Japan finds inspiration in its PISA results

by Miki Tadakazu
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

PISA 2012 showed mixed results for Japan. While Japanese students maintained their strong performance in mathematics, reading and science, the assessment found that 15-year-olds in Japan take less pleasure in learning mathematics and have less interest and motivation in doing so than the average student across OECD countries although Japanese students’ interest and motivation have improved since 2003. The Japanese government is using these findings to improve both the way students learn and what they learn.

Up until 2002, Japanese primary and secondary students attended school six days per week. Saturday schooling was eliminated that year in an effort to let students have a wide variety of activities and experiences outside of school. But after that reform was adopted, educators realised that inequities in schooling began to develop. In particular, while advantaged students benefited from Saturday studies at the privately owned and managed educational institutions known as juku, disadvantaged students usually did not have access to these opportunities. Many parents reported that they wanted their children to attend school on Saturday morning.

Late last year the government made it clear that individual local education boards could opt to have learning activities on Saturdays to meet their students’ learning needs. The aim of this reform is to conduct high-quality learning activities on Saturday in cooperation with parents, local communities and economic communities. Each school can provide diverse learning opportunities such as classes that fall within their curriculum, extra-curricular activities and non-profit organisations’ coordinating activities, based on their students’ needs.

On 14 December, using PISA mathematics items, the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Hakubun Shimomura took the initiative to experimentally teach mathematics during Saturday learning activities in a public elementary school located in Itabashi City in Tokyo. The goal was to ensure the effectiveness of Saturday learning activities in school by increasing students’ diverse learning opportunities and improving their pleasure, interest and motivation to learn. During his learning session, he not only taught how to solve equations, but also dissected them and showed students how they encounter these kinds of problems in everyday real life situations.

Students who took the session said, “I got tense but enjoyed myself,” and “I hope my score will improve if I join Saturday learning sessions.” Minister Shimomura gathered from this session that Japanese students could enjoy a wide variety of learning activities, which could further develop their pleasure, motivation and interest to learn. 

Among other ways of using this additional time in school, the “period of integrated study”, mandatory in the Japanese curriculum, will be used. During this study time, the focus is on learning through observation, experiments, field study, investigation and problem solving. The idea, then, is that on Saturdays, parents and members of the local community are more available to offer their specific knowledge and skills to students, skills that are used in daily life and that may also inspire students to take a greater interested in weekday course work.

Providing learning activities on Saturdays is not intended to add more time for students to absorb and reproduce established knowledge. Rather, the aim is to offer learning activities that challenge students to apply what they have learned in school to real-life problems and that help them acquire the kinds of “soft” skills – communication, collaboration and imagination – that are considered essential for the 21st century.

PISA 2012 Results
PISA 2012 Country-Specific overview on Japan
OECD Programme for International Student Assessment
Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education – Lessons from PISA for Japan
Photo credit: Ministry of Education, Japan

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