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Planned 'general history' high school subject raises issues for teachers

A new compulsory subject of "general history" is to be added to high school curriculums that will go into effect in the 2022 academic year, but educators are already expressing their concerns about how to teach the subject.

    Kobe University Secondary School in Kobe's Higashinada Ward, which has been designated by the education ministry as a school for curriculum research and development, has started teaching the new subject early. The subject takes an "active learning" approach, in which students take a leading role, reading materials on history, discussing among themselves and reporting their opinions.

    A late November class of the subject was on "the world after World War I." Students read materials translated into Japanese, learning about the destruction in Europe from the fighting there, how Japan took advantage of the situation to expand in China, and the movements of revolution in Russia.

    The issues facing the new subject are coming into view. The plan for the new national curriculum is to have a standard of two hours a week for general history. Kobe University Secondary School vice president Motoaki Katsuyama, vice president says, "If we just combine world history and Japanese history, there won't be enough time for it. We have to be careful when selecting the topics."

    The terminology is another problem. In the 1950s there were around 1,400 words taught for world history, but now that number has grown to near 4,000. Katsuyama says, "As long as the number of vocabulary items is so large, we may not be able to get out from an emphasis on memorization."

    Daizaburo Yui, a professor emeritus of international relations history at the University of Tokyo who served as the chairman of a sub-committee for the Science Council of Japan that recommended the creation of a new subject combining world history and Japanese history, believes that the key to the new general history subject is revising textbooks and university entrance exams.

    "A good bit of work, such as creating new textbooks, is necessary," he says, adding, "If it isn't done as a set with a revision of university entrance exams, which have been mainly fill-in-the-blank questions in order to facilitate grading large numbers of answers, general history will not succeed as a subject promoting critical thinking ability."

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