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How to determine if Japan’s teachers are incompetent?

By Murray Bourne, 26 May 2007

Japan's Prime Minister Abe is enthusiastic about his education reforms. I am interested to see how this plays out, because I taught in Japan for 4 years.

In his latest email newsletter, Education makes the man, Abe writes:

Some teachers are unsuited to or incompetent at their profession. The existing system guarantees teachers their jobs for their entire life and allows them to continue teaching regardless of their aptitude. Is such a system really the right one, considering the rapid changes in the times and advances in technology?

This issue is not so straightforward. Some teachers are excellent in a limited environment, but may be totally threatened by technology, or informal classrooms (or nose rings, or tattoos or whatever). In short, teaching and learning is multi-dimensional.

Determining who is competent and who is not will be a big challenge for Monbu-kagakushō (文部科学省, Japan's Education Ministry). I personally feel the description "unsuited" (or "has become unsuited") may be a better way to put it, rather than "incompetent".

Abe goes on to say:

There is an increasing burden placed on teachers to handle non-teaching tasks such as administrative and clerical work. It must be tough for teachers to concentrate on teaching and guiding children while they are so busy. Clerical work in our schools must be processed efficiently in order to secure and increase the amount of time teachers spend in contact with their students.

Having to do mundane clerical work, rather than concentrate on teaching-related work, is a common complaint. Someone has to do the clerical stuff - so clerical people should be hired to do it!

This is also relevant to the competency issue. How can teachers improve, and maintain competency, if there is no time to do so?

Abe's closing remarks are apt:

It is my sincere wish that all children will come into contact with teachers who discover and recognize the individual talents of their students.

He is addressing a key issue in Japan, where conformity to the group has been an overriding cultural mantra for centuries. The system has required suppression of individuality, including individual skills and interests. It will be a huge change for Japanese teachers to take such an approach.

Another interesting aspect to this whole issue, which Abe (cleverly) doesn't mention much, is the strong left wing teachers unions, that have historically been anti-government. I can't imagine these unions being supportive of such reform measures.

Shinzo, your work is cut out for you.

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