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The 'Total System'

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At the main gates of many Japanese elementary schools, a visitor finds a statue of Kinjiro Ninomiya, a child carrying a load of firewood on his back and a book in his hand. Legend has it that Kinjiro suffered great hardship in his life yet retained an indomitable will to learn. His statue reminds today's schoolchildren that learning and hard work are inseparable.

The same message can be seen in the ubiquitous firefly pin that many Japanese students wear to class. It tells them that, long ago, their counterparts had to struggle for the sake of learning, reading after a long day's toil only by the light of the fireflies.

So close is the symbolic link between work and learning that, by custom, Japanese children care for their own school house. Writes the Nagoya University professor of educational sociology Hidenori Fujita: "Elementary- and secondary-school children clean their classroom and school building every day by turns, through which they are expected to develop the discipline of group life ... [and] a sense of responsibility."

The Japanese school experience is replete with such ceremonies and rituals. In some classrooms, students begin the day by bowing their heads and reciting a pledge to work harder on their studies than they did the day before. And, always, the theme reinforced is this: to succeed in school requires diligent, self-disciplined effort.

To American educators who have studied Japan, the mystery of its consistently excellent showing in worldwide educational assessments is no mystery at all: The Japanese get more from their education system because they expect more--and they are willing to work for it.

When the University of Michigan psychologist Harold W. Stevenson was asked last summer what his first-ever cross-cultural study of Asian and American grade schoolers told U.S. educators, he had this to say: "The adage that Americans are confirmed believers in the value of hard work would seem to apply more to the Japanese."

Professor Stevenson and his colleagues had tested and observed hundreds of first- and fifth-grade students in both countries and had talked to their parents and teachers. These encounters provided further strong evidence of the excellence of Japanese schooling, but also pointed to several motivational reasons for it.

The study showed for the first time that the much-publicized gap in the reading and mathematics skills of Japanese and American high-school students begins much earlier in the learning process. In tests given during the fourth month of the first grade, a clear Japanese edge was evident. By the fifth grade, the gap in abilities was wider.

The testing results were not skewed by differences in intelligence or family background, according to Mr. Stevenson. His team administered I.Q. tests and, through questioning, found not only that the U.S. pupils came from slightly better-educated families but also that the Japanese youngsters watched more television.

Self-Critical Leanings

Where the two groups differed widely, however, was in parental attitudes toward education. Despite the dismal showing of their children, for example, 91 percent of the American mothers rated their children's schools as "excellent" or "good." By contrast, only 39 percent of the mothers of the superior Japanese students rated their schools "good" or above. There were few "excellent" ratings.

Japanese mothers also were harder on their children's school performance, believing the students could do better. American mothers generally praised their children's work.

These self-critical leanings in the Japanese show up consistently in comparative educational research. Robert D. Hess, a Stanford University professor of education and psychology who has made cross-cultural studies of preschoolers, says that even at this level of education, Japanese mothers are much more likely than those of other countries to blame poor school performance on the child's lack of proper study.

Such findings help to explain the seeming paradox of a nation leading the world in literacy yet dissatisfied with its own education. They also suggest that the well-publicized problems of Japanese education must be viewed in context. As the Harvard University sociologist Merry I. White says in a recent review of Japanese education in The Public Interest, "Although problems do exist, the statistical reality is that, compared to the West, Japan still looks very good indeed."

So good, in fact, that American mayors trying to lure Japanese capital to their cities have had a hard time selling the quality of American life to Japanese firms. Said South Bend, Indiana's Roger O. Parent last month at the mid-winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors: ''The Japanese told us right off the bat that in science and math, if their kids stayed in American high schools and returned to Japan for college, they'd be two or three years behind."

Gov. James S. Thompson of Illinois this month proposed a novel strategy to circumvent that skepticism--the creation of special enriched "Japanese schools" to teach the children of Japanese businessmen transferred to Illinois.

Assessing the Proficiency Gap

Many scholars, including the sociologist Ezra Vogel in his book Japan as Number One, estimate the proficiency gap between U.S. and Japanese students as at least one year at all grade levels. And, Mr. Vogel says, this difference is apparent across the curriculum, even in physical education.

Clearly, the end-product of Japanese education is a commodity most Americans deeply wish were "made in the USA." But the wish has led to calls for replication, and many American educators think that would be simplistic and short-sighted. They say that a pell-mell rush to adopt what seem to be the strengths of the Japanese system--longer class hours and school year; a unified curriculum; greater stress on science and mathematics; higher teacher standards--will not work.

Nor would it be possible. For, as many experts stress, these Japanese "strengths" have a supporting context--a contributing blend of social, historical, and structural characteristics--that cannot be duplicated in the United States.

As Noritake Kobayashi, a Keio University professor of international business and comparative law, puts the question: "Can an educational system based on one set of social values and aspirations be transferred to another society with different values and aspirations and still produce as good a result?"

A consensus of opinion seems to be that both Japan and the United States must be selective in adopting features from the other's educational scheme. In many respects, they note, the American and Japanese systems are antithetical, mirror-images of one another designed with different goals in mind. At the core, two broad and fundamental differences exist:

  • The scope of Japanese schooling--beyond any similar institutional bond in America--grows out of the country's historic search for harmony and social order, producing strong family ties, clear lines of authority, and planned, group-mobilized efforts toward common goals. America's local school system grows out of a frontier heritage stressing individualism.
  • The cohesion of the Japanese system--and thus the power and efficiency of its curriculum--is provided by strong, centralized planning, with the national government in control of the aims, content, form, and pace of education. That kind of central authority would be unimaginable in the United States.

When Japanese educators try to describe the school curriculum, they invariably use the word "comprehensive." One educator calls it a "total system," planned and structured as a bridge linking family, government, workplace, and larger society.

Hiroshima University's dean of education, Yutaka Okihara, says simply that the whole notion of curriculum is different in Japan. When the French and the Germans talk about curricula, he says, they mean only "material to be covered in narrow subject areas." The United States and the Soviet Union, by adding socialization to academics, come closer to the Japanese meaning. But even when Americans speak of educating "the whole child," says the dean, they miss the full breadth and impact of the Japanese curriculum.

In addition to standard subject areas, he explains, the Japanese school teaches moral education--by example, reminder, and illustration as well as by class instruction--and uses, as a third curricular component, such "special activities" as class trips, ceremonial gatherings, health and safety programs, festivals, athletic events, clubs and societies, and rituals to build a community bond and instill in students a sense of responsibility to the group.

'Total Agency of Socialization'

An indication of this curricular breadth can be seen in the results of a 1977 survey of parents by Hidenori Fujita. When asked what they expected schools to teach their children, the parents listed more social attributes than skills. Here are the learning expectations highest on their list: discipline of group life (98.3 percent), cognitive training (90.5 percent), love of one's local place (75.3 percent), punctuality (75 percent), friendship and good peer relations (75 percent), and public morality (63.9 percent).

That "discipline of group life" scored more than eight percentage points higher than "cognitive training" on the survey reflects the pervasive belief in Japan that school should be, in Mr. Fujita's words, "a total agency of socialization."

To create and sustain this socializing force, the Japanese have relegated broad authoritarian powers to the schools and their personnel--powers that would not be tolerated in America. "Moral education," an ever-controversial instructional realm in the United States, is allotted 35 class hours per year in the curriculum for compulsory education in Japan.

Curricular guides also encourage teachers to reinforce moral standards wherever possible in the curriculum. Often, this means little more than a teacher's publicly pointing out the error of someone's ways. But the teacher--by agreement of parent, school, and society--is an official arbiter of morality for the child.

Teachers are given similar powers in setting standards for behavior. Professor Fujita regards this as part of the "extremely broad custodial role" given over to Japanese schools. He explains:

"Almost all elementary and secondary schools have prescribed the details of permissible behavior and activities, both inside and outside the school--clothes that may be worn, places where students may go by themselves and where they may go with parents or with some adults, and so on. Some secondary schools even require students and parents to report prior to a long trip during the summer or spring vacation."

Some Japanese critics charge that dress codes, rituals, and group-think are trivializing the curriculum, but the blending of social mores with academic training seems to have fostered an atmosphere of seriousness and attention in the classroom. In his book Education and Equality in Japan, William K. Cummings estimates that Japanese teachers spend roughly a third less time and energy keeping order than American teachers. Others say the difference is even greater, with American teachers spending 60 percent of class time on discipline and Japanese teachers 10 percent.

A visitor to a Japanese classroom immediately senses that school is considered a place to learn, not to be entertained. There may be a lively enthusiasm--one surprising feature of classroom behavior is the readiness with which students raise their hands when teachers ask, "Who missed that question?"--but it is focused generally on learning.

But critics who portray the Japanese classroom as rigid and "noncreative" are misinformed, according to Americans who have studied the system.

In his cross-cultural study of preschoolers, Harold Stevenson tried to assess creativity and social skills as well as academic achievement. At the elementary-school level, he says, there appears to be no difference whatever between American and Japanese children.

Harvard's Merry White refutes the creativity charge more adamantly. She talks of the "unruly" excitement and spontaneity of Japanese 4th and 5th graders she has observed in math and science classes. Even in these subjects, they are asked to imagine new concepts, to break into small working groups for discussion, and to keep diaries of their class experiences.

While American educational rhetoric stresses "self expression" and "discovery learning," says Ms. White, "Japanese teaching, at least in primary schools, effectively employs an engaging, challenging teaching style that surpasses most American attempts."

Another difference Mr. Stevenson found in his study of preschoolers was the relative lack of absenteeism in Japanese schools. When the American researchers tried to observe specific students in U.S. classrooms, they found 13 percent of the first graders and 18 percent of the fifth graders not there. Mr. Stevenson called the problem "infinitesimal" with the Japanese.

The greater discipline and authority found in Japanese schools has meant that from the second grade onward, according to Mr. Rohlen, "a far greater proportion of each school hour is available for the teachers to address their educational program than in the United States."

A National Curriculum

That program--the basic academic core of the curriculum--is a marvel of economy, a carefully planned, systematic approach to learning that is offered in the same sequence at the same time to all students throughout Japan.

"From northernmost Hokkaido to southernmost Kyushu, there is the same content," says Akio Nakajima, a top Ministry of Education official. "All classes of 4th graders learning science are at the same level; all students in all classes are given the same competitive base to prepare them for future work or study."

In high school, ability and interest (as well as test scores) separate Japanese students into two educational tiers--one bound for college and one not--but even here the groups study essentially the same coursework. The college-bound students' work is simply more academically oriented; the nonacademic or vocational students have a more practical or applied course of study.

The unity of content comes from the so-called "Course of Study," the basic framework for individual course curricula, issued to schools by Japan's Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, a cabinet-level department known colloquially as Mombusho. The ministry writes the Course of Study (there are three, one each for the elementary, lower-secondary, and upper-secondary, or high-school, levels) with recommendations from a Curriculum Council made up of respected educators. Every 10 years, they review the curriculum and suggest changes.

The Course of Study sets detailed guidelines for course construction and determines the sequence of courses. It lays out for teachers the aims of each subject area and the goals and content of teaching for each grade. It is a curricular document flexible enough to allow some variation in teaching from school to school, but specific enough for one Japanese educator to predict that, if pressed, the Minister of Education could probably cite for a given class in a given city the day's lesson plan.

Minor reforms in 1977 and 1978 gave schools and local boards of education greater flexibility in designing their own curricula. But, according to Tetsuya Kobayashi, dean of the Kyoto University Graduate School of Education, only high schools have made any notable attempt to use this greater freedom. Schooling at the compulsory elementary and lower-secondary levels has remained basically a uniform product of the Course of Study.

Lean, Precise, Purposeful

Looking at these slim curricular volumes, some U.S. reformers might be tempted to call their contents "basics." But "back to basics" is a catch-phrase seldom heard in Japan. So lean, systematic, and purposeful is the Japanese national curriculum that in its formulations even nonacademic subjects seem basic.

Take, for example, physical education. No Japanese elementary-school teacher would think of calling physical-training periods "recess" or, even less, the underground American code word, "C.R.A." (for children running around). To the Japanese, physical-education instruction is serious business.

"Students develop motor skills in a sequence related to scientific research on physical development," according to William K. Cummings, a senior fellow at the East-West Center. Toss ball, dodge ball, and similar games are introduced sequentially in elementary school, but such advanced sports as basketball are postponed until the body and the social skill of the Japanese child can benefit from them.

Music and art are other nonbasics taught with precision and finesse. By the time Japanese children finish elementary school, for example, they can read music, play at least two instruments, and work together as an orchestra. The artistic abilities of grade schoolers stretch well beyond the crayon-and-clay stage, to include appreciation as well as dexterity.

Early Emphasis on Sciences

This depth of mastery applies even more to the traditional academic subject areas. According to most researchers, such as those from the National Center for Education Statistics, Japanese schoolchildren learn most skills and concepts at earlier ages and greater levels of difficulty than U.S. children.

This is especially true for mathematics and science, subjects which, from the first grade through the nine compulsory years of schooling, are allotted by the national curriculum one-quarter of the total number of class hours. Writes Lawrence P. Grayson of the National Institute of Education:

"Elementary-school students are taught such mathematical concepts as correspondence of geometric figures, and probability and statistics. These are topics that in the United States are usually reserved for high school or college."

The greater depth and quantity of mathematics instruction in Japan continues through high school, says Mr. Grayson, and the sciences are given a similar emphasis. Japanese science instruction still draws heavily on U.S. teaching methods and materials, he notes, but local initiative in each of the country's prefectures has helped to establish new Science Education Centers where math and science teachers can be trained or can update their skills.

Beginning with the 7th grade, the curriculum gives about 10 percent of class time to foreign-language instruction. A choice of languages is offered, but most students study English. By the time they graduate, most high-school students have had six years of foreign-language study.

With almost scientific precision, the curriculum packages knowledge in a way that is conducive to retention, with clear incremental development from grade to grade.

In elementary schools, language study dominates the curriculum, with the child learning a set number of kanji--the Chinese characters that are the basis of written Japanese--each year. By the time students complete elementary school, they have mastered some 1,000 Chinese characters, an achievement in memorization that observers claim increases their skill in other academic areas, notably mathematics.

Arithmetic receives the next greatest share of the elementary- and lower-secondary-school curricula, with four class hours per week in the 1st grade, five class hours per week through the remainder of elementary school, and increased hours in junior high. After language and math comes social studies, also taught with a carefully devised, developmental plan of study.

In high schools, the curriculum can vary according to the student's future plans. There are individual curricula for students planning college--one for those who will study math or science, one for those studying arts or literature. Vocational courses range from agriculture to technical fields. But basic subjects that apply to all secondary-school students include Japanese, English, math, science, and social studies.

Not only do the Japanese take more mathematics, far more Japanese take advanced calculus than study calculus in the United States, where the percentage of seniors taking the subject is smaller than that of most other advanced industrial countries. (Some 32 percent of Japanese boys and 13 percent of Japanese girls take Math III, compared with 11 percent of American boys and 7 percent of American girls who take calculus, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.) In addition, most Japanese high schoolers also take courses in chemistry, biology, physics, and earth sciences.

Textbooks: Symbols of Process

Japanese textbooks, also commissioned and approved by the Ministry of Education, are lean, no-frills publications that move in a terse, logical progression through what is considered the basic knowledge of a subject area for a given age group. Though local school boards may choose from a small group of approved texts for each grade level and subject, all the books are standard-model and all Japanese children, who get them free in the compulsory grades, thus study the same material.

Textbooks, in fact, offer a startling visual commentary on the differences in Japanese and American education. Japanese texts average about 100 pages, regardless of subject; American texts are in general three to five times that size.

And unlike American students, who move back and forth or skip portions in a text according to an individual teacher's lesson plans, Japanese students finish each and every one of their textbooks in a strict sequence.

In comparison studies he made of Japanese and American mathematics textbooks, Kazuo Ishizaki, a researcher with Japan's National Institute of Education Research, found that although an American 4th-grade math book has some content that is roughly comparable to the 2nd and 3rd grades in Japan, it also contains material comparable to that learned in Japanese 5th and 6th grades.

"If an American student wants to study by himself, it is easy," Mr. Ishizaki surmises. "The books have more of a variety of problems suitable to both the slow learners and the gifted."

Japanese textbooks make no allowances for self-paced instruction and provide no range of examples for students of differing abilities, he says. The books' main advantages are hallmarks of the Japanese system itself: they cover all the material in a field, they cover it at a level suited to the average learner, and they cover it succinctly, to facilitate retention.

Some charge that the retention is mere memorization and that the curriculum and accompanying texts promote rote learning in lieu of thinking. But Riyoichi Matsumura, the Yamaguchi prefecture's supervisor of geography instruction, says this criticism misses the subtleties of Japanese concepts of learning. The Japanese do not believe a child has the ability to learn on his own without preparation, he explains. Children must be given a formal base of fundamental knowledge in order to choose wisely.

"Students should receive knowledge," says Mr. Matsumura. "Then, when they enter college or begin to work, they can form their own opinions and develop their thoughts."

What is missing in the Japanese regimen, some say, is flexibility: a means of recognizing and developing the great scientist, of stimulating and nurturing future artists, of helping the late bloomer or slow learner.

Says Yutaka Okihara, dean of the education faculty at Hiroshima University: "Everyone in Japan travels on the same slow train from primary school to high school. There are no provisions for fast learners to take the Shinkansen (Japan's famous 'bullet train'), and those who are slower than average and need more time at each platform have to get back on the train with the others and go on to the next station before they are ready."

His colleague at Kyoto University's school of education, Dean Kobayashi, uses a slightly different metaphor. He sees the education system as more like an escalator. "But in Japan," he explains, "the idea of 'escalation' is not to 'speed up' or increase ability, it is that everyone holds on to the rail and is carried along at the same pace."

But to others, such as Hiroshi Kida, former education vice minister, the benefits of such "inflexibility" far outweigh the defects.

What is remarkable about the so-called conformity, says Mr. Kida, now the director general of Japan's National Institute for Research in Education, is that it is conformity at a very high standard of achievement. Because Japanese schools provide the same rigorous basic training for each and every child, regardless of abilities or interests, there are "few weak students," he says.

"That doesn't mean there are a lot of exceptional students," Mr. Kida concedes. "But the average scores of Japanese students have been the highest in the world."

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