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.