(As a part of the series of "Education around the globe", we take a close look at the education system of Japan.)
Japan is one of the most educated and productive societies in the world. It consistently ranks in the Top 5 of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test in dozens of countries, in the main categories of maths, reading , science and collaborative problem solving abilities.
Japan's success story has many similarities with Singapore. A nation with poor natural resources and subject to frequent disasters like typhoons and earthquakes, they have also achieved a high level of success through their education system.
Modern education started in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century and was heavily influenced by the education system in the Western countries. From Germany they adopted the idea of an educational system built around a few elite national universities. England provided Japan with a model of public schools founded on strong national moral principles. The pedagogy was deeply influenced by the teachings of John Dewey – an American educational reformer. The administrative system followed the French, with strong central control by Ministry of Education and the system of school districts. The education was a blend of modern subjects with traditional Japanese values and skills like Calligraphy. But it was the massive rebuilding of Japan after the defeat in Second World War that led to the drive towards a highly meritocratic system that made education accessible to all and strongly linked to developing work ready citizens.
The school system in Japan consists of:
- three years of optional kindergarten (ages 3-6)
- six years of mandatory primary school (ages 6-12)
- three years of mandatory lower secondary school (ages 12-15)
- three years of upper secondary school (ages 15-18)
Students who have completed lower secondary school, at about age sixteen, may choose to apply to upper secondary school. There are three types of upper secondary schools in Japan:
- Senior high schools : Admission into senior high schools is extremely competitive, and in addition to entrance examinations, the student’s academic work, behavior and attitude, and record of participation in the community are also taken into account. After senior high schools, students take the National Center Test for University Admissions to gain admission to University.
- Colleges of technology : These have their own set of entrance exams and provide five-year programs in engineering, culminating in an associate’s degree. Some colleges also offer additional two-year “advanced courses” for students wishing to earn bachelor’s degrees. Most students go on to full employment after graduation, though some elect to continue on to university.
- Specialized training colleges : Specialized training colleges provide vocational education and are open-entry without a specific entry exam. Graduates receive a diploma after completing the high school portion and can continue into post-secondary courses to earn advanced diplomas.
Curriculum and Pedagogy
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) prepares guidelines containing basic outlines of each subject taught in Japanese schools and the objectives and content of teaching in each grade. Teachers have a fair amount of autonomy to plan lessons within the national curriculum context. The school curriculum is divided into three main categories: compulsory subjects, moral education and special activities. Compulsory subjects are Japanese language, Japanese literature, arithmetic, social studies, science, music, arts and handicrafts, programming and PE. A unique feature of the education system is the successful blending of traditional subjects with the modern subjects. Elementary school children spend a large share of their time in school learning how to write and read Japanese katagana, hiragana and kanji. There is huge emphasis on Moral education which is effectively carried on through the school routine and daily interactions that go on during the class cleaning and school lunch activities.
Teacher Quality and Continuing Education
Select: Teachers must hold a degree from an institution of higher education. Prospective teachers must take the National Center Test for University Admissions in order to be considered for admission into an undergraduate teacher education program. While in training, prospective teachers must take courses in both subject areas and pedagogy, and are evaluated by an experienced teacher under the supervision of a principal. After graduation from a teacher education program, they undergo a 3 week teaching practice. Once teachers have been hired, they undergo a one-year induction period. During this period, they are supervised by a senior teacher who acts as a mentor with reduced teaching responsibilities to allow them to work together on classroom management, subject guidance, planning and analyzing classroom teaching. At the end of the first year, a teacher can be hired as a fully employed regular teacher and have access to all teacher benefits, including membership in the teachers’ union. The majority of Japanese teachers remain in the profession until retirement age.
Nurture: Teachers are provided daily in-service training and participate in central workshops for head teachers and administrators held by MEXT. In addition to formal professional development programs, Japanese teachers use “lesson study” to learn from colleagues informally. Principals organize meetings during which teachers with varying levels of experience identify an area of need in the classroom, research intervention options and create a lesson plan. One teacher then uses this sample lesson in the classroom, with the other teachers observing. Following the sample lesson, the group meets again to discuss, reflect, and make adjustments to refine the lesson plan. This method of teacher led-research is well-regarded, has shown effectiveness in improving student and teacher learning and has been adopted in other countries.
Incentivize: Teachers are paid as well as civil servants and teaching is a highly sought out profession. High Performing teachers in middle to late-career stages are transferred to administrative offices, including local boards of education, and expected to contribute to the educational planning with their practical experience. After several years in such an assignment, they are transferred back to leadership positions within schools. Apart from academic education, Japanese teachers spend a good amount of time in coaching after-school activities, they visit students’ homes to get a better understanding of particular family contexts and to reinforce a sense of a close-knit and caring community.
A shadow school system called the juku is prevalent in Japan. These cram schools help students prepare for exams and to drill on the concepts they learned in the classroom. Students may spend up to 12 hours a week apart from regular school hours in a cram school , especially in the months leading up to upper secondary and university entrance exams. Japanese students complete the equivalent of several more years of schooling than students in other nations. Though the MEXT is working towards reducing these extra hours, parental and school pressure to achieve academic excellence is impeding this effort.
Though Japan is a technological warehouse known for its brands like Sony, Toyota, Fujitsu and popular culture like Manga or Anime comics, surprisingly, the application of technologies in education in Japan is far behind of other developed countries. Edtech products such as gamified learning products and project-based learning platforms do not appeal to schools whose biggest priority is test-performance. But there has been some change to the mindset since the past few years and efforts are on from the government to strengthen the use of technology in classrooms to be on par with rest of the world. A major reform has been the development of online courses and provision to have 1 digital device per student. With English being the language of economic growth, edtech products which help children improve their English communication skills are in demand. The government is also encouraging use of AI to understand learning needs of different students to reduce workload of teachers and dependence on juku.
Issues and concerns
The excessive uniformity and rigidity in curriculum has sparked off concerns that Japanese students do not develop creativity, problem solving skills and are unable to interact in the global arena. The immense focus on group work is reducing individuality and creating passive students with poor decision-making skills.
The increasing cases of bullying and cyber bullying along with the excessive competition is causing psychological stress in students and their parents. There are strong voices in the country demanding to democratize the Japanese education system and implement stronger steps in reducing bullying and rejection in schools.
Overworked teachers is another area of improvement in Japan. On an average a teacher spends around 60+ hours per week in school in academic and non-academic activities. The use of technology and reduction of school hour will help in teacher retention.
In Japan there is a shared belief that if the individual works tirelessly for the group, the group will reciprocate. But if one defies the group, one can expect very little from society. This belief has built a meritocratic and collaborative system where people work very hard largely to earn the respect and admiration of their colleagues. They do not work hard for personal distinction, but rather for the good of the group. The challenging environment, a strong sense of community, high accountability , dedication of teachers and parental involvement have created an education system which has produced people who are disciplined, diligent, consistent and have the collaborative skills needed to work in a group.