In December 2014, the Central Council for Education (an advisory body to the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) submitted its report on connections between senior high schools and universities (“Comprehensive Reforms of Senior High School Education, University Education and the Selection of University Entrants with the Aim of Building Connections between Senior High Schools and Universities to Meet the Needs of a New Era (Proposal)”). The report claims that there is a need to carry out fundamental reforms of the current university entrance system and to move away from simple “knowledge transmission” style lessons in senior high school education and to carry out “dynamic development of active learning as an autonomous and collaborative method of learning and instruction.”
Put simply, active learning is a method of learning and teaching that incorporates active participation by students into the lesson program. One typical example would be to ask students to identify issues related to a given theme, hold group discussions, make presentations, and then set about finding solutions. Chuo University Suginami High School attempts to use active learning in a variety of different subjects. Here, I would like to introduce to you an example of active learning as part of narrative analysis in Japanese language teaching, and to consider the report of the Central Council for Education.
The first thing to point out is that active learning is not possible or effective in all lessons. For example, when it is necessary to learn classical grammar in a limited time, active learning could not be described as an appropriate learning method.
However, in lessons such as narrative analysis, active learning can be used as an appropriate method.
When reading a novel, we do not try to remember everything in the novel. Readers pick up on parts of a novel and link these parts together in their own minds at a subconscious level. This series of processes is what we refer to as “reading.” This process is carried out consciously and logically in the classroom.
The important thing here in terms of active learning is the remaining part of the novel that has not been picked up on in the classroom, which happens inevitably when reading. This “remainder” has the potential for a different interpretation that has not been taught in the classroom. It is this remainder that is the field of active learning where the student thinks independently and discovers answers.
Let us consider active learning in the context of an actual lesson. Simply telling students to think about something freely will not produce an active learning lesson. The foundation for active learning is a traditional “teaching” lesson. Allow me to introduce an example from a lesson on the Hayao Miyazaki filmNausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
The Nausicaä film credits show a tapestry of the Valley of the Wind’s legendary bird person and the snake ensign of the enemy Tolmekians. In other words, it gives clear instruction to interpret the film as a conflict between the Valley of the Wind and Tolmekia. Firstly, the students carefully interpret this conflict. Finally, they are asked what is left out through a simple dichotomic interpretation of the narrative. This is the start of active learning. By giving the students a clear understanding of the framework of “Valley of the Wind vs Tolmekia” they begin to recognize the “remainder” of the narrative that does not fit within this framework. One example is the Pejite, who use a baby Ohmu as a decoy. This is when the students begin to read Nausicaäas a story about the Pejite. It is when students become aware of the “remainder” of a narrative in this way that active learning has a valuable role to play.
What we can see here is the issue of how traditional “teaching” style lessons can be connected to active learning. The Central Council for Education report does not completely deny the need for traditional “knowledge transmission” style lessons. It believes that active learning should be carried out after acquiring knowledge first. However, there is a problem with the fact that the Central Council for Education is attempting to ensure this knowledge is acquired through a standardized nationwide “test of senior high school basic academic skills” to be carried out on several occasions during students’ time at senior high school. Senior high school only lasts for three years. If this test is introduced, these three years will be used up preparing for the “basic academic skills test,” and promises to develop active learning will amount to little more than false advertising. In the future, it will be important to think about the relationship between the contrasting styles of traditional lessons and active learning.
However, this is not the only problem with the report. I feel that there is a major problem with the basic approach of the Central Council for Education.
The following goal is set out in the introduction to the report: “To allow each and every boy and girl who sets out aspirations for the future and works towards the achievement of those aspirations to enjoy self-confidence, success and happiness in his or her life.” This goal is absolutely right and matches the purpose of active learning, which is that each individual student should identify questions and seek to find the answers on his or her own. If the above goal could be achieved, it would also be an embodiment of Article 13 of the Constitution of Japan, which describes respect for the individual and the right to pursue happiness.
However, immediately after this sentence there is another sentence that is completely out of context (and which is separated by a line space with the preceding and succeeding sentences): “They must be given sufficient grounding and a code of conduct as constituent members of the nation and society.”
Questions about the individual and the nation (or society) cannot be avoided in the modern age, and while it goes without saying that both are important, it is also important to give full consideration to the relationship between the two.
It would appear that the above report has decided that for the time being, in terms of the social system we should seek to secure the “common ground” that everyone needs to share through the implementation of the “test of basic academic skills,” while at the same time seeking to use active learning to increase diversity in terms of the individual.
However, as you continue to read the report, you realize that priority is given to the former. A “rich human quality” is defined as “acquiring the knowledge and code of conduct needed for a responsible member of the nation and society” without any evidence for this claim whatsoever, and it is also claimed that in senior high school education it is important to acquire the “ability to live an independent life as a responsible member of the nation and society.” These claims are repeated and emphasized time and time again in the report.
In other words, while recommending active learning that is built upon a foundation of individual independence, a strong leaning towards a “code of conduct” for the nation and society (which has a different direction) can be seen in the report.
Let us reconsider the teaching practice of the Nausicaä lesson. If successful, making students aware of the “remainder” of the narrative and making this clearer will bring out individual interpretations from each and every student. However, if this fails there is a danger that the students will simply fall into the trap of “feeling independent” within a framed “remainder” that has been provided by the teacher and that they are satisfied with a “standardized” interpretation. If I am being honest, this trend has developed several times in my lessons.
With this in mind, let us think about what would happen if the recommendations of the Central Council for Education were implemented to the letter.
The future would not look bright. While developing an illusion that they were working “independently,” the students would be likely to end up as adults who are unable to escape the “code of conduct” they have been given. In other words, this would mean they would be able to become nothing more than “responsible members of the nation and society.” I might be overthinking this, but I have fears for what this would mean if this is the end result of the educational reforms.
As I give my lessons in the future, I intend to continue thinking about how senior high school education should be developed.