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2008年12月11日 (木)



--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 10(IHT/Asahi: December 11,2008)

EDITORIAL: Educating the children


Japan's fourth-year elementary school and second-year junior high school students placed third to fifth in the world in mathematics and science last year, according to the just-released results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2007. The survey is conducted every four years by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

The Japanese students' rankings in both subjects were much the same as in 2003, while their average test scores were either on par with or slightly better than four years before.



The 2003 results were worse than those in preceding surveys. This alarmed many educators in Japan at the time, as a similar survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2003 had also shown a decline in the academic performance of Japanese students.


The 2007 results are being viewed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology as an indication that the decline has been halted. True, the children did slightly better in math this time. However, according to an OECD survey that immediately preceded the TIMSS 2007 survey, Japan slid in international rankings in problem-solving abilities in both mathematics and science.


The situation certainly does not warrant premature optimism.


In fact, instead of reacting to every rise and fall in numbers, we should be worrying about something much more serious--the lack of interest in studying among Japanese children today. It is most disturbing that the percentage of Japanese middle school students who said they "enjoy studying" hit a record-low level in the 2007 survey.


Let us recall these words of Toshihide Maskawa, a recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics: "(Japan's) school entrance examination system, with its heavy emphasis on multiple-choice questions, is eroding the intellectual curiosity everyone is born with. I call this education pollution."



What can we do about this? The best solution by far is to change the way classes are taught. Among all the students that took the OECD test worldwide, the number of Japanese students who said their science classes were taught in a way that stimulated their curiosity was one of the smallest.



Unlike in the past, videogames, cellphones and all sorts of other distractions outside the classroom are stimulating kids' interest. Given this reality, we must make classes more appealing to children if we are to draw out and cultivate their intellectual curiosity.


Unfortunately, however, teachers today are kept busy with paperwork, student guidance and other duties beyond classroom teaching. Just telling teachers to work harder is no way to solve the problem.


A survey of middle school science teachers, conducted this year by the National Institute for Educational Policy Research and others, revealed the teachers' dilemma: While interesting and well-planned lessons are gradually becoming more common, there are simply not enough classroom hours for observation projects and lab experiments.


The survey also found a strong demand from younger teachers for more information on good teaching materials and instruction methods.


These teachers' voices must be heard. Steps should be urgently taken to enable teachers to focus more on researching ideal teaching materials and methods and to share information on desirable classes with their peers.


As pointed out by Maskawa, the country's school entrance exam system needs to be reformed. The general evaluation of Japanese students is that they know their lessons but are not good at applying their knowledge, making them poor problem-solvers when faced with an unfamiliar question.


There is no doubt that one of the causes of their deficiency lies in the entrance exam system, which overemphasizes memorization by rote.


The education ministry keeps harping on the need to cultivate ikiru chikara, which can be translated into something like "the ability to determine one's own life." There is certainly a lot to be done.


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