A nation that places traditional emphasis on the value of education, Japan is home to one of the most stressful and unyielding secondary educations systems in the world. Even after phasing out the six day school week, the country boasts one of the longest, if not the longest school year of any developed country.
Participation in clubs and activities is mandatory, and many students attend cram schools after school in preparation for either upper secondary or university entrance exams. Mountains of homework are oftentimes assigned and completed over holidays, while the curriculum is leaps and bounds ahead of their American or European equivalent taught the same year (especially so in the maths and sciences). A typical student from North America would be traumatized past the point of no return under the pressure to perform, let alone function, in the secondary school system in the Land of the Rising Sun.
For the Japanese and outsiders alike, the years spent in high school in Japan can be likened to sticking one’s head in a pressure cooker. You’d be surprised to find out that the current incarnation of secondary education in Japan is a watered – down form of the system that preceded it.
In response to the extraordinary amount of stress experienced by students (and the burden of stress – related suicides that the system itself carried), Japan changed the rules ten years ago and toyed with the idea of an American – style system that favoured independent thought. Thoughts eventually translated into action, and the pressure-free system was born. Textbooks were slashed. School hours were cut. The amount of homework, though still considerable, was reduced. Creativity and application of knowledge, not rote memorization, became the increasing focus in many schools.
The results have been nothing short of a disaster. Following the implementation of the new, more carefree system, Japan’s ranking in education dropped like a rock. In 1995, junior high students participated in a test conducted by the OECD. In that study, Japan placed third in mathematics and science – all very impressive. Since then, however, Japan’s ranking in the two fields fell to 8th and 5th place respectively after the same test was conducted in 2009, and the country was beaten in overall ranking by the likes of South Korea, Hong Kong, China and Singapore, among several others.
Shocked by its education system’s fall from grace, Japan is looking to make a return to prominence in education through the resurrection of the old. The Ministry of Education recently approved a move that would see textbooks fattened, school hours lengthened and English as a subject introduced earlier on. It is difficult to see, however, how better results can be achieved through such measures, all while avoiding students’ stress – related issues that led to reform to start with. How, then, can Japan achieve independent thought, a lower level of stress and a high quality of education all in the same system?
Ask the Finnish.
Though its education system is paradoxical to Japan’s in every conceivable way, Finland beat the East Asian nation in ranking third overall in the OECD’s test of junior high school students. It would be difficult for the average Japanese (or average East Asian, for that matter) to understand why. According to the OECD, the Finnish spend the least amount of time in school and begin their schooling a full two years later than their peers in the rest of the world. Mention cram schools to the average Finn and he will look at you in utter bewilderment. There is only one (yes, one) mandatory exam, taken at the end of one’s secondary schooling. In contrast to many of the equally high ranking countries in East Asia (Japan included), Finland’s education system seems to be too relaxed and too unorthodox to perform well on any standardized test – yet it does.
The key, the Finns say, lies in balance and support from all parts of the community. Streaming, or sorting students into classes according to academic ability, for instance, is practically unheard of. Additional teachers are hired as needed to help students struggling in various subjects. To reduce the amount of stress experienced by students, the Finnish education system combines both the primary and secondary education systems into one, in turn forging stronger bonds between teacher and student. The Finnish government invests heavily in ensuring the quality of its teachers, and doles out large amounts of state support for teachers seeking a postgraduate education. These factors, among many others, have nurtured an environment inclined towards excellence in learning, one that has proven to be more effective than the heavy handed approach taken by the Japanese and others in the Asia – Pacific region.
Though fattening its textbooks and lengthening the school day may lead to an incremental increase in Japan’s overall score, the system as a whole needs to be overhauled if Japan wishes to resolve the problems its students continue to face. Imitating the Finns, perhaps, may be a good place to start.