Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

Building on strong traditional values and the achievements of a high-quality education system, Japanese education authorities are encouraging more independent thinking and discussion in classrooms in order to help students develop 21st century problem-solving skills.

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Educating students to think independently in confronting the challenges of modern society

As a mountainous country with few natural resources, Japan depends heavily on human capital to compete in the global economy. A standardized national curriculum and textbooks, coupled with relatively equal distribution of educational facilities and resources, have helped to achieve fairly egalitarian outcomes with students performing to a high level. Students' family background has less impact on how well they do in school than in many other countries.

Nonetheless, Japanese society is by no means complacent about these results. Education policy and what is best for students are the subjects of constant and lively discussion. Over the past two decades, Japan has seen switches in emphasis as educators seek to move beyond a traditional system based on rote-learning in order to help students to think for themselves.

In the 1990s, concerns about the system's strong focus on examinations and disciplinary problems in schools, including widespread bullying, prompted moves to encourage greater individual creativity. In 2002, the so-called yutori kyoiku ('relaxed education') wave of reforms included a 30% cut in the school curriculum and five-day school week to allow students more time to relax.

In parallel, the notion of sogo teki na gakushu no jikan, or 'integrated learning', was introduced, giving schools and teachers greater freedom in selecting topics and areas of study. By drawing links between different topics, phenomena and outcomes, the intention was to strengthen student competency and cultivate creative thinking.

After 2004, this strategy was adjusted to take account of successive PISA results and public reactions to the earlier reforms, with new moves to ensure students get solid grounding in basic knowledge. Revision of the national curriculum starting in 2011 aimed to balance the building of a solid knowledge base with support for creative thinking. Primary school textbooks have been expanded by almost a quarter and lesson times lengthened by one or two hours per week in primary and lower secondary schools to cover the longer curriculum.

At the same time, however, 'PISA-type' open-constructed tasks have been incorporated into the national assessment with a view to demonstrating the value of skills that are important for the knowledge economy. In making these changes, Japanese policy makers say they are endeavoring to combine the best of both tradition and innovation.

In line with Japan's holistic tradition of education, one of the prime objectives is to develop socially responsible citizens capable of taking individual initiatives in the interests of society as a whole. An example is the strategy of 'education for sustainable development' adopted by some schools, in which students learn to draw links between the genesis and consequences of natural phenomena and human capacity to deal with them.

By enabling students to observe and analyze causes and effects and apply critical judgments to proposed solutions, the Zest for Living strategy is designed to help students develop independent thinking. In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 2011, it has been hailed as a valuable way to help students face the uncertainties and challenges of the future.