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Thread: Only 26% of Japanese understand their lesson at school

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Post Only 26% of Japanese understand their lesson at school

    After catching your attention through this tabloid-like title, I'd like to discuss seriously the strength and weakness of the Japanese education system.

    I am currently reading the excellent book Japan as anything but number One, by Jon Woronoff. The 6th chapter is dedicated to the Japanese Education system. Having experience as a teacher in Japan myslef, I can confirm what Jon Woronoff says, and even insist on the very primitive knowledge (something he doesn't say, but I do) of the average Japanese students and adults.

    Cross-national tests in the 1980's placed Japan as number one for primary school knowledge levels. For secondary school, the ranking already fell to the 6th place (still not bad). But in terms of tertiary education, Japanese colleges and universities are considered among the worst and most useless of all developed countries. Woronoff cites an American university professor teaching in Japan saying that 90% of the students have a strong determination not to study.

    Woronoff explains that Graduate Schools (or students working for a Master's or Doctorate) are so scarce in Japan because that is a one-way ticket to unemployment or an academic career, as Japanese companies do not require them (and won't engage an overqualified person at greater expenses).

    Even at primary and secondary education levels, all the emphasis is on memory, maths and natural sciences. Japanese perform very poorly in social sciences (history, geography, politics, economy, sociology, philosophy, literature, morals...), as these are usually based on understanding and reasoning, rather than pure memory. Japanese concentrate so much on theory and memory that they can't apply their knowledge to practical situations, which is best reflected by their inability to speak English (or any other foreign languages).

    Woronoff explains wonderfully that Japanese study by rote, and are drilled almost with the exclusive aim of absorbing the official curriculum to pass exams (NB : Japanese schools, as opposed to Western ones, have virtually no freedom regarding the curriculum, so that all of them teach exactly the same thing with the same government approved books in all schools nationwide). But tests are almost always multiple-choice answers, where chance can actually help, and reasoning is not much needed.

    More worrisome, the Prime minister's office found that only 26% of primary and secondary school students understood their lesson. But why should they care, as understanding is not required to pass. What is more, Japanese schools do not make students repeat a year. So even if they do not understand and do not assimilate the curriculum's knowledge, and even if their tests are not good, they pass anyway to the next grade - "because it is compulsory education, and teachers cannot make students fail !", as I have been told many times by Japanese acquaintances.

    Japanese people are well aware of the weakness and urgent need to reform their education system. But is it possible to change such a system and introduce debates, practical learning or exams based on understanding and reasoning while keeping the same teachers that have no experience with such teaching (and learning as students) styles ?

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  2. #2
    sleep deprived DragonChan's Avatar
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    It is possible for the system to reform, but I don't think so under the current control. The problem is that, I think they would have to start from elementary school, with new teachers who understood how to teach reasoning and problem solving. They can't just introduce a new teaching method to grade 12 students, it wouldn't work.

    Take my exchange student. She was here for the year and even though she was in grade 12 in Japan, she was placed in grade 10 ESL in my school. She spent the entire year in depression and having near breakdowns because she couldn't understand how the system worked, and couldn't handle the constant pressure. In her classes she had to do group projects, problem solve, and the worst was the homework. She would have to spend hours each night working on what should have taken her half an hour, simply because she had no clue what to do with it. Her school in Japan never gave out homework.

    And she never got over the shock of seeing my sister (who is in university) alternate between studying, and going to work. She couldn't beleive that university would be harder than high school. And the fact that both my sister and I had a job really seemed surprising. I'm guessing not too many students work where she is from.

    As an added note, she never knew what to do when she had free time. Is that another Japanese trait? Or was she just weird? For instance, on winter break once she finished her homework she literally sat in a chair in my living room and stared at the wall until I suggested that she go out for a walk, or call a friend, or SOMETHING.

    Anyway, I'll have a better understanding of the Japanese system in a few days when I go to Japan, but until then I'll have to go off of what you've said above, and what other people have told me. In the end I don't think you can just 'spring' a new system on a country. It would have to be integrated.

  3. #3
    Regular Member MeAndroo's Avatar
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    And she never got over the shock of seeing my sister (who is in university) alternate between studying, and going to work. She couldn't beleive that university would be harder than high school. And the fact that both my sister and I had a job really seemed surprising. I'm guessing not too many students work where she is from.
    Well, that doesn't seem too odd...though a lot of my friends at Waseda had part time jobs, it's more rare to see a high schooler with one. College kids in Japan have a lot more free time than high school kids, so it's understandable that they'd try to get a little pocket money. It's not uncommon for Japanese families to pay for all of their child's costs through college, though.

    As an added note, she never knew what to do when she had free time. Is that another Japanese trait? Or was she just weird? For instance, on winter break once she finished her homework she literally sat in a chair in my living room and stared at the wall until I suggested that she go out for a walk, or call a friend, or SOMETHING.
    I think it may be Japanese in the sense that she might not have wanted to act without your permission. I'm not sure how your relationship was, but she may have just been uncomfortable being too independent since she was staying with you. The exchange student I had didn't have any of these problems, but that's because I was constantly dragging her around and keeping her busy.

    As far as the educational system goes...I agree with much of what Woronoff says (because it's true) and feel there's a need for drastic change. However, Japan isn't exactly at the forefront of progressive thought, especially when it comes to institutions like their educational system. Changes would have to be sweeping and from primary school up, otherwise there would be a great deal of backlash from parents and students who feel it was unfair that they had to adapt to a new system in the middle of their school career. I don't think they can keep the same teachers or even the same administrators if they want to make changes as large as this. It would take a charismatic, forward thinking and powerful group indeed to implement the kind of classes we enjoy here in the west. Gradual change IS possible in Japan (even the banking system is starting to change), but it's slow, and progress MUST be visible.

    Ironically, I've heard that the top U in Japan, TouDai, has problems with its graduates maintaining jobs. Apparently, the average TouDai grad feels vastly superior to his co-workers while exhibiting the largest inability to adapt to new situations...a perfect illustration of the problems facing their school system. Can you imagine the reaction if an MIT grad couldn't keep up with co-workers or was unable/unwilling to adapt their skills to the job at hand?
    Go Trojans! Fight On!

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