Exam forces students to cram irrelevant facts

by Julian Dierkes

Special To The Japan Times

I have been studying academic juku (for-profit supplementary schooling) for many years and have visited over 50 individually operated juku throughout Japan.

I have been thrilled by the dedication of charismatic educators, and dismayed by the relentless focus on standardized test results and by the lack of a diversity of offerings beyond the narrow confines of the curriculum in an era of hypereducation.

In January, thousands of students in Japan sat for the central university entrance examination (center shiken or center test). For ambitious students, the exam is merely a requirement to check off on their way to the entrance examinations for specific fields of study that follow later.

For others, the exam is a convenient way to avoid multiple examinations. The exam is one of the ultimate goals that supplementary education through primary and secondary schooling focuses on.

When I read the exam questions that were reprinted in newspapers, I felt dismay and a concern for Japan’s future. The linchpin of the education system tests is knowledge that I, as a university professor, am not looking for in my students and that is unlikely to serve the Japanese nation and businesses in the postindustrial era.

Yes, for a student who will go on to a doctorate in literature, it is important to know whether Erasmus wrote before or after Cervantes and Petrarch (question No. 9 in the World History B portion of this year’s test). But this knowledge is only relevant in rare circumstances and does not speak to any kind of skill.

The very nature of the exam — short answers selected from a list of options — pushes the education system toward a pursuit of factual knowledge that is rarely linked to any communication and analysis skills. It is one of the great strengths of juku that they seem to prepare students well for this kind of exam. This may also be at the root of the consistently high ranking of Japanese students in international comparisons of educational achievement like PISA.

To make education more relevant to the skills of the 21st century, the core of the central exam has to be reformed. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology should experiment with a limited essay format that requires students to provide an analysis of a topic discussed in a short reading or through the presentation of specific data in social studies’ subjects, Japanese, and English.

This experiment should be announced ahead of its implementation initially without an impact on students’ results. After some tweaking of the essay format, this critical thinking skills portion of the exam could be gradually expanded to take its place alongside the current focus on knowledge acquisition.

The English portion of the exam should be shifted from testing arcane grammatical points to an emphasis on communication paralleling the introduction of an essay format.

With a long-term plan in hand, current elementary school students could anticipate changes in the central exam by the time they sit for it. This will allow them, parents, teachers and juku teachers to adjust their teaching methods.

Through such a gradual transition, the central exam as the linchpin of the Japanese educational system could be transformed from its current role as an enforcer of test-taking English, arcane knowledge and cramming strategies into a meaningful test of relevant skills and knowledge.

Julian Dierkes is associate professor and Keidanren chair in Japanese research, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.