In May 2013, Prime Minister Abe announced the second phase of his long-term growth strategy. The strategy clearly stated the need to transform from Japanese universities to global universities. The need for educational reform leading to globalization of universities is emphasized.
Preceding the announcement of this strategy, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Education Rebuilding Council recommended to Prime Minister Abe that TOEFL be integrated as part of university entrance examinations. Toshiaki Endo, Chairman of the Education Rebuilding Council and a member of the House of Representatives, is actively working under Prime Minister Abe to reform education.
Seeking diversity in school education
Currently, Japanese elementary schools follow the principle of equal education for all children. This is because the Japanese educational system has not recognized that there are differences in children’s ability, speed of development and interests. However, the recommendation on educational reform issued by the LDP Education Rebuilding Council starts by clearly stating that there is no equality in results. Through this idea, the council seeks to break away from a structure in which aspiring children are held back and struggling children are forced to keep struggling.
“In the case of the baby boom generation, 2.7 million children were born every year and only a system for batch education existed,” explains Toshiaki Endo, Chairman of the LDP Education Rebuilding Council and a member of the House of Representatives. “The system was fine for that point in time. However, currently only about 1 million children are born every year. Considering the decreased birthrate, it’s absurd to use a structure in which all children are educated through the same system. Indeed, pre-war education had more variety than today’s education. Back then, many capable children were allowed to skip grades and there were also many children made to repeat a year of schooling.”
School education in Japan is gradually changing, but such changes are not yet sufficient. Although elementary schools avoid evaluating students based on results, the same students are suddenly thrust into entrance exam competition and results-based evaluation upon entering junior high school. This significant disparity between elementary school and junior high school makes it impossible for some students to adapt.
“Now is the time for bold change in educational policy,” says Endo. “If we don’t make such changes, our children will be subject to greater misfortune.”
Acquiring true English language proficiency
Despite studying English for 6 years in junior high school and high school, the majority of people are unable to converse in English. This is because current education in Japan focuses solely on reading and writing. After completing university entrance examinations, the majority of students have no further need for English. How can this situation be changed for the better? The answer is integrating TOEFL into university entrance examinations, which was recommended to Prime Minister Abe. “This is a type of shock treatment,” explains Endo. “If students are going to spend time studying English before entering university, then they should be able to speak in addition to reading and writing proficiency. Unfortunately, the current system isn’t capable of instilling students with such speaking proficiency. Therefore, I believe that the first step is changing the goal.”
However, in order to help students reach this goal, it is necessary to cultivate teachers who can guide students. Recently, an increasing number of elementary schools are implementing English language education. However, the majority of such English classes are taught by both ALTs (foreign national serving as an assistant language teacher) and Japanese teachers. “Why don’t we have classes taught only by ALTs from the very beginning?” asks Endo. While teaching ability is certainly a prerequisite, there is no meaning in pairing an ALT with a Japanese teacher who cannot speak English. Furthermore, it is a waste to pair an ALT with a teacher who can speak English. “How about placing a single ALT in charge of English studies?” proposes Endo. “The children might not be able to understand for the first 3 or 4 months, but children are surprisingly adaptive. They’ll soon get used to classes taught only in English.”
Embrace challenges without fearing mistakes!
From 1997, Endo has made personal donations to build Tomodachi Elementary Schools in countries such as Myanmar and Thailand where children lack sufficient educational opportunities. Through such activities, he seeks to promote education throughout all of Asia.
Surprisingly, Endo spent his time at university playing rugby and didn’t study very much.
“I entered university in 1969, during the midst of student movements against tuition fees,” he recalls. “Our entrance ceremony was held in September and then classes were suspended for a long time. I didn’t have any real classes for about a year. I graduated in my 4th year after passing a report examination. Accordingly, I can’t say too much about university. However, the entire university was very vibrant at that period in time.”
“While studying, I hope students will remember that our university is one of the top universities in Japan,” says Endo in a message to students at his alma mater of Chuo University. “However, Chuo students tend to be a little too prudent. I hope that they will push forward and embrace new challenges without fear of mistakes. I hope that they will have the spirit to try again even after making a mistake.”
“I’m 63 years old, but I have spent 9 years of my life waiting for the next opportunity after failure. I failed the university entrance examination on my first attempt and spent another year studying. I also lost in elections twice, waiting another 4 years to run again each time. That’s a total of 9 years. Still, even if you make mistakes, you can overcome them if you are young. I hope that university students will have the vitality to embrace their dreams, embark on challenges, and pick themselves up after making a mistake.”