An outline of the next courses of study for primary and secondary education, made public by the education ministry earlier this month, includes some important proposals — pushing the concept of active learning and stressing “openness to society” in educating children. These ideas have the potential of changing the nation’s school education for the better. The ministry should do its utmost to nurture students who can think independently and deeply, and become active members of society and participants in the nation’s democratic process.

On the other hand, the ministry should refrain from exercising covert and overt pressure on schools and textbook publishers that may result in hampering full implementation of the proposals. The new courses of study will be introduced for elementary schools in fiscal 2020, junior high schools in fiscal 2021 and high schools in fiscal 2022.

The outline says that active learning means autonomous and cooperation-based learning aimed at identifying and solving problems. Dealing with problems of real society, it says, will help students become interested in continuing studies, and acquire a deep understanding of various subjects and master methods to solve problems, both of which they can utilize for the rest of their lives.

As for openness to society, the outline stresses the importance of making schools an “open environment” so that students can form connections with various people in society and learn from them. It says that through such interactions, children can gain confidence that they can effect change through their activities and that their existence is accepted by others.

All of these ideas sound fine. But the ministry and schoolteachers need to consider what kind of approach should be taken in classes to translate them into concrete programs. Since such ideas are now rarely implemented at schools, it will be necessary to train teachers to break away from conventional thinking and develop new methods suitable for the individual situation in their schools and classes.

In line with the ideas of active learning and openness to society, the outline also proposes creating two new subjects for high school — integrated history and civic studies (as distinct from the currently taught civics) — and making them mandatory subjects. Currently world history is compulsory, but Japanese history is an elective, and there has been a strong voice in the Liberal Democratic Party that Japanese history should be made a required subject. It is also a frequent problem that the school year ends before students are taught an adequate understanding of modern history. Integrated history will combine world and Japanese history, giving a focus to modern history, especially key historic events that connect Japan and the outside world, and are indispensable in understanding the current situation of Japan and other countries.

To make an integrated history class a good example of active learning, students should be encouraged to collect related materials and learn from them, and hold discussions among themselves on such matters as what effect a certain historical event has had on Japan and the world today, and what factors were at work behind such an event. Such a process will help students gain the ability to investigate topics for themselves, better understand important historical events, and take into consideration diverse viewpoints in understanding both what happened in history and what is happening today. Teachers also need to make efforts to make the new subject meaningful for their students.

The education ministry has a policy of requiring history textbook authors to include the government’s views on historical issues about which Japan takes official positions, like the territorial rows with Russia, China and South Korea, the “comfort women” issue and the trials of Class-A war criminals by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. When there is no consensus on numbers relating to historical events, like the number of victims of the 1937-38 Nanking Massacre, the authors are required to make clear that established figures do not exist. But there is no need for textbook authors to cower because the policy does not prohibit inclusion of different views and related figures. They should instead structure the textbooks so that they can encourage students to broaden their perspective by examining related issues on their own.

In recent years, due to the ministry’s strict stance on the screening of textbooks, descriptions of controversial topics, such as the comfort women issue and bringing Koreans to Japan for wartime forced labor, almost disappeared from textbooks. Some textbooks do not mention a number regarding the victims of the Nanking Massacre. The education ministry should be true to the spirit of the outline of new courses of study and encourage textbook publishers to create texts in ways that help teachers and students research and discuss these and other historically controversial matters.

The civic studies course is a reflection of the lowering of the voting age in public elections from 20 years old to 18. To help students become autonomous and responsible citizens, it will cover such matters as citizens’ participation in politics, social welfare, state finances and taxation, and how to become informed consumers. Such programs as mock elections and trials, as well as studies using newspapers, are going to be introduced to help improve the students’ grasp of real life.

But these efforts will be meaningless unless concrete situations, problems and issues in society are dealt with in the classroom. Since openness to society is an important component in the outline for the new courses of study, it can serve to offer a chance for students, for example, to talk and listen to foreign residents living in the community to expand their perspective.

As a whole, the outline envisages developing students’ autonomy and independent thinking. But respect for tradition and culture and love of country and their native locale — areas in which the education ministry may be tempted to impose certain values on children — will become an important part of moral education, which will become a formal subject just before the introduction of the new courses of study. In implementing the new courses of study, the ministry first should overcome the temptation to put children into a rigid mold conceived as desirable by the government.

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