Friday, February 12, 2010

Characteristics of Japanese Textbooks

It is the chicken and egg puzzle. Which came first, the teaching philosophy or the textbook? Do teaching methods and philosophy determine textbook content, or does textbook content drive subject matter teaching? Long ago in a faraway land I taught in an international private school that decided to seek WASC accreditation for the first time in its quarter century plus existence. I was the only teacher who had ever been through the accreditation process before. The school decided to divide us up into committees, not by grade level, but by subject matter. I was a secondary science teacher so naturally I was on the science committee. The primary teachers were asked their preference. The fourth grade teacher was appointed the chair. Our first assignment was to write a science curriculum whose scope and sequence encompassed k-12.

At the next meeting, we passed around our work. I was aghast. Everyone had simply copied the table of contents from their textbooks and called it the curriculum.

I said, “Okay, I think we need to make a decision. Do we want to proactively decide what it is important for our students to know and be able to do, or do we want to let a textbook publisher tell us?

They responded, “The publishers are surely the experts. Why shouldn't we just go along with what is already in our textbooks?

I grew more incredulous. “Seriously? “Do we really want to tell the accreditation people that we think our student population, which comes from all over the world, needs to memorize the state birds and flowers of America?”

The room grew silent. Someone said, “I see what you mean.” Someone else said, “what can we do?”

I suggested we go back and do it all over again, this time thinking about what we really want students to know in science.”

“You must be kidding,” someone said. “You want us to start over? That'll be a lot of work.”

The group decided to start over.

As we search for factors that contribute to the perennial excellent performance of Japanese students on international studies, we should examine their textbooks.

Japanese students are required to buy their books every year starting in first grade. The material is divided into two volumes, one for each half of the school year, and printed on cheap paper with paperback covers. First and second grade texts are about the size of a Good Housekeeping magazine. From third grade on, the dimensions are smaller, 5 ¾” by 8 ¼” by 3/8”. Students generally carry all their books home every day. Six textbooks weigh less than a Michener paperback. Normally the Ministry of Education approves for adoption about six textbooks per grade, per subject. Each text follows the same sequence of lessons.

Teachers are required to use the authorized texts for instruction, although they may supplement the text with other books and their own handouts.

In contrast to some countries (e.g. China, Taiwan, and South Korea), Japanese textbooks are not written under direct government supervision or published by the state. Moreover, multiple texts (with variations in terms of content) are available for a given subject in the Japanese system. However, in contrast to the American system, in which larger states, notably Texas and California, vet texts produced by commercial publishers, affecting the content of textbooks available nationwide, the Japanese system has operated through a national government screening system

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has more information on the Japanese textbook adoption process.

The best part is what is inside the textbooks. Surprisingly, not much text. Here is a page from a third grade, second half mathematics textbook.

Someone had the very smart idea of translating and marketing Japanese textbooks (wish I had thought of it). Here is the English translation of the comparable page.

In a common scenario, a Japanese teacher would have divided the class into groups of four, called “han.” An American teacher might have students designated as Table 1, Table 2, etc. The Japanese teacher would give the students the problem: Figure out how to divide 256 sheets of origami paper evenly among four students. The paper comes in shrink-wrapped packages of 100 sheets, sub-packaged by tens.

Each table would work on the problem with paper, pencil and manipulatives. Every year, each child is required to purchase their own set of manipulatives. Then a spokesperson from each table would come to the front and present the table's solution and method. The class would discuss the pros and cons of each group's solution method. Finally the teacher would demonstrate how the conventional algorithm expresses the class consensus. The algorithm is not the math; it is an expression of the math. The distinction is an important one often lost in American elementary math classes. Concept first, then procedure. The class might take a whole period on one problem.

Science textbooks are similar, characterized in the early grades by an emphasis in hands-on experience the child can perform independently. I have reproduced the page with the most text from the third grade science book.

Take a look what fifth graders are doing in science class.

Children are natural-born scientists, and science, real science, should be part of every American child's school day, beginning in preschool.

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