The draft of new curriculum guidelines, unveiled by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry on Feb. 13, which are aimed at improving the quality of school education while maintaining the volume of what students should learn, poses a difficult challenge.
Under the revised curriculum, English will be upgraded to an official subject and computer programming will be made a compulsory subject at elementary schools. English classes at junior high schools will be conducted in English in principle. These measures are meant to help schoolchildren respond to rapid globalization and information and communication technology.
International aptitude tests, whose results were released last year, show that Japanese schoolchildren's reading comprehension ability has declined. In response, the ministry will put more efforts into improving such skills. Students will be meant to enrich their language activities, including those involving their mother tongue, through all school subjects and learn proactively and deeply through dialogue.
For example, the draft of the curriculum guidelines encourages elementary and junior high schools to utilize newspapers in Japanese and social studies classes. Schoolchildren will be expected to learn by thoroughly reading newspapers, make presentations and hold debate.
"Proactive and deep learning through dialogue" refers to "active learning" that the ministry has been promoting in recent years as the philosophy behind its efforts to reform education and improve classes. However, the draft does not contain the phrase, "active learning." A ministry official says, "It's still difficult to use the phrase in documents based on legislation." However, the official's comment appears to reflect the fact that the philosophy and methods of promoting active learning have not taken root at schools.
There are numerous concerns as to whether schoolteachers are prepared to promote active learning among children. Teachers are wondering how to secure enough time for English classes as all the class slots are already filled. The ministry proposes that schools utilize part of Saturdays and part of the summer vacation period to make up for a shortage of slots and introduce 15-minute lessons. However, these measures could increase the burden on teachers and children.
It is desirable for elementary school teachers, who also have a junior high school English teacher's license, to teach English in official elementary school classes, but those with such a license account for less than 5 percent of all elementary school teachers, according to a survey conducted in the academic year of 2015. As such, the ministry intends to secure elementary school teachers who can teach English by reforming the training and teacher development programs.
The curriculum guidelines, which are revised almost every 10 years, have reflected trends and the sense of values of the times. The guidelines in the latter half of the 1960s called for modernization of the content of education, while those in the late 1970s pursued a relaxed education policy out of reflection on cramming. Education was further relaxed under the guidelines in the late 1980s and later, which placed emphasis on allowing schoolchildren to acquire the ability to adapt to changes in society and give children the fortitude to live.
In the 2000s, however, critics pointed out that schoolchildren's academic achievements declined, prompting the ministry to increase the volume of studies at schools under new guidelines. The guidelines to be revised for use from the 2020 academic year state educators should transcend a simple choice between cramming and relaxed education toward a new age.
The ministry is seeking to show specific examples of improving the quality of classes in the new guidelines. However, concerns remain as to whether schools could be bound by such examples.
Schoolteachers know the methods of education suitable for each individual child as well as the subtleties of their feelings and levels of growth. Uniform controls on children and coercive education must be avoided.