Main Issues on Economic Education in Japan
Soichi SHINOHARA (Professor, Doshisha University)
This article is based on Prof. Shinohara's presentation at the Summertime Economic Seminar for Teachers, which was held in Osaka on August 4-5, and also in Tokyo on August 11-12, 2008.
In teaching economic subjects to middle and high school students, it is important for the teacher to tell stories or give messages to them regarding the roles and mechanism of economic systems, organizations and policies in our society. Without such a story or a message, the students would be required just to memorize the names and outlines of such economic institutions and events, as taught in class, and not to think of economic forces at work, affecting their daily lives, in any logical and systematic way.
In this regard, one of the serious problems with economics education in Japan is the content of textbooks in economic and social subjects at the middle and high school level, in that there are piecemeal descriptions of various economic institutions and events without an economic message or even a logical explanation to help students understand the meanings of various economic phenomena. Furthermore, few teachers who are assigned to teach such economic subjects have a good background in the field of economics, but many were trained in such fields as history, geography and ethics. As a result, economics subjects cannot be taught effectively to attract students' interest, however hard teachers try themselves by utilizing textbooks in class.
Another negative factor in Japan is the strong pressure of entrance examinations for high schools and colleges on teaching at middle and high schools, respectively. Almost without exception, those who are in charge of composing entrance examinations rely on what is written in textbooks and not to deviate from their content, while textbook writers carefully examine questions asked in entrance examinations and try to offer answers to those questions in their textbooks. This tends to result in a kind of "prisoners' dilemma," where both entrance exam composers and textbook writers restrict themselves within the range of each others' content, leading to the dry and piecemeal descriptions of economic and social phenomena in textbooks for memorization not for understanding in the case of economic and social subjects in particular.
As for economic messages, students should be taught the "market mechanism," which means not only the role of equating supply and demand in the market, but also the function of achieving the efficient allocation of scarce resources, of course, under certain conditions. The latter function is not adequately explained in most of the middle and high school textbooks in Japan, so that teachers cannot tell this important story. Unless this message is given to students at the introductory micro economics level, the benefit of free trade might not readily be explained in the applied field of international economics.
Of course, one could criticize the market economy as imperfect in the sense that the market often fails to achieve the efficient allocation of resources due to the presence of monopoly, externalities or public goods, not to mention the "unequal" distribution of income and wealth. However, it should be emphasized that the government also fails, and in fact many of the current problems in Japan seem to be associated with governmental failures such as the problems of social security administration, bureaucratic intervention and inefficiency, etc. In order for students to have a more balance view of markets versus governments, they should be given a clearer message regarding the "invisible hand" of the market system at the middle and high school level.
For these purposes, Japanese economists can and should play a more active role in improving the quality of economic textbooks and offering training programs in economic subjects for middle and high school teachers in Japan, as in the U.S., where many of the prominent American economists are contributing to the activities of the National Council on Economic Education (http://www.ncee.net/) for promoting economic literacy with students and teachers at all levels. We have recently launched the Network for Economic Education (http://www.econ-edu.net/) in an attempt to network Japanese economists with each other and also with middle and high school teachers as well as economic education specialists in the private and public sectors in Japan. Hopefully, more people will join this kind of activities to improve economic literacy not only school teachers and their students but also the general public at large in Japan.