Education in Japan (Natalie Collar)
Although students in Japan begin learning English while they are in elementary school and continue studying it through high school and often college, fluent Japanese speakers of English make up less than ten percent of the country’s population. Anyone who has visited Japan knows that national interest in English is high, but the inability of Japanese to converse in English is somewhat surprising. Taking note of this inconsistency, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has conducted a series of meetings and hearings to devise a plan to improve the linguistic abilities of its citizens. In fact, Minister of MEXT, Hirokazu Matsuno, recently announced plans for a completely revamped curriculum that will begin in 2020.
In hopes of Japan being recognized as the most innovative nation when it hosts the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, MEXT has laid out various suggestions for educational reform. The major theme, across all subjects, is an “active learning” approach. This technique would involve less of the traditional one-way communication model of education, in which the teacher sends information and students receive it with little interaction. Instead, the recommended approach would require teachers to make sure students possess an awareness of essential information and knowledge in each subject. Through experiments and observations, the Ministry is seeking an education that will result in well-rounded and fulfilled experience for students. The specific details about how such an environment will be created and how the curriculum will be changed are expected to be further discussed in the upcoming school year.
As far as English education is concerned, MEXT announced a few major changes. The most striking one is the inclusion of speaking and writing segments on university entrance examinations beginning in 2020. Although 2020 is just three years away, changes to high school curriculums will be put in place to improve students’ speaking and writing abilities starting in the fiscal year of 2022. This leaves some questions as to how MEXT expects high school students to perform at a higher level on entrance exams given the same expectations of the current curriculum.
In addition, MEXT also recommends the inclusion of English language activities in the curriculum for third and fourth grade students in elementary school and that English be a regular subject for fifth and sixth grade students. MEXT also announced that it would like to see additional subjects added to the curriculums of all three school levels, including various history classes and civilian studies. Given these suggested changes, many schools and teachers are wondering how they ought to change their classes to meet the guidelines. Nonetheless, this preliminary announcement from MEXT is just that, and there are many specific details to be settled later in the coming fiscal years. School dministrators, teachers, students, and parents will likely take an interest in the coming announcements as such big changes will affect them greatly.
This is not the first announcement by MEXT regarding curriculum changes. One school in Toyama Prefecture is being recognized for its curriculum and pedagogical changes made at the beginning of this school year based on previous statements by MEXT supporting curriculum reform. Katayama Gakuen middle and high school Principal Mochizuki explains the changes his school has made in its educational techniques, highlighting the ways in which the teachers use an “active learning” approach in all subjects of every grade. Like many schools in Japan, English language classes are taught jointly by a Japanese speaker of English and native speaker of English. Great efforts are being put toward establishing an English speech contest, so that students can express their own opinions and experiences in a second language. In addition to pedagogical changes made in the classroom, the school is creating opportunities for students to apply the information from classrooms in extracurricular activities. During the annual school trip, some students were seen initiating conversation with strangers in English and introducing them to Japanese culture, cuisine, and famous places.
Katayama Gakuen has also incorporated the use of a reflection sheet, in which students evaluate their individual performance and understanding of the material after each class. Principal Mochizuki believes that, through this activity, students have changed their attitudes in class because they are able to understand what they have accomplished after each class. He also believes that the overall atmosphere of the school has lightened, and many students and teaching are enjoying school life more because of these changes.
Based on MEXT’s continued announcements, it is clear that curriculum change is on the horizon in anticipation of the publicity brought on by the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Only time will tell if MEXT can create curriculum guidelines that allow teachers and students to live up to its expectations.
- 文部科学省「松野博一文部科学大臣記者会見録（平成28年12月22日）」, 2016/12/22. http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/daijin/detail/1380844.htm
- YOMIURI ONLINE「授業を変え、生徒を変えた二つの改革…片山学園」, 2016/12/23. http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/kodomo/jyuken/information/CO006631/20161222-OYT8T50041.html
- The Japan News by Yomiuri Shimbun, "Panel suggests more English at elementary school ", 2016/12/22. http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0003420536