EDITORIAL: Students' reading ability
The 2009 results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of international assessments focused on 15 year olds (first-year high school students), have been announced. Of interest were improvements by Japanese children in the country-based ranking for reading comprehension.
In the PISA, begun in 2000, Japan has seen its standing steadily decline. This prompted the government to include the goal of a top-level global ranking in its new growth strategy vision. The education ministry must feel relieved now, in light of the apparent success of recent measures.
We wonder, however, if Japanese children have truly acquired the skills key to weathering the stiff challenges of the 21st century.
The PISA can be viewed as an international barometer of academic competence for the era of information and globalization. It questions how learned knowledge and skills are used to cope with situations encountered in everyday life. Such abilities are tough to attain simply by accumulating knowledge that has long been the Japanese hallmark.
As noted, the reading comprehension performance of Japanese children is up. Also noted, however, is some degree of trouble with connecting different blocks of information in text and relating that to one's own knowledge and experience.
In a separate questionnaire, it was found that Japanese students taking part in online debates, lifestyle information searches and other tasks finished below the average for the individual countries surveyed.
Emerging from these findings is the image of Japanese students as capable of accurately comprehending subject matter, but still lagging behind in their ability to use language tools to engage in exchanges with others, deepen personal thinking powers and contribute to society.
The past decade has seen numerous academic improvement measures in Japan. Particularly singled out for censure has been the "yutori kyoiku" approach of "pressure-free education."
In reaction, a sudden change in course has been engineered to increase study volume in order to firm up the basics. Japan's national academic ability survey was revived three years ago. The mood of competing on the basis of point scores has also strengthened.
Also being advanced, however, are approaches patterned after PISA-style scholastic ability, reading comprehension and other formulas.
The education ministry's new teaching guidelines appeal for the "strength to live," and advocate greater skills in application and expression. The national academic ability survey is adopting questions requiring "application" ability, which closely resembles the PISA.
Educators have been thrown into confusion by the question of what particular academic skills are needed. Demanded now are thorough inquiries and analyses into what efforts have paid off during these years, and which areas remain lacking.
As a measure aimed at reading comprehension, "morning reading" sessions in the classroom are expanding. The results of the latest survey suggest that reading has become a more familiar practice for students.
The idea is not only to compete in how many books can be read, but also to have students discuss their impressions of the content while absorbing other students' ideas. We hope that approach will pick up greater steam.
From this coming spring, elementary school textbooks will become far more voluminous. The hours needed to teach the added contents will leave little margin to instill the powers of creative thought in individual students.
Classroom methods must be devised for an effective way of using texbooks and of implementing interdisciplinary courses covering various academic fields.
The time has arrived to buckle down with the future in mind, working to truly transform the essence of education for the better.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 8