A survey of Japanese university presidents has confirmed what many of us have long known, “the puny amount of hours studied by students and their minimal achievements at university [needs] to be addressed urgently.” (Daily Yomiuri Online, 7/5/2012) Admitting a problem is the first step toward solving it.
What makes teaching college here so difficult for many of us foreigners is that we know the system is fatally flawed but we aren’t able to do anything about it. I never could understand why a form-over-substance college experience could possibly be good for the students or the country. Nor could I grasp the logic in the oft repeated excuse that Japanese companies do extensive on-the-job training, so college isn’t important. Training to be a bank teller, for example, is not the equivalent of a real college education. And why not have both good college education and good OTJ training programs? Do they need to be mutually exclusive?
While these brave presidents are calling for change, such as debate-oriented or goal-oriented classes, it may be difficult to implement unpopular changes when the college-age population is shrinking. The temptation may instead be to lower standards in order to attract enough students to stay in business.
As I stated in last week’s article, however, there is a vast untapped target audience for colleges in Japan: people beyond college age who would like another chance. I would humbly submit, also, that having these people in college classes would automatically raise the bar and increase learning among all students. I found that when I had one older person in one of my classes (that one happy semester), students could no longer get away with common class-killing strategies such as pretending they couldn’t understand an assignment or taking way too long to complete it. The older student would buckle right down, get it done and shame the youngsters. Soon, they would also hunker down and prove they were just as smart as “grandma.”
Colleges need to actively court older people, not just put up with the few who dare to re-enter the system. They should also offer correspondence courses and distance learning…old, moldy ideas that have long been in use in much of the rest of the world. This influx of serious students would not only help cash flow, it would change the system from the bottom up.
Since Japanese college grades are often based largely on attendance, doing college by correspondence may seem impossible, which brings up my next suggestion…
College students, from their freshmen year, should have to write research papers and essays for a good portion of their credit. I had juniors in college tell me they had never written a research paper in their entire scholastic careers. I don’t think they had written many essays either. Is someone who is not accustomed to researching and writing in-depth truly educated? Memorization alone does not teach you to think and reason, which I thought was the main point of a college education.
Sometimes the whole memorization thing can go bad, too, as I discovered in a private English class. Somehow the topic of the American states came up, and one young student insisted there were 52. Another woman about the same age agreed. They had both learned that from their Japanese text book. As an American, I contended that there were only 50 states, but they were unwilling to admit that the textbook could be wrong. Finally, I began to wonder if Puerto Rico and Guam had become states, and I hadn’t noticed. Actually, I’m still not quite sure…
Finally, the senior year in college needs to be returned to the classroom. Japanese seniors (and sometimes even juniors) are no longer students but young people on a mission to get a job. Teachers just accept that seniors are too busy to be full participants in their classes. So this very important year when students could have been urged into graduate school or challenged to have a bigger dream is lost to company seminars, entrance tests and interviews.
While I was teaching, the major change the Ministry of Education made to try to improve college education in Japan was to lengthen the college school year. Another form-over-substance approach which had zero impact (in my opinion) except to push many good foreign teachers to finally quit and move back home. Thankfully, the college presidents surveyed seem to be on a better track.
There is no doubt in my mind that Japanese college students are as bright as students anywhere. They are just tired from going to cram school until late at night from the time they are elementary school students. And they’re burned out from studying for entrance exams to high school and then college. They just want a break before their working life begins immediately upon graduation. I have never understood why Japanese want to push little children so hard and then make college a “play time.”* It’s upside down and backwards. Let children be children and college students be young adults in the prime of their learning years. It can only mean good things for the students and for Japan.
*I have heard this term used many times by Japanese to describe college in Japan. However, it is also true that students in some fields, such as medicine, are not playing at all. And of course the top colleges in Japan are very tough. I also found that there are always a few serious, motivated students in any given class, and I always felt they deserved better.
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