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The education ministry has screened and approved 148 new textbooks for use in primary schools, most of which will be introduced to classrooms in fiscal 2011.

The textbooks are notably thicker than those that were approved in the last round of screening. When approving books for use from fiscal 2002, the ministry’s catchphrase was “education with latitude.” The average number of pages has increased 42.8 percent. In the case of mathematics and science, books’ length has increased 67.0 percent and 67.3 percent, respectively.

The adoption of the dense textbooks underlines the ministry’s desire to overcome criticism that Japanese pupils’ academic ability has declined under the policy of “education with latitude,” which was supposed to be the antithesis of cram-style education.

One potential problem is that teachers, due to insufficient time to properly teach books’ entire content, may be tempted to cram information into their pupils. From fiscal 2011, class time allocated to the four major subjects will increase, but only by about 10 percent. Fifth and sixth graders’ class time will be spread more thinly as they begin to study English. Responding to these concerns, the ministry now says teachers do not have to teach the entire content of the textbooks. But such a statement only muddles things further.

Teaching content that was dropped under the previous curriculum has been revived in the new textbooks. They include refresher sections and more practice exercises, elaborate on science experiments in more detail and contain more contextual reading material. They also broach the new topics of media literacy and the Internet.

The new texts are written in an approachable manner that lends itself to easy use by teachers and comprehension by students. Some people think this alone ensures that a certain standard of teaching will be achieved, irrespective of individual teachers’ skills. But others say the books read like manuals, delivering information in great detail but doing little to develop pupils’ ability to engage in critical thinking. Students require individualized instruction and encouragement from their teachers to develop such ability. To provide the best education possible, the government must increase the number of teachers.

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