After reviewing the current five-day school week in public schools, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology says it is again considering holding Saturday classes.
The reduction of the school week to five days was fully implemented nationwide from 2003 as part of the ministry’s “yutori kyoiku” (pressure-free education) policy, which, most would agree, has been less than successful. “Six days of school” may make good headlines, but not much more.
Adding another day to classes is the least likely change to bring meaningful improvement to Japan’s education system. This expansion of school hours is a surface change that might appear to strengthen education, but is actually more of a way for the ministry to avoid getting into messy details.
The effort to genuinely improve conditions for teachers and students can be better focused in other directions.
Primary and secondary teachers are already overworked. In addition to classes, most teachers perform administrative duties, supervise sports and circle activities, attend meetings, go to recertification sessions and work through the summer. What they really need is more time to prepare lessons, educate themselves in their content areas, and hone their pedagogical skills.
Adding Saturday classes means teachers have one less day to prepare, relax and get ready. For many teachers, that day is sometimes the only day to prepare.
Having more contact hours between teachers and students is helpful, but those hours should be more than just sitting in the same room. The time should be used constructively and meaningfully.
If the ministry is serious about improving education, it could start with the teacher-student ratio. Japan has the third-largest number of students in each class for primary education and the second highest for junior and senior high school education in the world, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
That means Japanese students have nearly the least amount of average interaction time with their teachers during class hours than any country except China and Korea.
Instead, the ministry should find ways to lower the number of students from an average of 30 to 35 to a more manageable, and efficient, 20 students per class. Since more new teachers must be hired to cover Saturday classes no matter what, lower student-teacher ratios would be a better expenditure than more class hours. The effectiveness of all classes will be improved by reducing the number of students in each class, not by lengthening total hours.
Big classes can achieve some goals, such as preparing for exams, but they do not foster a learning environment for the kinds of skills and knowledge students will really need for the future.
Especially for younger children, interactive exchanges with teachers are an essential part of their learning. Extending class hours with larger class sizes locks education into an information-oriented framework. That crowds out interactive contact time that develops language competence, critical thinking ability and cooperative skills.
Perhaps part of the push to add another day to the school week is to help cram for university entrance exams. Some universities have begun to change the types of entrance tests students can take, but for the most part, not enough has been done to overhaul the system. One wonders whether more Saturday classes would be focused on a broader range of skills, or whether Saturday classes would be aimed at preparation for multiple-choice tests. Sadly, the latter is more likely.
Part of the intention in freeing up Saturdays was that students would be given unstructured time to develop their own interests, spend time with friends and discover other ways of learning. The intention of yutori kyoiku was to develop more rounded human beings, rather than simply good test-takers.
Unfortunately, the open time on Saturdays has been given over to intensive sports practice, more cram school time or other structured, goal-directed pursuits. Adding class hours will not cancel those activities, but simply pile more onto students squeezed into less time than ever before.
The ministry is perhaps also seeking to bridge the gap between private and public schools, which is an admirable undertaking. Many private schools continue to hold Saturday classes at least twice a month.
It is important, though, that new changes in education do not confuse quality with quantity. Private schools tend to have lower teacher-student ratios and give more attention to individual students. They also generally have more highly qualified teachers who are better paid. The ministry should consider that.
A survey by the Tokyo Elementary School PTA Council found that 86 percent of parents and 38 percent of teachers were in favor of Saturday classes, while 7 percent and 52 percent, respectively, were opposed. Those opinions should be taken into account.
But to equate one more day of classes with an immediate improvement in education is far too simplistic. How class time is spent is the key point.
For some skills, more practice time leads to improvement, but for the more advanced skills, like higher order reasoning, ethical reasoning, and expressive skills in writing and speaking, the quality of practice is equally important.
A return to Saturday classes seems more like a nostalgic yearning for the past than a serious vision for the future. The ministry should work toward a better proposal for improving the quality of education.