Issues in Japanese Secondary School Education: Focusing on Cultivating Problem-Solving Abilities
According to Matsuda (2009), Japanese secondary school teachers face the following problems. First, Japan follows the National Course of Studies (NCoS) and textbooks that are authorized by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). The NCoS outlines the school education, and the textbooks are the samples of its embodiment, which implies that the designing of lessons are not very constrained. However, many teachers do not actively design lessons, and their lesson style is just an outline of a textbook. Such practices do not sufficiently focus on students’ interests and learning needs. Second, twenty-first century literacy requires creativity and problem-solving abilities as well as the utilization of information and communication technology (ICT). However, teachers still believe that the problem-solving abilities they should cultivate are those required to pass the entrance exams for upper-grade schools. Therefore, they make students memorize as much knowledge as possible and train students to apply rules and procedures to test problems. Third, changes in the goals of school education are concerned with the progress of ICT use in our society. However, teachers in Japanese schools feel that their jobs and daily lives do not require the use of ICT. Therefore, they are not interested in using ICT in their instruction or in informatics education in general. For example, the National Institute for Educational Policy Research (NIEPR) reported that the respective percentages of social studies, mathematics, and science teachers using ICT in their lessons were 17.7%, 4.8%, and 15.4% at lower secondary schools (NIEPR, 2005) and 4.5%, 3.2%, and 8.9% at upper secondary schools (NIEPR, 2007).
These problems result in low student motivation and a lack of fundamental knowledge and competency (Central Council for Education, 2008). For example, a NIEPR (2007) survey asked students’ attitudes toward each element of Mathematics I, which is recommended for 10th grade students; more than 96% of upper-secondary students were estimated to learn this subject from annual report of textbook sales (Watanabe, 2010). The results show that the percentages of students who replied “able to understand” for “equation and inequality,” “quadratic function,” and “trigonometric ratio” were 49.6%, 31.3%, and 28.7%, respectively. In addition, the percentages of students who replied that the respective concepts were “interesting” were 31.6%, 18.4%, and 19.8%. Moreover, the percentages of students who replied that these respective concepts were “useful” were only 14.0%, 6.7%, and 12.0%.
Recently, the NCoS has emphasized the importance of cultivating twenty-first century literacy. However, textbooks have not changed much because teachers tend to choose old-style texts. In addition, Japanese preservice teacher training programs for secondary schools place more emphasis on domain knowledge in each subject area than they do on pedagogical knowledge (Stern & Matsuda, 2010). Most universities in Japan have preservice teacher training courses for secondary schools, and any student can acquire a teacher’s license as long as he/she successfully completes the optional requirements for a specific teaching profession. The requirements are at least 23 credits, in addition to those in the specific subjects, which are set at about 60 to 70 credits required for graduating from departments (e.g., Japanese literature, mathematics, and physics), as well as 50 to 60 credits of cultural subjects. Moreover, the number of student teachers in preservice teacher training classes is often large—as many as 100 or more. This makes it difficult for them to engage in practical activities, exercises, or discussions. Because student teachers have few opportunities to design lesson plans in training classes, they cannot practically understand instructional design. Therefore, teachers do not have sufficient knowledge to change their lesson style appropriately, and they cannot imagine how to cultivate students’ twenty-first century literacy. Additionally, current teachers are products of entrance exam competition, so they tend to believe that the traditional lesson style is sufficient for cultivating problem-solving abilities; if their students cannot acquire such knowledge, they believe it is due to a lack of ability.
In 1999, the NCoS stated that a Period for Integrated Studies should be conducted at both primary and secondary school levels in order to cultivate problem-solving abilities (MEXT, 2009a). However, the initiative failed due to a lack of teacher competency. In many cases, learners did not perform problem-solving activities; instead, they searched and edited information from web pages and made presentations using PowerPoint. It seemed as if the teachers had no ideas about how to cultivate students’ problem-solving abilities. The NCoS stated that the objectives of the Period for Integrated Studies are not to acquire specific knowledge about the topics but to cultivate learners’ problem-solving abilities by prompting students to integrate learning outcomes from each subject area. Therefore, teachers need to identify the learning outcomes and core elements of problem-solving abilities in each subject area.