The University of Tokyo seeks to improve the quality of teaching methods at Japanese universities by introducing a new course for graduate students. This seemingly small but potentially important new direction marks a shift in priorities from research skills to teaching ability.
For too long, the quality of classroom instruction at Japanese universities has been insufficient, with students bored by teachers who know how to research and publish but do not know how to communicate well in the classroom.
The initiative by the University of Tokyo is highly welcome, especially for undergraduate students who must learn from lecturers with little or no training in classroom techniques, learning theory or educational psychology. Investing time and effort into learning how classrooms work better will improve university education tremendously.
All countries have the same problem of how to improve the quality of their instruction, but most other countries have long since taken measures to ensure that teaching is done better. Most Western universities have set up resource centers for their professors to complete research, get feedback on their classrooms and find ways to guide themselves into more productive and meaningful classroom activities.
Those steps have improved classrooms around the world, but Japanese universities remain far behind other countries in improving their university teaching.
Too many university classes in Japan still rely on out-of-date one-way, teacher-centered lectures. The new University of Tokyo course will hopefully show graduate students how to create teaching plans, conduct discussions, set up group presentations and deliver engaging lectures that encourage active participation and greater motivation, which are the keys to real learning. Moving beyond the weekly lecture/final exam pattern that dominates university education in Japan is way over due.
Such courses on teaching methods should become standard in all graduate programs. Having graduate students obtain a certificate showing completion in a teaching methods class would seemingly put them in a better position in the job market.
Hiring committees at universities, though, will need to place weight on teaching certificates as well as on the quality and volume of research and publications. At present, research remains the main criterion for hiring.
The initiative is partially a response to the urging of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry to improve university teaching. However, when university class sizes are too large, there is only so much teachers can do.
Class size, learning technology, self-study facilities and library materials are also areas that need improvement, and could benefit from stronger support from the ministry.
If Japanese universities become total learning environments where students have the facilities that enable them to follow up on classes in pursuit of projects, conduct library research and prepare presentations, then improvements in teaching will have even greater positive impact. The push for better university teaching should continue at all universities.
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