Japan and test

Japan and its standardized test-based education system

By Kevin R. Burns

For some positives in Japanese education, one need look no further than the local kindergarten or the local elementary school. For everything other than English education, they are doing a good to great job of education the children of Japan. Classes are creative, teachers are caring, on the whole, and students are happy and learning.

Were the whole education system to be like this from kindergarten to the end of university, the Japanese people would be happier, healthier and more productive, both in GDP and creative terms.

Unfortunately, this all ends at age 12. Those are the years that exam hell starts and from which students never really recover. The standardized test-based education system of Japan that starts in the junior high school years kills any kind of initiative, creativity and especially thinking outside of the box. Unfortunately, these last three are what Japan especially needs in the 21st century; perhaps Japan’s most challenging 100 years yet.

For many years now, Japan has employed this test-based education system and passing the all important tests is what educators and students, not to mention parents, are focused on. The result of all this test-taking and stress, is a nation of order takers who have trouble making decisions, let alone stating an opinion.

Don’t believe me? When you next meet a Japanese, just for fun, ask them their opinion on something. If they are able to give an opinion, then do this: ask them why? Why do they feel that way? In many cases, they will be stumped.

In spite of this standardized test hell that most Japanese find themselves in during their school years, a few would be Michelangelos manage to slip through. Most, however, have their creative thoughts stripped from them or numbed into oblivion.

Recently, one of my bright Japanese students returned from North America to once again study at his old university in Japan. He was shocked at the passivity of the students. He hadn’t realized how passive, non-responsive and void of opinions Japanese university students were.

He said that in America, he studied with students from all over the world and he enjoyed hearing and expressing his opinion with others. He couldn’t understand how the students of Japan were so passive and quiet. He expressed the desire to go back to America as soon as possible to study there. Many Japanese who have lived abroad have said the same thing.

In the news, (old) Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been dubbed “loopy” by the American press, especially du to his lack of decision-making on the Okinawa base issue. Once he made a decision, he then turned around and reneged on it, and apologized to Okinawans for his backslide. But this lack of decision-making ability is not restricted to the general populace; it occurs in all ranks of Japanese society. Hatoyama, of course, is a product of this education system.

It is not only the students who are having a difficult time; the teachers are too. Many have to take time off work due to stress, while others create a life of drudgery for their pupils. Many Japanese seem to have lost their love for education and learning once they enroll in junior high school. Indeed, too much test-taking may result in shallow learning and a negative feeling toward school.

For the future, Japan needs to ask itself: Are we creating the people we need to solve the problems of the future? If the answer is no, then this is a recipe for disaster.

Japan needs creative thinkers, people who can think outside of the box to solve the problems of immigration, an aging population, unemployment, off-shore employment, trade and, of course, the environment. However, perhaps the most pressing problem is the psychological health of the citizens.

For this latter, and the other problems mentioned above, I think there are valuable lessons to be learned in kindergarten.

Kevin Burns, formerly from Vancouver, has lived in Japan for over 20 years and owns a small chain of English schools in Japan, and teachers English at a Japanese university. He owns “How to teach English in Japan,” a website all about teaching in this very exotic and interesting part of the world.


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