The Japanese Curriculum

1992 – 2003






Sam Bennett

University of Georgia



Evaluating the Curriculum Changes in Japan

An Outline of the Educational System

¯   Elementary school is grades one through six, with topics similar to the American and European system.

¯   Lower secondary schools are grades seven through nine. Students begin their preparation to get into the better high schools.

¯   In grades seven through nine, students work on algebra and geometry.  Students move into different high schools, based on 9th grade exam scores. These scores serve as a placement procedure.  Prior to 10th grade, students receive essentially the same curriculum.

¯   In secondary school, six math courses are offered—1,2,3 and A, B, C.  Students take 1 and A their 10th grade, 1 on three days, A on two, etc.  Calculus begins in Math 2, with limits and derivatives.  Students graduate from secondary school, many with integral calculus completed.

¯   College entrance exams are of singular importance. Students often attend special schools called juku. These schools meet after regular school hours, sometimes until 10 or 11p. .

¯   Mumbusho, the Ministry of Education, administers a uniform entrance exam, Each university administers its own secondary entrance exam. The secondary exam is given more weight at more prestigious universities



The Initiation of Change

¯   The backdrop of the initial changes in 1977 was a media-fueled concern about children in society. Mombusho revised curriculum, reduced the hours of subjects, suggested the importance of child-centered teaching and learning.  

¯   In 1989, this trend continued, with a phased introduction of a five-day school: one Saturday off per month in 1992,two Saturdays off in 1995, and finally all Saturdays off by 2002.  Emphasized child-initiated motivation, thinking skills, and the childÕs interest. Teacher poses a problem, and children discover the concepts behind the problem. In addition, a new subject, was introduced into the first and second grades, replacing science and social studies. 

¯   The curriculum revisions of 1998, implemented in 2002 included an integrated study period introduced into the third through six grades up to secondary school. Primary change initiated in 1998 was a thirty percent Òcarefully selected Òreduction in curriculum content.




The Engine of Curriculum Change:  Lesson Research

¯   The phenomenon known as Lesson Study, Lesson Research  first appeared in American research journals in 1991.  As part of this process, a group of teachers prepare a lesson and the lesson is taught in a real classroom, with numerous observers. After the presentation, the presenting teachers discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson, then the group of observers ask questions, make comments, and provide critiques, and in most sessions an invited guest, a Òsignificant otherÓ sometimes makes the final comments and closes the session.      

¯   The origins of Lesson Study in Japan are somewhat obscure.  Catherine Lewis reported that some Japanese teachers thought many of their science teaching techniques came from the United States.  Perhaps these lessons came from U.S. model programs.

¯   One noted and quoted Japanese historian, Masami Isoda, has made the statement that this practice has been going on for over 200 years in Japan. 

¯   In all likelihood, the practice is rooted in the business and science sectors of Japan, in what is now known as quality control.  In 1950, J. Edwards Deming was invited to teach executives and engineers about the methods of quality control.  Japanese companies quickly adopted these practices.  These firms carved out large sectors in international product markets. 

¯   Although the Lesson Study connections to quality control are rarely, if at all, mentioned in educational literature, descriptions of Lesson Study presented in international cooperative efforts have stated that this device (Lesson Study) is based on the principle of ÒPlan-Do-SeeÓ.This phrase is one of the most influential of DemingÕs teachings, called theÒPlan-Do-Check ActionÓ cycle in some circles in Japan

¯   In Japan, each individual school has its Òwithin-school research lessonÓ, with practically no exceptions.There are also public research lessons, the most famous of these being the research lessons conducted at national elementary schools, the approximately 75 public schools where new educational approaches are experimented with.  As lessons are presented, dozens of teachers crowd the classroom, watching and evaluating. In one survey of teachers in 35 different schools, teachers stated they had seen a total of about 10 research lessons per year.

¯   There are several ways in which research lessons could contribute to instructional improvement.  One, the observing teachers were able to view other teachers in action. They see how other teachers deal with problems common to classrooms.  Teachers gain when they make presentations: they receive meaningful criticism.  Observers learn to be attentive to students.  Observers get a chance to witness new content and new approaches. Different views of teaching collide with each other in the discussions.  This produces reflective thought among teaching participants.  These Òmultiple educational laboratoriesÓ end up shaping the curriculum.Teachers are honored.



The Internal (Japanese) Perspective of Curriculum Evaluation

¯   How does one evaluate a curriculum change? First, did the changes desired actually occur? Secondly, were these changes a positive step? 

¯   One desire of the Ministry of Education, in 1989, and even back in 1977, was that excess pressure should be taken off of Japanese students, so that the students could cultivate a Òzest for living and learningÓ

¯   A second desire was a change in the style of teaching in Japanese classrooms, a more enticing educational presentation, attracting studentsÕ curiosity, away from what was considered the traditional Japanese methods of rote, teacher-initiated instruction.

¯   TraditionalistsÕ Perspective

¯   This change in educational philosophy received criticism from groups of scientists and professionals.  Their evaluation of the curriculum change:  not good.

¯   Diligence and hard work were two tenets of Japanese society. Critics saw two results of the curriculum changes of 1989: a lessening of studentsÕ personal study time and a decline in academic achievement. 

¯   What tools did these critics use to evaluate the results of curriculum changes?  It should have been clear that curriculum changes and the move from 6-day schools to 5-day schools was going to result in a lessening of studentsÕ study time.  That, after all, was the point. 

¯   Critics of the MinistryÕs curriculum pointed to TIMSS data, which indicated that Japanese students studied less at home than the average of the nations participating in the study.  Data-based arguments began appearing:  Nishimura conducted several math tests on college students, and published ÒCollege Students Who Cannot Solve Calculations With FractionsÓ.  Surveys of professors revealed that many thought that achievement levels had declined  Although some longitudinal studies reported significant declines, most did not. 

¯   Many U.S. observers considered this Japanese achievement crisis debate a Òtempest in a teapotÓ.  In the 1980Õs in the United States, there were clear, unequivocal indicators that studentsÕ achievement was declining: there was evidence of decline in longitudinal studies in the SATÕs and low rankings on international tests.



Perspectives of Some Interested Parties

¯   Juku, sometimes known as cram schools, are difficult for outsiders to understand.  There is no equivalent structure in America.

¯   Juku is a private after-school study supplementary for students, primarily designed primarily to help students prepare for college examinations and stay up in their regular school studies.   In both 1989 and 2001, 29% of elementary students and 50% of the junior high students surveyed attended juku (Tsuneyoshi, 2004). These percentages increase in high school, as preparation intensifies for university admission tests.  This supplemental education is an important aspect of learning in Japan, a Òhidden curriculumÓ. 

¯   Parents were far more concerned about the university entrance tests than they were the results of international tests.  The Ministry had no control of the university and its entrance exams. Many private schools continue to offer 6-day schools. Juku prospered.



Supporters of Curriculum Change and Their Perspective

¯   First International Math Study (FIMS) in early 60Õs (12 nations). 1.Japan

¯   Second International Math Study (SIMS), published in1987

¯   13-year olds 1.Japan. ÉÉ12. U.S out of 15 nations

¯   End of Secondary School:  1. Japan 2. Hong KongÉÉ14. U.S out of 15 nations

¯   Supporters of the MinistryÕs Curriculum Changes pointed primarily to the TIMSS data as an evaluation tool for the new curriculum.  TIMSS is an international test and survey of fourth grade and eighth grade students of approximately 50 countries, students tested in 1995, 1999, and 2003.

¯   Although Japanese fourth graders performance in math and science declined from 1995 to 2003, they scored in the top three in 2003—and Japan was by far the most populated of these three countries . TIMSS did not test fourth graders in 1999.

¯   The Japanese eighth graders tested were in the top five countries in both math and science in 1995, in 1999, and in 2003. The news could be framed positively: Japanese elementary and lower secondary students held their own internationally as the curriculum changed.

¯   A comparative videotape analysis of the 1995 TIMSS study  pointed to the high quality of Japanese math classrooms.  The TIMSS findings suggest that JapaneseÉlessons more often resembled the recommendations of experts and the U.S. reform movement. The analysis of the videotape lessons suggested that it was the Japanese math lessons that stressed problem-solving skills the most and encouraged active learning rather than passive learning.

¯   PISA Ôs tests are administered to 15-year olds.  The PISA results showed that Japanese students were in the top testing group in both math and sciences.  In addition, in the survey part of PISA, results indicated that Japanese children were expressing positive attitudes about their classrooms.  There was good morale and good attendance.  Furthermore, gaps between the scores of low and high SES students were small. The Ministry was excited about the international testing results, but even more excited about the positive classroom indicators.