New textbooks reflect concern over student skills
(The Yomiuri Shimbun Apr. 5, 2012)
Japanese students’ poor performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has prompted the central government to drop the idea of cram-free education when devising new curriculum guidelines.
PISA, pioneered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has become a standard tool for benchmarking international standards in education. Conducted every three years, the survey examines 15-year-old students on their reading comprehension and on skills in applied mathematics and science.
Japan’s international ranking in students’ reading comprehension dropped from eighth in 2000 to 15th in 2006, fueling a sense of crisis in the world of education.
As a result, many new textbooks reflect publishers’ emphasis on what can be described as PISA-style reading comprehension.
Sanseido Publishing Co.’s textbook for Communication English I carries questions prepared by a university professor who helps devise questions for PISA surveys.
For instance, as part of a lesson on Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, students are asked, “What was Mr. Schulz’s philosophy regarding success in life? Describe your own ideas on this as well.”
“Tackling real questions will help nurture students’ ability to approach questions from different perspectives,” a Sanseido editor said.
Textbooks for Comprehensive Japanese, which has become a mandatory course to develop students’ ability to express themselves, carry many activities designed to have students express their own ideas.
For instance, students are asked to analyze charts or other statistical materials and compile their ideas, or to write a script and perform it themselves.
A textbook by Taishukan Publishing Co. carries photographs taken by astronaut Soichi Noguchi from the International Space Station, including shots titled “Tokyo night in the Golden Week holidays” and “Amazon River.”
“We designed the textbook to support PISA-style study activities, which include gleaning information from photographs,” a Taishukan editor said.
A Health and Physical Education textbook includes a lesson in which students are asked to discuss manufacturers’ sales techniques, using as study material a conceptual ad that glosses over tobacco’s health risks.
New textbooks aim to meet students’ needs (Yomiuri Shimbun Apr. 5, 2012)
Jun Ishikawa, Masahiro Ishii and Sachiko Asakuno
High school textbooks designed with revised curriculum guidelines in mind are aimed at meeting the needs of students with gaps in their learning that emerged under the so-called cram-free education policy, observers said.
The revised guidelines have increased the amount of material students must learn in English, mathematics and science.
Publishers have produced an array of different levels of textbooks, with some starting from such basics as how to write the alphabet, while others contain university-level material.
“Many teachers will be surprised when they take a look at the new textbooks,” said a textbook publishing company employee involved in producing English textbooks.
Under the revised curriculum guidelines, the number of English words high school students should learn over three years has increased to 1,800, 500 more than the number required under the current guidelines. The new level is on par with that of three decades ago.
“It used to be sufficient for teachers to introduce 10 new words per lesson,” he said. “However, they’ll now have to introduce 15 to 20 new words. They’ll have to change their approach to using textbooks [which feature much more material].”
Some English textbooks feature almost no Japanese explanations, as the revised curriculum guidelines stipulate that English lessons in principle should be conducted only in English.
At Nishi High School, a Tokyo metropolitan government-run school in Suginami Ward, teachers have already adopted the suggested teaching approach, giving English lessons without Japanese support in some cases.
The school, most from which students will attempt to pass entrance exams for higher education, gives them an assignment to read at least five English books each year.
“Even if textbooks are changed, our way of conducting English lessons won’t change much,” the school’s principal, Sugio Ishii, said.
On the other hand, a female teacher working at a middle-ranking public school is worried about the new teaching approach because many of the school’s students struggle when studying English.
“I don’t think our lessons would work if we taught English to our students without using Japanese,” she said. “It would only be a waste of time if they were taught in English and couldn’t follow the lesson. They’d end up just partially understanding things.”
A salesperson at another textbook company described the disparity in high school students’ English skills as “extraordinary.”
Some English textbooks even start at the very basic level of practicing how to write the alphabet, which was included based on requests from teachers.
Most publishers prepare two or three kinds of English textbooks to meet the needs of different levels of students. Their content largely varies–those for basic-level students, for example, start with a self-introduction using “I am…,” and feature many illustrations and explanations in Japanese.
Those for students studying to pass entrance exams for higher education, on the other hand, present advanced-level, lengthy texts that discuss the environment and other timely issues.
Diversification helps narrow gaps
The polarization in students’ scholastic abilities is also conspicuous in science and mathematics.
A Chemistry textbook put out by major schoolbook publisher Tokyo Shoseki Co. has introduced university-level instruction in biochemistry for the benefit of high school students aspiring to study science and math in college.
“We racked our brains for a way to help students with good grades in math and science deepen their knowledge,” a Tokyo Shoseki employee who was involved with editing the textbook said. “So we took into account things that strong students often ask about.”
The number of pages in the textbook is 528, up from 320 in the previous version of the company’s biochemistry tome.
Even before the latest revision, Yokosuka High School was teaching its students advanced material beyond the education ministry’s course of study or school course guidelines. Run by the Kanagawa prefectural government, Yokosuka High School is known for the high percentage of students who enroll in university.
Shigekazu Nozawa, 47, head of the school’s team of math and science teachers, said, “Increases in the number of pages in textbooks don’t affect our teaching method.”
Also drawing attention in the world of education is a newly created subject, “Science and Human Life,” which is targeted at students who are weak in science.
Textbooks in this subject cover the basics of physics, chemistry, biology and geoscience in an easy-to-understand manner, so students do not feel threatened by it.
One of those welcoming the new subject is a 48-year-old teacher at a prefectural government-operated high school in the Tohoku region. Few graduates of the school go on to four-year universities.
“Instead of trying to make our students learn difficult stuff, it’s more important to prevent them from shying away from scientific knowledge,” he said.
The teacher wants to use the new subject to provide his students with plenty of opportunities to do experiments and watch videos to help them feel comfortable with science.
When it comes to math, even students enrolled in science courses at universities have frequently been found to have inadequate mathematical skills.
In producing textbooks for Math-I that were authorized by the education ministry last year and for Math-B that were approved this year, a schoolbook publishing company has five versions corresponding to different levels of scholastic ability.
The most rudimentary among the Math-I schoolbooks contains many simple problems such as “2 +(-3),” which the Tohoku high school teacher said indicates how alarmingly low the academic performance of some high school students is.
The result is that textbooks for use at schools with a large number of college-bound students include many questions suited for university entrance exams, while rudimentary ones have a considerably larger number of easy-to-understand illustrations and diagrams than conventional schoolbooks.
The number of pages in math schoolbooks as a whole has consequently increased by an average of 27.2 percent.
Schoolbook editors appear to be doing their utmost not to overlook students with low scholastic levels, but instead focus on narrowing the disparities in scholastic ability among high school students.
Some at university level
“Gaps in scholastic ability widened markedly among children during the period of so-called cram-free education,” said Hideki Wada, a psychiatrist well versed in educational issues.
“Some children have been working hard by such means as attending cram schools, while others can’t even do basic calculations and read kanji sufficiently,” Wada said. “The publication of a range of schoolbooks containing different levels of knowledge in line with the new curriculum guidelines is a good thing from the viewpoint of providing every student with teaching suited to his or her level.”
Wada went on to say: “For students who failed to acquire learning habits during primary and middle school, it’s important to provide schoolbooks suited to their academic abilities and let them see they can do things if they try.
“I’d like every teacher to help expand children’s potential.”