Japan goes ‘back to basics’

Worried about competition from South Korea and Hong Kong, Japanese schools are  going “back to basics,” reports AP.

In a move that has divided educators and experts, Japan is going back to basics after a 10-year experiment in “pressure-free education,” which encouraged more application of knowledge and less rote memorization.

. . . Japan’s near-the-top rank on international standardized tests has fallen, stunning this nation where education has long been a source of pride.

The Education Ministry is fattening up textbooks and raising expectations as part of the back-to-basics drive.

Science and math textbooks will see the biggest additions, getting 60 percent more pages compared to earlier this decade. Among new concepts: Fifth-graders will learn how to calculate the area of a trapezoid and sixth-graders will learn about electricity.

An hour or two of school will be added each week, depending on the grade, and English will be introduced in fifth grade instead of seventh. Middle and high school students can expect similar changes in subsequent years.

Traditionally, Japanese students have crammed to pass university entrance examinations, then coasted through college.

Getting into the right university goes a long way toward determining one’s job, income level and place in society — a system that many Japanese agree needs to change.

“Pressure-free education” tried to shift emphasis from memorization to applying knowledge. Students were encouraged to think creatively and express their own views.

Curricular requirements were reduced, Saturday half-day classes were phased out, and teachers were told to take three hours each week to engage in learning driven by students’ questions, such as “Why doesn’t a sleeping bird fall from its perch on a branch?”

On the international PISA exam, Japan’s rank dropped sharply in math, science and reading, despite PISA’s stress on applying knowledge to real-life situations.

Japanese students dropped slightly in math and stayed in third place in science on TIMSS, which is more geared toward knowledge.

The current system has been a “huge failure,” said Eiichi Kajita, president of International Pacific University, who helped craft the new curriculum guidelines. Education has become too child-centered, he argued.

“Teachers were told students should be supported, not taught,” Kajita said. “We need to revive a respect for knowledge. We also need more discipline.”

Teachers didn’t get enough training to make the new method work, says Mutsuko Takahashi, vice president of the Japan Teachers’ Union. The union is pushing for smaller class sizes — teachers have up to 40 students — to make it easier to teach new material.

Japan continues to outperform the U.S. in math and science on TIMSS and PISA.

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