Japanese students are less interested in mathematics and science than ever before even while continuing to perform relatively well, according to the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a survey conducted every four years in 42 nations by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

The results from the fifth survey found Japanese fourth graders and second-year junior high students ranked fourth in science and fifth in mathematics globally.

Despite that respectable achievement, Japanese students’ interest in science and math was far below students in other countries. The results are positive signs that Japan’s math and science education still rests on a firm foundation, but point toward educational issues that need drastic change.

Overall, Japan had gradual improvement in math and science since the first survey in 1995. However, problems with teacher confidence, working conditions and job satisfaction show great room for improvement.

The results from the survey of Japanese teachers, students and principals indicate that the educational system is not doing enough to nurture future engineers, computer scientists and other professionals in jobs that require math and science.

The Japanese pattern of high achievement with little interest was somewhat the same for all East Asian countries, which performed well overall in science and math relative to other countries. By almost all measures, Japan did relatively well in science- and math-related cognitive domains such as knowing, applying and reasoning, but Japan consistently lagged behind Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The mixed results in Japan were at times confusing. Fourth-grade math scores improved compared with those in 1995, but eighth- grade results were relatively low. The education ministry suggested this result was the positive result of reforms in curriculum and new teaching guidelines. That is surely true in part; however, the fact remains that Japan is one of the few countries with such a disparity between fourth- and eighth-grade results, the two school years focused on in the survey.

Another explanation is that social factors such as peer pressure and behavioral issues are disrupting education at the eighth-grade level. The difference in achievement between genders also shifts between these two years, with boys doing better in eighth grade than in fourth grade.

The survey also placed Japan at the bottom or near the bottom for the amount of time each week that students spend on mathematics and science homework. Japan’s math and science instruction still comes primarily from textbooks, according to the survey, while other instructional materials remain supplementary.

The education ministry could easily improve the availability of workbooks, study materials and objects, and computer software to motivate students.

One of the most disappointing results of the survey was the low number of students who said they enjoyed studying math and science. Fostering a positive attitude at early ages helps students maintain focus and interest over the long term. The proportion of Japanese junior high students thinking of working in science-related fields was one-third of the international average.

As for Japanese students’ educational expectations, a meager 2 percent imagined they would go on to postgraduate degrees in math or science — the lowest in the world.

Further changes are also clearly needed in the way these subjects are taught. Japanese teachers ranked themselves low on knowing how to use instruction to engage students.

Only about half of teachers said they used engaging instructional techniques in most lessons, placing Japan among the bottom quarter of the world for both the fourth and eighth grades in math and science, and absolutely last in eighth-grade science. That could be improved by professional activities and by increasing collaboration.

Collaborative teaching was reported by only 15 to 17 percent for eighth-grade teachers, though roughly double that for fourth-grade teachers. Again, Japan lags far behind international norms.

Another significant problem the survey found was that Japanese teachers of science and math ranked relatively low in their own job satisfaction. Japanese teachers reporting minor or moderate problems with their working conditions stood at 84 percent, significantly above the world average. Only 21 percent of teachers said they felt confident to teach math and 14 percent to teach science, the lowest in the world. Building teachers’ confidence is one of the most important ways to improve instruction.

As for satisfaction, only a quarter of teachers in Japan were satisfied with their careers, a figure that placed Japan only above South Korea. Improving working conditions for teachers will not just make life better for teachers; it will give them the energy, enthusiasm and time to enhance student learning.

Students in Japan seem ready and willing to perform on exams, but are failing to find subjects interesting. Though Japan is one of the highest performing countries, it has one of the smallest percentages reporting positive attitudes. They do well on the tests, but do not develop genuine interest or appreciation of the importance of math and science.

Math and science involve more than filling in the blanks, performing an experiment or finding the right answer. They are ways of thinking, analyzing and understanding the world, which depend on logical reasoning, cognitive skills and mental literacy. Improving science and math education will affect Japan’s future tremendously.

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