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The Changing Winds in Japanese Mathematics Education

by Toshiakira Fujii
November 2001lessons 

On the basis of various international tests, Japanese students have demonstrated that they are good at solving mathematical tasks that appear in school mathematics. But most Japanese mathematics educators believe that this trend will not continue. One of the reasons that Japanese students have been performing at a high level in the past and in such recent international surveys as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is that we have had a good national course of study. What does good mean? Why has the national course of study led to the high mathematics achievement of Japanese students that is frequently discussed in the literature? The notion of good means essentially that each topic in the national course of study is reviewed and critiqued by using a rationale that addresses its educational and mathematical value. I consider the national course of study at the elementary level to be superb.

Ironically, we have realized the value of the present curriculum when we compare it with the newly revised national course of study that will be introduced in 2002. The newly revised curriculum has serious flaws that are only now becoming apparent. In the new curriculum, 30 percent of the topics from the previous curriculum have been abandoned without careful consideration. The main reason for reducing the content is that we will modify the school timetable from six days a week to five days a week by using a Saturday-off system. The Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, which has responsibility for developing the national course of study, tried to reduce the content to accommodate the reduced school schedule. It does not sound too bad. However, the Ministry did a bit too much.

In the beginning, newspapers tended to indicate a positive reaction toward the revision. But recently they have been criticizing the attitude of the Ministry. Parents are particularly anxious simply because content that is familiar to them will not appear in their children's textbooks in the future. The abandoned content includes the formula for calculating the area of a trapezoid, the inequality sign, and axial and radial symmetry. Parents' anxiety about the new curriculum is a serious issue. They expect the schools to teach at least those topics that they learned in school.

When the national course of study goes on too much of a "diet," students' academic performance could become undernourished. The reason is simple. In Japan, textbooks to be used in schools must be authorized by the minister. Consequently, the majority of Japanese teachers use textbooks in a very honest manner, that is, they teach the book's contents in a straightforward way, never going beyond the material or offering less than what is included in the textbook. Therefore, textbooks that are based on the revised national course of study will be lean in terms of mathematical points of view and topics covered.

Recently Professor Sawada at Tokyo Science University reported the results of a survey that compared students' academic performance with students' previous academic performance. He used the same tasks that had been used in previous surveys. Surprisingly, scores are getting worse. For example, the percent of correct answers by sixth graders are shown below. (These data appeared in one of Japan's major newspapers, Ashahi, on 28 March 2001.)

  1982 1994 2000
5/6 + 3/8 80.8% 77.6% 61.7%
5/6 × 4/9 94.0% 91.3% 65.8%
4/9 ÷ 2 1/3 90.7% 86.9% 66.5%
9.3 × 0.82 77.2% 73.4% 70.2%
7 – 0.14 ÷ 0.7 38.3% 36.1% 32.8%

Mathematics educators are afraid that the trend will accelerate when the new national course of study is adopted. We are, of course, puzzled about the reasons for this trend, given that students are studying under the current national course of study that has been carefully created. My conjecture is that the changing atmosphere in schools may cause the poor result. Indeed, the mood of schools now seems to be more idle and less demanding than it has been in the past. Inevitably, this changing atmosphere will negatively affect students' performance.

Initially, the minister has been trying to make a margin for time. Margin in Japanese is yutori, but at the school level it becomes yurumi, which gets translated into a certain acceptance of idleness. Teachers feel that nothing is new in the revised coming course of study and express the view that they are not willing to work harder or have their students study harder. No compensating factor seems to exist for having a Saturday-off system. The Ministry recently announced that the national course of study must be interpreted as the minimum contents: Everybody should achieve and understand the contents listed in the course of study. I fear, however, that the message will become an excuse to reduce the contents too much. More important, the Ministry is now saying that teachers must evaluate students' academic performance according to some absolute standard rather than use our present method of taking into consideration the contexts in which students learn. I think that this new, absolute evaluation system will create stress on teachers. Teachers could be forced to become teaching machines and emphasize drill so that students can pass the items on the evaluation list that reflect the national course of study. The absolute evaluation system might lead to good results of Japanese students in future International Educational Assessment surveys, but these results might come with the cost of furthering Japanese students' negative attitudes toward mathematics. Would such an outcome be worthwhile if the result is less enjoyment in learning for students, as well as less enjoyment in teaching for teachers?

I believe that teaching must surely be a creative and enjoyable activity for both students and teachers. The Ministry of Education has tried to create a margin for time in schools, but I fear that the result will be that teachers and students will acquire a certain idleness of mind.



Toshiakira Fujii is a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University. His interests include teacher education and analyzing and evaluating students' understanding of school algebra.



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