scenes to bring the dual-language diploma to Japan. A member of the IB-MEXT collaborative project, she says the curriculum is not just about studying English.
“Some people misunderstand because the majority of the current IB schools in Japan teach all the subjects in English, so it is assumed that IB is just a tool for studying English,” she says. “But IB is a philosophy and a way of learning that’s quite different from the way education is typically taught in this country. Bringing IB to Japan — but having most subjects taught in Japanese — is the best way for Japanese education.”
While some educators I spoke to said they were unhappy about the decision to create a Japanese-language-based IB program, seeing it as a missed opportunity to bolster English-language education in the country, Newell-Tsuboya hopes that once the dual-language diploma program starts, its more internationally minded philosophy will become the talking point in the scholastic community.
“I am not saying that 100 percent of schools in Japan should become IB schools, but if an IB type of education would start successfully in the Japanese educational scene, it would begin to spread out to other areas of education. I want students in Japan to learn how to learn, not just how to study for exams — to truly become lifelong learners.”
Osaka International School of Kwansei Gakuin is one of 27 schools in Japan currently offering the IB diploma in English. John Searle, the head of school, says the institution has been following the curriculum for many years and that they have a relatively deep understanding of its value in an international context. He says that offering the dual-language diploma within the national framework will “bring the benefit of significant diversity to Japanese education.”
“Our own experience has shown us that an interesting additional value of offering the IB programs has been the stimulus of discussion, ideas and learning created between all involved,” Searle says. “Such discussion is the bedrock of change and has far wider implications beyond just program implementation. On a larger scale, if students, parents, teachers, schools and universities have the conversations required to understand what the IB programs are about, it really could have a huge impact on how people think about education and learning here in Japan.”
The IB-MEXT collaborative project is facing significant challenges. Ayumi Hoshino, the IB developing manager for Japan, says training teachers is a top priority.
“IB understands that training Japanese teachers to run the program is crucial in bringing the number of IB schools in Japan up to 200,” she says. “We have been working on training workshop leaders who can run workshops in Japanese since 2008, and have run workshops in Japanese since 2010.”
In August, the IB-MEXT project stepped up its training with a large-scale diploma workshop that drew more than 250 attendees. More workshops are scheduled for March, August and September.
Each prefecture decides on its own how to enforce MEXT guidelines on IB implementation, and many of the current practices in place make it difficult for schools to employ IB-trained teachers. Mike Bostwick is executive director at Katoh Gakuen in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. That institution has been an IB school since 2000 and was the first school in the country to receive authorization for the IB middle-years program (grades 7-10) and diploma program (grades 11 and 12). Bostwick sees challenges in addition to teacher training.
“The IB is such a fundamentally different approach to education from the more traditional forms . . . in Japan,” he says. “I think Japanese schools would greatly benefit from the experience and expertise of international schools here in Japan with IB programs. This is a hugely important resource for Japanese schools which I hope they will use. The consistent support of prefectural governments is also very important.”
Bostwick believes schools, governments and the community all have a role to play in overcoming the challenges IB faces.
“Becoming an IB school means that you become a member of a global community of schools. The schools will no longer be ‘Japanese’ schools but will have to become active members of an international community of learners,” he says. “There will be international standards for facilities, a broader range of professional development opportunities for teachers than is normally provided in Japan, a greater emphasis on service to the local community, and more opportunities for students to connect with other IB students from around the world — not to mention significant financial commitments to accomplish all of this.
“It also means that teachers and schools have to shift to a more concept-based approach to teaching and learning, with greater emphasis on the social construction of knowledge, inquiry and synergistic thinking that is at the core of the IB. Not only will teachers have to change, but the policies and practices of the schools and the wider educational community must realign to support this deeper transformation.”
Teaching training and local government support aside, another obstacle is the Japanese university system, which is notorious for its rigorous examination-based entrance process. IB critics question the point of offering a dual-language diploma if Japanese universities do not accept it as an alternative to entrance exams for admission.
Recent developments, however, indicate universities are heeding the new government panel tasked with exploring ways to diversify entrance policies. In January, Keio and Tsukuba universities announced they would accept the dual-language diploma for admission, waiving the regular examinations. The University of Tokyo made a similar announcement last week. Tsuboya cites these announcements as an important start, but more institutions must follow if the IB is to succeed.
After the introduction of the IB-MEXT collaborative project last year, Ian Chambers, director of IB Asia Pacific, points out the curriculum’s determination to be an “integral” part of Japan’s plans to “develop human global capital.”
“The IB and MEXT share a common goal of developing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who will contribute to their country and to the world,” he says.
Time will tell whether the needed support will filter through to the local level throughout Japan.
“Although the national government has committed to the introduction of the IB in Japan, it is up to the board of education in each prefecture to issue teacher licenses,” Bostwick adds. “Therefore, it’s very difficult for MEXT to dictate to the prefectures how licenses are issued to IB teachers and not all prefectures are on board yet with the IB initiative.”
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