The education ministry issued a notice earlier this month to advise teachers to be careful about “inappropriate” supplementary materials. The intent was clearly to caution teachers about departing too far from the decided views inside public school textbooks. For the past 40 years, the education ministry has never commented on materials, so this warning is a significant new approach to controlling the content being taught.

The directive from the ministry follows closely on the attempt by the Abe administration to control passages about Japan in American high school textbooks. The mistaken idea that the Japanese government should control what historical concepts, facts and approaches are to be taught in other countries is the context for the notice given to Japanese teachers.

Of course, the Japanese education ministry cannot fire American high school teachers who do not agree with its view of history, society or other controversial topics. But the Abe administration seems intent on promoting certain views by warning teachers inside Japan. The ministry has long been concerned about what content is included in textbooks.

Until now, teachers have been allowed, and even encouraged, to supplement textbooks with other materials, including newspaper articles, audiovisual materials and self-made texts. The new directive puts teachers on notice that they should be careful about what issues are in their supplementary materials.

While the language of the directive was restrained and vague, the ministry made clear that supplementary materials should receive careful attention before being taught. To further drive that message home, the ministry further stated that principals should ensure that supplementary materials are “useful and appropriate from an educational standpoint.”

Instead of trying to control the use of supplementary materials, the ministry should be finding better ways to support teachers and students in engaging with complex and multi-sided issues. Restricting or more carefully approving materials is not the way to go. Any single textbook’s view of an issue is likely to be insufficient.

Oversight, recommendation and organization of materials are surely necessary. But students need practice and guidance to learn how to think clearly, decide on issues and understand diverse opinions. Examining controversies presented in different materials is the best way to help students learn how to respond critically and engage with society’s complexity.

Without a range of supplementary materials, education risks simplifying complex problems and producing students who are easily satisfied with simple answers. The education ministry’s notice seems to be going in the wrong direction by restricting a more critical approach to materials in the classroom.

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