September 19, 2019

Teaching: A World View

Overworked: Teaching in Japan

Mike Vogel | 5/28/2019

Beyond memorization

Japan sees a need to reform its teaching profession. At what would seem to be the height of its educational success, Japan last year brought in an OECD panel for advice on how to move from producing graduates skilled at soaking up and regurgitating knowledge to graduates adept at critical thinking and problem-solving, something at which Japanese students don’t score well. In one international measure of problem-solving and learning to learn, U.S. students come in sixth among 34 developed and developing countries; Japan comes in last. The hurdle for Japan in changing that statistic is that only 16% of Japan’s teachers told researchers they feel equipped to teach critical thinking skills to their students. Globally, 80% feel up to it.

Japan’s education ministry has articulated a need for teachers to shift how they teach and how teachers are chosen and trained. Teachers, however, already report in assessments that their existing duties leave them little time for learning new ways themselves.

The face of Japan’s future teachers might be Yuko Ohira, who taught for seven years — she’s been on maternity leave since August 2017 — at a progressive private junior and senior high school in Toyko. After disillusioning years as a student, Ohira became interested in teaching after a teacher encouraged her to try new things and she went on a cultural visit to China. She came back on a mission to create a “peaceful and sustainable society” and now enjoys making a “positive change” in students.

One thing she dislikes: Grading. She teaches English and says the tests don’t serve students who give great presentations and think creatively but do poorly on tests. It makes them feel “inferior,” she says. “English lessons should be a great opportunity where students can know global issues and exchange ideas, but in many schools students are just forced to memorize vocabulary and grammatical rules,” she says. “I believe it is important to nurture students who are aware of social problems and can take actions locally and globally.”

Hoping to be an agent of change, Ohira leaves later this year to study for a master’s in New Zealand, a country with a reputation for teaching creative and critical thinking.

Tags: Education, Feature, Teaching: A World View

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