Dr. Christopher Bjork’s most recent publication, Japanese education in an era of globalization, which he co-edited with Gary DeCoker, was published in May of 2013 by Teachers College Press. The following post is based on a conversation in which he discussed educational reform in Japan.
As Dr. Bjork explained, education reforms in Japan in the 1990s aimed to “relax” strict educational standards and policies that many viewed as contributing to anti-social student behaviors, such as bullying and violence. In an attempt to relieve students of stress caused by high stakes testing, long hours spent in school, and rote learning, Japan implemented progressive, student-centered policies that privileged creative thinking and collaboration. These changes were designed augment student interest in learning.
Teachers tended agreed with the goals of the relaxed education (yutori kyoiku) reforms, but often had difficulty implementing the initiatives in their classrooms. Secondary instructors, in particular, were reluctant to diverge from practices that had proven effective in the past. Dr. Bjork attributes this resistance to the cogent influence of entrance examinations, which act as gatekeepers and determine students’ future level of education attainment. Concerns about student performance on these exams made teachers reluctant to adopt strategies that they saw as unrelated to the content of the exam, and parents less willing to rely on the school system to sufficiently prepare their children for the challenges that lay ahead. As a result, many parents looked to private tutoring programs to fill what they saw as a gap in the children’s education.
Today, despite the country’s superior performance on the 2012 PISA test, the conservative government of Japan has a new agenda for overhauling the education system, which includes improving English fluency among teachers and students, teaching morals, and revamping the college entrance exam. A flurry of reports over the past few months also show that there is much debate over the government’s plan to revise curricula to state Japan’s territorial claims over disputed islands in teaching guidelines. Although some vestiges of the relaxed education policies remain in place, their impact fell far short of the Ministry of Education’s initial projections. The goal of alleviating pressure in the schools proved more ambitious than had been anticipated.