Loose loses out

Worried that students were learning too much by rote, Japan’s schools adopted “loose education,” modeled after U.S. schools. Achievement dropped. Now rote and rigor are making a come back.

The Education Ministry adopted what it calls yutori kyoiku, or “loose education,” a U.S.-inspired overhaul of its education system that reduced workloads. The aim was to make Japanese children more independent-minded and assertive like their American counterparts by cutting the number of facts they had to memorize and freeing up more time for critical thinking. The ministry slashed class workloads, cut the length of textbooks by 30% and gave kids Saturdays off. Educators also replaced traditional lecture-style instruction with out-of-class projects that emphasize analytical skills, such as visiting local merchants to write reports about business.

But at the same time, Japan’s performance on international tests began to slip. Its students, who a decade ago consistently claimed the top spot in subjects ranging from science to reading comprehension, were now falling behind countries like South Korea and Singapore.

Now, a growing number of critics are starting to call “loose education” a failure. Across Japan, teachers and parents are rebelling against the new freedoms, blasting them for making students dumber, threatening Japan’s competitiveness, blunting its work ethic and even contributing to a rise in youth crime.

Instead of following Education Ministry directives, some school districts are creating their own standards and returning to old teaching techniques.

Richer families are moving their children to private schools, threatening the cherished egalitarianism in Japan. The reaction has forced the Education Ministry to backpedal. This year, it rushed out thicker new textbooks restoring most of the cuts it made in 2002.

Via Education Gadfly.

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  1. It took 2 years for Japan to figure out that the new model of “fuzzy” learning doesn’t work. We’ve been arguing the point for 4 decades and we still can’t convince our entrenched educational establishment how much damage their “enlightened” programs have done.

  2. Bob B, the Japanese don’t have the same ideological stake in progressive (fuzzy) educational ideals that we do, therefore they can be guided by pragmatism. If it doesn’t work, go back to what did. Simple enough, isn’t it? Well, yes, except when you view fuzzy ideals as the true path, then it becomes a game of “We only need to do ______ and it’ll work! I swear!” Sounds like what’s going on today, doesn’t it?

  3. I just got out of a meeting with a roomful of Japanese visitors. My colleague passed me a note during the meeting: “This is UNBELIEVABLE — is there any creativity in Japan?”

    I am getting a lot of business now from Japan that I should not be getting, except for the deficiencies of the Japanese educational system, mainly its focus on rote learning. In candid moments (usually after many cups of sake), my Japanese colleagues agree.

    I think the Japanese system probably does a better job than ours at the bottom end — that is, it creates a higher “floor” level of its students. However, I also firmly believe that it creates a much lower top level.

    In all my time (close to 20 years) doing technical business in and with Japan, I have met one Japanese engineer or scientist who really impressed me. I have repeatedly asked other Americans who do this type of business if they have met any, and I always get a negative answer.

    I believe that a significant part of Japan’s recent economic stagnation is due to the inability to truly innovate now that they have caught up in technology. I know this is true in my own particular field.

    Almost twenty years ago, I went to a talk in the US by a top Japanese engineer (he led the team that developed the first megabit memory chip). He had come to the US for a one-year exchange, but decided to stay. The reason he stayed was that he wanted to keep his kids in the American public schools. He was scathing in his comments about how Japanese schools dealt with bright kids.

    I can easily believe, however, that they could have botched a transition to a more critical-thinking-oriented educational system. I would wager that they grabbed the wrong aspects of the American educational system to latch onto (especially if they listened to American ed schools), that the teachers would have no idea how to do it well, or likely both.

    By the way, South Korea, which now outscores Japan on these tests, and which modeled their educational system on the Japanese, is just as bad. My people often come back from Korea laughing at fundamental technical misconceptions supposedly good professionals there have. One of my guys told me after a trip there, “These people are no threat to us!” I recently had dinner with a counterpart of mine, a technical manager in a large Korean conglomerate (you would all recognize the name). He has his pick of graduates, but he was complaining that he could find NO ONE who could write decent software. He asked me why I thought that was, and I responded frankly that the rote learning in the schools there inhibited the kind of thought processes needed for creative software writing. After some reflection, he agreed.

  4. Curt – I think you’re conflating the effects of the Japanese educational systems with the effects Japanese societal norms. Conformity is a central value in Japanese society, and this tends to work very strongly against innovation. What is innovation if not thinking of a new, different way do to something. This bias against conformity is firmly ensconced in the Japanese educational system, as you note in your post.

    While it’s true that the Japanese teach by rote, I don’t believe it is that which kills creativity, since some of the most creative minds in history have also learned by rote. Beethoven learned music theory by rote, and came to change the very nature of western music with his creative spirit.

    My own insight into the creative process as a musical composer and performer has taught me that memorization and repetition are my best friends, for if I have something memorized, my subconscious can examine it and play with it, which adds to the wealth of information and examples from which I have to draw.

    In fact, it’s my belief that the “you can always look it up” mentality of progressive educators stifles creativity much more, since information is only held in the mind for a short period, and is never available to the unconscious mind. Having known a few programmers here and there, I can say that those who do the best work know the language they’re writing in inside and out, and rarely have to look something up. They’re usually people who have the ability to memorize things very quickly, as well.

    In closing, I think it’s the Japanese culture’s focus on conformity that stifles creativity, not rote learning, which I personally feel helps creativity.

  5. P.S. to last post: My mother is Japanese, so my insights on Japanese culture come from personal experience as well as study.

  6. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “I think you’re conflating the effects of the Japanese educational systems with the effects Japanese societal norms.” But education helps set the norms. And of course the norms effect education. It’s called a “positive feedback loop”. (In this case, that’s “vicious circle” for non-techies.)

    Teachers please correct me if necessary, but my impression of the state of the art in education is that you can’t teach creativity, but you can suppress it. At the higher levels, you can’t test for creativity either.

    Breaking a positive feedback loop. Encouraging something you don’t know how to teach. But them together, and I’ll stick my neck out and say Japan has a problem.

  7. My experience is with the Japanese educational system is through a fair number of students coming over to learn English, experience Canada, etc., usually shortly after graduation.

    Many of them have noted Japanese often master the art of testing, rather than the material. A lot comment on how useless the material is in real life, and how much of it there is (I couldn’t believe the number of dates they have to memorize for history), so it generally gets forgotten as soon as the test has passed. I’ve gotten the general feeling that there’s not always a lot of “building” on previous materials in subsequent courses.

    The high scores in test can be a bit of a problem, as the Japanese students fairly consistently test better than their abilities in English, and thus get slotted into English courses above those best suited for them.

    I haven’t heard a lot about the new curriculum, but it doesn’t suprise me that they would feel uncomfortable about it. There isn’t really a metric for the abilities that they’re trying to instill, and changing focus *is* going to mean a loss in areas that can be measured. (There’s only a limited amount of time to teach.)

    We see it coming here, where if it can’t be measured, then it doesn’t exist. The Japanese are just way ahead of us in this one. But then, there also way ahead of us in streaming. Much of your academic career in Japan is fixed way earlier than most North Americans would feel comfortable with (so far).

  8. To follow up, my key beef with the Japanese educational system, from what I can see, is the lack of emphasis on understanding underlying concepts. Yes, you need a decent body of factual material to get the concepts, but pure emphasis on rote memorization of factual material without working on the baseline concepts is very limiting, as it does not allow ready application of knowledge to new situations.

    My first professional job was with a large Silicon Valley corporation that really tried to check out the technical capabilities of its engineering interviewees. Shortly after I was hired, I became our group’s hatchet man in this regard with subsequent interviewees. My instructions were clear in that I was not to care about factual knowledge, but conceptual understanding. I found that a lot of people could come out of school with good grades but very little real understanding of their coursework. The experience taught me how to probe people quickly and unobtrusively for their capabilities in this regard. In my dealings with Japanese engineers, I have found very few who would have passed my tests from all those years ago.

    In my best courses at top American universities, all the exams were open book, which obviously means they could not be about rote learning. My classmates went on to start many of the leading new companies that are now household names. Perhaps they would not have done too well on these international tests, though.

  9. >”I think you’re conflating the effects of the Japanese educational systems with the effects Japanese societal norms.” But education helps set the norms.

    Richard, not in this case. The norms were set centuries before the modern educational system was created, and are pervasive in Japanese society. Even if you changed the educational system to be a completely individualist one which lauded accomplishment and pampered its brightest stars, once the kids left the classroom, the pressure NOT to stick out would still be there.

    >Teachers please correct me if necessary, but my impression of the state of the art in education is that you can’t teach creativity, but you can suppress it. At the higher levels, you can’t test for creativity either.

    While true you can’t teach creativity only stifle it, it’s my feeling as a creative person that the hysteria over memorization killing creativity is DEAD WRONG.

    People need to have both the underlying concepts *and* the specifics of things mentally at hand (memorized) before the mind can fully examine them, for the creative process depends greatly on the unconscious mind to toy with ideas and piece them together while the conscious mind is off doing other things. If the underlying concept behind something and a lot of specifics about it are all in there, then the unconscious is going to have a lot of material to work with, and eventually a creative solution will be found.

    Have you ever been thinking about something, gone off to do other things, and then had one of those “AHA!” moments hours later? What’s happened is that your unconscious mind has kept working on the problem after your conscious mind has left it. I as a composer have those moments quite often, and usually they result in some of my best writing. If I hadn’t memorized so much music and so many facts about music theory, this process wouldn’t work in the way it does. I know because before I went did all the memorizing and learning, ALL my musical ideas were consciously derived, and they lacked elegance. I had fallen prey to the fallacy that “you can always look it up.”

    Take away the underlying concept OR the specifics, and you’re hindering the creative process. As Curt points out, the Japanese do so by ignoring the underlying concept, American progressive educators do so by telling kids, “you can always look it up.”

  10. Adrian, I don’t think that too many people would disagree with you that a successful curriculum would contain both concepts and fact memorization. You do need a moderately wide base set of facts, and anyone who has written an open book exam will tell you that you don’t have time to look up every fact, or even most facts. And your comment about needing facts to build solutions is dead on.

    However, if maximization of scores on standardized tests is your goal, then I would guess that concentrating all your time on facts is likely to boost those scores. Thus sharing the curriculum with concepts or even worse, creativity, would cause Japanese scores to drop.

    Finally, I think you underestimate the social effect of school. You are completely correct that conformance is an old trait, amd no doubt helped determine how Japanese schools are designed. However, the influence goes both ways, and anything that the students are exposed to for many days a week is going to change how students interact with society.

    This applies to almost everything that we are exposed to. i.e. society influences TV which in turn influences society. Another example: the gov’t consciously decided that drunk driving was really bad long before society did. I certainly remember editorials about how the punishment was way out of line for the crime, and upstanding people were being punished, for many years. (i.e. society was trying to influence the courts, but in this case, failing.) Eventually, however, the influence went the other way around. Anything that was being punished this heavily had to be bad. And now, drunk driving is viewed by most as a social bad, as well as a legal crime. Of course, society can resist the influence (i.e. lot of people do not view drugs as evil), but the influence definitely goes both directions.

  11. >Finally, I think you underestimate the social effect of school.

    Tom, while school does have a social effect, my experience with Japanese society tells me that removing the pressure to conform from Japanese schools would have no effect on the demeanor of Japanese students, since the pressure is so strong everywhere else. It’s hard to understand from an American standpoint since we don’t have any societal values which run that deep.