As the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry works slowly to reform the English education system, one recent proposal likely to have a good effect is allowing certain high schools to teach subjects such as science or math in English.
Dubbed “super global high schools” by the ministry, the designated schools will receive an increased budget to hire qualified teachers, both Japanese and foreign, who are proficient in English and capable of developing curricula. The program will start with around 50 schools and gradually increase to around 100, with at least one in each prefecture.
The plan has potential for success mainly because it allows the designated schools to be exempt from ministry-set teaching guidelines and to create their own curricula.
Current guidelines keep English trapped inside test-oriented classes that do not really help students master the most important language skills. Instead, the demotivating effects of overly focusing on grammar, vocabulary lists and test-oriented skills makes students across the country hate English.
Once administrators, qualified teachers and curriculum specialists are given latitude, though, they will be able to connect English to actual content.
By using English to study another subject, such as math, science or liberal arts classes, students will understand that English can be used to do something other than pass a test. The concept of English as a dynamic tool for interaction, not a set of inert parts to be memorized, would mark a significant change in the view of language teaching in Japan.
While the communicative approach has made some small progress in Japan, the potential for these content-based classes has even greater potential to raise the level of English. Students will have to interact not just with other students and the teacher, but also, more importantly, to interact with challenging materials in science, math, history or other subjects.
The proposal also includes ways to get students to express their opinion in debates and give presentations. Those activities are also ways to move away from test English toward real English.
Conservative educators and anxious parents will no doubt worry that students will study subjects more slowly or at a lower level if classes are conducted in a second language. They should understand that the process of studying is more important than the end result, which has for too long been a good test score.
What students will gain may take more time and effort, but will be much more valuable than a slot in a name university — they will be able to use English in a real world context.
Perhaps in the future, all schools in Japan will one day be able to be called “super” and “global.” The current proposal is a step in that direction.