Japan, Two Germanies, Ready Students for Techtronic Future

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Washington--The industrialized nations that compete economically with the United States provide their children with significantly more and different schooling in programs that place far greater emphasis on the sci-ences and mathematics than American schools.

That relative strength, according to a panel of educators who discussed their research on education in Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) here last week, exists largely because the leaders of these nations recognize the links between science education, technology, and national productivity.

U.S. leaders, in contrast, seem to lack this awareness--perhaps in part because "they themselves are scientifically illiterate," suggested Joseph I. Lipson, a former National Science Foundation (nsf) official who is now with wicat Systems, Inc., a Utah-based firm that manufactures computer hardware and develops computer-assisted training for education.

If the United States does not begin to remedy the national deficiencies in science education--catalogued in the 1980 report to the President, "Science and Engineering Education for the 80's and Beyond"--the nation's future productivity will be seriously in jeopardy, panelists warned. The symposium was part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (aaas).


If Japan offers its children a superior education in science and mathematics, some of the credit--or blame--must go to the United States, according to the U.S. curriculum expert who helped Japanese education officials rebuild their school system after World War II.

Though both subject areas played important roles in prewar Japanese education, the Ministry of Education did not place special emphasis on science and mathematics until after the war, when the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur) invited Vivian Edmiston Todd, an American curriculum expert, to help the Japanese rebuild and revise their educational system.

She and Japan's education officials concurred, Ms. Todd told the aaas audience, that "the future of the war-torn and densely populated islands of Japan would depend in large measure upon Japanese mastery of problem-solving and other aspects of science education."

"With large numbers of workers and limited natural resources, science education was a necessary base for the Japanese people and therefore for their curriculum," she continued.

And that emphasis on science education has paid off in several ways. Japan surpassed the United States in per capita gross national product in 1977 and 1978, according to an analysis cited by Ms. Todd. Moreover, she added, 14-year-old Japanese students were "first overall" in an international science test administered in 1970 to 14-year-olds from 19 countries. American students, by contrast, ranked 15th.

In Japan today, "science education does very well," according to Kay Michael Troost, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

"Science is perceived as interesting as well as useful," said Mr. Troost, who had just returned from a trip to Japan. "The Japanese do not have an elite view of science. They think that everyone should learn science."

Consequently, he said, Japanese students begin to study science in the first grade, and they continue that study through 12 years of precollege education, Mr. Troost said.

Japan's national science curriculum places heavy emphasis on activities--field trips and experiments--for primary-grade students. These activities are tied closely to the texts used in class, Mr. Troost said. For the first six years of school, students spend about one-third of their time participating in "hands-on" activities; this percentage declines to one-seventh in the middle-school years, and one-eighth in high-school.

A recent revision of the national science curriculum has made advanced-level biology, chemistry, and physics available to high-school students. Twenty percent of all Japan-ese students have completed a second year of biology, chemistry, and physics by the time they finish high school, Mr. Troost said.

Most American high-school students complete one or two years of science, usually biology and chemistry, according to an nsf report.

Calculus problems are routine in the advanced physics courses, and one-fifth of the high-school students have covered differential equations--usually taught only in college in the U.S.--by the time they graduate, he said.

"Equality of opportunity" is the ideal of the Japanese educational system, but, as is true in many other nations, complete equality has not been achieved, Mr. Troost said.

Gender and family background still make a difference in the type of education a child receives. Although girls and boys receive the same education through high school, more males than females go on to college, and of those students who enter college, more males are placed in high-status universities, he said.

Although there is no "tracking system," Mr. Troost said, it is not true that all schools are the same. Entrance to high school and college is ruled by rigorous exams, and the competition is fierce to get into the best institutions.

Primary schools are relatively uniform in quality, but differences begin to appear in middle schools. On national achievement tests given to middle-school students, the average scores achieved by different schools had an 80 point range, out of a total of 100 points, from "the best to the worst" schools, he said. "If you want to go to an elite university, go to an elite high school, an elite middle school, and an elite elementary school," he said.

Students' opportunities also vary with the private kindergartens they attend, and the increasingly popular "juku," or "school-after-school," where students continue their studies.

"Clearly, Japanese science education works," Mr. Troost said. He cited several reasons for its success, including:

Perceived relevance of science to exams, occupational success, and life in the "techtronic" world.

Family involvement in learning. Families visit the classroom at least several times a year; some come as often as once a month.

More "time on task." Japanese students not only take more years of science than do U.S. students, but the Japanese school-year is 240 days long, compared with 180 days in most U.S. districts.

Respect for learning and willingness to work very hard. Japanese students spend most of their time either in school or studying. Their school day is slightly longer than that of American children, Mr. Troost said.

The perception of science as not only useful but interesting.

But there may also be drawbacks to the Japanese system, Mr. Troost suggested. The examination system encourages the memorization of facts at the expense of creativity, and may also lessen the emphasis on "higher-order thinking," he noted.

But the methods used to teach science to elementary-school students give them a very good "intuitive grasp," Mr. Troost said, and could possibly be used here.

Other elements of the Japanese system, he noted, would be less likely to take root in U.S. schools. Americans tend to be anti-intellectual, to view science as an elitist subject, to participate less in their children's education, and to be less enthusiastic about hard work, Mr. Troost pointed out. And the exam system that governs much of Japanese education differs significantly from the U.S. system.

The Two Germanies

Both West Germany and East Germany have risen from the ashes of World War II to join the ranks of the world's ten leading industrial nations. And althought their educational systems are very different from each other and from the U.S.'s, both are designed to provide for their nation's industrial manpower needs, according to an analysis by Margrete Siebert Klein, a program officer in the science education directorate of the National Science Foundation.

Education in East Germany was transformed after World War II from an elitist system, which favored the children of the upper classes, to a system of equal education for all, Ms. Klein said. Its goal is to aid in the development of the national economy.

And since the nation is poorly suited for agriculture and has few energy resources, the economy must rely on industrial export, which requires a steady supply of technologically trained personnel, she said.

All children attend the "10-Year General Polytechnical Secondary School."

After that, 80 percent continue for an additional two years of vocational training; 5 percent begin three years of combined vocational and academic schooling; more than 10 percent attend two more years of academic school to prepare for the universities.

It is the "polytechnical approach," however, that is the most distinctive aspect of compulsory education in East Germany and other Communist nations, Ms. Klein said. "The essence of this approach is that education is made relevant through an all-encompassing effort aimed at relating practical experience to theoretical learning," she said.

Mathematics is taught daily throughout the 10-year program; science is taught through a "spiral" curriculum, in which instruction in a subject begins in the primary grades and progresses to increasingly complex ideas in the later grades, Ms. Klein said. "There is a continual reinforcement of science learning through the spiral curriculum," she added.

The polytechnical approach, which is based on "Marxist-Leninist theory," Ms. Klein said, does more than emphasize science, however. It also relates the industrial process to science, and "gives children a positive orientation toward labor," she said.

Beginning in grade seven, students spend one day each week in classes taught at a local factory. There, they acquire an understanding of the nation's major industries, and a basic "pre-vocational" education. It also helps them to develop "realistic expectations about adult life," Ms. Klein said.

Polytechnical instruction, she said, is not the same as U.S. vocational education.

Education Chosen

By contrast, she said, schooling in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) has retained many aspects of the pre-World War II system. A uniform education is provided only for the first four years--soon to be increased to the first six years--after which students and their parents must choose the type of secondary school that the child will attend. This selection, in effect, decides a child's future economic and social status, Ms. Klein said.

About 50 percent of West German children go on to the "secondary modern school," where they learn practical vocational skills. Another 20 percent proceed to the "intermediate secondary school," which provides a "technically oriented curriculum" and trains the students for mid-level technical and bureaucratic careers in business, government, and industry, she said.

The "academic secondary schools," attended by about 30 percent of the students, cover grades 5 through 13. Students in these schools prepare for the national university entrance exam.

Science education in West Germany varies after grade four, depending on which type of secondary school the student chooses; vocational students are taught more practical science, while students who expect to attend a university receive a more theoretical grounding.

In all three kinds of schools, however, the amount of instruction in the sciences increases between grades 6 and 10, according to Ms. Klein's research.

Mathematics is required for the first nine years of school, regardless of the type of secondary school the student selects.

In West Germany, about one-fourth of the total school curriculum is devoted to the natural sciences, mathematics, and technical instruction. In East Germany, more than half the total curriculum is devoted to these subjects, Ms. Klein said.

West German teenagers spend about one-third more time learning about science than do their U.S. counterparts. In both East and West Germany, students attend school for approximately 210 days per year.

All of the symposium panelists emphasized that qualitative, as well as quantitative, differences in the three nations' educational systems make it unsafe to draw direct conclusions from the comparisons.

But, Mr. Lipson argued, the evidence suggests that Japan and East Germany--as well as the ussr--are far ahead of the U.S. in the science education of their citizens. This is less true of West Germany, he said.

Only Japan, however, is seriously threatening the U.S. economically, he said. And only in Japan, he said, do the leaders "seem to have a vision that is matched to the reality of what is happening and what is possible."

Vol. 01, Issue 17

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