The Japanese model of education has gained worldwide attention recently, as a system which has simultaneously moved with the modern trends of learning and schooling yet has retained significant traditional practices. Japan has one of the best educated populations in the world, with a 100% enrolment rate for compulsory schooling years, 100% literacy and 46% of all high school graduates attending university.
The system of moral education which emphasises student-driven collaboration is attributable to the success of the system in this modern era. Despite its critiques, Japanese methods of learning have led to a 100% literacy rate and several other impressive outcomes that have made Japanese students highly competitive in the globalised world.
How do Japanese schools operate?
The model of education, which was adopted after widespread reforms following World War II, is based on the French school system and means that the school year commences in April. The average school day in Japan is 6 hours – one of the longest in the world.
Primary education - holistic education
Most children in Japan go through the public-school system, starting at the age of six. The school curriculum during the primary years covers Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science, music, arts and crafts and physical education – much like the national primary curriculum in Australia. A difference in the curriculum however, is the Japanese focus on “whole person” education, which is critical to primary studies. This approach is constituted by moral education classes and an application of moral principles throughout the daily school routine. As described by one of the leading professors of comparative education at the University of Tokyo, Ryoko Tsuneyoshi, the Japanese elementary school system rewards effort, rather than achievement.
Another important distinction between the Australian and Japanese systems is that there are no major exams during primary school in Japan. Similarly, students in primary school receive little homework, if any at all. Many academics believe that the lack of stress and competition are the reason that children learn and foster cooperative relationships with their peers. There is a concentration on small group activities particularly in the more junior levels of school, which encourage collaboration and teamwork.
Culture of teaching and learning
The teaching culture is also vastly different within the Japanese education system. Students are encouraged to develop loyalties to their class mates and assume leadership roles from an early age, with teachers regularly delegating decision-making and responsibility to their students. The focus of teachers throughout primary schools in Japan has led to a culture of holistic development through which they foster individuality, teach students proper manners and how to speak politely, make sure they learn valuable lessons about nutrition, personal hygiene and sleep, coach them through public speaking and various other skills which focus on the wellbeing and development of the students.
The fundamental principle of this approach to a student’s development emphasises the fact that social skills and formation of character are just as important as academic excellence. This central focus on the ‘whole child’ has built a classroom community in Japan which is driven by child-initiated discussions, meetings, events and play.
Recently, a number of academics have been interested in the concept of ‘lesson study’, which has in fact existed in Japan for hundreds of years. ‘Lesson study’ is simply the term used to describe this process of bottom-up learning that is implemented particularly in primary schools across Japan, with teachers and students collaborating on projects and ideas in order to meet learning outcomes. This study model has been advocated in literature across the world and has been implemented throughout parts of the UK.
In addition to this method of teaching, there are a number of research groups across the country, formulated by teachers, who are solely focussed on improving learning outcomes for students. These research groups have uncovered that children learn well by ‘doing’, and thus, the curriculum in these early years of schooling involves hands-on creating and learning.
Secondary education - reducing competitiveness & stress
When considering the competitiveness of the Japanese high schooling system, many people frame their views through the clichés of ultra-competitiveness, high stress and pressure to do well from parents, teachers and students alike. However, this is not the case within Japan currently. With reduced external pressures in higher education and an increase in diversification of pathways to higher education, there has been an overall reduction in competition and stress within secondary education in Japan.
Critiques of the system
Critiques of the Japanese education system centre on the “groupist” approach to learning with central guidance and strong community-based principles. Many academics have pointed out that this system, though effective, ignores individuality and compromises individual aptitude, interests and abilities. This critique is ideologically based and does little to discredit the results of such a system.
On a balance of these elements of the Japanese system of education, it is apparent that the foundational years of primary education are rudimentary in setting students up for success later in life. The system of moral education which emphasises student-driven collaboration is attributable to the success of the system in this modern era. Despite its critiques, Japanese methods of learning have led to a 100% literacy rate and several other impressive outcomes that have made Japanese students highly competitive in the globalised world.
 Rohlen, T. (1983). Japan’s High Schools. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
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