Japan’s Rise and Fall and Subsequent Rise in Global Education Rankings: An Education System for the 21st Century Built on Traditional Values

Chi-Toku-Tai (知・徳・体)*  Japan recovered international achievement rankings and continues to improve. The reforms to the education system starting in 1998 have paid off.  A strong education system based on selecting only the best for teaching and where teaching licenses must be renewed every 10 years serves as a model for other countries wishing to prepare their students for the future of work.

Back in the 1960s, when it was first discovered that the Japanese education system excelled, it was the lesson study program aspect that first caught the attention of other countries.  Under the lesson study practice teachers research instructional materials together and observe one another’s teaching during open classes.  This led to interest in Japanese textbooks, which are the result of lesson study.  For example, in Japan math textbooks are designed to teach students concepts by having them think on their own and discuss with one another.

All teachers in Japan must be certified.  Also, they must be re-certified to teach every 10 years.

A series of reforms have been pursued, just about every ten years.  The focus of the current curriculum reform is competencies.

The excellent Japanese education system suffered a “PISA shock” in 2003 and again in 2006.  That is, test scores, especially for reading, plummeted. This led to a new series of reforms. The curriculum reform (or as it is known, the course of study) is responsible for the subsequent improvement in all subjects in the international tests.

A day in the life of an elementary school student in Japan

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It was the Zest for Life curriculum reform of 1998 (as described by Kai-ming Cheng in Advancing 21st Century Competencies in East Asian Education Systems) that set the stage for subsequent reforms.  Zest for Life introduced a relaxing of the heavy content load of the teaching curriculum.  It is a Japanese conception of 21st century competencies using traditional cultural factors dating back to the Meiji restoration with a return to chi-toku-tai (intellectual, moral and physical dimensions). (See also: Advancing 21st Century Competencies in Japan).

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After the PISA shock episode, the 2008 revision was put in place.  It confirmed the Zest for Life concept, but there was no further content reduction.  Rather, there was increased focus on knowledge, but also opportunities for students to improve their ability to think and to express themselves.  The response to the decrease in scores included the establishment of working groups, the production of teacher guides, the introduction of a national assessment which also emphasized the application of knowledge (and the publication of results at the prefecture level).

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The upshot was a big reading recovery in PISA 2012 and high achievement on problem-solving dimensions. Integrated learning modules were introduced.  These have been recognized by the OECD for their contribution to subsequent learning improvements, though not all students would have studied under that system by 2012. Nevertheless, integrated learning was a change to the curriculum to include an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and international relations. The integrated learning courses are a new subject, intended to give more flexibility to schools in teaching these skills and for designing them locally to meet the needs of their own students.

EDU-PORT Japan is a public-private collaborative platform of government ministries, universities and private companies established in 2016 to disseminate Japanese-style education. They are already working in Thailand, Nepal, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Myanmar, Mongolia, UAE, Egypt, Peru, Brazil, Malaysia, Brunei, Rwanda, Malawi, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.

Since 1965 Japan has remained at the top of the international rankings.  Despite the “PISA shock” of 2003, scores have remained high.  In fact, of the countries that have consistently participated in international assessments from the beginning, Japan was and continues to be the top performer.

Harmonized Primary and Secondary School Math, Reading and Science Outcomes

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Source: Altinok, Angrist and Patrinos 2018

Currently, there are ongoing curriculum revisions being implemented since 2016.  The next step would be to reform the examinations system, but while some universities are revising admissions policy, it will be a challenging reform indeed.

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*Intellectual-moral-physical, or solid academic ability, richness in mind, and sound body.

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Thanks to the following for offering their views during my trip to Japan, February 28-March 3, 2018: Kazuaki Kawabata, Kiyoji Ichikawa, Akiko Ono, Maki Tsuchida, Ishihara Shinichi, Naoki Umemiya, Ezaki Chie, Kozuka Eiji, Morimoto Shunsuke, Keiichi Ogawa, Yoshiko Koda.

Categories early reading, Human capital, PISA, Returns to education, TIMSSTags

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