The Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education has announced a new policy of group discussion in parts of the admission system for public high schools from 2013. This will be the first time a talking component will be conducted for the recommendation-based admissions system (suisen nyugaku) for middle school students applying to high schools. The change may seem small, but in Japan, where traditional approaches to education mean students rarely express opinions or take an active approach in class, the change is immense.

Previously, middle school teachers’ reports counted for 70 percent of the overall score when students applied for admission. That meant teachers held the ultimate power of deciding which students would be recommended and which would not. Now, teacher reports will be reduced to less than 50 percent of the overall score, giving them less power over students’ fate. Instead of teachers’ recommendations, greater emphasis will be placed on group discussions, individual interviews and short compositions.

This shift could be an important way to change classroom practices. In most middle and high schools, Japanese students are never taught to speak out, express personal opinions or write thoughtfully. By being forced to express their opinions in a group, students will need to think clearly, listen to other students and offer responses that take into account other people’s views. Teachers will need to help students prepare for this, in addition to the usual instruction in answering multiple-choice questions.

This change is an important shift in the entrance exam system in Japan. Just as multiple-choice exams emphasize passive knowledge, overly weighted personal recommendations forces teachers to make difficult decisions about students and pressures them beyond their usual duties. Teachers’ recommendations should have a place in considering students for admissions; now, though, other aspects of students can also be given appropriate consideration.

In Japan, the entrance exam system still drives the education system. Entrance exams tend to dictate what and how things are taught. The shift from a teacher-based recommendation to the chance to express one’s individual initiative is important. This change, if expanded, can help to encourage students to work on better ways to put ideas in words, to listen to other students, and to participate in a group. Those are all real-world necessities. This may not be a revolution in education, but it’s a start.

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