Brit expert lauds Japan’s schools, points to some challenges ahead

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

Despite fears about declining academic standards, Japan’s elementary school system is functioning well and can act as a model for other nations, a leading British expert says.

Peter Cave of Manchester University believes the Japanese way brings out the best in 6- to 12-year-olds, although schools in Japan do face a new set of challenges, including the need for more parental support for youngsters.

In math, for example, teachers like their students to learn by solving problems through active discussions among themselves with the teacher being a facilitator, he said.

This contrasts with the Western stereotype of Japanese kids learning by rote. And in Japanese lessons, students are urged to openly discuss the issues raised in the literature.

Japanese children also learn a broader range of subjects than in many countries and more time is given to creative studies, such as music and art, Cave said.

Teachers work well to instill a sense of community, he said, which means children feel more at ease to learn things in class through discussions.

This is not a new approach. Japanese schools have been encouraging children to learn through inquiry since at least the 1980s.

There are student-led meetings about classroom issues and lots of posters and artwork encouraging everyone to work hard and look after one another, Cave found during an extensive study spanning several years. Children and staff also clean the schools — something that startles many overseas observers.

He said each student is involved in the lessons and everyone moves at the same pace so no one is left behind.

“I do think that, on the whole, Japanese primary schools are doing well and that teaching practices are very good,” said Cave, who has recently published a book on his findings, “Primary School in Japan: Self, Individuality and Learning in Elementary Education.”

He told an audience at the Japan Foundation in London recently that although there are benefits, the Japanese approach should not necessarily be seen as a “magic bullet.”

For example, ensuring that everyone goes at the same pace may mean some brighter individuals are held back.

Splitting kids up into classes according to their performance in math — “setting” — has been introduced in Japan but not extensively, Cave said.

Much has been made in the Japanese media about declining academic standards in schools — even though Japan is regularly at the top of international standings — and this has led to further planned reforms in the curriculum.

These will involve more focus on core subjects and also studying English, a move welcomed by Cave.

He acknowledged that test results have declined in recent years, particularly among the bottom 20 percent of the student population.

Cave said this could be due to several factors.

For example, since the early 1990s, teachers have been encouraged not to focus exclusively on academic attainment but also on a student’s motivation.