Staff writer

As educational reform for the 21st century takes shape, the focus of debate has reached a core issue: mandatory curriculum.

The Education Ministry released new courses of study Monday for kindergarten, elementary and junior high schools that will go into full effect in the 2002 academic year.

In them, the ministry has mapped out the direction of mandatory education, stressing creativity with a lighter workload and de-emphasizing rote memorization. Although some observers have praised the ministry’s efforts to make a difference, others believe the measures fall just short of sufficient educational reform.

Late last month, a group of educators compiled a set of future curriculum reform ideas — aimed at the next review in 2010 — calling for more classroom-based courses of study, rather than the current ministry-led teaching guidelines. The group, the 21st Century Curriculum Committee, was founded last year by the Japan Teachers’ Union.

“We want to reflect the voices from actual classrooms to reform the school curriculum fundamentally over the next 10 to 20 years,” said the committee’s chairman, Eiichi Kajita, 57, president of Notre Dame Women’s College in Kyoto.

In its report, the committee suggests the focus of curriculum be shifted from “what to teach” to “how to support children’s urge to learn.” For that to happen, the report says, each school should shape its own curriculum, taking into account opinions of teachers, parents and ultimately the students themselves.

“The existing school system was designed 50 years ago when only those who were eager to study further chose to take entrance exams to pursue higher education,” Kajita said, noting that just 70 percent of junior high graduates proceeded on to high school and about 10 percent entered universities in the 1960s.

Now that nearly 97 percent of junior high graduates move on to high school and about 43 percent of high school graduates go on to college, the conventional entrance exam-centered education as well as its curriculum is outdated, he argued. “The majority of junior high students confess that they don’t fully grasp what’s being taught at school. This shows that today’s children no longer fit in the existing school curriculum,” said Kajita, an education and psychology specialist.

Schools therefore should be transformed into a place for students not just to learn mandatory academic subjects — such as math and science — but to explore other possibilities according to each student’s needs and abilities, he stressed.

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