Teachers learn to make students think

The following are excerpts from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series focuses on efforts to develop children’s ability to think.


MATSUYAMA–Kitakume Primary School was designated in 2005 by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry as a pilot institution in the field of helping children develop solid scholastic abilities. During the three-year period of its designation, the school decided to focus on developing students’ literacy and encouraging critical thinking.

Although the designation expired when the last school year ended in March, the public school remained focused on its target, making efforts not only in Japanese-language classes, but also other subjects.

On the day The Yomiuri Shimbun visited the school early last month, for example, a sixth-grade teacher began a research and discussion exercise in a social studies class by showing two pictures of scenes in Tokyo related to the theme of the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

“What differences can you find between these pictures?” Yukie Morita, 52, asked her students.

“People wear kimono [in the first picture] but Western-style clothes [in the second],” one student said. Others pointed out that those wearing swords could be seen only in the first image, while the second one included a horse-drawn cart.

Later on, yet another student noticed that the two images were accompanied by the years they were drawn, saying, “There’s only a 20-year difference!”

Responding to the moment of surprise, Morita gave her students a new task: “Please come up with something you want to know about the Meiji Restoration.”

Divided into groups of four or five, the children discussed possible themes, which included “Why did people’s clothing change so much?” and “Why could such a sudden change happen?”

The students’ inquiry into the historical event continued the following day, when they looked into textbooks and reference books to find key words that seemed related to the themes each group had chosen.

The children wrote down the terms on Post-it notes before placing them on large sheets of paper. Then they grouped the notes depending on common features among the words–such as whether they were about historical events or people, or political measures. And they further examined how the key words were related to each other.

While looking around, Morita facilitated the students’ work by pointing out from time to time the good approaches some groups were taking, saying, for example: “Members in this group are writing down why they think society changed during the Meiji era [1868-1912].”

Kitakume obtained its special designation from the central government just after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of its 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in which Japan saw a sharp decline in its rank for reading literacy compared to the previous assessment.

To improve their own ability to foster literacy among their students, the teachers decided on a student-oriented approach, under which children were encouraged to find learning tasks on their own and strive to solve them through group discussions, writing and presentations.

Of course, group work did not always go as well as hoped–for example, the teachers often found that the same children were always the ones to express their opinions. One key to their approach was to refrain from giving too much information, so as to keep the children working hard to find it on their own, but the teachers found it difficult to decide how much information they should give to their students, who tended to rush to seek answers from their teachers.

Morita, who has been playing a leading role in improving the school’s teaching, said that it has often been the case that discussions lacked energy or seemed to wander off in different directions from the original aims.

“To cope with such situations, teachers should have techniques to control discussions by providing the students with good questions, for example, ‘Why do you think so?’ or ‘What do you think of this kind of idea?'” she said. “We’re being urged to have high-level teaching skills in addition to specialized knowledge about each subject.”

During The Yomiuri Shimbun’s visit, one of Morita’s colleagues, Kyoko Miyoshi, 46, showed another example to her arithmetic class for third-grade students, to whom she posed one question: “Thirty-one children are about to play a game in groups of four. How many groups should be formed so that everyone can enjoy the game?”

The children then had group discussions before each group wrote their answers on a whiteboard.

“We believe that the answer is eight groups,” one student said, to which Miyoshi promptly asked: “Why do you think so?” and “Does anyone else have a different conclusion?”

“Some of your friends wonder if the answer might be seven. How would you explain why eight groups are necessary?” she continued.

While wavering between two situations–“groups of four” and “everyone can enjoy the game”–the students at last reached a conclusion: To form eight groups, the last of which should get its fourth member from those who have already played the game.

The discussion process seemed to help the children grasp the mathematical concepts of “remainder” and “rounding out.”

“When being given this kind of problem,” Miyoshi said, “the students use their heads hard to figure out the right answer by looking for clues from their own daily lives.”

Over the past four years of the school’s efforts to improve its teaching, Kitakume has seen some favorable outcomes. Its surveys, for example, showed that the ratios of students who said they “could keep up with their classes” and “read books over the weekend” increased by five to 10 percentage points over the period.

More than anything else, the biggest reward for the school may be that its teachers have greatly changed their views on children’s scholastic abilities.

Now the teachers have come to agree that among students who do not produce required outcomes in certain tasks, there are several different kinds of difficulties: Some have sufficient knowledge for a given task but find it difficult to relate pieces of information, while others have insufficient knowledge but are good at recalling what they do know from memory. Still others have difficulty in writing or making presentations.

Classes that focus on students’ discussions and presentations may seem like a roundabout way of teaching. However, “Eventually, it has helped us find out what approaches are effective to the individual students, depending on their own characteristics,” Morita said.


Fall in intl rankingsparked focuson thinking skills


Discussion over Japanese children’s ability to think was sparked after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which has been administered for 15-year-olds worldwide once every three years since 2000.

The results of the 2003 PISA, which were released in December 2004, showed that Japan suffered a sharp decline in its ranking for reading literacy, dropping to 14th place from eighth in the previous assessment. Its ranking hovered near the same level, at 15th place, in the 2006 assessment.

The PISA requires students to exercise comprehensive reading ability: They have to read and analyze some passages–texts, charts, graphs and so on–at the same time so that they can draw conclusions, decide what kind of actions they would take and express their own opinions. In other words, the participants have to think on their own based on their own knowledge and the available information.

Alarmed by the PISA results, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry announced in 2005 a scheme to foster children’s reading literacy, under which it called for classes to be designed to meet targets in all grades and all subjects of compulsory education. Moreover, the upcoming revision of the nation’s teaching guidelines for primary and middle schools–which were announced earlier this year–also stipulates that not only Japanese, but also other subjects should foster children’s language competence, as this is closely connected with reading literacy.

“Teachers should pay more attention to creating linkages among different subjects–for example, when teaching a Japanese-language class, they can refer to what their students have learned in their science or social studies classes,” said Koichi Tanaka, a senior official at the ministry.

(Nov. 20, 2008) Daily Yomiuri

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