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Academic achievement was the goal of Japan’s exam-oriented education system when life-time employment was intact.

Georges Lemaitre
Andreas Schleicher

But with recent changes away from stable social and economic structures, coupled with the rapid advance in information and communications technology, there’s a growing demand for the nation to break away from the straight-jacket education system.

Officials of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among others, stress the need for Japan to establish a scheme to ensure life-long learning, while urging the nation to help students better adapt to the workplace after graduating from schools and universities.

“Life-long learning is that people should have the willingness and desire to learn throughout their lives,” explained Georges Lemaitre, chief of the statistics and indicators division of the OECD’s Directorate for Education, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs.

“That’s a matter that is becoming more and more important with the rapidly changing technologies and working life these days,” Lemaitre said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

Although Japanese enterprises have traditionally favored on-the-job training, society must now meet the learning needs of adults, many of whom are losing jobs as they find it difficult to upgrade their skills with the rapid changes in technology, he said.

The problems of IT literacy are becoming particularly conspicuous with adults, including schoolteachers, who are either not educated in IT in the first place or not trained in their current jobs, he added.

Lemaitre suggested that the nation introduce a tax-preferential scheme for individuals so they can start a “learning account,” which is comparable to an individual retirement account and designed for people to set aside money for learning later in life.

At the same time, Lemaitre called on Japan to promote vocational skills for students, as opposed to a general type of education, to help them more rapidly integrate into the labor market.

Meanwhile, Andreas Schleicher, deputy head of the OECD statistics division, expressed concern about Japanese students’ dwindling interest in math and science at elementary and secondary schools, as shown in the latest OECD education indicator for 2000.

Schleicher and Lemaitre were in Chiba earlier this week for a three-day OECD assembly to review — together with 170 officials from the Education Ministry as well as other OECD countries and international organs — its International Indicators of Education Systems.

According to the indicator, which includes a random survey OECD conducted in 1995 on 5,100 Japanese students at 150 schools across the nation, “Japan and (South) Korea, countries with very high levels of student achievement and high gains in achievement between the fourth and eighth-grade levels, are also the countries in which students are the least likely to be positive about science by the eighth grade.”

In Japan, 88 percent of fourth graders had a positive attitude toward science, but within four years, only 40 percent felt the same way, far less than in most other OECD countries, the indicator said.

“As we are entering into the phase of life-long learning, this becomes very critical,” Schleicher warned.

“We not only want students to learn certain things (at school), but they also have to be motivated to . . . keep on learning throughout life.

“They perhaps learn because they want to get into university or because they want to get good marks,” Schleicher continued. In this regard, “the system in Japan is very successful in conveying (academic) skills and competence, but it doesn’t come out of their own interest.”

“If you look toward life-long learning and if you want to keep young people motivated and engaged in learning and interested — which is the key to their future economic success, that’s something to be aware of.

“The priorities of the 80s were to make sure that students could read math and science” among other things, Schleicher added. “Now the interest in many (OECD) countries is shifting toward making sure that people can solve problems and that they have motivation and the capacity to learn.”

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