The Japanese Science Education Centers

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Science  14 Oct 1966:
Vol. 154, Issue 3746, pp. 221-228
DOI: 10.1126/science.154.3746.221


These six Japanese science education centers signify a sweeping reform of elementary and secondary school science teaching. They achieve their striking results because they are established on a permanent, local basis and are supported mainly by the local boards of education. They have avoided control by pedagogues and specialists in "education." Instead, they are operated by trained scientists and experienced school teachers who work together to devise programs specially suited to the needs of their teachers. With small and practicable steps, the teachers improve their understanding of methods which they can readily test in their own classrooms rooms and laboratories. The laboratory equipment in the science education centers is only slightly superior to that which the teachers have in their own schools, but superior enough to make them desire to improve their own facilities. Major facilities, such as x-ray machines, electron microscopes, telescopes (15-cm), and machine shops, as well as good working collections of minerals and fossils, and adequate greenhouses, permit the teachers to work with more expensive equipment, to gain a firsthand knowledge of its operation, and to bring groups of students to the center to observe what such instruments make possible.

The use of American experimental course content improvement programs is widespread. Every science education center I visited is using PSSC, CHEMS, CBA, BSCS, or ESCP materials and studying the philosophy of these programs. Yet no center is entirely dependent on these programs, but uses them critically to supplement and improve its own courses. The emphasis is on good laboratory and field teaching as a basis for understanding scientific methods and concepts. Science as investigation and inquiry, instead of treatment solely as an authoritative body of facts, is coming into its own.

The few defects of the science education centers of Japan inhere in the educational situation itself. The centers are at present inadequate to reach even a reasonable proportion of the science teachers within a 5-year, or even a 10-year cycle. The shortage of substitute teachers causes most of the courses to be far too brief for maximum effectiveness. Staff programming tends to be rather spotty instead of comprehensive.

A major difficulty, frequently expressed, lies in the grim hold of the university entrance examination system over the science curricula of the lower schools. The university is the goal of every able student, for economic as well as intellectual reasons. To enter a university he must pass the examinations, which are established separately by each institution. The professor who makes out the examination questions therefore controls what must be taught and learned in the lower schools. This same rigorous control is in part reflected in the Ministry of Education syllabi, which must be followed by the teachers. Nevertheless, I found the men in the biological section of the Ministry of Education very enlightened and pressing for change. Many professors in the universities are also in the full current of modern biological thought, participate gladly in the programs of the science education centers, and would write examinations that emphasize interpreting data, applying tests to hypotheses, and drawing valid conclusions instead of merely memorizing and regurgitating facts. On the other hand, in many universities the upper positions are still filled by men to whom biology means classification rather than experimentation, morphology rather than biochemistry, organ physiology rather than cell biology. We cannot afford to discard taxonomy, morphology, or gross physiology-they are important parts of biology and will remain so. But they do not comprise all of biology—they are only a diminishing proportion of it. In Japan, as in the United States, the examination system must become more flexible. It must change with the development of science itself, must encourage scientific attitudes and cease defeating the introduction of new disciplines, new outlooks, new subject matter. The university and the examining boards in some educational systems indeed exhibit a rigor mortis.

On balance, the science education centers in Japan may well represent the most significant educational experiment of our time. Their vitality, which springs from their local relationship to the prefectural schools and their permenent staffs, far exceeds in my own estimation that of most of the summer science institutes held in the United States, which lack that close relation to the local schools and which by their impermanency countenance ill-planned and ill-taught programs that are often little different from the usual summer school sessions. The best summer institutes in the United States are indeed very good, but far too few of them reach a passable standard. That is because, for the most part, their staffs are recruited quickly, teach their favorite subjects without much consideration of their appropriateness or suitability for improving science education in the lower schools, and depart without much contact with other members of the staff. What is needed is serious, continuous, prolonged, hard work devoted to the development of the right sorts of courses for renewing the training of science teachers. The Japanese seem to be achieving just that. We would do well, with our vast resources for the improvement of education, to emulate them. As they have profited by employing and improving upon our NSF supported programs in science education, we may likewise profit through the establishment of science education centers modeled on theirs.