Comparing UK and Japanese history class treatment of the Puritan Revolution: The lack of training in critical thinking in Japanese education

Yomiuri Shimbun: Recommendation for Critical Thinking
Michiaki Kawato
Professor of Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Specal Fields: Comparative Literature,Translated Literature,etc.

A leopard cannot change its spots
It is said that Japanese university students are prone to unquestioningly accept the opinions of others; that they are unskilled at using a logical and objective method to independently form their own opinions.

To use a phrase, which is popular today, university students haven’t had sufficient training in “critical thinking.” However, in no way is the lack of such training relegated to university students alone.

Beginning from education in primary schools and junior high schools, the prevalent form of education is already to passively acquire knowledge. There is a lack of active mental training in which students act independently to discover problems and formulate a variety of methods for obtaining solutions.

Even if we attempt to suddenly change the way in which students think after they enter university, a leopard cannot change its spots and it is difficult to encourage new patterns of thought.

GCSE Course: Secondary education in England
What is lacking when compared with education in Europe and America? I used my own period of overseas research in an attempt to answer this question. During the period, I enrolled in a study course for acquiring a GCSE (The General Certificate of Secondary Education) in England.

This study course is enrolled in during the 2-year period of Year 10 and Year 11 education in England, which is equivalent to the 3rd year of junior high school and 1st year of high school in Japan. The performance in this course is an important eligibility standard when entering university.

At that time, I was living in York, a town in northern England. The town held a GCSE course in the evening for local residents who had failed to acquire the certification while in their teens. I officially enrolled in the evening course.

When comparing the classes which I experienced in that course to the classes of Japanese junior high schools and high schools, the biggest difference is that the final goal is more than to simply acquire knowledge. Instead, the classes encourage students to use their knowledge in order to consider the essence of things.

How to study the Puritan Revolution? -Differences in Japanese and British secondary education
This difference is most obvious in history classes. For example, consider the Puritan Revolution which occurred in the mid-17th century and which is often studied in both Japan and England as one of the most famous revolutions in history. In this revolution, the Puritans were opposed to the tyranny of King Charles I. A faction (Parliamentarians) of the Puritans led by Cromwell executed the king and established a republic. In Japan, the majority of study time is spent having students read textbooks which describe this entire chain of events, as well as memorizing the major historical figures, events and timeline.

The more accurately students can memorize those events, the higher the score that they can post during examinations. In other words, memory is the only ability used.

Classes in England are different. In the GCSE study course, students read a variety of material related to the Puritan Revolution. The majority of this material is statements made by historical figures who were actually involved in the revolution, or made by people observing those figures. The core of study in England is to use those statements to form one’s own opinion regarding the essence of the revolution.

Creating a newspaper for the day after the king’s execution
In actuality, our class was given the assignment of creating a newspaper for the day after the execution of King Charles I.

Students separated the distributed material into facts and opinions. We then classified those opinions as opinions of the Royalists, opinions of the Parliamentarians, valid opinions and biased opinions. Through this detailed analysis, we were instructed to perform a multifaceted and objective assessment of events to the greatest extent possible.

We were also instructed to write all required elements of a newspaper, including the creation of a front headline, lead, main story and sub-headlines.

Throughout this study process, it was not sufficient for students to passively accept the distributed material at face value. Instead, we were trained in the critical thinking process of making one’s own rational judgment while performing objective and multifaceted analysis.

Students were given the same sort of assignment many times. Afterwards, we took the unified examination which is the final assignment for each region. Again, the core of this examination was questions that measured the critical thinking ability of students; specifically, the ability to read a variety of statement related to an event and make one’s own objective and rational judgment.

As I stated previously, the result of this study course is an important eligibility standard for entering university. In contrast, Japan’s National Center Test is an entrance examination which focuses solely on the memorization of knowledge. It is no surprise that students who take such memorization-based tests are at a major disadvantage in terms of critical thinking ability.

Giving the same assignment to Japanese students
In no way does this imply that Japanese students lack critical thinking ability. They simply lack the appropriate training.

Japan has a strong group-oriented culture. Some people say that such a cultural climate prevents people from acquiring a thought process involving the critical scrutiny of other people’s opinions. However, I disagree.

As an experiment, I gave students in my English expression class an assignment similar to England’s GCSE study course. The theme of the assignment was nuclear power, which is the hottest issue in Japan today. To begin, I instructed students to translate about 20 articles that I had selected from English newspapers. The articles contained opinions and information on events related to nuclear power.

The articles contained government opinions, opinions in favor of nuclear power and opinions opposed to nuclear power. The articles also contained a variety of other information and opinions including the current status of renewable energy in Japan and an overview of that feed-in tariff system which had started from July 1st.

After students had finished translating the information and opinions, I then instructed them to write an English essay of several hundred words. In the essay, students stated whether or not they are in favor of the government’s decision in June 2012 to restart the Oi Nuclear Power Plant. They were also required to give a clear basis for their opinion.

Of course, in addition to the opinions and information that were provided them, students were allowed to acquire their own information via the internet or other sources. Based on all this information, I asked students to formulate their own multifaceted and rational opinion in English to the greatest extent possible.

I had assigned my students to formulate their own opinion, which is the greatest weakness of Japanese students. However, although the submitted reports contained some problems with writing in English, the majority showed that students had made a serious attempt to debate the issue.

The need to repeat such training
In other words, as long as they are given a proper theme, students will always respond seriously. This means that it is necessary to repeat such training through a systematic method similar to that used in the GCSE study course.

By doing so, it is certain that Japanese students will acquire the critical thinking ability for forming their own rational opinions, just like students in Europe and America. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I have reached this conclusion from my own experience.

School education which emphasizes critical thinking
Last year, I was invited to give a research presentation at an international conference held at Heidelberg University (Germany), which was celebrating the 625th anniversary of its founding.

At a party held during the conference, I happened to be seated next to a female professor who had acquired her PhD at Heidelberg University and now teaches at a university in America. I asked her what language students in Germany use when writing theses. She told me that English is used for 100% of theses written by science and engineering students, and for 70% of theses by humanities students.

In other words, English has already become the world’s international language. This fact is also well known in Japan, with all Japanese universities espousing the importance of English study.

In contrast, Japanese universities have yet to sufficiently recognize the importance of critical thinking, a concept which is also commonplace in the education of Europe and America.

Currently, emphasis is placed entirely on the need for mental tools. There is insufficient focus on methods for using those tools to achieve a goal.

This is not the problem of students alone. Indeed, the problem encompasses educators and individuals who design the educational system.

I believe that universities and all other parties involved in Japanese education must show greater interest in critical thinking, a concept which supports the foundation of education in Europe and America.

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