April 6, 1999
Volunteers help make sure the students learn everything they can. (Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun)
The Japanese educational system has long been criticized for forcing too much information on young students and for focusing on rote memorization. With its new proposal for education guidelines, however, the Ministry of Education is moving to create a more flexible educational environment, by reducing elementary and middle school student workloads to about 70% of what they are today and carrying out various other reforms. In response to one of these changes, Tachikawa Ninth Elementary School in Tokyo has launched a “team teaching” program in its second and third grade mathematics classes.
Six Teachers on a Team
As the bell rings to start the Wednesday mathematics class, six teachers march into the grade 2, class 1 classroom. The class teacher, Shigeko Suzuki, and home economics teacher, Yumiko Tamura, are joined by volunteers including both students’ mothers and former teachers. Suzuki begins reading aloud problems from a handout as the students follow along. The other five adults scan the room for any children that seem to have lost their place. Akiko Kobayashi, mother of a child who currently attends this elementary school, spots a student struggling with the answer to a problem and goes to his aid. After inspecting the finished answer, she compliments the child’s good work, eliciting a big smile.
Suzuki has seen improvement since the introduction of team teaching: “The idea that every child will be praised for trying his or her hardest is making the students more diligent. This has only been possible thanks to there being more people in the room watching and caring about the students.” Parents who see their children studying calmly and earnestly on school observation day are requesting that the same thing be done for other classes and other grade levels.
Helping Those Who Can’t Keep Up
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in 1998, about one-third of all elementary school students think they do not understand the class work. Students in all grades who responded that they “understand well” or “generally understand” the class work totaled 68.1%. The figures were 70.4% for third-graders and 65.8% for fifth graders, showing that the percentage of students keeping up with the material declines as the grade level gets higher. Although most students surveyed said they considered school life to be fun, 8.8% of all students responded that school is “not fun at all” or “not very fun”–and that proportion exceeded 10% for fifth graders. The reason given by most of these students for their discontent is that class is not interesting and they do not understand what is being taught.
Toward More Flexible Education
In a classroom where cohesiveness has begun to slacken, students refuse to stay seated or to refrain from talking during class. In some cases, this results in the total deterioration of the classroom environment–a problem educators say can be seen more and more across Japan. In response to this situation, the Ministry of Education is calling for a reduction in student workload, along with classes stressing individual instruction, group instruction, repeat instruction, and practical ties to daily life. The aim is to enhance students’ understanding of and interest in what they learn in class.
The team teaching approach undertaken as a trial in Tachikawa with the help of volunteers is a direct result of these new guidelines. Masao Kuroda, principal of Tachikawa Ninth Elementary, says he would like to “try as many innovative approaches as possible, to tear down the isolating wall surrounding schools and openly discuss ways to make classes enjoyable for all children.” Concerned educators and parents are increasingly looking toward a more flexible educational environment, where outdated concepts regarding schools and classes are discarded and students can better experience the joy of learning.