Abe’s education push

By Murray Bourne, 29 Oct 2006

Abe Shinzo, the new prime minister of Japan, has continued Koizumi's weekly email magazine, providing an interesting insight into the PM's thinking.

In last week's edition, he wrote at length about the problems of Japan's education system:

At any given time or in any given country, education invariably plays a critical role in nurturing people with the vision and aspiration to build a dignified nation. As such, restrengthening the role that education plays is most important in order to nurture people who value their families, their communities and their country, and who cherish human life.

[...]

I will devote my efforts to rebuilding education, to form the backbone of Japan's next century, by expanding the floor for discussion and lending my ear to a wide range of opinions.

Abe would like to see a stronger and no doubt more nationalistic Japan. And yes, the education system is one place to achieve this. But he may have his work cut out for him as the teachers' unions are quite strong and somewhat leftist.

Bullying

He then goes on to talk about bullying:

Today, children are taking their own lives after being bullied. Children are being abused by their own parents. I am utterly shocked to hear the frequent occurrence of such incidents. How are such tragedies possible? How is it that even children with their whole future ahead of them are being abused and bullied at home and in school, the very places that should protect and nurture them? I sent [several advisors to] Fukuoka Prefecture immediately after a student committed suicide there as a result of having been bullied in school.

Japan's youth are suffering from serious identity crises (caused in part by the loss of the "jobs for life" concept) and dysfunctional families (as a result of fathers spending no time with children). In Japan, suicide is all too readily seen as a way out.

Education reform

The 17 members [of the Education Rebuilding Council] passionately spoke their views on educational reform, an area of endless debate. [...] The situation surrounding education is changing greatly, as can be seen in advances in science and technology as well as in the declining birthrate and graying of society. [...] I will make every effort to enact the bill concerning the Fundamental Law of Education to clarify the educational principles for the new era and to ensure education that will open the way to the future.

It will be interesting to watch this debate unfold. Japan does a lot of things right when it comes to education, but it still tends to be authoritarian, assessment-based (with huge emphasis put on entrance exams) and requiring rote-learning that can only be successfully achieved in juku, the after-hours cram schools that can be found all over Japan.

Some advice for Abe

Seems to me that the best agent for change in educational reform is to modify the end game. That is, if you have students running around spending every waking moment rote-learning for some (otherwise meaningless) high-stakes entrance exam, and everyone knows this causes undue stress, then change the university entrance criteria. Change the job market so that changes in the education system will follow naturally.

Change the working culture where nobody leaves at night before the boss leaves, even though the workers are just filling in time trying to look busy. Japan has slowly moved in the direction of better work-life balance, but has a long way to go.

But whatever you do, make decisions that increase the level of meaning for the learning.

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