Much has been written recently about the lessons the West can learn from studying the teaching methods of Pacific Rim countries (TES, June 27). This summer I visited schools, universities and the Ministry of Education in Japan, and became aware that there is a vigorous educational debate in the country about the goals of education and the kind of curriculum that will promote these goals. The discussion is not simply about teaching methods.
Japan is justly proud that its school students have achieved highly in the Third International Maths and Science Study, but the country is also reassessing the kinds of citizens it will need in the 21st century. The horrific decapitation of an 11-year-old by a 14-year-old boy in Kobe in June has sharply focused the debate.
In 1995 the Japanese Ministry of Education began considering a new model for education. This was motivated by an urgent need to confront problems associated with lack of creativity, excessive competitiveness in the examination system, bullying and refusal to attend school, as well as a need to respond to social and economic changes. The central question was: How to give children greater zest for living and room to grow. The words in Japanese are difficult to translate but zest for living (ikiruchikara) was defined as: the ability to identify problems for oneself, learn by oneself, think for oneself, make independent judgments and actions and solve problems well; a rich sense of humanity capable of self-reliance, co-operation with others, compassion for others and sensitive to feelings; the health and physical strength in order to live a vigorous life.
The current discussions, therefore, are largely about the purposes of education and the content of the curriculum. A particular interest is in the study of the environment, international understanding, community studies, and the study of the technological and natural worlds.
Japan is right to be concerned about these issues. In my visits to schools there, I saw some interesting integrated group work and some imaginative involvement of adults from the local community. I also saw some effective, fast-paced, interactive whole-class teaching of basic skills in the 3Rs. However, the traditional emphasis on learning defined as the memorisation of huge quantities of information for recall in multiple-choice tests was evident in all the schools. This definition of educational purpose inevitably acted as a powerful influence on teaching methods.
Whole-class teaching and short -answer tasks dominated lessons, whether or not they best suited the aims and subject matter of the lesson. For example, after eight years of English-language teaching, students are able to complete sayings such as, "Necessity is the (...) of invention", and to write the past tense of irregular verbs, but they have little confidence in holding a simple conversation in English.
Teachers often taught "to the middle", with the result that the faster children spent much time "off task" while the slower students had hardly started some exercises before they were told the correct answers by the teacher. The temptation was to wait for the correct answers so that they could note them down for revision purposes.
In almost all the classes I visited at least one child was asleep. I suspect that this has to do with the long school week (six days currently), additional hours at juku (59 per cent of elementary school children and 24 per cent of lower secondary school children attend these cramming schools), late nights (parents do not appear to insist on a bedtime) and sheer boredom.
Classrooms were surprisingly noisy. Teachers rarely, if ever, reprimanded students for poor behaviour, presumably because the eastern way is to expect children to make the required effort. To my western eyes the children seemed to act like many western children, and the diligence that I expected was not always evident. Presumably, children "knuckle down" when it really matters, that is before a test or examination, and the competitiveness that is encouraged acts as a powerful form of control.
Unless my observations were distorted, one reason why Japanese students score highly on TIMSS tests must be attributed to the fact that their test-taking skills are finely honed. Another reason must relate to the nature of the curriculum.
In one lesson, I was impressed by the number of l0-year-olds who were able to divide 2.5 by 0.7 and 2.5 by 7 correctly. But my admiration was tempered when I looked at the children's books, which were filled with similar calculations. In explanation, I was told that for 6 to 12-year-olds the mathematics curriculum is not called mathematics but arithmetic, and the scope of the subject is much narrower than our own national curriculum for the equivalent age range.
If we want to compete on equal terms with the Japanese on international tests in a limited range of subject domains, we will have to ask whether we want a more restricted curriculum. But we should bear in mind the fact that countries such as Japan are seriously evaluating their existing curricula. The Japanese are aware that their society is changing rapidly and that the attitudes and values of young people born into affluence are different from the previous generation. Education has to meet the needs of different stages of development of particular societies; this should be a reason to exercise caution in uncritically adopting practices from elsewhere.
In our discussions about the future shape of the national curriculum the priority must also be to consider aims first and methods second. We must not lose the wider vision by reducing the debate to "technologies of practice", as David Reynolds would have us do (TES, June 27). If we put all our effort into building an education system designed to produce high scores in standardised tests, on the assumption that this will enhance our economic prosperity (confusing correlation with causality), we are likely to run into the same problems that Japan is now so earnestly trying to escape.
Dr Mary James is a lecturer at Cambridge University School of Education and fellow of Lucy Cavendish College