Japanese education: The pros and cons

By Ahmad Faizuddin 

Malaysia has developed partnership with various countries in the field of education. It is a good sign to boost academic ties between countries. One such country that Malaysia has been working with is Japan.

Why Japan? The reason being Japan has an advance educational system in science, technology and mathematics.

Japan has outperformed the USA on Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) for several years. Japanese universities are expert in research and development. Hence, we might stand to benefit from Japanese involvement in Malaysia’s education to increase university ranking in world performance.

Today, education hubs represent a new development of cross-border academic activities. Jane Knight of Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, described it as “the process of building a critical mass of local and foreign actors – including students, education institutions, companies, knowledge industries, science and technology centres – who collaborate in a strategic way of cross-border education, training, knowledge and innovation initiatives.”

Different countries might have different systems of education. There is no “one size fits all” model for education. Japanese culture is unique with homogeneous society. This somewhat is peculiar for heterogeneous societies like Malaysia. However, we can learn that Japanese education is practical and idealistic, powerful enough to sustain literate population, provide competitive economy and sound technological infrastructure.

Trying to blindly mimic Japanese practices and its particular arrangements is not recommended. Modern Japanese education system has been adapting structures, policies and practices from various sources since four decades ago. They put universal values into practice and are strictly controlled by top management.

One of the strong foundations in Japanese education is parental engagement. They see parents as children’s first and most influential teachers. Thus, the first lesson given at primary school is not on academic matters, but good habits and attitudes. At the next levels of education, parents will always stay in touch with teachers in supervising children’s homework and arranging extra instructional helps.

Schools cannot guarantee to produce sound character with ethical behaviour students by themselves. That is why Japanese schools design special moral education through regular curriculum. In reality, teachers pay attention to children’s character far beyond class hours with the help of parents and adults within society. Children see their teachers and parents as good models with good habits.

Even though Japanese schools seemed to focus on character formation and good behaviour, they have a clear goal and mission that school time is for learning. The desire to study is continuously emphasised to school children. Everyone can make progress if they try hard enough and the school will give reward for any accomplishment.

In short, Japanese education implements appropriate school behaviour and effective study habits since day one at school. They have purposeful learning environment with self-discipline individuals. The teachers are competent and dedicated, students are well motivated, and parents fully support the schooling by any means.

On the other hand, there is no recipe for authentic learning in Japanese culture. GwenEllyn Nordquist, a teacher at Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School, told her stories on experiencing the Japanese educational system. According to her, authentic learning in Japan simply means mastery of memorised information and not experiential learning that prepares one for life.

There are many reasons why we should not blindly copy Japanese education system. Even though Japanese students outperform American students in mathematics and sciences, it is due to the fact that they apply rote memorisation in learning the subjects. Even the students will cram for the exams by intensively memorising the materials and exercises given in the classroom.

In some ways perhaps it shows that Japanese students are diligent. They are good at tests especially mathematics and sciences. They spend longer hours at school and appear to be highly disciplined. But, for them something is learned when it is memorised. There is almost no room for analysis and creativity. In the long run, it will reduce their abilities to produce their own ideas, understand the contents of the subjects taught, and think creatively.

We may take a dozen of principles from the success stories of Japanese schools. However, we should consider important things such as the need, potential, quality, preparedness, and sustainability, when initiating education hubs.. These issues should be clearly measured to successfully achieve the goals.

Finally, what seems to work well for Japan might not work for us and vice versa. We do hope that this partnership will help improve performances in local schools and universities so that we can be at par with developed countries.***

The Writer is a Ph.D. student at Kulliyyah of Education, Educational Management and Leadership, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)

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