Schools in Osaka Prefecture take ability-based approach

By Hiroshi Miyahara / Yomiuri Shimbun

The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, continued from last week, focuses on the education reform under way in Osaka Prefecture.


OSAKA–In teaching certain subjects, it is now a popular approach for schools to divide students into classes based on their ability. In pressing for reform of local education, Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto is urging all primary and middle schools to take this approach.

Taishi Middle School, the only public middle school in Taishicho, a town on the southeastern edge of Osaka Prefecture, introduced this ability-based approach when classes resumed after last year’s summer break, beginning with some of the English classes for second-year students.

When The Yomiuri Shimbun visited the school early this year, the voices of students repeating English words could be heard from a multipurpose room.

“Interesting…carefully,” 12 of the school’s 32 second-year students said over and over. The dozen students were part of the “Basic Course,” aimed at helping them build a firm base in English. When the repetition exercise was over, they reviewed the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives.

At the same time, the 20 remaining students were taking classes in their own classroom. These students, in the “Challenge Course,” carefully read lines from the textbook word by word, before filling in worksheets on their own.

“When teaching all the students together, I have some [faster-paced] students who have nothing to do at times, while others find it difficult to keep up with the class,” Basic Course teacher Yuka Okuda, 43, said. “When taking different approaches to each group, we can keep them focused.”

The Challenge Course was taught by Madoka Kaniyama, a 24-year-old part-time teacher. “The approach enables me to find out what my students are not good at and discuss such points from time to time.”

Many of the students also welcomed the approach. One of the students in the Basic Course said he felt more comfortable about raising his hand because he was being taught in a smaller group.

“That helps me feel I can participate in the class more than before,” he said. “Also, I’ve found my grades improving a bit.”

A female student said it was interesting to study in the Challenge Course because she “can learn something beyond the textbook.”

According to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, 85 percent of the nation’s primary schools and 79.3 percent of middle schools introduced the ability-based teaching approach during the 2007 school year, usually in teaching arithmetic and English, subjects in which there tend to be wide differences among children’s abilities.

The percentage of schools using the system in Osaka Prefecture–94 percent at the primary school level and 80 percent at the middle school level–is higher than the national average, but the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education aims at raising them up to 100 percent.

Under the board’s plan, the ability-based teaching approach should be applied to Japanese and arithmetic classes for third- to sixth-graders in primary school, and all middle school students should be taught Japanese, math and English based on the approach. The board also plans to hire hundreds of part-time teachers for this purpose.

Now, about 10 percent of classes in the target subjects are conducted under the approach. The board aims to increase that ratio to 30 percent by the 2011 school year.

When introducing a new teaching approach, boards of education usually start by having some schools to test it out. However, the prefectural board of education maintains that all local primary and middle schools should adopt the ability-based teaching approach–a stance that has been largely influenced by Hashimoto, who has insisted that schools should “not only help slow learners work better, but also help fast-trackers improve further.”

An official at the Education, Science and Technology Ministry pointed out that it is generally up to each school to decide what kind of teaching approaches to adopt. “There’ve been no other examples before in which a prefectural board of education takes an initiative in promoting the ability-based teaching approach throughout its area,” he added.

However, some local schools are confused about the prefectural board of education’s policy.

One public primary school, for example, has taken the approach of encouraging students to teach each other by dividing them into groups of four when dealing with assigned tasks. “This approach doesn’t work unless children have different levels of skills,” the principal of the school said. “Because its philosophy is different from that of the ability-based approach, we’re not sure if we can strike a balance between the two.”

Acknowledging such concerns, an official of the board emphasized that the ability-based teaching approach can be combined with other approaches that schools have already adopted. Added the principal: “As long as schools choose the better one of the two depending on the situation [of a given class], they can produce much better results.”


Jun. 25, 2009


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