Japanese education reforms to further prepare students for globalised world

The Japanese government, over the past couple of years, has been directing panels of education experts to consider reforms that would help Japanese students prepare for and compete better in a globalised world. ICEF Monitor looks at some of the proposals afoot in the country now:

  • introducing English-language teaching to students at the third-grade level;
  • expanding the number of schools at which the International Baccalaureate (IB) is taught;
  • introducing a new university entrance exam system.

By 2020, English may be taught as early as third grade

The Japanese government is considering moving the starting grade for compulsory English-language education to the third grade from where it is now – the fifth grade – by 2020.

A government education ministry panel has recommended that activity-based English-language lessons be taught once or twice a week at the third-grade level, mostly by homeroom teachers, and that this be increased to three times a week in the fifth and sixth grades by “qualified homeroom teachers or specialised language instructors with a focus on fostering elementary command of English.”

If adopted, the move to third-grade English-language teaching would also require an influx of English-language teachers into the elementary system. The Japan Times notes:

“The move would force the government to considerably boost the number and quality of English teachers and native-language assistant teachers at more than 22,000 six-year elementary schools with 7.1 million children across the country.”

Some teachers think the proposed third-grade introduction of English is a good idea. One professor, Emiko Yukawa, told The Japan Times that introducing activity-based learning to younger children would work better than it does among fifth-graders, saying: “Self-consciousness gradually develops in fifth- and sixth-graders. I’ve heard from teachers that it’s hard for them to conduct activity-based classes for those age groups.”

Others worry that a focus on earlier English-language learning could jeopardise command of native Japanese. One professor, Yukio Otsu, who specialises in the cognitive science of language, said: “Pupils at elementary schools should receive a proper education in their mother language. It might take time and possibly cost as well, but that’s the way to nurture Japanese who can have a good command of English.”

Mrs Otsu also worried about the logistics of the proposed reform:

“There are some 22,000 public elementary schools nationwide, about twice the number of junior high schools and four times that of high schools. I wonder whether it’s possible to ensure enough human resources … I don’t know whether it would be possible to secure enough money to realise the planned reforms.”

Mrs Otsu impressed the need to create a “proper teaching environment” at the elementary school level if the reform would have any chance of succeeding, saying that entry-level teaching of a foreign language is “the most important” and also “the most difficult” to do well.

The Japanese government has commissioned experts to examine the proposal and associated logistical requirements over the next few months, including “educational goals, study materials and the teaching environment” and will update the proposal by next summer.

Hopes for the International Baccalaureate diploma to gain more of a hold in Japan

Also being considered as part of the plan to internationalise Japanese education is expanding the number of schools that offer the IB diploma (or a comparable diploma) to 200 over the next five years. This diploma – available in secondary schools across the world to varying degrees – is “an academically challenging and balanced programme of education with final examinations that prepares students, aged 16 to 19, for success at university and life beyond.”

In an article for Nippon.com, researcher Iwasaki Kumiko reported that as of 2012, there were only 16 schools in Japan (11 international and 5 private) offering the IB diploma programme.

Bringing this number up to 200 schools in five years includes several obstacles, such as difficulties in securing foreign teachers to teach it in English, but the Japanese government has recently come up with a possible solution. Mrs Kumiko reports:

“Through negotiations with the IBO, MEXT has managed to win approval for a plan to develop and adopt a Japanese Dual Language IB Diploma Program (“Japanese DP” for short) that teaches a portion of the curriculum in Japanese. This will allow a number of subjects to be handled by Japanese teachers, greatly facilitating the adoption of the IB programme at public high schools in particular. In addition, local school systems can make use of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), administered by local authorities in cooperation with the national government, which brings foreign educators to Japan as guest teachers.”

Also crucial to the IB diploma’s spread in Japan would be Japanese universities’ considering it valid proof of eligibility for students to be accepted – something that is far from universal as it stands today. Says Mrs Kumiko:

“The growth of the IB programme in Japan will hinge on our ability to secure teaching personnel and guarantee educational opportunities for diploma holders by introducing some de jure or de facto flexibility into the system – not exactly a strong point of Japanese society.”

A new way to gauge eligibility for Japanese universities?

The government is also looking at tertiary education in its work toward instituting educational reforms designed to make Japan more globally competitive. With Japan falling behind on international comparative tests both at the secondary school and university levels, a group of education experts called the Education Rebuilding Implementation Council is looking into the possibility of a new university entrance exam replacing the current, highly competitive exam based on standardised scores.

Some of the measures many believe will be considered as reforms include:

Some worry that if passed, the reform of the examination process might:

  • Prove vague for students accustomed to studying hard for one goal (the state examination);
  • Be badly administered, with university admissions staff currently untrained in how to assess candidates other than through the one exam;
  • Prove stressful for students who would have to study for multiple exams instead of one throughout the year.

And finally, one education expert from Benesse Research Corporation (a think-tank), Kazuo Maruyama, told University World News that he worries that the reforms might not be heading in the right direction at all, as they are still focused on academics proper and not flexible thinking for the global workplace:

“Japanese higher education has traditionally been rooted in developing academics who are top researchers rather than becoming innovators in the workplace. The much-heralded changes in Japanese universities continue to smack of this conservative trend.”

As we reported last fall, Japan is not the only country reevaluating its exam system and entrance requirements. With the skills required by the global economy changing so quickly, all governments wishing for a competitive place at the international table are relying on their education ministries to look deeply and incisively on how they are preparing their students – from kindergarten all the way to post-graduate studies.



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