Ambitious curriculum guidelines

The draft version of new curriculum guidelines for elementary and junior high schools unveiled by the education ministry calls for improved teaching in each school subject so that students will acquire the habit of in-depth learning through proactive efforts and dialogue. It also calls for upgrading English to an official subject for fifth- and sixth-graders, and making computer programing a required part of relevant school subjects. As a result, weekly class hours will increase for the third through sixth grades.

The ambitious draft clearly seeks both higher quality and greater quantity in lower education. But it leaves a question of whether school officials and teachers can manage classes as envisaged by the draft at a time when the school schedule is already tight and whether the education ministry can provide sufficient support to schools to help achieve the draft’s goal.

Curriculum guidelines, which are legally binding and revised every 10 years or so, serve as standards for what should be taught and how to teach it at elementary, junior high and high schools. They also serve as guidelines for compiling school textbooks. The education ministry will seek public comments on the draft to adopt the finalized guidelines in March. They will be fully implemented at elementary schools beginning in 2020 and at junior high schools in 2021.

The draft calls for efforts on the part of teachers to improve students’ ability to digest and acquire information from text and graphs. It envisages boosting vocabulary levels to help students improve their ability for understanding and presentation of thought. It calls on teachers to let eighth-graders collect information through newspapers and ninth-graders to compare newspaper reports and editorials in their Japanese classes. Teachers will need to hone their skills in leading students to search for information, hold constructive discussions and present their findings in an understandable and convincing way. Behind the call is the education ministry’s desire to improve Japanese children’s reading comprehension ability, which showed a decline in recent international aptitude tests.

Under the draft, exposure to English will start when students are in the third and fourth grades. English as an official school subject will start for fifth- and sixth-graders, with emphasis on listening and speaking. In junior high school, English classes will be taught in English in principle, with the aim of students being able to express themselves in the language. But this plan faces an obstacle — a shortage of teachers who can teach English to elementary school children. The education ministry needs to work out an efficient way to train qualified teachers in a relatively short period.

Beefing up English education at the elementary school level will mean increasing the number of class hours by 35 periods annually — or one 45-minute period a week. The ministry does not say in the draft how schools can create time for the increased class hours in the current school schedule — leaving the matter to each school. But possible options for the schools are few, including shortening summer vacation or holding an extra 15-minute class three times a week. It’s not clear whether the ministry has considered the real situation at schools.

In addition to the increase in the number of class hours, the draft’s call for “deep learning through proactive efforts and dialogue” may give more work to teachers because they would need to devise and adapt to new ways of teaching. Teachers, who are already said to be overburdened with desk work and supervising students’ club activities in addition to their teaching duties, will likely have a tough time trying to faithfully implement the ideas in the draft. The ministry should come up with concrete plans to ease the burden on teachers, including hiring more of them, so they can teach classes with ingenuity. Otherwise the ideas spelled out in the draft may never make it to the classroom.

The volume of the draft is about 1.5 times more than the current curriculum guidelines because, the education ministry says, it needs to explain the aims in detail given that veteran teachers are retiring in large numbers and being replaced by younger ones. But detailed description risks leading teachers to think that they should strictly follow what is written in the guidelines, depriving them of incentives to use their own creativity.

For the first time, the draft states that social studies classes at the elementary and junior high level must teach that the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are part of Japan’s inherent territory — and that no dispute exists over the Senkakus, which Japan controls. The education ministry says it doesn’t expect teachers to teach the positions of South Korea and China over Takeshima and the Senkakus, respectively. But that could deprive students of an opportunity to learn the history related to and the context of the territorial rows that exist over the islands. The education ministry should consider how that could affect the youths’ perspectives of the disputes with those countries.