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November 7, 2005

Students Need Analytical Skills

Takamitsu SAWA (Professor, Kyoto University)

One characteristic of Japanese universities is that they provide highly specialized education for undergraduate students. This is partly because high-school students receive a high level of science education. In fact, their knowledge level in math and physics is one of the highest in the world. Thus, first-year undergraduates in science departments are ready to take highly specialized courses.

Elementary and junior high-school students also receive a relatively high level of science education, and their scholastic ability, as well as that of high-school students, in international achievement contests is also tops. However, the level of scientific thinking among adults is ranked 14th in a 15-nation survey of those aged around 30, one conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The message for Japan is: Scientific knowledge acquired by rote in preparation for university entrance examinations can be forgotten, almost entirely, in 10 years, say, after graduation from high school. More to the point, such knowledge does not help much to arouse interest in nature or develop scientific thinking. The primary purpose of education is to cultivate intellect. The OECD survey indicates that rote learning hardly contributes to the cultivation of adult intellect, raising questions about the value of education by cramming.

On the other hand, Japanese students' ability to read and comprehend the national language is less than average among industrialized nations. Multiple-answer questions in university entrance exams, for example, typically use a text of 2,000 words or so. Sometimes a quotation from my books is used, but some of the questions are presented in such misleading ways that I myself often find it difficult to choose the right answer. This is not a good way to test reading-comprehension ability. The only way to cultivate this ability is to have high-school students read more books.

In the mid-1960s when I was in high school, less than 10 percent of those in the final grade went on to university. Not many girls took university entrance exams because either finishing high school or entering two-year college was considered enough. Half of the boys gave up on going to university for financial reasons. Since it was easy to pass entrance exams, there was little need to cram for exams. high-school students were avid readers of Japanese and world classics. Some of them would read Marx and Engels. A few would master university-level math on their own.

English-language examinations are also extraordinary, as exemplified by grammar questions of the kind that even Americans cannot answer or by vocabulary tests that include highly unusual words. The ability to read or write a long sentence is rarely tested. I wonder how many university students can read The Japan Times without difficulty.

One national university is teaching graduate students to write research reports in English. The surprise is that the instructor is a Japanese woman who is said to have no credentials in the field of research involved. The ability to write English reports can be acquired by reading many related reports in the same language. The above episode indicates that even graduate students at a famous university read few research reports in English.

High-school classes on Japanese and world history require students to memorize the names of persons as well as specific events and periods. Nothing is taught about historic perspectives or historic principles (causes and effects). Elementary and high-school students, and even university students, are rarely taught to read and write long sentences or to conduct a debate. Why? Because all this is considered useless for entrance exams.

The poor ability of Japanese to read and comprehend, and to express themselves, can be ascribed to the lack of proper school training. In science classes in high school, for example, experiments are said to be skipped for lack of time. Science lessons will lose much of their practical value unless they include experiments.

Takashi Tachibana, the noted nonfiction writer, once said in a piece he contributed to the Bungei Shunju monthly: "Japanese bureaucrats do fairly well at international conferences, but keep silent at parties." The comment, which stirred controversy at home, suggests that Japanese bureaucrats are ill-equipped to engage in intellectual conversations with bureaucrats from Western governments.

The problem is that high-school education in Japan is oriented toward university entrance examinations. Because of this, little time is spent developing the abilities and attitudes required of adults, such as abilities to debate, to read and comprehend, to think scientifically and logically, and to collect and analyze information. With exams getting easier thanks to a falling birth rate, education at all levels -- not only in elementary and high school but also in university -- should be reoriented with emphasis placed on abilities such as those mentioned above.

(This article appeared in the October 31, 2005 issue of The Japan Times)

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