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Editorial: Focus on minutiae risks making new ethics classes hidebound, impersonal

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has released the outcome of its screening of 24 textbooks on ethics, which will be upgraded to an official subject at elementary and junior high schools across Japan. The textbooks will be used in classes in elementary schools beginning in the 2018 academic year.

The contents of the textbooks reflect a shift from passive, reading-based ethics lessons to placing more emphasis on active, discussion-based learning after the upgrade to an official subject.

At the same time, the ministry closely examined the textbooks against specific items that schoolchildren should study in ethics classes, and suggested revisions to 244 sections in these textbooks. Their publishers complied with the ministry's suggestions and all the 24 textbooks passed the screening.

There are 22 items that students are required to study in ethics, including "honesty and sincerity," "kindness and consideration to other people," "love of family and enrichment of family lives," "respect for tradition and culture," and "love of country and hometowns." These items are further subdivided, and what students learn depends on their grade.

However, some of the revisions publishers made to their textbooks have raised questions as the ministry suggested changes by simply examining the books' descriptions against these items.

For example, the publisher of one of the textbooks changed a "bakery" that appears in a story to a traditional "Japanese-style wagashi confectionary" in response to suggestions the ministry made in light of the "respect for tradition and culture" requirement.

A "middle-aged man" belonging to a neighborhood volunteer fire brigade in one textbook was changed to an "elderly man" after the ministry suggested the revision in a bid to nurture a sense of gratitude toward senior citizens among schoolchildren.

Such textbook screening has raised concern that the ministry could pay excessive attention to the shortcomings of descriptions included in the textbooks for each of the 22 items over inconsistencies in stories.

Moreover, it is feared that preoccupation with teaching all 22 items could rob teachers of the leeway necessary to deal one-on-one with their students and make the material personally relevant.

The ministry's move to make ethics a full subject was prompted by a series of school bullying cases. However, children cannot acquire empathetic thinking and feelings, respect other people and avoid discriminating against others simply by studying the 22 items. Furthermore, while all the 24 ethics textbooks deal with schoolyard bullying, real-world teachers must deal with situations that vary from region to region, from school to school and from classroom to classroom.

Textbooks are regarded as the main teaching material in ethics, and their content can be taught properly only if teachers exercise their ingenuity to give effective lessons. Furthermore, teachers are required to assess their students' achievements in ethics classes once it is upgraded to an official subject.

Unlike other subjects, however, ethics is related to each child's mind, and grading student achievement is inappropriate, as it is impossible to draw a single correct answer to ethical questions.

In assessing a child's achievements in ethics, a teacher is supposed to describe how a student has grown through the lessons, their strong points and which areas the teacher would like to see improvements, all without comparing the student's achievement with those of other children. Needless to say, the assessments of students' achievements in ethics will not be relevant to entrance examinations.

Therefore, teachers should be given broad discretionary power to watch over their students' growth in response to the specific situation of each region, school and classroom, without being bound by detailed rules.

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