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Top>Education>Improving Education at Japanese Universities?


Yasuhiro Izumikawa

Yasuhiro Izumikawa [profile]

Improving Education at Japanese Universities?

Yasuhiro Izumikawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University

Discussing Japanese Education at the Nobel Institute

Today, much attention is given to problems and issues of higher education. “Global education” and “career education” are just a few of the jargons often used by the Japanese media and so forth, despite the lack of clear definitions. In May 2012, I was invited to an annual seminar held at the Noble Institute in Oslo, the capital of Norway, and had an experience which caused me to rethink education at Japanese universities. The Noble Institute fulfills the role of secretariat for the Norwegian Nobel Committee which selects recipients of the Noble Peace Prize. It also conducts research activities related to peace and conflicts. The theme of last year’s seminar was “Power and Polarity: Ascending and Descending Powers in International System.” I gave a presentation under the theme, “Japan’s Relative Decline and Its Response to an Emerging Global Multipolarity.”

At that time, seminar participants were invited to a party at the residence of Dr. Geir Lundestadt, Director of the Noble Institute and a world-leading diplomatic historian. When I had become engrossed in looking at the photographs in his room, Dr. Lundestadt approached me and we started talking. He stated that he was surprised about how all of the past Japanese Nobel Prize winners who he knows criticized Japanese education, and he wanted to ask for my opinion. Other participants joined our conversation, and one of them made a remark that is difficult for me to forget even now. He said that Japanese and other Asian students can be far more proficient than native English-speaking students when asked to summarize the contents of an academic article. However, he continued, many Asian students fall silent and appear confused when they are asked to give their personal opinion on that subject of the article. Although I felt that this was a slightly stereotypical opinion, I agreed with the drift of his statement, considering the unchanging state of the examination-based education in Japan and some other Asian countries.

Trends in University Education in Japan

A little more than 10 years have passed since I began teaching at Japanese universities. When including the 4 years which I spent as a college student, I only have about 15 years of experience with Japanese universities. Although I have limited experience, I feel that education at Japanese universities has changed greatly. When I was a student, I had teachers who, half-jokingly, made statements such as, “I don’t feel like waiting in line at cafeteria on campus, so I don’t want students coming to class unless they have a good reason!” In a way, it was more easy-going back then. For the majority of classes, credits could be earned simply by taking and passing final exams. However, such “tranquil” atmosphere is rarely seen these days. For me and many other professors, it is normal to assign students numerous reports and other items for submission. Now, students are busy with a variety of tasks even outside the final exam period. During my 4 years as a student, I was a member of an athletic team. Besides the examination period, the only university facilities which I used were the gymnasium and cafeteria—unfortunately, this is the truth. From my perspective, students these days spend a lot more time studying. Moreover, the time and effort instructors put in for education seem to have dramatically increased.

Improvement of Educational Ability at Universities?

Nonetheless, I am somewhat skeptical regarding the extent that such changes have contributed to an increase of Japanese university students’ ability to think. As mentioned earlier, university students today study more than when I was a university student. However, is there a chance that they may be too involved with the many tasks at hand, and that they have forgotten to take time to observe and think? Have instructors been too focused on giving many assignments to students, causing indigestion without stimulating students to think critically? Perhaps, under the slogans “global education” and “career education,” the recent focus on education may be weighed too much on TOEIC scores and acquiring “useful” skills to enter a company.

Of course, a possible counterargument to the opinions stated above is that the declining birthrate has made university entrance examinations easier, and that it is thus necessary to retrain university students who grew up in the system of “yutori” (often translated as “relaxed” or “flexible” in English) education. Indeed, there are sometimes students who lack basic academic ability. Also, based on my experience of studying at graduate schools in the U.S., university students there do a substantially larger amount of reading and studying than Japanese students. However, the previously discussed conversation at the Noble Institute implies that Japanese education up to the high school level is focused on good test scores. On the one hand, this increases the ability of students to find the correct answer to a given problem as indicated by their teacher or textbook. On the other hand, it is implied that Japanese education fails to increase the ability to discover problems by themselves, critically analyze current conditions and arrive at an individual opinion. Would it be possible, then, to foster a future Japanese Nobel Prize winner who can prove differently, if education in universities “improves” in the same manner?

Regarding what I have discussed above, it goes without saying that my intent is not to belittle how each university instructor is giving their full effort to improve education through the process of trial and error, nor to deny how hard students work every day to read materials and submit reports. Instead, I want to point out the need for university instructors and students to view education according to the greater goal of developing an ability to think—something that we are prone to overlook.

Difficulty of Teaching in English, Instead of Teaching English

Currently, I teach two courses in English as part of the Challengers’ Program. Initiated by the Faculty of Policy Studies, this program offers numerous courses taught in English on humanity & social science every year. My courses deal with international politics during and after the Cold War. There is no need to explain the heightened need in Japan for such courses to be taught in English. However, I feel that there is not much recognition for the actual problems and challenges when teaching such courses. I have been in charge of courses taught in English since I started teaching in Japan. Based on this experience, I would like to discuss one problem faced by instructors while teaching courses in English (I am limited to discussing only one problem due to the length of this article).

The problem is that there is a serious tradeoff of teaching a substantive course in English to Japanese students. It is only natural for the English listening ability of Japanese students to be below that of native students. Therefore, it is necessary to explain slowly using simple English expressions and to add supplementary explanations. It is especially difficult for students to understand concepts with which they are not familiar with even in Japanese (for example, the concept of security dilemma in the field of international politics). In this case, a careful explanation is necessary. Since students most likely will struggle to take notes, instructors must select his/her speaking manners and speed so there will be sufficient time for note-taking. As a result, when compared to teaching in Japanese, instructors teaching in English are forced to make compromises in the amount of information and the depth of analysis.

To overcome this problem in my class, I hand out an A4-sized outline which usually is approximately two-page long, and give my lecture almost entirely based on this outline. I make a few “fill in the blanks” so the students can focus on the lecture and discussion without spending time taking notes. Despite the time consuming preparation on my part, since the outline requires much detail, this approach seems to benefit the students a lot. (I have also started applying the same method in my Japanese courses because this proves to be effective.)Additionally, I repeat the keywords and write them on the board, which is helpful for students who have trouble picking them up in the lecture, or if they have trouble spelling the word. Lastly, I cut down the small details as much as I can to focus on the main points of the subject. This way, I make sure the students can grasp the main points, although the amount of information is less than what is given in Japanese.

This is only one of the continuous trial and errors I am conducting, which is by no means a textbook example. If there are better ideas, I am most grateful to receive suggestions.

Yasuhiro Izumikawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Born in Kagawa Prefecture. B.A. from the Faculty of Law, Kyoto University. M.A. in International Relations from School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Ph.D in Government from Department of Government, Georgetown University. Previously taught at Miyazaki International College and Kobe College, he has been an associate professor at the Faculty of Policy Studies since April 2009. His main works include, “To Coerce or Reward? Theorizing Wedge Strategies in Alliance Politics,” Security Studies (forthcoming); “Explaining Japanese Antimilitarism: Normative and Realist Constraints on Japan’s Security Policy," International Security (Fall 2010), etc. He has also translated works including Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (authored by A. George & A. Bennett) and Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards (edited by H. Brady & D. Collier), etc.