Education in Japan: Learning to change

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Japan is one of the world’s most compelling success stories in education. But can it stay at the top? Yes, but new approaches will be needed.

Japan is one of the world’s most compelling success stories in education. The country features consistently among the world’s top-performing systems in OECD PISA*, the leading international test of competence among 15-year-old school students, with regard to the quality of learning outcomes, equity in the distribution of learning opportunities and value for money.

Japan’s strong commitment to education fuelled rapid economic growth in the post-war period, and thanks to high-quality human capital, it is one of the key players in the production of high technology, high value-added products. By the 1980s, Japan could declare that it had caught up with the most advanced industrialised nations, both economically and with regard to its education system. And by the time the Fundamental Law on Education was revised in 2006, much had changed since the law was adopted in 1947. Life expectancy for men had risen from 50 to 79 years, and for women from 54 to 85 years. The high school attendance rate had grown from 43% to 98%. University attendance had climbed from 10% to 49%.

But catching up with the rest of the world and emulating others is easier than charting a new future. There are ongoing concerns in Japan about a loss in moral standards and declining student motivation, coinciding with a perceived decline in the country’s edge in innovation. So while Western experts visit Japan to learn from its success in education, many Japanese people are worried that high student performance might no longer translate into success in business and in life. Where, they ask, are our Nobel Prize winners? Where are the people with the kinds of breakthrough ideas that could create a new Microsoft or Apple, or even a new Sony or Nikon, or give rise to whole new industries to harness Japan’s brilliance in robotics, for instance?

A key to Japan’s success in education has been the traditional belief that all children can be achievers. This is mirrored in the comparatively weak impact that social background has on educational outcomes. However, PISA suggests that these high standards of equity are coming under pressure. Japan’s efforts to devolve responsibilities for educational decision-making to schools and local authorities must now be accompanied by equity-related policies that attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms, and the most capable principals to the schools most in need of a boost. Effective school leadership is required, along with a stronger emphasis on informality, to allow quick decision-making, and freedom to act so that local education authorities and schools can react to changing situations and the surrounding environment.

Many countries envy Japan for its clear and ambitious academic standards across the board, and for coherent delivery chains through which curricular goals are achieved, thanks to high-quality instructional systems and practices, and approaches to student learning.

So, what are the main challenges? For a start, the rapid decline in the student-age population, which has significantly widened the gateways into the education system, reducing the motivating impact which high stakes have traditionally had. Japan will therefore need to consider alternative incentive structures to maintain students’ and society’s commitment to education. Also, as individuals change jobs more frequently, workplace performance will have a greater influence on careers than just school or university. Perhaps most importantly, while PISA shows that Japan has made significant progress in fostering students’ interest in and engagement with learning, this is an area where Japan still lags significantly behind other advanced education systems. Curriculum reform will be central if Japan wishes to fulfil its ambition of shifting the emphasis away from a traditional subject-based approach towards a competency-based approach, for only by doing that can it match the world’s best-performing education systems.

Another challenge is the quality of teaching. Experience with the integrated course of study shows that success will depend not just on curricular innovations, but on how well teachers are trained to use them. There is no doubt that the demands placed on Japanese teachers continue to rise. Teachers are asked to equip students with the competencies they need to become active citizens and workers in the 21st century. They are asked to personalise learning experiences to ensure that every student has a chance to succeed and to deal with increasing diversity in their classrooms and differences in learning styles. And they need to keep up with innovations in curricula, pedagogy and digital resources.

To address these demands, Japan will need to rethink many aspects of its approaches to teacher development, including how to optimise the pool of individuals from which teacher candidates are drawn; recruiting systems and the ways in which staff are selected; the kind of initial education recruits obtain before they start their jobs, how they are monitored and inducted into their service, and the continuing education and support they receive; how their compensation is structured; and how struggling teachers can be helped to improve, while the best-performing teachers are given opportunities to acquire more status and responsibility. In recent decades, Japan has tended to prioritise reductions in class sizes over investments in the quality of teachers. This balance may now require adjustment, and our studies provide a range of examples on how this could be achieved. What is clear is that performance is the result of what happens in classrooms, and only reforms that are implemented in classrooms can be expected to succeed. Teacher engagement in the development and implementation of educational reform is therefore crucial, and school reform will not work unless it is supported from the bottom up.

In short, much remains to be done to fill Japan’s educational goal of “zest for living” with life–to which the Great East Japan Earthquake has given such urgency and an entirely new meaning. For the decades ahead, the aim should be to build an education system that shifts away from reproducing educational content for degrees towards strengthening competencies for life; from educating for situational values (“I will do anything the current situation allows me to do”) towards sustainable values; from competing in exam hell towards strengthening social skills and social cohesion; from educating to serve
the nation state towards education for citizenship in the local community, Japanese society and the wider world we live in.

*Programme for International Student Assessment


Schleicher, Andreas (2013), “Lessons from PISA outcomes” in OECD Observer, No 297 Q4


See also

©OECD Observer No 298, Q1 2014

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