JAPANESE SCHOOLS HAVE a mixed reputation among American educators. On one hand, there is a certain admiration based on the fact that Japanese students consistently place first in international comparisons, especially in mathematics and science, far ahead of American students. On the other, it is widely believed that their academic success relies almost exclusively on rote memory and a rigid curriculum. Many American educators think that the Japanese have purchased achievement by squelching individuality and creativity.
The Japanese have encouraged a degree of smugness among Americans by their own humility. During the past two years, teams of Japanese educators have been touring American schools, eager to learn how we encourage the development of unusually gifted children. In addition, as I discovered in a recent trip to Japan, their educational leaders typically downplay their remarkable record of academic achievement and focus instead on their problems, such as “school violence.” (In fact, their discipline problems pale in comparison to ours; they worry about children who “bully the weak,” while we worry about children who assault or kill others.)
Many scholars have concluded that there is a causal link between the success of the Japanese economy and the extraordinary effectiveness of the Japanese educational system. The Japanese work force is reputed to be the most literate and skilled in the world. Merry White of Harvard wrote last year that “any worker on the factory floor can be expected to understand statistical material, work from complex graphs and charts, and perform sophisticated mathematical operations.”
The average high school graduate in Japan is said to be as well educated as the average college graduate in the United States. Our high school graduation rate is about 75 percent; theirs is 90 percent. Their achievement even at the elementary level is striking: a study last year by Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan compared American and Asian children learning mathematics; by fifth grade, the worst Japanese class in the study was ahead of the best American class.
How do they do it? It’s easy enough to identify the factors that cannot be transferred to American soil. Japan is culturally and racially homogeneous; it does not have large numbers of immigrant and minority children to educate as we do. Yet it would be dismal if American educators were to conclude that a pluralistic society cannot educate all children. Surely education is more complicated when children come from diverse cultural backgrounds, but experience has repeatedly shown that children from immigrant and minority families are capable of learning.
JAPAN has a culture that prizes education. Although Japanese expenditure for education is about the same as ours, respect for education as a positive good permeates Japanese life. Japanese mothers are world-famous for stressing, reinforcing, and demanding good education. Harold Stevenson found in his cross-cultural study that whereas Japanese parents are quite critical of the quality of their schools, even when they are producing outstanding results, American parents tend to be satisfied even when their children’s schools are ineffectual.
Not only do the Japanese believe in education as a route to individual and social advancement, they believe that disciplined effort, hard work, brings rewards. Japanese children go to school for 240 days a year (compared to 180 days here), including Saturday mornings. The average Japanese student does two hours per day of homework, compared to half an hour for the average American student.
Perhaps the least attractive feature of the Japanese system is its nearly obsessive emphasis on the national college-entrance examination. Competition to enter the most prestigious universities is fierce and depends almost entirely on the national examination. Students attend cram schools to prepare, and some take the examination year after year in hope of making it into the right university.
Most of the bad press that Japanese education receives in this country is caused by the negative features of what is known in Japan as “examination hell.” Some Japanese educators attribute the nation’s high rate of youth suicide to intense pressure by parents, peers, and teachers to get into the right college. There is nothing comparable to “examination hell” in the United States, nor is there likely to be. Good students here choose among many outstanding institutions, both private and public (some of which are short of students); and admission to college depends on many factors (recommendations, extracurricular activities, high-school grades), not a single exam.
THE Japanese school system has been influenced by us in the past, and we should not be reluctant to learn from their practices. The most important principle in Japanese education is that all children should receive education of the highest quality. Every year, from grades one through nine, all Japanese children study language and literature, social studies, mathematics, science, art, music, physical education, and moral education. During this period, there are few, if any, electives. Children begin a foreign language in the seventh grade (usually English), and most continue to study it for six years.
Children are not divided into ability groups, or placed in curricular tracks like ours (academic, vocational, general). There is a national curriculum, defined in detail by the Ministry of Education. In every subject, the curriculum is carefully sequenced, like a series of building blocks. What is learned in first grade provides the foundation for what is learned in second grade, and so on through the grades. According to the school principals I talked to, slow learners get extra attention from teachers, both during the school day and after school as well.
To an American observer, accustomed to the variations and idiosyncratic practices among our 15,000 school districts, the Japanese approach seems at first startling. But the initial impression that the curriculum is rigid and inflexible is misleading. The Japanese appear to have perfected the idea of a developmental curriculum, carefully tied to the interests and intellectual capacity of children; we sometimes call it “mastery learning.” Nothing is left to chance, although a great deal is left to the teacher’s ingenuity and skill.
In science, for example, the emphasis is not on rote memory, but on observation, experimentation, field trips, and direct experience. In first and second grades, children raise plants and animals; observe the physical principles of magnetism, shadows, and the weather; and perform simple experiments with toys, light bulbs, and other everyday objects. From third grade on, the science curriculum centers on three topics: “living things and their environment”; “matter and energy”; and “the earth and the universe.”
In contrast to this well-planned curriculum, which stresses understanding and inquiry and imparts a solid foundation of scientific knowledge, many of our students have little or no science in the elementary years. In American elementary schools, the availability of science depends on whether there is a specialist available and on whether the regular teacher has any science background. Studies have shown that most are not comfortable teaching science.
The same attitude can be found in Japan’s teaching of art and music, which are treated as basic subjects, required for all students throughout their years of compulsory education. In music, students at every grade level learn to listen and to perform. The object is to encourage a love for music, or as the first-grade curriculum puts it, “to make life bright and pleasant through musical experience.” By the end of sixth grade, every student plays at least two instruments. Beginning in the second grade, children learn to read music. I observed a sixth-grade class where the children were listening to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony and writing its theme in musical notation. In the United States, I would expect to see such a class in a college-level music course or in a magnet school for the musically gifted, but not in an ordinary public school.
Art too is a basic, not a “frill.” Learning to produce beautiful things for use and ornamentation and learning how to look at an object and understand its beauty are integral to every child’s education. Children draw, paint, sculpt, and carve. They are encouraged to express their ideas and feelings about their productions. Developing an aesthetic sense appears to be as much a part of the curriculum as learning about nature.