21st Century Skills in Japan

Regular IEN contributor Paul Chua has reported several times on Singapore’s efforts to shift to a focus on 21st Century skills. As part of an exchange program with Waseda University, he had a chance to visit several schools in Japan and learn about their approach to 21st Century skills. In this post, with contributions from Prof Takao Mimura, Dean of Waseda Graduate School of Teacher Education, Paul reflects on what he observed in visits to four elementary, junior high and senior high schools, as well as interaction sessions with student teachers of the Waseda Graduate School of Teacher Education.

In Japan, as in Singapore, the competencies and pedagogical moves associated with 21st Century competencies are seen as a central means of using education to ensure sustained economic prosperity in the years to come. These 21st Century aspirations have been articulated in a New Growth Strategy announced by the Japanese government in June 2010 as well as in “The Future Vision on Career Education and Vocational Education at School,” by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in January 2011. Further, the 21st century competencies I observed in the Japanese classrooms I visited were not dissimilar from what I have known in Singapore: problem solving, communication, collaboration and use of Information Communications Technologies (ICT).

In the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classes I visited at the Suwadai Junior High School, curriculum design and classroom pedagogy has been shifted to teach these competencies. For example, teachers are asked to design their instruction around any of four pedagogical moves seen as supporting these competencies: discussion; use of ICT; use of library as a learning center; and utilization of guest lecturers. In one lesson that leveraged ICT and discussion, the teacher used a jigsaw strategy to break the students into groups to discuss the ICT-based research work that they had been doing. The discussion centered on evaluating the quality of the research work that they had completed. When the group discussion was over, selected students had to make presentations of the group findings and discussion. In another class, using discussion and guest lecturers, students were set instructional tasks that required them to rank and discuss their ranking of student art works and to compare their rankings with professional artists who had been invited to the school. In a science class, students compared and contrasted a video simulation of a science experiment with their own experience with the same experiment. Even in a physical education class, students reflected on and critiqued their baton-passing in a video-tape of their performance in a relay race.

In another school, the Shioiri Higashi Primary School, we were given an understanding of how Japanese education tries to support the development of a sense of teamwork and collaboration in the students. It is instructive that the school objectives are to help the school community to “shine together, learn together, communicate with each other and to support each other.” Social interaction and collaboration are a focus of attention in both the daily classroom instruction and other school activities. These include mixed-age interactive activities involving students from across grade levels a few times a year as well as activities involving students from the neighboring junior high school who come over to read with the younger students. In other Japanese schools, community life is also a way of living and learning. Large-scale communal activities in virtually all Japanese schools include Entrance and Graduation Ceremonies, and annual Sports Day and Choral Festivals. Although the school lunch might be outsourced to private operators, students are required to serve themselves and the cleaning up of classrooms and the school by students is part of the curriculum.

At the Waseda Senior and Junior High Schools, which are elite private schools, we witnessed how policies (as opposed to activities) could be used to promote the 21st century competencies. For example, the senior high school students do not need to sit for the matriculation examinations to gain entry to Waseda University. According to the headmaster, the rationale for such a policy is to remove the pressure of to master examination techniques so that the students can develop holistically i.e. spiritually, morally with a hope of living in the future world. When asked to elaborate, the headmaster stressed that the purpose of the education in the schools is to help the students to answer the question of “who are they?” and then to choose their university and career options based on this understanding. He did not want the students to just choose a prestigious university without regard of their interests and abilities.

Although the whole exchange visit gave me a good peek into how some Japanese schools are preparing their students for living in the future world, it should be noted that the schools selected for our visit were higher performing ones. Nonetheless, the approaches to developing the 21st century competencies we saw in Japan are broadly similar to those used in Singapore schools, including using non-academic activities to develop the social competencies and allowing select groups of students to bypass some milestone examinations.

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