Elementary Education

Japan's elementary and junior high schools have been subjected to conflicting movements over the last two decades. During the 1990s and early 2000s, policymakers focused on two goals: encouraging more autonomous learning and creativity while promoting children's healthy development through engagement with the social and natural worlds around them (Cave 2007, 16–19, 195–196). In 2002, this culminated in the move to a five-day school week, the slimming down of hours for traditional academic subjects, and the introduction of a major new program at the elementary and junior high levels, integrated studies (sōgō-teki na Gakushū), intended to achieve both the above goals through exploratory learning. Yet even before 2002, there were attacks on the new curriculum, both from conservatives worried about slipping academic standards and from progressives concerned that a focus on exploration would favor middle-class children and widen inequality (Cave 2007, 19–21). In response, the government promoted smaller class sizes and learning differentiated according to proficiency. Both of these initiatives were innovative, in a system with a maximum class size of forty at the elementary and junior high levels and long-standing aversion to differential treatment of children.1 Deepening public and media concern about falling academic standards during the 2000s led to schools increasingly refocusing on “basic academic attainment” as the decade progressed, culminating in a new curriculum revision that once again increased hours for academic subjects from 2011–2012.2 Here, i illustrate the effects at three elementary schools in sakura, a city of one hundred thousand people in the Kansai region of Japan, visited in 2008 and 2010.3

It is 8.30 a.m. At shinmachi elementary school on a late september morning in 2008, and teachers are making their way to the classrooms. Each elementary class has its own teacher, who teaches almost all subjects to the children—nationally, 63 percent of elementary teachers are women and 37 percent men (Monbukagakushō 2011a). Once the teacher has arrived, the two monitors for that day call the class to order and start the morning meeting. Monitor duty rotates daily around the class, so every child must take on this task—one aspect of a set of responsibilities that children learn to fulfill. Each Child is a member of multiple small groups within the class, and responsibilities for different activities are rotated around the groups, so that all take their turn. Primary duties are serving lunch and cleaning the school daily. At lunch time, the members of the responsible group don aprons, caps, and masks for hygiene purposes; wheel the pans of food to their classroom on a trolley; and then serve it to their classmates. Later in the day, all children spend twenty minutes cleaning the school, from classrooms to corridors and toilets, using brooms, dustpans, and floorcloths. They thus learn to take responsibility for their own environment; there are no cleaning staff for these duties.

Most children will already have experienced small groups and some rotating responsibilities at preschool, attended by 95 percent of Japanese children, most commonly from ages three to six (Cave 2011a, 247–250; Lewis 1989). Japanese preschool teachers resemble elementary school teachers in preferring a low authority profile that lets children learn to work out their own differences. These approaches are strongly influenced by memories of children's lives in Japan up to the 1960s or so, before affluence, motor cars, and computers, when children tended to learn social skills by playing outside for hours in neighborhood groups, largely unsupervised by adults (tobin, Hsueh, and Karasawa 2009, 154–156). This nostalgia for aspects of the past is expressed by shinmachi's principal, who tells me that the human heart (kokoro) has worsened more than anything else in Japan, as seen in poor manners and failure to keep rules; moreover, he says, children lose their motivation when life is easy (raku), as he thinks it is today. Such concerns, fueled in the late 1990s by moral panics about heinous crimes, classroom indiscipline, and sexually open school girls, resulted in turn-of-the-century emphasis by government and schools on “education of the heart” (kokoro no kyōiku) (Higashi 2008), a movement that has led to stress on the social and emotional development aspects of integrated studies, as we shall see.

The elementary curriculum includes Japanese, mathematics, physical education, music, and arts and crafts through all grades. Social studies and science start from third grade and home economics from fifth grade. In the first two years of school, children take a subject called “Life studies,” in which they learn about various aspects of the world around them. Children take integrated studies from third grade, and in today's lesson at shinmachi, the fifth graders are reflecting on the rice harvesting they did the week before. They talk about how tiring it was, how it made them think about how people used to live, how much the rice had grown in a short time, and various physical features of the rice plant. The teacher is particularly keen to reinforce what The students say about how hard it is to grow and harvest rice and how they need to be thankful to the farmers—in other words, the moral lessons the children learn from their experience. The next day, the children brainstorm things about rice that they would like to research in more depth. The two lessons show teachers using integrated studies both to encourage students' inquiry learning, which was its original curricular purpose, and also to have children think about the moral and social implications of their experiences. The new program is thus being used not only for innovative purposes, to encourage individuality and creative thought, but also to have children reflect on the demands of life and what they owe to others—a more long-standing educational aim, brought into renewed prominence by stress on “education of the heart.”

Senior teacher Mr. Sanada tells me that the shinmachi school survey shows that the children are unenthusiastic about integrated studies, unlike children at satoyama, his previous school in sakura. The difference, he thinks, lies in the contrasting environments of the two schools. Shinmachi is a large school in a fast-developing but nondescript suburb, whose local environment offers no obvious focus for integrated studies projects. Satoyama is a small school in a traditional semi-rural district of the city, where children can study the local lifestyle of small-scale arable farming and cultivation of the mountain foothills. For shinmachi, Mr. Sanada says, it will be good to have less integrated studies and more academic teaching from 2011, not least because the latter matches the demand for basic academic attainment at the local public junior high school, to which almost all shinmachi children progress. In 2008, the educational trend is very much to emphasize conventional subjects rather than the interdisciplinarity of integrated studies, he observes.

Shinmachi also provides a good example of how elementary schools implement small-group teaching (usually in mathematics). Small-group teaching and proficiency-related learning have been promoted by the Ministry of education and science since 2001, but shinmachi's teachers use them selectively, in some textbook units and for some classes. For the unit i observe, two classes have been divided into smaller groups of fifteen students each (ignoring individual proficiency). However, the third class is not divided, so that all children can benefit from listening to the ideas of the few in the class who are good at mathematics. This peer learning (oshieai) in a larger group is felt to be more valuable than extra teacher attention in a smaller group, an attitude consistent with observations in the 1990s (Cave 2007, 145–146). On the other hand, teachers are ready to teach some units in smaller groups differentiated by proficiency if this is effective; units focused on number topics such as Fractions and decimals are thought suited to this approach. Teachers continue to believe strongly in the value of a strong class group that enables children of different proficiencies to learn from one another (Cave 2007, 100, 145–146), and their attitudes to differentiated learning are cautious though pragmatic. According to the teacher of the third class, Ms. Hara, many students in the class showed not only low mathematical proficiency but also little confidence overall; she implied that this was sometimes linked to difficult family situations, in an area of the city experiencing rapid growth, as many families move in from elsewhere in Japan.

We now fast forward two years to september 2010 at two more of sakura's elementary schools, aoba and shukuba. The lessons observed here vividly illustrate how teachers are seeking to respond to demands for solid academic attainment alongside moral and social awareness and investigative ability. First comes a sixth-grade Japanese class at aoba, a school opened about a decade earlier to serve a large private housing development. Female teacher Ms. Izumi starts by showing the children a series of Chinese character (kanji) flashcards, in response to each of which the whole class chants the reading together. She next has the class read a famous passage from Confucius' Analects, aloud three times in unison from a handout and twice more reading from a wide-screen television. After this, Ms. Izumi introduces two new Chinese characters; she shows the children how to write them on the blackboard and has them write the characters in the air with their fingers, counting the strokes as they do so aloud in unison; then they read the compounds that use the characters listed in their book aloud in unison; then they write the characters several times in their books and go to Ms. Izumi's desk to have their books checked. All this is conducted at a good pace in just twelve minutes. During the rest of the lesson, the class starts a new textbook unit entitled The Town Where We All Live Together (Minna de ikiru machi). Ms. Izumi gets the children to think about the grammar of the title, and they then read the first page of the text and underline what they consider the key phrases; the children's most popular choice is “each of us has the duty [gimu] to do what we can.” Ms. Izumi tells the children that living together in a town is not just about getting but also about paying and that in the following lessons, they will think about how to make their town a better place and put forward two proposals to the sakura Children's Council (Kodomo Gikai). Moral and social development is thus incorporated into Japanese language lessons, as well as into integrated studies.

Later, senior teacher Ms. Yoshioka tells me that Ms. Izumi emphasizes the basics and that her teaching style is rather different from that of many sakura Teachers, as she has recently moved to the city from Osaka. Ms. Yoshioka comments that the current trend is to use the textbook more than she herself used to in the 1990s, when i observed her lessons at nakamachi elementary school (Cave 2007). While acknowledging the importance of basic attainment, she suggests that it is also important to develop children's abilities to apply what they learn, gently implying a potential tension between the two demands. Nonetheless, thinking for oneself is not off the agenda; later, Ms. Izumi tells me how her class staged debates, like those i had witnessed at nakamachi in the mid-1990s (Cave 2007, 104–106).

Three days later, i visit shukuba, a small elementary school in a rural corner of sakura. I observe a fifth-grade Japanese class on the unit “People's relationships with things” (Hito to mono to no tsukiaikata), which is about recycling. It is a very different lesson to the one at aoba; the children spend most of it scattered among the classroom, the library, and the computer room, doing investigative learning in preparation for writing. Later, the female teacher tells me that the current textbooks for Japanese contain many more investigative learning exercises than those she used as an elementary student in the late 1980s. However, such exercises are somewhat curtailed in the new textbooks recently published for use from 2011. Instead, these books feature short readings from famous works of classical literature, such as the Pillow Book and the Tale of the Heike. Mr. Sanada, who is now vice-principal at shukuba, suggests that this is linked to a recent fashion for having children learn to recite poems and other short passages by heart, an exercise that is supposed to be good for the brain—helping to explain the rationale behind the recital of the Analects at aoba. (table 11.1 summarizes information about the elementary and junior high schools discussed.)

The variety of learning activities in these lessons from 2008 and 2010 shows how elementary schools are responding to resurgent demands that children have a firm grasp of academic basics, a strong moral sense, and a firm grounding in the local community. Integrated studies has been used for social and moral education as well as to encourage self-motivated exploratory learning. Yet schools have not abandoned the promotion of investigation and thinking for oneself, the major concerns of the 1990s and early 2000s. Exactly what approaches are used at a particular school depends on teachers' assessments of the most suitable response to local children's needs, though there is a significant degree of commonality among schools in a locality because of the regular transfer of teachers. Thus, within sakura, small schools in more stable, traditional, and rural communities, such as satoyama and shukuba, table 11.1 Elementary and junior high schools in Sakura discussed in the text






Large suburban school of roughly 750

students, in a district with relatively high

numbers of families who have moved in

from elsewhere in the prefecture or other

parts of Japan.



Medium-sized suburban school of roughly

550 students, opened about 2000 to serve

a private housing estate.



small rural school of roughly 200 students,

in a district with many long-established



Junior high

Medium-sized rural school of roughly 400

students, in a district with many long-

Established families.

Have tended to place greater emphasis on investigative learning, while a school like shinmachi, in a rapidly growing suburb with significant social strains, has focused more on securing children's basic academic attainment. Such commonalities and variations are also illustrated by the research of shimizu Kōkichi and his team on effective elementary schools in areas of social disadvantage.4 shimizu points to the variety of strategies used, describing Fukuoka and Osaka schools that employ small-group and differentiated learning and Osaka schools that emphasize the creation of a strong school and classroom community, learning from peers in class, and strengthening children's sense of togetherness and achievement through class singing and “human pyramids” at sports day (shimizu 2004; 2008, 31–72). He argues that these features are particularly characteristic of Kansai schools (shimizu 2004, 232–233)—and they can also be seen in the more middle-class Kansai environment of sakura (see above and Cave 2007)—though nancy sato (2004, 17, 89, 97) documents class singing and “human pyramids” in a working-class school in tokyo, suggesting How widely such strategies are diffused. Yet there is not homogeneity; shimizu (2004) shows that schools serving similarly disadvantaged populations vary widely in their approaches and results, while Boocock (2011) describes an Osaka school subjecting its socially disadvantaged children to dull, drillfocused teaching that deviates from more commonly reported styles of elementary teaching and fails to stimulate learning.

Elementary education generally emphasizes learning to help others, cooperate, and see oneself as part of an interdependent community, not just as an individual. By sharing responsibilities, children learn that everyone can and should contribute to the general welfare. Lessons are also based strongly on a belief in the efficacy of learning from one another. This does not exclude individual difference and originality. Most teachers welcome and encourage the expression of different ideas. In recent years, integrated studies has been used both to encourage individual learning projects and to promote moral and social education. By selective use of small-group teaching and differentiated learning, teachers have sought to respond better to the academic needs of individual children, especially in the context of a renewed focus on basic academic attainment. However, the fundamental belief in interdependence and cooperation remains, and many if not most schools see strong classroom cohesion and peer learning as vital for academic progress.

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