and Secondary Science Education in Japan at a Crisis Point
Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science,
2946, Tsuchiya, Hiratsuka-shi, 259-1293 JAPAN
E-mail: [email protected]
Primary and secondary school science education in Japan, which
once had a reputation that was recognized worldwide, has lost
its past excellence due primarily to continual reductions in
teaching material content and school hours. The positive and
negative role of the course of study (COS) and the school textbook
screening system (STSS) is discussed, and steps are proposed
to improve the situation.
High Estimation of Science Education in Japan
author has been involved in primary and secondary science education
in Japan in various ways: as the editor-in-chief of science
textbooks prescribed for primary and junior high school education,
and of chemistry textbooks for senior high school. Another of
his activities has been the promotion of chemical education
in Japan to the world. As a part of activities of this, Prof.
M. M. Ito and the author of this paper published two English-language
books, "Chemical Education in Japan, 2nd version"2
and "Chemical Education in Asia/Pacific"3
from the Chemical Society of Japan (CSJ). The latter publication
was a joint project between the CSJ and the Federation of Asian
Chemical Societies (FACS). Fifteen chemical societies belonging
to FACS contributed a chapter to the publication "Chemical
Education in Asia/Pacific" to outline the fact and figures
of their chemical education policies.
these kinds of activities we received much praise to the effect
that the remarkable economic development of Japan after the
World War II was due very much to its success in primary and
secondary science education. We are of the opinion that Japan
deserved such praise in the past; however in the present situation
and most likely in the future, such praise is not warranted.
Rather, we fear that primary and secondary science education
in Japan is at a crisis point. For these reasons the author
wishes to contribute this report to science education authorities
around the world.
is generally accepted that the success of Japanese science education
in the past was the results of many factors such as:
of teachers to their profession
Traditionally the standard of teacher education in Japan
in the past, and for science teachers in particular, was
very high. Most, if not all, teachers were highly motivated,
and they received a reasonable amount of science education
in various subjects.
of pupils/students and their families
To be admitted into a top level university such as the University
of Tokyo is virtually a guarantee of oneÕs future
career. Pupils/students studied very hard to be successful
in their final goal, that of being successful in the university
entrance examination, while parents used all possible means
to ensure that their children could achieve their aims.
quality of curricula content
Previously, science lessons began from the 1st year of primary
school, and as far as school hours and teaching material
content are concerned, these were very high compared with
figures from other countries.
The Course of Study as the Guideline of Science Education in
is generally well known that the Japanese Government controls
primary and secondary education by two systems; the course of
study (COS) and the school textbook screening system (STSS)
strictly control the content of primary and secondary science
education in Japan.
World War II, school textbooks were compiled by the state. COS
could be regarded as the result of postwar democracy, with its
original purpose being to provide a kind of loose set of guidelines
for the authors and publishers of textbooks. The idea was gradually
changed into a strict set of regulations such that now, on the
basis of STSS, no authors or publishers can go against Government
recommendations concerning textbooks.This has become a serious
problem in terms of authors wishing to publish good textbooks
that may be stimulating to pupil/students due to the introduction
materials outside the scope of COS.
is generally revised every ten years. Thus, as the time of revision
of COS approaches, the Government will organize several review
committees, such as the Central Education Council (CEC) for
example. CEC usually advocates a new doctrine (Table 1) for
the coming decade, and in addition will suggest the addition
and/or deletion of teaching material from COS. The setting of
the number of school hours is also within its jurisdiction.
1 Doctrines Featured in COS
based on everyday life
study of science
of science education
on fundamental items
regard to individual students
flexible school life
1st COS featured "science based on everyday life",
while the 2nd COS focused on Òsystematic study of scienceÓ
as is indicated in Table 1. During the first two COS periods
school hours remained essentially unchanged or even increased
to some extent. It must be noted that COS played a positive
role in primary and secondary education in Japan in the past
as a means to maintaining the high standard of the primary and
secondary science education. The problem however, arose with
the COS of 1977.
COS of 1968: the Sputnik COS.
October 4, 1957, the USSR successfully launched the first spacecraft
Sputnik 1. Shocked by the great success of a rival country,
the US Government decided to reform its science education policy
in a relatively rapid and dramatic way. This was in response
to the view that the reason why the USA was beaten in the space
development program was because of inadequacies in its science
massive commitment of money and manpower was immediately carried
out, with the result of this effort being a series of excellent
curricula and textbooks for senior high school science. As for
chemistry, "CBA (Chemical Bond Approach) 4"
and "CHEMS (CHemical Education Material Study) 5" should be mentioned. For physics and biology,
similar curricula and textbooks were also prepared.
basic idea of these new curricula, CBA in particular, was the
modernization of science education by stressing theoretical
aspects of science much more than what appeared in existing
curricula and textbooks. In CBA, the nature of chemical bonding
was thoroughly described by introducing such advanced concepts
as the orbital and its energy levels, and hybridization. To
understand the thermodynamic aspects of chemical reactions more
theoretically, the concept of entropy was introduced in a qualitative
curricula and textbooks were issued in the early 1960s, and
naturally they had a powerful effect on science education in
other countries, particularly on that in Japan. The COS of 1968
can be regarded as a product of innovations to science education
made by the Americans. For this reason we have chosen to call
this COS the "Sputnik COS". Such concepts as orbital,
hybridization and entropy were also included in the Sputnik
process of modernization was probably much too rapid for science
education in Japan as well as for that in the USA. Many students
were unable to follow the lessons. It is said that there were
some teachers who had difficulty in understanding the concepts
introduced in new textbooks. There must have been much criticism
of this rather impetuous wave of innovation. As a result, the
subsequent COS of 1977 saw a nearly complete withdrawal from
the Sputnik innovation. The doctrine of this latter COS was
Òconcentration on fundamental items".
Serious Reduction of Course Content and School Hours
most serious problem that started from the COS of 1977 was a
CONSTANT reduction of COS content and of hours of school attendance
in primary and secondary science education. The undigested attempt
of innovation has to be one of the reasons for this rapid retreat.
There is also another reason: with a continuously increasing
number of children other than just the brightest children attending
senior high school each year, the average capability of students
must by definition become lower than before. The situation has
to be much the same in the USA.
feature of the COS of 1977 and subsequent ones may be summarized
as a continuous reduction of course content and of school hours.
When the new COS comes into being in a few years, the amount
of course content and of school hours will be probably 2/3 or
even less as compared with maximum values from previous versions
of COS. In Figs 1 and 2, increases and decreases of school hours
for science lessons in primary and secondary schools are summarized.
Figure 1. Changes in School Hours per Year for Science in Japanese
* Data for 1951 is not available.
Figure 2. Change in School Hours per Year for Science for Junior
High Schools in Japan
particularly large decrease of school hour for primary school
that began with the COS of 1977 was a direct outcome of the
complete removal of science lessons from 1st and 2nd year curricula.
The Government introduced a new subject, "life environment
studies", which is something that is far removed from science
and more related to social morality training.
The New Course of Study; the Crisis of Primary and Secondary
Science Education in Japan
new COS, which will be effective from 2002 for primary and junior
high schools and from 2003 for senior high schools, clearly
demonstrates this tendency of uniform reduction of course content
and school hours. Two examples from the field of chemistry bear
witness to the significance of the reduction and problems caused
in junior high school, ions and related topics such as electrolysis
were taught immediately after atoms and molecules had been taught,
which meant that pupils were provided with a general idea of
the three fundamental constituents of matter: atoms, molecules
and ions. What would happen if the concept of ions were to be
deleted from the textbook? It is impossible for teachers to
teach the chemistry of NaCl in an appropriate manner. It should
be appreciated that electrolysis has served as one of the most
attractive subjects in elementary chemistry since the time of
Michael Faraday (Fig. 3). What children of the early 19th century
could enjoy is now beyond the reach of children of the 21st
Figure 3 Michael Faraday at the Christmas Lecture
must be added that CSJ was not necessarily without resistance.
Whenever the Committees of the Government announced their reports6
describing the policy of the new COS (substantial reduction
of course content and school hours), CSJ issued critical comments,
sometimes independently and sometimes with other scientific
societies. All these efforts were in vain.
second example is from the chemistry curriculum for senior high
school. Previously, and naturally, students would learn about
chemical bonds immediately after they had studied atoms, molecules
and ions. In the new COS, atoms, molecules and ions are separated
from chemical bonds due to the formation of two different subjects,
Chemistry I and Chemistry II (Table 2).
2. Structure of Chemistry Course in the New COS
of matter (atom, molecule, mol)
of matter (some inorganic and organic compounds)
of matter (heat of reaction, acid/base, neutralization,
of matter (chemical bonds, gas law, mol)
equilibrium (reaction kinetics and chemical equilibrium)
and matter (chemistry of food and cloth, chemistry of
and matter (biochemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry)
may argue that this separation would not be such a problem since
students will eventually encounter and learn chemical bonds
in Chemistry II. This is not, however, true. It is likely that
most students who would choose science and technology as their
future occupation will study Chemistry I, but not all of them
will study Chemistry II. In fact, it is predicted that less
than half of Chemistry I students would be likely to study Chemistry
is the outcome of the doctrine of the COS of 1989 in which it
was advocated that more attention should be paid to individual
students. What this actually meant was that there should be
more optional subjects so that individual students could select
subjects according to their future plans. The principle sounds
reasonable, but the reality is not so clear-cut. The trouble
is that with the decreasing number of compulsory subjects, there
was now simply no need for most students to choose Chemistry
II in addition to Chemistry I. The number of required subjects
for qualification was so small that it would be enough for students
to choose Chemistry I plus one other simpler subject.
results of such education policy decision making will now become
clear. There will be many senior high school graduates who will
finish studying chemistry without learning about chemical bonds.
The reason should now be clear why we stress that primary and
secondary science education in Japan is at crisis point. In
other words, primary and secondary science education in Japan
has undergone a rapid and continuous deterioration since the
COS of 1977.
Factors Accelerating This Tendency
should be pointed out, however, that there are other factors
responsible for the deterioration described above. The most
problematic factor is the university entrance examination, which
in fact determines the mode of senior high school education.
is now a country with fewer children than 10 years ago, and
so the number of children who would normally have gone to universities
in that time has also decreased. However, the full complement
of universities has remained essentially unchanged. This situation
has caused intense competition among universities to recruit
freshmen/women. The simplest and probably most effective means
to attract candidates is to reduce the number of subjects for
the entrance examination. This certainly affects the line of
thinking of the senior high school students. Most of them might
feel that it is not necessary, or perhaps even absurd, to select
subjects that will not be required at the entrance examination
for the university that he/she would like to enter.
today, most university lecturers find difficulty when they first
teach freshmen/women because the backgrounds of these students
are so diverse. There are some freshmen/women in Department
of Chemistry who did not choose chemistry as the subject to
be examined at the entrance examination. In such cases their
background in chemistry is usually poor even if they studied
chemistry at senior high school. It seems that for senior high
school students it is difficult to find a motivation for studying
any subject that is not explicitly related to the university
university entrance examination under the new system will start
from 2006, and hence it would be premature for one to estimate
how many universities will require candidates for science and
technology departments to assign both Chemistry I and II at
the entrance examination. The author of this paper fears that
from 2006 there could be many freshmen/women in the faculty
of science, or even in the department of chemistry who have
studied chemistry but did not study anything about chemical
bonds at the senior high school level.
How to Reactivate Primary and Secondary Science Education in
it then possible to reactivate primary and secondary science
education in Japan? In view of the analyses described above,
effective solutions may be necessarily rather drastic.
measure is the abolishment of COS. The author of this paper
admits the positive role of COS in the past. The reason why
COS lost its initial mission is that COS adheres to a policy
of reducing the maximum amount of content in COS. If the role
of COS is to delineate minimum requirements for students, then
its role will be more positive.
second measure is the abolishment of STSS. The author believes,
based on his experiences as the editor-in-chief of textbooks
which suffered under STSS, that STSS carries more responsibility
than COS for the deterioration of primary and secondary science
education in Japan. COS in effect provides a set of guidelines
(of maximum content) which the authors of textbooks must follow.
In order to encourage better students/pupils, authors might
try to conceal some hints by which teachers could introduce
some topics beyond those set down by COS. Such attempts have
so far been ordered to be deleted from the textbooks by Government
textbook inspectors. Consequently, though several publishers
might publish textbooks on a particular subject, it is very
difficult to find any significant difference between the textbooks.
The opportunity for devoted teachers and absorptive students
to extend their interests to advanced topics is therefore lost.
The role of STSS should therefore be restricted to an investigation
of mistakes and errors in the textbooks.
to a recent newspaper account, the Government intends changing
its policy concerning STSS, with more freedom being given to
authors/publishers. The author of this paper, however, is not
so optimistic as to believe that the Government will change
its long lasting policy. For this reason this author will continue
to announce to the world the fact that primary and secondary
science education in Japan is at a crisis point.
course of study (COS); school textbook screening system
(STSS); CBA (chemical bond approach); CHEMS (chemical education
at 9th Sino-Japanese Symposium on Science Education, December
2001, Taipei, Taiwan.
Takeuchi ed., Chemical Education in Japan, 2nd version,
Chemical Society of Japan (1994):
Takeuchi and M. M. Ito eds., Chemical Education in Asia/Pacific,
Chemical Society of Japan (1997) ):
T. Benfey et al, ed., Chemical Systems; prepared
by Chemical Bond Approach Project, Earlham College Press
C. Pimentel ed., Chemistry; prepared by Chemical Education
Material Study, W. H. Freeman, (1963)
reports were issued: January 30, 1997; January 30, 1998
and September 2, 1998.
April 20, 2002.