Encouraging kids to think for themselves


“Is it really OK for school to be this much fun?”

A concerned mother posed this question at a parents’ meeting at the Japanese elementary school my kids attend. We had just been talking about our fourth-graders’ recent lessons. They had dyed a kimono, been on a field trip and made traditional Japanese sweets. “I know the kids love all this hands-on learning,” the mom said. “But shouldn’t they be doing math drills or something serious?”

Many parents are confused about what goes on at school during sogo teki na gakushu no jikan (integrated learning time), which is when my son and his classmates had all those interesting experiences. Called sogo gakushu for short, and sogo on the school schedule, integrated learning is a new subject in Japanese schools.

A little background: About a decade ago, university professors complained that incoming students were incapable of creative thinking or problem-solving. “Young Japanese have memorized their textbooks but have no idea how to apply their knowledge,” the professors said.

The Education Ministry asked an influential advisory group to tackle the problem. One of the recommendations was to provide more opportunities for independent inquiry. The ministry agreed and announced that “integrated learning time” would become a required subject in all elementary and middle schools in 2002, and in high schools in 2003.

The purpose of integrated learning time, according to my translation of ministry documents, is to “nurture in children the ability and disposition for better problem-solving by encouraging them to determine problems on their own, and study, think and make judgments independently.” In this way, schools can “foster the skills needed to learn and think independently,” so children can “think for themselves about how to live their lives.”

Sounds impressive, but what does this really mean? How is it implemented in the classroom?

Many schools, including ours, introduced sogo gakushu on a trial basis in 2000, which was the year my older son started in Japanese school as a third-grader. But I only began paying attention to the subject a year later, when my son got really excited about some of the things he was doing at school.

What impressed me was that the kids, not the teachers, decided what they’d study. When the kids showed interest in something about traditional arts in their social studies textbook, the teacher asked if they’d like to explore the topic further during integrated learning time. The kids decided they did.

The two fourth-grade teachers worked hard to make the lessons meaningful. They took the kids to the Japan Traditional Craft Center in Ikebukuro. They found volunteers to demonstrate yuzen kimono-dying. The owner of a famous confectionary shop came and conducted a wagashi taiken (hands-on lesson in making traditional sweets).

Then each child picked a topic they wanted to know more about. They did their own research and prepared presentations about what they learned.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, my son chose Nanao butsudan, massive Buddhist altars that are handcrafted in Ishikawa Prefecture. He pursued his research with enthusiasm, searching on the Internet and making trips to the library. On a family outing, he spotted a shop selling altars and rushed in to interrogate the merchant about his stock. Soon this blue-eyed 10-year-old had the entire staff searching through catalogs for him.

The next semester, after reading about tenji (Braille) in their Japanese textbook, the kids decided they wanted to know more. The teachers got on the phone and persuaded a volunteer to come and demonstrate how visually-disabled people read and write. The volunteer loaned the school several dozen tenjiban (Braille writing boards), and each child had a chance to write a letter in Braille.

Integrated learning is compulsory from third grade and gets more emphasis than any subject, except Japanese and math. Third-graders, for example, get 235 hours of Japanese instruction, 150 hours of math and 105 hours of integrated learning per year. Fifth-graders get 180 hours of Japanese, 150 hours of math and 110 hours of integrated learning.

Museums, nonprofit organizations and even commercial businesses are jumping on the bandwagon, offering sogo gakushu programs for school groups. Lessons in topics ranging from bicycle history to dairy production are already available, sometimes for a fee.

I’m very comfortable with this kind of learning because there is a lot of it in American schools. But I heard some dissent at that parents’ meeting last March. Some of the parents’ anxiety comes, I think, from being unfamiliar with this style of teaching. But I did agree with several of their objections.

One mother said too much time is devoted to sogo gakushu given that basic subjects were just cut to accommodate the switch to a five-day school week. “If Japanese kids’ academic ability is declining, shouldn’t we be devoting more time to math and science?” she asked. “How can kids do research and prepare reports if they don’t know how to read and write?” another demanded.

One parent pointed out that the curriculum is changing, but the entrance-exam system isn’t. She complained that “this just increases the gap between what kids learn in school and what they have to know for the entrance exams” for middle schools, high schools and universities. “That’s going to drive more kids to juku (cram schools) and private schools, and it’s parents, not the Education Ministry, who have to pay for that!”

I agree that it might make sense to reduce the hours devoted to integrated learning, or to introduce it a grade or two later after kids have gained a better command of the basics.

On the other hand, let’s think about the skills we adults use most. Every day, in our jobs or community activities, we define problems, research solutions and present our findings to others. I think it’s great if kids can start learning those skills early.

As a matter of fact, I’ve got some problem-solving of my own to do right now. I need to convince my son we don’t have room in the apartment for a Nanao Buddhist altar.