Monthly Archives: February 2012

Obsessing about Finland

Does the (success of) the Finnish education system have any relevance for Japan?

The degree to which some of my interlocutors in Japan obsess about Finland and see Finnish education as a panacea for all that is wrong (presumably, but see my argument for the central importance of perceptions) with Japanese education has puzzled me for some time. The somewhat less urgent interest in Singapore falls in the same category, I think.

Now, Keita Takayama who has been doing some terrific work on the place of Japanese education in a comparative and global context, makes the case that the reference nation status of Finland (and the lack of such status for E Asian education systems that perform equally well in PISA and similar comparisons) is due a) to the proximity of Finnish policies to OECD precepts, and b) to Finnish pre-PISA status as a “tabula rasa” among education systems that is not burdened by any of the preconceptions about E Asian education systems. Takayama makes this case in an Asia Pacific Memo on February 16, 2012.

Takayama makes his case very succinctly, but Finland’s status as a reference nation has come up in N American debates as well.

See for example:

If I were to start from the premise that there are things about Japanese education that could use reform, what countries would I look to? Or, what countries might I not look to?

I do think that education systems vary significantly by scale. According to Eurostat, the total number of primary and secondary students in Finland is about 1.2 mio. Japan’s comparable figure is 18 mio. This reflects the ratio of the two populations with about 5.3 mio Finns in 2010 and 127 mio Japanese. Clearly, an education system that is fifteen times as large in terms of the number of students enrolled involves different complexities than a smaller counterpart. That is not to say that there aren’t aspects of Finnish education that are worth examining in considering reforms for Japan, I’m just not convinced that Finland is the most relevant example in this regard.

Why not pick more proximate comparators? While South Korea is not even half as populous as Japan its education system operates on a scale that is much closer to Japan. Likewise France which would be an example of an education system that has some structural similarities (high degree of centralization, for example) and operates on a similar scale, though a comparison between Japan and France on comparative educational achievement would likely lead to a large-scale visitation movement from France to Japan, not the other way around.

What about Canada? Again, not quite on the population scale of Japan, but similar success to Japan…

I see the interest in Finland as primarily a faddish one will raise some questions that are wonderful raise about education elsewhere (including in all the countries mentioned in the above), but will not provide panacea.


Reflecting on Tohoku Trip

If you follow me on twitter you know that I recently spent some days in Tohoku  with the intent of looking at post-disaster recovery from the perspective of juku as a small service-oriented business. I am now mulling over some of my observations from this trip in preparation for a March 15 presentation in a workshop organized by my colleague David Edgington at UBC.

During my visit, I was able to meet with 1o juku operators in the region, from Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures to Fukushima.

Here is a loose list of some of the things I will talk about:

  • in terms of the situation that juku find themselves in, the clearly most significant determinant of this situation is whether the operator has access to a teaching space, i.e. whether his/her home/teaching space had been destroyed
  • differences in the impact of the triple disaster by geographic zones:
    • coastal regions: tsunami impact severe, but it largely ends at where ever the water rose to
    • inland: some damage to buildings, but only sporadic
    • Fukushima: radiation impact pervasive
  • relatively few juku operators have abandoned the business
  • while economic opportunities were limited in the country-side pre-disaster, even rural Tohoku was not in as dire a situation (in terms of economic decline, out-migration) as I’ve seen in Shimane Prefecture, for example
  • while there were many casual throughout the region, the number of children who perished was limited and there are also many families who were not impacted materially to any great extent. This has meant that for many juku, business is down (in terms of the number of children taught), but not dramatically so
  • juku are eligible for reconstruction funds as small businesses and these public monies are appropriate to the reconstruction needs of a small service business
  • there is clearly a disaster bubble (震災バブル) in progress, evidence of which could be seen in the many (truck) traffic jams, busy eating establishments, and reflections by locals
  • while the physical clean-up continues apace and the situation for small business seems to be normalizing, there is massive human suffering in evidence all around
  • relief and support efforts are fraught with traps. Offer free tutoring for local students? You’re killing local business opportunities. Offer subsidies for local businesses, non-local chains, etc. will also be eligible.
  • some fascinating volunteer projects in place that are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation and are innovative in doing so
  • the operators of small juku overwhelmingly reported that their corporate cousins (大手塾) have abandoned the region

Some of these observations will come as no surprise to colleagues who have conducted research on post-disaster areas before and I am still trying to organize these thoughts in a more coherent fashion.

The センター試験 as the Linchpin of Educational Reform

An edited and more concise version of this post appeared as an editorial in the Japan Times on Friday, February 3, 2012, entitled “Stocking up on useless facts to pass an exam“.

I have been studying 学習塾 for over six years and have visited more than 50 individually-operated throughout Japan. I have been thrilled by the dedication of charismatic educators, and dismayed by the relentless focus on standardized test results and by the lack of a diversity of offerings beyond the narrow confines of the curriculum in an era of hypereducation.

Recently, thousands of students sat for the central university entrance examination (センター試験, see National Center for University Entrance Examinations). For ambitious students, the exam is merely a requirement to check off on their way to the entrance examinations for specific fields of study that follow later. For others, the exam is a convenient way to avoid multiple examinations if they are not opting for entrance to university via the increasingly common recommendation route (推薦). The exam is one of the ultimate goals that supplementary education through primary and secondary schooling focuses on.

When I read the exam questions that were reprinted in newspapers last week, I felt great dismay and a concern for Japan’s future. Despite the tremendous resources that the state, students, and parents invest in education, the linchpin of the education system tests knowledge that I – as a university professor – am not looking for in my students and that is unlikely to serve the Japanese nation and Japanese businesses in the postindustrial era.

Yes, for a student who will go on to a doctorate in literature, it is important to know whether Erasmus wrote before or after Cervantes and Petrarch (Q9 in the World History B portion of this year’s test). But this knowledge is only relevant in rare circumstances and does not speak to any kind of skill. The very nature of the exam – short answers selected from a list of options – pushes the education system towards a pursuit of only variously useful factual knowledge that is rarely linked to any communication and analysis skills. It is one of the great strengths of juku that they seem to prepare students well for this kind of exam. This may also be at the root of the consistently high ranking of Japanese students in international comparisons of educational achievement like PISA.

To make education more relevant to the skills of the 21st century, the core of its content has to be reformed. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) should initiate an experiment with a limited essay format that requires students in social studies’ subjects, Japanese, and English to provide an analysis of a topic discussed in a short reading or through the presentation of specific data. This experiment should be announced ahead of its implementation initially without an impact on students’ results in the first two years.

During this period of experimentation, MEXT and the National Center for University Entrance Examinations might also consider various options to provide the labour to mark essays, a process that is highly labour intensive, even for a short essay. Given the number of out-of-work PhDs, perhaps there could be a system of fellowships at participating universities that required fellows to participate in the marking of the central examination. It should be noted that many universities already provide the labour to grade the university-specific entrance examinations that come after the central exam, and these often include essay formats.

After some tweaking of the essay format, this critical thinking skills portion of the exam could be gradually expanded to take its place alongside the current focus on knowledge acquisition. The English portion of the exam should be shifted from testing arcane grammatical knowledge (受験英語) to an emphasis on communication paralleling the introduction of an essay format. With a long-term plan in hand, current elementary students could be told that the central exam will have changed by the time they will sit for it and this will allow them, parents, teachers and even juku teachers to adjust their teaching methods accordingly.

Through such a gradual transition, the central exam as the linchpin of an exam-oriented Japanese educational system could be transformed from its current role as an enforcer of test-taking English, arcane knowledge, and cramming strategies into a meaningful test of relevant skills and knowledge.