The education ministry’s proposal to overhaul the primary and secondary curriculums to prepare students for the global economy is way overdue. For too long, Japan has heavily relied on an outdated approach that emphasized passive learning and rote memorization. Yet great care is needed to prevent the pendulum from swinging in the opposite direction.

That’s what happened in the United States beginning in the 1960s, when student-centered learning began to replace a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Instead of teaching the knowledge and skills in each subject necessary to move on to the next level, students were allowed to construct their own knowledge at their own pace. The result has been successive generations whose subsequent lackluster performance on tests of international competition has been the continuing subject of heated debates.

The battle between traditionalists and progressives now has taken root in Japan. Those in the former group believe that the primary purpose of schools is to pass on to students the wherewithal necessary to survive in society. The teacher acts as the sage on the stage. Those in the latter group believe that schools exist as places where students’ interests are paramount. The teacher acts as the guide on the side.

There is some truth to both views. As John Dewey, the father of progressive education, wrote in 1902 in “The Child and the Curriculum”: Experience without concepts is superficial, but concepts without immediate connections to experience are useless. Dewey incorporated many of his ideas in his laboratory school at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1903.

The reality is that teachers are not theoreticians who work in an academic vacuum. They are practitioners who have to make instructional decisions every day. The task facing Japan now that the education ministry has made its intentions clear is to provide teachers with knowledge and skills as they transition from the old to the new. Workshops to train teachers are the first step, but they are not enough to overcome entrenched practices. That will require ongoing support.

Attitudes die hard in any profession. The challenge will be to convince teachers that change is needed, without putting them on the defensive. For example, whether the subject is history, which is highly sensitive to political correctness, or English, pedagogy that worked in the past needs to be reexamined to determine its relevance to a rapidly changing world.

None of this means abandoning efforts to inculcate in Japanese students respect for tradition, culture and patriotism. But it does require questioning long-held beliefs about the best way of developing critical thinking. Discovery learning has great potential, but it can be carried to an extreme.

For example, studies presented at the first Summit on Science in the U.S. found that direct instruction, where students are given explicit guidance on how to design experiments and test specific hypotheses, was superior to discovery learning. That’s because only some learning proceeds from concrete experience. It’s as unlikely that children will learn Archimedes’ Principle by playing with rubber ducks in the bathtub as it is that they will come up by themselves with Mendel’s Laws by working in the pea field.

Putting students in charge of their own learning will appeal to those in Japan who believe it will lead to students capable of working independently. But it is not a panacea, as time will show.

Walt Gardner taught in the Los Angeles public school system for 28 years.

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