Diversity the key to reform for Japanese

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Ken Shimahara describes the lessons Japan can offer countries seeking educational reform. Japanese society is now experiencing great changes, changes that are reverberating throughout the reforms of its educational system. Since 1945, Japan has been characterised by a co-existence of very modern and very traditional attributes. Today, it displays characteristics of post-modernity: a flexible economy, information-dominated life, internationalisation, compression of the boundaries of geographical space, and a shift from a culture of certainty to one of uncertainty.

For the past 15 years, reformers have been trying to overhaul Japanese education. Despite bold and far-reaching reform initiatives, implementation has been slow.

Japan's unparalleled growth of secondary and higher education and its level of academic achievement is a result of a meritocratic ethos characterised by fierce competition. Educational achievement is promoted not only by the state system but also by extensively developed, privately organised schools.

In the Seventies, efforts to modernise Japan were characterised by the catch-up ideology. Modernisation became synonymous with Westernisation. In order to accomplish modernisation in a much shorter time than did the West, Japan developed state-controlled, uniform schooling. Curriculum, school programmes and control of education were all directed to produce uniformly well-trained human resources. The effects of uniform schooling coupled with the centrifugal social forces generated by economic affluence and globalisation, social mobility, changing family structures, and information-dominated social life represented a major transformation in schools.

Deviant adolescent behaviour such as bullying, school violence, refusal to attend school, and other forms of juvenile delinquency, dramatically increased in the late 1970s and the 1980s. These frequent incidents threatened social norms and caused national concern. Meanwhile, over-competitive high school and university entrance examinations remain a major fixture in Japanese education.

In the early 1980s, it became increasingly evident that Japan's school system, which was effective in meeting the needs of modernisation and industrialisation for a century, had become dysfunctional in satisfying diversified youth values and needs. School reforms of the 1980s focused on diversity of choice. The reform movement was epitomised by a perception that the orientation and structure of schooling must be altered to meet the exigencies of a more diverse society.

A 1977 report by the National Association of Prefectural Superintendents had laid the groundwork for the transformation of high school education. Shortly after the report, the Ministry of Education announced a major revision of high school education which underscored latitude and relaxation in the construction of school programmes, humanisation of student life, and the promotion of individuality. It mandated a reduction of required credits for graduation and the number of instructional hours, as well as the use of imaginative strategies to engage a diversified student population. In 1989, the minister of education charged the Central Council of Education to recommend further reforms of secondary education. The council's 1991 report led to the creation of the Committee for Enhancement of High School Reforms.

The central theme of the report was to revamp high school education to empower students to link their personal interests and future aspirations to formal learning in the school. Its principal recommendation was to implement a comprehensive high school programme which aimed at promoting student career aspirations based on academic and vocational subjects.

The purpose of this was to attract students by offering an alternative to the exclusively college-bound programmes. Students who opt for the comprehensive programme could be those who are actively interested in linking academic work to career aspirations; those whose primary goal is employment after graduation; or those who have aspirations for college.

Although the development of comprehensive schools is still at an embryonic stage, according to the latest ministry survey there are 42 schools distinguished as new types of high schools, 224 innovative vocational schools with such programmes as bio-technology, information technology, electronic mechanics, and international economics, with 74 schools planning to offer similar programmes. Given that the comprehensive programme is in its initial trial stage, it seems to be off to a good start.

There are, however, potent constraining circumstances that could impede the reforms. First, university entrance examinations hinder a diversified secondary school education. While innovative schools offer highly attractive choices to students, the viability of these schools depends on how effectively they can prepare students for university entrance examinations.

Second, because these innovative schools intend to offer unique programmes, they require far more resources than traditional schools.

Third, innovative schools require staff with intrinsic motivation and competence to construct a unique curriculum and to provide a stimulating teaching approach. To maintain a positive public image and support, these schools are expected to meet these challenges.

It appears that school reform initiatives in Japan are moving in the opposite direction to those in the UK. While Japanese policy-makers are seeking ways to diversify, British restructuring seems to have placed emphasis on core curriculum, national standards, and standardised assessment. Both initiatives are significant in terms of the policy orientations that they aim to enhance, in light of the historical development of highly contrasting school governance in culturally different nations. In the UK, the need for reframing secondary schools is evident in the reports issued post-1980.

One emerging common constraint imposed on Japanese and UK secondary schools is testing. The primary purpose of national tests in the UK is to measure the extent to which pupils have achieved national standards. In Japan, university entrance exams serve a similar purpose. These examinations, however, have also been a major factor in perpetuating uniformity of instruction at the secondary school level. They measurably determine what is considered to be relevant in a high school curriculum. National tests in the UK could conceivably have the same effect of increasing uniformity in its secondary school curriculum. While Japanese reformers are seriously considering how to make high schools attractive places for pupils with different abilities and interests, the UK has made standards the priority, and thus has prejudiced the development of suitable response to pupil diversity.

Enhancing an appropriate balance between standards and diversity, instead of promoting one at the expense of the other, seems to be the critical issue for reform in both countries.

Professor Ken Shimahara, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA.

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